Pulp Fiction #2: The Man of Steel Turns 80!

On April 18, 1938, National Publications presented Action Comics #1, showcasing typical comic book fare of the era like master magician Zatara, sports hero Pep Morgan, and adventurer Tex Thompson. And then there was the red-and-blue suited guy on the cover…

Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men… who can change the course of mighty rivers… bend steel in his bare hands… and so on and so forth! Eighty years ago tomorrow, Superman made his debut and changed the course of mighty comic book publishers forever. An immediate hit with youthful readers, Superman headlined his own comic a year later, spawned a slew of superhero imitators, became a super-merchandising machine, and conquered all media like no other before him!

Wayne Boring’s Superman

And to think he came from humble beginnings. No, not the planet Krypton, but from the fertile minds of two kids from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. The two science-fiction mad teens first presented a story called “The Reign of the Superman” in Siegel’s self-published fanzine titled (aptly enough) Science Fiction, dealing with a bum who gains psychic powers from an experimental drug and becomes a villain. This idea didn’t go over too well, but the lads tinkered with the idea of a super powered being, reimagining it as a comic strip, and the bum as a hero. They pounded the pavement trying to get their brain child sold, getting rejected at every turn, until comics pioneer M.C. Gaines (father of MAD Magazine founder William Gaines) suggested they try National. The boys sold their idea , and in the process all their rights to the characters, for a measly $130 bucks… big money at the time, but when you think of all the loot Superman has raked in over the decades, Siegel and Shuster got super-screwed!!

Curt Swan’s Superman

The Superman Mythos we all know today didn’t really get started until Mort Weisinger took over as editor in 1940. Weisinger, an early member of sci-fi fandom himself, gave us innovations like kryptonite, the Phantom Zone, the Bottled City of Kandor, and a whole host of super-related characters. There was Superboy (The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy), Supergirl, Krypto the Super-Dog, Streaky the Super-Cat, the bizarre Bizarro Superman, and of course Superman’s greatest adversary Lex Luthor, who first appeared in Action #23. National (later known as DC Comics) was very protective of their super-cash cow, filing a famous (or infamous, depending on where your loyalties lie) lawsuit against Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who they claimed was a direct rip-off of The Man of Steel. Lawyers battled it out for years, as the Fawcett side showed how Superman himself was “borrowed” from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and Philip Wylie’s sci-fi novel “Gladiator“. After a long legal donnybrook, with the two mighty heroes all lawyered up,  Fawcett finally folded in 1953.

A radio program starring future TV game show host Bud Collyer as Supe and his alter ego Clark Kent debuted in 1940 and ran until 1951. Collyer also supplied the voice for a series of Technicolor cartoons courtesy of Max Fleischer Studios, who also made the animated adventures of another super-guy, Popeye the Sailor. The shorts were released by Paramount, and contain some of the best animation of the era. Since all are currently in the public domain, here’s the first, which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short (invest in the ten minutes it takes to watch, it’s worth it!):

        Superman made his live-action debut in a 1948 Columbia serial starring the virtually unknown Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, battling the evil Spider Woman (Carol Forman) through 15 thrilling chapters. This was Noel Neill’s first appearance as Lois Lane (more on that later). The low-budget Sam Katzman production was highly successful, and a 1950 sequel, ATOM MAN VS SUPERMAN was filmed, featuring veteran Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor. Then in 1951, a feature titled SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN was released as a precursor of things to come…

“Faster than a speeding bullet”: George Reeves as Superman

George Reeves , a minor actor who played one of the Tarleton Twins in GONE WITH THE WIND, donned the familiar tights, with Phyllis Coates as Lois. This was made as a pilot of sorts for a television version, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which ran in syndication from 1951 to 1958. George Reeves fit the part perfectly, but Coates left after the first season, to be replaced by… Noel Neill! Co-starring Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, John Hamilton as Perry White, and Robert Shayne as Inspector Henderson, the 104 episodes were endlessly rerun for decades on local TV stations (and can still be seen Saturday mornings on the Heroes & Icons Channel).

Saturday Mornings with Superman!

