Superman in “Black Magic on Mars”

As of 1950, Superman’s comics have not yet been as explicitly anti-racist as his radio show. Still, Superman fought plenty of Nazis back during World War Two, which counts to an extent, right?

But the War is over now. Can Superman find new racist enemies as imposing as the Nazis to continue his battle against bigotry?

Well, if he can, it isn’t in this issue.

“Black Magic On Mars”

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SUMMARY

Naturally, this Superman story begins on the set of the film Black Magic where Orson Welles has just filmed his death scene. That’s a wrap, so Welles and co-star Nancy Guild (both still in costume because they’re attending a fancy dress ball that evening) take a drive down a mountain road. Seeing a large rocket on a nearby hill, Welles gets Guild to pull over so he can check it out. He wanders up to and into the rocket, gets locked inside, and is launched into space. Two hours later he’s on Mars and, armed only with his sword from the movie, he meets the natives.

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It turns out that Martians have been monitoring Earth’s television signals and… it hasn’t gone well for ’em. Their dictator took a liking to Hitler, calling himself Martler, and has patterned his army after the Nazis, calling them Solazis. They’ve learned English (rather than German for some reason?) and Martler tells Welles of his plan to Blitzkrieg the Solar System, starting with Earth.

Welles tries to send a message to Earth warning of the invasion, but everyone who hears it remembers the “hoax” he perpetuated back in 1938 and they laugh it off, refusing to be fooled again. How ironic. Karmic comeuppance for that hoax of his. Fortunately one listener, Clark (Superman) Kent has telescopic vision and checks Mars to find that Welles’s story is on the level this time.

On Mars, Welles tries to fend off Solazis as he continues to broadcast his warning. He is nearly killed, but Superman arrives just in time (making him significantly faster than that rocket was. Two whole hours to reach Mars. Psh. What a piece of junk.) Though the Solazis are powerless against Superman, Martler reveals that the hero is too late. His massive fleet of ships is already heading to Earth. Superman races after the Solazi rockets, but Martler creates a number of illusory rockets to keep Superman from knowing which are real.

To help the hero, Welles defeats Martler with magic tricks he had in his costume and deactivates the hologram generator. Superman repels some of the fleet while Welles fights more Solazis with magic tricks, but Superman decides there is still too many ships for him. They need to find another solution. Orson Welles thinks of a doozy: He gets gets Superman to fling one of Mars’s moons, as though in a slingshot, and have it catch the fleet in its orbit. Which works.

Superman and Welles force Martler to make an announcement telling his subjects to give up war and stay on their own planet. The Martian citizens seem fine with this, some admitting they didn’t want to do the war in the first place, but were being forced by the dictator.

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That first panel is one of my favourites in comics. So dumb. Martler is forced into exile on an asteroid and Superman returns Welles and the rocket to Earth (and refuses to tell the scientists about life on Mars because they might not believe him? Way to hold back science, Clark).

If you were worried, Welles got to the costume ball in time. When asked if his latest broadcast was another hoax, he says, “Ask Superman!” Meanwhile, Clark tries to publish the story (the same story that he just refused to tell the scientists?!) but Perry White thinks it is too fantastic, so he throws out the copy and tells Clark to cover a fire downtown. Fin.

Issue: Superman #62, January-February 1950

STRAY THOUGHTS

  • This is weird story. It’s kind of an Orson Welles vehicle guest-starring Superman. The whole thing is designed around Welles, considering his past with War of the Worlds and advertising his latest movie (Black Magic came out in 1949 according to Wikipedia but this issue is an early 1950 release.) I have to wonder if this was in some way actually set up to promote Black Magic or if someone at DC was just very excited for it, but either way finding out is beyond the scope of the research I’m doing here today. Either way, the fact that the invaders from Mars are Nazis is sort of an afterthought and is perhaps a sign of the way pop culture will adopt them as a platonic cartoon ideal of villainy for decades to come.
  • I guess Nancy Guild just drove away after Welles went to investigate the rocket and that’s fair enough.
  • When Welles is using his “magic” props to baffle the Solazis, he reveals that he has apparently had a rabbit in his pocket this whole time and that’s still not the weirdest part of the scene. A Solazi comes into the room, points a gun at Welles. Welles pulls out the rabbit and the Solazi recoils saying, “What have you done to me?” to which Welles replies by threatening to turn the Solazi into a rabbit. But Welles hadn’t done anything to the Solazi. Man, Solazis are stupid.
  • People in the story treat Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast as if it were an intentional pranking of listeners, rather than, you know, a radio play.
  • Martler offhandedly offers Superman a position as his right-hand man, but seems aware even as it comes out his mouth that it isn’t going to happen. I suppose he had to try.

SUPERMAN VERSUS BIGOTS?

I’ve said that Nazi appearances during the War only technically count as Superman vs Bigots because, more often than not, they weren’t about that. They were just exercises in Superman fighting the enemies of America. But in this post-War era, everyone knows what the Nazis did and, though this story doesn’t even allude to racism, any villain who announces proudly that they admire what Hitler accomplished is a full-on Neo-Nazi. And these dumb Martians are probably the first Neo-Nazis that Superman has fought.

From this point, I feel that any time Superman fights Nazis, that’s a Superman vs Bigots story.

SO WHAT CAN WE TAKE FROM THIS STORY?

Even I am not going to claim we need a return of Martler. But it got me thinking about the nature of designing Nazi and racist villains for Superman to fight.

Allow me to pull this quote from Grant Morrison:

For me, Superman has the same problems we do, but on a Paul Bunyan scale. If Superman walks the dog, he walks it around the asteroid belt because it can fly in space. When Superman’s relatives visit, they come from the 31st century and bring some hellish monster conqueror from the future. But it’s still a story about your relatives visiting.

I consider the fight against racism a thing we should treat as universally as walking the dog or visiting family (I mean, the latter is sometimes related, yeah?), but when Superman fights racism, should the racists be brought up to Superman scale? I think so, to make the stories more fun, more Super, but if we do that we run the risk of creating villains who look cool and menacing.

Overt racism appeals to the kind of people who want to look tough and menacing. When Matt Riggs shows up in his Klan robes and armed with sci-fi weaponry for the climax of Superman Smashes the Klan, I can picture racists thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I want to be. That guy is a threat to Superman.” I can’t see anyone reading this story and wanting to be Martler.

I don’t think there is any one correct answer, but maybe when we scale up the threat of the racist villains, we can also scale up the stupidity they display? Ignorance and racism do go hand-in-hand, after all.

Heck, maybe I am arguing that Martler needs to be used more. Who knows?

NEXT TIME

I have one more dip back into the radio show in store, and if I remember correctly it deals with less overt racism, which is something we’ve not explored enough.