The Reign of the Superman (January, 1933)
From: SCIENCE FICTION, The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3
Writer – “Herbert S. Fine” (aka Jerry Siegel)
Art – Joe Shuster
Heyyy, everyone… it’s leap-day! Also, Superman’s Birthday! We only get to celebrate it once every four-years… so, in his honor, I decided to take a look at something way out and wild… well, for this blog anyway… The Reign of the Superman story from the ol’ Siegel Fanzine Science Fiction, the Advance Guard of Future Civilization!
Mention The Reign of the Superman among comics enthusiasts, and you’ll likely be met with knowing nods, a bit of beard stroking… and a lot of folks pretending to have actually read the thing (sort of like if you were to bring up Seduction of the Innocent… I haven’t met a single other person besides myself who’ve subjected themselves to that!). Heck, maybe I’m just projecting, since… up ’til today, I’d have been among those fakers! Just never got around to reading it… but, it was always sorta-kinda on my “to-do list”.
Figured this Super-Birthday would give me the perfect excuse to finally check this one off my list. This is going to be from, duh, a reprint of the story, appearing in Nemo: The Classics Comics Library #2 (August, 1983).
The rest of the Nemo Mag is pretty great too. I tell ya what, if you’re a bin-diver like me… do not dismiss the magazine bins, there is a ton of fun and history to be found in there!
Anyhoo, without further ado… let’s meet Siegel and Shuster’s original Superman. After my (mostly useless) synopsis and review, I’ll include the original story in its entirety.
Our story begins on a breadline. A Professor Smalley watches as the starving vagrants look to fill their bellies… or, at the very least, their mouths. It seems as though this is something Smalley does kind of often. Ya see, he’s looking for something… well, someone.
Some time before, Smalley was able to nab some fragments of a meteor. He came to find that whatever element this happened to be, affected his lab animals in strange and amazing ways. Smalley was curious how a human subject might react if exposed to this space-substance.
While he wasn’t completely “taken” by any of the occupants of the breadline, Smalley decided to approach a fella by the name of Bill Dunn. He offers Dunn a meal and a new suit… seemingly out of the kindness of his heart. Our man Bill is a bit trepidatious about going-with, but seeing just how well Smalley was dressed, decided to trust him anyway.
They are driven back to Smalley’s home, where Dunn is given a brand-new pressed suit, and has his first shave in weeks. Upon requesting his meal, he is given more food than he’s seen in quite awhile… which he eats with the quickness. Little does he realize, however, that Smalley spiked his coffee… with a few granules of that Meteor!
A dizzied Dunn is led to his quarters for the night, with promises of being given a “position” the following morning. At this point, however, the jig is kind of up… Dunn senses something sinister about Smalley (ya think?). After being left alone in his room, Dunn makes his escape through a window. Smalley eventually realizes this… and, as you might imagine, is none too happy.
We rejoin Dunn as he is running like a madman through a nearby park. He isn’t paying any attention to his surroundings, and just happens to run headfirst into a tree… which knocks him on his tuchus. At this point, something strange(r) happens. His head is flooded with random rambling noise. It’s as though his hearing has become super-charged. He overhears bits and pieces of random conversations… or are they just random thoughts (yes, they are) before finally zeroing in on some statements from Professor Smalley himself. Smalley laments the fact that Dunn got away… and also, that he wasted his precious chemical on the bum.
Dunn decides to test his senses to see if they have been affected… and, his self-exam comes back inconclusive. That is, until he decides to test his sight. He looks into the night sky, and sees a tiny red orb. As he focuses on it, another voice in his head fires up… this one simply says, in a robotic tone, “Mars”.
Suddenly, he was viewing a very interesting scene on Mars itself. A tree-like creature and a red “intelligence” were embroiled in battle. The intelligence winds up winning the fight… at which point, Dunn (still laying on the ground at the park) passes out.
The next morning, Bill Dunn wakes up… well, his body does, we’re not entirely sure where his mind is at this point. He recalls recent events, and chuckles to himself. He also lambastes himself for sleeping on the ground rather than in a bed… but, knows he only did so out of a lack of funds. And so, he decides to “remedy” that condition.
Now, check this out… in his night sleeping in the park, our Superman has become something of a “sponge”… he’s absorbed all of the knowledge in the universe. Also, he’s realized that he has the power to: intercept interplanetary messages (which should come in real handy), read minds, force his own ideas into other peoples’ heads, and throw his vision anywhere.
