| March 31st, 1961 (Oh, What A Night)
MARCH 31, 2004
Okay, so maybe it wasn't QUITE as magical an evening for me as it was for the nameless lead singer of the Four Season's smash 1976 number-one hit, " December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)"--hey, it WASN'T Frankie Valli's ever-reliable falsetto up front, as he was atypically relegated to mere back-up duties in that sole instance, most likely because no one really wanted to hear how he lost HIS virginity!! But in a very real sense, an extremely peculiar little story called "The Night Of March 31st" (first appearing in the May, 1961 issue of SUPERMAN comics, #145) may well've had as life-changing an effect on me as that eye-opening encounter undoubtedly had on our reminiscing crooner.
One can only hope that our then-unSeasoned youth didn't have to eventually categorize any of his actions that memorable evening using terminology borrowed from that now-infamous feature's ALTERNATE title: "The Great Boo-Boo Contest"!!
Ah yes--the oldtimers know exactly what I'm talking about now. As for the rest of you, stay with me, folks; all will be explained. Hopefully...
|By the time I was in the second grade, I'd
already been reading comic books for several
years, but my tastes were limited almost
strictly to the Dell and Harvey humor titles.
I'd adamantly resisted getting involved with
the adventure series of the day, the most
prominent being the so-called Superman Family
of books. This, of course, didn't prevent
a good friend of mine by the name of Chucky
to enthusiastically purchase as many of these
titles as he could afford for himself: SUPERMAN,
ACTION COMICS, ADVENTURE COMICS, SUPERBOY--yeah,
even JIMMY OLSEN and LOIS LANE!! He'd invariably
sneak them into class, and whenever he got
the chance, he'd show them off to the rest
of us. I tried hard not to get hooked, really
I did, but there was just something about
that craggy-faced, white-hued, moronic imperfect
duplicate of the Man of Steel known as Bizarro
that just caught my fancy...
Now, I've told this story any number of times before, including in illustrated form (as seen here). The fact is, though, when I finished that initial "Little Freddy" episode, I was mortified to suddenly realize that--oops!-- despite my best efforts to painstakenly recap the circumstances that led up to my long-standing allegiance to good ol' Supes, I completely neglected to mention an extremely pivotal turning point in my autobiographical recounting: "The Night Of March 31st". Talk about your boo boos...
|True, it was the whole Bizarro phenomenon
that had had me wavering, but it was this
specific story that pushed me over the edge,
finally motivating me to go down to Heisenbuttel's
General Store and search for a copy of SUPERMAN
#145 of my own to buy. Well, as fate would
have it, my search was in vain, as that particular
issue was sold out. Instead, SUPERMAN #146--featuring,
serendipitously, "The Story Of Superman's
Life" as its cover feature--beckoned
me to sacrifice one thin, silver dime to
sample its four-color delights, and well,
after THAT, there was no going back. But
making that all-important first regular purchase,
and all the ones that have since followed,
may've never even occurred if Superman hadn't
forgotten to doff his Clark Kent glasses
whilst erstwhile childhood sweetie, Lana
Lang, attempted to kill her old boy friend
by pulling a big ol' Kryptonite boulder out
of the "Jolly Ice Cream" (or was
it "Golly Ice Cream"?...) push-cart
she was peddling down the streets of Metropolis
one fine day.
MY reaction exactly!
|Editor Mort Weisinger, already notorious for filling his line of books with stories that were--in the context of the accepted continuity, please understand--dreams, hoaxes, and imaginary, played a completely NEW angle with this 8 pager--it was nothing more and nothing less than a PUZZLE!?! You know, like the sort that used to turn up in magazines aimed at young children, the ones that would purposely ladle as many egregious errors as possible onto (generally) a single full page illustration, some of which would be blatantly obvious, while others would be deceptively subtle? Well, having long had a firm grasp on the (seeming) immaturity of his target audience, that's what Wiley Weisinger did with this particular exercise, only he expanded it from a mere single drawing out to an entire story, one filled not only with inconsistent artistic continuity mistakes, but with highly suspect illogical story twists--and given some of the whoppers Mort had his scribes serve up in their REGULAR tales, brother, that's going some!!|
|Which leads me to address a side issue--for years now, I've mocked the work of Mort Weisinger, and there are some pretty darn good reasons for the playful contempt I've shown his early sixties output: given the inherent majesty of the protagonists, the material is often overly concerned with extremely trivial matters; the way the characters treat one another is often blithely inconsiderate at best and calculatedly mean-spirited at worst; and the most startlingly inane succession of unlikely events routinely occur simply to push the plot de jour along towards its crazily contrived conclusion--and that's all in a GOOD issue!?!. A really choice 8-page "Lois Lane" escapade, for instance, could be aggressively silly, mind-numbingly stupid, AND gratuitously sexist all in a few short pages!! Its one of the many reasons these stories remain such a delightful guilty pleasure to read even today.|
