The William Bradley Prize for the Essay is dedicated to the memory of essayist and scholar, William Bradley and intended to honor his legacy and his commitment to the essay form--its literary history, dynamic present, and promising future. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations. Deadline for submissions is March 15, 2018.
By William Bradley
I didn’t know much about Curt Swan when I met him—only that he’d penciled a lot of Superman and Superman Family comics during the “Silver Age” of comic books—that hazily define time that covers the 1960s and early 1970s. I knew that he was important, that he was someone I ought to know—the way I felt like I probably needed to listen to more John Lennon and read more Ernest Hemingway.
This was 1994, the year I graduated from high school, and my best friend and I were attending the largest comic book convention Albany had ever seen. Swan was the guest of honor, his name presented in oversized block letters—with the phrase “The Legendary” preceding it—in the half-page ad in.
The other comic book creator there—whose name I would later forget—was a guy who, it turned out, didn’t have a particularly long or spectacular career in comics, but who was really generous and encouraging when I talked to him about my own dream of becoming a comic book writer (in his “day job,” he told me, he was a high school English teacher). Like I said, he was nothing spectacular, but the fans were flocking to him, handing him comics to sign and asking him questions about the other comic professionals he knew, presuming he hung out with such luminaries all the time.
The early nineties was a pretty chaotic time for comic book fandom. Marvel had dominated the sales charts for years, but that dominance was threatened when its most popular artists—among them Todd “Spider-Man” MacFarlane, Jim “X-Men” Lee, and Rob “New Mutants” Liefeld—left Marvel’s corporate structure in order to create their own studios where they would retain ownership of their work rather than hand over all rights to the company that published it (as creators before them had traditionally done with properties like Superman, Captain America, and The Fantastic Four). They published together under the company name Image and quickly became the hottest thing in the industry. The books they put out in those early years were almost uniformly terrible—even worse than the stuff they did under what they claimed was a creativity-stifling corporate environment—but featured large-breasted, slim-waisted female characters and male characters who carried big guns or had razor-sharp blades growing out of their hands. Image, in its early years, produced the stuff a certain type of 14-year-old boy—one without access to R-rated movies or pornography—finds really appealing.
And this guy worked for them. Thus, he was a star.
I wasn’t all that into Image—I think I was older than their target demographic. I still liked the occasional Justice League or Superman, but my tastes were starting to run more toward Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (a book that appealed to the other pretentious English-major types I was destined to meet in the coming years). So I didn’t hang out at the writer’s booth for very long. Instead, I walked through the convention, looking for cheap back issues and trying to find the latest issues of books I enjoyed.
Whereas the Image writer had a really nice booth with posters and comics on display and his name on a banner, Swan was simply sitting at a folding table, wearing a windbreaker, and doing a crossword puzzle. In blue ballpoint pen, he had written his name and drawn Superman’s logo on a sheet of notebook paper placed in front of him.
I probably walked by a half dozen times. I didn’t actually have anything to say to the guy—I wasn’t sure I could even convincingly say I thought his work was awesome, given how little of it I’d seen. I didn’t want to seem insincere or ignorant. But it also seemed wrong to me that someone advertised as “legendary” should be completely ignored by the fans that were gushing over someone who hadn’t accomplished very much and quite possibly never would.
“Mr. Swan?” I said tentatively. He looked up and smiled. “I don’t have any books for you to sign, but I just wanted to meet you and say hi.”
“That’s very nice of you,” he said, shaking my hand.
“I’ve got some Jimmy Olsen books you drew at home,” I told him. “I really like that old stuff.”
I felt like a total idiot as the words were coming out of my mouth—way to tell a guy he’s old, asshole. But if Swan felt insulted, he didn’t let on. If anything, his smile became wider.
“I’m glad,” he said.
I didn’t have anything more to say to him, so I said something about letting him get back to his puzzle, and he thanked me for stopping by. I kept watching him, though. Nobody else stopped to talk to him. Eventually, he put his pen down and looked up from his puzzle. He looked around the convention, then stood up and walked away from his table. Although I was there for quite a while afterward, I didn’t see him come back. He died a couple of years later.
Some stuff I didn’t know about Curt Swan: I didn’t know Swan, along with his predecessor, Wayne Boring, pretty much created Superman’s iconic look. Prior to Boring and Swan’s work on Superman, the character’s physical appearance changed with some frequency—particularly in terms of his chest emblem, which seemed to change size, color, and shape from artist to artist.
