Did you know that there were black people in the 1940s? Well, if you’d been listening to the Adventures of Superman radio show up to this point you may not have realized it. But by the time you’ve had four story arcs about Superman fighting various groups of bigots, you kinda have to deal with the existence of “coloured” people. That brings us to “The Skin Game”:
“The Skin Game”
The story begins with soda factory owners John and George Mason asking John’s son Ralphie how his attempts to threaten some other kids went. Ralphie reports that he tried, but that Jimmy Olsen ran him off. John declares that he has another way for them to get what they want.
At the Daily Planet building, cub reporter Jimmy Olsen is moping around the office and copy boy Beanie Martin tries to figure out what’s wrong. But Jim is tight-lipped and gets even worse after he takes a phone call from someone he calls Coach. Unable to get anything from Jimmy himself, Beanie visits reporter Lois Lane and asks for help. Learning Jim is in trouble, Lois is about to see what she can do when Clark Kent shows up and she let’s him take over.
Clark asks Jim the problem, which Jim explains by taking Clark to an indoor track meet. Jimmy, it turns out, is the manager of the Unity House track and field team, two of the best members of which are Howard “Howie” Jones and Robert “Bobby” Lee, a pair of black teenagers. Over the last few days threats were made against those two by a kid from another team, Ralphie Mason. Jim shows Clark around and they’re about to watch Bobby run a race, when the starter’s pistol fires and Jim falls over unconscious. He’s been shot.
A doctor tells Clark and Howard that Jim was just grazed and will be okay. Police Sergeant Healy informs Clark that they suspect a real bullet was accidentally mixed in with the starter’s blanks, though Clark is certain the starter pistol was aimed at the ceiling. Clark tries to get more information from Howard, who claims to not know anything, though he does let slip that he’s certain the bullet was intended for him. Howard avoids further questions and catches a bus home. George Mason sees Howard get on the bus. It was George who tried to kill Howard and now he follows the bus in his car to try again.
Remembering that Beanie had heard Jim talking to a coach, Clark meets with the Unity House track team’s coach to see if he can get more information. The coach says that a few days ago Ralphie came to say the Grove Street team was unwilling to run against Unity House if Howard and Bobby were on their team. The coach said he was willing to accept Grove Street’s forfeit, but Ralphie insisted he wanted them kicked off the team. Ralphie continued such requests, escalating into threats, over the next few days. The boys in question offered to resign if it would mean less trouble for the team, but Jim and the coach wouldn’t accept it. The coach recalls that during one phone call he could make out the voice of an adult coaching Ralphie. Worried for Howard’s safety, Clark gets his address and heads out to find him.
On the bus, Howard is the only passenger headed out to the city limits, so he stands up front and speaks with the driver, who is a fan (I have to assume that having Howard at the front of a bus was done on purpose, even if it took an otherwise empty bus). Howard has noticed the car following them, but the driver writes if off as likely being someone who doesn’t know their way following the bus to get around. They reach Howard’s stop and the bus waits to let him cross the street, only for George’s car to speed up and go around, nearly hitting Howard, stopped only by the intervention of Superman.
Superman confronts George Mason, who claims he just didn’t see Howard crossing. George gives a fake name and Howard doesn’t recognize him, so the teen is willing to write off the event as a legitimate accident. Superman is less certain. Later, John Mason chastises his brother for taking such risks that could bring legal trouble back upon them. He has better ways, he says, to deal with this.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Healy’s lab has determined that the bullet that hit Jim came from a rifle. It couldn’t have been in the starter’s pistol, so they’re back on the case. Healy and Clark follow up on the Ralphie Mason lead, interviewing Ralphie and his father. Ralphie insists that he knows nothing about the shooting and John Mason says he’s no bigot (“Why, I employ thirty-five coloured people in my business and I’m sure Ralph has never heard me talk of them with anything but the highest consideration.”) Healy accepts this and assumes that the rough kids on Grove Street probably just put the bigoted ideas into Ralphie’s head and that he isn’t a serious threat.
The day before the championships, Howard and Bobby find packages in their lockers with their names on them. Inside they each find a set of small wooden crutches with a tag that reads “How would you like to race on these?” Bobby thinks it’s some kind of joke, but Howard sees the threat for what it is. He leaves a note explaining that the two of them are sorry, but they’re quitting the team and then the two of them leave.
Unable to find Howard and Bobby, Jim calls Clark in for help again. Howard’s father tells Clark that, if Howard was trying to hide but also keep his family safe, he might leave town and head to his uncle’s farm upstate. Clark follows this lead as Superman.
The boys, having hopped onto a freight train, try to avoid the notice of a brakeman by clinging to a ladder outside the car. Suddenly, the train makes a turn that causes them to lose their hold and they fall into a river. Bobby’s broken his foot leaving him unable to swim, but Howard can’t make any progress against the current while holding his friend. Bobby wants Howard to save himself, but Howard would rather drown than leave his friend behind. Fortunately, Superman shows up in time to save them both. He brings them to the hospital back in the city.
