Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Superman? More like Superkiller!

Superman never kills, right?  That's what we've been led to believe. Let's see if Siegel and Shuster agree by reading Action Comics #23 (April 1940), featuring the first appearance of Lex Luthor-- although the story refers to him as simply "Luthor" and he flashes a full head of red hair.

 It starts in the far-flung nation of Galonia, where we find Clark Kent and Lois Lane working as war correspondants for the Daily Planet (finally!). There, on the streets of the war-torn border city of Belgaria, we watch as a Toranian (these names have a Hayao Miyazaki flavor!) artillery unit lobs shells on helpless civilians, and injure Lane. Surely Superman will use his super-speed and strength to disable the cannon without injuries to anyone else--

Nope.  Superman blows four ordinary soldiers-- possibly guilty of war crimes, but human beings nevertheless-- straight to hell.  Later, he finds Galonian General Lupo conspiring with an unknown intelligence via what can only be described as a hologram to stop the two countries from making peace.  This turns out to be our first glimpse of Luthor, but for now let's just see how paragon of fair play Superman handles a being by far his physical inferior...

Strangely enough, Superman doesn't kill Lupo.  Something even worse than having his brains dashed out happens to the poor guy, but not at Superman's hands.  Leaving Lupo's corpse in the cave, Superman spots a bomber stream on its way to attack a neutral nation and bring them into the conflict—neutrality and being drawn into wars a major 1930s/40s concern for Americans.  In the interests of peace, he uses his mighty breath to blow up such a headwind the pilots turn back.  Catastrophe averted through non-violent means!

Not really.  What Superman actually does is leap onto the lead bomber and throw its machine gunner out.  This guy gets off easy compared to what happens to the rest.  After all, he’s at least wearing a parachute.  Superman turns the machine gun on the other planes and mercilessly blows them from the sky.  A few airmen float down under silk canopies, but you have to imagine others are shredded by Superman’s flying lead.  Read Masters of the Air by Donald L. Miller for a taste  of the carnage the Man of Steel deals to these guys who don’t share his invulnerable Kryptonian physiology.  There’s no place to hide inside a bomber.

And as if shooting them to death wasn’t enough, when he runs out of ammo, Superman then smashes two bombers together in the air, no doubt killing both aircrews at once.  After that, it's a simple matter of ramming the final bomber with the one he's hijacked and by now Superman's kill-tally must be dozens-- if not hundreds-- of men.

He's not finished.  Because here Luthor makes the first of what will eventually be many, many mistakes in dealing with Superman-- he has Lois Lane abducted.  It's supposed to prevent reporter Clark Kent from investigating further, but all it does is amount to suicide by super-being.  Having wet his hands with blood for days now, Superman immediately sets out to confront the villain.

This early version of Lex Luthor possesses various powers than can only be described as magical.  He can hypnotize people—in fact, almost all of his personal army are under his mental control—and he projected that three-dimensional image of himself onto a screen hidden in a cave despite being miles away.  A far cry from the ruthless scientist or amoral business tycoon of later characterizations.  But one thing this proto-Luthor shares with the more familiar modern-day Luthor is the desire for power and a knack for manipulation from behind the scenes.

Plus a primitive green laser (premonitions of Kryptonite to come) capable of draining Superman’s powers.  Mistake number two-- Luthor stupidly sets the damned thing on low, which gives Superman time to smash it before it can incapacitate or even kill him.  

It's at this point our already emotionally over-taxed Superman goes completely ape.  He juggles halpless normals (how many of these men soiled themselves from sheer terror?)-- apparently smirking all the while-- and shreds dirigible’s inner workings, which sends untold numbers of Luthor’s hypnotized followers to their deaths.  And Luthor himself, as Superman callously observes, using some kind of casual inflection or drawl to emphasize to Lois Lane just how little he cares.

Well, you may not be scared, Ms. Lane, but I certainly am!  We won't argue whether or not Superman's aims are good.  After all, he's trying to stop a war and save many more lives than the number he takes.  But how could we stop this costumed mass killer should he decide the human species is too destructive to be allowed to continue?  What if he takes a cue from Luthor and tries to conquer the world?  It's almost as if Superman were one of those morally gray anti-heroes from DC's Vertigo line of adult comics.  But that's silly...

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