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Happy Birthday, Big Guy! Here’s to the Lost Years…

by  in Comic News Comment

And by ‘big guy,’ of course, I mean… Superman.

Specifically, I’m talking about the pre-Crisis Superman. His birthday, according to DC Comics, is February 29th. That’s straight from E. Nelson Bridwell and if anybody at DC knew that stuff, it was him. He was THE MAN when it came to DC trivia.

But what’s this about ‘lost years,’ you ask?

Well, as it happens there was also this article in The Atlantic that annoyed me no end, partly because of what it got right– the increasing desperation since the 1980s of DC’s various attempts to ‘fix’ Superman– but I was annoyed more about what it got wrong.

Because there was one time it actually worked, and there is something of a conspiracy of silence about it.

There’s been a certain amount of historical revisionism about all that seventies Superman stuff; I suspect because most of those histories are being written by fans who only started reading comics in the eighties and nineties and grew up sneering at boring old ‘silver age’ Superman. This thing in The Atlantic is just the latest example. There’s almost an unspoken agreement among comics historians to ignore the run where Julius Schwartz, Cary Bates, Elliott Maggin, and others actually did fix Superman.

I was there. I started reading comics in 1968, and I have vivid memories of how that seventies Superman revamp actually played out. And it doesn’t deserve the brushoff it gets most of the time.

This is what happened. Most people who know anything about Superman know about Mort Weisinger’s tenure as editor and what was affectionately dubbed the ‘kryptonite sixties.’ A lot of the Superman mythology came out of that, starting with Brainiac and the bottle city of Kandor in 1958, and then adding all sorts of things like Supergirl and the Phantom Zone and Mon-El, and all the Bizarro stuff, and the planet Lexor where Luthor is a hero, and so on. “Last son of lost Krypton” was the hook most of it hung on. Weisinger was a science-fiction veteran and he had SF legend Edmond Hamilton writing many of the books, and between the two of them Superman took on a galactic scale. By the mid-sixties there was a whole history and geography of Krypton– the Scarlet Jungle, the Jewel Mountains, Kryptonopolis and Kandor and Argo City and all of that.


But it was all aimed at little kids. You look at the Superman books of the fifties and sixties today and what stands out is the “superdickery,” but look a little harder and what you’ll see is the wish-fantasy of a bright nerdy eight-year-old boy. Yeah, everyone jeers at him, especially those bitchy girls, but HA! if they only knew about his REAL life where he gets to fly all over the place and hang out in his secret fort with all the cool toys and awesome friends and super-pets… why, then those icky girls would change their tune about Clark in a hurry.



Seen through modern adult eyes of course it looks like Superman’s a jerk. But it was never meant for adults. I know it seems absurd to most of you reading this, whose only experience of buying comics is probably visiting a specialty retailer catering to the Sheldon Coopers of the world, but once upon a time, folks like that weren’t the intended superhero audience. That era of Superman comics sold like gangbusters because kids actually read comics then, and the added push from TV made Superman the gateway title for a lot of us.

But the superhero readership was changing. The comics audience was skewing older as Marvel picked up more and more readers, and suddenly DC was getting branded as the stodgy, kid’s table publisher. So DC started remaking their heroes and trying to ‘modernize them.’ A lot of DC characters got revamps right around that time. Robin went to college as Batman became THE Batman, Green Lantern partnered up with Green Arrow and went to find the Real America, Wonder Woman lost her powers and took up kung fu, and so on and so on.




It took a couple of years for them to get around to Superman; Mort Weisinger was still editor and he had been running his own little monarchy in the Super office, but Weisinger finally retired in 1970. Julius Schwartz took over as editor, and he was determined to shake up Superman and modernize him as well.


The biggest change was Jack Kirby taking over Jimmy Olsen and all the Fourth World stuff he incorporated into that title. But the other Super books got all hip and groovy too. Supergirl got a series of new outfits and ‘relevant’ storylines, and Lois Lane got a hip relevance makeover as well. (Though it has to be said that Robert Kanigher, who was writing Lois Lane, had a ludicrously tin ear for this sort of thing and as a result ‘relevant’ Lois is mostly just embarrassing.)




And in the main books, Clark Kent became a TV reporter, all Kryptonite was destroyed, and Superman was de-powered to about two-thirds of what he had been before. Denny O’Neil orchestrated most of this in the “sand creature” story arc collected in Kryptonite Nevermore.



