75 years ago today, the very first issue of “Action Comics” rolled off the printers and introduced Superman to the world. Though the character had lived in the minds of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for years before that, the date is as good as any to celebrate the Man of Steel’s legacy as a character in and out of the comics.
CBR has been marking the occasion all day with features including Comics Should Be Good’s reader-driven countdown of the 75 Greatest Superman Stories of All Time and Mark Waid’s personal Superman trivia test. But it wouldn’t be fitting to discuss the legacy of Siegel and Shuster’s hero without speaking to some of the creators who have kept him alive in print all these years, starting with cartoonist Dan Jurgens.
A writer and artist with an unparalleled resume in mainstream comics, Jurgens is perhaps still best identified by his work on Superman in the 1990s. He was the longest defining creative force in an era that brought Superman into the modern day with massive storylines like “Panic In The Sky” and, of course, “The Death of Superman” and its subsequent “Reign of the Supermen” tale. Comic Book Resources spoke to Jurgens about his own history with the Man of Steel and how the character’s legacy with another iconic artist made taking on the task of drawing the comic a daunting one, why a focus on Superman’s humanity is paramount in making the character work in any era and what it will take to move the hero beyond 75 years. And stay tuned tomorrow for more talk with some of Superman’s iconic creative forces.
CBR News: Dan, what was your first exposure to Superman?
Dan Jurgens: I think for me, probably the first exposure and the first awareness had to have been TV. I was young enough that it’s hard to remember what the exact chronology was, but I’m 99.9% certain that my first exposure was the daily reruns after school of the old ’50s Superman TV show. I certainly remember that as I went forward and bought comics, the first comic I ever bought was a Superman comics. It started with TV, but then I’d see older kids in the neighborhood with comics, and that’s where it began.
Did you have an interest in drawing already at that point, or did the show and the character lead you down that path once you started reading Superman comics?
I think it’s more that comics in general led me down that path. As I started reading comics, I think it was first a matter of reading the characters and their stories, but then ultimately you start to question “Why does this art style on this book look different than the art style on that book?” Then you realize that it’s because they were drawn by different people. So I think it was the variations in styles of comics and the questions I’d ask myself about that led me down the road to the artistic side of things.
And did you have a particular favorite Superman artist that you identified with?
Well, like so many people my age, when I was young the principal three Superman artists would have been Al Plastino, Curt Swan and Wayne Boring. And I always sat there and felt that for me, Superman was Curt Swan’s Superman. In fact — and I’ve told this story before — when I was working at DC for about a year, Karen Berger, who was then an Editorial Coordinator years before Vertigo, needed somebody to draw a Superman story. So she said, “Can you draw Superman?” and I said, “No. Only Curt Swan can draw Superman.” [Laughter] That’s always how I thought of it!
That’s funny, though, because growing up your Superman was what I felt Superman was. No exceptions. Is it weird for you to be viewed like that by fans?
A little bit. I’ve had people tell me that, but it’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around in so many ways. I think part of that is because for DC, for a very long time there were these periods where Superman really was handled artistically by a small group of people. What they tended to do was find people who were working somewhat within that established stylistic range, so it didn’t vary a lot. Superman is not like Batman. Batman can survive any number of visual interpretations. I don’t think that same thing is true of Superman. But even considering that, back in the day they really seemed to go after this very clean style. In my head, that’s still how I think of him.
Well, what kind of impression did that give you about the character as a whole. Because of that George Reeves show and those Mort Weisinger-edited comics, there’s always been this very strong 1950s paternalistic idea associated with Superman to the point that today every interview done about him by movie makers or even a lot of comics folks is “We have to make him more relatable” or even “We have to make him darker.” As someone who came up reading that material after the ’50s were over, did you reject that old school take on the character at some point as being out of step?
Rejected is actually an interesting word. I don’t know that it was quite that, but I do know that I was certainly drawn to a more human Superman. For a while when Denny O’Neil was writing Superman, I think there was definitely an attempt on his part to make the character a little more human. And I think that is the key word we’re looking for. When we go back to some of the first stories I would have been reading the ’60s, Superman was so perfect and so was Clark Kent that there was almost a lack of humanity there. For me, it was harder to relate to the character. Then we saw Denny and a couple of other people try to humanize him a bit more. Certainly by the time John Byrne came over to DC to overhaul the entire Superman mythos [in 1986], he really was humanized a great deal. That’s where he started to become someone people related to a little bit more.
In many ways with Superman, everyone talks about his powers and what he can do and how do you dream up foes, but I think in many ways with Superman it’s not a question of what he can do, but it’s what he doesn’t do. In some cases, it’s stuff he refuses to do just because he does have the power to do anything. And if you start to figure out stories that way, you realize that there is a human component in there.
