When Superman Was Groovy

When it comes to the DC heroes, there has always been the traditional question: Superman or Batman?

Now, I’ve generally been on team Batman. I’ve pretty much been current on the Batman comics from the days of Adam West all the way to the present, with only a brief hiatus in the early 1980s and another one about seven years ago when Scott Snyder would NOT let up on the Court of Owls (and even then I had Batman ’66 to tide me over. Full circle.)

But that doesn’t mean I don’t like Superman.

Never been as interested in keeping current with his stories as with Batman’s, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the big guy’s adventures. I admit it. Adam West lit the fuse, but the real gateway drug for me and superhero comics was Saturday morning TV, back in 1966-67. Superman, in particular.

The transition from the Filmation cartoons to the comics version of Superman was possibly the easiest on-ramp ever. Certainly it was for me, as a child of six.

Especially since the Superboy mythos was included in the Filmation cartoon as well.

Again, pretty much seamless going from TV to print. Not surprising since DC guys like Bob Haney and George Kashdan were doing a bunch of the cartoon scripts as well.

The comics were just a hair more complex than the cartoons, which made them more interesting. I was all about the DC Giants back then, and the Superman ones often did theme issues based on various bits of Kryptonian lore; so they had a great science-fiction vibe going on. (Not surprising since a great many of those stories came from SF stalwarts like Edmond Hamilton and Otto Binder.) At the same time I was also discovering things like Danny Dunn and the Heinlein juveniles in the school library, so it was all of a piece.


But time passed, and gradually I got to feeling that it was time to put away childish things. I was going to be eleven, after all. I had begun to think that maybe Adam West had been pulling my leg. It was bad enough when the other kids at school jeered at me for liking Batman, but when Batman himself was doing it…

And compared to what Marvel was doing, Superman was starting to feel like kid stuff too.

Then the most amazing thing happened. (Well, maybe not that amazing; DC was feeling the pressure from Marvel.) But the upshot is that Batman and Superman both got a coolness upgrade.

Now there have been countless magazine pieces and blog posts about what a big deal it was when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams (and Frank Robbins and Irv Novick and Dick Giordano, as well) returned Batman to his roots. I’ve even written a few myself. We all know about that stuff. It’s constantly being reprinted in various collections.

But Superman got a revamp as well, and that doesn’t get nearly as much love.

Oh, sure, the issue that launched the new look has been reprinted a lot. It’s in all sorts of Best Of collections and so on. The cover is one of the most famous ever to appear on a Superman comic.

But that was only the first part of a multi-part epic, one of the most ambitious Superman stories ever done up to that time. I’m pretty sure that when it came out it set the record for a serialized Superman story in the actual comic books (though in the 1940s the newspaper strip and the radio show went long all the time.) It climaxed with an apocalyptic battle between Superman and his alien-sandman double that just fried my little eyeballs when I got it off the stands. I didn’t even mind the cheat O’Neil used to get out of it.

That story’s only been collected once in its entirety, and both the hardcover and paperback are out of print. (Still available used, though.)

And of course the Kirby run on Jimmy Olsen is legendary, and a trade paperback evergreen.

But that enduring presence is about Kirby, not Superman.

My point is, there was so much more than those two components to the 1971 relaunch. Here is a house ad from that time…

I’d like to call your attention to the bottom tier, there. “Changes in the Superman family of magazines.” Leading off with Kirby on Olsen, sure. DC was promoting that everywhere.

Although they loved dropping Jack Kirby’s name, they were curiously reticent about his art. Many of you probably know DC had Murphy Anderson go through Kirby’s pages and redraw Superman’s and Jimmy’s faces to make them more consistent with what had gone before. Sometimes they didn’t use Kirby’s work for the cover or even in the ads.

But the other groovy revamps were a lot of fun too and most of them have never been reprinted.

For example, Mike Sekowsky’s re-imagining of Wonder Woman as Emma Peel gets almost as much fan press as Kirby’s Olsen, and it’s gotten a nice series of paperback collections and even a new hardcover omnibus as well.

What no one seems to remember is that at that same time, he was doing the same for Supergirl. I actually like that stuff better than his Wonder Woman. Sekowsky on Supergirl in Adventure was lit. It careened wildly from ham-handed seventies relevance to collegiate soap opera, but it was the most exciting the strip had ever been. And Sekowsky’s willingness to let fans come up with costume designs he would actually use in the stories helped too.

