Back in my essay OCD ON A HOTPLATE I found it strange that even though Jerry Siegel’s early SUPERMAN stories possesses strong mythicity in relation to the hero’s character, most of his opponents, whether they were mad scientists or abusive orphanages, had little mythic quality. I expressed surprise that SUPERMAN, despite the marvelous nature of its protagonist, seemed unable to sustain a pulpish level of myth-symbolism I such as I found in the BATMAN stories of that period, analyzed here.
I’ve also mentioned the “inconvenient truth” that a decade after Superman’s creators Siegel and Shuster lost control of their character, the franchise took on greater complexity during the early years of the Silver Age. To be sure, Jerry Siegel, working as a freelance scripter, was instrumental to creating some of that mythology during that, but he was entirely answerable to the authority of Mort Weisinger, who enjoyed editorial control of the SUPERMAN titles. Now, thanks to some of the articles and interviews in THE KRYPTON COMPANION, a 2006 TwoMorrows compendium of articles and interviews related to Superman, one can trace some of the diverse ways in which that mythology evolved.
One aspect that enhanced the symbolic complexity of the feature was the increased use of science-fiction elements. In fannish circles it’s often been said that the early Silver Age was the first time the series boasted such elements, whereas the stories from the previous ten years were dominantly more mundane in content, like episodes of the popular 1950s television show. Until recently, I tended to believe this, having only fragmentary knowledge of SUPERMAN comics of the late Golden Age. However, in one COMPANION essay, tellingly titled “The Superman Mythology,” author Eddy Zeno established that there was an increasing use of science-fictional concepts as early as 1952, mostly from writer Edmond Hamilton. “By 1952,” Zeno relates, “nearly every issue [of SUPERMAN or ACTION COMICS] had at least one of [Hamilton’s] tales of [exploring Kryptonian culture”]. Thus it would seem that, even though Hamilton is credited with just roughly 250 Superman stories, his skill with science-fiction scenarios may have convinced Weisinger to use more SF-concepts than one saw from Jerry Siegel in the Golden Age.
That said, Zeno admits that this relative increase of SF-stories “slowed to a trickle” in the Superman books over the next few years. This makes an interesting contrast with the fact that in 1950 DC launched STRANGE ADVENTURES, the first of a very long-running line of SF-comics. This would indicate that the company's management believed that there was a juvenile audience hungry for SF-tropes. But despite the fact that Weisinger had been a science fiction fan before he became a professional editor, he chose not to continue emphasizing science-fiction elements generally, or Kryptonian mythology in particular, for more than a year or two. Not until roughly 1958 did Weisinger and his stable of writers began emphasizing a consistent mythology for both Superman’s homeworld and his cast of characters. In all likelihood comics-fans will never know why Weisinger’s editorial prerogatives changed, so that a mere flirtation with SF-mythology in 1952 became a more sustained effort six years later.
Such was the background against which Superman’s Silver Age stories were forged. But what of the Superman stories of the next “age?”
By 1970—which is the year I personally consider to be the beginning of the “Bronze Age”-- Mort Weisinger had retired from DC, and the “Superman Family” books had been farmed out to an assortment of different editors. Julie Schwartz assumed custody of SUPERMAN and ACTION, but though Schwartz had been celebrated in fan-circles for his Silver Age titles, such as THE FLASH and GREEN LANTERN, Schwartz’s editorship on SUPERMAN was not quite as renowned. The SUPERMAN stories of the Bronze Age used as much science-fictional gimmickery as the tales from Schwartz’s Silver Age titles, or those of Weisinger’s SUPERMAN. But Schwartz’s Silver Age writers—principally John Broome and Gardner Fox—were able to impart symbolic resonance to the gimmicks, most of Schwartz’s Bronze-Age writers were not so accomplished. After enduring most of the wacky but one-note villains Superman faced in the 1970s—Terra-Man, Vartox, Karb-Brak—one might prefer the one-note Siegel villains of the 1940s.
However, there was IMO one major exception in the work of writer Marty Pasko, one of many interviewed in THE KRYPTON CHRONICLE. Ironically, Pasko’s remarks on the Superman concept make it sound like he would be the least likely writer to do anything insightful with the character:
“Most superhero characterization… is non-existent. Or so preposterous that a truly sophisticated, naturalistic, character-driven story is virtually impossible to achieve unless you ignore most of the ill-conceived backstory and reimagine it…”
I do not think superhero fiction works well when conceived primarily in naturalistic terms; at best, naturalism should be used as a leitmotif, to consistently play off the fantastic pheonomena of the stories, as best exemplified by the scripts of Stan Lee. And yet, despite his bias toward naturalism, Pasko demonstrated a more adventurous attitude toward at least one aspect of Superman’s mythology: his super-powered “rogues’ gallery.” Michael Eury, interviewing Pasko in THE KRYPTON CHRONICLE, observed that Pasko build up the formidability of several old-time Superman menaces--Toyman, Metallo, Bizarro. Pasko responded:
“…my goal was to take the old villains that Julie disdained and give them an edge, in hopes of attracting new, older readers. I seem to have succeeded in doing that, since the numbers on SUPERMAN went up while ACTION’s sales plateaued, and the only difference in the creative teams on the two books was the writer.”
Clearly, unlike his contemporaries Cary Bates and Elliott Maggin, whose stories reflected Julie Schwartz’s preference for gimmickery, Pasko was interested in refurbishing the established mythology of the older SUPERMAN books.
That’s not to say Pasko always succeeded in his goal. The original Metallo story by Robert Bernstein remains a strong evocation of the mythic trope of “the evil Superman,” even though the Metallo character dies at the end of the story. Pasko’s rebooting of the character resulted in a Metallo that was merely another good sparring-partner, though prior to Pasko the character had no more than minor status in the overall Superman mythos. However, Pasko succeeded in giving Toyman what the writer called “the creepy incongruity of a criminal mind lurking behind that avuncular, Ed Wynn exterior,” and Pasko’s Bizarro becomes once more the tragic Frankensteinian outcast seen in that character’s first few appearances.
Moreover, Pasko’s story for SUPERMAN #318—which takes a novel approach to Superman’s vow to preserve life—remains one of the best experiments with deepening Superman’s emotional resonance.
Thus one may observe the capaciousness of the SUPERMAN mythos, in that it was able to take fire from the diametrically opposed works of an Edmond Hamilton, a writer steeped in boyish SF-gimmickery, and of a Marty Pasko, a writer disdainful of those very elements.
ADDENDUM: I should note that it's entirely possible that Weisinger was ordered to tamp down the SF-motifs because the TV adaptation of the hero, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, debuted in 1952. Perhaps Weisinger's boss ordered him to make the comic look as much as possible like the low-budget teleseries, but because Weisinger had already bought a number of SF-themed scripts, it took a year or so for the comics to finish off that spate of SF-stories and assume complete fidelity with the TV show.
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