Wide World of Schwartz

Gorillas have a special place in the hearts and minds of most fans who grew up with DC Comics in the 1970s and earlier. Most of it has to do with a man named Julius Schwartz, who passed away 5 years ago last month.

Covers to Action Comics #6 and Strange Adventures #8 © 1938, 1951 DC Comics.

When Marvel Comics enjoyed its resurgence in the '60s, the one name associated with every single issue was editor Stan Lee. He wrote or co-wrote almost every story, working with such legendary artists and creative minds as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Even after ceding scripting duties to new talent his name was first in the credits box as editor; later, as publisher, his name appeared on the splash page of every issue, declaring "Stan Lee Presents...".

A cousin of mine asked me once if DC had a Stan Lee. I was probably under 12, so this would be the very early '80s, and I replied with something like, "Kind-of. I guess Julius Schwartz."

I don't have the time or space to convey the entirety of Schwartz's accomplishments here. Either you're aware of him or you'll get all you need to know for now in this outline: Julie, as friends called him, was a literary agent for science-fiction authors when he began working at All-American Comics in the 1940s; AA was absorbed by National Comics, which evolved into DC. He edited anthologies in the '50s and oversaw the revival of many of the former All-American superheroes from comics' Golden Age, beginning with The Flash in 1956. Only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had enjoyed continuous publication since their debuts circa 1940 — along with their ancillary characters (Robin, Lois Lane, et al.) plus, in back-up features, Green Arrow and Aquaman — but soon what would become the Silver Age was in full swing. Schwartz's revival of Flash, Green Lantern, and others, who joined with the mainstays as the Justice League of America, put him in line to take over the Batman titles in 1964 and then revamp Superman in 1971.

Covers to Showcase #4 and Showcase #22 © 1956, 1959 DC Comics.

Schwartz held plotting sessions with his writers, who then turned in full scripts for artists to follow. This was very different than the "Marvel style" or plot-first method used by Stan Lee, who held plotting sessions with his artists and usually wrote in dialogue and captions on the pages they returned. "Stan the Man" had to work this way as the head writer and editor-in-chief of a burgeoning comic-book line, and it was revolutionary — as was his increasingly public figure as the face of Marvel Comics, soon labeling itself "Pop Art" and getting attention for its not entirely ironic appreciation on college campuses. Schwartz was but one of a group of editors at DC, each with a different stable of series; his included the science-fiction anthologies Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures, then the aforementioned Flash, JLA, and so forth until he inherited Batman and Detective Comics from Jack Schiff and later Superman and Action Comics from Mort Weisinger, who had controlled the various Superman titles for years.

I was aware when my cousin asked if DC had a Stan Lee that Schwartz wasn't publisher or overseer of the whole line. But although he wasn't responsible for the sum total of DC's superhero universe at once, he had, by the time I was answering the question, made his mark on pretty much all of them, innovating and modernizing them as their older editors moved on. Among the first generation of die-hard comic-book fans in the '50s & '60s — many of whom my generation read about, and who had become journalists or creative hands at DC and Marvel in their own right — gentle Julie was a figurehead akin to Smilin' Stan.

What does this have to do with gorillas?

Editors were known to keep track of any trends that led to sales spikes. The turnover rate in comic-book readers in the 1950s was considered faster than in my childhood and certainly than today, so stories could almost literally be recycled — reprints were new to young readers, of course, but so were freshly drawn stories with plots similar to ones that had been successful earlier. Mort Weisinger found that stories about other survivors from Krypton did well in the Superman titles, so he put that concept in heavy rotation, as he did the Man of Steel's awkward duplicate Bizarro and the so-called Imaginary Stories wherein Superman married Lois Lane.

Julius Schwartz didn't have a high-profile stable of recurring characters before the superhero revival, but he did find that certain cover motifs goosed sales, including gorillas, the color purple, and people (or animals) in jail. He used this potent mix to enhance what came to be known as Strange Schwartz Stories. Whitney Ellsworth was the nominal editor of Strange Adventures when #8 was published, cover-dated May 1951; but Schwartz was in charge, and so Julie had Win Mortimer draw what is considered DC's first official "gorilla cover". The ape is behind bars, in fact, holding a sign that reads "Ruth... Please believe me! I am the victim of a terrible scientific experiment! — Ralph". The cover sits atop this post — along with DC's first actual gorilla cover from way back in 1938.

Covers to Batman #75 and Strange Adventures #201 © 1953, 1967 DC Comics. 

After Schwartz and publisher Irwin Donenfeld conferred on the popularity of gorilla covers, other editors got hip to the monkey business, and there was a veritable explosion of good-guy gorillas, bad-guy gorillas, misunderstood gorillas, alien gorillas, and mystic jungle gorillas. While you'd think I wouldn't have to modify the word "gorillas" with "jungle", most of these creatures popped up in urban settings, like the Mod Gorilla Boss and the Gorilla Boss of Gotham City, two entirely different gorilla bosses who appear above in issues published more than a dozen years apart, both edited by Jack Schiff. The Mod Gorilla Boss had the added benefit of being purple, although (on the cover, anyway) he wasn't in jail. Somehow when Schwartz had writer John Broome introduce Super-Gorilla Grodd to The Flash,  the psychic simian didn't score the cover, but there would plenty of time to make up for that.

[Update: Even before the disappearance of all my posts at the end of March 2009, this and later pieces based on
 some print articles of mine vanished. I chose not to put them back up them for a variety of reasons, but did publish a gallery of gorilla covers — only to have it disappear numerous times, including once when the entire blog was hijacked, before finally installing it anew in April 2011. The rest of the articles are being held back for publication on another, comics-oriented blog, likely be hosted on a service that provides better security from savage vandalism.]

Scans from and links to The Grand Comics Database. Characters and logos are trademarks or registered trademarks of DC Comics.

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