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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Action Comics

On the radio.

That’s the short answer.

Before DC handed over its biggest commodity to the Mutual Broadcasting System, press agent Duke Ducovny teamed-up with pulp writer Bob Maxwell to give the Man of Steel a radio make-over. Their revisions included a Krypton located on the other side of our sun and a full-grown Kryptonian stepping out of his rocket ship. They also dreamed up “Up, Up and Away!” and the swooshing audio effect that accompanied it. Technically, he was only leaping “into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound,” but when MBS writer George Ludlam took over the scripts, he kept the “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” shtick.  Listeners weren’t picturing a glorified high jumper. The Superman in their radio cabinets was flying.

But the comic book Superman remained comparatively earthbound. Though you can see why Ducovny and Maxwell made the imaginative leap. After his one-page origin, Joe Shuster’s first Action Comics panel shows his hero sailing over houses, with Jerry Siegel’s ambiguous caption: “A tireless figure races thru the night.”

The guy certainly looks like he’s flying. A few issues later, when he “launches himself out and down” from a skyscraper to save a suicidal jumper, Superman grabs him inches above the sidewalk. Which is to say, the creators had no problem breaking other laws of physics.

Yet they kept their hero stubbornly gravity-minded while the MBS incarnation was headed up, up and away. Six months after the radio debut, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman still “plummets earthward like a leaden weight.” But they didn’t ignore the airwaves entirely. “Seizing the sides of his cape, Superman navigates it like a sail so that he swoops out of sight in a giant curve before onlookers can quite understand what is happening!”

So why not just give in and let the guy fly?

Here’s the long answer.

Superman started flying out of Siegel and Shuster’s hands the moment they made him.

The two twenty-three-year-olds signed over all rights before the first 12-page feature hit newsstands. Has any company ever made a bigger return on a $130 investment? DC Comics, part of its boss’ mob-connected shell game of publishing companies in 1937, earned $2.6 million in 1941. Even the physical check they wrote Siegel and Shuster surged more than a tenfold in value when it was auctioned for $160,000 earlier this year.

So what did Superman’s creators get?

Their page rate leapt from $10 to $15. When DC signed Superman for a newspaper deal, the pair got a 50% royalty cut.  But the 1940 radio show? The 1941 cartoon? The 1942 novel? The 1944 Superboy comic? The 1948 film serial? The decade of toys and kid clothes? And after they sued and lost in 1948, DC cut them off completely.

Superman was literally a corporation. Superman, Inc. DC hired their press agent to steer their Man of Money. Which is why Ducovny hired Maxwell, not Siegel, to write the first radio adaptation. Superman’s creators lost more than royalties. Creative control vanished as soon as DC figured out Superman was driving Action Comics sales.

And Siegel saw it all coming. AC #6, a phony manager hires a fake Superman and starts signing merchandise deals for breakfast cereals, cars, and gas stations. “I have a contract from him giving me sole commercial rights to his name!” This is the same month Siegel’s bosses nixed his idea for a new title about Superman’s boyhood. They’d wait till he was drafted and forget to pay him for it.

In 1940, Siegel tried to shake up his storylines by allowing Clark to reveal his secret identity to Lois. His bosses nixed that too. The next month, Clark parrots his creators’ marching orders: “With Lois more friendly, I’m tempted to forget my identity as Superman—but of course I must go on as I have!”

Next thing Perry White and Jimmy Olen—characters from the radio show—are showing up in Action Comics too. And it’s another MBS scripter, George Lowther, penning the novel DC contracted with Random House. Siegel didn’t get a credit, let alone a royalty check. When he shipped out in 1943, other writers took control of his comic books too.

Joe Shuster, half blind with a degenerative eye disease, had been employing a studio of co-artists for years. Soon they were jumping ship and taking their paychecks directly from DC. That 1940 issue with Superman using his cape like a sail? It was one of the last that looks like Shuster drew it himself. He and Jerry lost their uberoffspring faster than a speeding bullet.

Of course they didn’t want him to fly.

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“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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