Retro-REVIEW: Radio Spirits’ Superman Part 3

If you haven’t been following along, I’ve recently found some old Superman radio episodes at my local library. The first two stories, The Mystery of the Stolen Costume and The Skin Game, were multi-part sagas that would have taken a few weeks to hear in real time back in 1948. The set then jumps ahead about a year to March 1949. The PSAs are still present, but are now mixed with more recognizable commercials. In the intervening time the show changed formats. Instead of nightly 15 minute episodes, it began airing three nights a week for 30 minutes. Also, rather than the week or month long serials, each story followed the “one and done” format. I find it interesting that they would hold strictly to one format or the other, rather than mix up the serials and one shots the way the comic book source material has done. Clearly a different time and a different medium.

The first story included in the new format is The Mystery of the $10,000 Ghost. The formula for this episode is very familiar, even if the tale is unique. In a classic turn of storytelling we have three journalists off to work on two seemingly separate stories that are actually connected. Star reporter Lois Lane and rural correspondent Horatio Horn are following up on a letter that came through Horatio’s post office (where he is also the postmaster). The letter was seemingly sent from a defunct bank in a ghost town. Meanwhile, Perry White (still mayor of Metropolis and EiC at the Daily Planet) has assigned Clark to follow up on a story about three immigrant businessmen who all pulled $10,000 from their bank and disappeared the next day. Clearly the two stories eventually meet up. Because it’s a Superman story, it’s safe to say that Lois finds herself in danger for stupid reasons, and Clark ends up trying to explain his absence while Superman was saving the day – predictable, but entertaining nonetheless. The best part of the story, however, is Horatio Horn. Who is this guy? Was he created, like Perry and Jimmy, for the radio show? Is he still a character in the comics? I’d never heard of him but I really enjoyed the character. He strikes me as a sort of hybrid between Columbo and MacGyver – only predating both of those characters by forty years or so.

Track two on disc seven is The Mystery of the Flying Monster. At this point I’m starting to realize something is missing that I’m used to seeing in my Superman stories. I love that Superman is comparatively underpowered, but just fighting rooms full of mobsters is stuff best left to Batman and Dick Tracy. Superman needs an alien to fight, or a Lex Luthor Kryptonite creation. I’m excited by the title, thinking an aerial battle with some creature or machine. My hopes are built up even further as Jimmy Olsen responds to an ad in the classifieds looking for someone who is “absolutely fearless” with a “sense of adventure,” two things that couldn’t describe Jimmy less. While I did find myself disappointed that no battle took place, I enjoyed the wonderful description of Superman summoning his energy to pull a runaway rocket out of space and set it carefully upon the ground. Again, a familiar yet enjoyable image. I especially liked the description of him needing to match the speed of the rocket so as to slow it gently, without tearing the machine apart by arresting the momentum.

Story #5, The Case of Double Trouble, originally aired March 9, 1949. While it still doesn’t give me the supervillain battle I want, it does bring a villain with an extraordinary ability to the table. Unfortunately, it’s still more of a detective story than a true adventure for the Man of Tomorrow. In another classic storytelling device, Clark, Lois, Jimmy, and Perry are caught up in the midst of a string of burglaries. Diamonds, paintings, and furs are all being stolen after the reporters have done stories about the collections. While the victims haven’t seen the culprit’s face, they swear they would recognize the voice anywhere. And whose voices are they recognizing? Why our intrepid news team, of course. More dire for our heroes is that phone conversations with one another are the only alibis they have; but none of them can agree on who spoke to whom and when. Predictably, the true thief is a very talented mimic, emulating the other voices to cast suspicion on them. I don’t know if they’ve used an impersonator with “meteor-rock” enhancements on Smallville yet, but I’m telling myself this guy was a meta-human just so I feel like it’s more of a Superman story.

At this point the set jumps forward in time again, about six months to October 1949. Right around that time the show took a significant turn. It’s still in the 30 minutes per show, three shows per week, one shot format. But suddenly it’s not being targeted at children. The show is now trying to reach a more adult market, clearly reflected in the narrator’s commercials asking for donations to certain charities instead of telling children to respect other races and religions. Now I’m wondering if the change in target market means I’m more or less likely to get a great Superman fight. The first title would indicate it’s certainly something beyond cracking mafia heads.

Obviously The Mystery of the Walking Dead must be Superman versus zombies, 60 years ahead of its time – kind of like Robert Kirkman mashing up two of his great books. Well, not exactly. There is a strong payoff in this story because it’s the first one in the collection that really shows the classic Lois, reckless and headstrong no matter how high the emotion gets. While she is distraught that a man is going to the electric chair because of her investigative skills and testimony in court, she refuses to even think she did anything wrong. The man was a swindler, preying on old ladies’ religious vulnerability. This gets a little weird because of the earlier PSAs about treating other religions with respect, but the villain in this story clearly practices some sort of dark version of Hinduism, mixed with voodoo, and melted into Kabbalah (which is actually mentioned by name). The character’s voice and even personality are also stereotypically Indian. Ultimately the story is quite good, even if there are no zombies. It’s got great flow and utilized Joan Alexander’s talents as Lois very well. Her terror is clear, as is her possible mental breakdown. Still no super-fight, but one of the best episodes so far.

That’s it for now. The collection still has four more stories that I’ll likely do in one post again. After that I’ll probably do a part five just to sum up my final thoughts on this whole set from an archaic storytelling format.