Tuesday, August 07, 2012

1957-58-59: The Mort Weisinger Superman Era Begins

This is one of the most important dividing points in the Silver Age of Comics, and yet, when you try to draw it, you realize just how shaky the line is.  If we look at, for example, Action #230, the July 1957 issue in the Grand Comics Database (a terrific resource), we find the following under editor:

Whitney Ellsworth (credited); Jack Schiff (managing); Mort Weisinger (actual).
We know that Ellsworth was in Hollywood, pushing DC's properties for TV and movies, and that his involvement in the comics was presumably minimal.  Schiff probably ran DC's offices at the time, and Weisinger did the Superman books.  But....

Well, there are problems with even this chain of command.  First, both the Weisinger titles (the Superman line) and the Schiff titles (which included Batman, Detective, World's Finest and Blackhawk, among others) dramatically changed once the name on the indicia was adjusted to reflect the "actual" editorship of those books.

This indicates to me that Ellsworth still exercised some strong control over DC even from Hollywood.  Remember, this is in the days before email and when even fax machines were uncommon, so it's unlikely he could have been vetoing art.

Ah, but there's the rub.  The inability to veto art implies also that art goes through, and if we look at the DC Superman art before Weisinger's name officially appears on the indicia, we can see that art tended to go through in that era, whereas it got stopped once Mort was given official credit.

For example, consider this panel from Action #231:
As you can see, that bears only a slight resemblance to the Silver Age Jimmy Olsen. And that's not some fluke; Jimmy's appearance was only consistent in his own magazine.

It's pretty clear that Weisinger began exerting more control over Superman's appearances at least as early as Action Comics #241, which featured the first appearance of the Fortress of Solitude:
Reading the Superman stories in Action 230-240, I found no real continuity; each story was a one-off, and they could have been published in any order.  But starting with the above issue, there was a definite change, as the Fortress and the Bottle City of Kandor (which appeared in the following issue) became continuing plot points.   So it's tempting and natural to assume that Weisinger began to really take charge around this time.  But there are still problems.  A one-time mistake on the depiction of the key, for example?  Nope, it was often shown that way in the next few issues:

That's from Action #247, a full six months after the intro, and given that the key had been established a few times as looking nothing like that (for example):
Weisinger, a stickler for detail, apparently accepted the artwork shown for #247.  A similar problem arises with #249:

However, with #250, the editorial change became official; Weisinger's name first appears in the indicia of that March, 1959 issue.  That does not mean that the problems ended.  Action #251 showed the small key again.  But after that, things pretty much got standardized across the entire Superman line.  Oh, there were still some occasional bloopers, like this oddball version of Kandor from #253:
And, as I discussed many moons ago, Supergirl's skirt was occasionally colored red instead of blue.

So, my take?  I accept that Weisinger edited the line well before 1958, but that he did not take anywhere near as active a role as he would starting with Action #241.  After #250, he definitely made a more serious attempt to standardize the looks of characters and objects like the Fortress Key and the Bottle City.


Lee said...

I remember reading a Julius Schwartz comment that Whitney Ellsworth hardly ever (or never - I can't recall which, or the citation) looked over or had any input into Schwartz's books before publication.

It's been my opinion that Ellsworth did not have a direct involvement in the day-to-day running or oversight of DC after he left for Hollywood in the 1950s, very much unlike say, Irwin Donenfeld in the 1960s, and then Carmine Infantino.

Of course, I could be wrong!

Kirk House said...

I've seen several sources saying that the 1950s Superman family comic books were expected to generally comport with the George Reeves TV series, which had pretty much run its course by 1958 or so. Being fairly low budget, the TV series had Superman dealing with mobsters, small-time thugs, sick children, lost animals, and the like. Once freed from those constraints, the story goes, the sky was the limit, and science-fiction themes came to the fore. Of course, the space age was just beginning, too... and those who weren't present at the creation may have a hard time fathoming how strongly it seized the public mind.
-- Kirk House

Anonymous said...

In Action #231, Jimmy Olsen resembles actor Jack Larson, so it does appear that the Superman comics were still being heavily influenced by the TV show. And it seems likely that the influence ended when the TV series was cancelled. (Similarly, the Batman comics showed the camp comedy influence from the 1966-68 TV show, but returned to the "dark knight" image once that show ended.) And the space age was a big influence in the late 1950's and early 1960's, too. Comics in general (including Batman, Superman, and Blackhawk) had an ever-increasing emphasis on space aliens, mad scientists, and bug-eyed monsters. Of course, Superman was better suited for science fiction than those other characters.

Martin Gray said...

Enjoyable stuff! I don't know if you read Alter Ego, but the just-out #112 has an unusual mood piece on Weisinger (I buy it, and Back Issue online from TwoMorrows, it's dirt cheap!)