Meeting with Healy again, Clark examines the carved crutches and notices, with his superhuman vision, that they were whittled down from a shipping crate and that, in spite of having been sanded down, slight indentations from an address still remain stamped on them. Whatever the address was, it ended in -ZO. Jimmy recognizes that the soda company Fizzo Soda (“You Know, it’s Fizzo!”) ends that way. The three of them figure that it couldn’t hurt to head there and get a list of the places they ship their crates.
When they arrive and notice that John and George Mason own the place, Clark begins putting it all together. While John cooperates fully and gives Healy a list of his customers, Clark sees examples of George’s whittling hobby all around the office. He also makes an excuse to ask to use John’s typewriter for a moment. The investigators leave and Healy still demands evidence before he will consider the Masons suspects, so Clark shows him the sample he got from the typewriter. Comparing it to the tag that was on the crutches proves they were typed on the same machine, giving Healy finally enough evidence to act.
George Mason, in a last attempt to get revenge, shows up at the championships with his rifle again, intending to kill Howard and Jimmy. Superman swoops in just in time to stop the bullets, and the Masons are arrested. Even though its star players were unable to run, Unity House’s team was so motivated to work harder that they win the championship.
# of Episodes: 9
Air Date: 2 April 1948 to 14 April 1948
John: The Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens regardless of their race, colour, or religion. You know that.
George: Doggonit, John! Are you standing up for those- those coloured kids? Do you think they should have equal rights?
John: Not necessarily. But you’ve got to understand that’s the law, George. They have Constitutional rights. So you’ve got to be careful how you treat them.
George: You must be crazy talking that way, John.
John: No George, it’s you who are crazy. You’re so blind with hate you don’t know what you’re doing. Now look, we’re not picking on those kids because we have anything against them personally.
George: Oh, no? Then why are we-?
John: It’s because we want all people of their race to feel they’re not as good as we are.
George: Yes, but-
John: We employ thirty-five of their kind in our factory, George. Now as long as we keep them in their place, they’ll work for less money than we would have to pay our kind. It’s a cold business proposition, that’s all.
- This arc benefits greatly from being shorter than the previous ones. There are a lot fewer diversions in an eight-parter than a sixteen-parter. This has to be the best-paced of the radio stories I’ve listened to for this project.
- There are a lot of similarities between “Skin Game” and the “Fiery Cross” arc, from the broad stuff such as Unity House athletes being targeted by bigots and the child of the bigots being caught up in it, to such specifics as a character with the surname “Lee” falling into a river, breaking a bone, and being rescued by Superman. Speaking of which, using the surname Lee again bothers me. It feels sloppy to reuse the name, but it also means that Bobby shares his name with Confederate general Robert E. Lee and that’s an unnecessary complication right there.
- A major difference between this arc and previous ones is that the Masons are not a part of some secret racist group. They’re just some racist businessmen. In fact, I love with the way the arc points out the ways capitalism benefits from the maintenance of racism in society. Sure, the Clan of the Fiery Cross and the Knights of the White Carnation were analogous to real groups that existed, but the problems of racism don’t begin and end with those groups. It’s baked into our society. And this arc comes closer to realizing that than any of the others have.
- Related: The police are still an unambiguous force for good in this show, but Sgt. Healy also just flat-out refused to listen to Clark’s suspicions of the Masons because they are “a decent family” and assumes he can solve the problem by putting the “fear of the law” into the Grove Street kids. Intentional or not, the show is identifying at least part of the problem.
- I like that even after John Mason gives his little speech about how he’s not about hatred, he’s got perfectly practical reasons for what he’s doing, the narration still refers to him as a “cold-hearted bigot” because it doesn’t make any difference.
Lois gets TWO minor appearances in this arc. That’s twice what she gets in most of these, but I’m still counting it as a flaw given that she is, once again, the only female character to appear at all. I swear, there’s a lot of stories in which Lois comes off well on this show. Apparently they’re just not when Superman is fighting bigots.
I feel like Howard Jones is given more agency than Tommy Lee or Casimir Pulaski or any of the other targetted kids we’ve seen in these arcs, but I still need to note that, as far as I’m aware, all the black characters on this show are portrayed by white voice actors. I mean, they’re not doing Amos and Andy-style racist voices or anything, but it’s still worth noting. In “Fiery Cross” Tommy spoke with an ordinary American accent but his father had a bit of an accent to mark him as an immigrant. In this, both the teenagers and Howard’s father all speak as all the other characters do.
Given the similarities between “Skin Game” and “Fiery Cross” all I could think about while working on this one was how great Superman Smashes the Klan turned out. So my proposed remake for this one would be a direct sequel to that book, set in that era-appropriate universe and focused on Unity House. Find a black creative team who was interested in letting them do it and I’m there.
I’m not done with the radio show, but I feel like reaching into the comics of a similar era again for the next one, to note what must, technically, be one of the earliest examples of Superman fighting Neo-Nazis. And it’s also going to be one of the weirdest entries that we’ll come across while I am writing this feature.