Close your eyes---well, no, don’t close your eyes, because then you won’t be able to read this---but imagine that it’s almost exactly forty-six years ago. It’s mid-January of 1966 and you’re a contestant on NBC’s quiz show, Jeopardy!
After you and your fellow players are introduced by Don Pardo and greeted by the genial Art Fleming, the game gets down to business. You’re doing O.K., too. You bombed out in the dreaded “Opera” category, but you made it back with “Famous Landmarks” and “Potent Potables”. When it’s your turn to select the next clue, you look at the categories and decide, “’Fictional Journalists’ for $30.”
“And the answer is . . . ,” says Art.
Smiling, you instantly ring in. Confidently, you respond, “Who is Perry White?” Of course.
Now, the clue-writers on Jeopardy! were really good and did their homework, and you’re stunned when that annoying “double buzz” signals that you’re wrong. Art says, “Oh, sorry,” and your winnings drop by $30. Neither of the other two contestants takes a shot at it, and while you’re standing there, open mouthed, Fleming states the correct response.
“Who is Van Benson?”
Bet you forgot about him, didn’t you?
For those of you who missed the Silver Age, you’re probably sitting there echoing Art Fleming, only with a different inflexion---“Who is Van Benson?” Well, aren’t you glad that’s what I’m here to tell you.
It all began with Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane # 62 (Jan., 1966). Traditionally, comics are post-dated by a couple of months; that issue actually hit the stands in the second week of November, 1965. At first glance, the only thing unusual about Lois Lane # 62 was that, instead of the usual three unrelated stories of Lois Lane, the readers were given one long tale, advertised on the cover as “a 3-part novel, complete in this issue!”
The story is titled “Lois Lane’s Anti-Superman Campaign”, and the first indication of what’s to come occurs on page one, when Perry White collapses at his desk from overwork. At the hospital, his doctor orders him to take a month’s vacation. During his absence, Perry White appoints Clark Kent to serve as acting editor of the Daily Planet.
It’s actually a nice moment. Kent didn’t wrangle for the job, nor did he try to avoid it, which is what he usually does in similar circumstances, for reasons related to his Superman identity. This time around, that had nothing to do with it. White put Kent in the big chair because, while Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen spent the day at the hospital fretting over Perry’s condition, Clark went back to the office and wrote up the story about the editor’s collapse. It’s a rare Silver-Age occasion to see Clark Kent legitimately acting as a newsman.
Not much is made of Clark’s promotion, however, except for an early scene of Lois sucking up to the new boss by sending him a congratulatory wreath and purchasing a new nameplate for his desk. The chief purpose is to get Perry White off-stage for most of the story.
The plot quickly shifts to its main thread. One of the state’s U.S. senatorial seats is up in the current election, and the incumbent, Barton Schlumm, has a reputation as a do-nothing, “thumb-twiddling loafer”. Clark assigns Lois to cover a press conference held by Schlumm’s opposing party, which she writes off as a boring assignment---until the party spokesman announces that it has accepted Superman as a candidate for the Senate seat. Lois pooh-poohs it as a publicity stunt, and then chokes on it when the Man of Steel swoops in and makes a rousing speech for his candidacy.
If Lois had been a veteran reader of DC mags, she would have immediately suspected that there was probably a sneaky-albeit-noble reason behind Superman running for office. But since she wasn’t, the pretty newshen is indignant at the Man of Steel using his super-hero image to win the senator’s seat. And she becomes outraged when, over the next few days, he blatantly uses every super-feat as a campaign opportunity. In fact, she’s so put out that she decides to toss her hat into the ring, as well.
Lois campaigns hard, but when you’re running against the most popular hero in the world, the result is pretty much what you’d guess. In the primary election for the party nomination, Lois gets only one vote. The rest go to Superman. So overwhelming is the Action Ace’s victory that even his eventual opponent, Senator Schlumm, withdraws from the race.
Just as Lois’ dreams of “Miss Lane Goes to Washington” go poof, who should turn up but that mischievous fifth-dimensional imp, Mr. Mxyzptlk. Seeing it as a great way to get Supie’s goat, Mr. M offers to be Lois’ campaign manager. She agrees, and Mxy goes to work, using his magic to increase Lois’ favour with the public. As the election draws near, she’s a strong write-in candidate. In fact, she’s running dead even with Superman in the polls.
