Today is Curt Swan’s birthday. If he were alive today he would be 100 years old. He is still my favorite Superman creator though he had not drawn since the mid 1980’s until the time of his death. Let me be more precise: he had not drawn for DC Comics since they destroyed their Universe in the first act of Multiversal destruction in comics, the Crisis on Infinite Earths, in 1986. More on that later.
If you casually read comics today, you may have never heard of him. More the pity, because much of what you know about comics, the techniques, the styles, the patterns used to tell the narrative stories of comics is derived from creatives like Swan who drew in comics, both newspaper strips and comic pages, for nearly thirty years. Called many things, a technical artist, a production powerhouse, and a master penciller, Curt Swan would become one of the definitive artists of the Man of Steel during the Silver Age of Comics.
I remember my introduction to comics was through the Man of Steel back in the legendary story Superman’s Race with the Flash, pitting for the very first time, Superman against the Sultan of Speed, Barry Allen. I found this comic in a doctor’s office, tattered and much read and after reading it, Curt Swan’s style would be how I compared every artist who drew Superman, though I would not realize it for decades. I consumed every Superman title I could find and learned to recognize Swan on sight.
For the record, in this issue, it is the first time we are told both Superman and the Flash are faster than light, and we learn that despite the Flash’s potent speed aura he was still able to be affected by the extreme heat of the desert and the bitter cold of the Arctic. We also learned Superman, forbidden to fly would have to swim across the ocean and would bore through sand dunes and icebergs with brute strength. I can still remember the chills watching these two heroes showing off their powers under Swan’s capable hands.
While never giving us their actual speeds, we are told the two race at the speed of sound and to a kid of ten, in 1974, that was an amazing accomplishment! (Yes, I went to the library just to find out how fast that was. This was pre-Internet, remember?)
Though I did have my questions because later in the story, they tell us the two of them ran across Czechoslovakia at 140 miles per second, which I had to assume was a mistake, because Superman would be leaving wreckage in his wake at 500,000 miles per hour! Even then, I was that kid. Anyway…
I would later learned Swan didn’t start his career with Superman. He first became a comic arts with a science hero slash adventurer called Tommy Tomorrow appearing in the DC Comics series: Showcase. After working with Tommy Tomorrow he would get to do what is likely to be his longest running and greatest artwork, drawing for Superman and the Superman family of characters.
Not content to draw over 19,000 pages of artwork over his 50+ years of comics he would also draw over 200 covers, showcasing the life and sometime death of the Man of Steel. Swan was more than just a Superman artist. He was called the “Norman Rockwell” of Superman, he defined the character. He drew his face from every conceivable angle and with every possible emotion, Swan imbued Superman’s mythic nature with a searing humanity, making him the both the every-man and yet one apart from us.
Swan would also draw the Adventures of Superboy, giving us a chance to see a younger Superboy, still coming into his morality, making choices and discovering the potential of his legend when he meets the Legion of Superheroes who become heroes in the future thanks to the inspiration they gained from Superman.
Swan would draw Action Comics featuring Superman, Jimmy Olsen, Superman, Adventure Comics, featuring Superboy and occasionally dip into the rest of the DC Universe with the Legion of Superheroes, Batman, the Boy Commandos, Captain Carrot and my favorite series of the early 80s DC Comics Presents.
Once DC’s reshuffling of the Multiverse too place in Crisis on Infinite Earths, took place, Swan, who had defined the look of Superman for decades was summarily replaced by John Byrne. The last Superman title by Swan was Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, a two-part story written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Curt Swan, where the adventures of the Silver Age Superman come to a dramatic close. Considered an imaginary story, it did bring to a close, at least for a while, Curt Swan’s relationship with a hero he would forever be associated with, Superman.
During this time, DC was retooling its relationship with its readers. Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s Watchmen were changing how heroes were being seen and consumed. A shadow had fallen over the industry, and the bright shining stories of the Silver Age had fallen into the penumbra of changing tastes. Thus the Crisis would reduce the redundancies, remove the multiple universe continuities, and allow readers to only remember one Universe, one set of heroes, one series of stories. You wouldn’t need to be a fan holding fifty years of comics in your head in order to read a single series. In the mind of DC’s editors this was the time to revisit and retool all of their flagship heroes from the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, a chance to modernize their stories, cast off the baggage of history and start anew. This included Swan’s Superman.
This last issue of Superman under the previous established DC Universe was Action #583. With a cover by Curt Swan and inks by Murphy Anderson, (Swanderson – the beloved fusion of the art techniques of Swan and Anderson) would be the last time these two titans would work together on Superman and would be the last outing of the Silver Age’s greatest hero and his best artist, Curt Swan. If you haven’t read it, find it. One of the finest stories of the era, told by Alan Moore and lovingly drawn by Swan, who brought every emotion he had ever given to the Last Son of Krypton to that final issue.
Superman would continue. Only without the hand which for nearly twenty years, and thousands of pages, defined what it meant to be the greatest hero on Earth, supported by one of the most well known casts of characters in comics, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Perry White.
Self-taught, creatively brilliant, extremely dedicated to his craft, Swan went to work for DC Comics in 1945 and would continue to work for DC in a lesser capacity for the rest of his working career after 1986, spending fifty-one years working there. Swan died on June 17, 1996, in Wilton, Connecticut and was survived by his beloved wife Helene Swan who died in 2012.