Superman At 75: Martin Pasko's View of The Man of Steel

Last week marked 75 years since 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 marked the occasion with features including Comics Should Be Good's reader-driven countdown of the 75 Greatest Superman Stories of All Time, Mark Waid's personal Superman trivia test and a lengthy interview with longtime Superman writer/artist Dan Jurgens. To continue discussing the legacy of Siegel and Shuster's hero, we also reached out to other voices who have guided the Man of Steel over the years, and today we present one of the writers with one of the strongest takes and connections to the character during the Bronze Age: Martin Pasko.

Pasko came to Superman at a transitional time for the character. In the 1970s, the Man of Steel was attempting to shake off an image as a paternalistic, square-jawed superhero who seemed increasingly out of date after the popularity of the Marvel Comics superheroes of the '60s. Along with fellow writers Elliot S! Maggin, Gerry Conway and others, Pasko began crafting Superman stories that drew out both the humanity of the hero and the vast potential of his world including a new focus on worthwhile foes for the hero. Aside from reviving or reinventing heroes like the Toyman, Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk, Pasko also co-created new villains like the Atomic Skull and the Master Jailer who were equal parts brain and brawn.

Below, the writer recalls his early connection to Superman's alien status on earth and how those building blocks from the Golden Age Siegel and Shuster stories remained with the character over the decades and into his own work. Pasko draws the path of Editorial control over Superman's fate from '50s editor Mort Weisinger to '90s editor Mike Carlin, debates the various assumptions made about what makes Superman tick, speculates on Warner Bros. current legal strategies for presenting the character in the wake of ongoing litigation with the Seigel and Shuster families and meditates on the meaning of Superman 75 years on.

CBR News: What's your earliest memory of Superman? Were you introduced to the character through the comics? TV?

Martin Pasko: I have a very significant memory: My parents were of that generation of parents who were deeply traumatized by Fredric Wertham's book ["Seduction of the Innocent"] and the Kefauver crime commission hearings, so when I came along, they were of the firm conviction that comic books were bad for me. So I didn't grow up with them at all, or rather, I grew up with them, but they weren't in the house. The first comics I found were the Superboy books, at a barber's when I was five. I thought, "This looks cool!" But I didn't like the Superman television show. When you're that young, you don't put things together, and even though I was pretty bright, I was a little slow on the uptake there and I didn't put it together that the SuperBOY in the comic books was the younger version of the Superman character. [Laughs] So from the Superboy comics, my parents started to become convinced that comics weren't going to rot my brain and turn me into a gibbering idiot.

Then, I started reading the Superman comics at the barber shop. The first thing I remember -- and it was old and falling apart at the time -- was the "Action Comics" two-parter that introduced the adult Bizarro character. As I got older, I started to realize, "Oh, the Superman character on television is a little different from the one in the comics." Of course, I was part of that generation that -- well, I didn't write any letters, but you could see kids writing into the letter columns, and Mort Weisinger would constantly get "How come the TV series isn't like the comics? Why isn't there a Legion of Super-Heroes, and why isn't there Brainiac or Luthor?" Of course, Weisinger would have to spin these B.S. explanations like "Well, we made a strategic decision..." He had all these fancy explanations when the bottom line was that they didn't spend bupkis on that series.

What was kind of interesting was, in a paradoxical way, the cancelation of the television series enabled them to really cut loose. I learned later that there was a conscious decision on the part of Jack Liebowitz who was running DC in the '50s and '60s not to let the comic stray too far afield from the television series. The belief was that if there was too great a disconnect, the television series would not drive readership to the comics, which is what it had been doing. This was a holdover from the concepts under which the radio series was founded. The radio series was allowed to be a little more creative because it wasn't a visual medium and therefor wasn't competing too much with the comics. This is part of the reason why things like Kryptonite and Jimmy Olson and a number of other things were created on radio and then introduced into the comics. But anyway, that's why throughout the '50s there were very little appearances by anything resembling the rogues gallery that [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster had created in the '40s like Prankster and Toyman. They'd only appeared a few times. The most imaginative thing that they revisited in the '50s in terms of villains was Mr. Mxyzptlk. Luthor appeared constantly, of course, but he was just a big fat guy in a lab coat. Why he never appeared in the TV series I could never figure out, because Luthor could have been any one of those mad scientists on the TV show.

