The year was 1938, which would see the debut of two influences from fake aliens. The first was Action Comics #1, which debuted among other characters the hero known as Superman. Unlike the Superman we know today his powers didn’t come from the Sun but because Earth’s gravity is lighter than Krypton’s. He couldn’t fly or had any special vision powers but he was superstrong, could leap an 8th of a mile and outrun a train, and while he was still bulletproof he wasn’t as invulnerable as he is today. The force of a bursting shell was the minimum to pierce his skin, and that was by 1938 levels. That wasn’t the only difference between the Superman of history and the later known iconic take on Superman.
1938 was also the debut of the Mercury Theater’s Halloween radio broadcast The War Of The Worlds. Loosely inspired by the H.G. Wells novel the setting was moved to then present day, with the framing device of a music broadcast constantly interrupted by a mysterious threat from the planet Mars. While the public reaction has been greatly exaggerated (one source suggesting it was the newspapers taking a shot at radio because radio news came faster than the twice-daily newspaper–and given modern reactions to new media I’m willing to believe it), the story still earned a place in our culture, and TV specials have used the same framing device.
1999 may be a year late for the two stories to have an anniversary, but it’s the reason 1938 was chosen as the setting for one of my favorite Superman Elseworlds stories. Superman: War Of The Worlds uses the original incarnation of Superman while mixing elements of the original Wells novel and the Orson Wells radio drama and tells a story of what could have happened had this relatively weaker Man Of Steel had to protect the world from the other Red Menace.
Superman: War Of The Worlds
DC Comics (1999)
WRITER: Roy Thomas
ARTIST: Michael Lark
COLORIST: Noelle Giddings
SEPARATIONS: Heroic Age
LETTERER: Willie Schubert
As the planet Mars watches Earth, so did the doomed planet Krypton. As the planet explodes a rocket takes off from the planet, heads towards Earth, lands in a Kansas field…you know all this. What’s interesting is that Thomas mixes the opening narration from the original novel with the short origin of Superman as seen in Superman #1, meaning that they kept the Kents in and didn’t have Clark grow up an orphanage. I guess the retcon is too much a part of his iconography but it makes sense they’d leave them in. The Kents are part of Clark’s history and part of what made him the Superman he would become.
Flash forward to “today”, as Clark goes to the Daily Star in hopes of getting a reporter job. This is where a number of the classic Superman nods come into play, but you wouldn’t know some of them if you weren’t aware of Superman’s early Golden Age differences. The Daily Star is what the Daily Planet used to be named as. George Taylor is the Editor-In-Chief, though Perry White shows up as the city editor. Jimmy is about as useless here as he is in the movies but he wasn’t even part of the cast back then, so I’m not sure why they included him. I guess for the same reason they snuck Perry in. With most of the reporters out sick Taylor decides to give Clark a chance, infuriating girl reporter Lois Lane. (I won’t spoil her introduction.) She wants a decent reporter assignment as well instead of the love advice column, and with Perry’s prodding George sends her along with Clark. There’s also a nod to one of the tales from the first Superman story. See if you can spot it.
The story in question is a series of craters with some kind of metal cylinder inside. The cylinders may be tied to the explosions seen on Mars recently, as evidenced by the appearance of astronomer Professor Ogilvy, who had been studying the mysterious explosions. Ogilvy is from the War Of The Worlds franchise as far back as the original novel, and hangs around about as long. With him is his colleague Doctor Luthor. The story doesn’t always have full names for the classic Superman characters except for Clark Kent and Lois Lane (who also debuted the same time as Superman) but we know this is our old pal Lex, right? As they watch the examination one of the cylinders opens and out pops a Martian, who looks nothing like Superman’s later superhero pal. They’re naturally using the Martians from the Wells story, octopus-like beings who are not accustomed to Earth’s gravity. He falls into the pit. Another opens and one less willing to run out and fall over pops his head out. Clark pulls Lois away from the crater before tentacles reach out for her. Yes, even in this version Clark has to save Lois from herself. It’s the Golden Age after all.
Now a device pops up from the hatch. Oglivy tries to wave a white flag of truce and per normal gets a face full of heat ray for his trouble. The Martian burninates the whole area, but Lois is saved when Clark protects her, revealing his Superman outfit. Except he isn’t called Superman in this story. Later on we learn this symbol was on his blanket and that’s all we know. This Superman knows nothing about his Kryptonian heritage. However, I’m going to call him Superman because it’s easier that way for me. Anyway, Superman defeats one of the tripods and even Lois knows to get out of here. Going to a train depot she calls the story in but the line is cut as other tripods make their way towards Metropolis, heat rays going all over the place. (I’m guessing they at least know enough not to shoot their own ships.) Lois runs into Doctor Luthor, who knew Oglivy was doing something stupid and got out of there. Lois joins him going to Luthor’s lab.
