Today, we look at the classic "Must There Be A Superman?" on Elliot S! Maggin's 71th birthday!
This is "Look Back," where every four weeks of a month, I will spotlight a single issue of a comic book that came out in the past and talk about that issue (often in terms of a larger scale, like the series overall, etc.). Each spotlight will be a look at a comic book from a different year that came out the same month X amount of years ago. The first spotlight of the month looks at a book that came out this month ten years ago. The second spotlight looks at a book that came out this month 25 years ago. The third spotlight looks at a book that came out this month 50 years ago. The fourth spotlight looks at a book that came out this month 75 years ago. The occasional fifth week (we look at weeks broadly, so if a month has either five Sundays or five Saturdays, it counts as having a fifth week) looks at books from 20/30/40/60/70/80 years ago.
Today, we go back to November 1971 for the brilliant "Must There Be a Superman?" from Superman #247 by Elliot S! Maggin, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson.
I write a lot about the idea of the second generation of comic book writers, but I do so because it has an important impact on the history of comic books to see how different things were in comic books when the writers became people who grew up ON comic books rather than the initial comic book writers, who obviously didn't read comic books when they were kids because, well, you know, they're the ones who created comic books! Anyhow, in this instance, this story is amazingly about I guess a THIRD generation of comic book writers helping a second generation writer come up with a comic book classic!
Mark Waid has mentioned that one of his inspirations for his work on Kingdom Come with Alex Ross was "Must There Be a Superman?" and so Elliot S! Maggin wrote the introduction to one of the early trade collections of Kingdom Come and he told the amazing background of the story (I wrote about this in one of my earliest Comic Book Legends Revealed columns, SIXTEEN YEARS AGO):
I have a friend named Jeph. You know Jeph. I was maybe nineteen or twenty and he was maybe twelve or thirteen and I was a student at this college and Jeph's stepdad was a big muckamuck at the college and stepdad and I made friends. I went over to stepdad's house for dinner one day and Jeph and I got to talking there about our mutual love for super-heroes and their stories. We came up with a nifty story over mom and stepdad's dinner table. See, I'd just sold my first comic-book script, a Green Arrow story called "What Can One Man Do?" and I had a problem. I had a meeting soon with Julius Schwartz, the Bard of Bards, to see whether I was a one-trick pony or I could do this sort of thing again. I had to come up with a hit-it-outta-the-park idea for a Superman story or else spend the next three years in law school. I guess I told Jeph a few of my ideas and I guess Jeph told me a few of his. And Jeph came up with this thing he called "Why Must There Be a Superman?" It was about the Guardians of the Universe planting a new idea in Big Blue's head. The idea was that maybe, in his zeal to preserve life and ease the path of the human race, Superman was keeping ordinary everyday good humans from growing on their own. Maybe he was killing the butterfly by helping it out of the chrysalis. Not for sure, but just maybe. That was Jeph's idea.
So I went to Gotham, to see the Bard and I had maybe a dozen little germs of ideas packed under my scalp. I'd try this one on him. I'd toss him that one. I'd pitch him another one. Some of them he liked; some of them he didn't. Some of them inspired ideas of the Bard's own; some of them made him snort or snore. By the end of a couple of hours - they were a loud, intense couple of hours, as hours I spent with the Bard of Bards always would be - I was emotionally exhausted and still he wanted to hear more. So I dredged up this idea about what might happen if the Guardians came calling on Superman with the tiniest little criticism of how he was doing his job. Now you're talking fresh stuff, the old man let me know. He got excited. He yanked people in from the hall and made me repeat the idea for them.
I called the story "Must There Be a Superman?" and Saint Curt and Murphy drew it and it made me happy and I put words in Superman's mouth pretty much steadily for the next fifteen years and never went to law school. And I swear I did not have a clue where the idea had come from. Who knows where ideas come from anyway? I didn't remember - still don't remember, in fact, but I believe Jeph - until Jeph told me about his contribution years later. Like twenty or so years later.
Jeph has never suffered, I don't believe, for my inconsiderate oversight, and in fact has always been my friend. He's done well, too. With his buddy Matthew he wrote the first great super-hero movie of the modern period, Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and lots of other great stuff. And one day later on I was editor of Jeph's first comic-book series of his own, an eight-issue masterpiece with Tim Sale called Challengers of the Unknown. Now he writes for Hollywood and he writes for DC and Marvel and he's happy and he's still my friend, and now I get to make this right too.
WOW, what a story!
And, of course, the same could be said for the comic book story itself, which featured a stellar Curt Swan cover...
Superman is doing some superhero stuff in outer space when he is knocked out and saved by a Green Lantern and taken to Oa. While he is healing, the Guardians plant a thought in his head, the idea that maybe he might be hurting Earth by helping it TOO much.
They even cited a then-recent issue of Justice League of America where the heroes told an alien world that they have to cure their world of pollution on their own...
Superman heads to Earth and the idea sticks in his head and when some migrant farm worker ask him to intercede on their behalf against their cruel boss, he remembers that lesson...
Then an earthquake hits and Superman can't just let them all die, of course, so he saves them all and even rebuilds their homes, but then tells them that they have to do the rest on their own, and follow in the footsteps of the boy that Superman met earlier, who had proposed striking to improve their job....
As Superman flies to another disaster, we see the Guardians monitor him and they are happy that they've at least made Superman reflect on the impact that he has on others. This is a heady concept for a comic book NOW, in 1971, it was positively MIND-BLOWING. Great work by everyone involved.
Happy birthday, Elliot!
If you folks have any suggestions for November (or any other later months) 2011, 1996, 1971 and 1946 comic books for me to spotlight, drop me a line at [email protected]! Here is the guide, though, for the cover dates of books so that you can make suggestions for books that actually came out in the correct month. Generally speaking, the traditional amount of time between the cover date and the release date of a comic book throughout most of comic history has been two months (it was three months at times, but not during the times we're discussing here). So the comic books will have a cover date that is two months ahead of the actual release date (so October for a book that came out in August). Obviously, it is easier to tell when a book from 10 years ago was released, since there was internet coverage of books back then.
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