Sometimes, it’s not so hard to come up with ideas for my column.  You guys bring them to me.


Case in point, last’s month’s entry, when Dave Elyea posted:


I’d love to see someone figure out when most of the Superboy stories were set---up until the official “floating timeline” was established around 1970, placing Superboy forever 15 years before Superman’s constant “present day”, the stories seemed to be all over the place, chronologically . . . .


Initially, I was going to address Dave’s comment with my own post.  But as I started digging, to get my facts straight, it grew evident that a comprehensive response was going to take more than two or three sentences.  Moreover, as I bounced from webpage to webpage, it was equally evident that there was considerable confusion over when the Man of Steel’s younger self lived.  Most of it was from fans who came in after the sliding timeline for Superboy had been established.  Many thought that it had always been that way and were bemused when they came upon a Silver-Age Superboy tale that was set in the days of Babe Ruth and Fireside Chats.  There was no way to subtract fifteen years from a 1960’s Superman and get a 1930’s Superboy.


That settled it.  This was a matter that deserved a Deck Log Entry all its own.  It took me several days to do the research, including going out and buying a key comic that I did not already own.  But I’m ready to tackle Mr. Elyea’s request and, perhaps, clue in other fans who might stumble onto my blog.




It begins back in 1941, when Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel submitted the idea for Superboy to Mort Weisinger, who had been hired earlier in the year as editorial director Whitney Ellsworth’s assistant. Siegel suggested running a series about Superman when he was a youth.  But, as Gerard Jones related in Men of Tomorrow (Basic Books, 2004), this wouldn’t be just a “youthenised” version of the noble hero.


Instead of presenting the ultimate Boy Scout, Siegel’s concept envisioned the Youngster of Steel as a rebellious prankster, pulling practical jokes and defying adults.  Siegel liked the idea because it would allow him and Joe Shuster to produce stories full of the irreverent humour and slapstick which they loved to do.


Mort Weisinger, presaging the days when he would be the iron hand behind the entire “Superman family” of magazines, killed the idea before it even reached the drawing board.  Weisinger was sensitive to the Man of Steel’s growing image as a super-model of virtue to children.  Because of that, parents objected less to their kids bringing Superman comics home; thus, contributing to the character’s high sales figures.  Mort wasn’t going to risk losing all that good will by publishing the antics of a super-powered Katzenjammer Kid.


Under the circumstances, it was the right decision.  But three years later, the suits at DC found their parental-approved sales profits being leeched away by Fawcett’s even more wholesome Captain Marvel.  They also noted the success of kid-version spin-offs Captain Marvel, Junior and Mary Marvel and realised there was a market for juvenile heroes.  As Men of Tomorrow reported, this caused DC to revisit the idea of publishing “the adventures of Superman when he was a boy.”   


Whitney Ellsworth signed off on a Superboy series, with one significant caveat:  the acorn wouldn’t be too different from the tree it eventually grew into.  If anything, the Boy of Steel would be even more salutary, being raised by simple, decent folks in the heartland of America.  As Clark Kent, he was a “regular feller”, going to school, palling around with his buds, and being polite to grown-ups.  In due time, they even gave him a pet super-dog.   About the only thing Ellsworth didn’t do to convey the grass-roots values of the young hero was hire Norman Rockwell to draw him.


The first Superboy story appeared in More Fun Comics # 101 (Jan.-Feb., 1945), where the series ran for six more issues before jumping over to Adventure Comics, which would be the Boy of Steel’s home for the next two decades.  Four years later, DC provided the youngster from Krypton a second residence, when his own title debuted with issue # 1 (Mar.-Apr., 1949).




The splash panel of that first Superboy story in More Fun Comics # 101 made it clear that we were going to be reading about Superman in his youth.  Logically, the Man of Steel’s boyhood had to take place sometime before the current day. 


For the first couple of years, the character of Superboy was rendered as a young boy, indeed, on the cusp of double digits.  In fact, his first Adventure Comics story showed us his tenth birthday.  At the time, Superman’s age had not been established, but even if you wanted to be generous and say that the Man of Steel was just over the legal age of adulthood, twenty-one, then Superboy’s adventures had to take place at least a dozen years earlier.  Those stories should have reflected the earlier time, and they did---kinda sorta.