But it was very specific change that happened in 1958. It was the first year they thought there wasn't going to be another television season. Siegel and Shuster hadn't directly been involved with the comics in at that point at least eight years, and you had Otto Binder who was finally free of all the other work he'd been doing. At that point, Fawcett had completely collapsed and had been folded into DC. Between Binder and then Mort Weisinger feeling he didn't have to limit the imagination, you had in 1958 a sudden burst of creativity. You had the Legion of Super-Heroes. You had Krypto -- who was created in '55 but was suddenly appearing all over the place. You had Supergirl, of course, in 1959. You had all of these things that were the brand extensions of the Silver Age which people who like that period remember most vividly. That is what allowed the books over the next ten years -- until 1970 when Weisinger left -- to be as successful as they were without having a television series to rely on. They were starting to run out of steam by '66, but by then, the whole Batman television craze came along.

The Superman I grew up with was that Weisinger Silver Age Superman, and the Superman I contributed the most to was the Bronze Age Superman where what we were trying to do -- people like myself and Gerry Conway -- was maintain the same level of invention and imagination that Mort Weisinger had done in the 1960s. In the '70s, Julie Schwartz and Denny O'Neil had done a more realistic treatment which had lost that. We were trying to recapture some of that but redo it in more contemporary terms and story structures that were more competitive with what Marvel was doing -- more story arcs, a greater reliance on continuity. And we did it, to greater or lesser extent. Certainly it gave the thing a shot in the arm for a few years, and then [John] Byrne came in, and the rest is history.

I'm not sure if I've answered your question, but that's my perspective on Superman. Superman was the main thing I was into as a reader, and then as I got older, I got more into the Marvel stuff, so my tastes broadened a bit.

It's interesting to hear you say the TV show wasn't your thing.

It wasn't at first, but as I got older I started to like it more. Of course, now I appreciate it entirely from the perspective of someone who's had some experience in television production myself. It's really quite remarkable. As the years go on, you look back at what is probably the second-longest running television series -- when you count syndication and everything else -- in the history of the medium. Aside from "I Love Lucy," I don't think anything even comes close. I really think that if it weren't for the fact that Warner Bros. has other Superman material it'd like to be pushing, that thing would still be more readily available. It's still playing on a cable channel somewhere, anyway.

Still, we hear very often from people that boys, for decades, got interested in the character because of the power fantasy aspect of the show -- that desire to tie a towel around your neck and jump off the roof. Do you have a sense for what it was that drew you into the comics as opposed to the show back then?

Now you're getting into something that is so personal to me and unique to my experiences -- and I've talked about this in other interviews -- that I'm not sure it'll be as useful for what you're trying to do. But of all of the other superheroes I sampled around the time I was getting into Superman -- which would include Batman, Spider-Man and the others -- Superman related most closely to my personal experience. I was adopted from another country at a very young age. My adoptive parents were much older than those of most of my contemporaries. And whether through dotage or any reality, my parents invested upon me from a very early age that I was different -- in a positive sense. At least they tried to spin it as positive. Today, we'd say I was a geek. I was precocious. I had an IQ that I won't quote, but it was very high. I was constantly getting this message that I had to use my gifts for something positive and understand that I was a little different from other kids. That was all subliminal, but you can see the direct parallels to the character, obviously.

