Sunday Slugfest – DC Comics Presents Superman

A comic review article by: Craig Johnson, Michael Deeley, Egg Embry, Jim Kingman, Shaun Manning, James Redington, Jason Sacks, Ray Tate, Filip Vukcevic
"Phantom Quarterback"
"Secret of the Phantom Quarterback"

Michael Deeley

The fifth in a series of specials honoring the recently departed DC editor, and comics legend, Julius Schwartz. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee writes a story about a scientist trying to impress a girl whose attention is diverted by “muscleheads”, like football stars and Superman. DC’s current publisher Paul Levitz co-plots a tale of a football player who overdoses on steroids. Finally, Alan Moore writes an obituary about Schwartz and his first meting with his “childhood’s god”.

I don’t know much about which titles Schwartz edited and when, but I do believe he wasn’t the editor of the Superman comics until 1970. He brought in Neal Adams to help reinvent the character, as he had for other DC heroes. But it didn’t work out. The changes he and Adams made to Superman didn’t go over well with fans and were son reversed. The Superman titles were the last monthly comics Schwartz edited. His tenure ended in 1986 with John Byrne’s relaunch of the character. So most of the Schwartz-edited Superman books can still be purchased relatively cheaply, unlike the Schwartz-edited comics of the 50s and 60s.

Anyway, on to this comic. Stan Lee’s story is filled with humor and humanity. It’s an old-fashioned, light-hearted story. A scientist builds a robot quarterback that can turn its skin invisible. Why? To show his pretty lab assistant that science can triumph over muscle by defeating a popular football player on the opposing team. Cooke’s and Bone’s art, not to mention Dave Stewart’s colors, has that 1950’s comic look that matches the story’s mood. It’s a great piece of funnybook fun. It alone is worth the cover price.

I’m disappointed with the Levitz/Giffen/Milgrom story. Except for Superman’s super-speed hostage rescue, this is a dull story about an aging quarterback who takes to many “experimental” pills and is turned into volatile energy. Superman “burns him out” by running him on a treadmill. Yawn. The name dropping of famous Silver Age writers and artists was nice, but I expected more from Giffen. He did great work recently on ‘Formerly Known as the Justice League’. He co-wrote and drew ‘Ambush Bug’, one of my favorite comics, which was also edited by Schwartz. I’m surprised he didn’t do something with the Bug. Levitz and Giffen are both former ‘Legion’ writers. Two of the best, if I’m not mistaken. And this is the best they could come up with? Why not a “ghost” quarterback? Or a telepath who brings thought to life? Or Superman is afflicted with a strange blindness that prevents him from seeing living flesh, so everyone looks invisible. The quarterback is a disguise worn by the crook who caused Superman’s sickness. One of those has to be a better idea than “steroid overdose”.

Capping it off is a tribute to Julie written by Alan Moore. Moore is the scariest man in comics. The guy practices witchcraft, wrote the definitive Jack the Ripper story, and can connect modern life with pagan religions and blood sacrifice. And Julius Schwartz was his childhood hero. Schwartz, born and raised in New York City, responsible for the clean, clear, bright Silver Age of superhero comics, was an inspiration to Alan Moore, native of Northampton, England, responsible for the deconstruction of superheroes as psychotics and madmen, who’s work tries to blur the lines between reality and fiction.

I can’t reconcile the two men being on the same planet, let alone in the same industry.

So far, this is the weakest of the tribute books, but Lee, Cooke, and Moore make it worthwhile. And while Levitz and Giffen’s story is dull, Giffen’s unique art style is always fun to see. So go buy this and all the others.

Egg Embry

Why aren’t Stan Lee, Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone doing a monthly Superman title? I mean, why? Can anyone answer that?

Cause I loved the hell outta their tale, The Phantom Quarterback! The story was simple, Supes was a boy scout, and there was a jealous (quasi-evil) scientist searching for love. I finished that story, put it down and wondered, “Why is Superman eating a peach month-after-month when he could be fighting… ya know, bad guys like Stan The Man has him doing?” The art was nothing short of inspired! Every shot felt perfect for the story. It was cheesy, it was old school, it was prefect. This is Superman to me! Honestly, I felt this story was an easy 5 out of 5 Bullets!

And this story of The Phantom Quarterback is followed by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen and Al Milgrom’s Secret of the Phantom Quarterback.

What can I say, all I took away from that story was a warm feeling for those 80s Superman comics that I never much liked. Oh, and steroids are bad. Not because they shrink your manhood to nothing, but because they give you superpowers that make you destroy football stadiums… the story makes sense. But when stacked up to Stan Lee, Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone’s classic, this has no room to maneuver.