What I’m saying is that you couldn’t prove the Superboy tales didn’t happen in the past.


Initially, there was a timeless quality in the setting of the stories.  There were no super-villains or science-fiction elements.  Superboy’s concerns were occupied by the sort of things universal to boyhood:  making friends with the kid who doesn’t fit in, helping a chum overcome his shyness, proving a classmate’s dad wasn’t an ex-convict or if he was, making the townfolk realise that the child shouldn’t be made to suffer for the sins of the father.


In terms of depicting the precise year or decade, the writers and artists relied upon the fact that very few aspects of society go away overnight.  Some butchers still wore straw hats and sleeve garters in 1945.  And many places still had hand-cranked telephones and horse-drawn milk wagons.  Items in the stories---clothing, automobiles, vessels, buildings, fixtures, and so forth---were drawn in a generic fashion, reflecting no era more specific than “sometime over the last twenty years.”


After a while, though, they stopped paying attention.  Anachronisms started to slip in.  In Adventure Comics # 128 (May, 1948), Superboy prevented two clearly contemporary autos from crashing into each other.  “The Super-Giant of Smallville”, from a 1956 issue of Superboy, showed a King-Kong-sized Boy of Steel nearly colliding with an airliner that looked suspiciously like the current Douglas DC-6. 


When it came to these kinds of mistakes, the covers were worse.  The cover of Adventure Comics # 136 (Jan., 1949) depicted Superboy racing an early version of a jet aircraft.  And the cover of Superboy # 24 (Feb.-Mar., 1953) had Our Hero stopping a modern-vintage Studebaker from plunging into a ditch.


It’s tempting to write off these chronological gaffes as simple lapses of attention---and they possibly were.  But there were also some screamingly obvious errors that told even casual readers that the folks cranking out the Superboy stories weren’t trying half the time.  In “Super-Bellhop”, from Adventure Comics # 127 (Aug., 1948), the plot had Clark Kent working as a bellboy in a luxurious hotel and the desk register listed guest visits dated 1944 and 1946.


More damning was “The New Lana Lang”, which appeared in Adventure Comics # 174 (Mar., 1952).  This tale showed Lana competing in, and ultimately winning, a beauty contest to select “Miss Smallville of 1952”.


Since green-lighting the Superboy series in ’45, Whitney Ellsworth’s career at DC had branched off into a different venue.  He had served as the company’s liaison to Columbia Pictures for both the 1948 Superman and its 1950 sequel, Atom Man Vs. Superman.  Ellsworth secured his position as DC’s Man in Hollywood after contributing to the writing of the 1951 feature film Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves.  In 1953, he moved permanently to California to take over as producer of the Adventures of Superman television series.


Back in New York, Ellsworth was still listed on DC’s masthead as its editorial director, but it was Mort Weisinger doing the heavy lifting.  The same year that Ellsworth moved to Hollywood, Superboy and Adventure Comics were taken away from Jack Schiff and added to Weisinger’s stable.  By January of 1954, Mort had control of every title in which Superman appeared, except World’s Finest Comics (which he would finally get a decade later).


The time-slips continued during Weisinger’s first years as the de facto editor of “the Superman family of magazines”.  (His name wouldn’t replace Ellsworth’s until April, 1959.)  Perhaps Mort was still testing the reins because during the middle part of the 1950’s, nothing much changed in any of the Super-titles.  That included yet another big, honkin’ mistake in Superboy’s timeline---the lead story in Superboy # 67 (Sep., 1958) featured Lana Lang appearing as a contestant on a television quiz show!


That would be the last time, though, that the modern age would infiltrate Superboy’s era---thanks to a sweeping change that Weisinger instituted as editor.  The same month that Lana was anachronistically enjoying her fifteen minutes of television fame, Superman # 124 hit the stands, and there was something new about this issue. 


It was the first mainstream DC comic to include a page containing letters from its readers.  Back in his days as a pulp editor for the Standard Magazine chain, Mort had found letters from the readership to be a valuable resource for gauging fan reactions and preferences.  Printing their letters encouraged more sales, as well as providing a means to ballyhoo what was coming up next, not only in that particular title, but in other magazines in the line.


