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Retro: Capes, Cowls & Costumes #1

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

From July 2008: The first of 17 columns I wrote for the now apparently defunct website about comic book novels, Capes, Cowls & Costumes. CC&C was a labor of fannish devotion, researched exclusively from the almost 200 such titles I then had on my shelves. Ever since I read my first superhero prose story—Batman & Three Villains of Doom by Winston (William Woolfolk) Lyon (Signet Books, 1966), I was all in on the concept. As much as I loved the comic books themselves, translating the heroes into prose added an amount of depth to the characters that I'd never seen achieved on the two-dimensional, four-color page. Later entries in the form, particularly Maggin's Superman: The Movie era novels and later works by Maggin, as well as Denny O'Neil, Christopher Priest, Tom DeHaven, and others only confirmed the power of words over pictures.

Look! Up on the bookrack...!

Yes, I still read comic books. At my age!

In all fairness, I still write the odd comic book script now and then and, sure, current stunts like Infinite Countdown to the Final Civil War Initiative Crisis and the ilk don’t thrill me near as much as, say, a reprint of Silver Age JLA/JSA crossovers or the Avengers Kree/Skrull War, I do keep up with what’s what in Comicsland. And, while I stopped collecting comic books a long time ago, I’ve never lost my love for – and my urge to collect – comic book books. Specifically, novels (and short stories) based on comic book characters.

Full disclosure: On top of being a reader of comic book novels and short stories, I’ve also edited and written a few in my time and I’m a member of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers (IAMTW), an organization of professionals specializing in media tie-ins of all sorts.

As far back as the late-1930s, Whitman Publishing, they of Big Little Book fame (and a thousand other formats for kids over the decades), were publishing novels based on comic strip in their Authorized Editions line. These books were dust-jacketed hardcovers of about 250-pages, printed on cheap paper and featured maybe two dozen full-page black and white illustrations. Most of the books starred various cowboys, movie characters and movie stars, but many were based on popular comic strip characters like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Tillie the Toiler, Blondie, and Smilin’ Jack.

1n 1942, Superman had already rocketed to fame in comic books, a newspaper comic strip, theatrical cartoons, on radio…he was, in short, a licensing tour de force. Among the many places you could find the Man of Steel was in The Adventures of Superman, a novel by George F. Lowther, one of the writers of the Superman radio program then running on the Mutual Network. The first novel to star a comic book character, The Adventures of Superman was written for kids but was a serious treatment of this juvenile material (and featured ten full-page illustrations, four in full color, and dozens of rough pencil sketches by Man of Steel co-creator Joe Shuster). It was the first in-depth telling of Superman’s origin, from details of his home world Krypton (including the use of the names Jor-El and Lara for his parents), to a fleshed-out description of his early life, raised by kindly farm-folk Sarah and Eben Kent (who officially became Martha and Jonathan in a 1952 issue of Superman comics) as his super-powers slowly developed and revealed themselves to the last son of Krypton. What followed the innovative origin elements was a well-done, fast-paced story involving spies, Nazi saboteurs and the “Mystery of the Skeleton Ship” in a haunted shipyard. Aside from its original 1942 printing (as well as an Armed Forces edition for our boys overseas), The Adventures of Superman can still be found in a 1979 bootleg paperback edition (“reproduced for its historic literary content”) from Kassel Books and a 1995 DC Comics authorized hardcover from Applewood Books.

The Man of Steel didn’t make it back to prose for more than 35 years, in 1978’s Superman: Last Son of Krypton by Elliot S. Maggin, one of the primary—and best—of the Superman comic book writers of the 70s and 80s. Due to legal entanglements involving Mario Puzo’s screenplay, this original novel was as close to an official movie tie-in as DC and Warner Books could get to the Christopher Reeve starrer, Superman: The Movie, although it had little if anything to with the film beyond featuring a 16-page insert of photographs from the film and Lex Luthor…and not entirely as the villain of the piece. Last Son of Krypton is firmly rooted in the Superman comics of the time, using such Metropolis supporting stalwarts as Lana Lang and bullying sportscaster Steve Lombard in addition to Lois, Jimmy and Perry, not to mention the Green Lanterns and their bosses, the little blue men known as the Guardians of the Universe. And, a leitmotif to those familiar with Maggin’s work in the comics, Albert Einstein. Maggin masterfully blended all the elements of the Julius Schwartz-era Superman comics with a real world feel made even those of us who thought nothing could be better than Superman: The Movie sit up and take notice.

Last Son remains, along with 1981’s Superman: Miracle Monday, also by Maggin and published in conjunction with Superman II (and likewise a victim of the Puzo screenplay brouhaha), some of the best and most faithful superhero prose ever published. In this entry, Samael, the ruler of Hell dispatches an agent of pure evil, C.W. Saturn, to Earth in order to corrupt the world’s greatest force for good, Superman. Saturn attempts to do so by possessing Kristin Wells, a time-traveling journalism student from the future who came to Superman’s present to learn how Miracle Monday, a holiday of unknown origin still celebrated in her time, came about. The satanically possessed Kristin unleashes all sorts of hell on the world (including revealing Superman’s secret identity) which Saturn claims can only be halted by having Superman kill her. But no one dies on Superman’s watch and, miracle of miracles, the secret of Miracle Monday is tied up in one neat, albeit predictable, little package.

Next: It’s Marvel’s turn!

P.S.: Click on the titles to be linked to Elliot's reissues of SUPERMAN: LAST SON OF KRYPTON and SUPERMAN: MIRACLE MONDAY, available on Amazon!

P.S.S. While we're on the subject, click on over to my Shop and check out my own contributions to the world of superhero novels:

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