Grumpy Old Fan | Putting a smiley face on the 1970s Superman

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Putting a smiley face on the 1970s Superman

DC’s superhero comics of the ‘70s and ‘80s will always fascinate me — not just because I grew up on them, but because they represented the first steps past the Silver Age. While the latest members of Marvel’s Bullpen sought to maintain the momentum Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko brought to their creations, DC’s writers, artists, and editors took their iconic charges in new directions. We all know what Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams did for Batman, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow. We can see some of what Kirby wanted to do for Superman, and we know what writers like O’Neil, Elliott S! Maggin, Cary Bates, Martin Pasko, and Marv Wolfman ended up doing. Of course, the period brought two revamps (and a revival) for Teen Titans, the first making them into an un-costumed youth group, and the second involving Wolfman and George Pérez….

… and at this point the post threatens to turn into another Tom Goes Down The Old-Comics Rabbit Hole extravaganza. Haven’t we had enough of these indulgences?

Well … yes and no. I bring it up (again) on account of the Retro-Active books, and specifically Retro-Active ‘70s-style Superman. I talked about the book’s merits in our last What Are You Reading? roundup, so today let’s look at the nuts and bolts of Superman in the Bronze Age.

When shady media mogul Morgan Edge* made Clark Kent a broadcast journalist in January 1971’s Superman #233, it changed the dynamic of Superman’s supporting cast. Instead of his familiar interplay with boss Perry White, rival Lois Lane, and pal Jimmy Olsen, Clark was isolated either behind the anchor’s desk or out in the field. Paradoxically, as GBS’ answer to Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Frank Reynolds, he was more recognizable than ever. Eventually he developed new relationships (for example, with Edge and with loutish sportscaster Steve Lombard) and refined old ones (including with eventual co-anchor Lana Lang); and the Superman titles settled into a comfortable groove.

Additionally, the ‘70s Superman supporting cast extended past Clark’s workplace. Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor). Then there were old friends from Clark/Superboy’s Smallville years like Pete Ross and the Legion of Super-Heroes; not to mention Superman’s colleagues in the Justice League.

I can’t say whether it was a lot to remember, because I was not a regular reader of the Superman books until the 1986 revamp. However, I can tell you that, as a casual reader, it never seemed intimidating. Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations. At their best they gave the Superman titles diverse perspectives on life with Superman. Other times, though, they threatened to clog the books with subplots. This, plus the sheer volume of post-revamp titles (three main monthly Superman books from 1987-91, and four from 1991-2003) makes the thought of re-reading that era pretty daunting.** Not that I wouldn’t do it — even the mullet years — but it might take some vacation time.

No, I liked what I read of the Bronze Age Supes because (Superman Family aside) it kept the focus on Superman. It just gave him a pretty wide world of friends and colleagues. At the same time, though, Supes’ caretakers never let the reader forget that their hero was part of this larger cast. I tend to describe this like a sitcom, with Clark/Superman instead of Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore. If that sounds a little suspect, nothing else really comes close. (Maybe Dan Slott’s current run on Amazing Spider-Man.) Even Curt Swan’s pencils — versatile enough to handle both the mundane and the dynamic — seemed to bolster this sense that Superman and his friends were just “on the job,” be it a fight with Metallo or a backfiring Lombard prank. It was an easygoing, inviting vibe — that is, if you didn’t find it a little too easygoing — and the Retro-Active ‘70s special (with a lead written by the veteran Pasko) recaptures it well.

In fact, for a while the Retro-Active books were making me wonder whether DC should run them on a more permanent basis. Call it Superman Family, set it on the Earth-One of thirty-odd years ago, make it oversized and bimonthly, and it might not intrude too much on the New 52. Clearly such a project would be a sop to the stereotypical lifer-fan who just wants things like he remembers ‘em. At the same time, though, walling off a section of the superhero line in such a way might then free DC to try new things, bring in new creative teams, and generally shoot for new audiences.  (It could also be an opportunity to diversify the Bronze Age supporting cast, something the post-revamp books did admirably.)