Modesty forbids talking about all this sometimes, but particularly when I've been asked about what led me to write the character differently than some other people -- Mark Waid and I have talked about this -- I really think it came down to that very personal connection. Where I think it helped me as a comic book writer was in understanding that it is possible to get inside the heads of these fantastic characters and find objective corollaries that you can see in the characters that make them real. It's one of the things I think Mark does so beautifully and Denny O'Neil did so beautifully at the top of his game -- really, one of the things that made those guys so good at what they've done.

But again, because it is so idiosyncratic and so specific to my personal experience, I don't know how helpful it is on an overview of Superman. I do know that I see the character very differently, and as a result I've handled the character very differently than some of the writers I worked with and most of the writers who have handled the character. Most of the writers think of Clark Kent as the real person and Superman as this construct. From my point of view, both Clark and Superman are constructs. The real person is Kal-El of Krypton, and whether he knows who that person is depends upon which incarnation of the character you're looking at.

In the very early incarnations of the character, it was similar to what we've seen in the movies where he had this very vague knowledge of where he came from, and at the very beginning of course he had no idea. This knowledge he had was developed over time as they developed the back story on Krypton. I don't think it was until the late '40s that through whatever science fictional device there was, Superman learned about his life of Krypton. Then of course by the late '60s because of all the debris and characters who had somehow coinkydinkily escaped the destruction of Krypton to show up on earth and the bottle city of Kandor and the memory chair he had...as they started to develop these devices for Krypton to be an interesting story setting with all these different places to go, it opened up the stories. He then became totally possessed of a sense [of] this identity of Ka-El of Krypton. You're talking about a universe in which he's got this bottle in his fortress featuring miniaturized extended family members, nevermind Supergirl and Alura and Zor-El and the rest of it. What else could he be?

I'm very, very surprised to discover that I haven't found any other writer who sees the character that way.

Well, one thing that guided Superman for so long after Siegel and Shuster were out was the idea that one editor at the company would call the shots on how Superman was presented in the comics. Mort Weisinger was the end all be all for many years, and then Julie Schwartz had his hand on the till for a while, and generally there was an Editorial top down sense to how the character was done on the whole.

More of a top down sense when as opposed to now?

Well, maybe not as opposed to now. I get the feeling there's been a weakening of that over the years, though not a total loss of it. What I'm wondering is how you feel that company control has affected Superman over the life of the character. Has that been a benefit in any way to the character's longevity, or more of a hinderance to how we could be seeing Superman?

Well, it's hard for me to answer a question phrased that way because I don't necessarily share that perspective. A lot of this has to do with what I've learned from working behind the scenes. The reality is that, at the point at which Siegel and Shuster were relieved of being the sole source of the material -- and that would have happened eventually anyway, because with the amount of material they had to produce, they simply couldn't have kept up with it no matter how many artists they brought in -- but at that point in the late '40s, there were two Superman editors. Jack Schiff was handling the stuff in "World's Finest" and doing all the Superboy stuff, and Mort Weisinger was handling "Superman" and "Action Comics." And there was kind of a competitiveness and contention between these two old friends. A lot of stuff that Jack Schiff initiated, such as Lana Lang, Mort didn't like because he just thought the strip was just aping Superman. "Okay, let's give him a girlfriend with LL initials, but we'll give her red hair." In fact, you can see instances where Bill Finger, who was the guy writing for Schiff, was just taking stories Weisinger's guys had been doing and twisting them around so they could be Superboy stories. There was that kind of jockeying for position into the mid '50s, when the success of the television series happened, for which Weisinger had served as a story editor, gave him the clout politically to take it all over.

