Thursday, January 24, 2008

Episode #2: My Favorite Superman Artist: Curt Swan

After sharing my favorite Superman stories on the previous podcast, I thought I would use this next episode to share my thoughts on my favorite comic book artist period, Curt Swan, and what it is about his style I enjoy.
On the list of books on my first podcast blog is a book that is one of my favorite titles about comic book history. That book is Curt Swan: A Life In Comics by Eddy Zeno, published by Vanguard Productions in 2002. Copies should still be available from any of the online bookstores. I bought that book in December of 2002, when my wife and I were doing Christmas shopping. I ordered a DVD for my son (I forget the title), and in order to qualify for free shipping, I decided to order this book which I had my eye on. When it arrived in the middle of December it was like giving myself a Christmas present like no other. No, I did not wait for Christmas day to read it. that wasn't going to happen. Eddy Zeno does an excellent job of giving an overview of his life and his career. He also talks to many people in the comic book industry, who either worked with Curt Swan or were influenced by his art. He also interviewed members of Curt Swan's immediate family. The forward was written by Mort Walker, the Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois creator and co-creator, respectively. He is shown standing in front of a picture, given to him by Curt Swan. It contains pages of original Superman art, with a cutout of Superman, inked and colored by Curt Swan, in front. I thought, what I wouldn't give to have a copy of that picture.
Curt Swan was the definitive Superman artist for three decades, from the 1960's, the '70's and 1980's, just as Wayne Boring was the definitive Superman artist of the late 1940's through the 1950's.
Curt Swan was born of February 17, 1920 in Minnesota, and died in his sleep on June 16, 1996. He was a mostly self taught artist. He was drafted into the army during World War II, and eventually worked for the Stars & Stripes Army newspaper, in its London office. He illustrated stories, drew maps and even humorous cartoons on Army life.
After the war he was hired by Detective Comics, Inc. in 1945. He drew stories for a variety of DC titles. Although a lot of these stories are not credited, one way to tell that Curt did them is to look at the hands. According to Zeno, Swan had a habit of drawing hands, when they were resting on a table, for instance, with the middle fingers together and the first and pinkie fingers apart. After reading this I tried holding my fingers the same way. It was harder to do than the Vulcan salute from Star Trek.
Several Superman highlights include:
"The Man Who Bossed Superman" from Superman #51, March-April 1948. This was Curt Swan's first Superman story.
"A Zoo For Sale" in Superboy #5, Nov.-Dec. 1949, was Curt Swan's first Superboy story.
"The Mightiest Team-Up in the World", Superman #76, May-June 1952, was the first team-up of Superman and Batman in a single story.
"Batman - Double for Superman", World's Finest #71, July 1954, was the first World's Finest team-up of Superman and Batman in a single story in that title.
Curt Swan was one of the artists for the Three Dimension Adventures Superman 3-D comic book in 1953. His work on that title eventually led to his hiring by Mort Weisinger as one of the regular Superman artists. He was a prolific cover artist as well. He would draw most of these at the DC offices under Weisinger's supervision, who would then have another artist ink the cover.
Curt Swan drew the last Superman story of almost fifty years of continuity, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" from Superman #423 and Action Comics #583, Sept. 1986. It was written by Alan Moore. The Superman issue was inked by George Perez, and the Action issue by Kurt Schaffenberger, the one time Captain Marvel artist for Fawcett Comics, and the long-time penciller for Lois Lane.
After John Byrne restarted Superman with the Man of Steel mini-series, curt Swan worked for a variety of publishers, but did not have steady work again, sadly.
He did periodic work for DC, some issues of Superboy, not the regular DC title, but a licenced title from the 1990's syndicated TV show.
When Action Comics Weekly ran from issues 601 to 642, Curt Swan drew the 2 page Superman story in the center spread of the comic book. It was done in the manner of the old fashioned newspaper comic strips, with three tiers of panels to tell the story each week.
Among the last Superman pages Curt Swan drew were for Action Comics Annual #2, 1989. He was one of a number of artists who each took one storyline. The comic would alternate between scenes of each storyline. In the annual, which took place during the "Exile in Space" storyline, Superman, in a weakened state, is captured by the villain Mongul on his artificial planet Warworld and forced to participate in the gladiatorial games. In a memorable scene drawn by Swan, Superman is forced to remove his Superman costume and put on scanty gladiator garb, but wears his cape as a sash, before he goes into the ring for combat.
Why Curt Swan?
Being one of the earliest comic book artists whose work I looked at as a young boy, I guess it's only natural to be drawn to him for that reason. But more than that, Curt Swan had a realistic style, in the years before Neal Adams brought his almost photo-realistic style to comic books. . Swan drew people with normal proportions, portraying them in everyday life.
One criticism of Swan's art is that it's too conservative, isn't as dynamic as other artists like Neal Adams or Jack Kirby, who drew figures that looked like they were about to jump off the page and knock you onto the floor if you didn't duck. to be fair to Curt Swan, DC in these years was a very conservative company, with a strong, some might say domineering editorial control. Over the years Swan's style did open up. He experimented with page layouts and drew more dynamic fight scenes.
For me, his biggest strength was the ability to show the subtle expressions of human emotion. You don't have to read the word balloons to know what emotion that character is feeling.
There are a few Superman stories that I can recall reading as a small boy, which I have been able to find again, and add them to my comic book collection:
Superman #181, November 1965.
"The Super Scoop of Mona Vine", writer: Edmund H, penciller: Curt Swan, inker: George Klein.
"The Superman of 2965", writer: Leo Dorfman, penciller: Curt Swan, Inker: George Klein.
World's Finest #155, February 1966.
"The 1,000th Exploit of Superman and Batman", writers: Edmund Hamilton and E. Nelson Bridwell, penciller: Curt Swan, inker: George Klein. This was the first comic book I have any memory of my Dad buying me. It was in a convenience store near the Ocala National Forest in Florida, near where we lived at the time.
World's Finest #159, August, 1966.
"The Cape and Cowl Crooks", writer: Edmund Hamilton, penciller: Curt Swan, inker: George Klein.
The backup story was one of the earliest Green Arrow stories I remember reading, "the Case of the Green Error Clown", possibly written by Ed Herron, and drawn by Lee Elias.
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