Superman #146, July 1961. Art by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye. TM & © DC.
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You know the drill: Strange visitor from another planet, baby Kal-El is launched in an experimental rocket to Earth by his parents Jor-El and Lara (no-El) just as the doomed planet Krypton explodes. Found and eventually adopted by a kindly couple, the Kents (usually known as Jonathan and Martha), he’s raised to conceal his extraordinary powers until he matures and can fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way!
The one-page origin of Superman from Action Comics #1 (left) and the two-page version from Superman #1. TM & © DC.
It’s a familiar story now, but in the 1940s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s, not so much. While there was a one-page origin story in Action Comics #1 (1938) and a two-pager in Superman #1 (1939), not much was said about the Man of Steel and how he came to be until Superman #53 (July/August 1948) when “The Origin of Superman!” was published in the “10th Anniversary Issue!” of that title. That story (where the Kents were imaginatively referred to as “John” and “Mary”) was written by Batman co-creator Bill Finger, with art by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye. Boring was the premier Superman artist of the 1950s, including the syndicated newspaper comic strip, but I always found his art to be, well … boring. While he certainly did a number of iconic Superman illustrations (including the cover to #53), his figures and faces always seemed old-fashioned and awkward to me, but hey, what did I know … I grew up a Marvel kid. Jack Kirby, ride or die.
Superman’s origin story from 1948 in issue #53, the 10th anniversary issue of the title. Art by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye.
Editor Mort Weisinger would wait almost a hundred issues and 13 years until he once again tackled the origin of Superman, this time in issue #146 (July/August 1961). While I find the interior story (expanded to 12.5 pages from #53’s ten-pager) a tad pedestrian (in other words, still boring), it did add a little more to the Superman mythos, including Superbaby shenanigans, a one–panel reminder of Krypto the Super-Dog making it to Earth, and how amateur optometrist Clark Kent made the indestructible lenses for his glasses. The story is by Otto Binder and illustrated by second-string Super-artist Al Plastino. In fact both stories in this issue are by Plastino, which was a disappointment to me.
THE Super-artist, Curt Swan.
By the time I originally had this issue in 1961, Curt Swan was the only Superman artist for me, even at the ripe-old age of six years old. And while I enjoyed the later work by artists such as John Byrne, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Tim Sale, and Jim Lee, Swan will always be MY Superman artist, kind of like Sean Connery will always be MY James Bond. The second 12.5-page story in issue #146, “Superman’s Greatest Feats!” was written by Jerry Siegel, still plugging along in one of his on-again writer time periods on the character he co-created (with artist Joe Shuster). It too is pretty forgettable. (Oh, and 12.5 pages? Well, DC had to sell some Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Roll Pops, evidently; those two extra half-pages are made up of ads for those products.)
But oh, that Curt Swan cover! So much drama, action, and tragedy all rolled up in one image. Baby Kal-El alone and forlorn in his little one-seater rocket. Jor-El and Lara tearfully saying goodbye. Fire. Buildings collapsing. And bullet points! “How Superman came from Krypton to Earth!” “How he gained his amazing super-powers!” “How he assumed his secret identity of Clark Kent!” “How he met Krypto, the Super-Dog!” “How Kryptonite can destroy him!” All breathlessly “Told for the FIRST time!” (Kind of a lie, but okay.) There’s not enough exclamation points left in the world to tell the tale in this issue … editor Weisinger used them all on this cover.
That cover (again) plus the splash pages from the two interior stories by Al Plastino. “The Story of Superman’s Life!” was written by Otto Binder and “Superman’s Greatest Feats!” was written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. TM & © DC.
I was smitten with this cover as a kid, six years old when it came out. So smitten, in fact, that that I took a blue Bic ballpoint pen and traced over the tragic countenance of baby Kal-El, as if trying to obliterate his sadness. It was one of the few covers I ever drew on (although both my brother and I may have traced a few in pencil backed by carbon paper, onto clean, white typewriter paper, thus creating our own “original” art … which surprisingly doesn’t seem to affect the value in today’s modern comics collecting marketplace … who knew?). This is just such an iconic cover for me that I had to buy it again, many years later (like 60 or so!), when I came across a decent if definitely well-loved copy at Comic-Con a few years ago.
One final note about this awesome cover … that price box in the upper left, mysteriously stating “STILL 10¢”. To six-year-old me, what did it mean? Was it a veiled threat or a nod to my good shopping instincts by picking up this copy before the price changed? Soon, all comics would cost 12¢, a 20% increase. The days of ten books for a dollar (comics and magazines were never taxed in the forward-thinking state of Pennsylvania, one of the few forward-thinking things that state ever did) were over. Soon it would be eight books for a buck, with four cents left over for some penny candy, my first lesson in inflation and the beginning of a journey to Type 2 diabetes.
A few more re-tellings of Superman’s origin: (left to right) Amazing World of Superman from 1973 (art by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson); John Byrne’s reboot of Superman from 1986; and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s version from 1999. TM & © DC.
I was—and still am—very fond of the Weisinger era of Superman. I loved his imaginary stories (yes, they are all imaginary stories, little Alan Moore from Northampton, England … thanks for writing in), which told tales outside of “continuity” (this word used loosely; DC didn’t care if Superman got a mohawk in the last issue of Action Comics; he wouldn’t have one in the next issue of Superman, published just weeks later). “The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue,” “The Death of Superman,” and “The Sons of Superman,” along with the non-imaginary ones like “The Last Days of Superman,” “The Team of Luthor and Brainiac,” and “The Luthor-Superman Showdown” were all great Curt Swan-drawn epics. Weisinger created the Superman Family with Supergirl, Krypto the Super-Dog, Streaky the Super-Cat, and Comet, the Super-Horse, brought back a whole city from Krypton, Kandor, shrunk down by the villainous Brainiac to fit into a Sparkletts water jug (sure hope they didn’t take it away to be recycled when they dropped off new water jugs), filled in the backstory of Krypton with stories in which Superman traveled through time to the planet of his birth, and even introduced more “members” to the Kryptonite family—Red, Gold, Silver—which added new ways to torture the Man of Tomorrow. It was all a bunch of juvenile claptrap, especially compared to what Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, et al, were doing over at Marvel, but god … it was enjoyable, nonsensical claptrap. I remember some of those stories as fondly as I do the best of Marvel. The Superman books were definitely a case of older white guys writing down to an audience of pre-teen boys … but they were good at it.
So the cover for Superman #146 gets the TFMSR Award (which we are inventing right here, right now, for this one-time only usage) for Best Cover of a Superman Origin Story Issue in 1961. Could there possibly be a higher honor?
Next time: King Features Syndicate jumps into the mid-1960s comic book publishing frenzy with “King Comics,” and Flash Gordon #1 by the artist born to draw the character … Al Williamson!
Flash Gordon TM & © King Features Syndicate.
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