Superman Through the Ages



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Cary Bates and Elliot Maggin:
The Men Behind the Super-Typewriter

by
Guy H. Lillian III
Originally published in
Amazing World of DC Comics no. 2 (Sept. 1974) typed by India Ink

"Good morning, Mr. Bates."

"How're you doing Maggoon?"

The booming voice of Senior Editor Julius Schwartz is an indispensable part of the morning regiment at National Periodical Publications.  Touched with a hint of demand and exasperated query, his greetings to the two young writers who labor for his SUPERMAN books are code for a question basic to all editors: "Is it done yet?"

"Did Julie intimidate you when you first met him?" asked Elliot S! Maggin (the first "S!" stands for "none of your business").

"He sure did," Cary Bates answered. "I came here from Ohio in 1964 and I had never heard a New York accent before.  When he started talking about 'Green Lantuhn' it put me off."

But Bates got over the culture shock and, like Maggin after him, quickly learned the intricacies of dealing with the immortal Schwartz.  Few are the SUPERMAN stories Julie has published which he has not drawn from Bates or "Maggoon."  They represent the imaginative force behind the present-day adventures - and advances - of the greatest superhero of them all.

They don't look the part.

Cary Bates, 25, is a shy native of Pennsylvania and Ohio, who sports long brown hair and a matching goatee.  His spectacles rest on the bridge of a babyishly upturned nose.  His usual reply to Julie Schwartz's a.m. admonition is, "Good morning, Mr. Schwartz."

Brooklyn-born Elliot S! Maggin, at 23, effects an image somewhat more aggressive, as the exclamation point after his middle initial demonstrates.  His answer to his mentor's greeting is often "Whaddya want?"

Neither, obviously, is cut from Kryptonian cloth.  Nevertheless, there they are, carrying a saga born years before they were through the 1970s, and in a way it makes sense.

SUPERMAN first went into ACTION in 1938.  Bates was born a decade later and Maggin in 1950, children of the age of atomic power and television, satellites and cold war, moonwalks and civil revolution.  The SUPERMAN creators never imagined as bizarre a world as that which has produced the two who, with the editorial guidance of Julius Schwartz and the towering artistic interpretations of Curt Swan, keep their creation contemporary.

Maggin and Bates are also children of the comic book.  Like almost all Americans now in their 20s, they grew up in a society indelibly stamped with the famous "big red S."  The stores they frequented featured SUPERMAN products and toys, and of course SUPERMAN comics.  George Reeves zoomed through the celluloid air as television's MAN OF STEEL.  Bates, like many kids of the early '50's, owned a SUPERMAN suit of his own and was fustrated when it could not help him fly.  Both future writers collected comics until adolescence drew them away to different fantasies - fortunately, not for keeps.

Discovering how they returned to comics, became writers, and learning their perspectives of the comics medium was the assignment handed to this reporter.  Scant hours before Bates departed New York City (but not the comic business!) for California, your faithful correspondent gathered Cary and Elliot in the DC Conference Room and flipped the switch on the tape recorder.  What follows is their candid opinions on their careers and the field which has encompassed them.  They made it a point to insist that their opinions in no way reflect a "company line" and so, speaking for themselves, here are the men behind the MAN OF STEEL.




HOW DID YOU BEGIN IN COMICS?

BATES: Julie and Mort (Weisinger, long-time editor of the SUPERMAN line) were the ones I got in contact with first.  I sent them both cover ideas.  When I was a kid I started collecting comics and bought everything that National put out.  And I started doing covers, drawing up ideas.  I sent them to Mort Weisinger, and the first that he used featured Luthor and Brainiac snarling at SUPERMAN, six inches high, suspended in a cage.  I sent that one in sometime in 1963 and he used it later.

MAGGIN:  I didn't know you did that.  I'm impressed.

BATES: I was impressed because the first time I saw it was on the stands; I had no knowledge that it was going to be used.

YOU MEAN THEY DIDN'T TELL YOU?

BATES: Nope.  Then, in the summer of '64, I did up twenty-five covers for Julie and twenty-five for Mort, fifty altogether.  I came to New York and spent an hour with each of them; out of the twenty-five I gave Julie he used maybe two, and I think Mort used about five.