Quickly, the rest of Weisinger’s books followed suit.  Letter columns appeared the following month in Action Comics # 245, Adventure Comics # 253, and Superboy # 68.  Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane were the stragglers, not getting letter pages until their April, 1959 issues.


Weisinger might have figured that placing Superboy in the modern era---despite the illogic of it---was a non-issue.  For years, the prevailing editorial attitude had been that their readers were too immature to be detail oriented.  Mort might have even felt that placing the Boy of Steel among the trappings of twenty years earlier, though accurate, would have confused the young readers.  If so, a letter which appeared in that first “Smallville Mailsack”, in Superboy # 68, must have been a wake-up call . . . .


Weisinger had responded the only way he could and be honest about it.  If he’d hoped that would be the end of it, though, he was wrong.  To his credit, two issues later, Mort printed another letter raising the same point . . . .


Weisinger’s reply was a resourceful pitch, but he couldn’t make the sale.  He discovered the quirkiness of comics fans; they’d buy into the idea of a flying boy from another planet without a second thought, but have him zoom by a jet plane twenty years ahead of schedule and that was just plain absurd.


Another complaint about anachronisms appeared in Superboy # 71 (Mar., 1959), and Ye Olde Editor finally threw in the towel . . . .




A few web sites post the information that Weisinger’s response to Steve Spangler’s letter pledges to keep Superboy in his proper era and to avoid any further anachronisms.   I didn’t own Superboy # 71; I had to buy a copy to read Mort’s answer for myself.  As shown above, he says no such thing; he simply promises to keep atomic bombs out of future stories.  Nor does Weisinger specify the era in which Superboy’s adventures take place.


Despite the brusqueness of his answer, which was pure Weisinger, he took the criticisms to heart.  In fact, I’d say Mort didn’t bother to wait until the comments saw print; instead, it appears he took action right after receiving them in the mail.  The story “Superboy Meets Robin, the Boy Wonder” appeared in Adventure Comics # 253 the same month that Kevin Herron questioned the presence of TV antennas on Smallville rooftops over in Superboy # 68.  One sequence of this tale shows three eminent scientists speculating that, “in the future”, man will invent the jet engine, send satellites into space, and split the atom.  It was the first time in a long while---perhaps, ever---that a Superboy story specifically placed itself in a past decade.


But which past decade?   The three critical letters had insisted only that Superboy lived prior to 1945.  But Weisinger had an idea that there needed to be more years between the Boy of Steel and his present-day adult self and, thus, set the time of Superman’s boyhood as the 1930’s.  I’ve read a couple of speculations on why he chose that decade.  One theory points out that Superman debuted fully grown in 1938; therefore, his boyhood had to take place before that.  Another notion uses 1945---the year Superboy was introduced---as the benchmark.  An adult Superman in ’45 meant that a teen-age Superboy had to have lived sometime in the 1930’s.


Either rationale is plausible.  But I believe Weisinger’s primary reason for setting Superboy in the 1930’s was to dodge the inconvenient matter of World War II.  A 1940’s Superboy would generate letters asking why the Boy of Steel didn’t immediately defeat the Axis powers and put an end to the conflict.  And Mort knew the current level of readers was too sophisticated to accept “Because Clark Kent accidentally failed his eye test” as a reasonable explanation.  Better to just place Superboy in the ‘30’s and as far away from the rumbles of war as possible.

The artists did their part.  Visually, Smallville returned to the days of iceboxes, candlestick telephones, and Pierce Arrows.  Running boards were back in fashion.  And while the writers seldom threw in a topical reference, at least they stopped putting any jet planes or television sets into their plots. 


The readjustment wasn’t seamless, though.  The insistence on depicting Superboy in a past era still resulted in some screw-ups.  Just of a different nature.  Superman # 144 (Apr., 1961) included the tale “Superboy’s First Public Appearance”.  During the course of this story, the Boy of Steel, looking a good five or six years older than the grammar-school age of his earliest appearances, heads to the White House for his first meeting with the President of the United States.  As rendered by Al Plastino, the Chief Executive was clearly Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


It fits the time-frame.  FDR took office on 04 March 1933 and served for, like, forever.


Shortly thereafter, Plastino was called upon to draw another meeting between Superboy and the President. It appeared only three months later.  Maybe Al hit his head or something, because he seemed to have forgotten all about the earlier story.