Don’t bother wondering who wins, though. On the day of the election, the unthinkable happens. (Unthinkable, mainly because it would have been discovered long before this in real-world politics.) Both Superman and Lois are disqualified from running by Constitutional requirements. The Man of Steel is out because of residency issues. (The cited technicality is shaky and wouldn’t hold up, but, hey, go with it; you didn’t really think Superman was going to be a senator.) And Lois is under the age of thirty, the minimum age required for U.S. senators.
That’s just fine with the Man of Steel. His candidacy was only a ploy to keep Mxyzptlk preöccupied until he could figure out a way to send the imp back to the fifth dimension. As it turns out, Lois takes care of that by tricking him into saying “Kltpzyxm” from a coded message.
Since both candidates in the race are ineligible to win, the state governor declares the election invalid. In the meantime, he will appoint someone to fill the vacant seat interim, until a special election can be held. The governor’s choice---Perry White, well rested and back from his vacation!
Perry has some appointing to do of his own. At the office farewell party, he introduces Lois, Jimmy, Clark, and the rest of the staff to Van Benson, the new acting editor of the Daily Planet. Again, Lois is a little peeved that she doesn’t get the job, but she can’t argue with Benson’s credentials---he’s the former head of a national news service and a Pulitzer Prize winner, to boot. The tale ends with her wondering how her life will change with Benson running things.
Now, DC fans of the day could be forgiven for presuming that Benson’s time with the Planet wouldn’t last beyond the next issue of Lois Lane, and then he’d be gone as quickly as he came. The editor of the Superman family of magazines, Mort Weisinger, typically ensured that the details of the Superman mythos were consistent. If something was established in the Man of Steel’s life within the pages of his own comic, then it was the same in Action Comics or World’s Finest Comics.
But Lois Lane had always been something of a bastard child. It was a second-tier title in Weisinger’s stable, and outside of sharing the some of the same cast with the headliners, very little that took place in Lois’s magazine carried over into the others. Even Jimmy Olsen, another second-stringer, was more tied into the Superman mainstream, thanks to Jimmy’s involvement with the Legion of Super-Heroes and Robin, the Boy Wonder. Lois, however, seemed to exist in a private world inside her own title.
But Mort must have been paying particular attention to Lois Lane # 62.
The Lois Lane title did not publish in December, so the next issue---# 63 (Feb., 1966)---went on sale in the first week of January, 1966. Though not advertised on the cover this time, the story within, “The Satanic Schemes of S.K.U.L.”, was also a “3-part novel”, and it took up right where the previous issue left off.
At newly appointed Senator White’s farewell party, Van Benson makes the rounds, glad-handing the Planet employees. On the surface, he appears to be quite a bit different than Perry. Benson is urbane, personable, and handsome (although he apparently ducked into the men’s room in between issues to rub a little Grecian Formula into his hair). Where Perry has a bit of a middle-age spread, the youthful Benson is fit and trim, and he prefers a pipe to White’s smelly stogies. Lois, in particular, is taken with him.
“It might be fun,” she thinks, “taking orders from a dream-boat like that!”
After Superman arrives and flies Perry to Washington, Benson shows that he has one trait very much in common with his predecessor. The “dream-boat” turns into Simon Legree’s meaner brother. He shuts down the party and starts cracking the whip while the window curtains are still flapping from Superman’s slipstream.
Throughout the day, Benson finds fault with virtually everything that crosses his desk, raising standards and beating excellence over his reporters' heads. Lois and Jimmy Olsen begin to miss their old slave-driver, Perry White. Some of the other staffers are probably sticking pins in their Van Benson voodoo dolls.
Quitting time finally arrives, and because this was back in the “good old days” of American business, when the boss could hit on a female employee without fear of being slapped with a sexual harassment suit, Benson asks Lois Lane out to dinner. And Lois, who despite claiming to be in love with Superman, always seemed to tilt her cap toward any good-looking guy who came her way, says “Sure!”
Out on the town, we learn a little more about Van Benson. He squires Lois to the Kitten Club, Earth-One’s version of the Playboy Club, and she discovers that Van is on a smooch-and-tickle basis with every waitress and hat-check girl in the place.
