The Reign of the Supermen
by Kai Axel Jansson
(Original article published 04 February 2001
This version updated 17 April 2002)
In the Spring of 1938, the first issue of Action Comics appeared on newsstands all across the USA. The cover of this particular comic-book was a quite a sight to behold, for this was not your run-of-the-mill detective or adventure story -- this was something new. Flipping inside the magazine, the reader was greeted with a very short story about a man who was more than a man -- a true Superman -- who possessed amazing abilities which he used to help those in need. This was the first comic book appearance of Clark Kent, the man called Superman (who, although very real, is largely believed to be a fictional character by the general public). Fellow "literary archaeologist" and researcher Al Schroeder has compiled a large body of research on Superman's life at his Schroeder's Speculations site. This article will deal only tangentially with the man known variously as Superman, Clark Kent and Hugo Danner, as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer-cartoonist team who wrote the comic strip based on Superman's real-life adventures, had also written about two previous Supermen before the publication of Action Comics number 1. This article was written in an attempt to explain who they were and what became of them.
Jerry Siegel was an aspiring science fiction writer who, with the artistic assistance of his friend Joe Shuster, began a self-published magazine called Science Fiction in October 1932. Within the third issue of that periodical (dated January 1933) a story entitled "The Reign of the Superman" was published. Although it was presented purely as a science fiction story (indeed, Siegel himself believed it merely an entertaining story), the greater body of details depicted within was actually a fictionalized account of a real series of events. The events of this story, moreover, took place just over a decade before this magazine was published, rather than during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. (1)
During the depression of 1920-21, a balding, homeless man in his 30s or early 40s named William (Bill) Dunn stood in a bread line along with so many other homeless and out-of-work men (a common sight during each of America's depressions, especially those which occurred before any kind of "social safety net" was enacted), when a scientist named Professor Ernest Smalley approached him with the offer of a job. Smalley had been observing each of the vagrants in the food line for quite a while, in search of the proper man to be a "guinea pig" in his often-dangerous experiments, and Dunn had appeared to be the most desperate out of the entire group.
Professor Smalley treated Dunn with an unknown chemical element he had discovered in a fallen meteor from outer space. The experiment had an unforeseen effect, however, as the now-raving derelict escaped and the chemical began to transform him into an evil, powerful being who called himself "The Superman" (due to his physical and mental -- although not moral -- superiority over all other human beings); this chemical substance also had the adverse effect of causing him to lose all of his hair. Dunn's awesome mental powers grew relatively rapidly, beginning as they did with telepathy, and they expanded into mind-control to the point where he could control the thoughts of anyone he wished. Dunn first used his newfound abilities to cast his powerful mind into space, where he "saw" with his mind a battle between bizarre creatures on the planet Mars.
William Dunn began to gain great wealth and power for himself, first with theft through the use of his mental powers and then through gambling and the manipulation of the stock market. Professor Smalley by this time realized that he had created a complete monster and attempted to use the chemical treatment on himself, but he was apparently killed by the Superman before Smalley could become his rival. (2) It was at this time that Dunn recalled well the devastation of the recent war in Europe and reasoned that the chaos of war and all that it entailed would be instrumental in helping him to gain control of the planet as its ruler. Dunn thus used his mental powers to disrupt a post-World War I peace conference, but just before he could accomplish any lasting damage, the effects of his chemical treatment wore off. (3) The story's conclusion showed Bill Dunn walking away, once again a forgotten man.
William (Bill) Dunn was originally from Philadelphia, where he left a wife and young son named Joseph in pursuit of work in 1920 which he could not find at home during this economic depression. After the more-or-less accurate events depicted in "The Reign of the Superman," William Dunn returned to his home in Philadelphia, where he impregnated his wife with twins -- a son and daughter -- this time, before he finally left the family forever. (4) Somewhere along the way he told the story of his time as "The Superman" to a young newspaper vendor in a bar in Cleveland, who dismissed it as pure science fiction and later passed it on to Jerry Siegel, an acquaintance of his who he knew enjoyed those type of stories, the kind found in such periodicals as Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories.
