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Very early Superman Chronicles 1938-1939 (DC Comics)

Superman

(Superman Chronicles vol. 1)


Power Level:
Game system: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game

Context

This is a character profile for Superman during his earliest appearances. The source material is the first volume of the Superman Chronicles – it reprints Action Comics vol. 1 #1-13, Superman vol. 1 #1 and a special issue.

Superman’s the first true superhero, the character that caused “superhero” to become a word. With all due respect to the masked mystery men who were before him and by no means to deny his debt to them and to other sources, he is the character that created and defined the entire comic book superhero genre.


Background

  • Real Name: Clark Kent
  • Other Aliases: The Man of Steel
  • Marital Status: Single
  • Known Relatives: Unnamed scientist on Krypton (father, deceased), Mr. Kent (first name unrevealed, adoptive father, deceased), Mary Kent (adoptive mother, deceased)
  • Group Affiliation: None
  • Base Of Operations: Uncertain. I don’t believe it is ever called Metropolis in the first volume.
  • Height: Over 6 feet Weight: 180-200 lbs.
  • Eyes: Black (or drawn that way) Hair: Black


Powers & Abilities

Superman starts out with strength, durability and speed.

To use words that just about every child of that era and subsequent decades came to know by heart, “He could leap an eighth of a mile, outrun a speeding express train and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.”

One story even implied strongly that taking a head-on hit from a passenger train moving at full speed would be beyond his ability to survive. However he later does precisely that, showing he is becoming more powerful even in the first volume.

Within months, he was leaping well beyond an eighth of a mile. He’s also running fast enough — as well as having sufficient reflexes — to outrace a speeding bullet that had already been fired and block it.

Then his super hearing began to develop, though it was short-range at first. Then his X-Ray Vision begins to manifest.

It was presented as if these were powers he already had and they had simply not been mentioned before (which I find mildly annoying).


History

The Superman of these earliest tales is a wish fulfillment fantasy, a law onto himself and a far cry from what he eventually became. The first story gives a brief account of how he was rocketed to Earth as a baby and raised in an orphanage. He became a reporter named Clark Kent and donned a costume to become Superman.

About a year later, the story was revised. Nothing was contradicted but the story was added to. Instead of an unnamed planet, it was called Krypton. An elderly couple, the Kents, found the baby in the rocket and they took him to an orphanage.

The doctors and other workers there were astounded by his strength and unable to deal with it. When the Kents returned later, wanting to adopt the child, the orphanage was glad to be rid of him and kept quiet about his unusual abilities.

His adoptive parents warned him to hide his great powers for the time being. People would not understand. But they told him he must also eventually use those powers to help humanity. After the Kents passed away, he stood by their graves and knew it was time to take their advice and use his powers to help mankind.

And so was born Superman, champion of the weak and helpless, defender of the oppressed.

Up in the sky

In his first outing as Superman, he prevents a lynching and then proves that a woman has been falsely accused of murder. But he is more what would later be called an anti-hero than a hero.

There is, perhaps, no greater example of this than when a friend of his is killed by a speeding driver. Superman declares war on anyone who exceeds the speed limit. He defies the police, walks in on radio broadcasts and shoves announcers aside with a palm to the face. He generally makes it clear he is going to do what he thinks is right and nobody else’s opinion matters because they have not the power to stop him.

Early art of Superman - invading the governor's house

He even goes into Used Car lots and destroys people’s businesses by demolishing cars he considers to be unsafe, all the cars on the lot in some cases. In fairness, he is probably saving lives.

At the same time, he seems to draw great amusement from Lois Lane’s negative attitudes toward Clark and equal amusement out of her feelings for Superman. Almost as if it’s all a game to him.

It’s a bird

This early version of Superman does things such as breaking into the governor’s mansion. In fairness, it was to save someone’s life. He never harms a person he considers to be good in any serious way although he may knock them out or push them aside.

Perhaps the most telling example of what he was like in the early days before it was revised away was when he saw an American soldier being whipped and beaten for information. He grabbed the torturer and, with a casual attitude, flung him over the treetops where he landed far away with a bloodcurdling scream, knowing he was about to die.

