Pharyngula

Super-evolution

One of my Christmas presents was something just for fun: Superman: The Dailies 1939-1942(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s a collection of the newspaper strips by Schuster and Siegel that were published in the earliest years of the superhero, and they’re both funny and disturbing now.

First off, Superman was always a jerk. It’s actually a bit off-putting: while he has this profound moral goal of helping the little guy, he’s also constantly treating Lois Lane like dirt — he uses his superpowers to get the big scoops at the newspaper, and Lois is always getting demoted to the “advice for the lovelorn” column. When he does let her get a story, it’s always in the most condescending way possible.

And then there’s his solution to crime: over and over, he uses his super-hearing and his super-telescopic-X-ray vision to find out who the big bad guy is, and then he kicks him around like a football for a few days worth of strips until he signs a written confession. Case solved! One begins to wonder how much of a bad influence growing up with a super-bully as a hero has had.

But what I really wanted to share was a subtly different origin story for Superman. The early Superman didn’t fly, wasn’t absolutely invulnerable to everything, and didn’t have the full suite of superpowers that would gradually be added to the canon. He was just an extremely tough guy with the “strength of a thousand men!” who was able to jump long distances; in one episode, he has to end a war in Europe (by grabbing the two leaders and kicking them around, of course), and he has to swim all the way…faster than a torpedo, of course.

But what was proposed as the source of his great strength? It wasn’t the rays of the sun, as we’d be told later. It was…evolution.

i-5de95bfd71f644ac928aecd2757da219-super_origins.jpg

That’s right. Krypton had a few million years head start on us, so everyone on the planet had super-strength, super-intelligence, and near-invulnerability, all because evolution had simply progressed farther than it had on earth.

That was the first panel of the newspaper strip. You can guess how I cringed. The story never quite got to the details of how selection worked to generate people with skin so tough that bullets bounced off.

I have to show you one other instance of unintentional humor. At one point, a wealthy bad guy puts a bounty on Superman’s head of one million dollars and recruits criminals to kill him. These new criminals have an interesting style of introducing themselves:

i-9f264f32469eb2c736c4efd4db9b165f-super_scientist.jpg

Where do you get a super-science degree, I wonder? Can I just introduce myself this way in the future? “I am P-Zed, the super-scientist. Give me a million dollars.” I am relieved to see, at least, that super-scientists are not required to wear brightly colored tights.

Carlos, by the way, doesn’t really earn the title of “super-scientist.” His scheme to kill Superman is to lure him into a room (with Lois as bait) and then open up vents that release heat into the room, while he looks through a thick heat-proof glass window and gloats. Superman strolls in, the door closes, the vents open, he starts sweating and standing there dumbfounded, while Carlos chortles over the fact that Superman will be reduced to ash in a few minutes. Superman doesn’t know what to do until he suddenly remembers, oh yeah, he can smash down walls. So he breaks down the wall to Carlos’s room, Carlos and his pals are incinerated, and Superman and Lois escape.

From this we can conclude that the entrance requirements to super-scientist school must be really, really low. I’m thinking now that maybe I don’t qualify. But maybe, just maybe, this is the Discovery Institute’s problem — they keep hiring super-scientists instead of plain old ordinary working scientists, and they keep coming up with hare-brained schemes like “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” that are so easily ripped to shreds.

Comments

  1. #1 Sastra, OM
    December 30, 2007

    Holy Tielhard de Chardin, Batman! — pop views of both evolution and scientists have a lot to account for …

    Supposedly true anecdote:

    Visitor: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
    Little boy: “A scientist!”
    Visitor: “Really? Well, that’s certainly a wonderful thing to want to be. What kind of scientist?”
    Little boy: “A MAD SCIENTIST!!!!

  2. #2 Sastra, OM
    December 30, 2007

    That cartoon panel with “Carlos, the Super Scientist” is really an illustration from an old book detailing the early years of the JREF and its Million Dollar Challenge. My, but the Amazing Randi certainly looked different without his beard!

  3. #3 Ichthyic
    December 30, 2007

    Can I just introduce myself this way in the future? “I am P-Zed, the super-scientist. Give me a million dollars.”

    hey, if it works, let us know.

  4. #4 Carlie
    December 30, 2007

    Sastra (#1) – That’s totally my son. Inspired in part by the Franny K. Stein books, which every child should read, he’s decided that he’s going to be a mad scientist on Mondays and Wednesdays, an evil genius on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a regular scientist on Fridays.

    What I’d like to know is when did the mad scientist stereotype convert totally to a bald guy in a wheelchair? I was commenting to spouse just last week how all mad scientists in film these days are bald wheelchair guys, and then we watched the Doctor Who Christmas special, starring… a bald mad scientist in a wheelchair.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?, OM
    December 31, 2007

    it was ‘evolution

    I noticed that, too. Is it a ‘okina?

