Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Episode #113: A Curt Swan Toast!

Curt Swan's birthday was February 17, 1920. To commemorate his birthday this year I decided to give a toast to Mr. Swan, through the words of some of his peers in the comic book industry , as recorded in Eddy Zeno's book, Curt Swan: A Life In Comics. It was published by Vanguard Productions in November 2002. I featured this book on episode #52. In that episode I gave an overview of the contents but did not go into many specifics of the boigraphy. On future episodes around Curt Swan's birthday, I would like to interview some comic book pros who worked with Curt. This year I did not have the time to set up and record an interview, so I decided to settle for an imaginary banquet in Curt's honor using the words of some comic pros as told in Eddy Zeno's book.

I want to begin with the famous comic strip artist Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, Hi & Lois and other strips. He considered Curt one of his closest friends and they knew each other for over 40 years. According to Mort, they met around 1955 through their mutual friend, cartoonist John Fischetti. What Mort admired most about Curt's art style was his realistic anatomy. Mort called Curt's Man of Steel, "the best anatomically correct Superman."

Next to the podium is Murphy Anderson, one of Curt Swan's most popular inkers. Murphy enjoyed Curt's sense of humor. They became friends at the DC Comics offices during the late 1950's - early 1960's, although they rearely socialized much outside the office. Murphy's favorite project that he and Curt collaborated on was the Superman origin story published in one of DC's oversized Treasury Editions (which I have a copy of in DC's Collector's Edition Superman #C-31). It was laid out by Carmine Infantino, and Curt did the finished pencils.

Carmine Infantino also mentioned the same Superman origin story as his personal favorite, and considered himself fortunate to layout the art for Curt Swan. Carmine described Curt as a very under-rated artist.

Following Carmine was Julius Schwartz. Ever the editor, the first thing he mentioned about Curt Swan was that he never missed a deadline. Julie, as his friends called him, attended a number of comic book conventions with Curt later in the artists life. Curt enjoyed the interaction with his fans during this period of his life, but not the lack of work. Julie wished that Curt could have seen Jerry Sienfeld tell Larry King, when he promoted his then upcoming American Express commercials with Superman, that he insisted that the Man of Steel be the Curt Swan Superman. He was familiar with Curt after many years at the DC Comics offices, but did not really get to know Curt until he became editor of the Superman titles. When Curt would go to the offices to deliver the finished pencilled art for a story, he and Julius would chat, and Julius would have both a check and a new script ready for Curt. Julie noted that Curt appreciated this, as Julie's best friend Mort Weisinger would at times make Curt wait while he finished editing a script. Schwartz noted that Mort could be tough on his "slaves", as Mort called the talent that worked for him. Julie also had an anecdote about Superman scripter Eliot S! Maggin, who would go on a tangent in his scripts, telling jokes, etc. Curt would comlain that when he finished reading the script for a certain panel, that he would sometimes forget what he was supposed to draw. Julie also shared an anecdote about Murphy Anderson. Murphy never appeared in public without a coat and tie to a comic book convention, even for breakfast. At a small show Julie forbade Murphy from wearing a coat and tie. Murphy appeared in a windbreaker.

Next up was Sheldon Moldoff, who inked Curt Swan's pencils during the 1960's. Editor Mort Weisinger liked his inks, so Sheldon inked many Superman, World's Finest and Legion Of Super-Heroes stories. Sheldon said that Curt liked his inking as well, because they kept the same "feeling" that Curt put into his pencils. Sheldon felt that other inkers made the Man of Steel their Superman, not a Curt Swan Superman.

After Sheldon, Elliot S! Maggin elaborated on the story Julius told about his scripts. Elliot was thrilled with the first of his stories that he ever saw drawn, Must There Be A Superman from Superman #247, January 1972, by Curt Swan. He was chagrined to learn that Curt Swan didn't like him - or so Elliot was told. He noted that in the early 1970's, divide and conquer was a respected management technique by the more conservative editors of DC Comics. At that time, Elliot described himself as still a kid, so he would folow rabbit trails in his scripts: write at length aobut scenes, characters and motivations, or tell jokes. He also noted that Curt Swan was a mature adult who didn't have time for sophomoric humor. The story goes that one day Curt brought in the pencilled pages of the latest story and told Julie that he would "throttle" Elliot if he didn't stop the "elaborate digressions". With Elliot being a young, rookie comic book writer, Julie jumped on it and Elliot would be reminded, at times, that Curt didn't like him. For 15 years Elliot wrote stories that Curt illustrated, but they rarely met. Whenver they were in DC's offices, Elliot usually found somewhere else to be; he didn't want to give Curt another reason to "throttle" him. Elliot and Curt would not really get together until the mid-1980's, at a comic book convention in central New York state. Elliot had avoided Curt at the convention until after breakfast Sunday morning. Curt approached Elliot and asked, "Can I interest you in a little libation?" Elliot described himself as a sucker for anyone who knew how to use the language. They talked until dusk about everything, and Elliot found that they had a lot in common. Their three favorite subjects were Superman, Julie Schwartz and politics. They both believed in Truth, Justice & The American Way. Elliot described Curt's politics as to his own left on the political spectrum. Curt and Elliot spent a lot of time together, many times over beer and scotch, and good naturedly ribbed Julie for keeping them at odds all those years. Elliot summed up his thoughts about Curt Swan by describing him as a good man whom he wished he had known better.

