Happy Birthday, Big Guy! Here's to the Lost Years...

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...

Gary Larson's The Far Side Returning For New Online Era

More in Comics