Seeing as how we recently had a mention of Superman’s 70th birthday, at least as defined by E. Nelson Bridwell, I thought it might be nice to talk a little bit about the man himself — Bridwell, that is, not Superman.
For those of us that grew up reading DC Comics in the 60’s and 70’s, Mr. Bridwell really was an enormous influence, though you might not know it from just looking at his credits.
Although his credits are remarkable. He wrote extensively for Warren and for Mad Magazine (ever hear the punchline, “What you mean, WE, white man?” That’s Bridwell’s, from Mad‘s “Lone Stranger.”) He created several properties for DC that are still being used today, though other hands have altered them to the point where Bridwell himself might not recognize them.
The Legion’s White Witch has been through quite a few transformations since this first one, but she began as a Bridwell original.
Likewise, Beatriz DaCosta has gone through a number of looks and characterizations since her first appearance in Super Friends as one of the Global Guardians… but she’s one of Nelson’s too, along with her gal pal Ice who premiered in the same venue.
And as long as we’re on the subject, Bridwell’s scripting over Ramona Fradon’s art was just about the only iteration of the Super Friends I could stand. Even when I was a kid I could never stomach the cartoon. But there was a goofy charm about the comics.
Bridwell was generally the go-to guy throughout the 60’s and 70’s for thankless assignments like that; the non-glamor, non-fan-favorite stuff. It’s to his credit that he did so well with all those countless 8-page backup stories and text pages and 2-page filler features.
Which is not to say that he couldn’t kick ass when he was given the chance. Most of us that were reading DC in the late 60’s have very fond memories of The Secret Six, one of the smartest and coolest strips to exploit the then-current superspy craze. And it was completely original to comics, which is probably the reason it failed.
I’ve often thought this would have made a killer movie or TV show. Such a great premise — the idea that one of the Six really is their anonymous leader Mockingbird is a hook that’s irresistible.
I even enjoyed the followup-sequel-conclusion in Action Comics Weekly twenty-some years later by Martin Pasko and Dan Spiegle.
C’mon, DC, it’s a Showcase waiting to happen. Since you’ve finally gotten around to reprinting the Diana Prince/I-Ching years of Wonder Woman, this is the other ultracool series we really want to see a collection of. I’m begging here.
Despite my helpless adoration of the Six, though, objectively I have to admit that where Bridwell the DC writer did his best work was in humor. There are two series that are very fondly remembered by fans to this day, though for whatever reason they never seem to get reprinted.
Our own Bill Reed mentions Angel and the Ape as a Reason To Love Comics, and I absolutely agree.
With an ex-Madman like Bridwell scripting it and the wonderful Bob Oksner on art, you really can’t lose.
This was just a fun, fun book. So of course it didn’t last.
Neither did Bridwell’s other fun book, which Bill didn’t get to — I choose to think it will get slotted in one of the blank spots in the 365 Days Archive if one of us ever gets around to writing it up. Because certainly The Inferior Five is also a reason to love comics.
There have been many super-hero parodies before and since, but there was something so adorable about this one… even though it got laughs, there was an endearing innocence about the Five, as well.
Everything Bridwell wrote had that charm, actually. The gentleness and warmth of the man shone through in whatever he was working on.
(Incidentally, in case anyone at DC is thinking of reviving the Inferior Five, my pal Jim MacQuarrie has a great idea for it…)
Hey, I’d buy it. In a heartbeat. If ever something deserved to be parodied…
Despite his delightful humor comics, though, Bridwell’s lasting impact at DC was in a completely different area.
Where Bridwell shone at DC, and where editors used him most, was as an archivist. He served as a combination of librarian and archaeology professor, putting together the reprint collections that educated so many of us in the history of the DC universe.
Even in the DC offices, Bridwell was a human index, the person that always knew whatever arcane piece of DC lore that was needed. What exactly did Jewel Kryptonite do to Superman? Was Jim Harper a patrolman or a captain? What the hell was the last name of that kid “Stuff” that used to pal around with the Vigilante? Bridwell would know it and, sometimes, when DC was doing new stories in the front of the books and reprints in the back, he’d line up a relevant reprint to go with the new story.
His finest hour as an editor came in the 70’s, with the 100-Page Super-Spectaculars. Those were an education in themselves.
Check out that magnificent wraparound cover… and on the inside, Bridwell would give you a KEY.
I’m not going to try and reproduce the micro-text underneath that key here, so you’ll just have to trust me, it’s accurate and they’re all there. First time I ever learned there were two different versions of the Red Tornado was from one of these carefully annotated Bridwell commissions. This was also where I finally was able to get a definitive roster of both the Legion and even of their Super-Pets.
Which, granted, is probably kind of a goofy thing to wonder about. But Bridwell knew there were those of us out there who would look at those covers and want to know who was who.
Bridwell’s eidetic memory was also useful in putting together and introducing DC’s hardcover “30’s to the 70’s” collections.
There were three of these books and I think they were treasured by every comics fan who discovered the wonders of the 740’s Dewey Decimal classification at the public library.
Certainly I checked the Batman one out a number of times… and by “a number,” I mean “hundreds,” until finally I bought one of my own in college.
And it’s a damned crime that THIS one is out of print.
You can find the Superman and Batman ones relatively easily from a number of secondhand dealers… but boy, the Captain Marvel one’s hard to come by.
Not only did Bridwell choose the reprints but he wrote all sorts of introductions and in-between comments and things. I think my favorite of all the hardcover collections he put together for DC is this one, here.
The Great Superman Comic Book Collection really IS great, with a nice mix of classics and newer material. Much, MUCH better than the later Greatest Stories Ever Told collections, even with all the vaunted editorial debate and voting that went on for those later books. Personally, at least for the Superman Greatest Stories book I think DC could have tacked on Alan Moore’s “For The Man Who Has Everything” and maybe something from John Byrne to the end of this collection, commissioned a new cover, and called it done.
There is damnably little written about E. Nelson Bridwell, the man. All I can find is that he was born in 1931; he was fearsomely intelligent and well-read about everything, not just comics; and he was from Oklahoma and was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Cartoonists Hall of Fame in 2005.
And finally, he was universally beloved by everyone in comics who knew him, fans and professionals both. That’s what comes up over and over in all the different memorials and obituaries written about him when he passed away in the late eighties. “He was a great guy… who knew everything.”
As for his legacy, well, Bridwell was a fine writer and his work retains its charm even after several decades. That’s worth a writeup all on its own. But there are writers and artists that have had more individual impact on DC comics.
However, as an editor, and especially as an editor responsible for shaping the look and the lore of the company’s entire line, not to mention working on all its book projects and promotional giveaways — which is to say, the face DC presented to the wider world — I think Bridwell is second only to Julius Schwartz in creating what we think of today as the DCU.
Certainly he was the guy that was probably more responsible for my becoming a comics fan than anyone else. It may have been Adam West and Filmation Studios that got me interested in comics… but it was E. Nelson Bridwell and his magnificent 80-Page Giants that got me hooked on them.
So you can blame him, everybody.
Thanks, Nelson. You’re still missed.
See you next week.