Tell me your memory of the time Byrne came on to revitalize the character. You were working at DC regularly on books like “Warlord,” but you’d turned down a gig to draw any Superman a while before. What’s your memory of the goals they set out to do back before he even hit 50?
I was certainly around then, and I was kind of — for lack of a better term — plugged into the system. What John was doing with Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway throughout their total efforts on the books was to make the character more what people could relate to. It was fascinating to watch and a lot of fun because I thought they did great work.
Did you end up drawing Superman at all before you got brought on to the books in 1989?
Hm. I know that I’d done some. When they were doing the relaunch, I was writing and drawing “Booster Gold,” and we did an issue of “Booster Gold” that crossed over with an issue of “Action Comics” that Byrne wrote and drew. So I’d drawn him there, and around the end of that I drew a Superman Annual that Jim Starlin wrote before I ended up moving on to the regular books. So the answer is yes, I’d drawn him somewhat.
Did those gigs become a trial run for you? What was it like transitioning onto doing Superman full time?
Well, as much as anything it was that I had started out doing a story with Booster and Superman primarily because I’d set “Booster Gold” in Metropolis. It begged some kind of story be done somewhere along the line. And I know that [editor] Mike Carlin had just come over from Marvel and was taking over the Superman books, so he gave me a call and said, “Do you want to draw this Annual?” At the time, did I look at it as a dry run? Probably not. I just looked at it as something that sounded like fun. “Let’s do it and have a good time and hope it looks good.” Probably that’s how it all started, I suppose.
Well, I ask because it seems like your official start on the series was “Superman” #29 which had a cover by you that was an homage to Curt Swan’s classic cover to “Action” #300. Was that a way to ease yourself onto the character? Were you trying to match your memory of Superman with John’s sensibilities?
I think it’s certainly a case where — and this gets back to what I said earlier — I really liked what they did. And I mean John and Marv and Jerry and Andy [Helfer]. John very successfully took Superman and put him in a state of existence that was better than what he had been prior to that. And as much as I liked the Silver Age Superman — and there are some tremendous concepts there that are fun to play with — I do think those guys took Superman and made him more acceptable to the reader. They made it easier for fans to relate to Superman and care about him. That’s just me. By the time I’d had a chance to work with the character, I found a tremendous amount of new stuff to work with. Just having Ma and Pa Kent still alive and isolating him more as the last son of Krypton, that kind of took him back to the beginning of the character in a lot of ways. And I think that made the character stronger.
At the same time, I have a memory of reading some of those early stories you drew — particularly “Adventures of Superman” #455 — where I felt your first run of stories really focused on the alien nature of Superman. You sent him off world and had him connect with a Kryptonian cleric and really delved into the Krypton Byrne had built that was a bit more sci-fi. Did you grow to appreciate the world-building elements in Superman as you drew him?
When you’re looking at that specific era of Superman, what had happened was a transition from the Byrne era into more of where we ended up going with the books. At that time, Superman had killed the Phantom Zone criminals. At the time, it was something of a more controversial story John had done because Superman had not yet established his code against killing, and so Superman opens up a canister of Kryptonite and kills General Zod and company. Then as part of a penance, for lack of a better word, Superman went off into space and into exile. We ended up doing this “Superman as Hercules” story in a way where he had the cape wrapped around as a tunic a bit and the weird-looking leather boots. That was an interesting place to come in because by the time he’d gone through that penance and atoning for his sin of killing, he came back to Earth in a different place. It gives you a good sense of his character and brings you back to earth ready to reframe his state of existence. And quite honestly, I thought that was some really great story stuff.
In a way, it completes the journey from the “Man of Steel” origin series and puts him back in a place that most people know and recognize as the classic Superman.
In a way, it does. And even that “Man of Steel” series John did was really good, strong stuff. It was six issues and it covered about the first four or five years of Superman’s life covering only the high points. You saw the introduction of Lois and the first meeting with Batman and all that. That started to reclaim Superman and got everybody to understand the parameters of who he was. John took it from there and developed it through the story with the Phantom Zone criminals and got it to a place where we could build on everything and take it beyond that point.
In your years working on the character, what did you learn about Superman’s place in the culture? Obviously, most people will remember your work on “The Death of Superman,” but that was part of a larger push towards these big event stories that allowed for some more news attention from the general public to come the character’s way. As you went through all that, did people’s reaction to your work change at all how you viewed Superman?
I don’t think I started to see Superman in a different way. I think what I realized is that the basic theories I had were certainly reinforced by what I saw in reality. For example if we go back to “The Death of Superman,” as we put together the story it wasn’t just about “Here’s a story.” It was the idea that we knew as we fabricated it that we had something to say about the character itself. Quite honestly, any time someone dies is when you hear the testimonials. That’s when you hear people talk about how much they meant to them. So we said, “Okay. If we take Superman and he died, all of the sudden you’ve got Jonathan and Martha Kent watching their son die on TV. They can’t even tell anybody that it’s their son.”
