As a kid, I was a big fan of Superman. But I wasn’t all that crazy about Superman comics.
Oh, I bought ’em, at least occasionally. Indeed, the very first comic I remember buying for myself was an issue of the “World’s Best-Selling Comics Magazine!” (as the blurb on each issue’s cover confidently assured us). But they tended not to make a terribly strong impression, especially as my experience of comics widened; to me, at least, it seemed that for every Superman #199 (which featured the first race between Superman and the Flash, and which my then ten-year-old self enjoyed very much), there was a Superman #198 (see left) which centered on an “impossible” (but not really all that exciting) situation, or a Superman #200 (see right), which devoted all of its pages to an “imaginary novel” whose events didn’t even happen to the “real” Man of Steel, and thereby didn’t count. (Yes, I was that kind of comics fan, pretty much from the get-go.)
The same pretty much held true for the other titles in the “Superman family” of comics edited by Mort Weisinger; I bought a couple of issues of Action and a few Lois Lanes, but completely eschewed Jimmy Olsen (at least until August, 1970, when Jack Kirby showed up), Superboy, and Adventure (then featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes, who included Superboy among their ranks). Outside of Superman itself, the only Weisinger-helmed series I bought with any kind of regularity was World’s Finest — and that one, of course, co-starred Batman, giving it a considerable leg up. But the comic I enjoyed the Metropolis Marvel the most in wasn’t a Weisinger-edited book at all — rather, it was Justice League of America, edited by Julius Schwartz; a book in which Superman could be reliably counted upon to be, well, super — using his super-powers to battle super-menaces alongside his super-teammates, rather than spending all his time and energy dealing with something as relatively trivial as yet another Clark Kent impostor. And his adventures were always “real”, to boot.
Was it me? Were the particular charms of Mort Weisinger’s Silver Age Superman just not to my particular taste as a young reader? There may well be something to that; on the other hand, I think one can reasonably make the argument that, whatever creative heights the Weisinger approach to Superman and his world had achieved over the years the editor had been in control of the hero’s destiny, by the time that I started buying and reading comics in1965, that approach had begun to run out of juice; and also, that this state of affairs would become only more evident over the remainder of the decade.
To my mind, today, the greatest and most lasting achievement of the Mort Weisinger era of Superman is the vast corpus of lore — much of it, though not all, centered on the hero’s lost home planet of Krypton — that was added to the mythos under Weisinger’s editorial direction. Beginning around 1958, new concepts and characters — the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Fortress of Solitude, the Bottle City of Kandor, red kryptonite, Bizarro, Supergirl, the Phantom Zone — had appeared, one after another, at a nigh-dazzling pace. But that creative expansion had by and large come to an end by 1962; from that point, on through the end of the decade, readers would mostly be given new variations and elaborations on these established themes. As Glen Weldon put it in Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (Wiley, 2013):
As the sixties drew to a close, so did the Silver Age of Superman. The boom time of ideas, gimmicks, and new ideas at the start of the decade had faded, in recent years, to rote repetition. The mood of the country had darkened considerably, and the Superman who could blow out distant stars with super-breath and withstand “a thousand H-bombs” without a scratch (Adventure #366, March, 1968) was no longer attuned to the times.
The need for some sort of reinvigoration for DC’s most valuable property must have been evident to at least some of the higher-ups at the publisher as early as 1968, to judge by the rather cryptic house ad (shown at left) that ran in January of that year. Perhaps at the instigation of Carmine Infantino, a former freelance artist for DC who had recently moved into an executive role at the company, that year brought more changes to Weisinger’s “Superman family” than had been seen in an age — although the changes came almost entirely on the artistic side of things, as the team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito replaced Curt Swan as the Man of Steel’s primary illustrators in Action and (very briefly) Superman; and Kurt Schaffenberger, who’d been drawing Lois Lane since the title’s inception in 1958, was moved over to the “Supergirl” backup feature in Action (displacing Jim Mooney, who’d been the Maid of Might’s primary artist since 1959). Some of these changes were rolled back fairly quickly; most notably, Curt Swan was back pencilling Superman both in his namesake title and in Action by mid-year. But others were more lasting; in addition to Jim Mooney, another longtime mainstay of the “Superman family” line, George Klein (who’d been inking Swan’s pencils on various features for over a decade), lost his regular gig at DC as well. (Fortunately, both artists quickly found new professional berths at Marvel Comics.)
