Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Putting a smiley face on the 1970s Superman

Superman #233, January 1971

DC’s superhero comics of the ‘70s and ‘80s will always fascinate me — not just because I grew up on them, but because they represented the first steps past the Silver Age. While the latest members of Marvel’s Bullpen sought to maintain the momentum Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko brought to their creations, DC’s writers, artists, and editors took their iconic charges in new directions. We all know what Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams did for Batman, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow. We can see some of what Kirby wanted to do for Superman, and we know what writers like O’Neil, Elliott S! Maggin, Cary Bates, Martin Pasko, and Marv Wolfman ended up doing. Of course, the period brought two revamps (and a revival) for Teen Titans, the first making them into an un-costumed youth group, and the second involving Wolfman and George Pérez….

… and at this point the post threatens to turn into another Tom Goes Down The Old-Comics Rabbit Hole extravaganza. Haven’t we had enough of these indulgences?

Well … yes and no. I bring it up (again) on account of the Retro-Active books, and specifically Retro-Active ‘70s-style Superman. I talked about the book’s merits in our last What Are You Reading? roundup, so today let’s look at the nuts and bolts of Superman in the Bronze Age.

When shady media mogul Morgan Edge* made Clark Kent a broadcast journalist in January 1971’s Superman #233, it changed the dynamic of Superman’s supporting cast. Instead of his familiar interplay with boss Perry White, rival Lois Lane, and pal Jimmy Olsen, Clark was isolated either behind the anchor’s desk or out in the field. Paradoxically, as GBS’ answer to Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Frank Reynolds, he was more recognizable than ever. Eventually he developed new relationships (for example, with Edge and with loutish sportscaster Steve Lombard) and refined old ones (including with eventual co-anchor Lana Lang); and the Superman titles settled into a comfortable groove.

Additionally, the ‘70s Superman supporting cast extended past Clark’s workplace. Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor). Then there were old friends from Clark/Superboy’s Smallville years like Pete Ross and the Legion of Super-Heroes; not to mention Superman’s colleagues in the Justice League.

I can’t say whether it was a lot to remember, because I was not a regular reader of the Superman books until the 1986 revamp. However, I can tell you that, as a casual reader, it never seemed intimidating. Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations. At their best they gave the Superman titles diverse perspectives on life with Superman. Other times, though, they threatened to clog the books with subplots. This, plus the sheer volume of post-revamp titles (three main monthly Superman books from 1987-91, and four from 1991-2003) makes the thought of re-reading that era pretty daunting.** Not that I wouldn’t do it — even the mullet years — but it might take some vacation time.

No, I liked what I read of the Bronze Age Supes because (Superman Family aside) it kept the focus on Superman. It just gave him a pretty wide world of friends and colleagues. At the same time, though, Supes’ caretakers never let the reader forget that their hero was part of this larger cast. I tend to describe this like a sitcom, with Clark/Superman instead of Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore. If that sounds a little suspect, nothing else really comes close. (Maybe Dan Slott’s current run on Amazing Spider-Man.) Even Curt Swan’s pencils — versatile enough to handle both the mundane and the dynamic — seemed to bolster this sense that Superman and his friends were just “on the job,” be it a fight with Metallo or a backfiring Lombard prank. It was an easygoing, inviting vibe — that is, if you didn’t find it a little too easygoing — and the Retro-Active ‘70s special (with a lead written by the veteran Pasko) recaptures it well.

In fact, for a while the Retro-Active books were making me wonder whether DC should run them on a more permanent basis. Call it Superman Family, set it on the Earth-One of thirty-odd years ago, make it oversized and bimonthly, and it might not intrude too much on the New 52. Clearly such a project would be a sop to the stereotypical lifer-fan who just wants things like he remembers ‘em. At the same time, though, walling off a section of the superhero line in such a way might then free DC to try new things, bring in new creative teams, and generally shoot for new audiences.  (It could also be an opportunity to diversify the Bronze Age supporting cast, something the post-revamp books did admirably.)