HOW MUCH WERE YOU PAID?

BATES: I didn't get anything for those.  There was no set payment.  Mort sent me a token check for fifteen dollars in September of '66, and on Thanksgiving Day that year I wrote a story that was my very first sale.  The cover date was something like June '67.  Over Christmas, I wrote two more stories on speculation and he bought them both.  After that, he gave me a page rate and I began work for Mort Weisinger, starting my career in comics.

WHERE WERE YOU THEN?

BATES: Still in school.  Ohio University, majoring in creative writing.

WHAT WAS WEISINGER'S TRADEMARK?

BATES: He always had an angle, always wanted the original angle in a story.  For instance, I had this story where the earth had become polluted, and I was going to do the floating city bit, with skyscrapers floating above the pollution.  But Mort said no, have the buildings being added on to so that the people lived in the upper stories miles above the earth, and the lower third was deserted.  Not a big thing, but a nice, original touch.  Of all the editors, Mort plotted more stories than anyone.  In other words, if a writer came in with a story idea and Mort didn't like it, the writer would ALWAYS leave with a plot and an assignment.  It was often Mort's plot, but it was work.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE "WEISINGER PLOT?"

BATES: He chose to concentrate on the vast SUPERMAN mythology he created. When he ran the SUPERMAN books, he built up this family, but seldom got into Clark's personality or Lois'... there were standard bits, Lois was curious, Clark was always meek and mild, Jimmy was always an idiot, and this is how the readers indentified them for many years.  But single-handedly Mort kept SUPE going strong in no less than seven books for several decades. His track record was amazing.

HOW MANY STORIES DO YOU THINK YOU WROTE FOR MORT?

BATES: I worked for him the last three years he was at National so I guess altogether maybe fifty, sixty stories.

ANY STAND OUT IN YOUR MIND?

BATES: Yeah... the three-parter in ACTION where SUPERMAN aged, one of the last stories I did for him...

MAGGIN: That was my favourite.

BATES: Why thank you, Elliot.  I liked that story, too.



DID YOU EVER WRITE FOR OTHER EDITORS BESIDES MORT WHILE HE WAS HERE?

BATES:  I did one story for Schwartz which is one of my favorites.  In it FLASH meets Julie.  It was called "The FLASH: Fact or Fiction!"  FLASH is fighting this beast that knocks him into our world.  He spots a kid reading a FLASH comic book who says, "Hi you're Barry Allen, aren't you?  FLASH needs money to make this gimmick to get back to his own Earth, so he goes to New York City and the DC offices.

THEY HAVE MONEY IN THE OFFICES?  THAT'S NOT OUR WORLD!

BATES: FLASH askes Julie for a loan because no one else on Earth will believe his story.  Would you believe it, Elliot?

MAGGIN: Probably not.

BATES: So Julie gives him the bread. FLASH builds his machine, gets back to his own world, and at the end of the story, Julie's wondering "Will the readers believe this storey when it gets printed?"

MAGGIN:  So where's the dimensional machine if FLASH left it here?

BATES: Julie knows where it is.  He's hidden it and he never tells anyone.

OKAY, LET'S HAVE SOME BIOGRAPHY ON ELLIOT MAGGIN AND HOW HE GOT STARTED IN COMICS.

MAGGIN: What's the question?

WHERE'D YOU GROW UP?

MAGGIN: I was born in Brooklyn and lived there till I was almost nine.  I've lived around New York all my life, except college.

DID YOU COLLECT COMICS WHEN YOU WERE A KID?

MAGGIN: Till I was about twelve or thirteen.  Years later, while I was at Brandeis University, I ran a big tutoring program for kids from the town.  I had piles of old SUPERMAN comics from 1958 to 1964 at home, and I brought them up to Boston for the kids to read.  Well, they ripped off or ripped up every one of them, so I began picking up new comics for the kids to read.  I started reading them myself and came upon the GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW series. "Hey, that's really good," I said.  "I can do that."  So I did.  More or less.

THE GL/GA SERIES SOUNDS IMPORTANT TO YOU.

MAGGIN: It made me interested in possibly writing for comics.  It occurred to me that maybe somebody was actually WRITING the comic books, giving them some care, rather than a little staff who were interested in turning out a certain number of hackneyed ideas.  So I picked up on that and started getting into SUPERMAN again.