There was a bit more tinkering done to the line mid-1968, as Mort Weisinger was actually replaced as editor on one of his titles, Superboy, by Murray Boltinoff. Nevertheless, Weisinger’s vision continued to dominate in Superman’s world, and would, until 1970, when the editor himself deemed it was at last time to leave his longtime employer. (Weisinger had started at DC in 1941, and, save for a four-year stint in the miliary during and immediately after WWII, had been there ever since.) Carmine Infantino, who by then was DC’s editorial director, appears to have decided to continue what he’d already begun with Superboy the previous year; and so, rather than replace Weisinger on the remainder of the Superman books with one single editor, he divided the “family” up between multiple “parents”. As related in our World’s Finest #199 post just a couple of weeks ago, Boltinoff got Action in addition to Superboy; writer-artist Mike Sekowsky took on Adventure, now starring Supergirl; Jimmy Olsen, after a couple of issues nominally edited by Boltinoff, went to the newly-arrived-from-Marvel Jack Kirby; Weisinger’s former assistant E. Nelson Bridwell inherited Lois Lane, and, finally, Julius Schwartz assumed editorship of World’s Finest as well as DC Comics’ flagship title, Superman.
To Schwartz, then, fell the primary responsibility for revitalizing Superman as a character. In some ways, it was a repeat performance, an echo of when he’d been assigned Batman and Detective back in 1964 and directed to shake things up for DC’s number two hero. In that instance, his primary collaborator had been Carmine Infantino, still a hard-working freelance artist at that time; on this occasion, however, it was a writer — Denny O’Neil, who had been working with Schwartz for a couple of years now on such titles as Justice League of America, Detective, and Green Lantern; and was, as Schwartz would put it thirty years later in his autobiography, Man of Two Worlds, “the number-one writer in my stable at the time”. On the artistic side of the project, Schwartz went with the tried-and-true Curt Swan as penciller; for an inker, he chose Murphy Anderson, an excellent penciller in his own right (on such Schwartz-edited titles as Hawkman and Spectre, among others) who’d already collaborated with Swan on several Superman stories for Murray Boltinoff’s Action.
Interestingly, although Superman #233 is frequently seen in retrospect as the launching point for the post-Weisinger Man of Steel — or, if you prefer, the “Bronze Age Superman” — Superman was actually the last of the titles formerly handled by Weisinger to complete the transition to new management. Presumably the departing editor had tendered his resignation to be effective on one single date, but as far as the comics were concerned, it was quite a long goodbye; while Weisinger’s last issue of Adventure, #396, came out at the end of June, it was another 2 1/2 months before the final comic book bearing his name in the indicia, Superman #231, was released on September 17. (The final issue published prior to Julius Schwartz’s advent, #232, was a giant-sized all-reprint issue edited by E. Nelson Bridwell.)
Of course, your humble blogger was blissfully unaware of all this behind-the-scenes stuff at the time it was happening. At the age of thirteen, I don’t believe I had any idea who Mort Weisinger even was — and as I hadn’t picked up an issue of Superman since 1968, my only clues about what was currently happening with it and the rest of the “family” would have had to come by way of whatever clues might be scattered about in the text pages of the most recent issues of Jimmy Olsen and World’s Finest; or, more generally, DC’s house ads and “Direct Currents” promotional pages appearing throughout the rest of the line. Having said that, as best as I can determine, none of the DC comics that I bought and read in the weeks leading up to Superman #233’s release prepared me for it in any way. Not to mention the fact that there were of course no publishers’ advance solicitations back then, nor any comics news web sites. To the best of my knowledge, therefore, when I first laid eyes on this issue’s soon-to-be classic cover, whether on its release date of November 5 or soon thereafter, I knew nothing about the book.
But though I’d love to tell you all about my immediate reaction upon seeing this item in the spinner rack, I’m afraid I can’t; as with the majority of comics I bought half a century ago, I have no specific memories concerning my purchase of Superman #233. I’m inclined, however, to believe that I didn’t stand and look at it for very long before deciding to buy it; probably not more than a few seconds. The impact of the book’s cover would have been that immediate, I believe.