So far, so good. Most of you reading this probably have a cursory awareness of all that history, especially if you are familiar with the comics blogosphere. There have been hundreds of bloggers hooting and laughing at all the groovy hip seventies cool relevance applied to a square like Superman. And a great deal of it is justified.



A lot of that stuff is cringeworthy, no question. But here’s the thing…

…most of those revamps didn’t stick. Denny O’Neil wasn’t comfortable on Superman, he never felt like he had a handle on the character, and his tenure as writer didn’t last long. Supergirl and Lois Lane got canceled. Kirby didn’t last much longer on Jimmy Olsen than Denny O’Neil did on Superman, and pretty soon he was off doing stuff like Kamandi and The Demon instead.

So what we got, essentially, was a revamp of the revamp, a couple of years in. Elliott Maggin and Cary Bates took over as the main writers on Superman and Action. Supergirl and Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen all got their solo titles folded into one super-sized book, Superman Family. Curt Swan and Bob Oksner and Kurt Schaffenberger settled in as the main artists. And in a quiet, non-fanfare, craftsmanlike way, they started tearing it up. The books got really good. And they stayed pretty good for well over a decade.



Overwrought, ‘relevant’ drama was downplayed in favor of fun puzzle stories and wry humor. A Viking riding a dragon invades Metropolis and Superman has to figure out where he came from and how to put him back. Analogues of Captain Marvel, Popeye and Zardoz showed up to challenge Superman. An alien minstrel wants Superman to star in his new epic poem. That kind of thing. It was often goofy but it was fun, clever goofy, and readers were in on the joke.



Because there wasn’t anything particularly groundbreaking going on, the books never became fan favorites, they never got the buzz or awards that books like Warlock or Swamp Thing or Howard the Duck were getting around that same time… but on the other hand, most of those fan-favorite award winners got canceled after a year or two. Superman comics sold well, month in and month out. Kids were still digging them. They were accessible to a general audience. Hell, they still sold to me fairly often, and I was pretty sophisticated about my comics by the late seventies. Moreover, when it came to DC I considered myself a Batman guy. Even so, the right Superman cover would still get my attention.

So, in honor of February 29th and as a sort of nose-thumbing neener-neener to certain Atlantic writers who don’t do proper research, here are a bunch of my favorites from that era. (Defining ‘era’ for the more pedantic among you, I mean the run that begins with Action #398, when Clark Kent starts working for WGBS as an anchorman, and ending with Action #583, the conclusion of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”)



There’s no particular rhyme or reason to these other than that I think they’ve been unfairly overlooked. Most haven’t been reprinted at all, and the ones that have are only in books that are themselves long out of print. But you probably could find back issues from a dealer without too much trouble, because, as I said earlier, these aren’t really fan favorites. They’re just my favorites.

Starting on the next page…

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The Batgirl Stories!



These were a great time, the sort of entertaining one-offs you don’t get much any more. Believe it or not, once upon a time a Bat character wasn’t an automatic sale. DC had finally put Batgirl to rest after a stuttering, on-again, off-again career of backup stories and guest appearances. Barbara Gordon went to Washington DC to be a congresswoman and that was it for Batgirl.

That is, until Superman mentioned to his pal Batman that he was going to be in DC and Batman suggested Clark should hook up with Barbara. World’s Finest Bro. Unfortunately, since no one knew anyone’s secret identity, Barbara thinks Clark’s a bit of a drip and Clark thinks a hot redhead like Barbara can’t possibly be as lonely as Bruce made her out to be.


But then Clark gets taken and Barbara has to suit up as Batgirl one more time… it all led to a “Wild Weekend in Washington!” This Batgirl-Superman tale was so much fun that fans demanded more, and we got its follow-up a little while later when Barbara comes to Metropolis to help out Superman with “The Menace of the Energy Blackmailers!”


The real fun of the story isn’t the plot or the villains, but the character asides. Like when Barbara meets Clark Kent’s nemesis, doofus WGBS sportscaster Steve Lombard.


I said most of these haven’t been reprinted, though these two have– not in a Superman book, but in Showcase Presents Batgirl. Still, at least they’re out there.

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Speaking of doofus Steve Lombard, there’s the “Secret of the Phantom Quarterback,” the tale that introduced him, from Superman #264 by Cary Bates, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson.



As often happened back then, the plot is driven by an innocent science experiment gone awry. This time it’s a medical experiment, a ray to heal Lombard’s bad knees, which– because sunspots, I guess– inadvertently created an energy duplicate of Lombard that Superman has to stop. But the important part is that Morgan Edge is so impressed with Lombard he hires him to be part of the WGBS news team, creating years of subsequent annoyance for poor Clark Kent.