The feminist movement was starting to be a thing, and certainly Lois Lane wasn’t going to be left out of that.

Though I have to admit that even with a newly-raised consciousness, Robert Kanigher was still kind of insane. The poster child for well-meaning-but-horribly-awkward social commentary in 1970s comics, to this day, is his attempt at putting Lois Lane in the thick of hip, happening race relations: “I Am Curious (Black).”

This is what you get when grumpy old guys are told to write for the flower-child market. Naming it after a then-current Swedish porn movie is icing on the cake. Why Kanigher went there for the title is anyone’s guess.

But the real star of the book was the backup strip: Rose and the Thorn, the story of a superheroine whose civilian persona had no idea she existed, and vice versa. You could tell DC editorial thought this was the strongest part of Lois Lane as well, because that was the strip that got all the love in the house ads of the time.

It was Kanigher, so it was still nuts, but in a good way.

Certainly Rose and the Thorn deserves a collected edition of some kind, although I have to admit I’d be all over a book of the deranged Lois Lane stories of the time as well.

Part of what made all of this so exciting to eleven-year-old Greg was the sense that for the first time in a long time, the Superman books weren’t just coasting. The creators were swinging for the fences. It wasn’t just ‘relevant’ storylines. It was a whole attitude. Little things like stuffy Clark Kent, while still mild-mannered, being allowed to be more of a person, and even change his clothes. Seriously, this made the news.

Relevance was in. Campus unrest, in particular, showed up everywhere. (I could probably do a whole column just on those stories.) Even though the comics were still ostensibly aimed at kids and subject to the Comics Code, DC was definitely trying for an older audience with the ripped-from-the-headlines approach.

Sometimes you’d get leadfooted grandpa’s-trying-too-hard stuff from Robert Kanigher or Bob Haney, but just as often there’d be twentysomething newcomers like Mike Friedrich or the aforementioned Denny O’Neil doing stories for folks their own age.

Has it aged well? Mostly not (not even the celebrated Green Lantern/Green Arrow, honestly) but seeing it with Superman, the character that was literally the symbol of the superhero status quo, was exciting.

Possibly my favorite Superman book of the groovy era was the revamped World’s Finest.

The stories were all over the place. Sometimes you’d get relevance from Mike Friedrich…

And other times you’d get crazy shit from Steve Skeates like Superman and Aquaman versus the dolphin people.

But the thing I loved about it was just seeing Superman teamed with a variety of other heroes. Even at the age of eleven it seemed weird to me that Superman would team up with Batman all the time. They just weren’t in the same weight class. It made a lot more sense to me that Superman, whose remit was global after all, would bump into all sorts of other heroes. Sometimes even from different Earths, like the cosmic epic with Doctor Fate.

That was my first exposure to the writing of Len Wein, who became a lifelong favorite. With this run of World’s Finest, it was musical chairs on the writing but the art from Dick Dillin was always a constant and it was always great.

For whatever reason, none of this lasted. Denny O’Neil, by his own admission, wasn’t a good fit for Superman and left the book after his Superman-sand-duplicate epic wrapped up. Even the mighty Jack Kirby couldn’t make a go of Jimmy Olsen and went on to other things after fifteen issues. Likewise, fans weren’t ready to accept a version of World’s Finest that wasn’t Superman and Batman and it returned to its original format after only five issues more than Kirby’s Olsen, with #214. (Even though DC Comics Presents, a few years later, lasted for years with the exact same Superman/rotating-guest-star premise.) Lois Lane and Supergirl were both canceled and folded into the revamped Jimmy Olsen, now called Superman Family.

The stories themselves became much more traditional in approach, as well. Certainly they were well-done– writers Cary Bates and Elliott Maggin did some great stuff, and artist Curt Swan was always good. But they were definitely coloring inside the lines. The era of experimentation was over.

But, as gonzo as it got sometimes, it was sure great while it lasted.

As for what prompted this reminiscence? Why, it’s this new hardcover. World’s Finest: The Guardians of Earth.

It reprints that entire run of World’s Finest; campus protests, dolphin people, and groovy kung-fu Wonder Woman.

It’s a little spendy, but I pre-ordered mine at a deep discount a few months ago. I’m informed it’ll be arriving in the next few days and it’s almost embarrassing how pleased I am about this.

After all, if these World’s Finest stories are finally being reprinted, dare we hope that Rose and the Thorn and mod Lois Lane are on deck?