Nevertheless, her jealousy fades away when Benson turns on the charm. Despite her being smitten, though, Lois’s reporter instincts aren’t completely shut down. A chance occurrence triggers a passing suspicion in her mind that Van Benson may not be what he seems to be.
Hold that thought for a moment.
This is where the intricacies of publishing several monthly books, under different writers, sometimes make a timeline a tricky thing. Mort Weisinger knew that introducing Van Benson as the new editor of the Daily Planet was too significant a change to not be addressed in his other Superman titles. That, and he probably didn’t want to deal with a bunch of letters from pesky fans wanting to know why Perry White was still editing the paper in this month’s issue of Superman.
That meant that Benson would have to show up in his other titles. The problem was later developments, near the end of the story in Lois Lane # 63, would put too much of a twist on Benson’s rôle as the Planet editor. For the readers caught up in such things, though, there was a way to square it.
Following Lois’ night out at the Kitten Club, several days, perhaps as much as a week, elapse before the big climax at the end of the issue. Presumably, it is during this time that the other stories in which Van Benson appeared took place. Mort probably didn’t plan it that way, but it’s the only way it fits.
Benson’s first appearance outside of Lois Lane occurred in Jimmy Olsen # 91 (Mar., 1966), on sale the second week of January, 1966. In “The Dragon Delinquent”, Jimmy infiltrates a teen-age biker gang. In the opening pages, Benson has even less tolerance for the cub reporter’s antics than Perry White did and refuses to let him handle anything more significant than covering azalea festivals and society weddings. Jimmy determines to cover the biker-gang story on his own time, and when he fakes an injury to his hand so he can get away from the office, Benson replies, “Bah! You’re useless around here anyway, Olsen! Take a week’s sick leave. You won’t be missed!”
Naturally, he winds up eating those words, after Jimmy breaks up the biker gang and shuts down a foreign spy ring as a bonus.
In the last week of January, 1966, the pipe-smoking editor crossed over to Action Comics # 335 (Mar., 1966) for a two-panel cameo in which he rounds up Clark Kent and Lois and Jimmy at the request of Senator White, so they can answer a call from the President of the United States.
It wasn’t much, just those two appearances, but it was enough make Van Benson a legitimate, if minor, character in the Superman universe, rather than just being confined to the vacuum of the Lois Lane title.
Back to Lois Lane # 63 . . . .
As her history of trying to ferret out Superman’s secret identity had proven, Lois Lane never let affection stand in the way of her nosiness. Despite her infatuation with her new boss, Lois’ flicker of suspicion takes flame. The next day at work, she snoops around Benson’s office and finds evidence that the newsman is somehow connected to a criminal organisation calling itself S.K.U.L.
Even though Benson continues to be a really swell guy to her and seems to be on the ball as an editor, Lois keeps digging. While Benson is attending a meeting of the Editors’ Association, she breaks into his upscale apartment. There, she finds and plays a hidden video recording revealing a meeting of the S.K.U.L. inner circle. She discovers the outfit’s headquarters is on a secret floor above the Kitten Club when the recording shows Benson donning a hooded robe and attending the meeting.
And she learns what S.K.U.L. stands for---the Superman Killers’ Underground League. Its goal is to assassinate Superman and all of his closest friends.
Showing a rare moment of common sense, Lois decides to tell Superman what she has learnt and let him deal with it. However, when she asks Clark Kent to get in touch with the Man of Steel for her, he tells her that Superman is away on a space mission. (Yes, I know---why would Clark tell her that Superman is away when he is, secretly, Superman? It’s actually a big clue to what’s going on, but it was so played down that many readers probably missed it.)
Now, Lois could have sought out Supergirl, or Batman, or told the police or the F.B.I. what was going on, but Lois, being Lois, decides to handle the problem herself. With a clever stratagem, the plucky girl inserts herself into the next S.K.U. L. meeting, posing as one of its hooded members. She becomes convinced that Van Benson is actually the head of the evil organisation.
Once safely away, Lois turns to Lana Lang for help. She tells the whole story to her red-headed rival, including her suspicion that the acting editor of the Daily Planet moonlights as an arch criminal. They decide to go public with the information, hoping that, somehow, somewhere, Superman will hear about it.