Unfortunately for William Dunn, the chemical treatments with the unknown element which had once turned him into a mental and physical superman began to wrack his body almost immediately after his great mental powers had worn off. Within a few short years Dunn became crippled and wheelchair-bound even as his mental prowess, intellect, and reasoning powers returned to him, albeit with none of his former telepathic abilities. By the mid-1920s Dunn had once again become one of the world's foremost (albeit secretive) geniuses, but the chemicals which had turned him into an ugly, bald, misshapen cripple and enhanced his brainpower to genius level also drove his existing criminal tendencies to new levels. As William Dunn began to build his criminal spiderweb, he would from now on be known only by the name "The Ultra-Humanite." Dunn later revealed his origin by way of a confession, "I am known as 'The Ultra-Humanite.' Why? Because a scientific experiment resulted in my possessing the most agile and learned brain on Earth! Unfortunately for mankind, I prefer to use this great intellect for crime. My goal? Domination of the world!"
The Ultra-Humanite, known also as Ultra, soon became aware of a new and very different Superman in 1933, a powerful figure of justice who began to disrupt several of his criminal schemes in the Cleveland area. Although at first only his agents personally encountered this Superman, the greatest threat to his plans, he soon confronted this hero in person; the two became arch-enemies. This Superman was the same extra-terrestrial hero whose fictionalized accounts of his adventures by Siegel and Shuster first appeared in Action Comics in 1938.
In the early months of 1933 a mysterious, avenging figure -- a man with a white streak in his jet-black hair -- took on organized crime singlehandedly in Cleveland for a few short weeks before disappearing for good, miraculously saving Jerry Siegel himself at one point from a criminal wielding a gun. (5) It was this event which inspired Siegel and Shuster to create a new comic book story titled "The Superman," which bore the slogans "A Science Fiction Story in Cartoons" and "The Most Astounding Fiction Character of All Time," and which seemed to be a blending of the accounts of this crime-fighter with rumors of another, superhumanly strong Superman (this was before Siegel and Shuster met the Superman of Action Comics personally and verified his existence). Unfortunately this story was rejected by the publishers Siegel and Shuster went to, and a devastated Shuster burned every page of this early comic book except for the cover, which Siegel managed to save.
The true identity of this non-powered "Superman" was that of an adventurer by the name of Bradley. He was the eldest brother in one branch of the Bradley family. The late Biff Bradley (who died on "Dinosaur Island" in 1927 (6) ) was the second-born, and private detective and adventurer Slam Bradley (who took up his own private investigation agency after the disappearance and presumed death of his eldest brother) was the youngest brother. (7) His first name has been lost to history, but for the purposes of this article he shall be referred to as "Superman" Bradley.
The Unbreakable "Everyman"
After his disappearance and presumed death in 1933, "Superman" Bradley was survived by his wife and infant daughter, whose names are also unknown as yet. Miss Bradley went on to marry Joe Dunn, the son of William Dunn, the Ultra-Humanite, in the late 1940s. Their only son, born in the late 1950s, was named David.
David Dunn grew up to be an athletic young man, despite an early traumatic experience in which he almost drowned in a pool, and became his high school's football hero until an apparent injury cut short his career. Shortly after this he settled down and married his girlfriend Audrey, taking a job as a security guard. The two later had a son they named Joseph after his father. The further and slightly fictionalized events of David Dunn's life can be seen in the film Unbreakable, from a script written by director M. Night Shyamalan, and its proposed sequels. A descendant of no less than two "Supermen," and with the inherited traits of both, David Dunn would in the final years of the Millennium come to realize that he was a "Superman" as well, known by some only as "Everyman." This author will continue to follow the unfolding events of David Dunn's newfound career with great interest in the years to come.
Meanwhile, William Dunn's daughter married a man named Sear and later went on to have one son. (8) The younger Sear was a troubled, emotionally-disturbed man who shared some of his grandfather's traits. Although he married a young woman named Lynn, who bore him a son named Cole in the late 1980s, his emotional and mental problems continued to haunt him, and he left the family by the mid-1990s, leaving Lynn Sear to raise Cole alone after the death of her mother.
Cole Sear was born with a rare gift of psychic powers which he had inherited from the irradiated genes of William Dunn, his great-grandfather. Because of this unwanted "gift" the boy has the involuntary ability to see the ever-living spirits of the deceased. Cole's story was slightly fictionalized and turned into the film called The Sixth Sense, from a script written by director M. Night Shyamalan.
Incidentally, as related in the film, the young Cole Sear was visited by an eminent child psychiatrist named Dr. Malcolm Crowe. Dr. Crowe's mother, it turns out, was also a Bradley, and thus he was distantly related to Cole's cousin, David Dunn, with whom he bears a close resemblance (Bruce Willis played both the role of David Dunn and Dr. Malcolm Crowe in their respective films), but he was not related to Cole himself.
