Sunday, December 26, 2010

Episode #150: Superman:War Of The Worlds!

Note: Our regularly scheduled look at Action Comics #150 and Superman #150 will be postponed until week for the third annual Superman Halloween episode.

War Of The Worlds has become synonymous with Halloween since Orson Welle's 1938 radio adaption, which we will have more about later.

H. G. Wells published War Of The Worlds in 1898. Wells was born on September 21, 1866 and died on August 13, 1946. He was a science fiction writer before the term was invented. At the time his books were described as "scientific romances". Some readers have thought that War Of The Worlds was a commentary on British Imperialism. It is possible, since Wells was a socialist. Like most novels of the era, War Of The Worlds was serialized, in Pearson's Magazine in 1897.

Two movie adaptions were made of the novel, in 1953 and again in 2005. A syndicated TV show was produced from 1988 - 1990.

A radio adaption of War Of The Worlds was broadcast for Halloween on October 30, 1938. The episode was part of the radio anthology series Mercury Theatre On The Air, on the CBS Radio Network. It was produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman, who would become most well known for the movie and TV series Paper Chase, and for the wine commercials where he would say the slogan, "We will sell no wine before its time."

For the radio adaption, the site of the Martian invasion was not Great Britian, but Grover Mills, New Jersey. The town would later erect a monument to commemorate the honor. The radio program caused a national panic the night of the broadcast partly because of its fictional news bulletins. It tapped into the nation's concern over unrest in Europe, with the rise of Nazi Germany.

I first heard the radio drama in 7th grade, in Mr. Kinney's English class. He had a collection of record albums of old radio programs.Among the other radio shows we listened to in class was an adaption of Edgar Allen Poe's story, The Tell Tale Heart, and Sorry, Wrong Number, which was about a wife who called her husband at work because he was late getting home. I won't spoil any more of the story, because you can probably find these for free on podcasts of old radio programs.

In 10th grade, I had Mr. Kinney again, this time for American Literature. That year a touring actor came to my high school, reprising Hal Holbrook's one man show as Mark Twain. Before the day of the show, Mr. Kinney played his album soundtrack of Hal Holbrook's performance as Masrk Twain. It was fantastic. The live show I saw with the touring actor was fun also, but hearing Holbrook's performance first took a little away from the live performance. It was already familiar. I wished I had watched the live performance first, so that the material would have been new and fresh to me.

ABC premiered a TV movie, The Night That Panicked America, on Halloween night, October 31, 1975. The movie was about the radio adaption of War Of The Worlds and the effect that it had on some people across the country. The late John Ritter, who would later be one of the stars of the sitcom Three's Company for the same network, had a role as a rural teen. He went with his Dad, who drove around the countryside hunting for the Martian invaders. He and some other men would shoot holes in a water tower, which they mistook for a Martian tripod.

What most interested me about the movie, which I only saw once, were the scenes which portrayed how the cast and crew produced the radio drama and its sound effects. To get the effect of someone using a two-way radio, an actor held up a ceramic coffee cup close to his mouth as he spoke the lines. It simulated the tinny sound of a voice on a radio. My favorite scene involving the production of a sound effect was when the first Martian capsule opened. To create that sound, a microphone was placed over a toilet stall in a men's room near the recording studio. The water valve was shut off and the water removed from the toilet bowl. On cue from the studio, which I think was a blinking light bulb, a cast member slowly unscrewed the metal lid of a glass jar, which was opened inside the empty toilet bowl. With the acoustics of the tile-walled bathroom, it produced a sound like two stone slabs sliding against each other.

After I graduated hight school, in the late 1970's or early 1980's I was able to buy an album of the recording of the War Of The Worlds radio braodcast. What I remember about the album was one difference between my copy of the album, and Mr. Kinney's. Both copies were the same, with pictures of newspaper front pages with headlines about the national panic over the radio braodcast. Mr. Kinney's copy had one headline about 60 people who comitted suicide. My copy did not have that particular newspaper headline. I still have that album, even though I no longer have a record player to play it on. I have downloaded the proadcast from a podcast that reposts old radio shows. It is available on iTunes, along with albums collecting Orson Welles radio broadcasts for sale.

Superman: War Of The Worlds was published by Elseworlds/DC on October 14, 1998. It contained 64 pages for $5.95, as opposed to 64 pages for a dime 50 years earlier. The editor was Joey Cavalieri. Michael Lark drew the cover and interior art, and his art style was perfect to capture the look of the early Superman of the late 1930's. The story was written by Roy Thomas, fan of the golden age of comic books. He will be at MegaCon in Orlando, Florida in March 2011, and I look forward to having him autograph my copy, and talk to him about the creation of the story. Willie Schubert was the letterer and Noelle C. Giddings was the colorist.

