Stan Lee, as the sole editor and principal writer for Marvel, was able to maintain a tight continuity for all of his characters, even when they appeared in other titles. This was an advantage over Silver-Age DC, which grouped its titles under various editors. If a DC hero crossed over into another editor’s title, rarely did that character bring his continuity baggage with him. That’s how distinctly separate each editor maintained his fiefdom of magazines.
However, within each DC editor’s sphere of responsibility, the continuity between characters was usually quite tight. This became especially true after Mort Weisinger took over sole stewardship of the Superman family of magazines and set about to create a solid mythos around the Man of Steel. Superman fans not only thrilled to the new elements that Weisinger introduced, but they enjoyed the consistency of it. If a fact was presented in a story from this year, it would be iterated in a story next year. Readers loved the feeling of history that this instilled in Superman. Other editors, such as Julius Schwartz, soon learnt that continuity was a key factor in the popularity of their titles.
Weisinger and Schwartz, in particular, were hard-nosed “continuity cops”, keeping watch on their writers’ scripts to ensure that details remained consistent. Not that mistakes didn’t slip in; they did on occasion, and eagle-eyed readers would be sure to write in, calling attention to them. Both editors were especially facile in addressing those mistakes in their responses to fans’ letters. Schwartz usually had a handy scientific fact to explain away an apparent contradiction in The Flash or Green Lantern, and Mort ruled the Superman titles with such an iron hand that most of the explanations he put forth in a letter column would be canonised in a later tale.
Sometimes, it was only an apparent mistake the fan believed he had uncovered, because he had not read the story closely. Mort or Julie would gently (occasionally, in Weisinger’s case, not so gently) direct the fan’s attention to the detail that he had missed. And, fortunately not too often, there would be a discrepancy that just could not be explained away. When that happened, Weisinger or Schwartz would ‘fess up and promise to do better. The story “The Monarch of Menace”, from Detective Comics # 350 (Apr., 1966) contained a lengthy flashback sequence of the Batman in action from a time before Robin joined him in fighting crime. However, in the flashback, the Masked Manhunter had been depicted wearing his “New Look” bat-insignia, the one with the yellow ellipse. A few issues later, a reader’s letter pointed out this major error. Schwartz readily admitted the mistake, confirmed that the reader was correct, and took responsibility for not policing the art for that issue as closely as he should have.
In this way, DC editors acknowledged that they respected what their readers had to say. If they could provide a reasonable explanation, the fans accepted it, and when there was no reasonable explanation, their willingness to admit error validated the readers’ intelligence.
However, as the Silver Age gave way to the Bronze Age, Mort Weisinger retired and the old writers---Fox, Broome, Drake, Hamilton---were out. In came the “Young Turks”---O’Neil, Friedrich, Bates, Conway---with new attitudes and “Neat Ideas”. One of the first things I observed about DC’s Bronze-Age output was a sudden influx of small, but significant continuity errors in almost every title (except for those still edited by Schwartz). Many of these weren’t blatant contradictions. They were just a bit off, not quite what was established back in the Silver Age. What that told me was that the new writers were going by memory alone. They half-remembered some item from the past and went with it.
The problem was “misinformation begets misinformation”. Newer fans, who weren’t around in the Silver Age, took the incorrect information presented by the new writers and, naturally, accepted the factoids as actual fact. And that brings us to the topic of this column.
Consequently, there are a host of misconceptions about DC’s heroes, things that are commonly believed to be aspects of their lives which, in fact, are not true, at least not as far as the Silver Age had it. And I am going to talk about some of these from time to time.
First, a couple of things.
What this is not is a discussion of misconceptions and myths surrounding the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the business of comics. There is already a site that does this---“Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed”---by Brian Cronin, who does a far more expert job of it than I ever could. I am dealing strictly with erroneous information within the fictional conceits of the stories.
Also, I understand that ever since the Crisis, what was fact back in the Silver Age does not hold true now. The idea, though, isn’t that the information I put out here is still valid. What I am pointing out is that a revised detail, which may be true now, was not always thus.
Everybody straight on that? Good. For my premier offering of “But I Always Thought That . . . “ I thought I would go with DC’s premier super-hero, Superman.
Myth 1. Lex Luthor Hates Superman Because, as Youngsters in Smallville, the Boy of Steel Caused Him to Lose His Hair.
This is often touted by fans of the post-Crisis Superman mythos as to why the new and improved Luthor's opposition to Superman made more sense. The loss of the Silver-Age Luthor's hair, while certainly traumatic, didn't balance with the intensity of his hatred for Kal-El of Krypton. It made the old Luthor seem ridiculously puerile, if not outright demented.
