Universe Lost, Part 8: Revenge of the Super Friends

In 1984, DC Comics characters were reaching new levels of media exposure through Kenner’s Super Powers toy line.

1984 comic book ad for Kenner Super Powers Collection

1984 comic book ad for Kenner’s Super Powers Collection

The success of the toys prompted a revival of the Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon, the first new episodes of the series to be produced since 1979. The season premiere pitted the Super Friends against Darkseid and his minions for the first time.

When the next wave of Super Powers toys was released, Darkseid got his own action figure.

In comics, Darkseid had been the main antagonist in the “Fourth World Saga,” a line of titles published by DC in the early 1970s. Comic book veteran Jack Kirby had written and drawn the Fourth World titles, but they were canceled before he could finish his epic story.

As part of the marketing effort leading into the return of Super Friends and the expansion of the toy line, DC reprinted the Fourth World’s flagship title, New Gods. They asked Kirby to produce a conclusion to the story, which would unfold across the final issue of New Gods (slated to arrive in stores one month before the Super Friends season premiere) and a graphic novel, The Hunger Dogs, to be released soon after.

DC rejected Kirby’s initial story proposal, which would have killed off Darkseid and most other Fourth World characters. If these concepts were going to drive DC’s presence in toy stores and on TV for the foreseeable future, it made better sense from a marketing perspective to keep them in the comic books regardless of their creator’s wishes. Kirby had to rework his story so that his creations could remain available for use by future writers. The Fourth World Saga never reached its conclusion.

A similar event had occurred in 1940, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster proposed a major plot twist in the Superman titles, but were blocked by editorial director Whitney Ellsworth in order to maintain consistency between the comic books and the Superman radio show. Although Ellsworth prioritized consistency between comic books and other media, consistency within the comics themselves was another matter, even when it pertained to Superman.

As Ellsworth’s main interest was getting DC’s characters into non-comics media, he delegated his editorial duties to DC’s group editors, who essentially ran their editorial lines as if they were separate companies. Rather than coordinate with one another, they ignored developments in the titles they weren’t editing. As a result, for several years it was unclear if Superman and Superboy were the same character or not.

More Fun Comics #101, the unheralded debut of Superboy

More Fun Comics #101, the unheralded debut of Superboy

Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had been wanting to chronicle the adventures of a young Clark Kent for years, but Mort Weisinger, editor of the Superman line, had no interest. That would have been that, had Weisinger’s colleague Jack Schiff not needed to fill five pages of the upcoming More Fun Comics #101 (Jan.-Feb. 1945) at the last minute.

Just as Weisinger was editor of the Superman group of titles, Schiff handled the Batman line, but each group editor was also responsible for minor titles that didn’t quite fit into their bailiwick. More Fun Comics, an anthology title, was one of those. Schiff published Siegel and Shuster’s rejected “Superboy” feature, then commissioned his own staff of writers and artists to produce Superboy stories for subsequent issues.

No one working outside of Schiff’s office initially knew of any of this. Weisinger and his staff ignored the existence of Superboy for years. When Superman’s origin story appeared in Superman #53 (Jul.-Aug. 1948), it showed Clark Kent beginning his super-hero career as an adult, neglecting three years’ worth of Superboy stories. Only in 1951 did a story edited by Weisinger finally acknowledge Superman’s past as Superboy.

Action Comics #158 (july 1951)

Action Comics #158 (July 1951)

DC’s editorial offices were literally and figuratively walled off from one another. The modular nature of DC’s editorial structure meant that, in order to give Jack Kirby creative control over his titles, all that was necessary was to make him his own editor. While Marvel demanded uniformity and consistency across their entire line (which Kirby found constraining), writers at DC could get away with whatever their editor would allow. The most egregious example of this was The Brave and the Bold, a Batman title edited by Murray Boltinoff from 1968 to 1977.

Brave and the Bold #131 infamously featured a murderous Catwoman

Brave and the Bold #131 (Dec. 1976) infamously featured a murderous Catwoman

Boltinoff’s favorite writer was Bob Haney, whom he allowed total free rein. Brave and the Bold teamed Batman with a different DC character every month, but Haney casually disregarded guest stars’ established personalities and histories. If Haney depicted Catwoman as a cold-blooded killer, Boltinoff would OK it, even if it contradicted her appearances in the other Batman titles. Boltinoff and Haney were under no obligation to coordinate their little corner of the DC Universe with the company’s other writers and editors.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1 (Feb. 1986)

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1 (Feb. 1986)

In 1976, new editorial director Jenette Kahn began pushing for a more consistent approach to storytelling across DC’s editorial offices, and Haney soon found himself without a writing gig. Kahn’s tenure lasted until 2002, but her drive for editorial consistency had its limits. The company still accommodated, even encouraged, individual visions of its characters. Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, featuring an aging Bruce Wayne, was the most revolutionary and influential of these.

In 1987, when DC relaunched a number of its key titles, Miller took over Batman, rewriting the character’s origin. John Byrne did the same for Superman, as did George Perez for Wonder Woman. All three writers had carte blanche to redefine these characters and ignore what had come before. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman reoriented established DC properties toward the genres of horror and fantasy. Efforts to enact comprehensive editorial control at DC usually end up reverting to a looser approach, which is currently the company’s stated policy.

As I pointed out in earlier posts, Warner Brothers extended this approach to their film adaptations of DC properties, but are now constructing a Marvel-style cinematic universe. In the next installment, I will conclude “Universe Lost” by addressing what might come of these decisions, both good and bad.

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2 thoughts on “Universe Lost, Part 8: Revenge of the Super Friends

  1. Pingback: Universe Lost, Part 9: Not the Hero We Needed | superadaptoid

  2. Pingback: Universe Lost: Conclusion | superadaptoid

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