Superman in the Seventies

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Writers: Cary Bates, Robert Kanigher, Jack Kirby, Paul Levitz, Elliot Maggin, Dennis O'Neil, Len Wein

Pencillers: Dick Dillin, Jack Kirby, Werner Roth, Curt Swan

Inkers: Murphy Anderson, Vince Colletta, Joe Giella, Dick Giordano, Bob Oksner

Original Editors: Murray Boltinoff, E. Nelson Bridwell, Jack Kirby, Julius Schwartz

Collection Editor: Michael Wright

Synopsis: Collects many of the classic Superman stories of the 1970's.

For any fan of Superman in the '70s (and I'm one...I've probably had letters, mostly favorable, published on half the stories in this collection), this is a delightful collection, and for newer fans, it's a wonderful selection of what made '70s fans consider him so memorable.

1970 was an important year for Superman. It marked the retirement of long-time editor Mort Weisinger, who had memorably guided the character since before World War II. Weisinger was noted for treating his artists and especially his writers badly, but his stories, although aimed more at the 8-12-year-old audience than the teenagers that were increasingly coming to dominate comics fandom, showed a great deal of imagination.

By 1970, however, even Weisinger would admit he was beginning to run out of steam. He was becoming increasingly interested in outside work (ranging from writing magazine articles to judging beauty contests), passing on more and more of the editing work to his assistant, former fan E. Nelson Bridwell. He'd lost many of the writers who'd made his earlier Superman stories so enjoyable to read: Jerry Siegel, Superman's creator, had departed in 1966 over a copyright-renewal dispute, and Alvin Schwartz, Otto Binder, Edmond Hamilton, Robert Bernstein, and Jerry Coleman were also gone, many as a result of an attempt of DC's writers to unionize in the late '60s.

Weisinger had been one of the first editors to attempt to replenish his writers from the ranks of comics fans. Nelson Bridwell had been the first, followed by Roy Thomas, Jim Shooter, and Cary Bates. But, aside from Bridwell, only Bates had stayed on: Thomas and later Shooter had found Mort's bullying too much to handle and had found, or would find, more pleasant employment across town at Marvel. For writers, Weisinger had increasingly had to rely on Bates, Leo Dorfman (his sole surviving writer from the early '60s), and long-standing writers from other DC editorial offices like Bob Kanigher and Bob Haney, neither of whom had a style particularly appropriate to Superman.

Weisinger's last suggestion, before he retired, was that a single editor be placed in charge of all the Superman titles so they could have the coherence he'd given them. Presumably that editor would either have been Bridwell, Weisinger's assistant, or Julius Schwartz, Weisinger's childhood friend who had already revitalized Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, and many other DC icons. Infantino turned down the suggestion (perhaps, fan Joe Brancatelli suggested, because he didn't want another editor gaining the power at DC that Weisinger had had...but also because the rest of the editors at DC wanted a piece of the top-selling Superman pie) and divided the books between five editors.

Bridwell remained as assistant on all the books but received only Lois Lane (and various reprint titles, soon to include the fondly-remembered "100-Page Super-Spectacular" series) to edit outright, and Schwartz got World's Finest Comics and Superman itself. Murray Boltinoff, who had already taken one title (Superboy) off Weisinger's hands two years before, was also given the reins of Action Comics and, at least on paper, Jimmy Olsen.

Perhaps most interesting of all, two of the maverick writer/artists of the day were given control of two of the least-selling Superman titles. Mike Sekowsky, the long-standing JLA artist who'd proved he could handle a strong female protagonist in Wonder Woman, was handed the reins of Adventure Comics, then starring Supergirl, and brought his heroine into the working world. And the legendary Jack Kirby, newly departed from Marvel Comics, had just been lured to DC by publisher Carmine Infantino, who claims Kirby had asked to write and draw all the Superman titles.

Other sources, however, have indicated that Kirby's main interest was always in developing new characters and concepts of his own, and that he had to be talked into taking over even one Superman title (the least-selling of the group...not, as some have said, the least-selling book at DC, or he'd have ended up with Metal Men or some such title). So (although only after calling Jerry Siegel himself and getting his approval for his ideas) Jack Kirby became writer and artist of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen...and, according to his long-time assistant Mark Evanier, Murray Boltinoff did next to no editing on his stories. Within three issues, Kirby was editor in name as well as in fact.

Inevitably, the five-way split didn't last. Many of the titles, most of them eight times a year, were increased to monthly after Weisinger's retirement...but within a couple of years all except Superman and Action Comics had dropped all the way to bimonthly. Sekowsky was fired by Infantino, and Kirby moved on to other things, and their titles too plummeted in sales...so much so that in 1974 Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and a short-lived Supergirl title had been merged into a 100-page Superman Family title. Other editors, including Robert Kanigher, briefly handled the various titles, but by the end of the decade what was left of the Superman Family had once again been brought together under one editor: Julius Schwartz.