All of these things you're observing are a function of internal politics as much as anything. Weisinger took all these things he didn't care for because they weren't his ideas and turned them to his advantage. Instead of resenting another character with a LL initial as a love interest for the character, he created three or four more and did the whole LL curse. He was really very good, as were his writers, of finding ways to "brand extend" Superman. They expanded on little themes because he knew -- and this is something we don't see comics do anymore because we don't perceive of them as being for kids -- but he knew that one of the things that was really appealing for kids was a certain sense of repetition. He had a wonderful gift, along with his writers, for being able to balance repetition in theme or in ritualistic kinds of things with new invention. If you look at the DC stuff as opposed to the Marvel stuff, which was created with a different audience in mind, you see that ritual. You see that idea of consistency. Flash's costume always came out of ring. There was the whole "In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night" oath in "Green Lantern." There were certain things in "Batman," like the Bat Signal. They knew that those things not only created a comfort zone for the reader, they were things the kids looked forward to. "Let's see how they do it this time!"

It was all about finding ways to do variations on those themes and depending on readers' familiarity with them to create ideas that were new and exciting for kids...those ways of doing comics don't really relate to today, and I don't know if anyone wanted to go backwards, that they could do it. What [Mike] Carlin did in the post-Byrne stuff was, in his own way and for his time, what we were trying to do with the Mort Weisinger stuff when we worked in the Bronze Age. To take the values that made the character so popular and express them in the terms that comics were structured, created and marketed at the time. So instead of the Silver Age, where the Superman family was interconnected to the extent those books could be interconnected, Carlin did that on a much bigger scale with the little triangles. He was just trying to do that in a new way, but he had what Weisinger did which is that he was one editor supervising the line.

You don't have that today, and you didn't have that in the '70s because of what Carmine Infantino did. This is why I don't agree with the premise of your question. What Carmine did when Weisinger left was purely political. Weisinger had so much power at that time that he was the only editor in the history of the company to be made a Vice President. Carmine basically said, "That's not going to happen on my watch." So the very first thing he did was that he broke up the Superman family of books as they were called across as many different editors as possible, and they all went in their own direction. [Mike] Sekowsky's books were on Planet Sekowsky. Kirby's books were on Planet Kirby. And Julie Schwartz tried to do what he'd always done, which was replicate the success he'd had with the Batman New Look in '64. And of course, Murray Boltinoff and Nelson Bridwell were stuck in the middle of all of this essentially continuing what Weisinger had done -- using the same writers Weisinger had used in Leo Dorfman and bringing in Bob Haney who thought in very Weisinger-esque terms. That's how you got the sons of Superman and Batman.

So what happened is that there was no unifying vision. Everything went off in its own direction and eventually had to shake out. That's how most of the Superman stuff ended up with Julie. But Julie started making declarations like, "No more Kryptonite. It's a crutch." It was, "No more this or that. He's going to be a TV newscaster." And these were mostly ignored by the other editors, including Joe Orlando, who came in after Kirby and took "Jimmy Olson" in its own direction. It was a mess! It wasn't until the mid '70s before it all shook out. At that point, Julie ended up doing the lodestar that everyone else was following. It wasn't really until Carlin, in '85, when you saw a singular vision where everybody would have these creative summits and get in the same room to plan stories. That's what really brought back the level of creative consistency that it had under Weisinger.

Over the years, one thing that's been said about Superman over and over again is creators saying, "We had to answer the question of what makes Superman relevant today." It's always that issue of saying, "This is not your father's Superman," where people feel the need to reinvent the character or modernize him since the perception is that he's perpetually out of step. I wonder whether that's really needed or if there's a way to embrace the idea of Superman as Superman. Is that something you came across in your time writing the strip?

That's a good question. What has always interested me is why they haven't come at it from the other direction. In other words, instead of trying to reevaluate Superman's values and ethos to fit the tenor of the times -- in other words, "We have to make him grim and gritty because he's too much of a boy scout" -- why not come at it from the other direction? That is, take the classic concept of Superman which you'll never get away from because there's always a segment of the population that thinks of him as a red and blue boy scout, and merely drop that down into the middle of an increasingly more cynical world. I mean, he is an alien character. Why not see what you get with that? I don't think anybody's been able to work that out because it's very, very similar to what they've done with Captain Marvel. And it makes sense with Captain Marvel because he's a naive, 12-year-old boy who's suddenly given a man's body.

