Superman's Golden Age Villains: The Ultra-Humanite Part One of Two
Copyright (c) 2018 by Michael Rickard II
People seem to have mixed feelings about Superman’s Golden Age era rogue’s gallery, with the thought that a good number of characters either bordered on comedy or borderline ineptitude. Whether it’s villains like The Toyman, The Prankster, The Puzzler, J. Wilbur Wolfingham, or Mr. Mxyzptlk, many of the original Man of Steel’s foes were focused as either outwitting Supes or embarrassing him. As critics such as Les Daniels have noted, Superman’s Golden Age adventures sometimes had a good amount of comedy in them. However, not all of Superman’s foes were humorous and it’s difficult to think of a Golden Age enemy deadlier than the Ultra-Humanite or as unusual as one who transplanted his brain into the body of a gorgeous Hollywood actress.
The Ultra-Humanite (“Ultra”) first appeared in Action Comics #13 (June 1939), making him the first super-villains Superman would face. Ultra fit the bill of your typical mad scientist, which made for an effective foe as it presented the classic battle between brawn (Superman) and brains (The Ultra-Humanite). However, Ultra quickly discovered that Superman was no dummy and that he could do more than smash through walls and watch bullets bounce off his chest.
Superman’s early adventures usually featured him as a sort of super-powered social justice crusader, battling crooked landlords, exploitative employers, and the usual cadre of dirty politicians. Action Comics #13 starts off no differently with the Metropolis Marvel encountering a criminal syndicate looking to take over the city’s taxicab industry. Superman makes short work of the racket’s leader, Jackie Reynolds, only for the criminal to make an incredible escape from the police, leading Superman on a hunt for what he thought was his typical bad guy. When Superman finds Reynolds, he finds the true mastermind—a balding old man confined to a wheelchair. The villain identifies himself as the Ultra-Humanite and enters Superman history as his first bonafide supervillain.
You can't keep a good supervillain down for long...
Despite his weak frame, Ultra proves to be a capable foe, blasting Superman with enough electricity to take out five hundred men, but only knocking him out. Ultra attempts to take out Superman with a buzz saw, but his foe is no mere mortal and Superman lives up to the nickname, “The Man of Steel,” shattering the buzzsaw into a multitude of pieces (one of which conveniently kills Reynolds). Superman finally wakes up after Ultra’s other henchmen torch the cabin and the criminal genius flees in an airplane, with Superman leaping into the plane. However, when Superman goes through the wreckage, there’s no sign of his foe, a sure sign that Ultra is no flavor of the month villain.
While Ultra’s first appearance was sensational for the time, it was only the beginning of greater and greater criminal plots, going from run-of-the-mill money-making schemes to fantastic schemes of extortion and repeated attempts for Ultra to destroy Superman. In Action Comics #14, Ultra returns when Superman finds he is behind the construction of a substandard subway tunnel that injures many passengers. Ultra tries to destroy Superman by trapping him in a crystal shell, thinking he’ll have Superman as an eternal trophy. Unfortunately, Ultra underestimates Superman and is once again thwarted. Ultra manages to escape though, further evidence of his status as an arch-villain.
The Ultra-Humanite provided a recurring foe for Superman who could give the Man of Steel more of a run for his money than the usual collection of ordinary criminals. Ultra’s various weapons of mass destruction ranging from plagues to atomic weaponry (years before the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan). Interestingly, Ultra never seemed to have any bids on world supremacy, he was all about grabbing up as much cash as possible, whether he threatened to sink a cruise liner’s fleet or his kidnapping of a group of celebrities.
This was seen in Ultra’s appearances as he used his scientific genius to engineer increasingly elaborate forms of extortion. Action Comics #17 saw Ultra again turn to extortion as he tried to strongarm millions from a cruise-liner. Ultra’s scientific savviness would show again as he used a hologram to escape Superman. In Action Comics #19, Ultra shows his depraved indifference to human life when he unleashes a deadly plague (aka “The Purple Plague”), killing hundreds and threatening more. A scientist concocts an antidote, but Ultra kidnaps him, crossing paths with Superman again. This time, Superman appears to defeat his foe for good when a death ray Ultra is about to fire at Superman instead hits himself.
Don't break out the coffin just yet, Superman.
However, Superman finds Ultra back—although he’s not quite the man he’s used to be. In fact, he’s now a woman. What? Yes, in one of the most daring moves in the Golden Age of Comics, Ultra is revealed at having kidnapped beautiful actress Delores Winters and transplanting his brain into her youthful body. In Action Comics #20, Ultra kidnaps a group of celebrities, holding them for ransom until Superman foils his plot. Taking advantage of his newfound athletic body, Ultra dives into the water and escapes.
A scientist far ahead of his (or her) time.
As unusual as Ultra’s transformation into a woman was, it paled to his (or should I say her?) final appearance in the Golden Age. In Action Comics # 21, Ultra uses his feminine allure to lure atomic scientist Terry Curtis and obtain his secrets into splitting the atom. While there’s no exchange of DNA, Ultra doesn’t seem bothered by any gender issues and isn’t above using his female body to get the goods. Curtis catches his date trying to steal his atomic secrets, but it’s too late as Ultra’s henchmen show up and kidnap him. One torture ray session later (Mr. Kyle, your agonizer please) and Curtis helps Ultra develop an atomic death ray. With his greatest weapon at his disposal, Ultra seems to be ready to fulfill his already ambitious dreams, but Superman thwarts him again, defeating the gender-bending villain at his volcanic lair. Ultra appears to die as Superman activates the volcano to destroy the base. With Ultra defeated again, Superman tells Curtis to forget everything he’s learned about splitting the atom (Interestingly enough, the Superman comic strip would have a story during World War Two run afoul of the government when it mentioned the use of a cyclotron).
The Ultra-Humanite proved to be an excellent super-villain for Superman to test his powers against. However, he was replaced by another criminal genius, Lex Luthor. Why did Ultra disappear? While this is only speculation, it’s hard to believe Superman’s publishers were thrilled with a male villain in a woman’s body, particularly in a comic book aimed at kids. Whatever the reason, Lex Luthor took over, becoming Superman’s number one foe.
However, that wasn’t the end of the Ultra-Humanite. The character would return in the Silver Age, arguably becoming an even greater villain in the process. Join me next time as I look at Ultra’s wild and crazy adventures in the Silver Age and be sure to look out for more profiles on Superman’s Golden Age foes.
Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel. Chronicle Books, 1998
Fleisher, Michael. The Great Superman Book (The Complete Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes; Vol. 3). Warner Books Inc,, 1978.
Younis, Steven. “Who's Who in the Superman Comics.” Superman Homepage. Golden Age Superman. 2011. https://www.supermanhomepage.com/comics/who/who-intro.php?topic=superman-goldenage. Accessed 13 June 2018.
Wikipedia contributors. "Ultra-Humanite." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 May. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-Humanite#Golden_Age. 14 Jun. 2018.