Well, I’m hoping so, anyway.

Back next week with something cool. Wash your hands in the meantime.

27 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I’ve got a strange bias in that I’ve always liked my superheroes to be super, so I’ve always kind of liked Superman more.
    But I probably actually have more Batman stories.

    It’s the same reason I’ve always hated the idea of the secret agent Wonder Woman – though I’ve never read an issue, so I can’t say I hate the actual comic.
    Although, you should know you’ve turned me around on the idea of it with two words:
    Emma Peel.
    It’s a different way (for me) to look at it, one that agrees with me.

    Maybe I should pick up that World’s Finest hardcover as well?
    Looking at the Amazon link, the physical copy is about $10 cheaper than the digital! Gah!

        1. Jeff Nettleton

          Well, the Hellfire Club was blatant, as Mastermind was given the name Jason Wyngarde and made to look like actor Peter Wyngarde, who starred in the adventure series Jason King (spun off from a show called Department S). Wyngarde was the villain in the Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers (A Touch of Brimstone), as well as another episode (Epic) as a faded actor.

          Diana Prince started out sporting clothes that looked very much like the later series Emma Peelers, made of softer materials, instead of the earlier leather gear.

          1. Le Messor

            Oh, yeah, I’ve read about that before.
            Hmm… Department S? Department H? With the Byrne connection, I wonder if that was an inspiration for Alpha Flight? (Byrned by Hellfire?)

  2. Edo Bosnar

    “(…) dare we hope that Rose and the Thorn and mod Lois Lane are on deck?”

    Oh, man. I’d love a Rose and Thorn collection. For me, that would be right up there with collected editions of the 1970s Ragman and Starfire (the sword & planet heroine).

      1. Edo Bosnar

        I used to have the whole set back in the day. I really like the underlying concept, i.e., a sword & planet heroine leading a rebellion against alien overlords.
        What the series actually suffered from was its lack of a consistent writer: without looking it up, I know they included David Michelinie, Elliot S! Maggin and Steve Englehart.
        However, I thought Mike Vosburg’s art gave it a nice consistency – you could tell he really enjoyed that job, and he’s one of those rare artists whose style meshes well with Vince Colletta’s inks.
        I know the single issues can still be found pretty cheaply, but now I’d just prefer have the series in a single book. After all, we live in a world in which Skull the Slayer merits a tpb collection, so why not Starfire?

      1. Le Messor

        My biggest problem with the writing wasn’t the unevenness or the 3 different writers (in 8 issues!) – I found their styles close enough to not be jarring – but that we never got to know any of the other characters beyond Starfire herself (until a kinda jerky guy came in in about issue 4 or 5? We kinda got to know him).
        My favourite was how in issue 1, she has this teacher / rescuer / lover, doesn’t mention him for the next 3 issues, then suddenly he’s always been very important to her and was the driving force for her life. 🙂

        But for all that, it was an enjoyable series.

  3. Tim Rifenburg

    You hit all my nostalgia and reprint buttons with this column. My hope is that they will reprint more of the mod and 70’s era Superman stuff. They were just getting to that time period in the DC Showcase reprints with Superman and World’s Finest and stopped. (The Superman Family book had a bit to go since it was reprinting Jimmy and Lois stories in order and were still in the early 60’s.) Every time I see reader’s copies of Lois Lane in the bargain boxes or cheap Ebay lots I scoop them up. They are as insane as you noted. Rose and the Thorn as a collection would be great or maybe the 100 saga itself. That way they could reprint more Lois stories. R & T crossed over with Lois in a couple of the main feature so they would be easy to include. But the 100 was a thread of mob stories Lois tracked through other stories. Sometimes they were just a plot thread seeded through other stories. I was disappointed when the Lois Lane Anniversary book only included one Mod Lois story. Of course they picked a great one to represent the time period, “I Am Curious (Black)”. Thanks for the heads up on the World’s Finest collection. Ordered it through your link.

