Friday, February 11, 2022

Just The Facts, Ma'am.

I had no more idea what I was going to write about today than yesterday, until I sat down at my PC after breakfast and read Redbeard's post over at Parallel Context. It wasn't the content of the post, Redbeard's spur of the moment decision to run a character through the Dark Portal in World of Warcraft, that got me thinking; it was the title he chose: Great Caesar's Ghost!

As he explains in a footnote, "Great Caesar's Ghost" was Perry White's catchphrase. It may still be for all I know. After more than eighty years of continual iteration, Superman's history is as dense and opaque as the neutron star that gave his Justice League colleague Ray Palmer his Atom powers. 

Redbeard remembers Perry White's tagline from reruns of the Superman TV show, which he watched as a child, a couple of decades or so after it was originally broadcast at the beginning of the nineteen-fifties. I remember it from the comics I read, first when I was growing up and then on and off for the rest of my life.

Seeing the phrase attributed that way, to something I'd consider a derivative version, started me thinking. I used to know a lot about the Superman mythos. I read all of the Superman comics I could get my hands on, the Man of Steel's own headliners, Superman, Action and the rest and also those of his supporting cast, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and anyone else whose name was ever considered sufficiently commercial to carry a book of their own.

I read widely outside of the comics themselves as well, or as widely as was possible back then. Over the years I acquired a good deal of knowledge, covering both the internal and the external construction of the legend, the literary canon and the commercial and circumstancial factors that shaped and moulded it. I had a fair conception not only of who Superman was but also why and how, an understanding broad and deep enough to encompass not just Kal El of Krypton but his extended family on Earth, his adopted home, and out into the stars beyond.

And then I forgot almost all of it. That's the problem with knowledge. It's not skill. Knowing facts is not like riding a bike. It doesn't come back, instantly, at need.

Memory is tricksy, though. It's possible to know you knew things once even though you know don't know them any more. Sometimes all it takes to bring back a memory is a gentle prompt. Like the title of a blog post.

It didn't take any kind of prompting for me to remember where I'd heard the exclamation "Great Caesar's Ghost!" In my memory it's clearly stored in the sector marked "Important - Priority Access", which should tell you plenty, both about why all kinds of media absolutely dote on taglines, catchphrases, running jokes, choruses and other heavily repetitive hooks and also about the kind of thing I've trained myself over decades to treat as worthy of note.

What I had forgotten was anything much beyond the bald fact that "Great Caesar's Ghost!" was what Perry White, Editor of Metropolis's Daily Planet newspaper, would exclaim every time he was surprised or angered by anything. Usually something Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen or any other of his hapless employees might have done to make his life more frustrating than it already was. 

Perry wasn't exactly J. Jonah Jameson, always ready to think the worst of anyone, but he was a newspaperman of the old, fictional, school. He suffered fools very badly. He was always prone to explode at the least sign of incompetence. He was a consummate professional with decades of experience. It must have made working in the same office as bumbling Clark Kent and gauche Jimmy Olsen quite a trial.

As I thought about what Redbeard had written in his explanatory footnote it made me start to question my own memory. For sure, I'd always associated the phrase with the comics I'd first read as a child but wasn't there something else I'd learned later, when I was digging into the backstory of how these stories became to be legends, then myths?

It seemed to me that maybe Redbeard was closer to the truth than my suface-level memories suggested. I could feel some kind of queasy undertow as long-forgotten facts began struggling to free themselves from the black ooze at the bottom of the pit of my memory. 

Once upon a time there would have been no easy way to reach down and pull those facts loose. I might have had to spend the morning up in a dusty attic, digging through boxes as I looked for articles in old fanzines. I might have needed to make a trip to the big library in the center of the city to riffle through the card indexes in search of books too obscure to be kept on public display. 

I might have had to keep the whole thing in mind until the next time I visited a convention so I could quiz my comics contemporaries in the hope their memories were sharper than my own. If I couldn't wait that long I might have sat down to write a long letter to whichever of my friends I thought most likely to know the answer.

All of those are things I really did, some of them more than once, in the 1980s and '90s. I remember filling out the form at the Cambridge Central Library so I could sit at a desk in the Reference section and leaf through Dr. Frederic Wertham's infamous, inflammatory "Seduction of the Innocent", the work of pseudo-science that led directly to the introduction of the Comic Book Code. I couldn't begin to count the hours I've spent paging through old 'zines looking for some article or other I only half-remembered, sometimes finding it, usually not.

I don't do that any more. Nowadays, all I need to do is tap or click, maybe type a few keywords, then there it is, laid out before me, the way Alfred might have laid out Bruce Wayne's tuxedo before a gala dinner. 

Of course, someone still has to do the research. It's just not me any more. Oh, I can call what I do research and I do. I call it "research", I call it "fact checking", I call it "due diligence" and I do a lot of it. I try my best to make sure everything I say here is supported by something stronger than just my memory, unless I make it quite clear it's pure opinion, attitude, fantasy or snark. No-one fact-checks those.

Most times, though, all I'm really doing is referencing someone's else's hard work, for which I try always to give full credit. And you wouldn't believe how much work some people have been willing to put in.

