Superman Without the “S” on His Chest? (Or, The “Flaws” That Make Us Special)

By the turn of the year, 1940, Superman was already a sensation.  The Man of Steel had been around for just under two years, and, as the first comic book superhero, the titles he starred in (Action Comics and Superman) always were at the top of the marquee.  Imagine the surprise, then, with the publication of Action Comics number 20 (January 1940)  when the world’s greatest adventure hero appeared on the cover with a major omission on his costume.

 

It’s not hard to visualize the youth of America that holiday season of 1939-1940 (historically, comics always appear on the newsstands a month or so earlier than the date listed on their cover) as they spun the squeaky comic book rack at the corner store.  Browsing the covers of the new issues, trying to decide which one to plunk down their hard-won dime on, surely they would have paused when confronted with the cover of Action Comics number 20.  What sacrilege was this?  How could they make such a mistake?  And yet . . . there it was, for all to see.

The yellow triangle with the signature red “S” at the center that was supposed to grace the Man of Steel’s barrel chest was . . . missing!  In its place was . . . nothing—a blank, an empty spot orphaned of its famous emblem.  Was DC Comics changing Superman’s costume?  Had they decided it was too flashy, too loud?  But no.  Of course not.  When the following month’s issues arrived, the “S” had returned on Superman’s costume, confirming that the cover of Action Comics number 20 had been . . . an oversight.  A mistake.  A gaffe.

 

The result?  Not much.  It’s not as if the youth of the day rebelled and planned a “Superman strike,” protesting the publication’s carelessness.  They continued to support the Man of Steel, and Superman has not suffered.  He has been around for eighty years, after all, gracing thousands of comic books, not to mention a wide array of TV series and movies.  The Man of Tomorrow is enduring.

 

But so is the cover of Action Comics number 20.  Maybe the buying public of 1940 didn’t create a stir (though surely there were letters streaming in to the publisher’s offices that winter), but, as the decades ticked on and as comic book collecting became a major hobby worldwide, vintage comics enthusiasts began to take notice.  In fact, they especially sought out the issue.  Action Comics number 20 is now a prized item, often priced higher than the issues that immediately preceded it (a rarity in comic book collecting, unless a particular issue introduces a key character or for some reason had a smaller print run).  Look it up in the comic book price guide and the note will be provided:  “Superman appears without ‘S’ on his chest.”  Rather than creating a black eye for the issue, the costume oversight has made it something special, something unique, a one-of-a-kind presentation.

 

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In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists also must deal with what they perceive as slights, flaws, blemishes that make them feel less-than or even freakish.  Mitchell Brant has a speech impediment.  Joe Marma is the shortest boy in his class.  Ryan Swinton is the tallest, and has a nasty case of acne.  Marc Kuslanski, as a junior-high student, is the class nerd; as he matures, he feels the need to shed his thick glasses and rid himself of the label.  And Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl,” feels like an outcast, wielding a rare and devastating power that makes others—and sometimes even she, herself–fear her. Each of them must learn to accept, even appreciate, the very things they are ashamed of, the things others make fun of, belittle, name-call.

 

They are not alone, of course.  We all carry insecurities inside of us.  Some of them are nagging things, relegated to the back burner, a little voice that whispers in our ear at certain moments.  Others are monsters, albatrosses, wound tight around our neck like a gallows waiting to snuff the life from us.  No one is immune.

 

There is no magic spell, of course, no secret code or talisman to erase the things that dog us and threaten to drag us down.  Whether it’s some aspect about our appearance, or the way we talk, or the way we walk, or our professional acumen, or the way we furnish our home or the car we drive, or any and every other permutation imaginable, we are all imperfect, and we all feel the weight of it.

 

But, in this season of Thanksgiving, perhaps we can at least try to perceive our “faults” a little differently.  Maybe, just maybe, that “S” that’s missing from our chest makes us stronger, more genuine, more compassionate.  Maybe it’s the flaws that radiate the beauty and the potential within.

 

Just ask the Man of Steel.  If any character is said to be “perfect,” surely Superman—with his super-strength and super-memory and super-intelligence and super-morals and super-everything—tops the list.  And yet, for all that, it’s his decidedly imperfect cover from eight decades ago that is still, all these years later, remembered and treasured by the collectors and pop-historians who know him best.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Ditko or the King? (Or, Why Does It Have to Be an Either/Or?)

Nearly every second of every day, we are confronted with choices.  Many are made without our even being aware of it.  Did you just tap your foot against the floor, and perhaps not even realize it?  Did you glance up at the ceiling?  Look to the left?  To the right?  Maybe you cracked a knuckle, stretched your calf muscle, took a quick sip of coffee.

 

We make choices all the time.

When writing–be it a novel, a short story, a newspaper article, or a journal entry, and everything in between–we also make myriad choices.  Again, the vast majority of these are at an unconscious level.  If you were to stop and ruminate over every word you wrote, you would, quite literally, be paralyzed, incapable of creating a single sentence.  The words come as they come. The story evolves–often on its own, as if imbued with a certain ineluctable magic.  Authors and thinkers and scientists have pondered the creative process for centuries.  It may never be fully understood.

 

But, whether understood or not, whether made beyond the awareness of the conscious mind or only after a tortuous and seesawing inner conflict–the choices are real.  And, when writing, one of those choices is:  Should you tell it with gusto, with in-your-face enthusiasm and beefy, muscular prose?  Or should you go for a more subdued, subtle approach, using the quiet power of understatement to capture the essence of the scene?