We got to see the world’s reaction to Superman there. We dealt with that in “Funeral For a Friend,” and we saw a tribute to Superman from President Bill Clinton. And everything we wrote about, we were writing and drawing before the story was in print. So all of the sudden, we did “The Death of Superman” and what we saw was the world reacting to that news in exactly the same way that we were writing it. So you’d see columnists at newspapers writing about how “Superman had been taken from us and what did it mean for our society that we could no longer have a fictional character like Superman?” or “I started reading Superman when I was a kid, and him being a journalist is what inspired me to be a journalist.” So we ended up with was a situation where reality mirrored the fiction we were already writing. We were talking about Superman’s importance to the DCU, but in reality we had writers and reporters talking about Superman’s importance to us all. I think that’s where certainly everyone got to see just how important Superman is as a character and just what he did to people.
Well, it sounds like you didn’t get quite the same response we see nowadays when a fictional character is killed and the internet explodes.
Oh, we did! [Laughs] We certainly had out share of angry fans. Mike Carlin was the editor at the time, and there were death threats, and I remember we got approached by a security firm offering us personal security. Certainly, the reaction was there in terms of negativity on the part of some people. What you probably didn’t have that you’d likely have now is that now there’s an insatiable desire it seems for people to hear about a story idea on the internet four months before it appears and render a verdict within the next three seconds as though they’d already read the entire thing and knew how it was all going to play out. Fortunately, we didn’t have that one in play at the time. Comic fandom in terms of its internet presence was in an embryonic stage in those days.
I felt like for a while after that, the Superman stories you guys did in the ’90s ended up influencing a lot of the broader media interpretations of Superman from “Lois & Clark” to “Smallville” to “The Animated Series” to “Superman Returns.” What’s it been like for that take to become mainstreamed in a sense after so many years of George Reeves and Christopher Reeve being people’s go-to association?
I always see a comic book character as a continually evolving process. Look, this whole conversation we’re having is because Superman is 75 years old. And I think whenever you work on a character like that, what you try and do is leave it in a better place than you found it in and contribute to that overall tapestry. You want to add to the character over time. I’m satisfied that we all got to do that, and yet there are certain things we’ve seen that have some durability. They get picked up on and become canon within the Superman legend, and that’s definitely fun. It’s not so simple to say “That’s why I do comics.” But you realize that it’s really hard to do that. So to be able to contribute in that way, it’s fun to see it payoff down the road.
I know that one time prior to “The Death of Superman” when we only had three books, there was someone who worked at DC who had a fairly lofty title who said to me, “I really like those Superman books. It’s the best kept secret in comics.” And I thought, “Wait a minute!” [Laughs] “I appreciate the fact that you like the books. That’s great, but why the hell are we keeping it a secret?” But that also illustrates where Superman was at that time. You’ve got to go back to the mid ’80s when you had “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns” and so many other things take place that were taking comics down a darker road. There was a time when DC really had a hard time finding people who even wanted to work on the Superman books. I wouldn’t say it was exactly a hard sell amongst the creative community at that time, but you’d be amazed how many people said to me, “Why do you want to do Superman? What’s there?” But if you look around at the industry at that time, the fact that we were able to elevate and celebrate the character and get the sales we did — well, I’ll pat myself and everybody else that worked on those books on the back because that’s not where the industry itself was going.
I read the “Entertainment Weekly” cover story on the new “Man of Steel” movie last week, and it seems they’re trying to answer the perpetual question of “How do we make Superman work today?” I don’t know why that’s such a hard question to answer for people, but what do you view as the answer to it? How do you keep Superman relevant past 75 years?
I don’t think — and there are probably people who will disagree with me on this — but there’s this idea that there is a particular illness for Superman, and my take is that the prescription does not change. First of all, it’s always important to decide who you think Superman is, why does he do what he does, and why doesn’t he do the other things he can do. We know Superman can solve any old problem in the world he ever wanted to. And you referenced some of the big stories we did, and you have to give those big stories to Superman. But as a writer, I really loved doing small, human level stories with Superman — the kid who might write in and say, “Superman, my father needs a heart transplant. Can you find him a heart? Otherwise, he’s going to die.” How does Superman deal with that? Those are the kinds of things that end up defining the character every bit as much as an “Invasion from Dimension X” story might do. It’s that sense of balance and human portrayal that is so important. It’s all about making Superman a character we can relate to and that we understand the choices he made.
Stay tuned to CBR tomorrow as we speak with Superman writer Martin Pasko about the legacy of the hero from Siegel and Shuster to the modern era.