When I googled "Great Caesar's Ghost!" a couple of hours ago I was expecting to find a thread I could pull on to unravel the whole mystery, if there even was one. I didn't expect to find an entire two-part entry, fully annotated and attributed, not just with pages from the comics but video and audio clips as well.

The extensively, I might say exhaustively, researched piece, is called "When Did Perry White First Say 'Great Caesar's Ghost!' in the Comics?", which is literally the exact question I was asking. It's by Brian Cronin and it was published in 2018 by CBR, one of a myriad of comic-related websites I haven't heard of before. Seriously, there are so many...

I'm not going to rehash the entire Caesar's Ghost origin story here. For one thing, I very much doubt anyone's all that interested and for another, if I'm wrong about that, please follow the link and read Brian's piece - you'll learn a lot. 

I did. I learned that the phrase didn't originate in either the television show that Redbeard watched or the comics I read. As I vaguely recalled even before I saw it confirmed in the article, like a lot of things we now take for granted as being "from the comics", Perry White first grunted "Great Caesar's Ghost!" in the 1940s radio show "The Adventures of Superman", initially starring Bud Collyer as the Man of Tomorrow.

Specifically, Perry first said what would come to be his signature expletive on November 26, 1946, in
an episode called The Secret Letter. According to Wikipedia, there were an astonishing 2,088 episodes of the Superman radio show, which ran for more than a decade between 1940 and 1951. I heard a few of them, back when I was in the habit of listening to episodes of old radio shows while I was playing mmorpgs, although mostly I favored the private eyes and police procedurals over the superheroes.

Most, maybe all, of those radio shows are public domain now, so the ones that survive are easy enough to find. I used to use a couple of sites, mainly the inevitable and invaluable's Old Time Radio although there are also plenty of examples on YouTube these days. 

The particular episodes in question, The Secret Letter, don't seem to be there but I found them here, at yet another of the vast range of comic book resources, Comic Book +. I'm listening to it now but there have been a number of real-life interruptions and if Perry's called on the ghost of anyone I've missed it. I certainly know plenty about Kellog's Pep and the comic buttons you can find in every pack. More than I wanted to know, if I'm honest.

Just to drive home the way the very concept of "research" has changed out of all recognition in recent years, take a look at this. Three words and a mouse click and you can browse the entire collection. If you want the real thing there are plenty for sale on EBay and Etsy. I'd link to the sales but that's a link that's going to rot so I'll just say you can pick up some of the less-popular characters for under a fiver. Superman himself will set you back a strangely specific £27.68.

What would have been the chances of seeing even one of those pins back in the 1980s, when I might have been interested? I went to more marts and conventions than I can remember and I never saw a single one. As for listening to the radio show or watching the TV series Redbeard remembers... fat chance!

There are debates to be had about whether increased ease of access makes things that used to be rare more or less significant but I'm not having it here and now. I'm just happy to have been fortunate enough to have lived through both eras. It adds spice, knowing how hard this information used to be to find but I'm very happy it's not any more.

Well, most of it. And only provided someone's done the work in the first place. At the moment, all of this still relies on someone becoming sufficiently obsessed to spend great swathes of their time doing primary research. It doesn't always happen, as my recent complaints about not being able to find much hard information on Chimeraland demonstrate. There are gaping holes that information just falls through. Most weeks I try to look up something online and come up short.

And then there's the testing question of authority. It's all very well googling and clicking or asking Alexa or Siri but that should never be the end of it. It's always wise to cross-refer. There's still work there for the full-time researcher and the part-time blogger. 

I thought about doing it for a living, once. Maybe I should have given it a go. It's engaging and rewarding although maybe that's only when you're researching things that actually interest you. And you do learn things. 

For example, just this morning as I followed up some of the sources for this post, I discovered that, in the first episode of that Superman radio show from 1940, Clark Kent goes to work for Perry White not at the Daily Planet in Metropolis but the Daily Flash in New York. Did they change that from the comics, which would only have been going for a couple of years by then, or did the comics change the names from the radio show?

Great Caesar's Ghost! Now I have a whole new thing to check! It just never ends! Kent! Get over here!


  1. Now that's a fascinating read.

    I figured that the saying "Great Caesar's ghost!" was an expletive more common back in the day, but this is more interesting than I considered. I didn't realize it came from the radio show, but it's the sort of expletive that would pass the censors on radio back then.

    Kind of reminds me of my Dad, who took pains to never curse, and the worst I ever heard him curse was when he got so mad his face turned red and then he blurted out "Duck butter!!" The first time he said that my brother and I both burst out laughing. Oh, that was a mistake on our part...

    1. Apparently "Great Caesar's Ghost" was an actual thing real people said even before Perry White came along to poularize it. The original source is Shakespeare, specifically "Julius Caesar", in which the title character's ghost appears to Brutus. Superman wasn't even the first comic to use it - there was a short-lived newspaper strip immediately before the First World War called "Great Caesar's Ghost! And Great Caesar's Goat!" and I think that really is about as far into the whole thing as I'm willing to go!

    2. Zomg GCG GCG is… a thing. Thanks for sharing that amazing cultural artifact!!


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