When Superman's stories got dark

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Active Member
Apr 30, 2004
In keeping with the tone of fairness, sobriety, and absolute accuracy which is always expected of us on this special day of the year, I've decided to examine a question I've seen many other people argue about on comic book forums. "When did superhero comic books start getting so dark in the way they treated our favorite colorfully-clad self-appointed crimefighters?"

The answer seems clear: there was some serious darkness in an obscure little thing called "Action Comics #1." (I suspect that many of you have never heard of it.) And things have only gone downhill from there! :(

I’m sure all the thousands of four-color superhero comic books being published before that one must have been much brighter and cleaner in their outlook on life, but all that was a little before my time, so I don't really remember.

To be fair, I should point out that I'm working on the assumption that the "fuller" version of Superman's public debut, as seen a year later in "Superman #1," essentially added in a few pages of storytelling which already existed in 1938, but which someone had chosen not to use in the opening pages of the first issue of "Action Comics."

So I’m going to draw heavily upon the contents of the first few pages of "Superman #1" in my analysis, as well as the portion of the story which was actually published in "Action Comics #1" a year earlier. I believe this is the best way to see just what Siegel and Shuster had in mind when they actually created the Man of Steel and started putting him through his paces (when they were first trying to prepare this material to become a daily comic strip in the newspapers).

We pass quickly over the origin story which brings us up to date on the basic premise of this newfangled "Superman" character. Last survivor of a dying planet . . . incredibly strong and quick because of the different gravity . . . exceptional strength and bulletproof skin . . . invents a costume to use when fighting crime . . . so far, so good!

Moving along, we get down to brass tacks.

Clark Kent is trying to get a job at a big-city newspaper called the Daily Star. (The city is not named right away. Nor is the editor.)

The editor doesn’t feel the need to hire him.

But Clark overhears a report about a lynch mob at the county jail, and rushes over to see what he can do (in his other identity).

This is supposed to be the first time in his life that Clark makes a public appearance in a "Superman" costume.

This mysterious new Superman gets off to a good start—he refuses to let a group of angry citizens string a man up just because they think he’s a dirty, rotten murderer! Instead, Superman steps in front of the intended victim and says firmly, "This prisoner’s fate will be decided in a court of justice! Return to your homes!"

The mob rushes at him and discovers it has bitten off more than it can chew. But I gather none of them were badly hurt in the process of learning that you don't want to tussle with Superman.

So, in his first five minutes in costume, Superman is standing firmly in favor of such concepts as maintaining law and order by letting every accused person get the benefits of due process. Implicitly, Superman believes in "constitutional rights" and all that. Private citizens shouldn't just maim or kill people on a sudden whim.

Unfortunately, this won't last!

After the mob has dispersed, our hero takes the opportunity to interview the man they were about to string up from a tree. The prisoner states he’s being held for the murder of Jack Kennedy.

[What’s that? No, not the same "Jack Kennedy" who was shot in Dallas a generation later in the real world, and whose alleged assassin actually was murdered by a self-declared angry vigilante before ever getting a chance to tell his side of the story in a court of justice! Any parallels you think you see are sheer coincidence! Really!]

The prisoner states that his friend Evelyn Curry has already been sentenced to death for the murder of Kennedy. She will die in the electric chair—tonight! But the real killer was a nightclub singer named Bea Carroll who got angry at Kennedy for two-timing her!

Superman, being extremely gullible, immediately takes it for granted that the prisoner is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (After all, whoever heard of a murder suspect lying through his teeth in a frantic attempt to shift the blame?)

In fact, he doesn’t even ask such obvious follow-up questions as: "How do you know this? For instance, did you see her commit the murder—or are you just guessing because you think Bea is that kind of a girl? The same way that mob had jumped to the conclusion that you and Evelyn conspired to kill Jack Kennedy?"

Nope, Superman simply turns away, saying, "Thanks for the information!"

Let’s face it: If our hero thinks the unsupported statement of a murder suspect constitutes reliable information about the "truth" behind a recent murder case, then I must seriously question Clark Kent’s fitness for a career in journalism. Maybe that newspaper editor knew what he was doing when he refused to hire such a gullible schmuck. (Not that the editor put it that way at the time, but on the evidence, it now appears that he would have been justified if he had done so!)

