“Now, look!” Perry shouts, slamming down a copy of somebody else’s newspaper on his desk. “The Post: It Flies!” He drops another: “The News: Look Ma, No Wires!” And another: “The Times: Blue Bomb Buzzes Metropolis!” I don’t know how he has time to do all this extra reading; doesn’t he have a paper of his own to put out?
Then he picks up today’s Daily Planet, with the long-admired banner: Caped Wonder Stuns City. This headline is way better than the other three, so I’m not sure why he’s upset about it.
“We’re sitting on top of the story of the century here!” he barks. “I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs, franks and beans, death and taxes, politics and corruption!” And then he keeps on snapping at his terrified reporters, in a scene that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t, because Jackie Cooper is terrible.
Part of the problem here is that this isn’t really Perry’s job. In all of the previous versions of Superman, he hardly needs to ask; Superman stories just start piling up on the editor’s desk before he even knows that Superman exists.
Really, this behavior is more the purview of J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the Daily Bugle, who’s always demanding that camera-clicker Peter Parker bring him more photos of Spider-Man. Those are the two heroes that get the most press coverage in comic books, Superman and Spider-Man, because they have secret identities that work for the paper.
I wonder what all the other superheroes do, when they want some earned media? I don’t think DC’s Metropolis is as chock full of caped wonders as Marvel’s New York City is, but still, there must be dozens of masked vigilantes who never make the front page at all. I guess it’s who you know.
But they had to figure out something for Perry to do in the movie, and that’s why this scene exists. He’s one of the Famous Four characters that you always need to have, if you’re making a legitimate Superman story: Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. All of the other characters who have attached themselves to the franchise are optional: Supergirl, Lana Lang, Beppo the Super-Monkey, even Lex Luthor. But if you don’t have Clark, Lois, Jimmy and Perry, people will expect an explanation.
The funny thing about Perry’s inclusion in the Famous Four is that it has very little to do with the comic books. Perry White as we know him was invented and developed for the 1940s radio show, and his place in the mythos was solidified when he was part of the regular cast of the 1950s TV show. The Perry who appeared in the comics in the 1940s was usually just a three-panel guest cameo from the radio show; you didn’t even see his face a lot of the time.
When Superman was first introduced in Action Comics in June 1938, there were three recurring characters: two reporters named Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and an unnamed editor who gave them assignments. The editor didn’t need a name, because he wasn’t really a character; he was a plot function.
At the beginning of a story, somebody needed to gesture towards the door and tell Clark to investigate something, which he would then go and do. The story isn’t about the editor; it’s about the thing that the editor is pointing at.
They finally gave the man a name, George Taylor, in Superman #2 (Fall 1939), mostly out of pity; they still didn’t give him anything to do.
Meanwhile, on the radio, they gave the editor a new name and a set of authentic characteristics right from the start, because they can’t just have Julian Noa come into the studio and do the auditory equivalent of three panels. They’re paying the man; he needs to earn it.
He shows up in the second episode of the radio show, which aired on February 14, 1940. You can listen to the episode on YouTube; the part that I’m going to excerpt here starts at 6:18.
This is what Perry White sounds like:
Miss Smith: Excuse me, Mr. White. That young man’s still waiting.
Perry: What young man — oh, the one who wants a job? Well, let him wait! Who have we got that’s free?
Miss Smith: McCann’s on the coast, Grayson’s down in Virginia, most of the day men are full up.
Perry: I knew it, confound, it’s always the way! Something breaks, and nobody to handle it!
Miss Smith: What is it, Mr. White?
Perry: Railroads! Sabotage! I didn’t believe it, but there may be something in it after all! If there is —
Miss Smith: Yes, sir?
Perry: If there is, Miss Smith, it’ll be the biggest story since Lindbergh! And me, shorthanded. Ohh, what’s the use?
Miss Smith: Yes, sir. Uh — about that man…
Perry: Aw, send him in. Send him in!
Miss Smith: Yes, sir. Come in, Mr. Kent.
Clark: Thank you.
Perry: You wanted to see me? Close that door!
Clark: Yes, sir. My name is Kent. Clark Kent.
Perry: What can I do for you, Mr. Kent?
Clark: Well, Mr. White, you can give me work, I hope.
Perry: Work? On the paper?
Clark: Yes, sir. I’d like to be a reporter.
Perry: Ohhh, you’d like to be a reporter! What papers have you worked on?