The story began in a similar fashion to the novel and radio adaption, with Earth being watched, except that in this story, Earth was watched by Kryptonians as well as the Martians. As Kal-El's rocket escaped Krypton's doom, the narration contrasted the motivations of Krypton and Mars. Kal-El's journey continued in a familiar fashion, as his rocket landed safely on Earth, to be found by the Kents. As he grew, Kal-El, now Clark Kent, developed amazing abilities. He was orphaned again when his adopted parents both died, and as he stood before their graves, looked up at Mars, as mysterious explosions occurred on the Red Planet.

Clark moved to Metropolis, where he bought a copy of the Daily Star at a newsstand. The front page had some familiar headlines from the late 1930's, about the Spanish Civil War and Japan's invasion of China. Also on the front page was a headline quoting an astronomer who said that no more mysterious explosions had been seen on Mars for the past eleven days. In the original Superman stories, the newspaper he worked for was the Daily Star, later to be changed to the Daily Planet.

Kent went to the Star offices to apply for a reporter's job, and asked the phone operator to speak with the editor. He mentioned that he had a little experioence with the Sentinel. The operator was surprised when the editor, George Taylor, said to sent Clark up to his office. In those first Superman stories, the Editor-in-Chief was Geroge Taylor. Later his names was changed to Perry White. The phone operator was relieved by the regular operator, and we learned that the woman Clark spoke to was none other than Lois Lane.

Clark asked a red haired copy boy, who wore a bow tie, where the Editor's office was. The copy boy said his name was Jimmy (Olsen, of course). Clark introduced himself to Editor Geroge Taylor and City Editor White, a younger looking Perry White. Kent admitted that the Sentinel who had some experience with was not the Metropolis Sentinel, but the Smallville Sentinel, his high school newspaper.

White had a big laugh, and Taylor was amused enough to give Clark a shot, assigning him to cover a meteor impact outside the nearby town of Woking. Lois overheard the conversation as she walked by the office, and stormed in. She was furious after being stuck on the Miss Lonely Love column, and a guy off the street having a big story dropped in his lap. Taylor surrendered, and assigned her to cover the story with Clark. The Editor-in-Chief then received another story tip, about a lynch mob at the county jail. In the first Superman story, this was the first event Clark Kent covered as a reporter for the Metropolis Star. It was a nice tip of the hat to that first Superman story.

At the crash site, Clark and Lois found not a meteor impact, but a manufactured capsule of some kind. They met a Professor Ogilvy (a character from Well's original novel) and his visiting friend, Dr. Lex Luthor. Dr. Luthor had a full head of red hair, as he did in his original appearance in Action Comics #23. The professor believed that the capsule was connected to the sxplosions that occurred on Mars days before.

As if to confirm his speculation, the capsule opened and a creature appeared, resembling an octopus with giant eyes. The Martian fell out of the capsule and into the crater. Dr. Ogilvy, holding a white flag, led a peace party approached the crater. Their efforts were answered by the Martians with a death ray, which killed the entire peace party. The Martians then opened fire on the entire crowd which had gathered around the crater. Clark was hit as he shielded Lois with his own body. His suit was burned off, revealing a bright blue and red costume and cape, with a familiar triangle with a red "S" on his chest.

Lois asked, "Those longjohns fireproof?" That sounded like something Lois Lane would say.

Clark answered her, "You needn't be afraid. I won't harm you." He said something similar to Lois when he first met her in that first Superman story in Action Comics #1.

Clark and Lois were the only survivors at the site, until Army troops arrived. An officer asked Clark if he was with a circus, or a foreign army. Lois answered, "He's my photographer."

The capsule opened, and a Martian tripod loomed over the crowd. American troops opened fire, and Clark recognized the Martian death ray about to fire. He joined the attack, leaping into the air and stonishing everyone. People wondered if he was one of us or one of them. Clark was hit by the death ray and knocked to the ground. More Martian tripods appeared and opened fire on the Army. Clark revived in time to save an artillery crew from a hit by the death ray. He then lifted the artillery piece by the barrel, jumped into the air, and swung the cannon like a club, knocking the tripod on the ground.

Lois watched the action through binoculars, from a safe distance. She wondered who Clark Kent really was. "Caspar Milquetoast he ain't," she said. She watched Clark smash into the fallen tripod and throw the Martian out. Lois returned to the train station and used a payphone to file a report with the Chief. Her call was cut short by an attack by one of the tripods. Lois was saved by Dr. Luthor, who gave her a ride to his lab outside Metropolis.

