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.
* * * * *
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 . . . .
"A theory of mine is that Tharok altered Validus' mind to ensure his control, lowering his intelligence, perhaps by planting a devise inside the Massive Menace's head that was attuned to Tharok's cybernetic brain. That would explain why several of his dislodged cranial components were able to summon Validus in Superboy #203.
"As for his flying, it could have been a new power given by Tharok or his version of a Legion flight ring."
As I said, all of those later discrepancies can be "Well, maybe'd" away. But that doesn't let the writers off the hook. They didn't think there needed to be explanations. They thought they were getting it right all along. But they weren't.
I have a major problem with "Massacre By Remote Control", from Superboy # 203 (Aug., 1974) besides its treatment of Validus.
I choked when it came to swallowing the notion that Invisible Kid would shirk his Legion duties in order to make time with Myla, a spirit girl from an invisible dimension.
Invisible Kid---who held the longest single term as Legion leader. Invisible Kid---whom, during that period, was responsibility personified. He was so dedicated to duty and iron willed that he stood up to the likes of Ultra Boy and Superboy. And now, this story tries to pursuade us that he would shuck all that off for a little canoodling time with a girl friend?
Either Cary Bates had never read an Adventure Comics Legion story set during I.K.'s term as leader; or he just didn't care and rewrote the Kid's personality to fit his Neat Idea of a plot. And the notion that "the Kid was so much in love that he couldn't help himself" is one of those stock excuses that poor writers drag out---like the hoary "he was in shock"---whenever they have to explain why a character acts so totally out of . . . er . . . character.
People with a sense of responsibility and duty that ingrained don't throw it off casually, not even when they fall in love.
If they had to kill Invisible Kid off, they didn't have to stomp all over his reputation to do it.
A theory of mine is that Tharok altered Validus' mind to ensure his control, lowering his intelligence, perhaps by planting a devise inside the Massive Menace's head that was attuned to Tharok's cybernetic brain. That would explain why several of his dislodged cranial components were able to summon Validus in Superboy #203.
As for his flying, it could have been a new power given by Tharok or his version of a Legion flight ring.
Two things are for sure: one, Validus seldom spoke after his last Adventure Comics appearance and two, the Legion would by crazy to believe that even a child-like Validus would not be dangerous! Maybe they should ask Invisible Kid!!
Fair enough. Certainly there's no question he's ultra-dangerous.
"I'd dispute the 'evil'--it's clearly stated in the original Fatal Five story that Validus is subject to mad fits in which he lashes out . . . ."
I'll meet you halfway on that one. In his original depiction, Validus, perhaps, was not evil-minded, but he was certainly hostile-minded. The belligerent manner in which he confronts Sun Boy shows that.
And that's enough to give lie to Mon-El's statement in "Murder the Leader" that Validus is "harmless" when he's not under the control of Validus.
I'd dispute the "evil"--it's clearly stated in the original Fatal Five story that Validus is subject to mad fits in which he lashes out, not that he consciously wants to hurt anyone. it's just that like the Hulk, his hissy fits can smash cities.
The Validus thing always annoyed me--not so much the continuity glitch (as you say, it can be rationalized) but that when you have a villain to whom Superboy is an inconsequential gnat, you have a very cool villain. Making him less powerful is less interesting. I have the same problems with post-Crisis writers who used Tharok as "evil killer cyborg" rather than "universe's smartest person" which is much more impressive.
I greatly enjoy "Plunder Ploy of the Fatal Five" for showing the Five capable of relaxing and kicking back between crimes.
"Thanks. I wasn't doubting you, but it helps to have the examples . . . Hmm, now that I think of it, another Bronze Age problem was Validus got downgraded to the point Colossal Boy could go toe-to-toe with him."
Oh, I knew you weren't challenging my point, Mr. Sherman, but merely seeking examples. Coïncidentally, though, your later remark about Validus is one of the best examples of the Bronze Age getting it wrong.
When Validus debuted in Adventure Comics # 352 (Jan., 1967), he had a functioning adult intellect, though he tended to be coarse and brutal. He could speak normally and he was most certainly criminal minded.
As the Bronze-Age Legion tales would have it, though, Validus was mindless or, at most, had the immature intellect of an infant. Completely contrary to his original Silver-Age depiction.
I can already hear the arguments: "Wait a minute, commander! You're forgetting that Tharok took mental control of Validus in Adventure Comics # 353 (Feb., 1967)."
But, no, I'm not forgetting that. In fact, that detail actually indicts the Bronze-Age writers as being more sloppy, instead of justifying turning Validus into a mental midget.
When the Fatal Five returned, in Adventure Comics # 365-6 (Feb. and Mar., 1968), Tharok remarks that his mental control of Validus has strengthened. And in the story, Validus is depicted as a monster that rampages under Tharok's command and his dialogue is of the "Hulk smash!" variety. And that pretty much goes for his appearance in Adventure Comics # 378 (Mar., 1969), too.