|But that said, Weisinger was ALSO responsible
for the longest lasting innovations in the
Superman mythos after Jerry and Joe hatched
their zillion-dollar idea, either before
or since. In fact, if you examine things
closely, you could make a very convincing
argument stating that he scooped Marvel Comics
on that whole shared universe notion that
Stan Lee would so successfully exploit not
With six titles to continually pump full of new material, Weisinger began introducing elements in the late fifties that could efficiently be employed in any one of his half-dozen books at any given time: several exotic forms of Kryptonite to join the standard green variety; a cadre of Super Pets; various belatedly discovered survivors from our star's home world, including a cute young blonde haired cousin; an entire Kryptonian city trapped in a bottle; a realm where criminals from the now-destroyed planet existed in phantom form; an almost mystical double "L" fetish; a secret fortress off in the arctic wastes; an entire planet populated with wacky doppelgangers of the core cast; and a group of super-heroes from the future who were as likely as not to turn up at the penultimate moment of just about any story in any book to help wiggle the featured character(s) out of an all too seemingly impossible situation! Compared to the Superman stories of the mid-fifties, wherein the Man of Steel was mostly over-matching the likes of small-time pistol packin' bank robbers on a monotonously regular basis, the far more imaginatively expansive and cohesive universe that Mort had manufactured for the Big Red S by the time 1961 rolled around, flaws notwithstanding, is hard not to be seen as the far more entertaining approach.
|Despite being given these props, it's not
difficult to understand just why Stan Lee's
slightly later attempt was given all the
respect Weisinger's earlier foray was not.
For one thing, as mentioned previously, he
employed many of these otherwise truly creative
concepts in service of regrettably pedestrian--even
petty--plots. Was the notion of a group of
teen-aged super-heroes from the 30th century
BEST employed by having them whisk back through
the centuries in their handy-dandy Time Bubble
merely to prevent Lois from walking in on
Clark, skulking around the broom closet as
he's changing from his dark blue suit into
his light blue suit? Stan and Jack never
wasted THEIR readers time with such piffle,
that much I do know.
|The other major drawback Mort suffered in
comparison to the upstart Marvel Universe
was pretty much out of his hands: while the
small group of books handled by Lee, Kirby,
Ditko, et al, proved to be of a size that
was just manageable enough to present a convincing
illusion of cohesiveness, the Superman Family
of books was but a small portion of the much
larger overall DC Comics line. Certainly,
they were DC's flag-ship titles, but outside
of a tenuous alliance with the Batman titles,
and a necessary association with Julie Schwartz's
Justice League series, like Las Vegas, what
happened in the Superman books, STAYED in
the Superman books!
That may seem a silly consideration nowadays, but at the time, it led to frustrations such as Supes old college sweetheart, Lori Lemaris the mermaid, living in an undersea kingdom of Atlantis wherein everyone had green scaled fish-tails as their lower bodies, while fellow JLAer Aquaman--ALSO a citizen of Atlantis, it was said--had nary a fin in evidence whenever he was shown with HIS people!?! And let's not even get into the many different Martians that ran rampant throughout those old DC books! To say the concept of a co-ordinated DC Universe was tenuous in those days would be perhaps overly generous, and it was a gnawing point that, through no real fault of his own, Weisinger came in a distant second to Lee and associates. But when all is said and done, the man WAS responsible for an impressive fictional construct, one that he was in the process of brazenly deconstructing with "The Night Of March 31st"...
|Ah yes, the focal point of this piece! Pardon
me for drifting off on a peripheral tangent.
I just felt crystallizing my thoughts on
the oft-times controversial editorial reign
of Weisinger might be a wise way to go, since
it could help those unfamiliar with either
Mort or this oddity to better understand
So like I said, there I was, standing in the back of the classroom, one of a handful of young boys gawking over Chucky's shoulder as he proudly showed off his latest purchase...
|It was all a contest, y' see--the aforementioned
"Great Boo-Boo Contest", as it
was affectionately known. The goal of the
competition was painfully obvious--the first
person to spot the most (legitimate) mistakes
would no doubt be deemed the winner. As to
what the exact rules were and the prizes
to be awarded, well, I honestly couldn't
tell you, as I've never, to this very day,
actually OWNED a copy of SUPERMAN #145! Instead,
I've come to rely on two separate reprints
to cobble together this retrospective. (Checking
downstairs, I was also surprised to learn
that I no longer have a copy of number 150
in my collection either, so even though the
lettercol in 149 promised to declare a victor
in the subsequent issue, I'm afraid that'll
have to remain a mystery for now. I'm pretty
sure it wasn't friend Chucky, though...)
