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Schwartz: Keeper of the Universe

Friday, April 27, 2001

By Scott Mervis Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

In 1944, Julius Schwartz laid down 30 cents to buy three comic books to read on the subway on the way to a job interview.

It was the last time he actually bought a comic book. After that, he didn't have to.

Schwartz got the job that day as an editor at DC Comics, and for true students of the genre, he became as big as one of the superheroes. Schwartz is credited for ushering in the Silver Age of Comics by reviving characters like the Flash, Green Lantern and Atom, then re-creating the Justice Society of America as the Justice League of America.

"He is the guy who is really responsible for what DC looks like today," says John Miller, of Comic Buyer's Guide.

Up until that day in 1944, Schwartz was busy exploring new worlds with science fiction. Schwartz was among the first sci-fi literary agents, representing Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett and, as Schwartz likes to say, "that was just the B's."

Asked how he got into comics, Schwartz laughs and says, "Reluctantly."

Because there were only a few science fiction magazines, Bester, who was also writing for Green Lantern, suggested that he look into the position at DC, then known as All-American.

This was still the Golden Age of comic superheroes, but it didn't last long.

"Comics were in a very successful state," Schwartz says. "Superman was selling well over a million copies. Of course, it was a cheap thing, only 10 cents. When the war started, the comics were read by the soldiers. By the end of 1950, all the superheroes died out, they simply weren't read anymore. The only ones that kept going, and are still going today, were Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. We had to devise other ways of doing the comics."

DC ventured off into romances, westerns and "funny animal stuff inspired by Walt Disney" to keep their market. Then, in 1956, they had a Flash -- revive the Flash, which Schwartz did for one of the company's showcase issues.

"I thought I would update it, change everything but the name -- its origins, how he operated, where he operated. And the magazine sold -- as we said in those days -- like hotcakes."

Schwartz did the same with the Green Lantern, and then came what he calls his "greatest achievement," uniting the team of superheroes from the '40s series the Justice Society, as the Justice League of America.

"The magazine sold so well, it practically led to -- I have to be careful what I say here -- the rescue of Marvel Comics. My boss was playing golf with the publisher of Marvel Comics, and boasted about what a big hit they had on their hands. Jack Leibowitz told Martin Goodman how well it was doing. He went to his editor, a young fellow named Stan Lee, and said 'let's put out a magazine like that, too.' He put out the Fantastic Four, which immediately became a big hit and is still going strong today. I have a standard gag, that the Justice League not only saved DC Comics, it saved Marvel comics, too."

Later, Schwartz says, he took over editorship of Batman and "made a change in the uniform that turned out to be fortuitous -- put a yellow circle around the bat."

Not everything that Schwartz touched turned to silver. He recalls an editor asking him to create a magazine called "Strange Sports Stories." He applied his love of science fiction to the project.

"We had a baseball team from another world challenge the Earth," he says. "We had a team of gorillas playing against human beings. I had an Indy 500 kind of race with horse-drawn carriages as hyped-up automobiles. I had a great time doing it, but unfortunately, it didn't click."

Schwartz retired in 1986 after 42 years, but never left DC Comics. At 85, he's a "goodwill ambassador" for DC at conventions like the Comicon. On the advice of his former boss, he goes into the offices of DC once a week to be there in case anyone has a question. A few years ago, he says, they put him back to work -- on an 80-page edition of the Green Lantern.

"The editors are unsung heroes," Miller says, "because they're charged with the idea of keeping the universe together and that's a challenge. Because you have to say, 'Well, you can't have that happening here, because over here in this other book this character's dead.' "

Schwartz's career is chronicled in the autobiography, "Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics" (Contributor).

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