Clark: Well, none, sir, but —
Perry: Oh, you haven’t! But you think you’d be a whiz! Huh. Well, I’m afraid I can’t use you, Kent.
Clark: You mean you haven’t any openings?
Perry: Not for greenhorns! I’m sorry if I’m blunt.
Clark: But — Mr. White, even if I am a greenhorn, suppose I brought you a good story.
Perry: And where would you get it? I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Kent —
Clark: A really good story?
Perry: Such as?
Clark: Such as the complete inside on the man called the Wolf, and the Western Railroad?
Perry: Wh- what’s that?
Clark: You heard me, do you want that story?
The scene rattles on and on — it’s the radio, all they do is talk — but you get the idea. It’s a complete personality, right away — impatient and irascible, but passionate about getting a great story, and if something sounds interesting, he’ll jump at it. He’s also a chatterbox, just opening his mouth and filling the world with words. That character can populate a radio show for as long as you like.
Here’s another little bit, later in the scene, after Perry’s had a mysterious phone call from an unnamed man, warning about an upcoming railway accident for the Silver Clipper. When Perry hangs up the phone, Clark mentions the Clipper as well.
Perry: Look here! You couldn’t hear that phone. What is this? How do you know who called me?
Clark: As I was saying, Mr. White: suppose I brought you a good story — the story of the Silver Clipper, and the Wolf!
Perry: I take chances, Kent. I’m going to take a chance on you!
Clark: Thank you, Mr. White.
Perry: It’s two thousand miles. You’ll have to hop a plane.
Clark: I’ll get there, Mr. White, in spite of the weather.
Perry: Lord… I hadn’t noticed the weather. Well, get to the airport anyway!
That’s demonstrating another helpful characteristic — Perry is impulsive, and takes chances — which is great, because it’s story-productive. You want a character in this role who can move the plot along, and Perry suddenly making the decision to take Kent on means that the story can move forward.
He’s a great character; that’s all there is to it. In the early days, Perry’s actually on the show more often than Lois is. It just goes to show how little interest Siegel and Shuster had in developing a supporting cast, in the early days. There’s room in Action Comics for another main character, which was obvious to everybody except the people who were making Action Comics.
Now, the question that people have about this is: why did the radio show invent the name Perry White, instead of using George Taylor, from the comics?
There are two answers, neither of them flattering for G. Taylor. The first answer is that “George” is just about the least interesting name that a character could have, and “Taylor” isn’t far behind. “Perry” is a much more distinctive first name, and obviously the combo of “Perry White” has some kind of magic in it, because here we are eight decades later, and everybody knows it, including people who have never read a Superman comic.
The second answer is that the people making the radio show probably didn’t even know that there was an editor character, much less that he had a name, which they only invented in the comics a few months before the radio show debuted.
The radio show was a big hit, and the name “Perry White” found its way into the comics nine months later, in Superman #7 (Nov 1940). But even here, all they use is his last name — “Got a good assignment for us, White?” — and he has none of the charm. They don’t use his first name yet; he’s just “White” for another seven months. The poor guy doesn’t even get to turn around and show his face.
And if you’re thinking, well, he’s just the editor, what else can he do? then the radio show has the answer.
In February 1941, they do a story called “The Dragon’s Teeth”, which opens with Clark and Perry driving through Chinatown to visit Dr. Chi Wan, a collector of Asian art. Here’s how the story begins:
Clark: Isn’t it a little strange that Dr. Wan didn’t tell you why he wanted to see you, Mr. White?
Perry: Not if you know Orientals, Kent. They don’t say much over the telephone. It’s an instrument of the Devil, and they don’t trust it.
Clark: Well, but surely, Dr. Wan doesn’t feel that way. Wasn’t he educated here, in the United States?
Perry: Yes, but the Chinese have certain inborn superstitions that even education won’t eradicate. Once an Oriental, always an Oriental.
Okay, so maybe that’s not the best example, but he’s actually involved in the story, is my point. At the end of the episode, Perry drinks a cup of poisoned tea, which makes for an exciting cliffhanger, and they could be doing that kind of thing in the comic, too.
It is honestly baffling to me how long it takes for Jerry Siegel to understand that having more main characters means that you can tell more kinds of stories. Jimmy Olsen was introduced on the radio show in April 1940 as a fourth main character, and he was so successful that they spent most of 1941 trying to add a fifth, which didn’t take. But in the comics, it’s just Clark and Lois in every issue, with Perry sitting behind a desk and facing the other way.