HOW DID YOU COME TO START WRITING?

MAGGIN: I'd thought of something like writing TEEN TITANS before I wrote my first GREEN ARROW story.  I had met Dick Giordano.  I came in here one day and asked him, "How does one go about getting into comics?"  He told me to send in plot ideas.  By the time I did that, Dick wasn't editor anymore and Murray Boltinoff was editing TEEN TITANS.  I sent Murray a couple of ideas for TT and he said, "I want ideas for the mystery books" instead.  So I sent him a few of those, and he didn't like any of them.  If I sent him three, each was bad for a different reason - one wasn't good enough, another was too complicated, another was used last month.  But they always seemed to be the same three reasons each time I sent a set of three ideas.  I thought that was peculiar.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR FIRST SUCCESS "WHAT CAN ONE MAN DO?" IN GREEN LANTERN #87?

MAGGIN: I wrote that particular story as a history project for a Brandeis course.  I was doing a project on popular culture and I wanted to illustrate the idea that the comic medium could be used as a kind of propaganda tool to mold people's minds in whatever direction we wanted to take them.  Instead of writing a paper trying to prove this, I decided to do a comic book.  I never did conventional papers, but came up with these silly ideas that didn't involve work.  They were original, supposedly, so I would impress my teachers with originality and they wouldn't bother looking for content.  I had a lot of originality in my papers.

WHAT WAS SCHWARTZ'S REACTION TO THE STORY?

MAGGIN: I sent it to Carmine, actually, and he referred it to Julie.  He sent me a letter telling me it was "very good."  Within two weeks I had cut the story from nineteen to thirteen pages to accomodate Julie's format.  I think that original nineteen-page script is still floating around somewhere.

WHICH WRITERS DO YOU TWO LIKE BEST?

BATES:  Mainstream writers?  I like Ray Bradbury - I've talked with Julie a lot about him; he used to be his agent - and certain movie people.

MAGGIN: Probably my favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut.  I wrote a SUPERMAN story "Protectors of Earth, Inc." which has a character modelled after him.  I sent him a copy before it came out and he was very pleased.  He replied in a little letter that I should never apologize for the way I make my living.  He wrote, "The keen thing about civilization is the fact that people can make their livings in hilarious ways."

WHICH COMICS WRITERS DO YOU ADMIRE?

MAGGIN: I like all my friends.

BATES: There you have it.  Actually, it'd be easier to tell you the ones I don't like.  But I can't do that.  I don't like comic writing that is pretentious - there's a lot of that going around.  The reason for that is - and this has been told to me by older people, and I agree - that a lot of people grow up just reading comics, and writing comics from that.  A lot of the older writers wrote other things - Edmond Hamilton wrote science fiction.  Alfred Bester was in radio and s.f. - and came to comics from a varied background.  People who grow up reading comics and nothing else find themselves writing a strange kind of thing inspired by comics.  Usually they overwrite captions and do purple dialogue you'd never get away with here, and for good reason.  There's not as much attention to visuals as there should be.

MAGGIN: I was never very interested in the Marvel things.  But I'm a closet fan.

BATES: Neither one of us likes Marvel material.

WHY? WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH THE COMPETITION?

MAGGIN: I really don't think Marvel is competing with National.  They're not working for the same market.  I work for National because I'm not interested in writing for college students what should be read by kids.  I think the only reason anyone over fifteen should enjoy reading a comic is a kind of whimsical one - because it would have made him happy when he was a kid, not because it boggles his mind now.  It should take more than twenty well-illustrated pages to stretch the perceptions of someone that age or older.

BATES:  They're only competing in the sense that they're taking up space on the stands.

MAGGIN: National's characters are more viable, I think, the stories tend to be better, and the attitude towards the artwork also tends to be better.  But I'll tell you one thing they do that National doesn't do well... National doesn't have the sense of SILLINESS that Marvel does.

DEFINE YOUR TERMS.

