Men Of Steel

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I haven’t really enjoyed DC Comics for several years now, but I’ll give the corporate overlords at Time/Warner credit for green-lighting this excellent two-minute tribute to Superman by Bruce Timm and Zack Snyder. The special highlight for me, of course, is the reference to Neal Adams’ Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, the greatest comic-book of all time. For a more detailed list of references, click here.

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Springsteen Superman

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In a little more than a week, DC Comics will unveil a new Superman for a new millennium courtesy of such talents as Grant Morrison, George Perez and Rags Morales.

While a good deal of Internet scorn has (rightfully, IMHO) been heaped upon the Man Of Steel’s new costume/armor, I’ve heard few – if any – critical comments regarding the T-shirt and blue jean “Springsteen” Superman that will debut in Morrison and Morales’ Action Comics.

Such uncharacteristic restraint is undoubtedly due to the unbelievable amount of good will Morrison has built among the Netoblogotumblverse™. Fans mindful of comic-book history –  um, there are a few of you out there, right? – have probably also noted that Superman 2K11 isn’t the first caped do-gooder to eschew spandex for a T-shirt and a tight-fitting pair of slacks.

Following the lead of Philip Wylie’s Hugo Danner and Lester Dent’s Doc Savage – who admittedly had a difficult time keeping his shirt from getting ripped to shreds – several Golden Age men of might donned the garb of the working class hero, including: the original Commander Steel and Captain Triumph.

Thanks to Alan Moore’s Tom Strong, the Golden Age Dr. (“Doc”) Strange is perhaps the most notable of the “Springsteen Supermen.”

The creation of writer Richard E. Hughes (better known these days as the co-creator of the unforgettable Herbie) and artist Alexander Kostuk, scientist Thomas Hugo Strange (no relation to this guy) gained incredible abilities after inventing and drinking  – scientists, both good and evil, though nothing of experimenting on themselves back then – a serum known as Alosun, a powerful distillation of solar atoms.

Although he was just about as strong and indestructible as Superman, Doc Strange eschewed the seemingly obligatory circus outfit for a red shirt and blue trousers. The good Doctor liked the outfit so much, in fact, that he almost never changed his clothes.

Much like Clark Kent and his blue, three-piece suit I guess. Wonder if Grant Morrison has plans for that outfit?

From Thrilling Comics #59 (Better/Nedor/Standard, April 1947) here’s Doc Strange. The story and art are uncredited.

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Marvel Vs. DC

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Despite what DC attorneys argued at the time, the Golden Age Captain Marvel wasn’t all that similar to a certain Man Of Steel. They could both fly, bend steel in their bare hands and laugh away a hail of bullets, but the Big Red Cheese’s cheerful outlook and whimsical adventures were far different from the more serious Superman’s.

Such differences mattered little to DC, however, who viewed the Captain’s swift and massive success as a serious threat to the Superman franchise and filed suit. By the end of the ’40s, the two publishers had been locked in litigation for more than seven years and were headed for a courtroom showdown.

At that point Captain Marvel was no longer the cash cow of the World War II years (Adventures was published bi-weekly at its peak with a circulation of 1.3 million copies an issue), but still earned enough profit to support an entire line of comics. A judgement in DC’s favor would not only wipe out the Big Red Cheese but every other title published by Fawcett.

In their typical whimsical matter, Captain Marvel co-creator C.C.Beck and the equally legendary writer Otto Binder addressed this situation in Captain Marvel Adventures #97 (Fawcett Publications, June 1949).

Beneath an ingenious cover illustration of a photographed hand “wiping out” the Big Red Cheese, the issue contained the tale of a felonious artist who acquired a magic eraser that could eradicate any person or object.

As a plot device, the eraser worked on a variety of levels. It served as a seemingly unbeatable challenge for Captain Marvel while subtly acknowledging the hero’s entire world as nothing more than a series of drawings on paper.

(C.C. Beck himself even makes a one-panel cameo toward the end of the tale.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if the eraser was also a commentary on the ongoing DC/Fawcett lawsuit. And is it just me, or does the story’s villain resemble a young Jerry Siegel?

As we all know, Captain Marvel was indeed wiped out a few years later after Judge Learned Hand ruled against Fawcett. The Marvel Family and every other character and title published by the company disappeared from the face of the Earth for decades.

A few publishers trotted out their own Captain Marvels before DC revived the one and only Big Red Cheese in the early ’70s. Although a host of talented creators have taken their shots at the Marvel Family (including Jerry Ordway, Mike Kunkel, Jeff Smith, Mike Norton and C.C. Beck himself), no one has ever quite captured the artistic or commercial spark that made the Golden Age tales so memorable.

These days, the Marvels are barely a presence in the DC Universe. Those rare times when Cap interacts with The Man Of Steel – his rival of long ago – it’s usually in the role of a glorified sidekick.

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It’s hard to imagine Cap ever being an upper-tier character for the very company that engineered his downfall. But then again, perhaps the Big Red Cheese has already enjoyed the final laugh.

After all, to steal an insight from Grant Morrison’s Supergods, DC was eventually knocked off its lofty perch by a company named “Marvel.”

Here’s “Captain Marvel Is Wiped Out” by Binder and Beck.

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Reign Of The Super-Man

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By the early 1930s, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had submitted scores of stories to publishers and were roundly rejected.

Siegel, in particular, wasn’t willing to admit defeat and persuaded his partner to create an alternate outlet for their work: a typewritten, mimeographed science-fiction fanzine called, logically enough, “Science Fiction.”

The self-published and distributed fanzine wasn’t a great success, but a story in the third issue did introduce a character who – with a bit of tweaking – would take the world by storm by the end of the decade: a bald, telepathic villain named “Super-Man.”

The story concerned a homeless man named Bill Dunn who is recruited to participate in a mad scientist’s experiment in exchange for food and clothes. The scientist’s potion grants Dunn vast telepathic powers that prove too much for the former vagrant to control.

Corrupted by his newfound abilities, Dunn kills the scientist and plans to conquer the world. Unfortunately for the self-proclaimed Super-Man, the potion’s effects prove to be temporary and without his former benefactor to recreate the experiment, Dunn realizes he will soon return to his former, impoverished existence.

Not a bad yarn for a couple of proto-fanboys.

As we all know, Siegel and Shuster would soon rework the concept and create a more heroic Superman. It is fascinating, however, to study Kal-El’s true roots – a once rare opportunity now afforded to anyone with an Internet connection.

The University of Florida’s digital collections website hosts a (mostly legible) reproduction of Siegel and Shuster’s Science Fiction #3 that includes the now-legendary “Reign Of The Super-Man” tale.

The story can be found here.

It’s recommended reading for anyone remotely interested in the super-hero genre and a nice reminder that Siegel and Shuster were once aspiring professionals just like many members of the comics blog-o-net.

Who knows? Maybe one of your ideas will launch an entire genre of heroic fiction and earn millions of dollars for corporate fat cats while you, the creator, remain penniless.

Something to aspire toward, right?