Jim Kingman

The time has come to show my age. Of all the Julius Schwartz tribute issues being released during the months of July and August, DC Comics Presents: Superman is the one I’ve been looking forward to with the most reservation, anticipation, and expectation. This is because its cover and contents are based on Superman #264 (June, 1973). I can still recall buying that Julius Schwartz-edited comic when it was published in March of 1973. It was a clear Spring day when I, ten-years-old and free for the day from elementary school, walked to the Pantry Market and bought the 3-comics-in-1-bag for 59 cents that carried Superman #264, along with Wonder Woman #206, and…um, oh, well, memory only serves so much! Superman #264 is a comic I’ve read and reread a dozen times plus over the years.

The Superman story, “The Secret of the Phantom Quarterback,” introduced the egotistical and irritating Steve Lombard, DC’s answer to Joe Namath, who became the sports broadcaster for WGBS-TV in Metropolis and a constant thorn in Clark Kent’s side. The story was written by Cary Bates and highlighted by the Superman art-team supreme, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson. The back-up slot featured a tale of “The Fabulous World of Krypton”; not the cold, frozen Krypton that most comics readers are familiar with today, but a planet filled with teeming life and bizarre natural wonders.

Thirty-two years after that pleasant walk to purchase that bag of comics, and that one Superman comic in particular, I’ve returned from my weekly jaunt to the comics shop. I now hold both Superman #264 and DC Comics Presents: Superman in my hands. It’s been a good day for a warm, fuzzy nostalgic feeling. May the wrath of the Kryptonian gods strike hard if the folks at DC tarnish those memories with un-tribute like conduct.

Under a splendid cover by Adam Hughes, the first take on “The Secret of the Phantom Quarterback” is by writer Stan Lee and artists Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone. I am not familiar with Mr. Lee; he must have worked at one of DC’s rival publishing companies during the 1970s. Charlton or Gold Key, I suppose; Marvel, maybe. Anyway, Mr. Lee delivers an infectious, humorous Superman tale that is a real delight when held up against the serious approach taken in the current Superman titles. It’s a love story about a frustrated scientist’s attempt to win a girl over from the muscle-bound football players and alleged super-men of the world by creating a Phantom Quarterback that only he can control. I was impressed enough with this story to even consider looking into Mr. Lee’s earlier work. Darwyn Cooke excels. He’s doing inspiring stuff with DC: The New Frontier, and it’s just a joy to see more of his work.

The second story is by writers Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen and artists Giffen and Allen Milgrom. Levitz and Giffen are the two men who revitalized the Legion of Super-Heroes over twenty years ago. Theirs is a delicious homage to not just the cover, but also Bates’ original story. It even has an appearance by Steve Lombard, and the splash page brilliantly recreates the feel of a ‘70s DC story.

There is also a touching obituary by writer Alan Moore. And I was just kidding about my unfamiliarity with Mr. Lee (but y’all knew that, right?).

DC Comics Presents: Superman is a fitting tribute to arguably (but no argument from me!) the greatest comics editor of them all, not to mention a terrific comic book cover. No un-tribute like conduct here. Now it’s time for me to reread Superman #264. I hear the crickets outside the apartment. A cool evening breeze comes through the open window after a long day’s heat. It reminds me of summers way back when, and it’s exactly how I want summer to be now. There are splendid comics, both new and aged, before me. Suddenly, I don’t feel so old anymore.

Shaun Manning

The “DC Comics Presents” tribute to Julie Schwartz was an excellent idea, with an exciting talent pool backing it up. Unfortunately, as modern creators tried to ape the Silver Age style of the “concept cover,” the results have been largely uninspired and, quite frankly, boring. In the Superman issue, however, a mix of artistic ingenuity and scripts by two old-school masters have produced the truest impression of the modern Silver Age.

In the first story, Marvel mainstay Stan Lee’s first Superman adventure, a cantankerous scientist invents an invisible quarterback to best sports hero “Tank” Torgan and win the love of a beautiful young lab assistant. Even Superman can’t find fault with those intentions! The story works because it has the pace of a cartoon short, and Darwyn Cooke’s art is a perfect match. It might have been appropriate to throw a little icon of Porky Pig on the last page for a closer.

The second tale looks at the dangers of drug abuse, á la the Adams-O’Neal “Speedy on Crack” issue of Green Lantern. The tale is more modern in that it focuses on steroid abuse, a topic very much in the news with the Olympics coming up, but is told with all the nuance and subtlety of a D.A.R.E. giveaway comic. It has a Silver Age ring to it, but is somehow less effective in bridging the generation gap. Still, since this issue will probably be the most-read DCP by younger readers, it’s probably not a bad idea to squeeze in a wholesome message.