Still, I don’t blame Superman for wanting to investigate the matter further. But as we shall see, his approach is somewhat lacking in "subtlety" (or even "legality").

He goes to the nightclub where Bea works. A narrative caption tells us (and I think we are supposed to take this at face value; not ironically): "As Bea sings her number, she does not realize she is being closely observed by the greatest exponent of justice the world has ever known."

"Greatest exponent of justice"? Such a claim gives a man a heck of a lot to live up to! Let's see how well he does in that department in, say, the next five minutes!

When Bea finishes singing and returns to her dressing room, an uninvited guest is already in there. (This is not considered totally gentlemanly, I must say.)

Superman tells her that he knows she killed Jack Kennedy. Bea calls him a nut and tells him to leave before she calls the manager. He stubbornly repeats his claim. (Of course he doesn't mention "evidence" to back it up, since he doesn't have any!)

She finally draws a gun on him and—be warned that this part is hard to swallow—suddenly confesses that yes, she killed Kennedy, but Superman will never live to repeat that to anyone!

Superman crushes the gun and then uses his strength to apply enough pain to her body to persuade her to sign a written confession. (How heroic! Who needs that boring old Fifth Amendment, anyway?)

One of the things that bothers me about this is: What was Superman’s game plan if Bea had possessed enough commen sense to simply stick to that age-old defense strategy: "Deny everything"?

If she hadn’t admitted killing Kennedy, would he still have started using his super-strength on her to coerce her into changing her story?

Heck, what if she hadn't killed Kennedy at all? Would Superman somehow have magically divined that this was the truth, or would he have stubbornly said to himself, "The end justifies the means!" and kept applying pressure (literally) until either he broke her arm or until she signed a "confession" to make him stop before he did? Heck, after her arm was broken, would it finally have dawned on him that the jailbird might have given him a bum steer, or would he have started squeezing poor Bea's other arm for an encore?

As Archie Goodwin (the assistant to Nero Wolfe; not the late comic book editor of the same name) once said about his boss's ethics: "I express no opinion, but boy, I have one!"

Anyway! Having obtained this "confession," Superman carries Bea to the grounds surrounding the governor’s mansion, leaves her tied up under a tree, and breaks into the governor’s house, smashing down a door, manhandling the butler, etc. To do him justice, I don't think he really hurts any human being this time, although I wouldn't have put it past him to use force on the governor in order to get him to make that vital call to stop the scheduled execution.

(Note: This was where the material in "Action Comics #1" started (after a quick telling of the essential origin story) -- with Superman rushing into the governor's home in the middle of the night with a signed confession. Such questions as "how did he get that signed confession in the first place?" were simply left hanging in the air at the time, but someone a year later felt the obligation to tell us the truth of the matter in "Superman #1"!)

Remember, Superman has been billed as "the greatest exponent of justice the world has ever known."

Let's take inventory of what that seems to mean, as Siegel and Shuster see it (or saw it when they created this story).

First: the entire plot rests upon the assumption that the conventional forces of law and order – homicide detectives, prosecutors, judges, juries, and so forth – are woefully unable to distinguish between an innocent woman and a guilty one.

Second: The proper way to correct that problem is for a self-appointed vigilante to a) believe everything an accused man says without requiring any further evidence, and b) to use brute force to hurt a woman half his size until the victim "confesses for the record" that she was the one who "really" committed the crime in question.

Third: Then the vigilante will bring this (cough, cough) "confession" to the attention of the state governor. The governor will then prove he’s a gullible idiot. Instead of asking insightful questions such as "did the poor woman only sign this statement because you were threatening to crush her head like a grape?", the governor takes everything at face value and promptly calls off the execution of the other woman, the one whose guilt was actually proven in a court of law, to the satisfaction of a jury of her peers, according to the standard rules of evidence!

Gosh, it seems like only five pages ago that Superman was saying guilt should be determined by a court. (Due process and civil rights and all that.)

In fact . . . it was only five pages ago!

