Superman’s Legacy – Part II

From Silver Age to Modern Age

By Chris Calzia

The Silver Age of Comics (c.1956 to 1970) was marked by transformation. This era in comics began with an attack on comic book publishers by Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist treating juvenile delinquency, with his book Seduction of the Innocent: the Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. He primarily targeted the vulgar storytelling in crime and horror comics by publisher EC Comics, however his findings for fascist tendencies in Superman and Action Comics labeled Superman “as a symbol of violent race superiority”. DC Comics was appalled at the allegations, but the social and cultural damage had already been done and comic book sales dropped in the mid to late 1950’s. In order to counter the absurd claims by Dr. Wertham, the editor of the Superman titles at that time, Mort Weisinger, restored a child-like Golden Age fondness in the Man of Tomorrow by helming a team of writers and artists to construct new fantastical stories that included Supergirl, Krypto the Super-dog, the Phantom Zone, the bottle city of Kandor, the Legion of Super Heroes, the alien villain Brainiac, and a variety of different colored kryptonite, which transported readers into an imaginary world of science-fiction concepts and “what if…?” scenarios. It was rumored that Weisinger gained his vision for the Superman titles by talking to kids in his neighborhood and expanding on their rambunctious ideas which ultimately fueled the creation of the spin off titles Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane and Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. The Silver Age was an era of entertainment and unexplored possibilities for comic books while under the scrutiny of a strict code of guidelines enforced by the newly formed Comics Code Authority. Superman’s powers developed and expanded beyond our known galaxy and he became known as the man that could balance worlds on a his finger.

Mort Weisinger retired as editor of Superman in 1970 and the man to take his place was Julius Schwartz. Schwartz enlisted the aid of journalist, Dennis O’Neil to write The Amazing New Adventures of Superman beginning with issue #233 (January 1971). The once impenetrable and unstoppable Man of Steel from the Golden Age and Silver Age of comics was no longer invulnerable, despite what the eye-catching, dynamic front cover showcasing Superman breaking kryptonite chains and the title “Kryptonite Nevermore” displayed. All of the deadly green kryptonite throughout the world had turned to iron, yet this new Superman was gradually losing his powers and receding more and more into that of a regular man. He confronted relevant social issues of the times, rather than taking on galactic confrontations, and he sometimes wondered whether his super powers were actually helping or hurting humanity. Even Clark Kent experienced a make over both in attire and occupation as he was reassigned to television news reporter for station WGBS-TV, rather than continuing his outmoded job as a columnist for the Daily Planet. The times were a changing, and Superman needed to change with the times. However, the change only lasted for one year before Dennis O’Neill quit his job as lead writer on Superman and editor Julius Schwartz was encouraged to return to the more traditional Superman stories of the Weisinger era. The Bronze Age of comics (c.1971 to 1985) produced some of the most culturally relevant stories and this comic book collector especially enjoys the short run penned by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by the incredible super-team of penciler and inker, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson.

Up until 1978 nobody had ever flown on-screen and nobody ever thought it was possible, but director Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve proved everyone wrong when Superman: The Movie was released. From it’s opening scenes on the crystal planet of Krypton, to it’s sweeping Americana-inspired countrysides in Smallville, to it’s comical antics between Lois Lane and Clark Kent at the Daily Planet offices in Metropolis, Superman: The Movie convinced audiences around the world that Superman unequivocally deserves the name Man of Tomorrow. Both the performances by everyone in the film and Richard Donner’s directing established a verisimilitude in the world of comic books that audiences never knew existed. Suddenly, the world of comic books became a tangible world that was inhabited by real people with real desires, wants, needs, and fears. These childish stories told in pictures, printed on recycled newspaper stock, could all of a sudden be shamelessly read by adults. Superman: The Movie became the impetus for all comic book films to come in later decades and its story and structure is replicated by both DC & Warner Bros and Marvel Studios in their franchise of successful comic book movies today. The film was a bold and precarious venture by executive producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Warner Bros’ decision to go forward with a cultural icon that had not made an appearance on the silver screen since Superman and the Mole Men in 1951, proved to be a lucrative investment for all parties involved.

By 1985, after 50 years of publishing comic books, the continuity of stories and characters in the DC universe had become a confusing tangle of contradictory plots involving multiple Earths and the existence of alternate superheroes. Therefore, DC Comics decided that they needed to streamline their fictional universe and Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 12 part miniseries lasting an entire year, did just that. Superman was nonexempt from this immense upheaval by DC editors and a two-part story written by Watchmen writer and creator, Alan Moore, titled Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? brought a poetic finality to Superman and his ensemble of friends and villains. The story also marked the end of a career for artist Curt Swan, who had been illustrating Superman in a variety of titles since the 1950’s and who was known as the definitive Superman artist. After Superman’s mysterious disappearance in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? in 1986, new life was breathed into the alien superhero by superstar artist John Byrne in The Man of Steel. This six-part miniseries established a more efficient telling of the origin of Superman beginning with his rocket launch to Earth from the planet Krypton to his being hired at the Daily Planet in Metropolis and the creation of his secret identity. It catapulted Superman into the Modern Age of Comics and remained as canon to the character’s backstory for the next fifteen years.

After Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1989, and a horrid melting pot of social issues ranging from civil rights discrimination, to the war on drugs, to the exponential growth of a difference between financial classes, a new cynicism emerged with the onset of the 1990’s. Superman felt the repercussions of this social change and overwhelming cynicism. His time as a crime-fighter during the Golden Age, or galactic world-traveler during the Silver Age, or conscientious social activist during the Bronze Age, had passed. Modern times arrived and it was time for Superman to adapt. But what kind of battles were left for Superman to fight? The only remaining battle to be fought was the ultimate battle that would end all future battles: death. So in 1992, the creative team at DC Comics, helmed by editor Mike Carlin, elected to kill Superman in a story arc appropriately titled The Death of Superman. The media’s reaction to an American icon’s death with 52 years of publication history was completely blown out of proportion, yet the unforeseeable hype helped increase sales of Superman #75 (January 1993) to six million copies sold, an incredible amount, requiring multiple printings, that had never been reached before in comic book history. The creative team behind Superman’s death could not understand it, comic book superheroes die all the time. However, a superhero like Superman who is known through all seven continents and whose red, blue, and yellow costume stands for truth, justice, and equality had never died before. It broke the hearts of comic book readers and non-readers alike and to this day the illustration of Superman’s torn cape propped upon a wood stick as a grave marker to the Man of Tomorrow is forever emblazoned in the mind of millions of people. But like the death of any superhero, the death of Superman was not to last and in less than one year Superman returned to comics. His devoted fans felt deceived by the publicity stunt. The spike in sales from The Death of Superman was due to non-comic book readers who had never stepped foot in a comic book store before and bought the issue as a future investment. However, due to the massive number of copies of Superman #75 that were printed, the rarity of the comic book decreased and the issue never increased in value. Stay tuned for next month Superman’s Legacy pt.III discussing our current disenchanted Superman in both comic books and films during an era of increasing complexity and chaos.

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