PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite CURT SWAN Stories

The supercolumnist pays a birthday tribute to one of comics’ supergreats…

By PAUL KUPPERBERG

Thirteen choices can’t even begin to cover my favorite Curt Swan stories. His Superman is a part of me. Curt Swan is to the comic book Superman what George Reeves is to the live action Man of Steel: There can be only one.

Douglas Curtis “Curt” Swan was born 101 years ago on Feb. 17, 1920 — I suppose it’s just a coincidence that his initials were “D.C.” but Curt did spend his entire career at DC Comics, so who knows? — in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Minnea-polis/Metro-polis; another coincidence?), the youngest of five. His father worked for the railroad, his mother at the local hospital.

Curt served on the staff of Stars and Stripes in England during World War II, which was where he met DC Comics writer Francis Herron, which led to his eventual employment at the company, beginning on the popular Simon and Kirby strip, Boy Commandos in Detective Comics.

By the time I became a regular reader of Superman in the mid-1960s, Curt was well on his way to replacing Wayne Boring and Al Plastino as not only the main but the Superman artist for so many of us. His Superman was a real, down-to-earth human being, the most realistic, even naturalistic rendition of the Man of Steel in the character’s history. Of course, Curt’s realistic style had its drawbacks; he never could quite deliver convincing monsters or non-humanoid aliens. But he drew the hell out of the rest of the world, people and objects, and he always delivered on the storytelling.

It was my thrill to have Curt draw a couple of dozen of my Superman scripts in the early, pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths 1980s, including my first times writing Superman (both stories for the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe introduction, in a special 16-page insert and an issue of DC Comics Presents). It was cool enough getting to write Superman, but to have Curt Swan draw it… that’s the stuff I got into comics to experience!

He was also a supremely nice and very funny guy. There was that time in the 1980s when I was flying home from a comic con in the Midwest with him and a number of other East Coast guests and Curt got a party started in coach that soon included most of the other passengers in our section. He also convinced my seatmate to give me her phone number, but that’s another story.

Weighted a little more heavily toward his early work though it may be, here are MY 13 FAVORITE CURT SWAN STORIES, in chronological order:

The Boy Commados, Detective Comics #110 (April 1946). The Boy Commandos, which debuted in Detective Comics #64 in 1942, was one of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s most popular Golden Age creations. This international group of spunky kids were put under the command of Captain Rip Carter and sent off to fight World War II. In addition to appearing regularly in Detective and World’s Finest Comics, they also starred in their own title, all between 1942 and 1949. Of course, S&K couldn’t hope to produce all those pages themselves, and young Curt Swan (here with inker Steve Brodie) was one of the ghosts hired by DC to help feed the appetite for Boy Commandos stories. It’s hard to imagine that the artist who created this very credible Jack Kirby pastiche would develop into a penciller with a unique style as recognizable to fans as the King’s own.

The Newsboy Legion, Star Spangled Comics, #55 (April 1946). Another popular Simon and Kirby strip was the Newsboy Legion, also created shortly after making their move from Timely Comics, where they created Captain America and a host of other characters. These spunky street kids and their blue-and-gold themed, shield-wielding Guardian ran in Star Spangled Comics for five years. Our man Curt Swan made his debut on the strip in 1946, doing a more than adequate job of mimicking the loose Simon and Kirby style (here with inker Jack Farr) right from the start.

Tommy Tomorrow, Action Comics #127 (Dec. 1948). Welcome to the year 1988. Meet Tommy Tomorrow, the newly graduated colonel from Space Port Academy. Tommy had made a few appearances in science non-fiction features in Real Fact Comics, but the strip in Action (and later World’s Finest) was full-out science fiction and Curt (with inker Steve Fischetti) was the artist on “The Interplanetary Aquarium” and many subsequent stories. Though still crude in spots, the distinctive Swan style is already starting to shine through; color his hair black and that close-up of Tommy in panel four looks an awful lot like Superman.

Superboy #5 (Nov./Dec. 1949). I was surprised to learn that Curt’s association with the Superman family began even earlier than I thought. There’s not a single panel on this page that I couldn’t identify as Swan’s hand (again inked by Fischetti); I could call it just from the image of the lion alone!

Gang Busters #18 (Oct./Nov. 1950). The Curt Swan style just was about there in 1950’s “Penny Larceny” (inked by Sy Barry) from the comic book based on the popular radio series (which had also been a series of movies and a TV show). Guys in suits and real-life situations was what Curt drew best and the comic supposedly based on “real life” crimes was right up his alley.

