An Imaginary KC Column by Imaginary KC Carlson
“This is an Imaginary Story… Aren’t they all?“ — Alan Moore, from Superman #423 (Sept. 1986), “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
Well, of course they are. It would be silly to think otherwise, don’t you think?
But some Imaginary Stories are more imaginary than others. Those are the ones we’ll be talking about today. The ones famously published by DC Comics, mostly appearing during the Silver Age of comics.
Other publishers also put out what could be described as Imaginary Stories. Marvel’s were generally called “What If?” Marvel and DC famously combined their characters (twice!) in their Amalgam Comics line. Dark Horse experimented with alternate Star Wars storylines in their Infinities series.
Even DC apparently got embarrassed by the term “Imaginary Story” and changed it to Elseworlds in 1991 — later retroactively applying it to earlier stories, beginning with Batman: Gotham by Gaslight from 1989. DC seems to have stopped publishing Elseworlds stories around 2006, which I mentioned in passing a few columns ago, but writer Cary Bates squeezed one last one through when Superman: The Last Family of Krypton was eventually published in 2010. (And I suspect that one may have been sitting in a drawer somewhere for a year or two, until Bates forced the issue of getting it published.)
DC has added alternate versions of their properties in publishing lines like Tangent, and the Just Imagine line featured Stan Lee writing alternate versions of the major DC characters, as drawn by superstar artists. DC also had a number of short-lived imprints that may also have been… I dunno… whatever. I was really hoping that Grant Morrison’s Multiversity would clear all this up for me. But, as usual, I remain as confused as ever. (I suspect I’m not alone in this…)
But the “true” DC Comics “Golden Age of Imaginary Stories” was during the Silver Age, despite a handful of actual Golden Age stories retroactively branded with the “Imaginary Story” label years later when they became a “thing”. When comics historians talk “Imaginary Stories”, they are largely talking about just two things: Editor Mort Weisinger’s run of hyper-crazed Superman comics for kids, primarily in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and, less so, editor Jack Schiff’s run of Batman comics during the same era, which he patterned very closely on Weisinger’s Superman comics once he noticed how well they sold. (Historians also note this is one of the very few times that Batman wan’t portrayed as either “the dark creature of the night” or the “Dark Knight detective” — characterizations which have proved to be the most popular of the character’s long run.)
THERE’S A BOOK OR TWO YOU MIGHT LIKE…
Last decade, DC produced two paperback collections of these Imaginary Stories. The first, DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories (2005), features mostly Superman three-part “epics” but also includes a few Batman appearances, a Flash story, and a 1946 Golden Age Captain Marvel story about Atomic War! It also has an awesome cover by Brian Bolland attempting to draw like Curt Swan, but neatly ending up looking a bit like Swan being inked by Kurt Schaffenberger. Amusingly, the book is subtitled “11 Tales You Never Expected to See!” — a nod to the fact that most Imaginary stories were about things that you never saw in comics (at least in that era), including shocking deaths, actual marriages (many of the best Imaginary Tales appeared in Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane), and even super-powered offspring!
Super-fan Craig Shutt (Mr. Silver Age and Baby Boomer Comics) provides an entertaining and detailed historical introduction. He notes that the Silver Age (more-or-less) ended with an Imaginary Story — the classic Alan Moore/Curt Swan “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” in Superman # 423 and Action Comics #582 — the last issues of both those classic series before they were re-booted for John Byrne’s take on the Man of Steel. (More on this in a paragraph or two.)
The other “Imaginary” TPB is DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories featuring Batman and Robin (2010). Published in the modern era, where DC doesn’t really believe in adding historical introductions or annotations, this book nevertheless reprints 10 not-quite “imaginary” Batman stories from that early era, now pretty much rendered “non-canon” anyway in light of subsequent and frequent reboots and sweeping editorial changes. However, if you can get yourself into the right mindset, these tales (by such Batman greats including Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff, Charles Paris, Curt Swan, Walter Simonson, and Dick Giordano) feature such concepts as the marriage of Batman and Batwoman, the son of the Joker, and “The Last Batman Story”, from issues of Batman, World’s Finest Comics, and even Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane. It’s unfortunate that the oft-reprinted original “Death of Robin” story “Robin Dies at Dawn” (from Batman #156 (1963)) wasn’t included in this volume, as it would have fit right in. However, it’s actually a dream/hallucination by Batman, not a true “imaginary” tale, and it’s much more serious in tone than the stories actually included. That death story appears instead in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (1988 and reprints) and Grant Morrison’s curated collection of fifties Batman tales, Batman: The Black Casebook (2009).
WHATEVER DID HAPPEN TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW?
In 1986 (or thereabouts), DC Comics hired John Byrne to completely revamp Superman. It was decided that the Superman comic book would be restarted with a new #1. (The old Superman numbering would continue on a re-titled ongoing Adventures of Superman comic book.) Action Comics would also continue, keeping its long-running numbering.
Not only would Superman get a new creative force in John Byrne, the Superman books in general would also have a new editor, because at the same time, the legendary Julius Schwartz was retiring! He was tasked to come up with something special for his final issues of Superman (#423) and Action Comics (#583). He decided that he would somehow have to tie up all the long-standing subplots to the series, including “Did Lois Lane ever find out that Clark Kent was Superman? Did they ever get married? What happened to Jimmy Olsen, to Perry White, to all the villains? I had to clear that up,” thought Julie. (Quotes from DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, which reprints that last Superman story.)
The next morning Julie just happened to be having breakfast with Alan Moore, when he shared his dilemma with the writer, who reportedly reacted by standing up, putting his hands around Julie’s neck, and threatening to “kill” him if he gave this assignment to another writer. Knowing Julie, I don’t doubt that he maybe embellished a bit of that, mostly because (although I’ve never met Moore in person), I think Julie might have been able to take him down if it came to that.
Thankfully, it never came to blows. Moore was joined by artists Curt Swan, George Pérez (inker on the Superman issue), and Kurt Schaffenberger (inker of the Action Comics issue) to produce “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” And maybe the Greatest Imaginary Story in comics was born. A lot of folks think that it’s also one of the best comics stories ever, period. In addition to the book mentioned above, it has been collected in both hard- and softcover stand-alone editions.
It was truly was the end of an era in another way. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is considered to be the last traditional Imaginary Story of the classic era. Other than an odd thing here and there, there wouldn’t be another classic Imaginary Story until Batman: Gothic By Gaslight ushered in the era of Elseworlds in 1989.
KC CARLSON SEZ: Interestingly, the famous Alan Moore quote was initially omitted from the story when it was reprinted in 2006 in the DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore TPB collection. (Which, for a confusingly short period of time, was also called Across the Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.) It was subsequently restored in later reprintings. My copy of the book does not have the quote, which caused all sorts of confusion while I was researching this column.
AND ALSO: Almost forgot about the so-called Super-Sons. This was an entire series of Imaginary Stories that told of Batman and Superman’s sons. Annoyingly, their mothers were never revealed, meaning that the creators (usually Bob Haney and Dick Dillin) considered only the fathers important to the characters and the stories, alienating many female fans from the series completely. It wasn’t one of my favorite series either. All of these stories (including a couple of modern ones) appeared in World’s Finest comics and were collected in Superman/Batman: Saga of the Super Sons in 2007.
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. My imaginary friends refused to play with me and always folded my comic books backwards when they read them. Explains a lot, no?