Next at the podium was Len Wein, who, last year lost his home to a fire. Len started off by describing Curt Swan as the most humanistic artist he ever worked with. Curt was the best at portraying people interacting naturally. He could not think of a single time he was unhappy with how Curt rendered what Len envisioned. Most of the scripts Len wrote for Curt were "full" script, with a few "Marvel style" (Len noted that Marvel did not invent the "plot" style, which started in the 1940's, but was its most famouse practicioner.) Personally, Len preferred working "Marvel" style because he felt that gave the best collaboration with the artist. The only drawback with that writing style is when he was not sure how the artist would interpret his plot. That was never a concern with an artist of Curt Swan's experience. Len's first Superman story was Danger - Monster At Work for Superman #246, December 1971. In that story he introduced the people who lived in Clark Kent's apartment building. Len also described inker Murphy Anderson and penciller Curt Swan as an unbeatable team. He also said that he learned more about story structure and storytelling from Julius Schwartz than any other editor. Len reminisced that he would go to the DC Comics offices more than other freelancers because he enjoyed the interaction, and used those trips as motivation to get his work done. Curt would appear every few weeks to deliver his latest pencilled story and pick up the next script. Len said he and Curt had a long term, on and off relationship, and that Curt Swan was a very friendly, open guy. He also said that Julie would tell the story that Curt Swan drew to get money to go golfing.

Irwin Donenfeld, who became DC's editorial director, spoke next. We might have to thank Irwin for being partially responsible for the reprint editions of DC stories we have today. Irwin told how, as part of the art department, he would make negatives of the finished pages to send to the engravers. When he found out that the engravers would rinse the solution off of the negatives for the silver content, he made them return all of the negatives to the art department. Irwin was Curt's boss for many years, but shared a personal anecdote.Curt made an appearance at the school Irwin's son attended. Curt would draw art that would be raffled off and the proceeds given to a local charity. Irwin's son Luke had a ticket and desperately wanted to win. When he didn't, Luke was almost unconsolable. While Luke's mom wanted Luke to learn to be a better sport about it, Irwin decided that this time his son didn't have to lose. After the event Irwin spoke with Curt, who promised Luke that he would draw something for him. Luke received a watercolor Superman drawing, on which Curt wrote, "To Luke, with best wishes, Curt Swan, 11/79." Another unnamed artist at the event also drew sometihing for Luke. As Editorial Director, Irwin oversaw the editors and didn't have a lot of contact with the artists, but knew Curt Swan well. One time Curt entered Irwin's office, and mentioned that he had not had a raise for several years. Irwin took care of it, since he was the boss. Irwin noted that Mort Weisinger was Curt's imediate boss, and Irwin also noted that noone liked Mort, who was not popular with the creators who worked for him. Irwin was another person who admired Curt for his business-like demeanor about his work, who met his deadlines and was on time for his appointments.

Next was Mark Waid, who admired Curt's ability to draw an "alien powerhouse" from deep in outer space and give him humanity. Curt Swan's Superman was a warm and gentle savior without sacrificing his grandeur and power. Mark compared Curt Swan and Christopher Reeve's abilities to protray Superman as a friend. He also noted that he learned professionalism from Curt, in an industry that was often lacking. One of Mark's highlights as editor of Secret Origins was to give Superman work post-Superman. Curt never missed a deadline, even though Mark realized that Curt sometimes pulled all-nighters to help turn around a book quickly. Curt never cheated, perfectly rendering the script in every panel. To Mark, there was no such thing as bad Curt Swan art. Many inkers lined up for the opportunity to ink Curt Swan's art even at this late stage of his career. Once, Curt mentioned to Mark that one of the best inking jobs on his pencilled art was by a then young artist Eric Shanower on the one issue special The Legend Of Aquaman It was one of the jobs over his long career that he was most proud of. While Mark felt that Murphy Anderson's inks over Curt's pencils added a dynamic power to them, his favorite Swan inker was George Klein.

The final speaker tonight was Joe Kubert, whose career has spanned the entire history of comic book history. Since Curt lived in Conneticutt and Joe in New Jersey, the two only met at the DC Comics offices to deliver art. Joe considered Curt the nicest guy he knew. What set Curt Swan above a lot of comic book artists was that many learned how to draw from other comic book artists, while Curt learned from classic illustration and life drawing. Joe noted that Curt Swan was generous with advice to other comic book artists when they asked him. Curt was just as accepting of advice that was given him. Back in the 1970's some DC editors felt that the Superman stories could use a more dynamic panel layout. It fell to Joe's unenviable task to talk to Curt about it. Curt was very open to suggestion and wasn't above learning from others. But Joe went out of his way to make sure this sotry did not detract from what Curt Swan brought to comics.

I want to thank everyone who listened to this imaginary toast to Curt Swan. There were more comic book pros who spoke about Curt Swan, but it will have to wait for another special occasion. Or, better yet, read Eddy Zeno's book, Curt Swan: A Life In Comics for yourself, which would be the best anyway.

Next episode: Clark Kent's Forgotten Girlfriend!

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