MAGGIN:  Letter columns, ad campaigns, promotional gimmicks, even fan magazines National puts out, they're not as SILLY as at Marvel.  They take themselves much more seriously at National for some ridiculous reason that's beyond me.  Where Marvel will call their magazine FOOM, spend six months trying to get people interested in what FOOM means, and it turns out to be "Friends of Ol' Marvel", with "old" spelled "o-l-apostrophe"... National will put out a magazine called THE AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS.  It's an uninteresting name.  FOOM is, too, but at least FOOM is dumb and silly, and everyone will say, "FOOM - what a stupid name."  Nobody will think twice about a name like THE AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS, it seems to me.

BATES:  This is the difference between National and Marvel.  Marvel's readers are older, so they look at the books as more "camp," to be made fun of.  National has younger readers who take the books much more seriously.  If National wrote dialogue that tried to be campy, I'd be offended.

DC TRIED THAT DURING THE BATMAN TV ERA.  IT SEEMED VERY FALSE FOR OUR CHARACTERS

MAGGIN:  As a for instance, I don't think that when somebody writes a letter to a reader explaining a price hike that it should be pompous.  The right thing to do is write on a parallel level with the reader, not condescending, not looking down.  Often, I think, National's attitude is less cynical than Marvel's, but theirs is an outright put-on.

DO YOU THINK THAT THE STORIES REFLECT THIS SORT OF ATTITUDE?

MAGGIN: Yes.

BATES: Yes, Marvel stories are fun

MAGGIN:  Well, I think that's the level stories ought to be on.

BATES:  If they're good stories, they should hold up as stories and still be fun, whereas Marvel's are just funfun, twenty pages of fun.  There's no story - just action.  There's nothing there.

MAGGIN: I take it that in your midwestern neo-puritan parlance, "fun" is roughly synonymous with "peurile."  If that's the case, I agree.

THE WAY MARVEL STORIES ARE WRITTEN IS VERY DIFFERENT FROM NATIONAL'S.  WHEREAS WE START WITH SCRIPTS, THEY BEGIN WITH A PLOT CONFERENCE.  FOLLOWED BY THE ARTIST DRAWING THE STORY AND THE DIALOG, CAPTIONS, ETC. GOING IN LAST.

BATES: Yes, I think that has a lot to do with it.  One, it gives the artist the chance to draw just what he wants to draw, but two, it gets the writer in the habit of just letting the artist carry the ball.  He gets lazy and does pretentious dialogue to make up for it.

DOES THIS HURT THE PLOT?

BATES: No.  I think it eliminates it.  It doesn't hurt it.  There's just no plot there.  I don't think that was the original intention, of course, but I fully believe that it happens.

MAGGIN: A story-telling artist can pull it off, though.  Jack Kirby was different.  He knew what to do with Stan Lee's story ideas.

BATES: Oh, yeah, it works if you have someone who knows what he's doing.

MAGGIN: Let's talk about something else.

SUPERMAN THEN.

MAGGIN: Great!

WHAT ABOUT SUPERMAN ATTRACTS YOU TO THE CHARACTER?

MAGGIN:  He's the prototype of the hero, the ideal person.  He and President Kennedy probably influenced me more than anyone I've ever known except my father.

DID HE INFLUENCE YOU, BATES?

BATES: I never knew Elliot's father.  Oh, you mean SUPERMAN! When I was a kid I had a SUPERMAN suit, and I used to go behind the barn and pray that God would give me the power to fly.  I'd pray and I'd pray and I'd squint and then I'd say, "Well, let's see if it worked,"  and then I'd take a running jump, and it never worked.  You could say that I was influenced by SUPERMAN. >

WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT SUPERMAN?

BATES: Clark Kent.  Basically, you have Clark with whom you can identify, and SUPERMAN for action.  They're both indispensable.  You write a story with just SUPERMAN in it, and no Clark, and it's not a complete story.

MAGGIN: My first SUPERMAN story had no Clark.

BATES: For shame.

DO YOU GO FOR THE IDEA THAT SUPERMAN IS AN ALIEN BEING, REACTING AGAINST A HOSTILE WORLD?

MAGGIN: I don't think that an alien being would be interested in flying around and establishing himself as the greatest hero on a foreign planet.

BATES:  I don't think he's the alien figure some people have tried to make him.  This is a boy that was adopted at age one.  He grew up here on earth; for all intents and purposes he's one of us.  He just has super-powers.