House of Mystery #15 (June 1953). Storytelling is about manipulating readers’ emotions and the best way to do that in a comic book is by illustrating the emotions the characters are feeling. There were few before or since who could draw emotions like Curt Swan, a talent very much in evidence in “The Man Who Could Change People,” a foray into the “mystery” (i.e., watered down horror) genre, inker unknown. Check out the illustration in the intro showing Curt putting the Man of Steel through a whole range of emotions. That subtlety was often lost under inferior inks, especially in later years.

Star Spangled War Stories #17 (Jan. 1954). “Prize Target” (inked by Ray Burnley) is an example of Swan’s venture into a genre he’s not known for, war comics. The tale of a hunted American sniper and his Nazi pursuers, it’s a great example of his solid storytelling as he keeps the two factions moving in close proximity through real space without any cheats. His Hitler, on the other hand? Nein.

World’s Finest #77 (July/Aug. 1955). There’s a bit of a Win Mortimer vibe to this cover, which came at the tail end of the artist’s decade-long run as one of DC’s top cover artists, but Curt Swan (inked by Stan Kaye) comes through here. I always liked the way he handled Batman; unlike most of the Bat-artists of the era, he drew a Caped Crusader that looked like there was an actual man wearing the costume.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #53 (June 1961). Probably one of the most famous comic-book covers of its time, this Curt Swan/Stan Kaye masterpiece is the perfect encapsulation of the insanity of those late-1950s/early-1960s Superman family titles. No transformation was too undignified (Jimmy and Lois were shrunk, expanded, made fat, made thin, turned into witches, aliens, and monsters), but the artist made this silly bit of business into an epic image that would have done any 1950s horror movie poster proud. (It’s also a riff on a pulp magazine cover.)

Superman #149 (Nov. 1961). >Choke! Sob!< “The Death of Superman”… the first time around! This Jerry Siegel tale, inked by George Klein (the best of Curt’s inkers, with all due respect to Murphy Anderson and anyone else you might like), is an acknowledged classic. Once again, it’s the range of emotions he brought to the characters, from Superman’s pained death throes to Luthor’s triumphant gloating to the grieved faces of his friends and admirers.

Superman #233 (Jan. 1971). “Superman Breaks Loose” is yet another landmark Superman story. It was the first issue edited by Julie Schwartz after Mort Weisinger’s 20 years overseeing the title and the new editor proclaimed that fact loud and clear with the iconic “Kryptonite Nevermore!” cover by Neal Adams featuring Superman bursting a glowing Green K chain across his chest and blurbing it as “Amazing New Adventures.” Written by Denny O’Neil and inked by Murphy Anderson, Curt’s ownership of Superman was secured for better than the next dozen years.

Superman #408 (June 1985). From the start of the Schwartz era of Superman we go to near its end: “The Day the Earth Died” is a cautionary tale about nuclear weapons I scripted, based on an idea from Ed Hannigan. As this was less a story about punching things than one about ideas, Curt had ample opportunity to run Superman through the entire gamut of emotions. That it was inked by the legendary Al Williamson was a super bonus.

 

Action Comics #583 (Sept. 1986). Likely the most famous Superman story since his origin in the first issue of the title, Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (continued from Superman #423) was billed as the “last” Superman story. And it was the last (before Crisis and the John Byrne reboot that followed) to be edited by Julie Schwartz and drawn by Curt Swan (inked by Kurt Schaffenberger). The cover is proudly signed “Swanderson” and it features a saddened Superman flying up, up, and away into the future, leaving his old pre-Crisis pals (and the executive staff of DC Comics) to their post-Crisis fates.

MORE

— PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite Funky JIMMY OLSEN Covers. Click here.

— PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite 1960s Comic Book Books. Click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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7 Comments

  1. Am I the only one who felt like DC did Swan wrong by assigning largely incompatible inkers from about 1976 on? Murphy Anderson was definitely his best inker and Bob Osknar did a wonderful job as well but they were the exception, rather than the rule, and largely disappeared from the S books in the early to mid 70s.

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    • Dan Adkins did a good job inking Swan, too.

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  2. DC went through a period where it was a rule to team their most expensive pencillers with their least expensive inkers. Williamson did a great job on Swan, Chiarmonte, less so. The House of Mystery story looks to me like George Klein inks, although it seems to early. Also possibly Sy Barry.

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  3. Unfortunately Mr. Kupperberg has mis-attributed the inking of SUPERMAN #149 to George Klein. The story was inked by Sheldon Moldoff. Klein is my favourite inker for Swan, but this was not his work. The cover to SUPERMAN #149 was inked by Stan Kaye.

    I do not believe that Klein inked as Swan would have inked. Just take a look at Swan’s inking of himself – it was much closer to Al Williamson’s fine lines, which may be why Swan said that Williamson was his favourite inker. Klein was a bolder, slicker inker than Swan was. I loved the amalgamation of their styles.

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  4. The Colletta inking era. Why?

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  5. I really enjoyed Curt’s Man of Steel.

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