I don't think that lightness and sweetness would necessarily work with Superman, but I think one way of coming at him would be to use the character as a way to dramatize the evils of society. I think you can get away with that by saying that he's an alien who comes to our world with a different moral compass. That seems to be the way that Chris Nolan and his people are playing it in "Man of Steel." Of course, I haven't read the script, and you can only tell so much about these things from the trailer, but it feels like they're playing it that instead of him being hokey, "Superman is almost this Christ-like" savior figure. And the iconographic imagery they're putting out of Superman in chains seems to be creating an image that he is Christ, and in the first movie at least, earth is going to nail him to a cross. That might be an interesting way of doing it.

I understand the question you're asking, which is, "Why is this strip even necessary?" And that brings it back to what we started with: it's a 75-year-old property! The most pessimistic way of looking at this is saying that it's just not possible [to make Superman relevant]. I can guarantee you that if the "Lone Ranger" film with Johnny Depp tanks as badly as some people think it will, there are going to be a lot of nervous people at Warner Bros. this summer. There is a school of thought that if something is that old, that iconic and that much of a legacy property of whatever they're calling it now, then there's a point which you cannot modernize it.

Since a lot of this sense of urgency is also being driven by legal concerns -- and as the litigation proceeds, it becomes murkier and murkier what Warner Bros. goals are in this -- my sense of all of it has always been that what DC was trying to do was carve out a very narrow definition of what was unique and original to Siegel and Shuster. And then they could in some way work out a licensing arrangement or deal that carved out what [the families] were licensed to participate in or able to exploit and then have variations on Superman that would be unique to Warner Bros. and be very clearly owned by Warner Bros. as opposed to what the heirs had rights to. I always thought the whole redesign of the costume was not so much driven by what they were spinning it as -- an attempt to keep the character fresh -- as it was a way to differentiate from the Siegel and Shuster version. It's now not clear to me that that's what they're doing because of the nature of their decisions.

One thing we've touched on that I wanted to ask you about specifically is Superman's villains. You mentioned the fact that some of the early Siegel/Shuster creations were on the outs during the TV years, but you also created a number of bad guys in your years on the books like the Atomic Skull and Master Jailer and revived others such as Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bizarro. I've always viewed Superman villains as broadly fitting into two categories: masterminds and muscle. How did you approach challenging the hero on that level?

I've heard that idea of the two different kinds of villains before, and it's always an approach I've rejected. Superman's powers make him a walking H-bomb. What I mean by that is that the very existence of those powers is an argument against using them. He is sort of his own self-deterrent. If you put him up against non-powered villains, you get him doing cutesy things like he did in the television series, and I always found myself playing that for comedy. An ordinary mortal perp would be trying to get away from him, and Superman would simply stamp on the floor, and the doorway collapses on the guy. That kind of thing that Denny used to do a lot because he couldn't figure out how to deal with that mismatch. At the time, most of Superman's villains were, as Elliot Maggin used to put it, "balding old men in suits." And you could exaggerate that, too. I'd always have Superman yawning at how boring this all was and making him make light of how he could dispose of these characters very quickly. But that's still reality.

For me, what was interesting in Superman wasn't his punching through things and defeating the villains. As I was reading Superman as a kid, those comics weren't violent, and he didn't use his powers for much more than moving mountains and saving people in an elaborate sort of way. Mort always had to do things like sending him to a planet with a red sun so he'd lose his powers before he could punch any people. That family-friendly vision of Superman was such in that day that they didn't want him punching people, but they had to increasingly do that because that's what Marvel was doing. So they brought in kids who were "Younger and hipper and knew how to write like Marvel!" which was how you got things like 14-year-old Jim Shooter coming along and creating the Parasite.