It does, but only to those who never read the story that first told how it all began---“How Luthor Met Superboy”, from Adventure Comics # 271 (Apr., 1960). Lex Luthor had been an on-going presence in the Superman stories for decades, but this was the first tale to link the two characters in their boyhood. As “How Luthor Met Superboy” describes, the young Luthor had been a great admirer of the Boy of Steel, and shortly after the Luthor family moved to Smallville, fate provided Lex with the opportunity to save his hero’s life from the deadly effects of a kryptonite meteor. Learning of Lex’s ambition to become a great scientist, Superboy constructs for him a modern experimental laboratory. This leads to a friendship between the two lads. (Occasionally, there would be a Silver-Age Superboy story set during this period, when the readers got to witness that friendship for themselves.)
After “weeks of feverish experimentation”, young Luthor accomplishes a scientific wonder---the creation of artificial life. It’s only a crude protoplasmic creature in a vessel, but it lives. With the rest of his afternoon free, and feeling grateful to Superboy for having provided him with his new lab, Lex invents an antidote for kryptonite poisoning. In his excitement over his second accomplishment, Luthor accidentally overturns a chemical flask, which starts a fire in his lab. Flying by on patrol, Superboy spots the flames, and sends a blast of his super-breath through the window to extinguish the blaze.
When the Boy of Steel checks on Luthor, he finds that he has screwed up big time. His gust of super-breath knocked over a bottle of acid, spilling the contents over Lex’s green-k antidote, creating a cloud of caustic fumes. The corrosive cloud destroys the crude protoplasmic being, along with all of Luthor’s notes pertaining to its creation. And, yes, its caused Lex’s hair to fall out.
This is the birth of Luthor’s intense hatred of Superboy. But as the story clearly depicts, his rage is primarily over the loss of his artificially created life-form, along with the notations without which, he cannot duplicate the experiment. The loss of his hair is almost incidental. Superboy, Luthor insists, used his super-breath to deliberately overturn the acid to destroy the protoplasm. As the first creator of artificial life, Luthor certainly would have received the acclaim of the world, and blind with rage, Lex believes the Boy of Steel was jealous that his fame would be eclipsed by Luthor’s.
So it was the destruction of his artificial-life experiment that ignited Luthor’s hatred of the Caped Kryptonian, not the loss of his hair. DC bears some of the blame for the misconception, however, Most Silver-Age stories featuring Luthor included a one-panel flashback of the scene showing Luthor’s hair falling out. The business about the destruction of the protoplasm was omitted.
When the whole incident is examined, Luthor’s intense hatred is much more understandable, and frankly, as plausible, or even more so, than that of the post-Crisis Luthor. The latter version was the standard “evil millionaire businessman”, who detested Superman out of jealousy. And they tossed in some psycho-babble about the Man of Steel being “the one thing he couldn't control.” On the other hand, the Silver-Age Luthor’s hatred was spurred by feelings of resentment, victimisation, and betrayal---far stronger motives, if you ask me.
Add to that the fact that the Silver-Age Luthor has some justification for his bitterness. Yes, he’s wrong about Superboy doing it deliberately, but there’s no getting around that the Boy of Steel was careless in precipitously sending a super-blast of wind into a laboratory filled with potentially dangerous chemicals.
Myth 2. Green Kryptonite Bullets Will Penetrate Superman’s Body.
A handful of Superman/boy stories in the 1970’s depicted him menaced by or actually shot with bullets made of green kryptonite. The writers who came up with those notions obviously had never read either “The Superman Legend” or “The Superboy Legend”---a pair of two-page text pieces prepared by Mort Weisinger to address frequently asked questions and would appear in various Superman family titles from time to time.
From the Superboy Legend:
This particular fact marks one of the rare instances when Mort’s strict editorship can be perceived by the readers. At the conclusion of the story ”The Fury of the Kryptonian-Killer”, from Superman # 195 (Apr., 1967), the space-pirate Amalak attacks Superman with an automatic rifle firing explosive green-k bullets. The villain gloats that the kryptonite slugs will kill him.
In the following panel, the Man of Steel cries out in pain as one of the bullets tags him in the shoulder.
However, it’s evident that when the art was turned over to Weisinger for proofing, he caught the error and applied some damage control.
The first part of Superman’s thought balloon---“Great Scott! He’s firing explosive green k bullets at me, machine-gun style!”---is in the hand of the story’s letterer, Milton Snapinn. Inserted beneath that, though, in hastily drawn lettering, is the sentence, “But even they can’t pierce my invulnerable skin!”