James Redington

“The Phantom Quarterback”

Wow! Stan Lee writing Superman, the real Superman as well.

Stan’s last Superman story featured only the name, there was no blue suit or red cape and it was just ok, nothing special. This however is a classic, a word I don’t use lightly. The story is pure comedy, playing on in-jokes about the man of steel and his 66-year history. There are some great one liners, my favourite being “There’s more to this than meets the eye… what a piquant phrase… I must remember it.” Another of note being when Superman leaves the Football promoter he says “Gotta go now, bye” the promoter asks “what happened to ‘up, up and away’?” to which Supes replies “Oh, that’s so 1940’s”.

This story is played for laughs and succeeds on each level, it’s also a love story with the man of steel stuck in the middle. Lee’s dialogue is cheesy, but it works. Superman is a caricature on himself and he is on top form. Stan Lee plays Superman as a big boy scout, who does the right thing all the time. I suspect however that some Superman fans will be very insulted by this, but Lee plays on the things that critics have complained made Superman boring and makes them funny and most importantly they don’t make him look stupid.

The real winner in this story is the readers eyes… the artwork is beautiful. It’s a treat to look. Cooke, the man behind DC: New Frontier goes one step beyond his usual animated style and goes into kids cartoon territories. His cartoon Superman fits the caricature that Stan Lee writes, big chest, big chin – it’s wonderful stuff. Bold colours and funky inks made up the rest of the panels. I tell you what, DC should consider a kids comic like this, more so than Justice League Unlimited or Teen Titans GO! Put it into the mass market and see how it goes, parents would eat up stuff like this for their kids.

5 Bullets out of 5, for this story.

‘Secret of the Phantom Quarterback’

A Quarterback on his way out of the game decides to overdose, Superman stops him and that’s about it. A simple story, some nice art that doesn’t really suit Superman but good never the less. Could have been interesting if we had further character development but that’s about it. Nice to see Jimmy and the SCU, but since when can Superman time travel again?

Anyway fun, but forgettable.

3 out of 5 for this story.

Jason Sacks

The latest in the series of Julius Schwartz tributes features a most unusual creative team: Stan Lee and Darwyn Cooke. Cooke, the mastermind behind the brilliant New Frontier, draws a charmingly old-fashioned story by the comics master Lee. Lee's story of "The Phantom Quarterback" is so hoary and old-school that only a pair of masters could pull it off. This story reads like something Julie Schwartz might have edited in the 1960s or '70s, a charming little romance tale in which a science geek rigs up some sort of scientific creation to win the girl of his dreams. If you like old comics, you've read this story a dozen times. But under Lee and Cooke, the story gains new life. Lee's writing is wonderfully sincere and light, full of charming character moments that add extra zest to the story. Cooke's art, as always, is amazingly iconic. His presentation of Superman, square-chinned and graceful, is wonderfully timeless. And his depictions of the secondary characters have a wonderful cartoonish broadness that can't help but make you smile. Together the team presents a winner of a story. It's not the most memorable Superman story you'll ever read, but it's as well-crafted a story of this type as you'll ever read.

The second story, by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen and Al Milgrom, can't help but to suffer in comparison with the lead feature. It's nice story by some solid comics professionals, but the story just lacks a spark that the lead story has. It doesn't help that Giffen's art seems uniquely badly suited for Superman; the character just has an odd feel under Giffen and Milgrom.

Finally, the issue winds up with a nice piece by Alan Moore, full of classic Moore lines that twist and bend around each other in his wonderfully poetic style. We really see Moore’s love and respect for Schwartz shine through in every line.

I wish they still did old-school Superman books like this one, every once in awhile.

Ray Tate

Stan Lee this time around takes a truer stab at Superman in DC Comics Presents. Unlike his Just Imagine... series which generally speaking I enjoyed, Stan the Man puts words in the mouth of the genuine Man of Steel, and the gent who made Marvel Comics a household word captures Supes' sense of humor, strength of character and sense of fairplay.

Stan's star of the story is not however Superman. His focus lies on a bitter Professor who could have easily become a villain, but Stan just characterizes him as this ordinary smart guy who feels he's been given a raw deal in everything but the brains department. He's a complete hypocrite by the way in that he goes for looks rather than brains just as much as his target di amore. Stan knows the difference between bitter and "milksoup." His portrayal of a particularly unlikeable guy is meant.

The personality of the protagonist--loosely speaking--makes Superman's actions all the more heroic. Superman could have done his usual powerhouse shtick and destroyed the Phantom Quarterback. He could have punished the "evildoer." Instead, he shows empathy and finds that the best way to solve this particular problem is to do nothing. This is truly one of Superman's great moments.

