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February 08, 2004

  • Farewell To Mr. Comics
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    “And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.”
    - “Superman’s Song”, Crash Test Dummies

    Julius Schwartz died today, Sunday, at the age of 88. I never met Julius Schwartz, nor have I ever seen the man speak. But Julius Schwartz brought enjoyment to millions of kids and adults, and if the truth were known, I’m still not exactly sure how he did it.

    Julius Schwartz was a comic book editor.

    Julius—known to millions of us who read the funny books as Julie—Schwartz was the Walt Disney of DC comics: he didn’t draw the pictures, and he didn’t write the scripts. He didn’t even letter the word balloons. And yet for four decades, Julie Schwartz, as Uncle Walt did in the animation industry, worked a peculiar kind of magic and created a wholly unique product that, while the work of others, was also undeniably his.

    I used to picture Julie as an irascible, grumpy, but kind-hearted, old guy who looked not unlike the old comedians reminiscing at the start of Broadway Danny Rose. From what I can gather, that’s not far off the mark. (Comics were virtually run by curmudgeonly old guys—or guys who just seemed curmudgeonly and old—back in the days when they were great). When Julie was in his prime—between the 1950s and the early 1980s—comic books were regarded as trash, pure and simple (today they ‘re slightly better regarded). And yet, the comic books he edited—which entailed often plotting the stories and bullying the writers and artists to deliver something nearer his vision—were something better than that.

    In the comics industry, Julie is best known for—starting in 1956 with The Flash—taking the masked mystery men in the comics of the 1940s (long ago cancelled and relegated to the dustbin) and radically revamping them in just about every way except name. He created what was known as the “Silver Age” of DC Comics as a result. When he finished with that, he radically revamped Batman not once but twice; the second time, in 1969, he (along with writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams) returned the character to its gothic roots as a “creature of the night”—an image that has stuck with the character for over three decades. He followed this up with a revamping of Superman that was notably lighter on the tiller than his previous work, but still indicative of his M.O.: make the character sensible to contemporary thinking and do it in a way that doesn’t talk down to your readers.

    And yet, surprisingly, it’s not for this impressive resume of work that I miss Julie Schwartz.

    Like three or four other generations, I grew up with comic books edited by Schwartz. Tonight in honour of the man I’m going to read Action Comics #496 (June 1979), written by Cary Bates and drawn by Curt Swan and edited by Julie. The cover says it all: Superman is looking down into the bottle city of Kandor (an actual city from Superman’s home planet of Krypton, only its residents have been shrunk to microscopic size). The residents are saying to Superman: “It’s your fault Superman! YOU carried SUPER DISEASE GERMS from here to the outside world! Because of YOU, EVERY LIVING THING ON EARTH is about to DROP DEAD!”

    I was nine years old when I saw that cover. I was visiting my grandparents in St. Catharines and I immediately bought that comic (for 40 cents!) from a spinner rack at a Mac’s Milk. I reread that issue so often today my dog-eared copy is barely intact.

    Good showmanship by creating an appealing cover is only part of the Julie Schwartz method, though. No, it’s the “hook” that goes with it (what if Superman was a plague carrier that could destroy humanity?) And then it’s the execution of that hook: Superman is summoned from Metropolis by the residents of Kandor who inform him that on a recent visit he picked up a Kryptonian germ that is deadly to humans and humanity will die in 18 hours, 7 minutes and 23 seconds. Told that there is no remedy, Superman desperately tries to find a cure, only to find all his options severely limited.

    Eventually it’s revealed that the Kanodrians secretly bombarded Superman with an antidote that could only work if he was sufficiently stressed. And if that weren’t bad enough, Superman soon has to contend with an alien scavenger who has come to pick the remains of the earth. After the obligatory fight scene, Superman dispatches the alien by bringing him into the far future where he learns that the earth is saved (and the reader learns that obviously the battle with the scavenger did the trick for Superman to deliver the antidote to humanity).

    All this in 17 pages.

    Hook em’ in and then play with your hook in a manner that treats even the youngest members of your audience as though they’re intelligent. That’s the Julie Schwartz way.

    When I was a kid, I used to astonish my cousins with my vocabulary—I’d talk about “microorganisms” and “parallel earths”. I got all that from Julie Schwartz. Julie’s first job before comics was as working as a literary agent for writers like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft. He never really lost his roots in 1940s “scientifiction” as it was then called. You could tell a Julie Schwartz story because of the neat ideas rooted in science. Most of his stories had a germ of a fascinating SF idea.

    I read some of the early stories of the Silver Age Flash (circa 1959) recently and it’s like a juke-box of ideas that we now find commonplace: time travel, weird physics, parallel worlds, odd molecular science. If kids and teenagers were the primary audience of comics back then, he didn’t talk down to them. He made sure that idea was delivered in a fascinating and fun way. The writers on Star Trek: Voyager all read Julie Schwartz comics as kids—only they didn’t get his trick of getting writers to connect the nifty idea to a fun, fast-paced story.

    And at the end of the day, that’s what I think Julie Schwartz’s great legacy is: not in creating a so-called ‘silver age’ of comic books, but rather in entertaining millions of kids, millions of people, including myself.

    When I was a teenager, I kind of resented Julie Schwartz. By the mid ‘80s Superman was a bit of a joke, and I wanted comic books with more sizzle and pizzazz. Julie was taken off Superman and he character was “updated” in the way that Julie might have done in the ‘60s. And yet nowadays, it’s the Superman stories Julie edited that I find myself re-reading. They’re marvels of concise, intelligent storytelling. Julie’s comic book work was sold on newsstands and in places like Mac’s Milk. Today, you can only buy comic books in specialty shops or discerning bookstores.

    I can’t help but think Julie was right all along.

    I remember seeing an interview with Ray Bradbury where he said he hated writers with lofty pretensions that their stories were about something. For Bradbury, the last thing he wanted to read was a story with some kind of an inherent message that was more important than anything else. He wanted to read stories, pure and simple.

    That’s a sentiment I’m sure Julie Schwartz would have agreed with friend his and former client. Julie Schwartz didn’t write comics (at least not credited), and he didn’t draw them. But for 50 years (the man never actually retired from DC Comics), he gave us stories, pure and simple. And though I never met the man, I miss him dearly.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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