Meanwhile, Superman continues to fight the tripods. He saves one pilot but the pilot is as afraid of Superman as he is the Martians, something the Kents warned their adopted son early on. Still he fights on, while the aliens up their attack with a deadly black smoke that covers everything up to around fifty feet. Taylor gets Jimmy out of the office just as a heat ray bursts into it, killing Taylor. This is the last we see of the folks at the paper. Superman leaps out of the black smoke but the aliens are ready, blasting him with two heat rays simultaneously, knocking him out of the sky. Kent is scooped up and placed into a holding bay with other bodies, but he wakes up a prisoner of the Martians. He learns three days have passed and the Martians have destroyed every major government on the planet. Humans are put in slave labor pens until they’re taken as food for the aliens, who drain the humans’ blood for themselves. Also there is a now bald Lex Luthor, his hair burned off when he and Lois were caught in traffic and tried to reach the lab on foot. Learning Luthor is a genius they put him to work trying to find a cure for the Earth germs slowly killing them per usual in the franchise, which he has no trouble agreeing to if it means he gets to live. Lois is also there because Luthor has taken a shine to her and the aliens want their doctor happy. Luthor eventually realizes that Superman’s alien origins may include bacteria that blocks the germs in the Martians in the lab. I question the science here but after the Covid nonsense I’m not sure I trust any experts. They can’t keep their facts straight from one month to the next. And Roy Thomas isn’t a medical scientist.
Luthor is able to come up with a serum to cure and vaccinate the Martians, and not surprisingly they decide he’s served his purpose and will be the next meal. So much for being a genius. Lois kills the Martian grabbing Luthor using one of the feeding pipes. (I’m a creationist and even I have to question an evolution where you need an external device to feed–it’s not like this is silverware.) They both free Superman and he stops the alien with the serum from getting it to his kinsmen. He also frees the other slaves but when he tries to lead Lois away she recoils in fear, even though she knows it’s wrong to lump him in with the Martians. Instinctively she’s come to fear aliens, even the human-looking one trying to save them all. The remaining ship in the area attacks and Superman uses another homage to knock it down. However, the Martians have a new upgrade and now don’t need the tripod legs to move around. It detaches from them and starts flying around but both Luthor and Superman notice that when something comes between it and the ground the ship starts wobbling, Too bad this means taking an extended blast from the heat ray to use that to bring the ship down for good.
Superman prepares to kill the alien, and let’s be honest–what he’s done so far had to have killed a few when their ships crashed to the ground, but recognizes the battle rage taking over. He even feels a bit sorry for them given that they’re both aliens and he probably would have been the one people ran from. That doesn’t really quite jibe with what happened in the comics, as the police in the early Golden Age just wanted him as a vigilante, but even if we write off Lois’s fear as the result of the Martian attack that’s not the case with the pilot. He isn’t completely wrong I guess. Superman, Clark Kent, dies before Lois can properly apologize and hope to do better in the future. It’s a sad moment and done well enough.
The epilogue tells how the other aliens died off and the planet rebuilds. The new president is an iron hand type ruler, and some of the other nations sans the likes of Hitler or the royal families actually take on a more democratic government except for Great Britain, who turns to fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, an actual historical figure. And at the new League Of Nations complex in Metropolis stands a statue of one Clark Kent, looking towards the sky in tribute the unseen evil–and unseen good–that may exist among the stars, and the words on the base:
Clark Kent (d. 1938)
He was born on one world–
grew to manhood on another–
and saved his adopted planet from the wrath of a third,
during the WAR OF THE WORLDS
While maybe not one of the most important stories in the Elseworlds concept it saddens me more people don’t talk about it. It pays a lot of respect to the original Superman concept and the H.G. Wells novels. There are homages to both as we see these characters in their Golden Age comics forms, and the art style is right out of that period. Luthor turns over a new leaf, becoming vice president and marrying Lois. While it’s sad to see Superman die without ever gaining his superhero name, everything that makes Clark Kent into Superman is on display. It’s not about his powers, which are at his Golden Age level, but his desire to protect others, even the people who fear him. There’s homages to the novel as well, but I would have liked to have seen some homage to the Mercury Theater radio drama, unless I missed it somewhere. It’s the shared timing of the Orson Wells production and the Action Comics Superman debut that inspired the story. Overall it’s a great tale and one you should check out if get the chance.