Julius Schwartz

DC Comics editor and saviour of the comic-book superhero
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The Independent Online

Julius Schwartz, comic editor, agent and publisher: born New York 19 June 1915; married Jean Ordwein (one daughter deceased); died New York 8 February 2004.

Julius Schwartz was a seminal figure in the fields of science fiction and American comics, in a career that both spanned and defined two distinct eras of comics. His distinction lay in promoting the early careers of the likes of Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft and Alfred Bester, and then in crossing over to reinvent and establish a template for the comic-book superhero that has endured for half a century. In the process he saved such icons as Batman and Superman from cancellation, and paved the way for the creation and success of such later heroes as Spider-Man and the Hulk.

It is no exaggeration to say that, without Julius Schwartz, superheroes and science fiction as we know them would not exist.

Schwartz ("Julie", as he was known to one and all) acquired his lifelong passion for science fiction through the Blue Fantasy books in the New York public libraries and then, from June 1926 onwards, through the pages of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. Answering an advert in the magazine for a club in the Bronx called the Scienceers, he teamed up in 1930 with Mort Weisinger and Forrest J. Ackerman to launch the first science-fiction fanzine, christened The Time Traveler.

In 1934, Schwartz and Weisinger used their contacts to form Solar Sales Service, the first science-fiction literary agency, among whose clients were Edmond Hamilton, Robert Heinlein, Otto Binder and Robert Bloch, and in 1939 Schwartz compiled the convention booklet for the first World Science Fiction Convention.

By the 1940s the heyday of the pulps was over, eclipsed by the wartime superhero boom, the so-called Golden Age of comics. Weisinger was on staff at All-American Comics (shortly to merge with DC Comics) as an assistant editor, and Schwartz joined him there in February 1944, recruited by the chief editor Sheldon Mayer on the supposed strength of his knowledge of what constitutes a good comic story. As he would later gleefully admit, "I hadn't read a comic-book story in my life. I had to learn from a script what a caption was, what a speech balloon was." From such unpromising beginnings he was to fashion a career at the publisher that would last for 45 years and usher in a whole new style of comics.

For years Schwartz's principal function was to provide plots and check scripts, rarely getting to view the artwork before it went off to print. Out of this evolved the Schwartz editorial house style: DC Comics was run as a handful of competing fiefdoms, each under the absolute control of an editor, who had his own retinue of writers and artists. Typical of an era when the editor was god, Schwartz would come up with an original idea for a story and then turn it over to one of his writers to produce a full script that the artist would then draw. Writers and artists rarely met: the artist Gil Kane recalled years later: "Julie ran a very tight ship. Everything came through Julie, and Julie would plot every single story."

As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, the American comics industry imploded under the combined onslaught of television, attacks from psychiatrists and politicians, and implied links with juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. Sales plummeted, whole genres withered away, and publishing houses shed titles and employees. Even superheroes were nearly extinct, with only Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman (all DC characters) remaining in print.

One comics genre, however, did thrive in this hostile climate: science fiction. Schwartz, with his science- fiction background, responded by launching Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures, starring such luminaries as Captain Comet, the Atomic Knights and the Martian Manhunter. Convinced that the time was right for a superhero revival, Schwartz used the October 1956 issue of DC's new Showcase title to try out a rejigged version of The Flash, furnishing him with a new identity, costume and scientific raison d'être. The sales figures proved his instincts were on the mark, and Showcase #4 marked both the renaissance of the superhero and the turning point for the entire American comics industry.

Over the next few years, Schwartz was successfully to recycle such heroes as Green Lantern, Hawkman and the Atom. The sales of his hero team-up title, the Justice League of America, provided the spur for the writer-editor Stan Lee to come up with Spider-Man and a whole new set of characters for rival publishers Marvel Comics. In 1964, Schwartz performed vital surgery on the ailing Batman franchise by taking the character back to its noir roots, scrapping the more ludicrous science-fiction trappings of recent years and - Holy cow! - killing off Alfred the butler (although many of these revisions had to be soon reversed in the face of the overwhelming success of the campy TV series).

In 1970, Schwartz was called in to give a makeover to the company figurehead, Superman, which involved drastically reducing his superpowers, getting rid of kryptonite, and giving his alter ego Clark Kent a new job as a TV reporter. The treatment worked, and both characters quickly regained their pre-eminence.

Schwartz finally retired from editorial work in the 1980s, but until fairly recently remained on the company payroll as a part-time goodwill ambassador for DC. After years of being the recipient of every comics and sci-fi honour going, in 1998 Schwartz finally had an award named after him - the Julie Award for universal achievement across multiple genres. No wonder his autobiography, published in 2000, was entitled Man of Two Worlds.

Alan Woollcombe