Thus the legacy of two "Supermen," one evil and the other good, has resulted in two very different but exceptional contemporary "supermen" of sorts.
(1) In the original version of this article, the author incorrectly assumed that the depression depicted in "The Reign of the Superman" was the Great Depression of the 1930s. Siegel likewise made this assumption, believing the story to be fictional, and he thus wrote it in a contemporary way. The events of this story cannot have taken place anytime after the beginning of the 1930s, however, due to the advanced state and extent at which William Dunn's criminal activity appeared to be by the time he first encountered Superman.
(2) The true identity of Professor Ernest Smalley -- as well as his ultimate fate -- is yet to be determined. This "mad scientist" who was otherwise utterly brilliant shares some characteristics with Lex Luthor, the criminal scientist who would later displace the Ultra-Humanite as Superman's arch-enemy. In an article written by eminent literary archaeologist and revisionist historian Dennis E. Power, "The Lethal Luthors," it is alleged that the man who would become the Ultra-Humanite was in fact a Luthor, the firstborn of quadruplets born on December 17, 1903. It is possible that William Dunn shares some relation to the Luthors (Al Schroeder suggested that Dunn's mother was an aunt to Sally Finn, Lex Luthor's mother), but this author believes it to be highly unlikely that he was Lawrence Luthor, especially because Dunn would have only been 16 in 1920 during the events of "The Reign of the Superman," and it has never been established that Ultra ever had red hair. It is more likely that Smalley was a Luthor, possibly the Lawrence Luthor postulated in Power's article, but the age problem is somewhat problematic. If, however, Smalley was a mature-looking and/or disguised Lawrence Luthor, and William Dunn was his cousin through their mothers, it may be that Smalley intentionally selected Dunn as a "guinea pig" for his experiment because he was his relative. After all, if Smalley intended to conduct an experiment which would grant one great mental or physical powers, he would want to make sure that his "guinea pig" had a similar genetic makeup to himself in case it was successful, in order to eventually perform the perfected experiment upon himself. Dunn was a distant enough and poor enough relative to experiment upon.
In the opinion of this researcher, although Dennis Power may be correct about a number of details, the true history of Lex Luthor and his family still needs sorting out. We believe it is likely, however, that the red-haired Alexander Luthor, seen in only four published stories and known only as "Luthor" -- Action Comics no. 23 (April 1940), Superman no. 4 (Spring 1940) and no. 5 (Summer 1940) -- was indeed reformed by Doc Savage and eventually became the heroic adventurer known as Prince Zarkon. Furthermore, we believe that the individual who was at first the bald, ruthless "assistant" of Alexander Luthor seen in the red-haired Luthor's initial appearances was most likely Lawrence Luthor. After Alexander's retirement from crime, Lawrence then set out on his own as the bald Lex Luthor first referred to as "Luthor" in the Superman comic strip in late 1940 in Episode Eighteen: "Pawns of the Master" (see Superman: The Dailies 1940-1941) and was known as Luthor in his every appearance from Superman no. 10 (May-June 1941) onwards. It was this Luthor who became the true arch-enemy of Superman after his brother's initial outings, although his motivation for doing so had nothing to do with revenge on his brother (as they looked physically different and a frame-up was out of the question) and everything to do with his own ambitions. Furthermore, although it does not state so in the fictionalized accounts of their battles due to the simplification every case underwent in the fictionalized comic stories, Superman was very much aware of the distinction between the two Luthors he had encountered. It is our belief, however, that Power's account of Brainiac in relation to Lawrence Luthor is incorrect as postulated. Further research may bear out the truth.
As well, the history of David Luthor, alias D.D. Warburton, the real "Daddy Warbucks," is believed to be accurate by this researcher. We find the existence of Austin Powers and Dr. Evil as anything other than fiction to be somewhat problematic, although the case may be that Canadian comedian Mike Myers, the creator of the Austin Powers films who was born to British parents, was given just enough inside information to create a movie franchise which would serve to discredit anyone postulating that Austin Powers or Dr. Evil really existed or indeed continue to exist (similar disinformation techniques are used to ridicule conspiracy theorists of all stripes). Further research may prove Power correct on many or all points, however, and it is with great enthusiasm that this author receives Power's heavily-researched and thought-provoking articles.
