Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Old Superhero Comics: DC

The Brown Wedge17 comments • 1,170 views

While Marvel was going for huge, powerful stories plus soap elements, DC kept on their own way for a while. They aimed at a younger market, and even issue-length stories were an exception, let alone any continuity between issues. They were also a much bigger company, and really existed as separate units with very weak links between them. There are two of these units that I think produced terrifically entertaining comics.

Superman titles

These were aimed at children. Stories are short and childish and silly. Girls are pests to be tricked. You’re far more likely to find stories about helping his pal Jimmy Olsen or fooling Lois when she is trying to get him to marry her or discover his secret identity, than see Superman in titanic battles against mighty foes. Jimmy and Lois had their own comics, as did Superboy. Lots of fine artists on these – Swan, Boring, Schaffenberger, Plastino and so on – and some clever, if ridiculous, writing. I think they are hugely entertaining. Me on the first Showcase collection – you must at least see the reproduced panel, which is a great example of the fun on offer.

Julius Schwarz’s titles

Schwarz edited most of the other mainline superhero titles: Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League and others. These are closer to Marvel, more exciting and lively, but the stories are still more based around clever solutions to tricky problems rather than mighty fight scenes, and there is no substantial continuity. I’m especially fond of The Flash, thanks to Carmine Infantino’s wonderfully sharp art and some colourful foes. Jack Kirby did some fine issues of Green Arrow and The Challengers of the Unknown (though these are less good than his Marvel work – the latter is of interest as an obvious precursor of the FF). Green Lantern and The Atom have dynamic Gil Kane art, though his inkers almost never did him justice, and there is some absolutely magnificent Joe Kubert art on the early Hawkmans, including the sexiest superheroine ever, his portrayal of Hawkgirl. The JLA is very enjoyable, with excellent Mike Sekowsky art. The Teen Titans is hugely entertaining both for the lame attempts at swinging teens and the really lovely Nick Cardy artwork – you can also find him on Aquaman, who I never had much interest in.

Jack Kirby again

When Kirby left Marvel, he created a line of comics – and a whole new mythology of superbeings – for DC, known collectively as The Fourth World. This ambitious saga may be his best work, although he sadly left it incomplete. I particularly recommend his New Gods.

DC have started doing big, cheap, B&W reprints of their old comics, and while the line is far less comprehensives than Marvel’s, so far, much from the first two sections above are all available (no Fourth World as yet). By the way, the Batman material so far reprinted is not terribly good, though some of the Brave & Bold stories are much better. Reviews of the first batch of Showcase Presents volumes. Reviews of the second batch.


  1. 1
    aldo on 4 Jun 2008 #

    There’s certainly an awful lot to love in the Superman titles and abroad into some of the Schwartz books, but there’s maybe a lot to hate as well.

    I’m always struck by the sheer inventiveness of the best stories, no matter how bizarre or mundane the situation (actually, harking back to the KMKY comments below, maybe these comics did ‘trivial things happen’ better than anybody else, including a lot of autobiog GNs and titles), and in fact I actually think my favourite Silver Age books deal in this rather than BIFF BANG FITE books – Titans is far more enjoyable than JLA, primarily because it deals with things like Mod tailors who have infiltrated the local hot rod gang in order to smuggle English clothes to America rather than Mirror Master trapping the JLA in crystals AGAIN. The art is frequently good enough to save a dull and lifeless book (I guess I’m specifically thinking about Hawkman here), but it’s often a total joy and actually benefits from the b&w rather than is hindered by it – Wayne Boring, Curt Swan and Al Plastino begin to look like they’re appropriating ligne claire and it really works.

    There’s always a downside though. An awful lot of dialogue, particularly in Titans, comes across as ridiculous Disco Dad-isms. Repetition certainly plays a part in this too. There’s only so many times you can read Hawkman going “wheet wheet” or Aquaman referring to his “fishy/finny friends”, but read them sparingly and you can get through fine. Bear in mind they came out monthly anyway.

    I have far too many Showcase volumes, and have become far more selective about which ones I buy, but the best of them are wonderful, wonderful comics.