While he is not, “Take no prisoners”, he sometimes doesn’t. On the other hand, he arguably does more good for society than any later incarnation of Superman, at least in a clearly definable way.

It’s a plane

Of course, the flaw, to use the later Squadron Supreme by Mark Gruenwald as an example, is that he makes these changes occur by force. They can only be sustained by his continued presence enforcing them as opposed to later versions of Superman who inspire people and society to gradual change.

Superman’s aspirations for changing society were not nearly as grandiose as those of some characters that served as later parodies of him. His tactics involved the above and things like finding war profiteers and taking them to a country where the war was taking place and threatening to leave them there in the middle of a battle unless they stopped their profiteering.

Another tactic was to take criminals or dirty politicians and start leaping around with them and hanging them off of buildings until they either confessed or agreed to leave town. In those days, laws were very different and the circumstances of a confession, such as under duress, was irrelevant.

I’m Superman and I approve this message

As was perhaps inevitable, someone got the idea of creating an industry around Superman, specifically around claiming that he was endorsing various products. This came in the form of a man claiming to be Superman’s agent.

His assumption was that this “Superman stuff” was all made up or at least grossly exaggerated. It was probably just a really strong man wearing some good armor. Since Superman hid his identity, the agent felt it safe to claim to represent him and even went so far as to hire someone to impersonate Superman.

Early art of Superman - announcing his first appearance

Lois Lane easily exposed the fraud. When the fake Superman bent steel bars and lifted heavy furniture, she easily unbent the bar and lifted the furniture herself, proving they were fakes. When the men were about to kill her to protect their secret, Superman burst in and saved her.

He also did things such as hiring himself out as a circus strongman to save an elderly man from losing his livelihood.

Superman once befriended some “rough kids”. Amazed at the courage of a teenage gang when his tactic of grabbing them, leaping all over with them and hanging them from buildings only resulted in, “That was fun. Do it again. Do it again”, he changed his approach.

Superna maneuvered the military into demolishing a bad neighborhood while trying to get him while avoiding anyone getting hurt. He then helped rebuild the neighborhood and drive out the criminal elements while teaching the kids to imitate his more positive attitudes.

Superman chose to play within the confines of the law when he intentionally got himself, in disguise, thrown into prison to expose a sadistic warden who was torturing his prisoners.

The Ultra-Humanite

Pursuing an escaped mobster led to an encounter with a bald super scientist called the Ultra-Humanite, his first superhuman opponent. The Ultra-Humanite was a mental superhuman as Superman was a physical superhuman. The Ultra-Humanite revealed that he was the brains behind some of the gang activities Superman had broken up in previous stories.

As Superman moved in to capture him, the Ultra-Humanite activated a switch sending massive amounts of electricity coursing through steel plates in the floor. He intended it to kill Superman but it was only enough to knock him out.

Early art of Superman leaping over a wall while carrying a woman

The Ultra-Humanite had his men tie Superman to a conveyer belt and send him towards (presumably diamond-tipped) whirring saw blades. [I presume that this was not yet a cliché in these early days]. The blades snapped and Superman broke free, downing the modified “super-plane” the Ultra-Humanite was trying to escape in.

He thought the explosion should spell the end for him. But Kent suspected that the Ultra-Humanite’s brilliance and contingency planning made his ability to survive as great as Superman’s own.

This is where the first volume ends, with a young Superman in his original incarnation having faced his first opponent that was a true threat to him. He’s only beginning to show signs of becoming the Defender of Truth and Justice and the symbol of Hope that he would someday become.


Description

I probably should describe this in detail since almost nobody knows what Superman looks like (joking). However, a lot of people don’t know what this Superman looks like.

The chest insignia was different. Because it was not drawn consistently, it is hard to describe, at least for me. But the pictures will speak for themselves.

In the earliest stories, the biggest difference is that Superman’s boots are blue and the cape has no insignia. The boots then become red. Then, for a couple of stories, they become yellow. Then maybe blue once more if memory serves before finally staying red.

I suspect that, officially, they were never yellow but maybe Superman was experimenting with the costume at that stage. They were clearly blue at first.