Superman made it to The Great White Way in the 1966 Broadway musical IT’S A BIRD… IT’S A PLANE… IT’S SUPERMAN, with music by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (BYE BYE BIRDIE) and book by David Newman and Robert Benton (BONNIE & CLYDE), lasting 129 performances. Supes next flew to the world of Saturday Morning Cartoons in Filmation’s THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1966-70), with Bud Collyer returning to his old radio role. This series, premiering at the height of the BATMAN camp craze, underwent several different titles (THE SUPERMAN/AQUAMAN HOUR OF ADVENTURE, THE BATMAN/SUPERMAN HOUR) over its four-year run. Superman would return to Saturday mornings three years later as part of the long-running SUPER FRIENDS.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE introduced Christopher Reeve to the world, with an all-star cast headed by Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Luthor), Margot Kidder (Lois), Ned Beatty , Valerie Perrine, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford , and Trevor Howard. Directed by Richard Donner, the producers knew the film would be a blockbuster and began shooting a sequel at the same time. Released in 1980, with Richard Lester  eventually taking over for Donner, SUPERMAN II is considered by many fans the best superhero movie ever made… well, at least by this fan! The story pits Krypton’s favorite son against escaped Phantom Zone criminals General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) with the fate of Earth in the balance. I had the privilege of meeting Miss Douglas and Mr. O’Halloran at a comic-con a few tears ago; she had a marvelously bawdy sense of humor, while Big Jack was as intimidating as ever!

Teri Hatcher & Dean Cain as Lois & Clark

Two more Super-sequels were made in 1983 and 1987, but frankly neither was very good, and the Man of Steel went quiet on the film front until returning to TV with LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, an updated version of the venerable tale with Dean Cain as Clark Kent and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. This version, broadcast from 1993-97, focused more on the romance between the two characters than is usual, but was a hit with fans, winning a Saturn Award for Best Genre Series during it’s run.

Latest incarnation: Henry Cavill as The Man of Steel

Superman returned to the big screen in 2006 with the aptly titled SUPERMAN RETURNS, starring newcomer Brandon Routh. The Bryan Singer-directed film didn’t do well enough for Warner Brothers to produce a sequel, and the character remained dormant until Zack Snyder’s 2013 MAN OF STEEL, a darker reboot of the legend giving Henry Cavill the title role. This Superman returned in 2016’s BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, and again in 2017’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, and figures to stick around awhile, at least as long as the DC Cinematic Universe doesn’t implode!

Jim Steranko’s Superman

Eighty years is a long time, and I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of all things Superman. The character is still going strong today, probably the most recognizable superhero on the planet. DC will release Action Comics  Issue #1000 tomorrow, a milestone in the comics world, and Superman is still the cover boy. As long as there’s injustice in this world, we’ll all need Superman around as a symbol of hope, to keep “fighting (his) never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way”!

Dedicated to the memories of Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster

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Pulp Fiction #1: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

“The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte struggled back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her belly where the bullet went in.

“How c-could you”, she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse. I got it in.

“It was easy”, I said. “

– from I, THE JURY by Mickey Spillane, first published in 1947 by EP Dutton

Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer made his debut in I, THE JURY, and set the shocked literary world on its collective ear with its sex-and-violence laden story. Critics savaged Spillane, but the book buying public ate it up, turning I, THE JURY into a best seller and launching Hammer as a pop culture icon. Hammer’s roots were deeply set in the bloody pulps and another 20th century phenomenon… the four-color comics!

Spillane got his start writing for both mediums. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, the tough-talking Irishman found he had a knack for storytelling, and by the 1930’s managed to make a few sales to the pulps. Spillane soon joined the fledgling comic book world, cranking out stories for Timely’s (later known as Marvel Comics) Human Torch, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, and a ton of those two-page “fillers” publishers used to print to meet the cheaper second-class postal rates. Like most red-blooded American males of the era, Spillane joined the service during WWII, and when it was over he returned to grinding ’em out. Only this time, Spillane had an idea.