After all, the only thing missing from Clark Kent’s nerdy life was a jock to pick on him. Lombard was a fixture in Superman comics throughout the seventies, even getting a fairly large role in Eliott Maggin’s two Superman prose novels. Sadly, after Crisis on Infinite Earths he was almost never seen again, though Sterling Gates brought him back briefly in his all-too-short run on Supergirl a couple of years ago. Pity. The ongoing office conflict of insults and practical jokes between Steve Lombard and Clark Kent was one of the better running gags anyone ever devised for a series; at its best it was right up there with Mr. Spock vs. Dr. McCoy… or possibly Daffy Duck constantly trying to one-up Bugs Bunny.

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A little-known gem that deserves more love from fans would certainly be this one… “Villain! Villain! Who’s Got the Villain?” from Superman Annual #9, by Eliott Maggin and the legendary Alex Toth.


This one’s mostly for the art. Alex Toth on Superman (And Batman! and Luthor! And everyone else!) is just not to be missed.


But the story’s fun too. No clue why it never gets reprinted. The art alone ought to put it on a short-list for a Superman collection, but since it’s from an annual and runs thirty pages, it probably gets bumped in favor of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons story “For the Man Who Has Everything” that ran in an annual two years later. You all know that one, I’m sure. But there were other good Superman Annuals and this was one of them.

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Before there was DC Presents, there was a brief time in World’s Finest when Superman teamed up with a different hero every month. I was completely on board with this idea and it led to some interesting stories…. like this one with Dr. Fate. “Peril of the Planet-Smashers!” by Len Wein and Dick Dillin, from World’s Finest #208.



Superman visits Dr. Fate in order to overcome his weakness for magic, but Fate drafts him to help out with the planet-smashing peril instead. The reason it’s here, apart from the fact that I got it off the stands back in the day and I’m sentimental, is this: a typical fan sneer about old-school Superman is that “he’s too powerful, anyone who can juggle planets is too strong to do interesting stories about. It makes him boring.”

Well, this is a non-boring story where Superman actually moved a planet. Really, it was just continents, it didn’t happen all the time, there was no juggling, and it was awesome.



Even Superman realizes it was pretty cool, because he decides the experience taught him that it’s okay that magic works on him and he should let it go. Ironically, for all the ‘juggling planets’ crap that gets tossed around, that wasn’t Superman’s thing. That was more the Spectre’s jam.

At any rate, I’m pretty sure this particular World’s Finest is the story Grant Morrison was thinking of when he had Superman move the moon in JLA years later.

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Another sentimental pick is this one, “At Last– Clark Kent, Superhero!” By Eliott Maggin and Curt Swan from Action Comics #443.


It gets overlooked a whole lot because the cover doesn’t showcase it, but it was a classic ‘gimmick’ story from the time. Pose an odd puzzle or a weird situation and then play it out. In this particular case, it about Superman and Clark Kent inexplicably switching places– and roles. Clark is the hero and Superman is the nerdy secret identity. All part of a plan to rescue the Justice League from the Anti-League led by the Queen Bee. It’s absurd, but it is also great fun.



And once they’re rescued and Clark and Superman are restored to their proper roles, Superman even gets the League to help him put one over on that jerk Lombard.


I kind of love that Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen, DC’s two grimmest and saddest characters today on film and television, once were persuaded to do stuff like this just because Clark Kent told them it would be funny. You sure-God don’t see that any more.

More on the next page!

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“Who Took the Super out of Superman?” was a rarity of the time– a FOUR-PART epic that ran from Superman #296 to #299. Co-written by Maggin and Bates and illustrated by Curt Swan and Bob Oksner.





It’s another one that manages to include all the plot puzzles and character bits of that era of stories. In fact, it’s almost a greatest-hits collection. The gimmick is that Superman discovers that when he is dressed as Clark Kent, he has no powers. The character bit is that he thinks this is his own subconscious trying to make him decide between his two lives. So he decides he’ll try it both ways– live fully as Superman with no Clark, and fully as Clark without Superman.



The important realization here is, of course, that Clark finally has a shot with Lois.


It all turns out to be an alien plot to destroy the Earth. Superman takes out an entire Rogues Gallery of foes recruited by the mysterious Mr. X and saves the day, deciding afterward that it’s really a false dichotomy– he’s equally Clark and Superman and that’s just how it is. Sadly, part of this decision was going back to being a nebbish in front of Lois, and she doesn’t take it at all well.


