What can I say about Curt Swan that hasn’t been said? For those of us of a certain age(YEEESH! I hate that phrase–but what am I gonna do? )there’s only only one Superman– and of course-that Superman is the vision of Curt Swan. More so than anyone before him–( with all due respect to Joe Shuster and Wayne Boring) Curt Swan defined the iconic look of mid-20th century Superman. And not only did Swan embody 20th century Superman, but 30th century Superman as well -as you can see from today’s cover: Superman no. 181, Nov. 1965.
I suppose each generation has their Superman-and there’s no doubt that Frank Quitely’s visualization has made an indelible impression on the mythos-but for me, Swan’s Superman embodies those characteristics that seem essential to the character–
not the least of which is that Swan’s Superman is a man–not a boy–as contemporary versions of the character tend to be. Today Superman looks maybe–mid-20’s– at the most–whereas the 20th century guy is definitely in his mid-30’s.(the last Superman movie–what was that?–that guy was Superboy…maybe. He was no Superman. Give me George Reeves in the series first two years any day.)
The real Superman ( you know–the one “up in the sky!”) is no wet-behind the ears whippersnapper, he’s a man–he’s got some gravitas dude! & Superman needs gravitas–I mean–if he’s really gonna kick some inter-galactic butt he does. Swan’s Superman/Clark Kent is indeed an embodiment of mid-20th century masculinity; he’s built, but in an era before hormone growth treatments. He’s every kid’s imaginary Dad, stoic, upright, moral, dependable, always there when the train is just about to run off the rails or the Sun spin out of its orbit. Swan’s Superman was an everyman-but an everyman you could count on, month in and month out. Just like Curt Swan’s pencils.
Of course, by the late 70’s, DC’s conception of Superman had settled into a rut of conventionalism, the “new era” Superman of ’71-’72 remained only a dim memory, its promise left unfulfilled. And Curt Swan was left to illustrate one uninspired story after another–until Alan Moore came along and gave him the tale of a lifetime–to which he responded with perhaps the best work of his career.
This cover long haunted my imagination, the image of the future technopolis and the new, modern Superman (sporting his fashion-conscious forward-combed Beatle cut circa 1965, no less!) fueled my utopian dreams long after I had lost the actual book. As an adult I searched many dealer’s boxes for a good long while, convinced it was some figment of my imagination. I was overjoyed when I finally found it–it was like reclaiming a dimly remembered dream. And yes-we really did imagine a future floating amidst stainless steel woks and pepper mills in the sky.
I’m guessing the inker is George Klein. It’s got those kind of spare, clean lines that suited Swan’s pencils so well.
As if you needed any more proof of my love, and this image’s profound influence on me: Superman no.181 has now been the inspiration for at least two works–this cover recreation and the newspaper collage below, which is titled, appropriately enough: “Tomorrow’s Kitchen’s Today!”—In part because so much of this future architecture seems to have been inspired by 60’s Kitchenware.
Tomorrow: The Shadow Knows!