Martian tripods blasted the bridge that crossed the West River. Army troops watched helplessly as fighter planes were shot down by the Martians, who even blasted pilots who had bailed out of their planes and were floating to the ground. Clark saved one pilot whose parachute had been disintegrated with a hit by a death ray. Ground troops said a familiar line, "Look, up in the sky," "It's a bird," "Looks more like a plane," No, it's --- that guy in the acrobat outfit!" For some reason, it doesn't have the same ring to it.

George Taylor watched the approach of the tripods through the streets of Metropolis, through a telescope at his office window. Clark knocked a tripod into the water, while others launched black gas shells which killed everyone on the ground.

Lois and Luthor were unable to reach his lab by car because of the abandoned vehicles on the road. They ran from the Martians to no avail. Lois was captured and tossed into one of the tripods while Luthor's hair caught on fire.

Clark survived the deadly gas attack by holding his breath. He lept into the air, only to be hit by two death rays. Clark was finally knocked out and tossed into another of the tripods, which was loaded with bodies.

George Taylor and Jimmy watched tripods march down Metropolis streets. His window was hit by a death ray. Taylor sacrificed himself to push Jimmy out of his office seconds before the blast. A two page spread showed tripods marching through downtown Metropolis, terrorizing the population.

Clark Kent awole to find himself bound in a Martian lab, and Lex Luthor now working for the Martians in a bid for his own survival. Lex informed Clark that he had been unconscious for three weeks. Clark watched in horror as he watched another human being swarmed by Martians, who wanted to feed on his plasma.

Luthor also filled Clark in about recent events. Great Britain, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been conquered and their governments wiped out. The world leaders of Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler were all dead. Human sirvivors had been interred in prison camps, to serve as slave labor and food for the Martians, who travelled in small mini tripods.

Lois was brought from the nearest camp to Luthor's lab at his request. He and the Martians were fascinated by Clark's survival. Lex had deduced that Clark was not from Earth, but Kent had no idea where he was really from. He said that his human parents had found him in a rocket. Luthor informed Clark and Lois that the Martians were interested in Kent because many of the Martians on Earth were sick because of Earth's bacteria. Lex said that his throry was that close proximity with Clark had kept the lab Martians alive and healthy.

Clark's immunity to Earth germs had become the key to develping a vaccine for the Martians, which Luthor bragged he had finally perfected. Lex was surprised when the Martians reacted to the news by attacking him. Lois saved him by stabbing Luthor's attacker with a Martian feeding pipe. Lois and Lex then freed Clark. He attacked the Martians and led an escape from the lab, taking the fight outside and beginning to free human prisoners.

A giant tripod attacked, but Clark lifted an abandoned car and smashed it against one of its legs, in a familiar pose that recreated the cover of Superman's original appearance on Action Comics #1. A second tripod fired a black gas shell, which Clark caught and threw back at the tripod, destroying it. He then ripped the leg off of a third tripod, but this one had learned from the earlier attacks, and now floated above the ground, without legs. Clark lept to attack it again, but was hit by a death ray. Kent fell under the floating tripod, which wobbled. He recovered to throw one of the falen tripods under the floating one, finally bringing it down.

Clark smashed the tripod in fury, but then voice weakened. He paused, asked himself what he was doing, and fainted. Watching the battle, Luthor deduced how to defeat the floating tripods, as he and Lois rushed to the fallen Kent.

Clark told them that he was overcome by war fever. His own world may be dying, or even already dead. Kent admitted that if it wasn't for the Martians, Earth might be running in fear from him. Lois admitted he was right, because even as he was saving them from the Martians, she was still afraid of him. She said that she had been a fool, but would make up for it. Unfortunately, Clark never heard her last words, because he had already died.

Luthor would devise weapons to defeat the Martians' anti-gravity, and the invaders were finally defeated after 40 million people were killed. The nations of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union formed democratic governments, while Great Britian formed a right wing government led by Fscist Sir Oswald Mosley. John "Cactus Jack" Garner was named the new President of the United States, and Lex Luthor was sworn in as Vice-President. Luthor's wife, the former Lois Lane stood by his side.

In front of the new League of Nations, a statue of Superman was erected in front of the Trylon and Perisphere. But the inscription did not honor Superman, but Clark Kent, "born on one world, raised on a second, and saved his adopted planet from invasion by a third". in what became known as the War Of The Worlds.

I was curious about the names of Mosley and Garner, so I researched their names. It turned out that they were historical figures.

Mosely was a member and maybe even founder of Britain's Fascist Party. He was interred in Britain during WWII. Garner was FDR's first Vice President, before sharp disagreements over policies led Prsident Roosevelt to drop him in favor of Harry Truman. Garner would live londer than any other Vice President, dying at the age of 98. I wonder how history might have been different if Garner had remained Vice President.

Next Episode: Action Comics #150 & Superman #150!

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