Thursday, April 23, 2009

Episode #70: Happy Birthday, Mort Weisinger!

To read more about Mort Weisinger, here are a few books, most still in print, about his life and career in comic books:

Man Of Two Worlds: My Life In Science Fiction And Comics by Julius Schwartz with Brian M. Thomsen, published by Harper Collins in 2000. This book, by Mort's life long best friend, is currently out of print, but can be found at various on line vendors. I found my copy through a vendor selling through

Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters And The Birth Of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones, published by Basic Books in 2004.

Superman: The Complete History by Les Daniels, published by Chronicle Books in 1998.

Curt Swan: A Life In Comics by Eddy Zeno, published by Vanguard Productions in 2002.

Also, here are a few on line articles about Mort Weisinger you might find interesting:

And an interview with Mort Weisinger:

Mort was born Mortimer Weisinger on April 25, 1915, and in 2009 his birthday falls on Saturday. He died on May 7, 1978 at the age of 63, about a month before I graduated from high school. Mort was born in the Washington Heights area of New York City and grew up in the Bronx. His father worked in the garment industry, something in common with many of the early comic book pioneers, along with having a Jewish heritage, as detailed in Gerard Jones book Men Of Tomorrow.

His early interest in science fiction ws inspired by the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, which also had a similar effect on other comic book pioneers, such as Julius Schwartz, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and future science fiction editor Forrest J. Ackerman (who died earlier in 2009). Mort, along with Julius and Forrest, founded one of the first science fiction fan magazines, or fanzines, titled The Time Traveler. Julius Schwartz was listed in the credits as Managing Editor, Mort as Associate Editor and Forrest Ackerman as Contributing Editor. According to Julius Schwartz' autobiography the magazine consisted of six mimeographed pages and premiered on January 9, 1932. The contents included a biography of an early science fiction writer Capt. S. P. Meek, a brief interview with someone named Bob Olsen, a list of science fiction films by Forrest J. Ackerman, the first installment of The History Of Science Fiction by Mort, a contest, an article about the details of Otis Adelbert Kline's story The Planet Of Peril, an article describing a visit to the offices of the magazine Weird Tales by letter writer Jack Darrow and news items about science fiction writers and future stories.

One of their subscribers was Jerome Siegel of Cleveland. He was inspired to publish his own fanzine with his best friend Joe Shuster titled Science Fiction, which was published in January 1933. Jerry wrote the stories under a number of pseudonyms combining various realitives names, with Joe supplying the art. One of the stories would be titled The Reign Of The Superman, an early attempt in the development of their most famous character. This early story portrayed Superman as a bald villain, a concept that would also find a home in the final published Superman concept.

Mort attended New York University and edited the college newspaper and magazine, but left before earning enough credits to graduate. In 1934 Julius and Mort used their familiarity with science fiction writers and magazines to found the first literary agency specializing in the science fiction and fantasy genre, Solar Sales Service. They charged a 10% commission, 15% for British sales. Their first client was Edmund Hamilton's 7,000 word story Master Of The Genes, which was bought by Wonder Stories for $35.00, or 1/2 cent per word. Hamilton even clipped a dollar bill to the manuscript for Julius and Mort's reading fee. They would split a $3.50 commission. Their business became a quick success when they proved they could get stories published and keep writers earning a living by writing science fiction.

Weisinger would leave the agency in Julius' hands when he became editor of Standard Magazine's Thrilling Wonder Stories. The old Wonder Stories editor Hugo Gernsback had sold the out of business magazine to Standard. Mort inquired who the editor of the retitled magazine would be. When he was told by Standard that it would be the old editor of Wonder Stories, Mort asked why they thought the old editor would make the new magazine a success when his old one failed. When asked who he thought would be a better choice Mort recommended himself and was hired. Weisinger was never afraid to climb over people's back to get where he wanted in life. Mort would edit a range of pulp magazines, not limited to the science fiction genre.

Seeing the end of the pulps coming, Mort would be hired by National Comics, later DC, in 1941. During WWII he would serve in Special Services, writing scripts for a U. S. Army radio show in New York City. In 1943 he married Thelma Rudnick. They would have two children, Joyce and Hendrie. Julius Schwartz would join Mort at National in 1944 after the science fiction market dried up. He was classified 4-F, unfit for duty because of his bad eyesight. Mort returned to National Comics in 1946 after his military discharge and would take over as editor of the Superman titles. He would eventually wrest control of Superman from Siegel and Shuster, a process that had already begun. National Comics had hired writers to produce scripts directly for them, esoecially during Jerry's military service, bypassing Siegel and Shuster's Cleveland studio, as the demand for Superman stories increased.