Or, you know, it might turn out like most other niche-continuity books DC has floated over the years: something which sells at best a decent amount and doesn’t stick around terribly long. I liked JLA: Year One, its semi-sequel Flash/Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold, and its spiritual heir JLA: Incarnations a lot, but clearly they didn’t produced a commitment to untold tales of the Justice League. While JLA Classified lasted four pretty good years (and for at least a couple of those years was more entertaining than JLA), it ended up burning off inventory stories intended for the main book. Legends of the Dark Knight had a very respectable run of over 200 issues, eventually giving way to Batman Confidential, but neither the latter nor Superman Confidential took hold with readers. A similar fate had already befallen Legends of the DC Universe, a late-‘90s title which lasted three-and-a-half years telling Hal Jordan-era stories in a Kyle Rayner world. The current Brave and the Bold title was mostly set in the present day, started telling flashback stories under writer J. Michael Straczynski, and it has wandered into limbo without ever officially being cancelled.

Thus, although there may be some demand for Tales of the Good Old Days-style books (like Marvel’s [X-Title] Forever series), they don’t seem viable over the long haul.  All-Star Squadron was one of the more successful alt-continuity titles, running for six-and-a-half years and yielding a spinoff (the then-current Infinity Inc., 53 issues) and a sequel (the wartime Young All-Stars, 31 issues). All-Star Squadron also had the advantage of its alternate continuity (on the original Earth-Two, but you knew that) being a part of DC’s larger continuity.  Thus, its stories “mattered” even though its protagonists’ fates were, for the most part, already known. Similarly, the continuity-intensive Secret Origins (1986-90) guided fans through such questions as “who replaced Wonder Woman in the Justice League?” and “how did the Legion get its original clubhouse?”

Alert readers will probably note that many of the aforementioned books can be traced either to Roy Thomas (who wrote the Earth-Two titles and the Golden Age origins in Secret Origins) or Mark Waid (who wrote JLA: Year One, the Flash & GL: B&B miniseries, and the first year or so of the dormant Brave and the Bold; and who edited many issues of Secret Origins). It never hurts to have an influential advocate for your favorite style of superheroics.

Unfortunately, I think the Retro-Active books are going to be the last glimpse we have for a while of any era except the immediate present. I’m eager to see how they sell, but my hopes aren’t high. They’re a bit pricey, despite an increased page count and some decent reprints as backups;*** and there’s also the whole “niche” aspect potentially limiting sales. On one hand it would be more convenient to read new stories in a retro setting; but on the other, the back issues aren’t hard to find. (Still, by now they’re also a little pricey, assuming you want them in good reading condition.)

While I am nowhere near chucking the every-Wednesday habit and going on a steady Bronze Age diet, I do think that period’s Superman books merit the effort. Most of DC’s other big titles haven’t changed as much. Sure, the Justice League got new members, and Wally and Kyle gave their legacies new energy; but compared to the consequences of Superman’s ‘80s overhaul, the others’ basics were essentially unchanged. The Bronze Age Superman was so distinctive, and the 1986 revamp so comprehensive, that now not only is it practically quaint, it almost demands a second look.

Let’s be clear, however, that I am not especially comfortable with this position. I try hard to be an advocate for progressive innovations, and I may want to take this back later on. Regardless, this setup was viable once — so maybe it could work again?

In the meantime, I’ll keep haunting the back-issue boxes for random issues, and testing whether those old stories hold up. John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Jerry Ordway, and editors Andy Helfer and Mike Carlin reworked the Man of Steel because he’d become boring and irrelevant in the eyes of fans. (They were also inspired significantly by the stripped-down mythology of 1978’s Superman movie.) Therefore, I’m not expecting to read a lot of groundbreaking stories.

What I remember, though, and what will drive me deep into those back issues, is the collective attempt (led by editor Julius Schwartz) to take the anything-goes Weisinger Era into a new decade. Superman got mellow in the ‘70s, but his caretakers did their best to keep him viable, accessible, and exciting. That’s worth exploring, no matter how much time has passed.

++++++++++++++

* [Created by Jack Kirby, Morgan first appeared in October 1970’s Jimmy Olsen #133. However, his early appearances, including Superman #233, were later ascribed to a clone created by the Apokoliptian Evil Factory. This is something of a “Doombot did it” retcon, although I think the Edge-clone reveal may predate the Doombot theory.

** [Granted, for a while there were four regular Superman titles in the Bronze Age too: Action and Superman plus the team-up book DC Comics Presents and the oversized Superman Family (and World’s Finest too, but that’s really only half a Superman book). They weren’t all interconnected, though.]

*** [Appropriately, the ‘70s Retro-Active reprint is June 1978’s “Superman Takes A Wife!” from Action Comics #484, the 40th-anniversary tribute which itself was a flashback to the Earth-Two Lois and Clark’s 1950s courtship.]

