Superman’s first great supervillain enemy was this bald mad scientist, a man who decided his brilliant intellect meant the way to go would be to devote his life to crime and proving his superiority to that strongman from another planet, a guy who never knew when to quit but whose super-science was never a match for the Man of Steel.
Oh, and if you think I mean Lex Luthor…nope! He came later and actually had hair in his earliest appearances. I’m talking about Superman’s original mad scientist villain, the Ultra-Humanite.
First appearing in Action Comics #13 in June of 1939, the Ultra-Humanite, real name revealed only much, much later, was a scientist whose experiments made him, as he saw it, far smarter than any other person on Earth. As a genius, he figured the thing to do was use his intellect to either take over the world or just be a master criminal to make himself fabulously wealthy. And, at first, he wasn’t much to look at.
Up until this point, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had Superman matching wits with crimelords and corrupt government officials and the like. Yeah, there may have been a guy with a gimmick or something, but this here is an honest-to-goodness supervillain…more or less. And he wants to use his intellect to commit crimes and become rich.
OK, side note: I read this old Spider-Man reprint by writer Roger Stern, introducing the original Hobgoblin, and that issue had an interesting take on the idea that crime can make you rich. The mystery figure finds Norman Osborn’s old warehouse of weapons and things, and after trying a couple of them out, he marvels that Osborn could have made far more money if he sold the gliders for profit as a legitimate businessman than he ever would have acting as the Green Goblin. Yeah, the guy dyed a costume a different set of colors and went out as the Hobgoblin to see what it was like, but that idea always stuck with me. How many supervillains could have made far more money selling their tech for profit than they would have robbing banks and the like? Point is, with that concept in mind, I don’t think guys like the Ultra-Humanite are as smart as they appear to be.
Anyhoo, the Ultra-Humanite would set up traps for Superman, and this was the Golden Age so Superman wasn’t completely indestructible back then, to the point the Humanite actually managed to stun Superman with some very high voltage once. But the Humanite’s greatest trick, the one hes best remembered for, was a bit more unique: brain swapping.
See, at one point, the Humanite figured he might be done for, so he kidnapped a famous actress named Dolores Winters and swapped his brain for hers.
That…is kinda warped.
The Humanite appeared to finally die in Action Comics #21. Lex Luthor’s first appearance was two issues later. The rest is history as Luthor would go on to become Superman’s archenemy, and the Ultra-Humanite would not reappear for a few decades.
When he did, it was on Earth-2 as a reoccurring foe for “Mr. and Mrs. Superman,” the Superman and Lois Lane of Earth-2. Eventually, the Humanite would transplant his brain into an albino gorilla’s body, and he’d become more of an enemy of the entire Justice Society. They actually seem to be his main adversaries post-Crisis, and his body-swapping once netted him Johnny Thunder’s body, allowing him to use the Thunderbolt to take over the Earth aside from a handful of superhumans.
In fact, more modern stories even gave him the name Gerard Shugel (after both of his creators), and there was even a story about restoring Delores (new spelling) Winters to life eventually because, fortunately for her, the Humanite hadn’t just tossed her brain into a landfill or something.
Also, the New 52 version apparently was an alien that fed on fear, but that sounds kinda stupid.
That said, the Humanite has made some appearances in other mediums. He’s popped up in a couple video games, was a member of Lex Luthor’s Injustice Gang on the animated Justice League, had a general nonspeaking role as a member of the Injustice League on the animated Young Justice and was recently the one of the Big Bads for the final season of the live action Stargirl series that not only featured the giant ape body, but he pulled the brain swap with Sylvester “Starman” Pemberton’s body. So, while the Humanite is perhaps not the least recognizable Superman foe…he is one of the most recognizable JSA foes.
Depending on which body he’s in.