  2. 2
    Martin Skidmore on 4 Jun 2008 #

    I like the Disco Dad-isms, especially on Teen Titans. The repetitions you mention are wearing, but as you say, that’s an effect of reading fat collections of old comics.

    I’m trying to get a bit more selective too – I’ve bought almost all of them, but have skipped a few lately (Batman & Outsiders, Booster Gold, Challengers 2).

  3. 3
    aldo on 4 Jun 2008 #

    I fell for the Outsiders one, and immediately wished I hadn’t. It suffers mainly from TEETH-GRITTING 80s GRITTINESS, but also has lots of LOOK WE KNOW THERE’S AN EASTERN EUROPE 80s GRITTINESS.

    I didn’t get Booster Gold or Challs 2, and have resisted the second volumes of House Of Mystery and Haunted Tank and the third volumes of GL and JLA.

    I think Superman Family Vol 2 might be the best of the Comics ARE Just For Kids books, although Metal Men is great. Jonah Hex was definitely the biggest surprise, it’s probably the best of the ‘war’ books (stretching the definition a bit).

  4. 4
    Martin Skidmore on 4 Jun 2008 #

    House of Mystery and Haunted Tank have some real highs, but are mostly mediocre. GL3 has a sequence of issues where Kane inks himself, but is otherwise uninspiring. I really like the JLA, so will stick with that.

    Yes, I love the early Lois stories in particular in SF2. Metal Men disappointed me, though its sexism is hysterically funny (me on that: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2007/10/best-sexism-ever/). Jonah Hex was really excellent, yes.

  5. 5
    aldo on 4 Jun 2008 #

    Some of the Jimmy stories in SF2 are just astonishing. The Beard Band, for example.

    I can see what you mean about Metal Men, but how can you not love a single plot where Tina tries to make a fried egg, which grows and unleashes a swarm of Moon Parasites. That forces the Metal Men to be forced into space inside one of them, where the Giant Robot Queen of the Space Amazons falls for Tin and feeds him a special fruit from the planet she lives on which makes him GIANT and EVIL during which time the rest of the Metal Men are put on a charm bracelet and Giant Evil Tin wins them in a crane-grab game.

  6. 6
    Dan M. on 5 Jun 2008 #

    I was a loyal DC reader from ages 7-12 or so (’66-’71), and ignored Marvel almost entirely. Looking back I can’t quite be sure why — maybe I just felt I had to choose one or the other — though it’s pretty clear that DC was the more innocent and kid-like, from the silly stories to the coziness of the extended Superman “family,” to that almost ligne clair style that aldo refers to (though personally I think Shaffenburg was the best example).

    I always felt it in some way paralelled being a Beatles-not-a-Stones fan in those same years.

    While you can’t knock Kirby and Ditko (and Steranko), I would argue that the DC art stable had greater depth than Marvel, with aforementioned pro’s like Swan, Plastino, Shaffenburg, Boring, Cardy, Jack Sparling, Murphy Anderson, Frank Thorne and Bob Oksner, as well as innovators and stylists like Adams, Infantino, Gil Kane, Kubert, Toth, Sheldon Mayer (though the last two never really worked in the superhero genre) to the idiosyncratic Jerry Grandenetti and, later on the Silver-Bronze cusp, newcomers like Wrightson and Chaykin.

    Another thing I like/liked about DC’s series at the time was that, eschewing the continuity-type story lines that Marvel went in for, there was the opportunity for some really fine short story telling in the DC mags. One that stayed with me especially was an “Atom” issue in which the hero shrinks down so tiny that he becomes a giant in a microscopic world. This blew my 8 or 9 year old mind, and resonates with the incredible monologue that concludes the move, “Incredible Shrinking Man.”

    And don’t forget that toward the end of the Silver Age there was a lot of experimentation in DC — the celebrate Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams Green Lanterns and lesser titles like Ditko’s Hawk and Dove or Joe Simon’s (I think it was) “Geek.”

    Whatever it was, I still get misty when I see a checkerboard strip running along the top of a comic book… or a Henry Boltinoff filler gag… or a “Direct Currents” preview with the little cover thumbnails… sigh…

  7. 7
    Dan M. on 5 Jun 2008 #

    By the way, thanks for these columns, Martin — they’re a lot of fun!