Still a classic, though, and except for 1981’s Great Superman Collection that’s long out of print, I don’t think it’s ever been collected in a book edition.

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“Gorilla Grodd’s Grandstand Play!” from Action #424 by Maggin, Swan and Anderson is another overlooked little gem.


This was actually when I first encountered the character of Gorilla Grodd and the whole concept of Gorilla City, but Maggin got me up to speed quickly. As befits something from Action, the story’s mostly a straight-ahead battle, but with a couple of clever twists. The first is that Superman is actually beaten by Grodd at first, and is presumed dead for a couple of pages.



We know this can’t be so, the big guy clearly took a dive, because a sobbing Lois hurls herself into Clark Kent’s arms and tells him that perhaps they can find comfort together. Clark, for the sake of decorum, does not respond with WOOHOO!

But later, when all is revealed and Grodd’s safely under lock and key, Clark brings up their tender moment to Lois again. She shuts him down pretty hard. Clark leaves quietly and…


I know, it’s genuine Superdickery, but it still makes me laugh.

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The supporting cast got good spinoff stories too. I’ve always had a soft spot for this one.


Supergirl got to headline in Superman Family #165, in “Princess of the Golden Sun!”

This one’s kind of cool because Elliott Maggin shoulders the burden of, really this time, trying to give Supergirl’s strip some direction. Over the last ten years Supergirl had been moved from Midvale Orphanage to the Danvers home to Stanhope College to dropping out to go do TV in San Francisco, and that’s not even counting all the costume changes she’d had over in Adventure with Mike Sekowsky. No one quite knew how to make the character go, although she’d finally landed on a new outfit, the blouse-and-shorts combo that was to last a decade or so.

Here’s Maggin defining the problem.


His answer was to send Linda to Florida to become a counselor. Of course she can’t just QUIT, the strip is called “Supergirl” after all, but the idea was to give Linda interesting things to do as well.


It was a good try, but it didn’t really stick either. Shame really, because it was an idea with a lot of juice in it… but it needs a certain kind of writer to do that monthly, and apparently they didn’t have one. Unfortunately, DC never really did figure it out, which is why they ended up killing her in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

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“The Miraculous Return of Jonathan Kent!” by Cary Bates and Curt Swan, from Action Comics #507 and #508, is one of my favorite Superman stories.



It was another rare multi-part story, but it was worth it. The main villain is pretty silly, a hippie named Starshine who’s able to make anything happen with his voice (this was in the innocent days before Preacher) and is running amok in Metropolis. But the real fun of the story is old Pa Kent suddenly showing up in Clark’s life again, even though he’s supposed to be long dead. Not a hoax, not a shapeshifter, it’s really him. He proceeds to screw up Clark’s life in ways only a well-meaning parent can, including accidentally giving away Clark’s secret identity to Lois….


….and Lois, in what may have been her greatest pre-Crisis moment ever, reveals that she’s not nearly as dumb as people think she is. It’s moments like that one that make this story so much damn fun.

The answer to Jonathan’s return is due to aliens (yes, again; but in fairness, it was pretty well established that Superman is a citizen of the galaxy, and so it wasn’t that weird for aliens to drop in.) Years ago in return for help with a crisis involving Superboy, they granted Jonathan Kent one wish, and that wish was to see his son all grown up. It’s only for a day, and at the end of it all is reset and no one remembers. As things turned out, it’s an interesting glimpse into what DC would eventually do: a lot of these ideas got revisited a few years later after the Byrne revamp and the Lois & Clark TV show.

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And finally, we have “The Last Earth-Prime Story!”


Elliott Maggin, Curt Swan, and Murphy Anderson literally sneaked this one past their editor– because it was FOR the editor.


This was a special story done as a birthday gift for Julius Schwartz. Yes, it’s a gimmick and a prolonged practical joke and horribly self-indulgent…. but they got away with it. It works as a story.


And it’s fun, which is something that’s never wrong in a Superman story despite what Zack Snyder says.

^

Anyway, those are just a few of my favorites. I could have easily done a dozen more. There’s no shortage… and this run is criminally under-represented in the books DC puts out collecting Superman’s adventures. Somebody should get on that.

After all, if they can do it for groovy Diana Prince and Hercules Unbound and the Creature Commandos, you’d think they could manage it with their flagship character. It’s something nice they could do… hopefully before his next birthday, four years from now.

See you next week.