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Classic EBI #49: Man of Two Worlds-A Tribute to Julius Schwartz

EVERYTHING BUT IMAGINARY 2/11/04 -- MAN OF TWO WORLDS

Man of Two Worlds

Not many people in any artform can really be said to help define the medium in which they work. Drama is measured against Shakespeare. Sculpture and painting is measured against Michelangelo. Comic books could have been measured against Julius Schwartz.

Some of you younger readers -- or older readers that are new to comics -- may not understand what all the fuss was about when it was announced that Julie Schwartz passed away on Sunday. Sure, it was a bummer, but who did he create? What epic stories did he write? What innovations did he make in artwork? He was just an editor, right?

Oh, friends, how wrong you are. He didn’t just do runs as the editor for the Superman and Batman comics. It is not an exaggeration to say that, were it not for Julie Schwartz, the comic book industry may not even exist today. And if it did, it would most certainly be in a very different form than the one we all know and love. In the early 1950s, comics were on a downturn. Sales were dropping. Congressional hearings and bad press making parents think comics were polluting the minds of their children lead to the implementation of the Comics Code of America, and with it the demise of the horror and science fiction titles that had helped keep the industry afloat after World War II. DC Comics, not wanting to take a chance on a new title only to have it fail again, decided to launch a series that would feature several rotating stories, try-outs for different concepts, and those that proved popular enough would graduate to a series of their own.

Julie Schwartz got to edit the fourth issue of that series. Its title? Showcase.

Julie had previously worked as an agent for science fiction writers, contributing to the careers of such minor authors as Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft. Supposedly, he had never even read a comic book before the day he got his job as an editor at DC. When his issue of Showcase came up, rather than conjuring up something new, he took something old and made it new again. Only a few superheroes had survived the post-war years: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman... Julie and writer Gardner Fox decided to revive an old character, give a new beginning to the Flash. But this wouldn’t be the old Flash, Jay Garrick, who got his powers by the unlikely method of inhaling hard water fumes... this would be a young police scientist, someone who actually read the Flash comics starring Jay Garrick as a child... a man named Barry Allen, who would become the Flash by riding the lightning.

Showcase #4 was a hit. And thus, the Silver Age of comics began.

Barry soon graduated to his own title, and Julie took another shot at recreating a DC classic. Together with John Broome, they revamped an old guy named Green Lantern, who had a magic ring that gave him great power. Julie and John discarded the magical aspects and made it a far-flung space opera, and one of the most popular characters in comics, beginning with Showcase #22.

With the success of Hal Jordan, more concepts got revived. Hawkman. The Atom. Eventually the most logical step was to recreate the old team concept pioneered by the Justice Society of America.

Julie and Fox banded together the most popular DC heroes -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter, and made them the Justice League of America, launching them in another anthology title called The Brave and the Bold. The superhero team was another smash hit, and word of this got to the offices of rival Atlas Comics (formerly Timely). The president of the company ordered their chief idea man, a young buck who worked under the nom de plume Stan Lee, to come up with his own superhero team to compete. Stan cooked up his own characters, a bit more human, a bit more flawed than their DC counterparts, and with the first issue of that comic book, Atlas became Marvel Comics...

...with Fantastic Four #1.

The FF was a smash, and was followed by the Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers... The comic book landscape would never be the same.

That’s not all. Julie also helped invent the crossover.

Oh, heroes had met from time to time, and had ever since the Justice Society was created, but with the popularity of the new heroes, it was decided that the originals should come back. Problem: it had been established that the Jay Garrick Flash was a fictional character in Barry Allen’s world. The solution? A swipe of an old sci-fi concept: alternate universes. First the Flashes met, then the JLA and JSA had an annual meeting for decades until the Crisis on Infinite Earths merged their worlds into one and made the cross-company crossover en vogue.

Julie didn’t rest, though. When sales of the Batman comics began to slump, he spearheaded the “new look” Batman. He held the reigns of the Superman titles for years before finally retiring with the post-Crisis revamp. So loved, so renowned was he among the DC staff, that the company created a special issue of Superman -- #411 -- entirely without Julie’s knowledge. In that story, the man of steel traveled to “our” universe and met the editor who had guided him for years, and Julie even made an appearance on the cover, all a special birthday present to a legend.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented the superhero. Stan Lee brought about a renaissance. Julie Schwartz may not have had any writer or artist credits to his name, but he had more verve and energy than any ten creators who have done comic books before or since his heyday. There’s a favorite short story of mine, “A Sound of Thunder” by Julie’s one-time client Ray Bradbury. In this story, a man travels back in time and accidentally kills a butterfly, only to realize when he returns to his own time that one small change had irrevocably altered his world.

Julie Schwartz was that butterfly, a man who, with the beat of his glorious wings, would forever alter the landscape of comic books. He may not have done any of it alone, but he was the catalyst. He saved a dying artform, and he gave all of us what he come here to talk about, praise, gripe over, berate and love every time we log on to Comixtreme.com. When I started writing this column, almost a year ago, my stated purpose was to describe what makes good comics good and what could make bad comics better.

Julie Schwartz made comics great.

So rest easy, Julie. You have our respect, our admiration, and our eternal thanks.

Up, up and away.

FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: February 4, 2004

This week my favorite comic is one of the few titles out there you’d be hard-pressed to find even an indirect imprint of Julie Schwartz upon: the second issue of the fantastic Vertigo miniseries My Faith in Frankie. Writer Mike Carey and artist Sonny Liew have created a genuinely funny, thrilling and exciting miniseries about a young woman with her own personal god who gets jealous when she wants to start having a social life. Part romantic comedy, part classic good/evil struggle, this is a comic book like none I’ve ever read before, and it’s an awful lot of fun.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People's Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the novel-in-progress Lost in Silver at Evertime Realms. He’s also the co-host, with good buddy Chase Bouzigard and Not-On-the-Internet Mike Bellamy, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcasts. E-mail him at Blake@comixtreme.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page.

 

Tags: batman, classic ebi, comics, ebi, flash, green lantern, julius schwartz, my faith in frankie, showcase, superman
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