In “The Girl Who Saw the Future Superboy”, from Superboy # 90 (Jul., 1961), the President asks the Boy of Steel to test a new explosive in America’s arsenal.  This time, Plastino renders the President primarily in silhouette, but from his profile and physique, it’s apparent that the Man in the Oval Office was intended to be Herbert Hoover---Roosevelt’s predecessor.


So, there was some trouble in keeping the precise years of Superboy’s career straight.  They were simply using the decade of the Thirties as a catch-all.  Sharp-eyed readers could figure that out from the lead story in Superboy # 119 (Mar., 1965).  Here, it’s Superbaby whom accidentally embarks on his first trip into the future.  Following the usual misadventures, the toddler Kal-El returns to his own time---which is depicted as “1930”.


Still, despite the occasional “scheduling conflict”, now even a casual reader of a Superboy story readily grasped that it was set in an earlier time.



In 1968, Mort Weisinger, with his eye on retirement, asked to have his workload lessened.  Eager to keep Weisinger on board as long as possible, DC publisher Jack Liebowitz turned the editorship of the Superboy title over to Murray Boltinoff.  The first issue to come out on Boltinoff’s watch was # 149 (Jul., 1968), which carried the infamous “Superboy Meets Bonnie and Clyde” tale.  Boltinoff was listed in the indicia as editor, but the issue had probably been put into production by Mort.


Murray Boltinoff was renowned for ignoring continuity.  In fact, the stories he approved as editor of The Brave and the Bold mangled established facts in their characters’ histories so badly that fans jokingly considered them to take place on yet another of DC’s parallel Earths---Earth-B, for “Boltinoff”.  So the question was:  what changes would Boltinoff inflict on Superboy?


As it turned out, not that many.  In the art, mostly.  Long-time Superboy artists George Papp and Al Plastino were gone, replaced by Bob Brown.  Aided and abetted by inkers such as Wally Wood and Murphy Anderson, Brown delivered a sleeker, more dynamic Boy of Steel.  New scribe Frank Robbins provided solidly dramatic scripts.


But Superboy’s history, as established by Mort Weisinger, remained the same.  Including the time frame of his adventures.  In fact, Boltinoff made a point of saying so, in response to a reader’s comments in the letter column of Superboy # 154 (March, 1969):


. . . Scripter Frank Robbins and artist Bob Brown make every effort to make Smallville a town that existed in the ‘30’s.  Airplanes, telephones, automobiles, in fact, every prop is made to resemble that period.


And that they did.  Under Mort Weisinger, the background details had suggested the 1930’s.  But Boltinoff’s Superboy tales evoked the decade.  Everything Bob Brown drew, from the creases in the men’s fedoras to the microphones in a radio studio, authentically reflected the era.  Robbins’ scripts made references to the Great Depression and the Hindenburg disaster.


And for those holdouts who still weren’t sure when Superboy lived, Boltinoff couldn’t make it any plainer than the first panel of Superboy # 168 (Sep., 1970) . . . .



There was a rising tide, though, of fans whom had a difficult time accepting what they were being told about the time of Superman’s boyhood.  For them, the math just didn’t add up.  In the Smallville Mailsack of issue # 169 (Oct., 1970), Larry Knight, of Honolulu, Hawaii, was quite pointed in his opinion about DC’s insistence that Superboy lived during the 1930’s.


But that’s ridiculous.  Even if it was 1939, Superman would be 40 years old because I read in an earlier ish that Superboy is 15 years old.  I’d bet the stories take place around 1955 or ’60.


Beneath that were the names of several other letter-writers who had expressed similar concerns.  Boltinoff was cagey in his response.  He simply assured them that their comments had been read and, if they were interested, a clue to how he planned to resolve the matter had been planted in a story appearing in the next issue of Superboy.


Issue #170 came and went, with no additional comment by Boltinoff.  (The hint he had mentioned was there, though.)  It wasn’t until issue # 171 (Jan., 1971) that he revealed what DC had up its sleeve for the Boy of Steel.  And what a revelation it was!


By editorial fiat, Superboy was now unstuck in time.  His adventures would perpetually take place fifteen years in the past and slide forward in lock-step with each ensuing year.


