An X-ray Visionary for the Atomic Age

Magic is the fishiest of arts; so, it seems quite appropriate that, over at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, illusionist David Blaine attempts to wow onlookers by stepping into a tank of water and staying submerged for a week. I’m not sure whether such aquatics qualify as superheroics, but Gotham Citizen seem more likely to embrace Blaine’s antics than cynical Londoner, who may have cheered Tom Cruise at the Mission Impossible 3 premiere today, but who were less-than-impressed by Blaine’s 2004 out-of-lunch box stunt. After all, the USA are the birthplace of latter-day superheroes such as the 20th-century graphic arts creations whose cinematic offspring keep populating (or perhaps quelling) our imagination, an army of X-Men among whom, the charm of Tobey Mcguire notwithstanding, Superman still reigns supreme.

Although rather fond of comic books as a child—and still partial to the exploits of Tintin and Snowy—I have never been much intrigued by those super-powered, larger-than-life action figures. Indeed, I have always been suspicious of such secular saviors, avenging angels whose awe-inspiring wrath seems to demand the belief that worthy ends—ends worthwhile for you and your kin—justify violent deeds, that trust in some higher power will take care of the alien, the evil, or the merely inconvenient and, for that matter, of everything else amiss in the western-centric universe.

On this day, 25 April, in 1941, the Superman of the airwaves—the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet original having been cloned nearly as often as Santa Claus—was still dealing with comparatively trifling substances like nitrate; four-and-a-half years later, he was facing far more dangerous and destructive forces, personified by the insidious Atom Man. Let’s make that Atom Mann. Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, there was nothing more daunting than a nuclear weapon—unless, of course, that weapon was wielded by a runaway Nazi.

Until the Communists could be trusted to take over, after an appropriate period of vilification, the Nazis remained very much alive in American culture as mythical figures of evil incarnate. That they had considerably less political prowess after VJ-Day only made them all the more suitable for seemingly innocuous, a-political thrills, for which purpose they were transformed into characters akin to the wicked stepmother in Grimms’s fairytales.

Outage by nuclear power is what threatened the man of steel in the fall of 1945. As the announcer of the radio serial “Superman vs. the Atom Man” summed up (in a script published by Watson-Guptill),

Henry Miller, the Nazi Atom Man [ah, that Henry Miller], threatened to destroy every man, woman, and child in Metropolis by drowning! While all police authorities, aided by the army, guard every inch of the city’s waterways, and Superman hover high in the heavens, searching for the deadly foe who has twice brought him close to death, Miller, unseen by anyone, is slipping through the dark woods in the hills above Metropolis, bent on shattering the dam holding back the water in the city’s gigantic billion-gallon reservoir, and engulfing Metropolis!

That atomic power was capable of doing far more lasting harm, such as the fallout still studied and debated in Chernobyl, was apparently deemed too frightening for the listener—and too inconvenient for the serial writer.

In his radio dis-incarnation, Superman may have enjoyed the endorsement of psychologists (as claimed by the contemporary magazine article above); but his presence was nonetheless contaminating the air by spreading the notion that there is always someone out there to put things right—right for the good citizens of a certain nation that believes itself vulnerable enough to be in need of long-range missiles and short-order mythologies.

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