Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ultra really was an awesome Superman villain

It's been months since I last blogged about Golden Age Superman, but I'm going to get back into it. I left off at Action Comics #20, when Superman's first (and at the time, only) recurring villain was the mad scientist, Ultra (formerly the Ultra-Humanite, but I guess that was too unwieldy a name). Ultra had transplanted his brain into a young actress, intentionally choosing that body and becoming a transgender character. In the next issue, Action #21, she seduces a male scientist in order to steal his atomic disintegrator technology. Siegel and Shuster never indicated what Ultra's sexuality was before he changed gender, so it's easy to imagine that he always identified as female and was attracted to men. That's pretty amazing for a comic from 1941.

I suppose we could dismiss it since Ultra's a villain and not meant to be a role model, but I think it's also important that the comic never condemns or even comments at all on Ultra's change. It's very matter-of-fact; not at all presented as evidence of depravity. I mean, Ultra is clearly insane, but no one ever talks about that being connected to her changing gender. Was that assumed or implied? Maybe, I guess. Golden Age comics were always light on explanations and motivation. Readers had to fill in a lot of blanks themselves. But that's one of the things I love about the Golden Age and it's awesome to be able to read about a transgender character where that's just a part of who she is. I'd love to know what grown-up readers of the day thought about that, if anything. Were Superman comics such works of fantasy that no one wondered about these kinds of questions?

As fascinating as Ultra's gender identity is, it's not the only thing the character had going for her. Also in Action #21, Superman learns that she's built a domed city inside an extinct volcano and has populated it with giant robots as guards.

Guys, why is nobody using this character anymore?

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