Another, more subtle, change---one that had gotten by nearly all the readers---was the revision of Superman’s age to a permanent twenty-nine years old.  For years, Mort Weisinger had told us that the Man of Steel was in his thirties.  But Weisinger was no longer calling the shots; he had retired the previous year.  Now, to make Superman more appealing to late-teen and twenty-something fans, he was moved over to their side of the youth movement.


Counting back fifteen years from 1971 put Superboy’s time as 1956 and, as advertised, his stories were full of references to President Eisenhower and I Love Lucy and Elvis.


But the Boy of Steel’s timeline didn’t have the chance to slide very far---thanks to history repeating itself.  Superboy appeared only in his own title, now.  His series in Adventure Comics had been replaced by one starring the Legion of Super-Heroes some ten years earlier.  And now it was happening, again.  The Legion had come to squat in the pages of Superboy, and in two years’ time, it took over the entire magazine.  The last solo Superboy story, “The Slay-Away Plan”, appeared in issue # 197 (Sep., 1973).


The Teen of Steel continued to appear as one of the Legionnaires, but his solo career remained in limbo until 1977, when DC starred him in six issues of his old home, Adventure Comics, starting with issue # 453 (Sep.-Oct., 1977).  Backtracking fifteen years should have set Superboy’s new series in 1962-3, but the years of inactivity had apparently rusted the needle on the sliding timeline.  The good people of Smallville still liked Ike and loved Lucy.

Superboy’s solo run jumped from Adventure Comics to Superman Family for eight issues in 1979 before somebody finally gave the timeline gauge (or more likely, the writers) a good whack.  When DC gave the Kid from Krypton another shot as his own title---The New Adventures of Superboy---in January, 1980, things were squarely in the mid-1960’s.  Over the course of the series, the topical shout-outs progressed, from JFK to the Beatles to “John Wayne’s latest film,” True Grit


The fifteen-year gap was solidly in place, now.  Clark Kent and Lana Lang attended concerts by rock bands of long-haired musicians wearing Nehru jackets and love beads.  And the final issue, cover-dated June, 1984, saw Lana inviting Clark to a performance of the Carpenters, implying that the series had reached the 1970’s.


In 1986, DC allowed John Byrne to revise Superman, and Byrne went about it in big, broad sweeps.  Very little of the Superman mythos was left untouched.  The new continuity now stated that Clark Kent did not begin his super-heroing until he was an adult.  That meant there had never been a Superboy.


If it hadn’t been for that, this cartoon prediction by comics-humourist Fred Hembeck probably would have been spot-on.

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Commander Benson said:

For the most part, it was artist Bob Brown's attention to detail that gave the "1930's Superboy" period of Boltinoff's reign such an authentic look.  Brown really put effort into depicting things such as military uniforms and radio broadcasting studios and automobiles with considerable detail.  Writer Frank Robbins did his part, too, by making sure the references were accurate; it was "the War Department", not "the Department of Defense", and Ma Kent stored her leftovers in the icebox, not the refrigerator. Stuff like that.

The fact that Frank Robbins and Bob Brown aged from their teens to their mid-twenties in the 1930s was probably a very helpful factor too.

While I never cared much for Robbins' comic-book art (though I'm about to start rereading Invaders, I'll see if time has changed my views) I really enjoyed him as a writer (mostly Batman in my day).

The most depressing thing about the sliding scale of time is the effect on comic books within the DC and Marvel universes. Lee and Kirby in the Silver Age were writing adventures of the Fantastic Four; now it seems they had to work with some other group, such as First Line, as the FF didn't show up until the 21st century. As the DCU currently didn't have any super-heroes until five years ago, the New 52's DC Comics probably pushed out non-superhero stuff all through the 1960s, so no Broome/Infantino Flash, Fox/Kane Atom, etc.

Fraser Sherman said:

The most depressing thing about the sliding scale of time is the effect on comic books within the DC and Marvel universes. Lee and Kirby in the Silver Age were writing adventures of the Fantastic Four; now it seems they had to work with some other group, such as First Line, as the FF didn't show up until the 21st century. As the DCU currently didn't have any super-heroes until five years ago, the New 52's DC Comics probably pushed out non-superhero stuff all through the 1960s, so no Broome/Infantino Flash, Fox/Kane Atom, etc.

