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Seventy-five years ago today, radio listeners first heard the immortal words “Up in the sky! Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” And the rest is pop-culture history.
Within months of his debut in Action Comics #1, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuter’s superhero had already made the leap to newspaper comics pages, but the radio offered DC Comics an opportunity to reach an even larger audience.
I didn’t either, but it happened on the radio in 1975. The Fantastic Four radio show was the brainchild of a couple of New York DJs (Sean Kleefeld interviewed one of them in 1999) who pitched the idea to Marvel. The company went for it, and Stan Lee even provided the narration. The scripts were based entirely on actual Lee/Kirby comics and, yes, a 25-year-old Bill Murray played Johnny Storm.
The Kleefeld interview has all the details, including why the show only lasted for 13 episodes. And if you’re interested in hearing an episode for yourself … well, thank Galactus for YouTube.
A new book, due out in April, will shed some light on the story of the Superman radio shows that took on the KKK back in 1946—and hopefully straighten out the record once and for all. Several versions of this story have made the rounds over the years, and the basic facts are not in dispute: In 1946, the Adventures in Superman radio show ran a 16-episode arc titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” in which Superman took on an organization that had many similarities to the Ku Klux Klan. (You can listen to it here.)
Much of the background material from the shows came from journalist Stetson Kennedy, who infiltrated the Klan and then wrote about it. Kennedy claimed the Superman shows included real Klan code words, causing great frustration to the real Klan leaders, who had to change them after every episode. (Our sister site, Comics Should Be Good, discussed the story as part of their Comic Book Urban Legends series.)
Author Rick Bowers researched the matter at length for his new children’s book, Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan, and concluded that, although it makes for a great story, it just ain’t so. As he said to J.L. Bell, in an interview at the Horn Book site,
The reality is that “Clan of the Fiery Cross” — while dramatic and to a degree realistic—did not contain actual code words and did not force the Klan to scurry about changing their code words. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the Superman producers for creating such a powerful program and to give a nod to the anti-Klan efforts of Stetson Kennedy — even if he was prone to exaggeration and tended to grab credit.
The code-words story was included in the first edition of Freakonomics, but the authors amended the story in later editions. Bowers said he began working on his book after that, and the public debate led him to research the matter carefully. The truth, as is usually the case, is more prosaic than fiction—but still pretty good!
Talk about your harmonic nerd convergences: John Hodgman spoke with George R.R. Martin about Marvel Comics in yesterday’s episode of public radio’s The Sound of Young America. In one corner: George R.R. Martin, author of the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and its #1 New York Times–bestselling latest installment A Dance with Dragons, executive producer of the HBO television adaptation Game of Thrones, and inspiration for Dynamite Entertainment’s own comics adaptation A Game of Thrones, whose first issue debuts tomorrow. In the other corner: John Hodgman, nerd-friendly writer, comedic cultural commentator for The Daily Show, and “I’m a PC” guy, filling in as the radio program’s guest host. The topic: One of Martin’s first pieces of published writing, a piece of fanmail published in Avengers #12 in 1964 when Martin was 16 years old.
Hodgman used the letter, which entered wide Internet circulation a few weeks back, to kick off the interview. And he was probably kidding around when he asked Martin to explain why his 16-year-old self believed Avengers #9 to be superior to Fantastic Four #32, as his letter had argued. But once Hodgman jogged Martin’s memory by reminding him that Avengers #9 marked the debut of Wonder Man, Martin knew exactly why he liked the issue so much. His explanation to Hodgman is a solid exploration of why the early Marvel superhero comics were so groundbreaking for the genre — and in offering it, Martin seems to come to the realization that that issue had an impact on his own writing that resonates with him to this day. (For readers of the book or viewers of the show, the influence will be obvious.)
Read a transcript of the relevant section below, then listen to the entire interview.
If you’re a fan of the X-Men, This American Life and Mike Allred’s art, your ship has come in. Last year’s “>Nation X #1 included a story by James Asmus and Mike Allred that featured Wolverine and Nightcrawler riding around in a pick-up listening to This American Life, and now the radio program is selling a poster of the panel that references host Ira Glass.
If you aren’t sure if this poster is for you, they’ve even provided a handy Venn diagram that should help you decide.