  8. 8
    Martin Skidmore on 5 Jun 2008 #

    I’m glad you like them! I’ll probably put the next up over the weekend.

    Toth did lots of superhero work early in his DC career, back in the ’40s, but yes, not much later on. I entirely agree that DC had more depth of quality. After Kirby then Ditko, Marvel’s best mainline artists in the ’60s would be Colan (who never suited superheroes that well) and John Buscema, neither of whom I like as much as Kubert, Infantino, Kane or Cardy, and they might be around on a par with half a dozen or more other DC artists (Swan, Sekowsky, Schaffenberger, Plastino and Boring leap to mind).

  9. 9
    Dan M. on 5 Jun 2008 #

    Yes, I forgot Colan. Both he and J. Buscema did their best Marvel work in the 70s (and 80s, I guess, though I wasnt reading comics then) — on Dracula and Conan, respectively.

  10. 10
    Dan M. on 5 Jun 2008 #

    And I forgot some other DC stalwarts: Dick Dillin, Irv Novick, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Bob Brown, Bill Draut, Howie Post (Anthro)… They had a lot of artists!

  11. 11
    Martin Skidmore on 6 Jun 2008 #

    I think my favourite John Buscema art is on the Avengers with Tom Palmer inks.

    I like Draut well enough and don’t mind Novick, but I can’t say I think so much of the rest. I also forgot John Romita and Don Heck at Marvel, for instance, who I like better than that latest batch – actually I think I like Sal Buscema better than any of those, maybe Herb Trimpe too. Nonetheless, if I did a top dozen artists from ’60s Marvel and DC, I think the top two would be Marvel and the next ten would probably all be DC, which certainly supports the idea of their greater depth – obviously they were the far larger company back then.

  12. 12
    Tom on 6 Jun 2008 #

    Is that the 80s Avengers run he did, with Roger Stern scripting?

    If so I remember collecting it as a new reader (new to all comics) and loving how solid and burnished everything seemed to look – they were particularly good at giving things weight (there were a lot of ROBOTS in that run IIRC which helped)

  13. 13
    Dan M. on 6 Jun 2008 #

    No, I agree… that last batch of DC artists were undistinguished pro’s at best (you;re right, Draut stands out), and Marvel also had its share of dependables like Heck, Sal B. and Trimpe — I’m just less familiar with the Marvel artists in general. And then there were the Severin twins (well, maybe they weren’t twins). John was one of my favorites, who did a little work for both DC and Marvel as well as Warren. He’s still going strong in his mid-late 80s, by the way, having just finished a run on DC’s “Batlash.” Other than he and Kubert, is there any other artist from the Golden Age still working?

  14. 14
    Martin Skidmore on 7 Jun 2008 #

    I don’t really think of Severin as a Golden Age artist – Kubert was working on major titles in the ’40s, Severin wasn’t. I can’t think of anyone other than Kubert who is still at it after starting in the ’40s, offhand.

    Tom, I meant the much earlier run with JB and TP.

  15. 15
    Dan M. on 9 Jun 2008 #

    Well, Severin did a lot of work for EC, which has to be considered Golden Age (late G.A., admittedly). I don’t think any of the other EC artists are still working, are they? Is Al Williamson still around?

  16. 16
    Martin Skidmore on 9 Jun 2008 #

    I think most people regard the Golden Age as running from Superman’s debut in 1938 until superhero comics mostly faded away around the start of the ’50s, so it is not usual for EC’s heyday to be included.

    Williamson is, I am pretty sure, still alive, and has certainly worked as an inker pretty recently, so he may still be active. Again, I wouldn’t say he was part of the Golden Age.

  17. 17
    Dan M. on 10 Jun 2008 #

    Ah, okay. I thought the Silver Age was considered to begin with the revival of The Flash in — ’59, was it? If the Golden Age ended with the fading of the superheroes, that would put the EC era into a kind of a non-metallic Age of some kind?

    Also, not to beat a dead horse, but in our catalogue of 60s DC artists I think we forgot Jim Aparo — sort of a poor man’s Neal Adams, maybe, but not a VERY poor man.

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