Before they can do so, however, Superman appears, and Lois blurts out to him everything she knows. The Man of Steel angrily berates the gals, telling them how they nearly fouled up things up royally. He does that just before revealing himself to be Van Benson, in disguise.
Dum de dum dum!
Surprise number two: before Lois’ and Lana’s sphincters pucker so tight that they cut off the blood flow to their brains, Benson reveals that he is secretly working for the F.B.I., in an undercover effort to bring down the S.K.U.L. organisation. He tells them that Lois’ snooping has put her in too deep, and the only way out is for her to help him destroy S.K.U.L.
The issue ends with Lois and Lana agreeing to help, but the readers are kept wondering if Van Benson is really a newsman or an F.B.I. agent---or a killer!
You see what I mean, now, about Benson’s appearances in Jimmy Olsen and Action Comics having to take place before the end of Lois Lane # 63.
After all of that build-up, though, the conclusion is disappointingly ænemic, coming in at a mere eight pages stuck in the back of Lois Lane # 64 (Apr., 1966), which showed up on the spinner racks in the second week of February, 1966. “The Prisoner of S.K.U.L.” was clearly rushed, to get it out of the way of the two-part "Lexo and Lola" Imaginary Story (which was actually quite good, as far as those kinds of tales go).
Benson explains to Lois Lane and Lana Lang that two key pieces of information are needed before S.K.U.L. can be destroyed. While the undercover newsman has posed as the chief lieutenant in the criminal cabal, he has yet to identify the hidden mastermind behind the organisation. It’s also urgent that they learn the nature of “Weapon X”, the device with which it intends to accomplish its goal of murdering Superman.
When Lois asks why the Man of Steel himself isn’t handling the matter, Benson explains, “Because both Superman and the F.B.I. are using the S.K.U.L. threat as a pilot-program for developing techniques whereby F.B.I. men will be able to carry on without Superman’s aid in the event Superman is ever destroyed!”
The whole “Superman is away on a space mission” bit was a cover story designed to allay any S.K.U.L. fears of being detected by the Man of Steel and going to ground before Benson could learn the evil group’s secrets.
Benson reveals the time and place of the next S.K.U.L. meeting and instructs Lois to again attend as one of the members. At the meeting, Benson, once more posing as the S.K.U.L. lieutenant, assigns Lois to assassinate Superman when he appears a couple of days later at a Metropolis Women’s Charity League function. Afterward, Benson tells Lois when and where she’ll receive the mysterious Weapon X. She’s to show up at the charity event and use the device on Superman. And don't worry about it harming the Man of Steel, says Van. He's got everything under control.
Weapon X is handed off to Lois without a hitch, and when Superman appears on stage at the charity function, the gal reporter zaps him with it. To her horror, the weapon overcomes the Man of Steel and weakens him to the point that he’s easily defeated by concealed S.K.U.L. agents. As the hooded thugs carry the unconscious hero away to be executed, the real mastermind of S.K.U.L. emerges and gloats over Superman’s impending death.
Van Benson appears, taking a place at the mastermind’s side, and a grief-stricken Lois concludes that the double-crossing editor had pretended to be a good guy in order to dupe her into setting Superman up for murder.
She’s still kicking herself from guilt when “Benson” reveals himself to be Superman in disguise and captures the villain. The Man of Steel explains that he had been keeping an eye on Lois all along, and once she had possession of Weapon X, he had used his heat vision to disable it. He had only pretended to be overcome by it when Lois used it on him.
Later, back in Benson’s office, he and Lois are tying up some loose ends when Perry White walks through the door. Congress has just recessed, the grizzled newsman explains, so, he’s here to take back his old job. Just like that, ace pipe-smoker Van Benson's tenure as editor of the Daily Planet was over.
“I hope he’ll return here, someday,” wishes Lois. But he never did. There hasn’t been so much as a mention of his name in any DC story in the forty-five years since.
But I understand that if you drop by the Metropolis Kitten Club, you’ll find a distinguished-looking old man sitting at a corner table. He’ll be puffing on his pipe, pinching cigarette girls on the derrière, and regaling the patrons with stories about a screwball dame who used to work for him and how she had this whacky idea that Clark Kent was Superman.