And the Parasite was really a key development in understanding how a great Superman villain should work.There, Superman had to use his brain just as much as his brawn. To me, that was the thing. Instead of thinking of villains in two different camps of mastermind villains and big, brutish, hulking villains, put them both together. That is why I had, for example, the Toyman use his mechanical clockwork to create a giant robot in his image that was several stories tall. It was hokey, but it worked for the time. It looked a lot hokier because it was drawn by Curt Swan, who is a very literal artist and had a hard time with flights of fancy. Jose Garcia Lopez was much better at pulling that kind of stuff off than Curt was, but then again, when you have a naturalistic story that drew on real human emotion, there was nobody like Curt.

I stayed away from Luthor for a number of years because he was overexposed and Elliot and the other writers had him well covered. I stayed away from Brainiac for the same reasons. But the characters that I did use and revive, I tried to simply make them bigger. I wanted them to be able to have -- hoping I could get an artist that could pull off the vision -- more dramatic and bigger scale action in their stories. When I revived Metallo, for example, what was appealing to me about that character was that his very survival depended on him utilizing something deadly to Superman that Superman would want to see wiped out. That very primal drive of, "I have to oppose you, Superman, because you literally want to eradicate my life blood!" let me reconceive that character instead of as a petty crook who was a robot from the neck down, as an intelligent man or a man whose moves were being plotted by a very clever scientist.

I was always trying to make the villains as smart as Superman as well as giving them the tools to go one-on-one with Superman. I understand the impulse in the Bronze Age to put Luthor in the power suit with the rockets, and certainly, when the material was up on its feet, they did the same thing in the animated series. But playing him as a character who was consistent to the continuity and manipulating others the way Byrne had conceived of him as this billionaire is a very, very clever way of doing it. I don't know that I'd necessarily have eliminated the scientific genius part of it, though of course, that came back later on.

I do get what you're saying, though I don't know why the other writers had to compartmentalize the villains into one thing or another. To me, it seemed very natural to let both the brains and the brawn go together to make a formidable antagonist for Superman.

To wrap, I was wondering what your take on both the longevity and the future of Superman are. Do you have a sense for why you think this character has lasted for 75 years? And what will it take to keep him going for years after this?

It seems to me it's the savior idea or theme -- the idea that there's someone nobler, wiser, bigger than ourselves, who can understand the sins that fleshes ere to but who can come from outside and sacrifice himself in some way. That's the element of the character that's been one of the most interesting to me. Of course, he doesn't literally sacrifice himself...unless you're doing "The Death of Superman," which took that trope to its logical conclusion. But he is sacrificing for us. He's living a lie. He's not Clark Kent. Or at least what you see of Clark Kent is not all he is. That tragic dimension of the character needs to be there in order for him to be noble. That's one of the elements I think some iterations have tried to write out, and I think that's been wrong headed. Having to keep up that Clark Kent act and then suffering the consequences of that act -- which is that Lois kicks sand in his face -- is part of what makes that alien human and relatable. We always have to suck up to the boss. We have to pretend to be things we aren't just to socialize in this life. If a guy as powerful as Superman has that problem, it brings that godlike creature into the realm of relatability.

I think that notion that we humans need something recognizably human but better than ourselves who can save us from ourselves has always been the thing that subliminally has been behind the character's appeal -- no matter how much of a cool, hip, tough guy they try to make him, or how much of an overgrown boy scout they try to cast him as. I'll say that arguably the most successful mass medium incarnation of the character is "Smallville" because it was on the longest and had the greatest number of eyeballs on it. Al [Gough] and Miles [Millar] were very smart to tap into the Christlike imagery. They did that in the very, very first episode. They played him as a scarecrow in the field, but they used that as the imagery to begin with in the promotions of Tom Welling stripped down with a red "S" painted on him. And that savior complex was one which they did bring on the screen when they had Lana Lang and Ma and Pa Kent saying, "You've got a savior complex -- that is a good impulse,but you've got to reign it in."

Stay tuned to CBR for more on the legacy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman at 75 years!

PREVIEW: Heroes in Crisis #8

More in Comics