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?, OM
    December 31, 2007

    it was ‘evolution

    I noticed that, too. Is it a ‘okina?

  7. #7 Lyle G
    December 31, 2007

    An invulnerable hero is boring. That’s why Kryptonite was invented.

  8. #8 Kaleberg
    December 31, 2007

    George Orwell had a lot to say about the issue of bully worship in that era.

    From his essay on Boy’s Weeklies

    “The other thing that has emerged in the post-war [World War I] boys’ papers, though not to anything like the extent one would expect, is bully-worship and the cult of violence.

    “If one compares the Gem and Magnet with a genuinely modern paper, the thing that immediately strikes one is the absence of the leader-principle. There is no central dominating character; instead there are fifteen or twenty characters, all more or less on an equality, with whom readers of different types can identify. In the more modern papers this is not usually the case. Instead of identifying with a schoolboy of more or less his own age, the reader of the Skipper, Hotspur, etc., is led to identify with a G-man, with a Foreign Legionary, with some variant of Tarzan, with an air ace, a master spy, an explorer, a pugilist — at any rate with some single all-powerful character who dominates everyone about him and whose usual method of solving any problem is a sock on the jaw. This character is intended as a superman, and as physical strength is the form of power that boys can best understand, he is usually a sort of human gorilla; in the Tarzan type of story he is sometimes actually a giant, eight or ten feet high. At the same time the scenes of violence in nearly all these stories are remarkably harmless and unconvincing.”

    This was written in 1940, and has one of the most wonderful corrections in a footnote in the later editions. Apropos of his remark:

    “The stories in the Magnet are signed ‘Frank Richards’ and those in the Gem, ‘Martin Clifford’, but a series lasting thirty years could hardly be the work of the same person every week.(1)”

    He had to admit:

    “1) This is quite incorrect. These stories have been written throughout the whole period by ‘Frank Richards’ and ‘Martin Clifford’, who are one and the same person! See articles in Horizon, May 1940, and Summer Pie, summer 1944.”

    The late 1930s and 1940s gave us a whole new set of gods and monsters. After all, it wasn’t just Superman and Batman, but the Wolfman and the familiar Frankenstein two bolter lumbering around with his arms forward. Politics was full of larger than life figures rebuilding humanity. Consider Hitler with his 1,000 year plan and Stalin who took the name Steel. Together, they murdered tens of millions in the names of their ideologies.

    In retrospect, it is impressive that the generation raised on these stories and this imagery, in the end, produced the modern democratic socialist state as one of its most powerful legacies. As the war against Hitler revealed, it sometimes took a sock on the jaw, and not by a Superman.

  9. #9 JJR
    January 1, 2008

    PZ wrote:
    “… he uses his super-hearing and his super-telescopic-X-ray vision to find out who the big bad guy is, and then he kicks him around like a football for a few days worth of strips until he signs a written confession. Case solved!”

    Hey! Just like the original Superman television tag put it:
    “Truth, Justice and the American way” ;-)
    [especially post 9-11, that is]

    “One begins to wonder how much of a bad influence growing up with a super-bully as a hero has had.”

    We get a cartoonish GWB as president. QED.

  10. #10 Rolf Marvin B°e Lindgren
    January 1, 2008

    It seems to me that a super-scientist might be what is more commonly known as an engineer.

  11. #11 Rolf Marvin B°e Lindgren
    January 1, 2008

    It seems to me that a super-scientist might be what is more commonly known as an engineer.

  12. #12 Jim Kakalios
    January 1, 2008

    Lyle G: “An invulnerable hero is boring. That’s why Kryptonite was invented.”

    Actually, Kryptonite was introduced not in the comic books, but first appeared on the Superman radio show. The show, 15 minutes long, three days a week, was a big hit. But Bud Collyer, the actor who played Supes/Clark Kent, wanted to take a two week vacation. How to have 6 episodes of the Adventures of Superman with Superman?

    Enter Kryptonite. Discovered by crooks, they kidnapped Superman and kept him in a weakened state, while Perry, Lois and others searched for our hero. Whenever they needed to remind listeners of the situation, a crook would give Superman another dose of K, and another actor would groan into the microphone.

    Kryptonite – the only mineral that exists so that one man could take a vacation.

    Happy and Healthy New Year to all!

    Face Front, True Believers!

    Jim

  13. #13 Sili
    January 2, 2008

    I really rather want to see P-Zed in morning dress. I think it’d become him (he might have to trim the beard to allow the ascot to come to the fore).

  14. #14 KaiYves
    January 3, 2008

    47- Because nobody would suspect a guy in a wheelchair of being up to no good?

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