Ah, but things begin to change once we are firmly out of the Silver Age and into the Bronze. In the tale "Murder the Leader", from Superboy # 190 (Sep., 1972), written by Cary Bates, Tharok tells Mon-El and Saturn Girl that Validus would be simple-minded, if not under his mental control. And at the conclusion, after the two Legionnaires have put Tharok out of commission, they permit Validus to fly off (a power he was never shown to possess before). They state that, without Tharok's mental domination, Validus is virtually mindless and not truly evil.
In other words, the story is insisting that mindlessness and lack of evil motivation is Validus' natural state. Which is almost one-hundred-eighty degrees out from the way a normal Validus was shown to be back in Adventure Comics # 352---a mature, thinking, and definitely evil being.
"Murder the Leader" was the turning point. In Validus' next appearance, in Superboy # 198 (Oct., 1973), when Tharok's mental control of him lapses, he turns into a mindless monster---which the Legionnaires insist is his normal state. Bates wrote that one, too.
It's the same thing over his next couple of appearances, until we get to "The Plunder Ploy of the Fatal Five", from Superboy # 219 (Sep., 1976). This is the first story to depict the normal Validus, not under the mental control of Tharok, as having the mind of an infant. He even gets a big rattle to play with.
Now sure, someone with an agile mind can come with any number of "Well, maybes . . . " to explain the normal Validus' mindlessness. But that would be only rationalising the obvious mistaken belief of the writers. The fact of the matter is, the writers got it wrong.
One more thing occurred to me, Luthor is clearly forgetting that - while he may have done it differently so as to not destroy his experiment, and of course his hair - Superboy did save his life. He is also the one that gave him the means to conduct those experiments in the first place and probably would have helped him recreate them, or at the very least restore his lab.
It was a common theme in Superman that one supposed transgression would make everyone immediately forget all the good he'd done. How many times have we seen those angry mobs with signs that say "Superman Go Home?"! That really used to confound me. Until I grew up and realized that some people are actually like that.:)
About the baldness thing, I don't remember if I actually read the original story but I do remember repeated flashbacks to that moment usually accompanied by the line "Curse you Superboy, you made me bald!" While I certainly agree it was an overly simplistic way to deal with it, I guess Mort felt that it was easier than having him explain what really happened - "Curse you Superboy, you used your super-breath to deliberately overturn the acid to destroy my protoplasm! As the first creator of artificial life, I would have received the acclaim of the world!" As a little kid, I never gave it a moment's thought. What I did wonder about was I was once at a friend's house who had an older brother and was looking through his comics and saw a story about Superboy's first meeting with Luthor who was already an adult. That caused a bit of consternation...but then I just turned the page. :)
As to the President thing, I never made that connection that they all knew. Kennedy at the time was generally very much beloved and I just accepted it. The idea that he would tell Nixon, would have never occurred to me. Too shifty.
An interesting thing though about the SA mythology is that some really basic things actually pre-dated Mort, having come actually from the radio series - only later being absorbed into the comics. Like Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Kryptonite, and the friendship between Superman and Batman.
Interesting what you wrote about the baldness angle. However, it did pop elsewhere as a form of bitterness.
In Superman #159, there is an imaginary story in which Lois Lane is sent as a baby away from Earth in a rocket just before our planet exploded and she lands on Krypton. Her scientist father had exposed her to a ray that gave her super powers before he sent her off in the rocket, so when she grew up she took on the secret identity of Supermaid. And she gained an enemy in a female scientist, Dr. Lu Thoria, who resented her because a heat beam she aimed at Supermaid bounced of her and back at Thoria...and it -- you guessed it -- burned off her hair.
Thoria fancies Kal-El (who never went to Earth to become Superman), but when he says she is beautiful, Thoria pulls off her wig to show her bald scalp and laughs insanely. "I'm beautiful, am I? You admire my bald head, don't you?...I saw the look of disgust on your face when my wig fell off before!"
However, it turns out her criminal insanity occured earlier, when a scientific experiment she was working on exploded and a ray damaged her brain.
Great post, CB! I remember that Action #309 story for a couple other oddball reasons. First, the story was actually a swipe of a 1958 Green Arrow story from Adventure #244, where Speedy has to be in two places at once. He is supposed to appear at a police lineup to identify a crook, and at the same time accept an award as Roy Harper from then-President Dwight Eisenhower. So he tells Ike about his problem and they have David Eisenhower, the prez's grandson, impersonate Speedy at the lineup. The story even ends with virtually the same observation: "If you can't trust the president, whom can you trust?" (although Superman makes a grammatical error in the later story and says "who can I trust".
Second oddity is that around 1970 my parents went on a trip to Mexico and brought back some of the local comics. Strangely enough one of them contained the story from Action #309 (including the sequence with JFK), which made me wonder if the Mexican editor got a lot of flak from the kids south of the border.
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