Or, you know, it might turn out like most other niche-continuity books DC has floated over the years: something which sells at best a decent amount and doesn’t stick around terribly long. I liked JLA: Year One, its semi-sequel Flash/Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold, and its spiritual heir JLA: Incarnations a lot, but clearly they didn’t produced a commitment to untold tales of the Justice League. While JLA Classified lasted four pretty good years (and for at least a couple of those years was more entertaining than JLA), it ended up burning off inventory stories intended for the main book. Legends of the Dark Knight had a very respectable run of over 200 issues, eventually giving way to Batman Confidential, but neither the latter nor Superman Confidential took hold with readers. A similar fate had already befallen Legends of the DC Universe, a late-‘90s title which lasted three-and-a-half years telling Hal Jordan-era stories in a Kyle Rayner world. The current Brave and the Bold title was mostly set in the present day, started telling flashback stories under writer J. Michael Straczynski, and it has wandered into limbo without ever officially being cancelled.

Thus, although there may be some demand for Tales of the Good Old Days-style books (like Marvel’s [X-Title] Forever series), they don’t seem viable over the long haul.  All-Star Squadron was one of the more successful alt-continuity titles, running for six-and-a-half years and yielding a spinoff (the then-current Infinity Inc., 53 issues) and a sequel (the wartime Young All-Stars, 31 issues). All-Star Squadron also had the advantage of its alternate continuity (on the original Earth-Two, but you knew that) being a part of DC’s larger continuity.  Thus, its stories “mattered” even though its protagonists’ fates were, for the most part, already known. Similarly, the continuity-intensive Secret Origins (1986-90) guided fans through such questions as “who replaced Wonder Woman in the Justice League?” and “how did the Legion get its original clubhouse?”

Alert readers will probably note that many of the aforementioned books can be traced either to Roy Thomas (who wrote the Earth-Two titles and the Golden Age origins in Secret Origins) or Mark Waid (who wrote JLA: Year One, the Flash & GL: B&B miniseries, and the first year or so of the dormant Brave and the Bold; and who edited many issues of Secret Origins). It never hurts to have an influential advocate for your favorite style of superheroics.

Unfortunately, I think the Retro-Active books are going to be the last glimpse we have for a while of any era except the immediate present. I’m eager to see how they sell, but my hopes aren’t high. They’re a bit pricey, despite an increased page count and some decent reprints as backups;*** and there’s also the whole “niche” aspect potentially limiting sales. On one hand it would be more convenient to read new stories in a retro setting; but on the other, the back issues aren’t hard to find. (Still, by now they’re also a little pricey, assuming you want them in good reading condition.)

While I am nowhere near chucking the every-Wednesday habit and going on a steady Bronze Age diet, I do think that period’s Superman books merit the effort. Most of DC’s other big titles haven’t changed as much. Sure, the Justice League got new members, and Wally and Kyle gave their legacies new energy; but compared to the consequences of Superman’s ‘80s overhaul, the others’ basics were essentially unchanged. The Bronze Age Superman was so distinctive, and the 1986 revamp so comprehensive, that now not only is it practically quaint, it almost demands a second look.

Let’s be clear, however, that I am not especially comfortable with this position. I try hard to be an advocate for progressive innovations, and I may want to take this back later on. Regardless, this setup was viable once — so maybe it could work again?

In the meantime, I’ll keep haunting the back-issue boxes for random issues, and testing whether those old stories hold up. John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Jerry Ordway, and editors Andy Helfer and Mike Carlin reworked the Man of Steel because he’d become boring and irrelevant in the eyes of fans. (They were also inspired significantly by the stripped-down mythology of 1978’s Superman movie.) Therefore, I’m not expecting to read a lot of groundbreaking stories.

What I remember, though, and what will drive me deep into those back issues, is the collective attempt (led by editor Julius Schwartz) to take the anything-goes Weisinger Era into a new decade. Superman got mellow in the ‘70s, but his caretakers did their best to keep him viable, accessible, and exciting. That’s worth exploring, no matter how much time has passed.


* [Created by Jack Kirby, Morgan first appeared in October 1970’s Jimmy Olsen #133. However, his early appearances, including Superman #233, were later ascribed to a clone created by the Apokoliptian Evil Factory. This is something of a “Doombot did it” retcon, although I think the Edge-clone reveal may predate the Doombot theory.

** [Granted, for a while there were four regular Superman titles in the Bronze Age too: Action and Superman plus the team-up book DC Comics Presents and the oversized Superman Family (and World’s Finest too, but that’s really only half a Superman book). They weren’t all interconnected, though.]

*** [Appropriately, the ‘70s Retro-Active reprint is June 1978’s “Superman Takes A Wife!” from Action Comics #484, the 40th-anniversary tribute which itself was a flashback to the Earth-Two Lois and Clark’s 1950s courtship.]