This cover has of course become tremendously iconic over the past five decades; it’s doubtlessly one of the most famous Superman-themed comic book covers of all time, as well as one of the best-known covers ever produced by its artist, Neal Adams. But despite its renown, and the fact that he’s created multiple homages to it over the years (as have many others), the artist doesn’t told the piece in particularly high regard; when asked by interviewer Michael Eury (for The Krypton Companion [TwoMorrows, 2006]) if it was one of his favorite Superman covers, Adams replied, “Oddly enough, no,” and then went on to explain:
When, in fact, I was asked to do it, I thought, “Well, here’s cutting my Achilles’ tendon. I’m a storyteller.” All they wanted was Superman just standing there, because they found that the character standing there, the feet spread out wide, sold comic books. So I said, “Well, why don’t I have him break chains, and since it’s ‘Kryptonite Nevermore,’ we’ll do the chains out of kryptonite and we’ll make that a scene I remember from my youth, but never quite looked like this.” You know, bursting chains, when you think about it, that’s an unrealistic picture. It doesn’t make any sense. You know, when you put the chains on him, maybe he’ll stretch the metal a little bit, but you’re not going to burst them because the chest doesn’t become that big. It has nothing to do with that. It just has to do with a symbol. So breaking chains on the chest are symbol, not really a real thing. So I thought, “Well, okay, I’m just going to do the symbol, forget the rest of it. Don’t get real,” and I did it. And to be perfectly honest, I did it very fast and very sloppy. I didn’t really put my heart and soul into it… And I’ve heard about that cover ever since then for ages — “Oh, that cover, oh, that wonderful cover.” And I’ve looked at it and it’s like, “Geez, what a sloppy job.”
Whether because of Adams’ efforts, or in spite of them, the cover image of Superman breaking his kryptonite chains is an indelible and powerful one. Still, as strong as it is, the concept that it illustrates is perhaps as important to the cover’s overall impact: “Kryptonite Nevermore!” To me as a young reader in 1970, kryptonite seemed as fundamental to Superman as his cape; I could hardly imagine DC taking such a drastic step.
Yet another factor in the cover’s effectiveness was its clever use of text and typography. With the addition of the new banner heading “The Amazing New Adventures of…” above the “Superman” logo, as well as the inclusion of an updated version of the familiar “Best-Selling Comics Magazine!” blurb that replaced the word “World’s” with a prominent “Number 1“, the cover managed to suggest that the prospective buyer was looking at the first issue of a brand-new series, rather than the 233rd issue of the same old familiar Superman comic. This was a novel marketing approach in 1970, and a departure from the traditional thinking in the comics industry, which held that high issue numbers helped sales by indicating long-term reliability and quality, whereas a “#1” represented an unknown quantity.
Still, as great as this cover is, we’ve probably said enough about it at this point. Let’s go ahead and crack the book open, now, and see what Schwartz, O’Neil, and “Swanderson” (as the artistic duo of Swan and Anderson would come to be known) had wrought upon the Man of Tomorrow, back in 1970:
“Superman Breaks Loose” opens with a very strong splash page, as both text and art intriguingly contrast a confident vision of the hero’s “majesty” with an ominous suggestion of a “dark side” hidden from friend and foe alike.
The elimination of green kryptonite — Superman’s best-known Achilles’ heel — was the most obvious, and perhaps also the most dramatic aspect of Schwartz and O’Neil’s revamp. In The Krypton Companion, Denny O’Neil described the rationale for this drastic step thusly:
Mainly… it had become overdone and was an all-purpose crutch. I wanted to deny myself that easy way out… It seemed that there had been enough kryptonite managing to get to our solar system to fill the planet. [laughter] So it was a way of taking away that overused, too-easy gimmick. Also, it was a signal to readers that a new day is dawning.