And with good reason...with the possible exceptions of Kirby and Sekowsky, Schwartz was the editor whose office produced the most consistently good Superman material, so it's not surprising that all but two of the thirteen stories in this collection are from the Schwartz office. The two exceptions are Jack Kirby's first Jimmy Olsen story from Jimmy Olsen #133...very good, but Kirby's propensity for long, involved serials means that only a piece of the story is present...and a very strange Lois Lane story from the early Bridwell run, in which Lois disguises herself as a black woman (taking her cue from a then-popular nonfiction book called Black Like Me, by a white journalist named John Howard Griffin who'd attempted a similar masquerade).

Although completely politically incorrect, the story did have the editor's and writer's heart in the right place; Kanigher and artist Werner Roth made the story a memorable one. But, divergent as they otherwise were, the Lois and Jimmy stories both suffer from interference above the editorial level which limited the editors' ability to choose their own creative staff. Both were inked by the late Vince Colletta, arguably the worst embellisher ever to pick up a pen, but since he was a close friend of Carmine Infantino, he dragged down all too many of the stories of this time, including (especially regrettably) much of Kirby's early Fourth World series.

Julius Schwartz, fortunately, had enough clout to get more of a choice of creative personnel. He very wisely retained Curt Swan, who had been the head Superman artist under Weisinger, as the regular penciller on most of the Superman titles, teaming him up with Schwartz' own best inker, Murphy Anderson. Anderson's departure from DC circa 1974 was a definite loss; few of Swan's other inkers were anywhere near as good. Bob Oksner, a good but somewhat misplaced artist best known for humor, was better than some, as was long-standing Schwartz inker Joe Giella.

Nine of the 11 Schwartz stories in this collection are pencilled by Swan, with inks by Anderson, Oksner, or Giella; the other two are a solo Murphy Anderson job and a strange Superman/Superboy team-up/fight by Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano. (Which really didn't deserve to be in the book at all; possibly the editors wanted to be nice to its writer, Paul Levitz, who is now DC's publisher. This story is hardly his best work; they'd have been much better served to include one of Levitz' stories of the Legion of Super-Heroes...which, after all, was originally as much a Superman spinoff as Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen.)

Schwartz always demanded high standards in his writers, and for the most part got them. One of my biggest regrets is that his writing staff, like Weisinger's, had been depleted in the late '60's by the aforementioned unionization attempt, and the heavyhanded response of Infantino (and his boss Jack Liebowitz) to it. I'd have loved to see the pillars of his Silver Age writing staff, Gardner Fox and John Broome (both of whom had past experience with the character) writing Superman stories.

As it was, Schwartz's favorite writer at the time was Denny O'Neil, whom he tended to put on high-profile projects whenever he took them over. In most cases, especially with Batman and Green Lantern, O'Neil proved successful; even with Superman, a character he admittedly never cared for, Denny turned out a classic serial involving Superman's powers being drained by a sand-being from the realm of Quarrm. Unfortunately, as with Kirby's serial, only the first chapter is included here; it's been reprinted several times and is really not all that effective on its own. Perhaps an O'Neil story largely unconnected with his overall serial (Planet of the Angels, for instance) would have been a better choice.

Leo Dorfman was never able to get work from the Schwartz office (and ended up selling his stories mostly to Murray Boltinoff after Weisinger's retirement...a shame, since some of them were quite good), but Cary Bates made the contact and became one of Schwartz' regulars...not only on Superman but on Flash as well. Backing him up was Elliot Maggin, a Brandeis University student who'd impressed Schwartz with an unsolicited Green Arrow story (which saw print in the classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow run with Neal Adams art; the only story in that series not written by Denny O'Neil).

Both had an excellent "feel" for Superman, and they (especially Bates) remained his top writers until John Byrne took over the character in 1986. Maggin writes a surprising six stories in this collection (of which the only one I'd question is Must There Be a Superman?, not because it's a bad story...it isn't...but because it's been reprinted several times before), Bates writes two, and Len Wein one.

In short, this is an excellent collection that admittedly takes much of its material from the most memorable era of the '70s Superman ... all but two of the stories are from 1975 or earlier. But it's well worth buying for any Superman fan.

[Editor's Note: It is with great sadness that I must tell Rich's readers that he passed away this week from a heart attack. He was a lively personality online, and a terrific storehouse of knowledge on the comics medium. Rich was widley published in comics industry magazines, including through an excellent series of interviews in Comics Interview. He had many passions outside of comics, including his beloved dogs. Rich will be deeply missed by many.

Everyone at Silver Bullet Comics wishes their most sincere condolensces to Rich's loved ones, and offer our sympathies at this difficult time.]

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