The same sloppy lettering appears in the next panel, inside a crudely-fashioned speech balloon, to cover the gaffe of Superman being shot. It reads: “Those explosive shells poured out more k-gas! It’s getting him!
Mort had set down the rules for how things worked in the Superman mythos and, by god, those rules would be followed. Besides that, he knew damn well that, if he hadn’t fixed it, he’d have received a stack of letters from Superman fans pestering him about the error.
As the 1970’s rolled along, and as I became more savvy about the process that put comic books in my hands, I used to wonder why DC’s newer editors didn’t have the same attention to detail and strict control that guys like Weisinger and Julius Schwartz did.
Myth 3. All U. S. Presidents Are Privy to the Knowledge That Superman is Clark Kent.
For years I had arguments about this. It’s one of those Neat Ideas that fans cleaved to with iron-jawed tenacity. But there seems to have been a generational turn-away from this one.
The problem began with Action Comics # 309 (Feb., 1964), and the story “The Superman Super-Spectacular”. Required to appear on live television with Clark Kent, and with none of usual solutions available, Superman asks then-President John F. Kennedy to fill in as the mild-mannered reporter. Wearing one of those life-like face masks that exist only in comic books and on Mission: Impossible and with the vocals supplied by the Man of Steel’s super-ventriloquism, JFK pulls off the imposture, at least well enough to fool eternal secret-identity snoops Lois Lane and Lana Lang.
Because of the ill-timing of that story (the issue hit the stands a month after Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas; it was too late in the distribution process to pull it), it is more remembered for the fact that JFK knew Superman was Clark Kent than for the details behind why he was entrusted with that knowledge. Probably because of this, the Neat Idea developed that all U. S. Presidents were let in on the secret.
It should have been obvious that, as Neat Ideas go, this one didn’t have legs from the events of “The President of Steel”, from Action Comics # 371 (Jan., 1969). A ray from an alien computer selectively erases Superman’s all knowledge and memory of his secret identity. Interestingly, he gets the same Neat Idea, that he might have told the secret of his other identity to the President of the United States. But when he flies to the White House, he is told that the President is away on a top-secret mission. However, with his super-hearing, Superman picks up rumours spreading all over Capitol Hill that the President is actually missing and it’s being covered up.
Because of this and other circumstantial information, the Man of Steel comes to believe that he is the President, in his secret identity. With the addition of make-up (which he assumes he always uses in the rôle), the Man of Steel fills in as our nation’s leader for a week. Then he learns the truth when his super-senses detect a message from the real President. Conferring with the President privately, Superman finds out that the Chief Executive really was on a secret diplomatic mission. Superman confides that he has lost the memory of his secret identity to the President, who can only wish him well in his search to uncover it.
Obviously, if the secret of Superman’s identity was divulged to every occupant of the Oval Office, then, once aware of the Man of Steel’s problem, the President would have simply said, “You’re Clark Kent.”
For those who aren’t satisfied by inference, Mort Weisinger addressed the matter directly, in the “Metropolis Mailbag” of Action Comics # 385 (Feb., 1970). This is one of the rare gaps in my Silver-Age collexion, but thanks to the timely help of fellow Silver-Age maven, Craig Shutt , I’m able to cite the actual letter and Mort’s response:
Dear Editor: Why doesn't Superman reveal his secret identity to President Nixon? After all, he revealed it to President Kennedy in 1963, in Action #309. Mike Ropele, Irwin, Pa.
That was a case of necessity. By revealing he was Clark Kent to one president, Superman didn't intend to set a precedent. -- Ed.
As I mentioned, I don’t hear this misconception as much as I used to. Since Action Comics # 309, there has been at least one generational turn-over of comic-book enthusiasts. These modern fans don’t share the same memories of “The Superman Super-Spectacular” or draw the same mistaken conclusion from its events.
Additionally, there has been a subtle shift in DC’s approach to its fictional Earth. For decades, it was implicit that the United States in which its characters operated was virtually identical to the real U.S.A., except for the specific elements introduced in its storylines. If Superman or some other hero met with the President, then it was presumed, and sometimes shown outright, that man was the current real-life holder of the office.
In 2000, DC took a major deviation from this long-honoured approach by having Lex Luthor elected President of the United States. This effectively removed the perception that DC’s Earth pretty much adhered to our own. Given the fact that Luthor was recognised by fandom as a villain, it would hardly seem likely to to-day’s readers that Superman would entrust him with his greatest secret. And that probably explains why I don’t hear that Neat Idea bandied about as much now as I did twenty years ago.
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This particular article happened to be the next one in line for “From the Archives” treatment. By a pleasant coïncidence, it’s a perfect lead-in to my next new piece, as we shall see . . . .