Darwyn Cooke fans will find his usual impressive artwork, but for this lighthearted tale, Mr. Cooke alleviates the darker style he employs for New Frontier. Superman is even more good-natured in appearance. The Professor seems to grow younger as he becomes more joyful, and his lady love is even more stylized as a cartoon, which just fits the happy-go-lucky mood of the piece.

Apart from the cameo of Metropolis SCU "Secret of the Phantom Quarterback" could have easily taken place in the pre-Crisis. We first see Superman coming out of a time warp--something the Big Red S used to do frequently. He effectively and humorously uses his powers to stop a would-be murdering glory-hound.

This episode is doubly hilarious since the entire sequence unfolds in two pages rather than the decompressionist movement's nine. The scenario sets the peppy mood--much in the fashion of a Bond pre-title sequence--for the rest of the book which brings back an old character and liberally mixes up a current topic of interest with a dash of Wildfire.

The solution to the problem is just stunning. It's the kind of solution that the Man of Steel would usually think of before he became a dumb hick next to Batman's thinking machine. Obviously, Batman is smarter than Superman and just about any other character you would care to name, but back in the day, Superman was not an idiot. In this second tale, the Man of Steel uses his brains and his super-powers to fashion a smart, uplifting solution.

Keith Giffin's and Al Milgrom's artwork brings out the optimism in the story. Giffin is known for his humor, but his artwork can often be very dark and often swathed in shadow. This tale bears an artistic levity where you can see all and enjoy the ebullient smile on Superman's face. Instead of feeling as though a post-Crisis crushing weight has been placed upon one's back, having super-powers appears to be fun. Superman seems to be having a kick using them to save lives, and that's how it should be.

Filip Vukcevic

DC COMICS PRESENTS SUPERMAN doesn’t sport a Jim Lee cover. And it isn’t written by Bendis. And hell, it hasn’t got a drop of Jeph Loeb, Brian Vaughan, or Alex Ross to it, yet it is one of the biggest comics to have been released all year.

Where else will you find a story written by Stan Lee, for DC Comics no less? Where else will you see his pairing with Darwyn Cooke? Where else will you find an obituary written by Alan Moore? Only in this book, and for its historical significance alone it is worth picking up.

Like the other issues in the PRESENTS line, the two stories in this book were inspired by a classic Julie Schwartz cover; in this case one involving Superman’s encounter with an invisible quarterback. The first of the two is penned by the man himself, Stan Lee, and it is a fun read. It reminds you of Lee’s classic stories from over forty years ago. A shy and scientific guy falls for a girl, but she doesn’t notice him. How far will he go to win her attention? The answer to that question unfolds in an amusing and classic way that brings to mind comics written years ago. Anyone looking for a fun Superman story will have to look no farther. Heck, anyone looking for one of those classic Stan Lee exposition-setting first pages will have to look no farther; much like his classic #1 issues, after the first page you’re hooked.
Darwyn Cooke provides the pencils to good effect. The art has a nice ‘Batman:TAS’ feel to it, and the slightly art-deco tone helps take you back to the olden days.

The second story is written by both Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. It is not as fun or entertaining as the first. Its largest problem is the fact that it wastes precious space in the beginning telling a hostage-type story (that has nothing to do with the rest of the story) and then cuts to the cover-inspired invisible quarterback story. Next we see the quarterback as an enraged, flaming guy who apparently wants to tear down a stadium. How he got to be on fire, or invisible, is a mystery to us at this point. Superman defeats him by constructing a…cosmic treadmill and using it to drain the guy of his energy? Now this is a cheesy retro solution if I’ve ever seen one, but that isn’t a problem. If the whole issue had maintained that cheesy feel, this would have made perfect sense. As it is, the story tries to be both serious and implausible at the same time and we get a poorer story for it. It ends with a moral on the dangers of taking steroids, and I don’t think anybody could care less.

The story should have spent more time in the beginning setting up the characters (like Lee’s story did) and should have stuck to a particular tone. As is, it results in an all-around weak tale. Though, the art is nice and looks like the Superman books did in the 90s.

Finally we get an obituary from the master of the story himself, Alan Moore. It is funny, touching, and revealing all at the same time. Moore also admits the truth of a certain rumor Julie started years ago -- pertaining to Moore’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW? final pre-crisis Superman story.

In the end this is a great book with a small misstep. Even so, don’t let that prevent you from picking up this historic tribute to late great editor Julius Schwartz.

This is, if nothing else, a great comic book.

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