But in that same issue, in the third story, Perry White actually gets up from behind his desk and leaves his office for the very first time.
The story concerns an evil genius from another dimension who shouts rhyming couplets, and makes buildings disappear.
“Heed not Superman, he can’t administer successful opposition to Mister Sinister!”
as well as
“You cannot touch me, it is true! And so in parting — pooey on you!!”
It’s a weird story.
Clark writes an editorial criticizing Mister Sinister, which ticks the villain off for some reason that I can’t quite figure. I mean, the guy is appearing in the sky and announcing his name and exactly what he’s planning to do in rhyming couplets, but for some reason, he doesn’t want the publicity of being named in a newspaper story.
But this finally gets Perry up out of his chair and down to the printing presses, where he swears, “I’ll show that supernatural hoodlum he can’t dictate the policy of my paper!”
And then the mysterious voice booms with another warning:
“Stop the presses right away! And if you don’t, you’ll rue this day!”
Clark shouts in response,
“We’ve heard your warning, here’s the answer: We’ll print that story despite you, Mister!”
“Why, Clark — you’re a poet!” says Lois, which might be the least convincing line of dialogue that anyone ever says in a Superman comic. That is not a good poem. We have discovered Superman’s secret weakness.
In reply, Mister Sinister uses whatever wackadoodle power he possesses to teleport the Daily Planet building into his dimension, which is apparently a barren country with a purplish sky, except in the panels where it isn’t, which is most of them.
The villain is a bald, yellow alien with big ears, which, fine, I guess it’s a dimension with bald yellow people, although his henchmen appear to be regular human thugs with rifles, so I don’t know what’s going on.
“Wh-what manner of strange country is this?” Clark asks. “Where have you taken us?”
The villain declares, “I’ve merely transported you to another dimension: the fourth, to be exact!” which is a very silly line, and I guess he’s not speaking in rhyme anymore.
Lois observes that he’s “conquered the dimensions,” whatever that means, and he says, “Exactly. And thus I find it a simple matter to snatch buildings into this unknown dimension — and return them only for profit!” Which reminds me, I didn’t tell you before that when the other buildings were stolen, Mister Sinister asked for $100,000 ransom to send them back. I don’t know what he wants the money for, especially if he lives in a barren, purplish country in another dimension, but there’s a lot that I don’t understand about this story.
But Perry, I’m supposed to be talking about Perry. When Mister Sinister asks the trio to go along with his ludicrous scheme, Perry’s the one who stands up and says, “I refuse!” which is nice, although it doesn’t get them anywhere.
They just get bundled off to separate places for torture, so that Clark has a chance to break away and put on his Superman outfit. Lois and Perry are tied to stakes and left outdoors, where they’re attacked by a weird shadow monster of the dimensional-world, whatever that’s supposed to be. The monster doesn’t speak in rhyme, either.
Unfortunately, that about does it for Perry’s participation in the story; once Superman shows up, everybody else fades into the background. He takes care of the creature somehow, and then he gets shot with a ray that doesn’t do anything except kill time for a few panels, and Superman and Mister Sinister dive into a mysterious aura that takes them through the dimensions of length, width and thickness, and then back to the fourth dimension. That is what happens in Superman comics.
So eventually Mister Sinister just tries to bury Superman in henchmen, and he goes back into rhyming mode.
“The laugh’s on you! I’ll beat you yet! I’m the toughest opponent you’ve ever met!”
And he follows with, “Not bad for a frustrated poet, eh?”
“So that’s why you want to rule the world,” Superman observes, as he wrestles with a tangle of green-suited mugs, “to compensate for your failure as a poet!”
It’s page 13 and time to end the story, so Superman finishes up with his usual punch to the face, and a final poem:
“You think you’re tough. I say you’re not! Since you want proof, here is a sock!”
I’m serious about rhyming being a real problem area for Superman. He’s supposed to be a good writer, too; it’s weird that he’s so bad at this. You have to imagine that it leaves him open for some kind of poetry-based attack. Offhand, I can’t think of any other poetry-themed superfoes, but I bet Batman has one; that kind of thing has Batman written all over it.
Anyway, sorry. I got a little off track, there. What were we talking about, again?
It is Central Park West,
and Juliet is the sun…
1.70: The Other Balcony Scene
— Danny Horn