SDCC: Remembering the Julius Schwartz Era of Superman

On the first day of Comic-Con International in San Diego, writer and historian Mark Evanier moderated a panel celebrating editor Julius "Julie" Schwartz time running the Superman titles at DC Comics. The panel featured writers Elliot S! Maggin, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman, writer and former DC Comics President Paul Levitz and writer/editor Martin Pasko. They shared stories about Schwartz, how the famed editor changed the Superman mythos and spoke about the atmosphere of the DC Comics bullpen in the 1970s. At the start of the panel, Conway, Pasko and Maggin were each presented with Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award, given to people who have made great "contributions to the worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation and fandom services."

The panelists spoke of how Julius Schwartz was initially reluctant to take over as editor of the Superman books, not caring for the character and having been friends with previous editor Mort Weisinger. Given the choice between editing Batman or Superman, Schwartz preferred working with the Dark Knight. At the time, DC believed their senior editor was supposed to headline the Superman books because the Man of Steel was their biggest character. Schwartz went on to work on the Superman titles and later said this was the better choice because he'd worked on Batman for some time and believed there was more of an opportunity to do something different with Superman.

Paul Levitz referred to Schwartz as the last of the old guard editors, the last one in the office to stop wearing a tie and often be referred to in the office as "Mr. Schwartz" rather than by a first name. "There came a point in the process, probably after 1978 or so, where there was an emotional softening there," Levitz said. "He was relaxing."

Marv Wolfman noted another difference in the 1970s was that new writers had grown up reading DC and Marvel comics and were influenced as much by the characters as by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. In contrast, many of the DC editors at the time did not read each other's books, much less the books of a rival company. "We were able to bring in a different philosophy from day one that could not have existed before," said Wolfman.

Pasko pointed out that Schwartz was much more aware of Marvel's success and appeal than other editors, adding that he altered his views on the audience when he realized the nature of readers was changing. Whereas before, Schwartz considered it to be a fact of life that people only read comics for two to three years before growing out of it, the 1970s saw the rise of collectors who not only followed series for much longerm but looked for back issues as well. "Consequently, the opinions of fans, the letters pages... meant a great deal to him," said Pasko.

The panel spoke of how the previous writing staff were men of Schwartz's age who saw it as a job and were happy to follow the editor's lead, whereas the new generation coming into DC in the 1970s was younger and involved fan writers who each had a vision for where they wanted the characters to go. According to the panelists, many writers at the time really wanted to work for Marvel but "there weren't enough books there." While other editors didn't like to hear this, according to the panel, Schwartz was open to their suggestions and change his approach on the books in order to compete. Pasko and Maggin pointed out that Schwartz shifted Superman away from single-issue stories dependent on temporary situations and gimmicks and encouraged writers to do longer arcs and character-driven pieces, as well as back-up stories featuring the private lives of Clark Kent and his supporting cast.

Though he had worked on Superman stories before, the first issue for the character that Schwartz actually bought was the "Kryptonite No More!" issue. The now-famous story had the Man of Steel's powers halved and all Kryptonite on Earth was turned into lead. Schwartz worked with the writers to work on plots that pushed Superman into moral conundrums and situations where he faced doubt like other heroes often did.

The panelists all spoke lovingly of Schwartz's encouragement in writing Superman stories that went into new directions and redefining villains such as Brainiac and Lex Luthor. Pasko pointed to Elliot S! Maggin's story "Must There be a Superman?" as a milestone during the Schwartz era, having attracted an unpredicted amount of fan mail and interest despite not featuring any super-villains battling the Man of Steel. This was one of the stories that made Julius Schwartz re-examine how he approached Superman, and editing in general, realizing that stories could be more about how the character viewed the world than whether or not he could physically defeat a threat.

On this note, and responding to the constant complaint that Superman stories are difficult to write because the character is so powerful, Maggin explained his own view to the audience.

"Superman stories are about moral and ethical choices. They're not about kicking ass -- I put [an action scene] in there, but everything else was about a moral decision. What [Schwartz] told me before I wrote the first one was, 'Are you ready for a Superman story? You know that's the hardest character to write.' And for years, I believed him," Maggin said. "The problem is not that he's too powerful, the problem is that he has to think and he has to make the readers think. And that's what separates Superman from everything else. So if you've got a Superman story that could be an Iron Man story, it's the wrong story."

Inferior Five #1 Subverts Expectation in a Post-Modern Superhero Tale

More in Comics