Um ... what?

Both Marvel and DC in the Silver Age showed that their respective Earths had comic-book companies roughly similar to the real world's. Bronze Age stories showed the companies still somewhat similar: Marv Wolfman in the Marvel Universe writes Tomb of Dracula and tried getting Marvel to take Nova on as a super-hero.

Because of the sliding scale, the Fantastic Four only took their space trip around the start of this century. In the New 52, super-heroes have only been around five years. So presumably the comic book writers of the sixties must have been doing completely different stuff. The Marvel Universe's version of Fantastic Four wasn't written by Lee and Kirby, as they'd be dead or retired by now, and so on.

..My official classification:

  Elementary: 1st-5th

  Middle school: 6th-8th

  HS: 9-12

I was elementary through sixth grade (well technically just sixth grade as that's when I arrived from England), junior high seventh to ninth then high school. I was quite flabbergasted to learn some schools had ninth grade as part of high school.

I just reread the first issue of New Adventures of Superboy. I noticed that in flashbacks they made a point of having the Kents look like senior citizens, explaining the de-aging in a footnote.

Fraser Sherman said:

I just reread the first issue of New Adventures of Superboy. I noticed that in flashbacks they made a point of having the Kents look like senior citizens, explaining the de-aging in a footnote.

Yes, and I remember being somewhat surprised to see that, as from at least 1971, DC had started pretending that the Kents had always been their "youthenised" ages.  One of the many pains caused by de-ageing the Kents (in "The Fantastic Faces", from Superboy # 145 [Mar., 1968]. for those who came in late) was that, from then on, any Superbaby tale would include the apparent contradiction of having Superbaby's Ma and Pa Kent be twenty years older than they were in Superboy's adventures.

At first, DC addressed the situation head-on, when the circumstance arose, by including a detailed footnote explaining that the story had taken place before the Kents' rejuvenation (n.b., "The Day Superbaby Blew Up the World", Superboy # 167 [Jul., 1970]).  But, by the time of "Superbaby's Lost World", Action Comics # 399 (Mar., 1971), it had gotten too difficult for the writers to remember that detail (Motto of Bronze-Age DC writers:  "Research is hard."), and Superbaby's parents appeared as the young Kents, as well.

So I was pleasantly startled when The New Adventures of Superboy # 1's flashback to teen-age Clark Kent's early boyhood showed the old Kents and explained the age inversion in a footnote.

Commander Benson said:

Motto of Bronze-Age DC writers: "Research is hard."

I think the problem is that the editors weren't demanding consistency/continuity. The writers probably realized that they were being paid the same either way. Time spent doing research took away from money-earning writing time. If the boss isn't demanding something it gets put on the back burner.

The first time this struck me was in a Marvel comic. In a Captain America story we suddenly had Baron Strucker attacking. The last I saw of him (and I didn't miss an appearance) he was being disintegrated in a SHIELD story. Up until then continuity was treated as important. From then on it didn't seem to matter at all in either company.

Richard Willis said:


I think the problem is that the editors weren't demanding consistency/continuity . . . .

You're absolutely correct that the final responsibility for getting things right falls on the editor, and it's up to him to enforce continuity from his writers.  The buck stops with him.

That said, it's still unprofessional for the writers to not do the research to ensure that the details of their stories are consistent with what has gone before.  To be clear, I'm not talking about every incidental point, like checking to see if young Clark Kent's third-grade teacher had ever been shown before and what her name was. But I do expect a man who is getting paid for what he writes to know, or research, the details of something significant like the instance of the Kents being rejuvenated and what impact that has on the time-frame of his story.  That's part of the writer's job.

The same way as, if some clearly crazed publisher hired me to write the next James Bond novel, and I depicted Bond as a blond-haired fellow who smoked a pipe, had a wife and child, was a former enlisted man in the British Army, and was a teetotaler.  It doesn't matter how gripping or exciting or accurate the rest of the story is, I failed to do my job in not researching the established details of Bond's literary life.

I doubt I'd have thought twice about the detail of the Kent's ages, Commander, but I remember your post about the rejuvenation and how often creators got that mixed up, so it jumped out at me.

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