On Monday, July 21st, a strange visitor from another planet was celebrated much closer to the hometown of his creation than the planet of his "birth." The Main Branch of the Toledo (Ohio) Public Library held its "Superman at 70!" program hosted by comics journalist and historian, Jim Beard. The event was scheduled to be a multimedia affair, giving people new insight into one of America's most beloved icons while at the same time providing fans (old and new) with a glimpse of the future.
The evening began with Rhonda Sewell (the Library's media relations person), but is wasn't long before Beard was brought up and given the chance to take the fans through a brief historical tour of the history of Superman in comics. Jim fired up the PowerPoint and provided insightful commentary through a concise recollection of highlights from the Man of Steel's seventy years in publishing. Before that began, however, Jim shared a drawing from 1933 that Siegel and Schuster used to shop their idea around. Eventually, Sheldon Mayer (with National Periodicals, which would one day become DC) gave the fellas a chance and took the character on. Following his debut in "Action Comics" #1, where Superman grabbed the cover of the anthology, Superman was awarded his own title in 1939.
Chuckling about the "Superman 101" lecture-style setup of the filled to capacity room, Beard dazzled the attendees with rare photos and art samples, including a photo of Ray Middleton - the first actor to assume the mantle of Superman while working the 1940 World's Fair. His costume was resplendent in the Ben Cooper sense in that the word "Superman" was emblazoned as part of the S-shield.
Beard even touched upon Superman's supporting cast and the adventures they enjoyed in their own titles. Anyone who knows Jim Beard knows to expect one thing, and they weren't disappointed: among the images presented was "All Star Comics" #36 - Jim's personal favorite - from 1949.
Additionally, in 1949 things "got a little weird." Beard then covered the era of Superboy, the point at which "the franchise began to expand." In 1954, "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen" was given his own title that would continue on until the 1970s, portraying Jimmy's adventures. At this point Jim Beard refuted the presumed affinity between himself and Jimmy Olsen, in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
In 1958, "Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane" hit the shelves. The titular character's adventures would consistently revolve around Lois's attempts to get Superman to marry her. Four years later in 1962, Supergirl was introduced into the mythos.
1963 gave us the first taste of Superman Red and Superman Blue - among the most popular of the "imaginary tales." This would provide the "perfect arrangement" according to Beard, wherein Superman could connect with both Lois Lane and Lana Lang.
A cover depicting the many hues of Kryptonite gave Beard the chance to quiz his audience, which ranged from babes in arms to folks who "read the early 'Action' adventures." "Kryptonite. You all know what this does right?" Jim again cites the raging creativity as the craziness behind the myriad of kryptonite colors. For the benefit of those present, he provided a breakdown of the various Kryptonite colors.
- Green - weakens and kills Superman
- Gold - robs Superman of super powers
- Red - changes Superman in strange & mysterious ways
- White - kills plant life
- Jewel - amplifies the psychic powers of Phantom Zone prisoners
- Blue - kills Bizarros
Jim included a nod to the 60's Superman - Bob Holiday from the musical, "It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!" which was produced as both a television show and a Broadway production.
Among other notable highlights were some rather obtuse team-ups. "This was incredible, kids brains literally exploded when they found this comic," Beard said of "Superman vs. Spider-Man." He followed this up with 1978's "Superman vs. Muhammad Ali," much to the delight of those in attendance.
The audience applauded when Christopher Reeve's image appeared onscreen. At this point, Jim picked up the pace. Highlighting Supergirl's demise in "Crisis on Infinite Earths" and John Byrne's "Man of Steel" series. And, of course, no presentation would be complete without acknowledgment of THE event of 1993 - the Death of Superman.
Fifty-eight years after meeting Lois Lane, and following a six-year engagement, the two were married in 1996. At this point, Jim said it was time to look at the present and future of the Man of Steel.
Thirty-five minutes into the presentation, Jim was joined by James Robinson, Sterling Gates ("brand-brand, spanking brand new writer of 'Supergirl'") and Geoff Johns on a video conference call. Jim presented a question to each of the writers. Of Geoff Johns, Jim asked "How do you make your Superman comics so cinematic?"
