When Superman first appeared, he had absolutely no qualms about killing people. He did it often, and to prove a point. He also started out using some tactics Batman would later pick up on. (for those keeping track, around the same time, Batman was much wussier and used a gun). Look, here’s Superman getting information from someone by holding them on top of a large building.

He even misses the building, and sarcastically (we learn at the start of next issue) says “missed — doggone it”. This man is terrifying to me. Look at the first lass he saves!

He doesn’t even untie her! For a man with superspeed and super strength, he really doesn’t act like a gentleman. The public certainly agrees with Peter’s assessment of Superman as terrifying, too. Look at the first time other people reflect on Superman’s actions:

He even earns a strange epithet, “The Most Dangerous Man Alive”, long before the slogan “Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird…” would replace the fear of gangsters with the awe of children.

The switch happened after the comics code came down in 1955 and didn’t allow superheroes to kill. The George Reeves TV show debuted the gentler Superman (starring George Reeves) and popularized that phrase. Superman didn’t always need to kill to be terrifying in these early comics, though. One of the most harrowing moments in his first adventures is when he meets a munitions dealer trying to stir up a war with Europe to save the economy (yea, these comics were written a year after the second world war broke out, before America’s involvement. Siegel was onto something. Anyways, instead of killing him, Superman gives the munitions dealer another option:

There’s more to this story than that initial offer implies, tho.

Yep, that’s Superman in a uniform right behind the munitions dealer, and, yes, he accompanies him in war, never acting to save soldiers’ lives or fight against Hitler, but just to prove the point to this man that his business is killing people. He acts as a silent reminder until the dealer promises to give up the manufacture of weaponry.

Lotta things that made Superman into an interesting character would soon be effaced, but these initial stories are all breakneck revenge fantasies from the lower class. Instead of acting in America’s best interests, Superman’s humanitarianism often comes into conflict with the government. And he’s also so silent and violent in these comics, a golem for humanity instead of just a human.

yea, superman's gonna teach these biz-natches a lesson. They prefer alcohol to sandwiches.

Superman’s nobility has been confused in recent years with naivete and simpleness. These initial appearances present him as anything but. Often taking off his flashy blue and red costume to don another, in his third appearance he becomes a coal miner for a quarry owned by a lazy and stingy owner not investing anything substantial in safety measures. So he traps the owner, as well as all of his dinner party’s guests in a mine, leaving them to the mercy of his inadequate safety measures. Superman (when written well) isn’t about being stupidly altruistic. He’s about changing the world with his deeds and journalism. He just comes across as simple because he tries to be as mighty and unobtrusive as possible, a silent figure darting out in the night, or a silent reporter taking notes and photographs that will later help unravel businesses.

People often forget this about Superman, though. Even people who are paid very well to write him. I like to imagine these hacks waking up in a guilty sweat to a silent Superman standing over their bed, heavy and forceful breaths cascading over their skin like the wind currents around an approaching hurricane, simply saying, “remember who I used to be” and leaving in the night.