Retailing | Heidi MacDonald confirms rumors that well-regarded Brooklyn retailer Rocketship, the setting for numerous signings, release parties and art shows, has closed after five years. “We’ve come to the end of a five-year lease, and are deciding what to do now,” said co-owner Alex Cox. “Five years went by fast, and my partner and I are suddenly making some large life decisions about what comes next. We love the shop, and as fun as it is, we have to figure out what makes sense for us on a practical level.” [The Beat]
Pop culture | KRCW-Santa Monica (89.9 FM) will rebroadcast the 1991 radio production of American Splendor, starring Dan Castellaneta, from 7:30 to 8 p.m. PST today. This broadcast will appear on air and via KCRW.com live stream only, and will not be available on demand or via podcast. [KCRW.com]
Legal | The Wall Street Journal’s Tomomichi Amano looks at efforts by a newly formed coalition of Japanese and American manga publishers to crack down on U.S.-based scanlation websites. “People might say it’s like whack-a-mole,” says Vertical Inc.’s Ioannis Mentzas, “but we think even making one (legal) case will greatly change the situation.” [Japan Real Time]
Free-form radio is an awesome but endagered art form, but this week it’s getting a shot in the arm from one of the media’s few other real Wild Wests: comics. Creators Matt Fraction, Evan Dorkin, Michael Kupperman, Danny Hellman and Brian Musikoff are pitching in to raise money for New Jersey-based WFMU via an exclusive donor prize pack available through The Best Show on WFMU.
There’s really no way to adequately explain The Best Show, which airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on listener-supported WFMU and online. Its host, Monk and Tom Goes to the Mayor writer Tom Scharpling, describes it as “three hours of mirth, music and mayhem.” It’s part traditional call-in show, albeit with a legendarily cranky host and weird group of regular callers. It’s part showcase for indie rock and alternative comedy, with luminaries like Patton Oswalt, John Hodgman, Ted Leo, Tim and Eric, Paul F. Tompkins and Aimee Mann making regular appearances. But at its core it’s comedy in and of itself, courtesy of Scharpling’s partner, Superchunk and Mountain Goats drummer Jon Wurster, and the bizarre characters he concocts as callers to the show. Ranging from the hoagie-eating, Eagles-worshipping Philadelphia native Philly Boy Roy to a vicious send-up of Gene Simmons to an ultraviolent senior citizen called the Gorch who claims to be the inspiration for Happy Days‘ Fonzie, The Best Show‘s rogues gallery and their long, largely improvised not-quite-prank calls need to be heard to be believed. It’s sort of like a three-hour inside joke, but once you’re on the inside, it’s so funny you never wanna get back out.
Fraction (who’s a regular guest on the show), Dorkin, Kupperman, et al are all a part of “The Best Show on WFMU 2010 Chump Steamroller Fun Pack,” a prize package available to donors who pledge $75 or more during tonight’s show. The Fun Pack includes a DVD starring Fraction, Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Tim and Eric, John Hodgman, Todd Barry, Yo La Tengo, Aimee Mann, Ted Leo and more. It also includes a set of Best Show Trading Cards designed by Chris Moses and Joe Allen, featuring art by Kupperman, Dorkin, Hellman, Musikoff and more. After tonight’s show is over, they’re gone forever, so be sure to pledge at 800-989-9368 or online at wfmu.org. In the words of The Best Show, “Good guys win — bad guys lose!”
Writer and BOOM! Studios Editor-in-Chief Mark Waid kicks off Comic-Con right with an appearance on KCRW’s “Guest DJ Project,” a weekly show in which actors, artists, authors and other notables talk about songs that have inspired and moved them.
In today’s episode, Waid covers a lot of ground in just five tracks, from Elvis Presley’s If I Can Dream to Glen Cambell’s Wichita Lineman to Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come.
“What [Wichita Lineman songwriter Jimmy] Webb taught me was when I put words down on paper, it’s about finding raw emotion in the least obvious places, pulling the real moments out of anybody’s life,” Waid tells host Eric J. Lawrence. “When he talks about ‘I need you more than want you and I want you for all time’ — that is an amazing lyric. Again, if words can make you feel something for this stoic telephone lineman, then ostensibly they can make you feel something for, I don’t know, Superman.”
You can listen to the episode, and read a transcript, here.