I didn’t know he had drawn Superman books for three decades before being dumped by DC Comics when they decided to hand the Superman books over to fan-favorite writer/artist John Byrne, of X-Men, Fantastic Four, and other Marvel comics fame. At this time, DC was trailing behind Marvel in terms of readership, and it was thought that some new blood (especially new blood that had already been successful on books published by the competition) might translate into sales.
I didn’t know he hadn’t planned well for his retirement—or perhaps he didn’t expect to be retired by the company he’d helped build. According to The Superman Super Site, “Swan needed to continue working, not only for his sanity but to survive. Unfortunately, his assignments at DC became fewer and fewer, he drank more frequently, and his marriage dissolved.”
And I don’t know what those nights were like in the years that followed his sacking. Maybe, in the beginning, he and his wife drank together, the way my wife and I will split a bottle of wine and plan for our future sometimes. I wonder if his family noticed that his drinking began to get out of hand and tried to intervene. I don’t know what went through Helene Swan’s mind as the work stopped coming in and her husband sought solace in a bottle. I don’t know if he yelled, if he raged, if he cried. I don’t know if he was frustratingly stoic. I don’t know if he reached a point where he realized the editors weren’t calling anymore, the fans didn’t remember him, or that the phrase “living legend” is something of an oxymoron—true legends only become legendary when their lives—or at least their careers—are over.
All I do know is that Curt Swan deserved respect—respect he didn’t seem to get at the Albany King Con Comic Book Expo.
DC has once again shaken up its superhero universe and made some pretty big changes to their most famous character. I imagine most people aren’t even aware of Superman’s latest makeover, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve got two serious book projects that I’m working on right now—I’m back on the academic job market, and I have classes to teach, but I still find myself devoting a lot of my brain power to the question: “Does it really look that ridiculous to wear one’s underwear on the outside? Really?”
Right now, you can go on any given comic book website—Comic Book Resources, Bleeding Cool, Newsarama—to debate the issue. Comic book fans—and I’m no exception—take these matters very seriously and can be pretty snide to people who disagree. Those of you with jobs in academia might know people like this—the Lacan disciple and the Marxist critic in your English department who you think might come to blows during a discussion of “The Metamorphosis” at a party. Comic book fans know their stuff, and they can be pretty defensive when their opinions are challenged.
(“It’s a proven fact,” a guy at a comic book store once told me, “that Wolverine could beat any DC hero. Sorry, asshole. It’s just a fact.”)
Superman’s new look in the comics—a new look replicated in Zack Snyder’s film Man of Steel—was designed by DC’s co-publisher Jim Lee. Lee is yet another important figure in the comic book industry. He began his career as a 22-year-old whiz kid who quickly became popular penciling Marvel’s Punisher War Journal and Uncanny X-Men. He later went on to draw the spin-off book X-Men (note the lack of adjective), the first issue of which remains the best-selling comic book of all time. As I mentioned earlier, Lee was one of the popular creatives who left Marvel in the early nineties to found Image Comics. Lee’s studio, under the Image umbrella—Wildstorm Productions—published popular books like WildC.A.T.S, Stormwatch, The Authority, and Gen 13 throughout the nineties and into the following decade. He even managed to entice the notoriously reclusive and angry Alan “Watchmen” Moore back into mainstream comics for a time, resulting in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Moore’s America’s Best Comics line of books. When it comes to creating popular comics, Lee is a force to be reckoned with.
I was a sophomore in high school when the first issue of Lee’s X-Men series was released. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but most of my friends were ecstatic about it. With the possible exception of Todd McFarlane, no other artist generated that level of fan excitement in the nineties. And Lee’s work continues to sell books. So it probably stands to reason that when DC decided to relaunch their entire universe of characters, they went to Jim Lee for new costume designs.
“The goal was to modernize the mythology, to contemporize the look and feel of the characters,” Lee told an interviewer for Wired a little over a year ago. The redesigned costume does seem rather futuristic, I guess, if you presume that, in the future, people will be wearing body armor with exaggerated musculature. I’m not entirely convinced this will be the case, but we’re talking about a character who shoots heat out of his eyes and can fly, so I think Lee and his collaborators can be forgiven if their fashion predictions seem unlikely. And it’s not like a cape and red trunks over a blue union suit ever represented the way people really dressed.