  4. I would be down for a Rose and Thorn collection. I would also like a timeline in which Roger Stern’s 1990s reboot in Showcase had continued (I thought he did a great job).
    I would love the Wonder Woman reboot if it had been a totally new character. The mix of globe-trotting spy with neighborhood hero protecting one patch of New York worked well. Dr. Cyber, particularly in the early issues when she was a complete mystery, was great. But as Wonder Woman… not so much.
    Relevance? Urgh. Hated it. I have no interest in my comics trying to tackle polluters or campus protesters. Wonder Woman’s attempt at a relevant women’s lib story is one of my least favorite comics ever (https://frasersherman.com/2016/02/24/rebooting-wonder-woman-over-and-over-sfwapro/).
    Mike Sekowsky’s turn to writing in this era fascinated me. Did he have a burning desire to write all along? Was the money right? Did he get passionate about rebooting characters (there’s also his god-awful Metal Men getting human disguises era)? I’ve looked online but never found any answers.

  5. jccalhoun

    It is odd that they didn’t release a Rose and Thorn collection since the character was in Bendis’ Millennium …and hasn’t been seen in Legion since (was she in the first issue? I think?). That was such a weird way to introduce the new Legion and then the character has just be dropped since.

  6. Jeff Nettleton

    So glad you brought this era up, as I have been recently battling the “Superman is lame crowd,” on another board (in a poll about comic book movies and another about cartoons). This was my first era of Superman and I loved these comics. So many great stories in all of them. When I was in college and started collecting back issues (after discovering my first comic shop), I picked up some that I recognized the covers. After college, I spent time collecting the whole sand creature storyline and the Rose & Thorn issues of Lois Lane. All that stuff held up really well.

    I used to have the Kryptonite Nevermore book, but got rid of it, with a large part of my library, when we moved across cities (just too much to transport and took up too much room…..alas…..). Nice collection, though I seem to recall feeling the paper seemed a bit cheap, for a hardcover. They also, around that time, collected the World of Krypton back-up stories that appeared in Superman, during that run, with artist like Mike Kaluta. That was also a great collection and another reason why I enjoyed this era.

    1. Le Messor

      She met Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? (Literally, or was it a ‘no celebrities were harmed’ version?)

      This version of her just keeps sounding better and better! Did she go back to their kind of time, or did they come to the 70s?

    2. Jeff Nettleton

      I wouldn’t think DC would have reprint rights on that material, as they licensed the characters from Fritz Leiber. The Epic mini-series, from Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola was reprinted by Dark Horse; but I have never seen any reprinting of the DC stuff or anyone else seek out publishing rights.

      Still amazed that no one has attempted to set up a movie franchise or series around Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. It was a more rounded fantasy property that would do well as either.

  7. Tim Rifenburg

    You and others have said that we live in a time when most things get reprinted. When it comes to DC (and other publishers) why do you think some eras, creators and characters don’t get the reprint treatment? I have always been surprised that there was never an Englehart Justice League compilation. (I did get the single issues on Comixology during a sale and I know a good portion of it was reprinted in a JLA Omnibus) It is fairly well remembered and self contained. When the Calculator was around during Identity Crisis and an Oracle opposite for a while, DC never did a reprint of the back ups and main Detective story that featured him. Could have been a giant size reprint . Just surprised what does and does not get collected. Anything you (or other commenters) wished was reprinted in one volume?

    1. Le Messor

      I can think of two basic reasons:
      1) They don’t have the rights anymore. This is more likely with Marvel, who’ve used characters such as Rom, Godzilla, and Fu Manchu in their stories. (The latter is mentioned by name in a Shang-Chi omnibus, so they seem to have the rights back!)
      2) They don’t think it’ll sell. You’ve tried to cover that by saying how popular the Englehart JLA was (and how much of the Englehart Avengers have been reprinted? I’ve been getting them in floppies?), but tell DC that. For example, my favourite series is Alpha Flight. They’ve reprinted Byrne’s entire run, in three trades then an omnibus – but nothing after. Why not? Probably because it sucks.
      I’ve got a Silver Age Legion trade, and a Silver Age Teen Titans omnibus. I’d buy volume 2 of each of them.

      1. Fu Manchu is now out of copyright. He’s trademarked so they can’t use him in advertising but otherwise he should be legit (though I don’t know if Marvel’s original licensing would make a difference).
        Back when Moench was writing Marvel’s Doc Savage black-and-white magazine Marvel had planned for a Fu Manchu crossover, but the rights didn’t work out. A real shame.

    2. Anything you (or other commenters) wished was reprinted in one volume?

      That’s really its own column and I hope to get to it soon. but I WILL say I’d really rather have things NOT in one volume. I think the giant omnibus hardcovers are awkward and difficult to read comfortably. I much prefer the ten-to-twelve issue trade collections we are seeing lately.

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