With the entrance of Morgan Edge, O’Neil and Schwartz introduced an important new character to the Superman title — but not one of their own creation. Edge was actually the brainchild of writer-artist Jack Kirby, and had first appeared three months earlier in another “Superman family” comic, Jimmy Olsen #133. While Superman #233 presents him simply as a rather caustic critic of Superman (and even subtly intimates that his main point may not be entirely without merit), readers already familiar with Edge from his JO appearances — such as my thirteen-year-old self — would know that he was actually a good bit more sinister than that — that he was, in fact, secretly associated with a criminal organization called Intergang, and answered directly to its alien overlord, Darkseid (who would of course eventually prove to be the main villain of Kirby’s still-developing “Fourth World” epic). Heck, we’d even seen Edge order a mob hit on Clark Kent when he thought the reporter was getting too close to exposing one of his nefarious plans. That effort had been unsuccessful, obviously — and by the time of our current story, the malevolent mogul seems to have put it behind him, at least for the moment. In any event, he doesn’t let it get in the way of his putting Clark to work:
After the jettisoning of kryptonite, the most immediately obvious evidence of “a new day” dawning for the Man of Steel were the changes to the status quo of his alter ego, Clark Kent. These changes seem to have been driven mostly by Julius Schwartz, who said in Man of Two Worlds:
I… wanted to change Clark Kent’s wardrobe and give it a snazzier, more modern look. At the time, he was always wearing that same cockamamie blue suit, so I made sure that from then on he was dressed at the height of fashion — so much so that Gentleman’s Quarterly, the fashion magazine for men, did an article on him and his new look…*
Most importantly of all, I decided that Clark had to leave the Daily Planet. Young people didn’t relate to newspaper reporters. They got their news from the television, so therefore it was only natural that Clark Kent should take a job as a television reporter.
The change in Clark’s wardrobe isn’t remarked on within the story, either by him or by anyone else — it’s just there. The shift from newspaperman to broadcast journalist, on the other hand, becomes a major focus of the story.
For what it’s worth, I believe that I was more-or-less indifferent to both of these changes as a young reader in 1970. I’m not sure it even registered on me that Clark wasn’t wearing his “cockamamie blue suit” any more; at age 13, I wasn’t all that interested in fashion (actually, as anyone who knows your humble blogger in real life could tell you, that hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years). And even if I didn’t read much of anything in our daily fish-wrapper beyond the funny pages, newspapers were a part of my life, and Clark Kent as a newspaper reporter still made plenty of sense to me. Thus, if these changes were meaningful to me at all, they were so primarily as (to paraphrase Denny O’Neil) signals that a new day was dawning.
The three panels at the bottom of page 8 feature what is probably the best-known imagery from Superman #233, outside of Adams’ cover. It’s easy to see why the sequence is still so well-remembered; Swan’s gift for depicting natural-looking facial expressions, enhanced by Anderson’s meticulously detailed rendering, captures our hero’s sense of humor in such a vivid way that it seems absolutely essential to his character.
Having “love-tapped” the hapless crook into unconsciousness, Supes races back to his TV camera set-up, changing into Clark’s clothes at super-speed as he goes — and arrives just as the commercial break ends, allowing him to cover the rocket launch live:
One of the jets fires on Superman with its built-in cannon, which, as expected, doesn’t faze him in the slightest. But then, when the Action Ace attempts to disable the plane’s electrical system with his heat vision, something unusual happens…
After setting the jet’s autopilot for a gentle downward glide, Superman goes after the second plane. Once he’s similarly incapacitated its criminal crew, he begins hauling both aircraft in for a landing:
“Will Superman always have to wait for commercials?” That question would indeed haunt Clark Kent and his alter ego for some time to come, as future stories would frequently place our hero in predicaments where he’d have to find new, inventive ways to go into Super-action without compromising his secret identity as a newly-minted television personality, expected to appear live on the air at set times.
“Superman Breaks Loose” concludes with a highly effective single-page epilogue. Besides giving us the story’s first real nod to what the splash page had earlier called Superman’s “dark side” (unless you want to count Morgan Edge’s “power corrupts” comment, that is), it compellingly sets up the mystery that will drive O’Neil’s overarching narrative for the next eight months. It also achieves an atmosphere of eeriness that had rarely been seen in Superman stories up to this time — an atmosphere enhanced by the weird, stylized lettering (credited to Ben Oda in the Grand Comics Database) in the very last panel.