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20 Comments

“Unfortunately, I think the Retro-Active books are going to be the last glimpse we have for a while of any era except the immediate present.”

I don’t know about this. With comics seemingly unable to get away from…well, whatever the current creator considers to be his or her “ideal” version of a character, I think a revival of some particular era is always inevitable, even if only in a fun flashbacky-type story. DC did this *multiple* times in the 90s: “Zero Hour” revived some classic characters (Batgirl, the original Superboy, Dick Grayson as Robin, and that wacky “multiple Batmen” issue of Superman: The Man of Steel); the “Silver Age” revival specials which were written and drawn in a very 60s style; the Dominus storyline in Superman (revived the Golden, Silver and 70s age Supermen). Heck, I’m even remembering some Wildstorm one-shots from 1999 (“Wild Times”) set in various periods, and the DC heroes of those eras made cameo appearances.

You can’t get away from period revivalism, so I’d wager that you’ll see your favorite era pop up somewhere again in 5 years or less.

I’m a pretty regular reader of your columns and I always enjoy them, so I feel bad that my first comment is a negative one, but it’s something that’s been bugging me: is there a different way to handle the information included in the footnotes?

I ask because it’s a little annoying to either a) scroll all the way down to the page and then find where I was or b) try to remember the info that was footnoted so that I can connect it at the end. Footnotes work at the bottom of a page because the whole page fits in my view (unless the footnotes are in the back of the book, which is also annoying). Could you use parentheticals or put the info at the end of the corresponding paragraph?

@ Aaron King: just ctrl-f (or command-F) and search for the asterisks. It’ll take you down to the footnote and back up where you left off. Easy-peasy

More people should look at the way footnotes are handled on Wikipedia, especially the way each one links back up to the main text when you’re done reading it.

The idea of Morgan Edge being a clone from the Evil Factory was introduced in an issue of Lois Lane while Jack Kirby was still working on the Fourth World comics, though making the character a clone wasn’t Kirby’s idea. (On a side note, Edge was partly inspired by Time-Warner CEO and owner of DC Comics, Steve Ross.) Although Lois Lane was written by Bob Kanigher, the clone angle may have been devised by editor E. Nelson Bridwell, who sought to integrate Kirby’s ideas into the rest of DC continuity. Right after Kirby left the Jimmy Olsen series, a follow-up story tied up some remaining loose ends, among them getting rid of the Edge clone and restoring the “original” Edge to take over the WJM newsroom, at which point he fired Mary, Lou, and Murray — no wait, I got confused there for a second.

Anyway, all that was like a decade before the “Doombot” thing.

Truth be told, I like the idea of the Retro-Actives. It gives me the chance to see what the writing and art styles were like for these eras, and their more affordable than the TPB’s at some points.

Simon DelMonte

August 5, 2011 at 1:49 am

I just picked up the first DC Comics Present Showcase book, and it’s a lot of fun. Some of the plots are sort of silly, but this is the Supes I remember best, capable and smart and just a little full of himself but in a good way, working well with all his superhero friends but never getting overshadowed in his own book, and written and drawn by the big names of the age. I am a big fan of the Byrne Era and of a lot of what we’ve seen in the past 25 years, but the Bronze Age Supes is the one I first met and the one I still like best.

I am currently reading the pre-Death of Superman, but post-1986 revamp books are they are super entertaining and good. John Byrne’s run is classic in its own right and Superman 22 is bone-chillingly good. The Gangbuster saga that springs forth out of that story is incredible, and eventually leads into the equally riveting Superman: Exile story. Its a pretty long read at times because of the sheer volume of issues. You have three interconnected titles with Action, Superman, and Adventures of Superman. The load lightens though during the Action Comics Weekly phase and is essentially reduced to two titles (with some annuals and one shots in there).

I’m still a ways away from the numbered triangle sagas, but for now its an interesting and fun read.

Jake Earlewine

August 5, 2011 at 3:11 pm

“I like the idea of the Retro-Actives. It gives me the chance to see what the writing and art styles were like for these eras.”

I hope by that, you’re talking about the reprints included in the Retroactive series, Acer — because the new material is NOT like the comics of those eras. Not even close. Those Retroactive “silver age” comics were about as close to Sixties comics as today’s music is to Sixties music. Lady Gaga singing the hits of the Monkees!