THAT'S A BIG JUST

MAGGIN:  Yes, but that's why he's kept his secret identity.  He doesn't need one.

BATES:  He's lived with it, though, all his life.  He's never known anything different.  Every other superhero got his powers after living as a normal person.  The entire SUPERMAN idea is unique because he has been SUPERMAN since the day he was born, and he's been Clark, too.  Both of them are very, very important to a story.  Clark Kent is a character the reader can feel for.  We're writing stories around him now, not just SUPERMAN.  We're getting into his family, his private life.  It's been hidden for a long time.

AS A PERSON, WHAT WOULD YOU THINK OF CLARK KENT IF YOU MET HIM?

MAGGIN:  I'd ignore him.

BATES: Remember, to be successful in what he wants to do, Clark has to come off as average, kind of dull, the sort of person that never draws attention: the opposite of SUPERMAN.

YOU HAVEN'T DONE MANY CONFLICT STORIES.

BATES: Conflict between who?  Clark and SUPE?  All possible variations of that idea have been exhausted.  SUPE's an integrated personality, that's part of his fascination as a character.

MAGGIN: Clark cares about his secret identity a lot more than any other superhero.  It makes him just a little more like the people he has to come in contact with.

LIKE HIS NEIGHBOURS.  WHO MADE UP 344 CLINTON STREET?

BATES: Len Wein.  Julie got the idea to do a story, but Len Wein was the first writer to actually set up the apartment.

MAGGIN: Wasn't there a reprint which provided the address?

BATES:  That gave the number.  It was another area of Clark's life that had been neglected.

MAGGIN: We wanted to make "344 Clinton Street" as popular an address as "221-B Baker Street."

HAS CURT SWAN'S WORK CHANGED WITH THE "NEW LOOK" IN SUPERMAN?

BATES: Tremendously.  His stuff used to have six panels a page and be pretty standard.  Now he's one of the most powerful pencillers in the field.

IT'S TOO BAD FANS CAN'T SEE HIS PENCILS.  NOT EVEN THE BEST INKERS CAN BRING OUT THE FINE DETAIL.

MAGGIN: No argument.  He's magnificent.

ELLIOT, YOU HANG AROUND NEW YORK A LOT.  WILL YOU STAY HERE THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?

MAGGIN: No.  Not at all.  I get out almost every chance I get.  Almost every place else I've been I've liked more.

YOU HAVE A MASTERS DEGREE IN JOURNALISM FROM COLUMBIA.  WHY'D YOU DO THAT?

MAGGIN:  Looking for something to do, I guess.  It simply occurred to me that a B.A. is not much of a marketable commodity, so as long as I had a degree, I thought I might as well have a good one.

THINKING OF ADDING A SECOND GOOD ONE.  MAYBE?

MAGGIN:  Not this year.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR EDUCATION, BATES.  YOU WENT TO OHIO UNIVERSITY?

BATES:  Yes, and I have a B.A.  I realized that it wasn't worth anything so I didn't make the mistake of getting another one worth even less.  I stopped right there.

AN ANTI-INTELLECTUAL.  WHAT ARE YOUR OTHER INTERESTS IN WRITING?

BATES: Well, I'd like to go into films.  That's why I'm heading for Hollywood.  I'm not leaving comics, I'll still write SUPERMAN.  But I would just like to expand.

HOW ABOUT YOU, MAGGIN?  WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?

MAGGIN: I have some land on top of this hill in Pennsylvania, about an acre and a quarter, all surrounded by woods.  The last time I was there was in June - my friend Rick and I went canoeing on the Delaware River where I almost drowned.  I drove my car up to where my land was.  There wasn't another car for miles and it was the most QUIET place I'd seen in my life.  I saw this deer on my land and as soon as I saw it I yelled at the top of my lungs, "Hey, Rick, there's a deer on my land, hey, Rick, lookit that!"  The deer ran away and probably died of a heart attack.  I want to build a house up there and sit around writing novels.

HOW LONG DO YOU GUYS THINK YOU'LL STICK WITH COMICS?

MAGGIN:  Another week.

BATES:  Maybe two.


<= copyright 1974 National Periodical Publications =>

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