The epilogue also hints at the third major element of Schwartz and O’Neil’s Superman revamp, one that appears only fleetingly, and in incomplete form, in this inaugural issue — the reduction of the hero’s awesome powers to a more manageable level. “The problem with Superman,” O’Neil told Michael Eury in 2006, “will always be that he’s too powerful, that he’s a god.” The writer went on to elaborate:
The general agreement was, we would take him almost back to where he started — not quite, because the original 1938 Superman couldn’t fly… I wanted to get rid of things like Superman being able to see into the past, or into the future. One example I like to use in lectures is, in one story Superman blew out a sun, a star. [laughter] With a guy that powerful, where’s your conflict going to come from?… I didn’t know much about dramatic construction in writing back then, but I knew enough to realize that it’s essential to put conflict into a story. And if you’re talking about quality, it’s essential to get that (conflict) without violating the premise…
So you had a lot of stories that I thought weren’t terribly dramatic and violated the essential appeal of the character. To give myself the possibility of giving Superman stories with real conflict I decided to scale him back to a reasonable scale of super-powers.
As already noted, in O’Neil’s first Superman story, we get only a hint of this major change. When the Man of Steel’s heat vision proves a little lukewarm on page 11, or when he has his “fainting spell” on page 13, these appear to be temporary problems, somehow connected to the site of the accident that transmuted all green kryptonite on Earth into iron. In other words, whatever the weird “Sand-Superman” creature is, it seems to represent a new weakness for our hero — a one-for-one replacement for kryptonite, basically — rather than any permanent change in his abilities. What O’Neil is actually up to — the intended-to-be-permanent tamping down of Superman’s power levels — will play out slowly over the next eight months. (And will be the subject of future blog posts, naturally.)
“Superman Breaks Loose”, a 15-pager, wasn’t the only story appearing in Superman #233. Like many other DC comics of its era, this issue included a back-up feature — the first installment of a new series which, in its way, would have a more lasting impact on the Superman title than many of the innovations introduced in the comic’s lead story.
If that lead story had emphasized what was new concerning Superman and his world, the initial episode of “The Fabulous World of Krypton” offered reassurance to longtime readers that what was old was still valid, and, indeed valued; that even if the rich Kryptonian mythos developed during the Weisinger years would be less likely to take center stage in the Man of Tomorrow’s adventures gong forward, it remained worth exploring, and even expanding.
No one could have been better suited to the job of launching this new series of “untold stories” than E. Nelson Bridwell, one of the very earliest fans-turned-pro. Bridwell’s experience as Mort Weisinger’s assistant editor, as well as his own fannish proclivities, had given him both an encyclopedic knowledge of, and an unabashed enthusiasm for, the lore of Superman’s native planet. Meanwhile, Murphy Anderson — pencilling as well as inking, this time — illustrated this opening tale in a classic style which also provided visual continuity with the issue’s lead feature.
The first page of this first “World of Krypton” story perfectly exemplifies Bridwell’s approach. A casual reader might wonder why the author even bothers to introduce Jor-El’s college chum Kim-Da, who disappears after the third panel and doesn’t show up again. But fans as knowledgeable and/or obsessive as Bridwell himself would likely recognize Kim as Professor Kimda, whom Jor’s son Kal would meet many years later in the story that introduced the Bottle City of Kandor, “The Super-Duel in Space”, published in Action #242 (July, 1958).
In similar fashion, the other two characters introduced on this page — Professor Ken-Dal and General Dru-Zod — had debuted in earlier stories as well. Ken-Dal had first appeared in “Superman’s Return to Krypton” (Superman #141, Nov., 1960), while Dru-Zod — better known to us today simply as Zod — was, as recently discussed in our World’s Finest #199 post, one of the most notorious Kryptonian criminals condemned to the Phantom Zone (though that fate obviously still lies in his future at the time of “Jor-El’s Golden Folly”), and, as such, had first appeared in “The Phantom Superboy!” (Adventure #283, Apr., 1961).
“Wonder why women make better astronauts than men?” An intriguing question, which, to the best of my knowledge, neither Bridwell nor any other DC writer ever followed up on.
I’m pretty sure that, as a thirteen-year-old reader in 1970, I automatically assumed that the pooch we see here was Krypto’s dad. Could be, right?