“just picked up the first DC Comics Present Showcase book, and it’s a lot of fun. Some of the plots are sort of silly, but this is the Supes I remember best, capable and smart and just a little full of himself but in a good way, working well with all his superhero friends but never getting overshadowed in his own book,”

Except for when Supes got clobbered in a fight with… Mister Miracle?? I haven’t had that issue in years, but I still remember that. What. The. F*ck?

Mister Miracle? Really?

Seeing Archie Bunker and the cast of All In the Family in an issue from the 70s, Maggin’s “Superman as Jesus” schtick, and Clark as Ron Burgendy turned me off to that era.

Probably of all the eras of Superman, I enjoyed the 70’s Bronze Age Era. I love the supporting characters and Clark Kent becoming a news broadcaster at WGBS was great.

What were Jack Kirby’s plans for Superman?

Personally my favorite Issues ever of Superman I was really bummed out as a teenager to see perhaps the greatest run of the character had been given in 30 years. But the quality of the stories and the art… Superman never looks so good. And getting rid of Kryptonite was great. Now we could go into a complete different take on him. If he has no weaknesses, how powerful should one man get, The God complex. Anyway. I still own the originals and will never sell. Murphy Anderson and Curt Swan set the standard for the way the character should be showcased. Simply perfect work. The only similarity comes to mind is Brubakers reawakening of Captain America.

@Jake Earlewine
I meant as a sampler, not as a matter of authenticity.

I grew up on late seventies Superman. I couldn’t get enough of Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger.

Eric Qel-Droma

August 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm

I remember very clearly being 10 and 11 in 86 and 87 and thinking that Byrne’s reboot was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I also remember thinking that Curt Swan’s Superman looked stiff and boring. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t mean to knock Swan as a person or even as an artist, really, as the guy was clearly a pro. But to this kid at that time, he was old news and Byrne/Ordway were the new hotness.

I still think the Man of Steel miniseries is a better “pick up and go” story for most readers 8-15 than either Birthright (which I liked) or Secret Origin (which I didn’t).

And as far as the Retroactive books went, I didn’t buy most of them, as most of them looked back at eras that don’t hold my interest, but I bought the Batman (Barr/Bingham) one as fast as I could. I was not super-thrilled with it. I was kind of hoping for a Son/Bride of the Demon extension. The lead story really could have used another issue–talk about an example of ANTI-decompression–and the colors were muddy. But it sure was a pleasure reading a straight-forward, non-deconstructed Batman story. Batman, Robin, mystery, a bit of characterization and sub-plot… Nice to see, even if it didn’t reach the heights of Barr’s run on Detective in the mid-late 80’s.

Thanks for convincing me to start reading the Bronze Age Superman, finally. Mainly because I finally have a starting place, but also because the 70’s seem like an interesting period for DC.

My first Superman comic that I actually bought was Man of Steel #1. I went to my LCS Saturday and the owner showed me a bunch of Pre-Crisis issues that I’ll be interested in purchasing. Thanks for the great column!

The 70s Superman WAS stuffy and dull. I love the big blue boy scout, but in one comic he was singing in the shower. Singing, “Strangers in the Night,” a sappy Frank Sinatra song that parents would play on the radio. That song, more than anything, showed Superman was acting like a man over 50. Any change, even the disaster that John Byrne put together, was way overdue.

I too grew up on the Bronze age era, and while it definitely had its bad spots, overall I’d say it was the best balanced one- no longer as silly as the Silver Age was, but not yet as gritty as the 90’s would get. There was room for all kind of stories, from comedy to action to melodrama in nearly every series.

Also (here I go again) I felt safe reading these comics. The people in control, like Schwartz, sounded like they respected the characters and their fans, and their products showed it. Some say it was because the Comics Code wouldn’t let them depend too much on violence or sex appeal, though by then its power was waning. All I know is I knew I could follow a series and rarely fear that it would soon be canceled with the character I had invested on being killed off brutally in the end.

I have to wonder just what the point of these Retro Active one-shots is. Is it a bone DC is throwing us older fans, a “Thanks but we will never cater to you again” thing as they reach for new fans via the internet? The thing is, from what I see so far of the previews, they seem to be going to do the same stuff they have these past few years (stylistically speaking) instead of having more variety that might attract new readers of various tastes. Even the Blue Beetle comic, who is a character mostly aimed at kids outside the comics, sounds like its going to be darker in tone. I hope I’m wrong, because I’d really like to be able to enjoy at least some of their comics regularly again.

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