 

Fifty-five years ago, in the offices of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee faced a very similar dilemma.

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In the summer of 1962, Marvel Comics was on the rise.  Just over the past year alone, the company had introduced The Fantastic Four, The Ant Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and The Mighty Thor to the world.  The driving creative force behind this comic book revival–Marvel (previously called Timely Comics during the Second World War and Atlas Comics through the 1950s) had been mired in a slump for several years–was Stan Lee, the company’s lead writer and editor.

 

But Lee certainly wasn’t acting alone.  For any comic book endeavor to thrive, it needs the services of a top-notch artist, and Marvel, at the dawn of the 1960s, had two of them:  Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Both were accomplished, worked quickly, and brought their own, unique form of genius to their work.  Kirby was the older and more experienced of the two. The King, as he was called, had already put his stamp on The Fantastic Four--he would be their primary artist for a decade.

 

Nevertheless, Stan Lee’s next planned her0–The Amazing Spider-Man, set to debut in the high summer of 1962–needed a different touch.  Kirby’s work was larger-than-life, his covers and panels bursting with energy.  He was ideal for penciling giants and powerful, musclebound monsters, action sequences, and battle scenes.

 

But for Spider-Man, Lee wanted a defter touch.  Spidey’s alter-ego, after all, was Peter Parker, an awkward teenager, a nerdy bookworm, the antithesis of powerhouses like Thor and The Hulk.  Who better to draw Spider-Man than Steve Ditko, a master of shadows and the macabre?

 

Ditko’s Peter Parker would be skinny, almost scrawny, a science geek who accidentally is bitten by a radioactive spider.  And Spider-Man himself, particularly in those early days, is lithe, a creature of the night, hunting criminals in back alleys and climbing buildings, elusive, hunted by the law and striving to avoid the limelight.

 

And so–who is the top dog here?  Does the decision go to Ditko, or the King?  To subtlety and nuance or bold, in-your-face power?  Perhaps there isn’t a clear-cut decision.

Maybe it just depends . . .

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When it comes to the writing process, the Ditko method, if you will, is ideal for dialogue, where the characters’ words and body language, along with a sprinkling of interior monologue or brief descriptions of place and surroundings, say everything, and the need for lengthy, power-packed narrative exposition is limited.  This approach also works for emotions–rather than crafting paragraphs that tell what the character is feeling, a writer can instead simply describe what the character does, or how he or she acts, thereby indirectly informing the reader what is going on inside the character’s head.

 

In chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers, there is an attempt to accomplish something like this with Mitchell Brant.  Mitchell, self-conscious and lacking in confidence, is afraid of girls his own age. And so:

 

“Suddenly, the girl appeared—the pretty one.  She looked at him, and, up close, she was even more beautiful than he’d feared.  She had shoulder-length dark brown hair, close in color to his, and wore a sleeveless sundress that showed off a summer tan.  Worst of all, she smiled at him.

“So he did the only thing he could think of.  He escaped into the diner.

“As soon as he opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence.  Faces turned to look at him.  Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble.  Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up.  Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes.  The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window.  He saw the girl walking away.

“Whew.

 

But the Kirby approach definitely has its place, as well.  The Eye-Dancers is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, so there are parts of it that are “out there,” complete with interdimensional transfers and dreams that are far more than “just dreams.”  These portions are built for Kirby-esque flair.

 

In chapter six, Marc Kuslanski and the others are pulled into the void, bridging this universe with another.  From Marc’s perspective, the journey begins this way:

 

“‘Wake up!’ he said.  ‘You have to wake up!’  He wanted to shake them, hit them, but he couldn’t.  He had no hands.  All he could do was yell and plead and hope they would hear.  But they were almost gone now—beyond the point of hearing, perhaps beyond the point of anything.  And he was joining them.

“His arms were gone.  He had no feet, no shins, it felt like he was standing on air.  Horrifically, he watched as his thighs slowly vanished, eaten away by the invisible force that had trapped him.  The others were completely gone now, and he felt himself being pulled . . .

“He had no body now, none of him remained, but he could still think, was still aware of his surroundings.  The basement grew indistinct, fading out of focus.

“He tried to talk, to say something, anything, but no words came out.  And now the basement was gone, the bar, the blue glasses and bottles of champagne, a memory.  He looked around, saw nothing, no one—only emptiness, a vast blue ocean that spread out as far as he could see.

“‘What the . . .?’ he said, or thought he said.  There was no sound, only thought.

“And then, in a flash, he was there again—his hands, his feet, his legs, all of him—there.  He clenched his hands into fists, smacked himself in the chest.  Yes.  He could feel.  He could move and kick and reach.  But what good did it do?  There wasn’t anything solid to hold onto, no firm ground to walk along.  He was surrounded by blue, the deepest blue he had ever seen, stretching on forever.”

 

So often in life, we want to declare a winner and a loser, to settle a competition.  But some contests are better left undecided.  Or, perhaps more accurate, some contests are better left unplayed.  Because when said contest calls for us to choose between the literary equivalencies of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, that is just as difficult, and unnecessary, as choosing between the artists’ original creations.  Why decide which style, or which approach, is “better” than the other?

 

Stan Lee found room for both men in the offices of Marvel Comics.

Surely, we can do the same.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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