This is not the first time Superman’s appearance has changed. Over the years, his look has been known to change radically, as dictated by story lines. There was the Superman Red / Superman Blue story from 1963, where the hero was split into two beings—one dressed entirely in blue, one dressed entirely in red. Superman dressed himself in “traditional Kryptonian garb” during the Krypton-Man story line in the late eighties. When Superman came back from the dead in 1993, he was wearing a black suit (and sporting a tragic mullet). Superman’s appearance was radically changed in the late nineties, when his skin turned blue and he apparently became a creature of pure electricity.
Still, those changes to the character’s appearance were designed to be temporary—even if the creators started the Electro-Superman story line without a clear ending in mind, I don’t think anyone thought this change was going to be permanent (just as no one thought Superman was gone forever when he “died” saving Metropolis from Doomsday in 1992).
More important, to me, is the fact that the new costume just seems kind of ugly. I don’t really know how else to say it—DC took a character whose appearance had become iconic, like Santa Claus or Uncle Sam, and made him less familiar, less colorful, less distinct from other superheroes, and therefore less inspiring. Removed from his original costume, Superman doesn’t look like Superman to me.
This is probably something I’ve spent too much time thinking about. I showed a picture of the new costume to my wife, who went, “Yuck,” and then continued on with her life as if nothing tragic had happened. I’ve posted links to articles about the redesign on my Facebook timeline, and people don’t seem to share my frustration. I can’t even complain with my fellow nerds. When images of Henry Cavill in the new Superman movie costume were published online, I remarked how terrible I thought the suit looked, and my friends tended to reply, “Yeah, but the teaser trailer was pretty sweet. I’m still cautiously optimistic.”
I’d like to say I’m motivated by more than nostalgia—I can’t stand it when my contemporaries talk about the Reagan era or the nineties as some type of “golden age.” A lot of people talk about things being better in the past, forgetting the fact that the past only seemed better because they were children and the adults in their lives were shielding them from the bad stuff. I want to be able to claim that my opposition to this costume change comes from the desire to preserve an American icon. Nobody says, “Uncle Sam’s goatee isn’t realistic for a military recruiter—shave him.” Nobody argues, “A sled drawn by reindeer? What the hell? Surely Santa’s developed jet-pack technology by now!” So I’d like to convince you that I just want to protect a piece of Americana from being thrown overboard in favor of something that seems shiny and new. Or maybe I’m trying to protect Curt Swan’s legacy. The guy gave us this image, an image that meant so much to so many of us. Now he has been mostly forgotten, and the iconic image he created of America’s greatest superhero seems to be disappearing.
This may all be true, but that’s not the whole story.
You see, as badly as I feel for Swan, and as much as I respect his craftsmanship and accomplishments, I don’t really have a personal attachment to his work. My first Superman comic book, the one that I fell in love with, the one that launched me into this weird and wonderful world of geekiness—Curt Swan didn’t draw it. John Byrne did. The guy they threw Swan under the bus for. They gambled that Byrne would create comics that appealed to kids of the eighties, and they gambled right. Byrne’s stuff was awesome—my 10-year-old self thought so, and the 37-year-old typing these words agrees. I bet I’d have been pissed if I’d been 37 and a lifetime Superman fan back when Byrne first took over. “Why change things?” I probably would have asked. “It was perfect, ground-breaking, and legendary the way it was! Byrne’s Superman doesn’t even look like Swan’s Superman! What the hell, DC?”
But I know my antagonism toward this change has more to do with my own sentimentality than with my desire to protect anyone’s legacy. Despite my best intentions, as I approach middle age, I’m turning nostalgic. One of Superman’s nicknames is “The Man of Tomorrow,” but I’m too focused on yesterday to really enjoy his contemporary adventures.
I’m not sure what DC’s marketing strategy is at this point—many of their books seem too violent and too full of exploitative depictions of women for parents to think, “This is just what my kid needs to learn the magic of reading.” But if the goal is to create a hero for the twenty-first century, a character whose motivation to do good in this world inspires kids to likewise want to work toward a more humane and just world, then I hope they’re successful at it. Even if it means changing the costume and alienating guys my age who should have outgrown the character a while ago. Perhaps, if this character that has inspired so many of us over the years is to have a future, some of us need to get over the past.
William Bradley authored Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations.
"Panel Discussions: Men of Yesterday" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 6, Issue Two