It’s worth noting here that instead of the mostly green outfit we almost always saw him wearing in the Silver Age, Jor-El appears throughout this story in a blue, red, and yellow ensemble which looks an awful lot like his future son’s hero-costume. Which really helps to drive the point home when Jor starts performing feats that can’t help but remind us of Kal’s — such as we see on the very next page:
Sixteen days later (presumably), on “30 Ogtal“, our protagonist’s ship of “worthless gold” launches right on schedule — though, as you might expect, there’s a bit of a wrinkle:
Whoops! Lara manages to regain partial control of the craft, which ultimately does land on the Kryptonian moon of Wegthor — but at just that moment, her communications system goes out, so that Jor-El and the rest of the ground crew have no way of knowing if she made it down safely or not. A rescue ship is quickly scheduled to launch in three days — and Jor, of course, is determined to be on it.
(Wegthor, of course, was another blast from the Silver Age past, which dedicated fans would remember as having been destroyed [with the accompanying loss of life of five hundred colonists] through the actions of future Phantom Zone inmate Jax-Ur, in the same 1960 tale where Prof. Ken-Dal first appeared.)
Jor-El is able to keep himself hidden for the duration of the trip; after touchdown, he even somehow sneaks out onto the lunar landscape ahead of the rest of the crew, without any of them noticing. (Look, we’re just going to go with it, OK?) Then he goes searching for Lara’s ship, which gives him the opportunity to perform still more Superman-like feats (something which Bridwell’s text takes care to underscore, just in case we might miss it; that white spacesuit is covering up Jor’s blue, red, and yellow duds, after all):
And that’s that for the first installment of “The Fabulous World of Krypton” — an enjoyable little tale that doesn’t require any previous knowledge on the part of the reader to follow (though it’s obviously enhanced by such knowledge), and yet manages to add at least a few more details to our understanding of Superman’s family history. It’s not at all a bad start for the feature, which would run semi-regularly for the next several years, ultimately spawning a miniseries or two.
And so we come to the end of Superman #233… well, almost. Turning to the back of the book, the readers of November, 1970 would have found the following house ad, presented as a double-page spread:
This same ad (generally attributed to Curt Swan for both pencils and inks) also appeared throughout the rest of DC’s line in November, 1970 (though since Superman #233 itself came out on Nov. 5th, I and a lot of other readers probably saw it there first). In my opinion, it did a good job in general of heralding the “new beginning” on hand for Superman and company, while also placing the specific changes in a historical context, thus making them seem part of a natural evolution of the property. Of course, having already read “Superman Breaks Loose” by the time I got to the ad, the alterations to the Man of Steel’s status quo outlined in the first two tiers of the second page were known quantities to me (though the historical context was still interesting, and even vaguely reassuring). So I was more interested in the third and last tier, promoting the “other changes in the Superman family of magazines”.
Naturally, I was already all in on Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen — and as I’d recently read and enjoyed the second half of Superman’s first post-Batman World’s Finest team-up, I was at this point fairly favorably inclined towards that title, as well. Lois Lane, on the other hand, was a book I hadn’t picked up in several years; while as for Supergirl, the only stories of hers I’d ever read had been a couple of backups in Action, a few years earlier, that had left me pretty cold. So, you may ask, did this ad send me right out to the stands to look for the latest issues of Lois Lane and Adventure? Well, no; but hey, it at least made me think about it. (And I did start buying Lois Lane for a while, just a few months later — so there.)
More than anything else, this section of the ad made me think of “the Superman family of magazines” as a coherent, cohesive whole — one in which new and exciting things were happening — and thereby made me more generally inclined to pay attention to them. In retrospect, of course, this appearance of a united front was largely illusory. Sure, Julius Schwartz might be willing to incorporate some of Jack Kirby’s innovations into his books, and we’d soon learn that Lois Lane editor E. Nelson Bridwell was up for that kind of thing as well. But Adventure Comics editor-writer-artist Mike Sekowsky was as independent-minded as Kirby was himself; and even Murray Boltinoff (whose Action and Superboy were, perhaps tellingly, relegated to the page’s final “Also…” caption) seemed inclined to go his own way, given the option.
Without a strict mandate from Editorial Director Carmine Infantino to all of his “Superman family” editors to make their books work together as a consistent whole, a full-fledged, line-wide revamp of Superman may have been doomed from the start. How things actually did (or didn’t) work out in the months that followed will, as already indicated, be the subject of future posts on this blog; I hope you’ll stick around for them.