Johns replied, "I make them as accessible as I can to make them approachable to readers." He also noted he didn't use narrational boxes in his "Action Comics" work, as he prefers to let the story tell itself through action and images.
Of James Robinson, Jim asked, "You are known for your very human down-to-Earth characters. How does Superman figure into that for you?" Robinson replied, "I never write him as an alien on our world," continuing to note that Superman shines through based on how he was raised by his "good, honest parents."
Beard then noted of Sterling Gates, "I just noticed you have the same initials as Supergirl," to which Geoff interjected, "Same wardrobe too!" After a rousing laugh, the room allowed Beard to continue his questions. He mentioned to Sterling, "Supergirl has all the powers of Superman, but she's something of a brat."
"Not the way I write her," was Gates' reply.
"So she's going to be responsible?"
"I didn't say that."
The first audience question out of the gate was why can't these guys help make Superman have a better movie presence with more engaging stories than the one recently released. "We're working on it," was Geoff's reply. Geoff clarified that he didn't mean literally that they were writing a script, but rather that they were trying to provide a shining example for the character's adventures.
Beard had some fun with Robinson and his English accent, asking him to say, "Mxyzptlk." Beard quickly pointed out that he could listen to Robinson all day.
One young fan asked, "How long does it take to make a comic?"
"It takes about a week to write one," replied Geoff. James expanded upon that, stating that it takes a lot of effort to compose a strong comic. Geoff mentioned that the three folks sharing the universe made it more workable, and James added that their close physical proximity helps as well.
A female fan had a two-parter: "Are there many female writers? And Part two: Will Superman or any of his colleagues ever address global warming?" Geoff was quick to jump on part one, pointing to Gail Simone and her work on Wonder Woman, an appropriate choice to mention for folks gathered to hear about one of Wonder Woman's closest compatriots.
James Robinson was handed the second part of the question, which he was unable to answer directly, indicating that global warming, while a concern, is not something the Man of Steel can flat out fight. He then added, rather mysteriously, " It's a good and valid point [Superman needing to address global warming] considering some of the things coming up."
James, " It's a good and valid point considering some of the things coming up."
A younger fan wanted to know the favorite Supervillains of the three writers and why.
Johns: "Braniac represents all the evil aliens could be."
Sterling: "I like Lex Luthor, because I'm balding."
James, "Wade Bartox."
What's the current status on the Superboy franchise? Geoff told the fan that "that's legally complicated" and DC would be the place for that question to be directed.
In current continuity, did Clark and Lex meet when they were teenagers? "Yes."
The trio hinted that "New Krypton" would be an epic story on a "Sinestro Corps War" level. Following the Braniac story, there will be 100,000 Kryptonians flying around the Earth, setting the table for why a "new Krypton" story needed to happen.
Geoff briefly gave his thoughts on his good friend, Michael Turner's passing when asked about how it affected them.
Some more questions from the crowd:
From beginning to end (script to finish) how long does it take to make a comic book?
A: Two-three months.
Will Supergirl be a book that I can give to my daughters to read?
Sterling, "It will be. That's what I'm shooting for."
How can a writer separate himself from others aspiring to get into comics?
James: "Have (illustrated) pages; that way the editors can see that you can tell a visual story. The last thing editors want to do is read a written proposal."
Who do you like better, Supergirl or Superman?
James: "I prefer Krypto out of all of them."
Do you guys find it important to be near your artists for creativity sake?
None of them live near their artists. In fact, Joe Prado translates the Robinson scripts for Renato Guedes ("Superman"), as Guedes works in Brazil and doesn't speak any English. Gary Frank ("Action") lives in Italy and Jamal Igle ("Supergirl") in Brooklyn.
Last question, " How many comic books have you all written?"
Robinson: "400, something like that."
Gates: "4." To which Beard chipped in, "Sterling those are the best four comics ever."
"I know, my mom says the same thing."
Beard concluded the evening by wishing our video-guest-stars well and turned back to the audience, "I hope you've learned a few things here tonight. Superman has been with us for seventy years, I assume he's going to be with us for seventy more."
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