Mike Gold: Superman’s Real Family
There was a time when the world could not get enough of The Man of Steel. In the 1950s National Periodical Publications, the name DC Comics went under back then, published seven different Superman titles, five of them every six weeks and two every month. In those days, that was a lot.
Today, of course, Wolverine wouldn’t lift his head out of his own puke for such paltry exposure. But back then, that workload was astonishing – and it wasn’t uncommon to see sales figures on certain of these titles reaching seven figures. Action Comics was shipped at the end of the month and that very issue was re-shipped two weeks later.
Superman had more than just that going for him. In the 40s he had one of the most popular and long-lasting radio shows around. In the early 50s, a time when most cities were lucky to have two television stations and it was common for one of those channels to pick from the offerings of two of the three networks, Superman was offered up in first-run syndication and he captured the awe and wonder of the entire baby boomer generation. We were all glued to the boob tube; it was our crack. And there were a hell of a lot of us, too.
The Big Guy had something else going for him: he was in the newspapers daily and Sunday all across America, including Hearst’s New York Mirror, which sported the largest circulation of any U.S. newspaper at the time. His newspaper circulation made the comics work appear downright skinny.
All this exposure required the efforts of an astonishing amount of talent. By and large, there were three primary Superman artists: Wayne Boring and Curt Swan, who did the newspaper strip as well as Action Comics and Superman, and Al Plastino, who did… well… everything.
To be fair, there were other great talents in this group, legends all. Kurt Schaffenberger, whose work dominated the Lois Lane stories, Win Mortimer, George Papp and John Sikela, perhaps best known for their Superboy efforts (as was Curt Swan), and Dick Sprang on the Superman-Batman feature in World’s Finest.
Gee, no wonder Big Blue was so popular. And, yes, I’m leaving at least a half-dozen artists out.
Last week the last of these awesomely talented people died. Al Plastino, the medium’s best utility infielder, died at 91. He was an artist, a writer, an editor, a letterer and a colorist. He co-created the Legion of Super-Heroes, Supergirl and Brainiac. He drew the Batman newspaper strip in the 1960s, and he ghosted the Superman strip in its latter years.
Al was the go-to man at the United Feature Syndicate, creating a couple of minor features in the 1940s (Hap Hopper, from 1944, is pictured to the right) and doing Ferd’nand for its last 20 years, retiring in 1989. He also stepped in to do the Sunday Nancy page for a while after Ernie Bushmiller died. And there was some work on Peanuts, but there’s a whole story in that one that should be reserved for a later date.
Oh, and he inked Captain America in the early part of both their careers.
Al Plastino was an editor’s dream. A wonderful artist and a fine storyteller, he could do anything and do it on time. His legend as a comics creator alone makes him a permanent part of comics history.
Al, thank you for making my childhood all the more amazing.
THURSDAY MORNING: Dennis O’Neil
THURSDAY AFTERNOON: The Return of The Tweaks
And thank you, Mike, for your continuing tributes to the men and women that made comics … comics!