Brainiac On Banjo: Superman Kills!?!

“People say that life is good, but I just piss and moan. I got one foot on a banana peel, the other in the Twilight Zone.” Life Sucks And Then You Die, written by Mike Girard, Doug Forman and Rich Bartlett

It is well-known that the Man of Steel does not kill. However, that has not always been the case.

I just started rereading the first year of the Superman newspaper comic strip. It began publication near the beginning of 1939, five months prior to the release of the first Superman #1. Its circulation was mammoth, quickly appearing in virtually all major American cities and headlined by The New York Mirror, which ultimately had a daily circulation that was about the same as all three printings of Superman #1 combined. It is fair to say that, in these earliest days, the strip did quite a lot to maximize the Man of Steel’s popularity. The Adventures of Superman radio show, equally successful in widening the audience, didn’t start until a full year later.

Initially, the strip was produced by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s studio in Cleveland. Joe’s eyesight was pretty much shot by 1939, but he inked — at the very least — the character faces. The rest of the artwork was handled by Wayne Boring and Paul Cassidy.

Superman, in both comics media, started out fairly unpolished. He was headstrong, often just short of imperious.

Umm, oh yeah. And he also killed people. Or so he implied. Quite… terrorizingly.

I don’t think Superman actually killed anybody on-panel, but it’s been a while since I’ve read the original Action Comics stories. However, as you can see from the art from that first newspaper strip story (as opposed to the origin story, which, by the way, was first was published in the strip), young Kal-El sure as hell threatened to kill bad guys in an effort to make them talk. He did terrorize the poo out of them — in both the strip and the comics; the latter reaching a younger average audience. In fact, had Siegel and Shuster’s Superman been an underground comix feature, his antics would have quite literally terrorized the poo out of his victims. At that time Earthlings were unaccustomed to seeing caped men flying, let alone being carried off into the stratosphere by a strong madman who seemed to have escaped from a circus.

In fact, the “Superman does not kill” bit wasn’t company policy until Supes’ third editor. MC Gaines, owner of the All-American Comics line that was co-existing with DC Comics, provided the creators with the original notes and guidance, so I’m counting him as the first. Vin Sullivan was the actual editor of Action Comics, and Jerry and Joe already had been doing a lot of work for him. It was the third editor, Whitney Ellsworth, who issued the edict: he became DC’s editor-in-chief and, a decade later, became the producer of the Superman television series.

Lois Lane is seen here in the strips for the first time, auditioning for her job. All this art ©DC.

(One suspects it was Mr. Ellsworth’s policy that put an end to Batman’s use of guns as well, particularly the one mounted to the front of the Batplane.)

The reaction to this looked like a Zen question. This torture sequence, and many others throughout Superman’s earliest years, appears to have been insubstantial at best – if at all. Even back in 1939, when the top markets had four to seven different daily papers, comics page real estate was a high-rent district. New strips started out in a handful of papers; the successful ones grew to hundreds of papers each. And, of course, the Superman daily strip was joined by a four-color Sunday page later on that same year. So, if there was noticeable concern, we would have noticed.

On one hand, those early Superman newspaper stories were fairly simple. There was only one person leaping around with a big red S. There were no challenging super-villains, no kryptonite. No superhero universe. No multiverse. Not even a Daily Planet, and George Taylor played the part of Perry White.

On the other hand, those early Superman newspaper stories were full stories with beginnings, middles and ends. There was only one person leaping around with a big red S, there were no super-villains, no kryptonite, no superhero universe let alone multiverse. Just straight-forward action-packed stories that told those stories in a well-crafted and accessible manner, addressing that awesome instinct most of us have called “the sense of wonder.”

Well, except, maybe, for that murder-and-terrorism thing.