Either his soul is already getting corrupted by a power trip, or else it was already so corrupt that he didn’t mean what we thought he meant at the time he addressed the lynch mob.

Perhaps he only meant the following: "Guilt is determined through due process in a court of law—unless I decide otherwise in any given case! I get to short-circuit the process by violent means whenever I see fit, but you ordinary jerks don’t! That’s because I am so special that the regular rules don’t apply to me!"

Now there’s the democratic ideal for you! Truth, Justice, and the American Way!

(Actually, it looks a heck of a lot like fascism. The premise seems to be that one Strong Man should have The Final Say on questions of life and death for anyone else, because he is just so wonderful and nobody else has any business second-guessing him! If he says you're innocent, you're innocent! If he says you're guilty, you're guilty! If he says you deserve to be tortured, then you'd better brace yourself for what's coming!)

At this point it should come as no surprise to us that a few pages later, Superman will be threatening a man with electrocution if the man doesn't spill his guts about whom he represents in his dealings with a U.S. Senator. (The dealings involve the promise of large sums of money changing hands.)

Of course Superman isn't talking about seeing the guy convicted in court and sent to the electric chair after "due process" has been observed. He's talking about performing the electrocution himself, on the spur of the moment, if he doesn't hear the man start singing like a canary!

And this is the way Superman's creators think justice is best served?

That is . . . profoundly disturbing. Superhero comics can’t get much darker than that!

All things considered, we should simply learn to be grateful that in this enlightened day and age, superhero comics are sometimes much more optimistic and morally uplifting than was the debut story of the idiot with fascist tendencies who became known as The Golden Age Superman!


[P.S. On the off chance that anyone missed the point -- I never would have posted this on any day except April Fool's Day! I was just in that sort of a mood, recently, and saw what was coming up on the calendar, and started researching and typing in order to make the deadline!]


Active Member
May 1, 2001
Heh! Wonder what you'd have made of the stories where a few people actually die (such as those poor henchmen in that airplane race in the first (?) SUperman/Luthor story)...

Shawn Hopkins

TZ Member of the Year 2013
Mar 13, 2002
Winner's Circle
If you want a non April Fools Day answer it's when Cat Grant's kid died at the hands of serial killer Toyman. That's the moment they decided to give in and let Superman be grimdark like every other comic. Even his "death" doesn't count because that was silly, obviously gimmicky nonsense.

Yes, I read comics. Sea voyages are long.


Active Member
Apr 30, 2004
Heh! Wonder what you'd have made of the stories where a few people actually die (such as those poor henchmen in that airplane race in the first (?) SUperman/Luthor story)...
Come to think of it . . . I don't believe I've ever seen a reprint of the first appearance of the mad scientist known as Luthor. I've read reprints of at least a couple of his Golden Age appearances, but I don't think I know anything about his first story. Your mention of an "airplane race" rings no bells for me :(


Active Member
Apr 30, 2004
If you want a non April Fools Day answer it's when Cat Grant's kid died at the hands of serial killer Toyman. That's the moment they decided to give in and let Superman be grimdark like every other comic. Even his "death" doesn't count because that was silly, obviously gimmicky nonsense.
Well, that was an extremely dark moment -- and when I first read the relevant back issues, many years ago, I hated it -- but I question whether it qualifies as the first time Superman's stories went in a dark direction. Perhaps more of "the nadir of a downward trend that had been present at least since his Post-COIE Reboot"?

I agree with you, on the other hand, that his "death" was hard to take seriously, and not so much "dark" as "overblown nonsense." Heck, ages ago I wrote a scathing review of the TPB that collected the relevant arc about the fighting with Doomsday -- "The Death of Superman." I felt the plotting was painfully simplistic and sometimes just made no sense.

Example: Doomsday, who has strength equal to or greater than Superman's, and no scruples or inhibitions whatsoever about using his strength on anyone who gets in his way, picks up a non-powered Blue Beetle (Ted) and slams him head-first into a solid surface.

Logically, Ted must be DEAD at that point.

But that's not the way it's handled. Not only does Ted survive the experience (instead of having his entire skull turned into pulp), but he even makes a full recovery in future comic books, after taking time off in a hospital bed while he recuperated from his injuries!


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