He next decides to visit the library in order to gain even more knowledge… which, how much more can there be? Well, turns out he wants to read The Expanding Universe by Albert Einstein. Einstein was alive back in 1933… so, I don’t know why Dunn didn’t just read his mind. Whatever the case, a librarian fetches the book for him, however the only copy they have is in German. No matter, our Superman knows all the languages. He reads the book in an instant, and dismisses it as trash. I ain’t the most Einsteiny fella myself, so I don’t know thing-one about the book… or, heck, if it even was a real book to begin with!
An older man enters the library, and furrows his brow in Dunn’s direction. He decides he’s going to try and outsmart our Superman by asking him a question out of a magazine called… Science Fiction! Heyyyy, that’s the magazine we’re reading right now! Anyhoo, the old fella goes to quiz him about the FitzGerald Contraction… however, before the words even leave his lips, Dunn’s got an answer… which we all know is L equals the square-root of 1-V2. Duhhh.
Satisfied with himself, Dunn leaves the library in search of money. He pops in on a pharmacy, and chats up a fella named Smith. He is able to convince Smith that a) he’s his grandfather, and b) that he owes him ten bucks. He then bets Smith another fiver that he can guess his weight… and, he does. So, our Superman is now the proud owner of fifteen (assumedly) American dollars.
Dunn then gets the drug-store clerk to offer him some booze… which, he’s willing to part with for ten smackers. Instead of paying, Dunn convinces him that he’s a Federal Agent, who knows that the clerk has been up to no good. He offers to take a bribe of $100 to leave him alone. And so, our Superman is now up $115.
After leaving the drug-store, Superman takes a gander at a man reading the paper on a bench. What catches his eye is the date on the newspaper. Ya see, it’s tomorrow’s date. So, Bill Dunn has managed to find a way to see into the future! Now, how might he use this to his advantage? Well, if you’ve ever seen Back to the Future 2… you’ve probably got the right idea. Our man… is gonna gamble (and dabble in stocks, which is sorta like gambling) to procure his fortune!
We shift scenes back to Professor Smalley (remember him?). He sits alone in his laboratory, having fired his butler earlier that day for whatever reason. We soon find out that this scene is occurring some time after the last, because it’s here we learn that Dunn’s “get rich quick” scheme… worked! A newspaper reports of his uncanny luck… and, seeming powers of suggestion. Not only is he killin’ it in gambling and stocks, he’s also got some of the city’s wealthiest citizens voluntarily signing over mass quantities of cash to him… folks who have never even heard of him! The newspapers can’t make heads or tails of it, but Smalley knows exactly what’s goin’ on.
The Prof decides he’ll expose the Superman for everything he’s done to amass this fortune, and sets to writing a harshly worded letter to the editor (really…). After returning back from the Post Office, Smalley sets back into his lab and decides to brew up one last bit of Meteor-ade, and imbibe it himself!
And so, the Professor whips up the final batch of formula. Before he can sip it, however, there’s someone at his door. Any guesses?
Naturally, it’s the Superman. Smalley invites Dunn inside, and demands he tell him all about his super-powered experiences. Somewhat surprisingly, Dunn tells him every single bit without hesitation. Smalley reveals that he will also be taking the formula, and so, together they can rule the universe.
Unfortunately for Smalley, Dunn can read minds… and so, he immediately knows the Professor’s true intentions. Those intentions include… killing Bill Dunn. Well, the Superman decides “uh-uh”, and the two begin to fight. Oddly enough, it’s a fairly even skirmish! The two goofs roll around on the laboratory floor… before Smalley manages to break away and dart toward the flask o’ formula!
Then… a disorienting and jarring scene shift. The International Conciliatory Council is in session… and once peaceful talks turn rather antagonistic… to the point where former friends are literally at each others throats. Alrighty then.
Then… heyyy, another jarring scene shift. This time, we wind up at the newspaper office, and meet a fella by the name of Forrest Ackerman. We’re going to assume this is at least a day later, since Smalley’s letter had arrived… and the prior scene of international incident seems to have already be common knowledge. Anyhoo, Ackerman is handed Smalley’s letter, and heads to the lab to follow up on the story. Along the way, he hypothesizes that Dunn’s mental influence might be the cause of the hullabaloo at the Council.
Upon arrival at Smalley’s home, Forrest knocks on the door. There’s no answer. He decides to enter anyway. What he finds inside is… well, a big ol’ mess of wrecked furniture… and dried blood. He thinks… for a lonnnng while about who’s blood it might be: Smalley’s or the Superman’s. I mean, he ponders this for what feels likes dozens of paragraphs. Quite the slog, this little ditty.
