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Panel by Panel: Waiting for Superman

Knock, knock, knockin' on Schwartz's door. An excerpt from my comic book career memoir, Panel by Panel: My Comic Book Life, a work in progress, coming soon to Kickstarter.

I always had my heart set on writing for the Superman titles for Julie Schwartz. I’d been nibbling around the edges of that world since I’d been for DC, starting with the Nightwing and Flamebird strip for Nelson Bridwell in Superman Family. Of course, the way into the promised land of Superman, Action, and DC Comics Presents was the fierce and formidable Schwartz himself. I had spent more than a year at a desk outside his office and was too intimidated to ever do much more than say hello. His reputation preceded him and was verified to me by the often gruff conversations I’d hear coming from his office. Julie wasn’t the prototype for the Daily Planet’s fictitious editor, but he seemed to have modeled himself on the harried Perry White. The best I could do was to stay inside the orbit of the Superman family of characters and hope Julie would notice me one day and, in a moment of weakness, assign me a story.

As the scripter on the Nightwing and Flamebird strip in Superman Family, I was the writer of record for most things Kryptonian, which was why I given the three issue The World of Krypton story arc scheduled for Showcase #105 (October 1978) to write. The book was completed, but then Showcase was cancelled as of #104, a victim of the DC Implosion, and the Richard Donner directed Superman: The Movie, which The World of Krypton was going to be published in support of, had been delayed.

But even when the movie was finally back on track, there were contractual problems between screenwriter Mario Puzo and the producers that prevented DC from publishing comics based on its look or storyline. Fortunately, the three issues of WOK, the life of Superman’s father Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando in the film) had been created in the classic Silver Age style, based on the art of Wayne Boring and Curt Swan, penciled by Howard V. Chaykin and inked by Murphy Anderson and Frank Chiaramonte. Without the Showcase umbrella to publish the issues, DC took a chance and put it out on its own, marketing it as a limited series. Plenty of titles had lasted only two, three, or four issues, but WOK was comics’ first intentional miniseries. It must have done well enough, because the company followed it up with The Untold Legend of the Batman (1980) by Len Wein and John Byrne, Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes (1981) by me and Jim Janes, The Phantom Zone (1982) by Steve Gerber and Gene Colan, and others.

“My” Krypton was straight out of the stories of the 1950s and 1960s Mort Weisinger comics I had loved growing up, complete with the goofy elements like the Thought Beast, the Crystal Mountains, the Flame Forest and, at Nelson’s insistence, such Superman kin as sadistic cousin Cru-El. (Really.) It had all Nelson’s trademark editorial touches, including the addition of obscure references and dialogue, and Kryptonian words and expressions, that required explanatory footnotes. The miniseries was kept in print for many years as a black and white paperback compilation published by Tor Books, and was the accepted version of Krypton until it was reimagined in the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths universe.

The aforementioned Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes miniseries was another exercise in indulging Nelson’s compulsive storytelling, this time with Nelson providing the plots and me the dialogue. I thought it was a bit of an overwritten mess as I tried covering all of Nelson’s story points in swollen word balloons, but the results were popular with readers.

And with Nelson. Because a few months later I got a call from Julie Schwartz.

“Nelson says you’re a good with dialogue. All my regular writers are busy,” he growled. “I got a double-length Superman story here for Europe plotted by Rozakis if you think you can handle it.”

The job was, in typical Schwartzian alliterative fashion, “The Startling Saga of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue” a 48-page tale created for DC’s European publisher Egmont Ehapa Verlag to appear as Superman Album #1. Even with the monthly Superman, Action Comics, DC Comics Presents, and World's Finest, there was an insatiable appetite for the Man of Steel in this part of the European market. In 2021, I interviewed former DC publisher Paul Levitz for an article about those foreign comics, and he told me Ehapa “was selling tons of Superman comics — more than we could sell in the U.S./Canada market in fact. I recall visiting them in Stuttgart and meeting (former managing director and publisher) Adolph Kabatek. They were burning through material at a prodigious rate, and we agreed to supply them with some extra stories, which they would use in their European album formatted edition.”

The story was an homage to “The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue,” a classic “imaginary story” by Leo Dorfman and Curt Swan that first appeared in Superman #162 (July 1963). It was a childhood favorite in which Superman split himself into two separate Supermen to combine their super-intellects to solve all the world’s problems; they enlarge the bottle city of Kandor to normal size, cure disease, and eradicate evil. The Rozakis/Kupperberg/Adrian Gonzales version was reprinted in the States as Superman Spectacular 1982, a 46-page 8.5-inch x 11-inch album with a $1.50 cover price and cardboard covers with art by Gonzales, painted by Joe Orlando).

I must have passed the Schwartz test because he came back to me to dialogue the second Ehapa story (“The Conqueror from the Past,” again plotted by Rozakis with art by Curt Swan, and which was reprinted as a two-part story in Superman #387 and Action Comics #547 (September 1983), and after that I was the solo writer on seven more of the 21 albums produced between 1981 and 1985, writing almost 400 pages of stories alongside other talent including, Nelson, Gil Kane, Cary Bates, George Tuska, Alex Saviuk, Keith Giffen, Irv Novick, and many others. Only a handful of these stories ever saw print in the US, and in the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe and John Byrne's Superman relaunch, they no longer fit the continuity.

I landed the assignment for another Superman special project, Superman in “The Computer Masters of Metropolis” (1982 Edition), the last of three custom comics DC created for electronics manufacturer and retailer Radio Shack featuring Shanna and Alec, the "TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids." Guest-starring Wonder Woman, the real hero of the story was the miraculous TRS-80 personal desktop computer and its remarkable 4 KB of RAM and 8 KB of ROM.

Sooner or later, Julie was going to have to put me on one of the core Superman titles.

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