Superman's Golden Age Villains: The Atom Man. Part Two of Two
Copyright 2018 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: My apologies for the delay in getting part two here. I know it's been two months since I've written about Superman. Would you believe I was exposed to Kryptonite?
Last time around, we began our look at one of Superman’s most formidable Golden Age opponents, the Atom Man. As discussed in our previous segment, people seem to have mixed feelings about Superman’s Golden Age era rogue’s gallery, with the thought being 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, as we saw last time around, the Atom Man was no one to laugh at.
The Atom Man debuted on The Adventures of Superman radio show and the storyline would become one of the first use Nazis as a villain post-World War Two. The radio drama’s use of kryptonite, the deadly element introduced in a previous The Adventures of Superman adventure added more intrigue to the storyline. Join me now as I look at one of Superman’s deadliest foes, the Atom Man.
In case you didn’t read part one, The Adventures of Superman radio program was one of the earliest and most successful adaptations of Superman, drawing in listeners several times a week as they listened to the latest exploits of the Man of Steel and his friends such as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White. By 1942, the radio drama was airing Monday through Friday, providing its radio audience with 15 minutes of adventures. As discussed earlier, the radio serial introduced the characters Jimmy Olsen (“Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen”) and Perry White, chronicled the first team-up between Superman and the Dynamic Duo, Batman and Robin (“Superman on Radio”), and introduced kryptonite to the Superman mythos. Kryptonite would play a key role in the Atom Man storyline, showing just how deadly it could be to the Man of Tomorrow.
Superman's Achilles' Heel
The first half of the Atom Man saga saw Nazi villain Der Teufel steal a piece of kryptonite from the criminal mastermind, the Scarlet Widow. Der Teufel returned to Germany, eluding the Allies and finding a Nazi scientist to help weaponize the kryptonite. Along the way, Der Teufel recruited Henry Miller, a Nazi who had studied in the United States and who could pass as an American. Der Teufel transformed Miller into the Atom Man, a supervillain with the ability to shoot devastating kryptonite lightning from his hands with the help of a mechanical apparatus. Returning to Metropolis, they engaged Superman and along the way, discovered Superman’s secret identity.
Atom Man posed a double threat to Superman, possessing both kryptonite and Superman’s secret identity. While Superman fought bravely, the Atom Man had his number and it seemed only a matter of time before he destroyed the Man of Steel. Somehow, Superman escaped with his life, but one final confrontation remained. The Atom Man was ready to destroy the Metropolis Dam, flooding Superman’s adopted city and everyone in it.
Superman battled the Atom Man, desperately striving to keep him from destroying the Metropolis Dam. After stunning Miller with a tree, a weakened Superman leaps into the air, carrying his foe to prevent him from firing any more atomic bolts at the dam. However, as Superman climbs higher into the sky, the Atom Man unloads with a barrage of deadly kryptonite, weakening Superman as the Man of Steel tries to rip off the Atom Man’s control device. Miller continues firing the kryptonite rays, overcoming Superman as Superman loses consciousness.
However, it proved a short-lived victory as Superman drops the Atom Man, the two plunging towards the ground. Unfortunately for Miller, he lacks Superman’s invulnerability and crashes into the ground, dying. Superman awakes to see police Inspector Henderson and Army officer, General Niles standing over him. They thank him for saving Metropolis from the Atom Man but Superman tells them no thanks is needed as he’s fighting for the same thing they are—an end to tyranny and intolerance. Niles tells Superman the worst threat America faced is over. However, in true serial tradition, Superman told Henderson and the general that a greater menace existed, compelling listeners to tune in for another episode.
Running nearly a month long (November 7-December 3, 1945), “Atom Man in Metropolis” is undoubtedly the greatest storyline from The Adventures of Superman radio program, presenting a seemingly unstoppable foe for Superman to battle and evoking memories of the recently defeated Axis Powers as well as raising the question of whether any of the Allies’ former foes remained to exact revenge. Throw in the menace of Kryptonite (which hadn’t been played out as it would be in the comics) and listeners were in for a can’t-miss adventure.
Unlike the television show of the 1950’s, The Adventures of Superman radio show wasn’t limited by a special effects budget (or the limits of practical effects at the time). While Superman faced challenging foes during his radio adventures, the Atom Man was the first foe who seemed capable of going toe-to-toe with the Man of Tomorrow. Other villains had cunning and resources, but the Atom Man had clever allies such as Der Terfeul and the power his kryptonite converter bestowed upon him.
Any examination of this storyline is incomplete without looking at its use of the escaped Nazi trope. Escaped Nazis quickly became an established trope in entertainment whether it was in films such as Notorious and The Stranger, comic books (The Red Skull and Baron Zemo in Captain America and The Avengers), or countless appearances in television programs. Here, the idea was brand new and had to stir strong feelings from people who had gone through World War Two and the uncertainty of victory over Germany. At the same time, Superman’s victory reinforced the idea that World War Two had been waged to end tyranny and while the Cold War showed otherwise, the early post-War period was a time when a peaceful future seemed possible.
The Atom Man would return on the silver screen.
The Atom Man would appear in the Superman movie serial, Atom Man vs. Superman, but this Atom Man was not Henry Miller but Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. The movie serial also featured Kryptonite, showing how Superman’s Achilles’ heel was becoming enshrined in the Superman mythos.
Editor’s Note: While I encourage Superman fans to listen to the actual radio show (available online for free), the web page Superman Home Page has a detailed description of the story as well as an analysis.
“The Atom Man (radio serial).” Superman Wiki. Radio Episodes. http://superman.wikia.com/wiki/The_Atom_Man_(radio_serial). Accessed 23 July 2018.
Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel. Chronicle Books, 1998
Dueker, Chris. “Malleus review: Superman vs. Atom Man on Radio (Smithsonian Historical Performances, English).” Radio Drama Revival. 5 Aug. 2008. http://www.radiodramarevival.com/malleus-review-superman-vs-atom-man-on-radio-smithsonian-historical-performances-english. Accessed 23 July 2018.
“The Adventures of Superman.” Old Time Radio Downloads. Radio Programs. https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/adventure/superman-the-adventures-of. Accessed 24 Sept. 2018.
“Superman on Radio.” Superman Home Page. Episodes. https://www.supermanhomepage.com/radio/r-radio.php. Accessed 23 July 2018.
“SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN.” Don Marnstein’s Toonopedia. Toonopedia. 2008. http://www.toonopedia.com/jimmyo.htm. Accessed 24 July 2018.
Walker, Glenn. “The Radio Adventures of Superman.” Biff Bam Pop! Comics. 22 June 2013. https://biffbampop.com/2013/06/12/the-radio-adventures-of-superman. Accessed 23 July 2018.
Wikipedia contributors. "The Adventures of Superman (radio)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Jul. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Superman_(radio). Accessed 24 Jul. 2018.
Wikipedia contributors. "Perry White." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Jun. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry_White#Fictional_character_biography. Accessed 24 Jul. 2018.