Ackerman bursts out of Smalley’s home and hops in his hooptie prepared to write a piece on what he’s seen. However, once he’s a few blocks away… he appears to forget about his purpose, and instead begins driving on what seems to be a predestined route. This takes him to dusty office inside an old building. Inside, he is greeted by a man. But… who?
The man asks Ackerman to have a seat… and so, he does. Once seated, however, some “bars of metal” sprang up around him, locking him in place. Ackerman demands to know who his captor is… Smalley, or Dunn.
And he freely admits that he’d killed Smalley.
Ackerman asks what Dunn’s plans are… and we learn that he is planning on continuing to broadcast his own hate… worldwide… in order to plunge the planet into chaos. Forrest starts ranting at what a horrible thing the Superman’s doing. Then, he begins to pray.
Dunn doesn’t seem all to bothered… at first. Suddenly, however, panic sets in. Now, due to Ackerman’s praying, you might think this has something to do with divine intervention… but, it ain’t. What it is, is… Dunn has tapped into his precognition-vision, and has seen himself tomorrow, back sleeping in the park… powerless. Sort of a fascistic super-powered Flowers for Algernon situation here.
The Superman knows that within mere moments, the effect of the meteor concoction will wear off… and the severity of his sins begins to set in. He knows that had he used his great power… responsibly, he would be heralded as a hero… and not viewed as, well, whatever the hell he is.
Our story ends with Dunn assuring Forrest Ackerman that he will be released from his torture chair within 15 minutes… at which time, he himself will be… back on the bread-line.
Good Lord, but this took forever. Quite a long, dense, and somewhat dry read… I’m sure it’s taken me less time to read a current-year trade paperback! Being a grad student, a huge part of my “reading diet” includes some of the driest text you can imagine, and I swear this felt like more of a slog than any of that!
First things first. When folks speak of this story, it’s very seldom that you hear anything about its quality… or honestly, even its content. Usually, all we hear is that “The Superman” is an evil bald scientist… who is then usually compared to Lex Luthor. Having finally read the damned thing, that’s not entirely true, now is it? Dunn, the Superman, isn’t a mad scientist… he’s just a bum who’d been discovered by a mad scientist.
So… the story. Bill Dunn finds himself with all the power in the world, and decides to use it for evil. Fair enough… poor dude’s been a downtrodden hobo, it might stand to reason that he’d use his fantastical powers for self-preservation/self-actualization. No harm, no foul there. I don’t quite understand why he’d want to watch the world burn, however. That doesn’t seem like a “value-added” measure. I mean, sure… get rich, get comfortable… but, why make the planet you’re living on, a Living Hell?
The ending, hitting us with a Flowers for Algernon-style revelation of a loss of “fortunes” and return to the former self (some quarter-century before Flowers for Algernon was even published!)… I liked it! I always dig this sort of scene… though, weird as it might sound for a guy who said this story was a slog, I wish it lasted a bit longer. I always wanna see the Kubler-Ross stages of grief play out… though, in fairness, Death and Dying was still nearly 40 years away from being published when this story hit! Context is a crazy thing, innit?
I do wonder, however, whatever happened to Dunn’s fortune? I mean, he won a bunch of money gambling, no? Did he blow it all? If so, on what? Not sure why he needed to head back to the bread-line right away… I guess he didn’t think to sock away and dough for a rainy day? Oh well. I suppose if he had, the ending wouldn’t have been quite as poignant.
Overall, I’m happy that I finally read this. Feels like a Superman-Fan’s rite of passage… and one that I’ve shrugged off for several decades at this point. Would I recommend it? Well, maybe. As mentioned, it’s a bit dry… and the writing doesn’t exactly “flow”. I’ve tried to make my synopsis a bit “breezier” a read… hopefully I succeeded. If you do wanna read the whole thing… well, just keep’a scrollin’, cuz I included the whole magilla below.
Happy Birthday, Superman! I’d say “here’s to many more”, but the way DC Comics is headed, I can’t be too sure ol’ Kal-El will still be around come February 29, 2024!
The Reign of the Superman (click to enlarge):
From The Golden Age of DC Comics (2013, TASCHEN):
Interview with Siegel and Shuster (1983):
Originally posted this at the Chris is on Infinite Earths Facebook Group… but, I assume nobody even knows/cares that exists! This is a very interesting chat with Jerry and Joe from the early 80’s conducted by the very same Nemo Magazine.