I can still vividly recall how, that at that strangely life-altering moment, as the rest of the kids loudly attempted to point out all the blatant boo-boos to be found on the cheap pulp paper, I instead stood silently transfixed, gazing at the muddled images in front of me with an unique combination of awe, curiosity, and queasiness. The first two reactions are fairly self-explanatory, but the latter one demands some further explanation.
|How best to describe my feelings? Well, for starters, the whole thing seemed vaguely unsettling. I'd only ever read a handful of Chucky's Superman family comics up to that point, but I'd invested enough time with these iconic characters to realize they were all behaving just plain WRONG!! Add to that the combination of Superman's outfit changing from panel to panel, all the while his exasperation level mounts ever higher as he's confronted by ostensible friends acting in outrageously callous manners--Supergirl disobeying his wishes to keep her existence a secret, Krypto the Superdog ignoring his master in lieu of Lois Lane, Lois ignoring Clark (in Bermuda shorts, yet!) in lieu of lunching with Mr. Mxyzptlk, and most chillingly, Lana Lang--inexplicably showing up dressed as an ice cream vendor--attempting to kill her old beau, only to see him rescued from a Kryptonite induced doom by the crusading trio of--HUH?--Lex Luthor, Bizarro, and Brainiac!?! This was a LOT to take in, folks, especially seeing as how it was expertly drawn by Curt Swan, the artist whose work already seemed synonymous to my neophyte eyes with the caped Kryptonian.|
|It wasn't "real", kiddies, as Unca
Mort kept assuring us, and if I'd encountered
this curiosity even a few months later, I
probably would've taken it all in stride,
not thinking much more about it. But given
the special circumstances, there are images
in that story that are indelibly burned into
my minds-eye forever and ever--and I didn't
even have access to it again for another
4 years after I initially managed to finagle
but a single quick read through, seated in
the back of Mrs. Robinson's second grade
Four years means practically nothing now, sure, but when you're 8, it's a pretty hefty chunk of your life before you make it all the way to 12. That's how old I was when, in late 1965, under the guise of his recently instituted "Hall Of Fame Classics" featurette (also known as "Cost Cutting Reprints"), Mort elected to run "The Night Of March 31st" for a second time in the back-up slot of ADVENTURE COMICS #339 (an issue which, incidentally, has its own unsettling legacy, as it contained the very last story long-time penciller John Forte worked on before his untimely passing, made all the more macabre by the fact that this particular "Legion of Super-Heroes" story's final panel featured nothing less than a dead Beast Boy lying in stiff repose!?! For more background on this, check these two strips...).
Funny thing is, it ALSO ran in the 1987 hardcover compilation, "The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told"--wherein credit was given to long-time Fawcett comics stalwart, Otto Binder, as the actual author, if not evil mastermind, of the piece--and besides being printed on appreciably better paper, I was mildly shocked to discover in the course of preparing this that when it had turned up in ADVENTURE COMICS years earlier, it had been truncated by two-thirds of a page, four panels to be exact!! Apparently, Mort only had 7 pages at his disposal, so "Hall of Fame" entry or not, it went under the knife!
It's interesting to examine what was cut: 3 panels dealing with Supergirl, who is thus effectively eliminated entirely from this initial reprinting, and one panel following up on the Lori Lemaris sequence in the tale (which, in this story remember, she DIDN'T have!...). Additionally, a few quickly drawn in lines of Super-breath emanating from the Man's Super-lips, and a hastily changed caption allowed the star to rescue the burning ship instead of having his insolent cousin swoop in and save the day utilizing her vacuum breath--which I guess was supposed to be one of the boo-boos, but honestly, it doesn't strike me as being TOO far afield from some of the over-reaching abilities Weisinger casually endowed to the Kryptonians left in his care. But forget all that--I want to talk a bit about Lori...
|Yup, Superman's college sweetheart, the one
girl he actually proposed marriage to, at
least before finally realizing that she was
a mermaid! (...Do they call it "petting"
when fish scales are involved, I wonder?...)
Given THAT convenient plot twist, Supes had
to make due with Lois and Lana subsequently
panting after him relentlessly, to no specific
outcome. Ah, but what if good ol' Lori woke
up with a pair of legs one fine morning--and,
implicitly, ALL the other necessary, um,
working parts--instead of that nasty ol'
fish-tail of hers? Wouldn't that allow for
a resumption of their engagement?
|Well, that's precisely what our now two-legged
mermaid is thinking in one of the stories
edited panels, and I was struck by it for
a number of reasons. Firstly, this brief
scene is more reminiscent of one of Mort's
"Imaginary Stories" than a madcap,
anything goes, chunk of surrealistic nonsense
that otherwise defines this episode. And
even more jarring is the actual Curt Swan/Stan
Kaye illustration to be found in that particular
panel. In all the many, many faux wedding
stories that overran the Superman Family
titles in the early sixties, I don't think
I ever saw such a look of pure lustful longing
etched across a leading ladies' face anywhere
near as blatant as the one the pair of artists
bestowed upon this now-antsy Atlantean!?!