The Weisinger era of Superman stories would become known for the development of a large supporting cast and a complex world. Superman had become powerful beyond belief, and so developing stories that expanded the details about Superman's world and of his home planet Krypton became common. It was easier than trying to create a new way to challenge Superman, which was harder and harder to do. Part of this problem was solved by the creation of the various forms of kryptonite, especially red kryptonite. Red k was used almost as often as green kryptonite in stories because red k would never affect Superman the same way twice and the effects were temporary. Superman would be challenged but would not be in serious danger in stories increasingly aimed at young children because of National's conservative editorial policy. This era of Superman stories is among the most popular of silver age readers, including myself.

The flip side of Weisinger's guidance were a lot of silly stories, many of which involving red k, of strange transformations of Superman or some members of his supporting cast, and of the tradition of Lois constantly trying to discover Superman's identity, which had begun in the earliest Superman stories. Mort claimed to talk to neighborhood children about what they wanted to see in Superman stories, and used their ideas to create new Superman stories. Of course Mort wouldn't give anyone else credit for these plots. He also unknowingly, for a while, employed an underage teen, Jim Shooter, to write some of the most popular stories of the Legion Of Super-Heroes. Mort was known to reuse stories from time to time. Wikipedia gave an example of a 1950's story about Superman meeting an alien that he thought might be his brother, which was modified to become a 1960's story involving Superboy's first meeting with Mon-El.

Weisinger was known to have a dark side, which was all too evident to the writers and artists who worked for him. Gerard Jones in his book Men Of Tomorrow tells of writers bringing Mort story ideas. Mort would reject them and give his own. The next writer would present his ideas, which Mort rejected and then give the idea from the first writer as if it were his originally. Mort would later tell his publisher that he had to constantly give his writers story ideas. Jones told another story where Mort once told Jerry Siegel, after skimming a new script, that he needed to use the tiolet and asked if he could take the script with him to use for toilet paper. Curt Swan left the comic book industry for a number of months because the stress of dealing with Mort gave him stomach problems. Curt returned because the money was better in comics, and solved his stomach problems by learning to stand up to Mort. Jim Shooter told a story of witnessing Mort berate and torture his assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell, who we highlighted in episode #57. These anecdotes can be found in the on line articles listed at the beginning of this episode. Mort's son Hendrie was quoted in The Comics Journal #287, Dec. 3, 2007, that once a year he could skip school and go to DC's offices with a friend. There they would look at comic book pages, watch his dad berate a writer or artist, and then his dad would take he and his friend to a Yankee game. What Weisingers found entertaining.

Julius Schwartz wrote in his autobiography that one time Mort made him mad with another of his tall tales and he told Mort that he would engraved on his tombstone, "Here Lies Mort Weisinger - As Usual."

An attorney and comic book fan who appeared on the Comic Geek Speak podcast episode #411: Superman On Trial said that Mort's treatment of his employees and creators probably would not be legal today.

Gerard Jones also chronicled that Mort claimed to have an inferiority complex toward Superman and needed regular sessions with a psychiatrist. It could be true or it could be another tall tale. In either case it is another example of Mort's conceit.

Mort was not only involved with the Superman character for National (DC). Early in his comic book career he co-created several characters as a writer, two of which are around today. He first created Johnny Quick with artist Chad Grothkopf, who premiered in More Fun Comcis #71, the September 1941 issue, which was published around July 24, 1941. Johnny Quick gained super speed by reciting the formula, or magic word "3X2(9Yx)4A". Two more Weisinger co-creations would appear in More Fun Comics #73, the November 1941 issue, published around September 25, 1941. Aquaman was co-created with artist Paul Norris, and Green Arrow, with his sidekick Speedy was co-created with artist George Papp.

Mort Weisinger lived in Great Neck, New York when he died on May 7, 1978. He was an important figure in the history of Superman comic books, who too often was a real life villain to the many creators who worked for him.

Next episode: Superman In Exile, Part I!

Superman Fan Podcast can be found at . Send e-mail to .

The theme music for this podcast is Plans In Motion composed by Kevin MacLeod, part of the royalty free music library found at .

My Pull List is my spoiler free comic book review blog of the titles I read every week. It can be found at . Send e-mail about this blog to .

Superman and all related characters are trademark and copyright DC Comics.

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Superman Fan Podcast and, as always, thanks to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

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