"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
Welcome to the three hundredth and twenty-fourth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn the surprising history behind Superman and his famous changes within phone booths! Plus, discover the interesting secrets behind Death of the Endless guest-starring in the Incredible Hulk. And did Stan Lee really create a Jungle Girl comic book just because an artist he wanted to hire drew women really well?
Click here for an archive of the previous three hundred and twenty-three.
COMIC LEGEND: Clark Kent has very rarely changed into Superman in a phone booth, including not once on the 1950s Superman TV series!
I have written in the past about just how influential the 1950s TV series, The Adventures of Superman, was on what we think of as the iconic take on the character of Superman (specifically, it is where “Truth, Justice and the American Way” became ingrained into the collective psyche). However, in a fascinating article I read recently by Steve Younis, of the Superman Homepage, the Superman TV series actually was NOT where our idea of Clark Kent changing into a phone booth comes from.
In fact, as Younis notes, in the 104 episodes of the TV series, Clark never changed into Superman in a phone booth in ANY of them!
And it wasn’t the comics or the comic strip, although Superman did, on occasion, use phone booths, but to an minuscule degree as compared to when he would change in the Daily Planet storeroom. Here’s a Superman comic strip from 1942 when he notes why it is a BAD place to change clothes…
He also occasionally used it on the radio series, but not frequently at all. In the history of Superman, it was almost always storage rooms where Clark changed, by a very large margin over other places (alleys, roofs and stairwells were all also popular).
Amazingly enough, what it really seems to down to is TWO different Fleischer Superman cartoons. One from 1941 and one from 1942.
Here, from 1941, the second Superman cartoon, “The Mechanical Monsters,” is Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth…
He does it again in a March 1942 cartoon.
And that’s pretty much it.
From those two usages in the cartoons, an iconic idea of Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth was developed, and it is clearly IS iconic, as it pops up constantly, particularly in parodies of the character (from Mad magazine to Underdog or even at DC itself, including in Bob Hope’s comic book). Heck, in the first Superman feature film, they even use a joke based on Clark looking for a phone booth but finding only the new phone booths that don’t have doors (a joke Gerry Conway used in Superman vs. Spider-Man).
The only reason the joke works, of course, is that it just an accepted fact that Clark Kent changes into Superman in phone booths. Since then, of course, Clark HAS changed into Superman in phone booths on a few occasions in film and TV, but they are all clearly meant as references back to the “iconic” way Clark did so – a way that he rarely actually did!
I find that utterly fascinating, that such a small usage of an idea can become so powerfully ingrained in our minds.
Thanks so much to Steve Younis for this interesting topic.
EDITED TO ADD: Commenter GreyDog noted that the phone booth changed is used on the cover of a 1974 issue of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. What is particularly interesting about that issue is what happens inside:
It’s even considered iconic BY OTHER COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS! Beyond the fact that that makes no sense, story-wise (if people knew where Clark Kent changed into Superman, why don’t they see Clark Kent duck into the phone booth?), it is amazing to see a comic book reference to the fame of the phone booth usage when he WASN’T using the phone booth to switch in the comics!!
COMIC LEGEND: Peter David was given permission to use Death in Incredible Hulk #418, with one interesting qualification.
As a tie-in to our Comic Book Easter Egg month, let us talk about Incredible Hulk #418, where Rick Jones and Marlo Chandler get married.
First off, here’s a fun cameo throughout the issue, as artist Gary Frank drew writer Peter David as the minister of the wedding….
However, one of the most memorable moments (especially from the pile of people who have written in to me to suggest it this month) is this cameo of Death, from Sandman (Marlo had previously been essentially killed, but was later returned to life)…
As part of Easter Egg month, Peter David was nice enough to write in to give some interesting background about this famous easter egg. He first asked Neil Gaiman for permission to use Death, and Gaiman agreed.
Next, David went to Paul Levitz to clear it with him. Levitz signed off on it as well, but he had just one “condition” – no ankh. If you notice, the ankh is tucked under Death’s shirt.
Isn’t that a nice example of two comic book companies working together for a cool moment?
Thanks to Peter David for the information!
COMIC LEGEND: Stan Lee was so impressed with Werner Roth’s sample “good girl” artwork that he not only hired Roth, but created a comic book just for Roth to draw!
STATUS: False (but only because of chronology issues)
From Werner Roth’s Wikipedia page…
Roth’s work began appearing in Marvel Comics, then known as Atlas Comics, in 1953. Stan Lee, the editor at Atlas, was impressed with Roth’s portfolio, particularly his drawings of women. According to Lee, “when you have a good artist like Werner Roth, you want to use him. So I took his samples to show [then-publisher] Martin Goodman. I suggested we should use Werner, even create a comic for him. Which we did, and that was how Lorna, the Jungle Girl was born.”
The quote is from Nicky Wright’s The Classic Era of American Comics.
Werner Roth was, indeed, a wonderful artist for drawing women. That is why when Atlas ran out of work for him in the late 1950s (he and many others), he found regular work drawing romance comics for DC until the mid-60s, when Stan Lee lured him back to Marvel to take over X-Men after Jack Kirby left (initially using the pseudonym Jay Gavin).
And it is true (well, I believe it, at least) that Stan Lee DID create a new book, Lorna the Jungle Queen, for Roth to draw in 1953 (particularly since it was about 10 years after most other jungle girl comics had fallen by the wayside).
However, Roth had been working for Atlas for THREE YEARS before Lorna came around. His debut came in 1950 with an issue of Venus…
And he had an extended run on Apache Kid…
So no, Lee did not hire Roth and then create a comic for him right on the spot.
Check out this post on Pat Curley’s Silver Age Comics site to see some of Roth’s Lorna artwork. It is definitely top notch stuff.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
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