Incidentally, another article which speculates on the Luthor family, "The Luthor Legacy," written by Al Schroeder, theorizes that Lex Luthor was born in 1894 by the parents given him by Dennis Power; however, in keeping with the intent of Power's thesis, it is unlikely that John Clay and Sally Finn would have met before 1899 according to Power's chronology of events, and the date of 1903 for the birth of Lex Luthor is most likely correct. Although the date of September 28th is given as Lex Luthor's birthday in the 1976 Super DC Calendar, this date may either be completely inaccurate or is the date of birth of a figure linked to Luthor.
(3) According to more recent accounts of Ultra's activities during the 1940s, as well as accounts of his activities during the 1970s and 80s, it would appear that one of Dunn's goals was to safely attain once more his previous level of mental power without the subsequent physical crippling effect. If these contemporary accounts are true, Ultra succeeded in doing so through various means. First in the 1940s through the use of the Powerstone once used by Lex Luthor, and then in the 1970s and 80s with the assistance of a genetically-modified white ape's body which his brain was placed into. It should be noted that is not yet known whether or not these later stories were at all based on reality or whether they are wholly fictional.
(4) William Dunn's second son, one of the twins, apparently married and had a son named Daniel before his presumed death (possibly in the Korean War). By the mid-1950s the young Danny Dunn became known for his love of science and adventure, and soon a series of children's books conceived by Raymond Abrashkin (see this webpage) and written by Jay Williams fictionalized his adventures, beginning in 1956 with Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. Danny went on to have further adventures throughout his lifetime, but it is not known by this author what has become of him. It is likely that Danny Dunn pursued a career in science and went on to have adventuresome children of his own. Thanks to Dennis E. Power for the idea.
(5) The reasons behind Bradley's one-man crusade against crime and his subsequent disappearance can only be guessed at this point unless further evidence comes to light, although it is likely that some personal tragic event caused this adventurer to strike back against those who caused it.
Incidentally, when asked about their second "Superman," Siegel and Shuster could only remember that he had no special powers and could only compare him to Slam Bradley, the figure most similar to "The Superman." It was not until after the comic book in which this character appeared was destroyed by Shuster that the final version of Superman, as seen in Action Comics, was developed. Prior to 1938, a "Superman" was, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "a superior man that according to Nietzsche has learned to forgo fleeting pleasures and attain happiness and dominance through the exercise of creative power," and "a person of extraordinary or superhuman power or achievements." The definition of superman would then include the entire "Wold Newton family" of individuals, who existed on both sides of the law (although it should be pointed out that Nietzsche would not see any division line between "good" and "evil" as he did not consider them to exist).
(6) The account of Biff Bradley's adventure and death was depicted in the Guns of the Dragon miniseries by Tim Truman, published in 1998-99. Although there is no internal proof that Biff Bradley is related to Slam Bradley, Truman's comments elsewhere indicate that Biff was Slam's older brother. The Blackhawk Website has a page on the Guns of the Dragon miniseries here. Fellow "literary archaeologist" and historian Mark Brown's article, "Prehistoric Survivors in the Pacific," describes in more detail the peculiar properties of the Pacific island, and others like it, upon which Biff Bradley died.
(7) Siegel and Shuster met Slam Bradley in the course of the investigation of his brother's disappearance, and, with Slam's permission, the two later went on to adapt and chronicle Slam's detective cases, beginning with Detective Comics number 1 in 1937.
(8) In the original version of this article, the author incorrectly assumed that William Dunn was Cole Sear's great-grandfather through his mother's parentage. In fact, William Dunn was the grandfather of Cole Sear's father rather than his mother, as indicated by Mr. Sear's apparent emotional problems, most likely caused by the effect of the 1920 chemical experiment which altered Dunn's genes and carried on in further generations.
SUPERMAN: The Complete History, edited by Les Daniels, 1998.
Various early issues of ACTION COMICS and DETECTIVE COMICS, DC Comics.
Guns of the Dragon miniseries by Tim Truman, 1998-99, DC Comics.
Unbreakable (film), 2000, script by M. Night Shyamalan.
The Sixth Sense (film), 1999, script by M. Night Shyamalan.
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All rights reserved. The text of this article is copyright 2001 by the author, Kai Axel Jansson. No copying or reproduction of this story or any portions thereof in any form whatsoever is permitted without prior written permission and consent of the author.