Super Artist, Super Man: A Tribute to Curt Swan
Many readers have their own personal vision of popular characters; an artist whose rendition is the version they default to in their imagination. For Spider-Man, for example, some might think of Steve Ditko's version; some John Romita's (Senior or Junior); some Todd McFarlane's. But sometimes an artist makes such an indelible impression upon a character that their work becomes the definitive take, the Platonic ideal of that character that lives in all of our minds' eyes. When it comes to Superman, if you're looking for an iconic and definitive vision, no one can touch Curt Swan. Not by a country mile.
Douglas Curtis Swan was born February 17, 1920, in Willmar, Minnesota, the youngest of five children. As a young man, he would switch his first and middle names and go by “Curt,” largely due to his dislike for how much “Doug” sounded like “dog.”
At age 18, Swan joined the National Guard, and by 1940 he was called to join the Army. In 1941, he was shipped out to Northern Ireland, where he got his first break as an artist. Cartoonist Dick Wingert saw Swan painting a mural for the Red Cross Club and suggested he submit his work to Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the armed forces. Swan soon found himself assigned to draw stories, spot illustrations, and maps as a staff artist in London.
While working at Stars and Stripes, Swan met France Herron, a writer and editor at what would later be known as DC Comics. Swan moved to New York after the war, and Herron suggested he take his samples to DC. It worked out: Swan walked away with an assignment to draw a Boy Commandos story.
Swan's legendary workhorse ethic took over and soon, in addition to Commandos, he was penciling Tommy Tomorrow, Gangbusters, and covers for Superboy. But after a few years, he began experiencing headaches which he attributed to the stress of working for editor Mort Weisinger. As such, he quit comics in 1951 and began working in advertising. Unfortunately, this work could not match his page rate from DC, and so he decided to come back to comics.
Upon his return, Swan decided to stand up to Weisinger, and this paid off. Weisinger respected Swan for speaking his mind and the headaches disappeared. Oh yeah: and Weisinger gave him Superman.
Swan had been working on Superboy and Jimmy Olsen, and following the one-two punch of Swan doing a killer job on a Superman 3-D special and Weisinger having a dispute with then-current Superman artist Wayne Boring, Swan was given the job of drawing the Man of Steel in 1955. He would have this job for thirty years.
Swan's take on Superman was markedly different from Boring's: where Boring's hero was notable for his lantern jaw, barrel chest, and notably stiff method of flying. Swan would soften the Man of Steel with a more illustrative look, emphasizing an expressive face (which would do well to service the psychologically wrought stories of the Silver Age) and a powerful but realistic build. But his style wasn't static; it would evolve over the years, notably taking on a more detailed and realistic element with the soft revamp of the Superman titles when Julius Schwartz took over as editor in 1971.
In his three decades as the main Superman artist, Swan worked on Superman, Action Comics, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, World's Finest, and both the Superboy and Legion of Super-Heroes features in Adventure Comics, among others. He drew such notable stories as “The Death of Superman,” “The Amazing Story of Superman Red and Superman Blue,” “The Luthor/Brainiac Team,” “Kryptonite Nevermore,” and the first race between Superman and the Flash.
Swan said of his depiction of Superman that he “drew him to look like a nice guy, someone you'd want on your side.” One must suppose he put some of himself into that interpretation. Besides his tireless work ethic, Swan was known for his generosity, kindness, and reliability. When Christopher Reeve sought a model for his portrayal of Superman, he looked to the grace and humanity of Swan's Superman.
Curt Swan was somewhat unceremoniously fired from the Superman titles in 1986 in order to make room for the post-Crisis reboot spearheaded by John Byrne. Fortunately, he was given the chance at a “swan song,” so to speak, in illustrating the last story of the pre-Crisis Superman — if we are honest, his Superman — “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” written by Alan Moore. Swan would continue to work at DC sporadically over the next ten years, even on Superman here and there, before passing away peacefully in 1996.
Of his work in comics, Swan said, "I get more enjoyment out of seeing a young one's smiling face staring into a comic book that I drew than I could possibly get out of having all of the money, praise and accolades in the world." I don't think Superman could ask for anything more.