Spillane dreamed up a tough private eye named Mike Danger and, together with artist Mike Roy, looked to sell it to the lucrative syndicated newspaper comics market, without success. Undaunted, Spillane took his project and wrote a novel based on the character, now renamed Mike Hammer. The writer (“I’m not an author”, he once claimed) elevated the levels of sex and violence, whipping up his lurid adaptation in a little over a week. Publisher E.P. Dutton bought the book, titled I, THE JURY, and history was made. The critics lambasted Spillane’s literary style (or lack thereof), but post-war readers grabbed onto all the sex and violence within the book’s pages and begged for more.

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the floor and my gun in his hand”

  • – from VENGEANCE IS MINE , first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Mike Hammer is Spillane’s macho fantasy alter ego. The PI was, like his creator, a World War II vet, now a Cold War Anti-Communist who played by his own set of rules. He was a law-and-order guy dishing out vigilante justice, not interested in waiting for an incompetent system that rarely worked for the little guy. Hammer had a way with the ladies, yet the love of his life was loyal secretary Velma. His two best friends were NY Homicide Captain Pat Chambers and his trusty Colt .45, which served him well when delivering just desserts to the lowlifes and corrupt officials who deserved them. Say what you will about Hammer’s misanthropic methods or misogynistic viewpoints; he was a stand-up guy who got the job done… by any means necessary!

Ralph Meeker as Hammer in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Spillane’s terse, graphic novels exploded in the public conscience like a .45 slug through flesh and bone, and it was inevitable Mike Hammer would blast his way to the Silver Screen. Tough guy actor Biff Elliot was the first to play Hammer in a 1953 adaptation of I, THE JURY, which of course was considerably toned down for the screen. Probably the best known movie Hammer was Ralph Meeker, who starred in director Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), as bleak and violent a film noir as you’re likely to find. Robert Bray next stepped into Hammer’s shoes for 1957’s MY GUN IS QUICK, a low-budget but fairly entertaining entry. A syndicated television version of MIKE HAMMER was run from 1958-60, with Darren McGavin as the PI, a series decried by critics for its excessive violence – hey, what did they expect?

Mickey Spillane as his creation Mike Hammer in “The Girl Hunters” (1963)

Mike Hammer took a ten-year hiatus before Spillane resurrected him in the 1962 novel THE GIRL HUNTERS. Believing his beloved Velma dead, Hammer’s been on a booze soaked bender before learning she’s actually alive, and he begins his regeneration from drunken bum to instrument of vengeance. This book was made into a film a year later with none other than Spillane himself cast as Hammer! It’s as violent as you’d think with the author doing a not-bad job. Spillane had always been a self promoter, and in later years he made the rounds of TV talk shows and even starred in a series of commercials for Miller Lite Beer!

Stacy Keach, TV’s greatest Mike Hammer

Hammer was back with (what else?) a vengeance, and a new audience was turned on to Spillane’s sex-and-violence fueled world. In the Reagan-era 1980’s a new TV version was broadcast on CBS, starring Stacy Keach, by far the most popular of Hammer portrayers. The stylish series was a hit, that is until Keach got busted in Britain on cocaine smuggling charges and had to serve time in prison. He returned to the role in (appropriately enough) the 1986 TV movie THE RETURN OF MIKE HAMMER, and again the 90’s with the  syndicated MIKE HAMMER, PRIVATE EYE series.

“There isn’t a Coliseum anymore, but the city is a bigger bowl, and it seats more people. The razor-sharp claws aren’t those of wild animals, but man’s can be just as sharp and twice as vicious. You have to be quick, and you have to be able, or you become one of the devoured, and if you can kill first, no matter how and no matter who, you can return to the comfortable chair and the comfortable fire. But you have to be quick. And able. Or you’ll be dead”

-from MY GUN IS QUICK, first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Tough as a two dollar steak, Mike Hammer refuses to die, even though his creator Spillane passed away in 2006. Mystery writer Max Allan Collins, who once took over the Dick Tracy comic strip and penned the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION, has been chronicling the hard-boiled adventures of Hammer since 2007, working from Spillane’s own unfinished manuscripts. As long as there’s a need for a ruthless avenger to take on the dirty jobs no one else can, there will be a need for Mike Hammer, political correctness be damned!