Contentment, happy relief, quiet joy--yes.
Seen 'em all in one Imaginary Story after
another. Bedroom eyes like Lori was flashing,
uh uh. Nope. Little wonder then that Mort
dropped this panel--with all the death in
the lead LSH tale, I suppose he didn't want
to compound matters by adding sex to the
mix as well!! Or maybe Ms. Lemaris's seductive
gaze was intended to be seen as one of the
boo boos, hmmm?...
The thing that gave this story its unsettling resonance was the Man Of Steel's decidedly paranoid reactions, as he is continuously surprised by what he encounters (Perry White--a Bizarro? And a well-spoken one, at that? Mr. Mxyzptlk, willingly speaking his name backwards and thus returning to his own dimension? Red Kryptonite proving to be ineffective? Krypto losing his powers, and not Streaky the Super Cat, as is normally the case? Ma Kent--selling SUPERMAN comics at the corner newsstand--letting anyone who antes up a dime in on this little secret identity scam of his?)--WHAT IS GOING ON HERE, our beleaguered hero wonders?
And yet, for all his self-awareness of the topsy-turvey nature of this skewed situation, Supes has absolutely no awareness of such off-kilter oddities as his (otherwise non-existent) telepathic powers, or the ill-advised way he chose to enter Editor White's office (directly through the wall) or exit it (through a window--a CLOSED window!...).
|Then there's the two fellows grinning as
they watch Clark change into his caped outfit
in the alleged privacy of the Daily Planet's
supply room (Swan and Kaye being the grinning
voyeurs, I believe), and the whole glasses
on/glasses off, cape on/cape off stuff. Flying
with one dress shoe. Flying barefoot. Jimmy
Olsen in a tux one panel, a striped jacket
the next. Lois and Supergirl's hair lengths
changing radically from one moment to the
next. Pay phones on office desks. The Leaning
Tower of Pisa snuck into the background of
a Metropolis city-scape. Lana standing a
foot off the ground for no good reason. Backward
S shields. Supes wearing Mr. Mixxy's derby.
All of this goes uncommented on by the stories
participants, even the seemingly aware star.
And of course, that very last panel, wherein, having just been informed by his suddenly helpful antagonists, Luthor, Brainiac, and Bizarro, that they've long been hip to his Clark Kent charade due to some, ah, extracurricular reading, our hero does a comedically winning faint take, falling backwards onto the sidewalk and destroying the bottle city of Kandor in the process!?! How could this story NOT be disturbing, I ask you, ending as it does with a scene of mass murder--PLAYED FOR LAUGHS!?!...
|Some people may've been put off by such an
unseemly display, but not me, folks, no way.
Anything as wild as this, well, I just HAD
to make sure to be part of it, and starting
with the very next issue, I was! And may
Rao preserve me, I still AM!?!...
|(...Several years later, in SUPERMAN #169 (May 1964), editor Weisinger tried to duplicate this successful venture with a five page story entitled "The Great DC Contest", but just as that anonymous vocalist fronting the Four Seasons also undoubtedly found out, the SECOND time isn't usually quite so memorable. Y'see, the gimmick this time around had the reader scour the episode's every panel (AFTER the introductory splash), looking to spot the sole "D" and the sole "C" used to miserly effect in the story.|
|As Mort proudly told readers on the letters
page while grandly announcing the rules,
he even went so far as eliminating the pair
of DC bullets that usually (during that era)
graced each and every comics page. Of course,
the whole carefully conceived plan backfired
when, at the very bottom of page 3, the production
department had mindlessly pasted in one of
their standard "Continued on the next
page following" blurbs because, well,
the story WAS continued on the next page
following, dig? Several issues later, the
prize--an autographed Curt Swan cover!!--was
awarded not to someone who discovered Mort's
strategically hidden letters but who was
first to recognize his stupid error! Hey--talk
about your boo boo contests, y'know?!...)
|(Oh, and in case you're STILL wondering,
that official title of the story--"The
Night Of March 31st"--refers to the
entry we see Clark inscribing in his diary
(now THERE'S a boo-boo--WHY would someone
with a secret as big as a whole 'nother identity
be keeping a DIARY, I ask you??...), after
which he goes to sleep, only to be awakened
the next morning on the second page, the
unspoken point being that this wacky saga
was now being played out on, yup, April 1st!
April 1st--April Fool's Day? Ah--NOW you
get it, don't you? That Mort, he was a clever
one, yes he was...)
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