etragedy's Superman #38 - Battle of the Atoms! review

OFF MY MIND: Did Lex Luthor invent the A-Bomb!?!

When reading Superman (or any comic) from the Golden Age, it's easy to dismiss the science in the stories as 'silly' and 'immature'. And in a lot of cases, that's probably a dead-on accurate assessment - but not always!
Take the story The Battle of the Atoms from Superman #38. It opens with Clark and Lois investigating a 'terrific disturbance' in the countryside. What they find is nothing short of shocking - trees bent, boulders melted and steel structures twisted. Superman soon discovers that Luthor is behind this - he used the area to test his latest weapon, an 'Atomic Beam'. Later, he nearly destroys Superman by hitting him with the beam, and when Superman finally catches him, he attempts a final suicide maneuver - detonating an 'Atomic Bomb' to obliterate himself and take Superman with him!
Now, lest we think this was 'quaint', standard comic book fare, we should take note that the U.S. Government didn't think so! As the splash page of the story informs us,

Now It Can Be Told!
Due to wartime censorship restrictions on subjects dealing with atomic experiments (see Time, Aug. 20, 1945 p. 72 and Newsweek, Aug. 20, 1945, p. 68), this story was not previously released to the public. You'll understand why as you read about the astounding weapon that Superman's ancient foe, Luthor, turns loose against a city in... "The Battle of the Atoms!"

This occurred long before D.C. was owned by Time-Warner, so it was no plug for their own publication, nor was it a mere gimmick. It actually happened, according to Brian Cronin's book Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed, "the story was delayed for years" because the government (which was developing the Atomic Bomb at the time) "felt it would be better to avoid" mentioning such a device.
But while this was the first time a Superman story was censored for it, it wasn't actually the first mention of atomic weapons in Superman's history; in the Adventures of Superman radio drama, in Feb. 23-28 of 1940 - almost two full years before the U.S. entered WWII, and a number of years before the Manhattan Project even began - another Superman foe, The Yellow Mask, actually needed steel tubes (remember the similar allegations against Saddam Hussein?) for his 'Atomic Beam' that could destroy anything. And, while that Superman adventure was broadcast coast-to-coast, it was as mentioned, before the war, and likely before all but the most accomplished of physicists had even given much thought to the possibility of atomic weaponry.
While it's hardly one of the best of the Golden Age Superman stories, it's not bad (Luthor's henchmen have actual names, the rivalry between Clark and Lois is present, etc.), and it's worth checking out, if only because of the historical significance.
But, of course, it does beg the question - what pseudo-science in comics today might be the reality of tomorrow?
 -Etragedy, Comicvine's original back issue reviewer!
Posted by Trodorne

I think that is totally interesting with the fact of the atomic bomb. maybe the radio show adventures inspired the scientists to build one. but in regards to other pseudo sciences that would be relevant today it would be the case of the alternate dimensions in which scientists say exist. there have been many theories to how to get to these but in regards there is nothing with in practically applications.
   Good and interesting review.

Posted by etragedy

Yes, I remember the first time I heard about alternate Earths on a science show on NPR - decades after both D.C. and Marvel had been using the concept!

Posted by Trodorne

i already knew of the concepts based more on DC than marvel since the whole Crisis' anyways, i did not think of it as actual science till i watched discovering the 10th dimension. which is a great online blog on youtube.

Posted by etragedy

I'll check it out, thanks!

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