The tights were always red except in one story where they are red, then suddenly become yellow for one panel, then they are red again. I think the yellow shows up again for one or two more panels but I think we can safely say that was just a goof and they were always supposed to be red.


Personality

Superman is very much a loner and he could not help but be. As Superman, he has no friends and a would-be love interest that he doesn’t want. As Clark, there is the implication that he socializes a little. There is mention of friends. But it’s all while pretending to be somebody he is not.

He is a “hard-boiled egg”. At this stage of his career, nobody has been able to crack the shell and see if there is gold inside though Lois Lane is determined to try.


Quotes

Superman (speaking to a war profiteer): “You see that steamer ? It’s the Baronta. Tomorrow it leaves for Santa Monte. Unless I find you aboard it when it sails, I swear I’ll follow you to whatever hole you hide in and tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands.”

Gimpy (a criminal): “Don’t hit me again. I’ll give ya anything ya want.”
Superman: “Thanks. What I want right now is another poke at you.”

Superman (while fighting soldiers and the police): “They mean well, and so, I must not lose my temper and hurt them.”


DCU History

Well, this IS his early DCU history although, even later in the Golden Age , some aspects of it were being rewritten. While something that was supposedly the Golden Age Superman was seen in the Crisis on Infinite Earths and in more recent works, he was a revised version of the early Golden Age Superman rather than what that character originally was.

One of the driving points of the Golden Age Superman versus the Post-Crisis Superman was the Golden Age character’s outrage that the more modern heroes killed even if only on the rarest of occasions. Had it been the actual Golden Age Superman and not a rewritten version, it would have been the Post-Crisis Superman who was outraged that the Golden Age version occasionally killed though it was, by no means, something he did very often.

In fact, in the first volume, I can think of only one instance where he outright and intentionally killed somebody.

As I write up some of the other volumes, using them as a simple basis for breaking his history up into segments, it will be interesting to observe and describe his evolution (and, at some point, revision) into the character we are more familiar with.


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Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG Print Friendly

Tell me more about the game stats

Superman

Dex: 05 Str: 11 Bod: 09 Motivation: Seeking Justice
Int: 05 Wil: 05 Min: 06 Occupation: Newspaper Reporter for the Daily Star
Inf: 05 Aur: 05 Spi: 06 Resources: 003
Init: 015 HP: 050

Powers:
Chameleon: 06, Extended Hearing: 02, Invulnerability: 10, Jumping: 07, Sealed Systems: 07, Superspeed: 10, Systemic Antidote: 06, X-Ray Vision: 10

Bonuses and Limitations:

  • At this stage of his career, Chameleon is a Skilled Power, really disguise
  • Superspeed requires using an Auto-action and is not always on

Skills:
Acrobatics (Gymnastics): 03, Artist (Writer, Actor): 03

Drawbacks:
Arch Enemy (the Ultra Humanite), Mistrust, Secret Identity


Design notes

I considered giving him a weakness to electricity or simply more Body against physical impact and less against “energy” as electricity and fire seemed to hurt him a little more.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Hugo Danner, in the novel, Gladiator by Philip Wylie, published in 1930, had the same powers Superman started out with at the exact same levels (leap an eighth of a mile, outrun a train and it took a bursting shell to finally penetrate his skin). *And* what turned out to be Danner’s one weakness, electricity, was the thing that was finally able to knock out Superman.

However, I decided to just assume that the electric shock he got hit by was tremendous, a result of super technology, rather than that he had a weakness to it.


By Doug Mertaugh

Source of Character: Action Comics #1-13 (June, 1938 through June, 1939), New York World’s Fair #1 (June, 1939) and Superman #1 (July 1939), all of which are collected in The Superman Chronicles (Volume One) the first of (so far) ten volumes featuring every Superman comic book story ever told in exact chronological order. The first volume was written in its entirety by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Schuster (except for some of the covers).

Helper(s): Sean MacDonald with Roy Cowan (by way of their writeup on the Superman of 1942). I checked their writeup over and over making sure I didn’t exceed their “character sheet” so that, over the course of several years, he will grow into the character as he will be by 1942.

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