This week brought the sad news that longtime DC Comics writer Martin Pasko has died. He began as a regular ‘letterhack’ in the DC letter columns, went on to pen hundreds of tales for the company and later moved into TV, working on the likes of Roseanne and The Twilight Zone. His screenwriting and comic careers came together when he co-wrote Mask of the Phantasm, the original animation which many feel is the best celluloid version of the Caped Crusader.
I was a huge fan of his Saga of the Swamp Thing series – overlooked even before he was succeeded by Alan Moore – and Wonder Woman, while his First Issue Special Dr Fate story with Walter Simonson is regularly lauded as the character’s finest moment.
For me, though, my warmest feelings are for Pasko’s Superman run. After proving his talent with a number of back-ups, Pasko, then only in his early twenties, was given a shot at the Superman title by editor Julius Schwartz. He was on the series from 1976’s #305 to 1979’s #336 and the book soared – Pasko brought an energy to the series not seen for years, bringing in long-running subplots that enriched supporting characters who had been around for decades, while showing the potential of villains such as Metallo and Atomic Skull. It’s a bad guy Pasko created whole, though, who I want to look at today, because the two-parter in which he debuted is a perfect distillation of Pasko’s strengths as a writer.
But I can’t do this alone – Anj of the Supergirl Comic Box Commentary blog is as big a fan of Pasko’s Superman run as me, so it’s blog team-up time. I’m covering the first part of the Master Jailer’s debut, Superman #331, here, while Anj’s take on the concluding issue, #332, can be found here – click on the highlighted text. Don’t worry, there’s another reminder at the end!
We’d love to hear your comments on Pasko’s Superman, or Pasko in general.
Superman #331 begins with penciller Ross Andru and inker Dick Giordano’s compelling cover, giving us out first look at the Master Jailer, his mask suggesting an executioner as he carries a struggling, very sexy Lana Lang. Superman, stuck in some kind of science cell, looks in pain. Seeing this as a kid, I thought Superman had been trapped in his trademark phone booth, but this new villain proved more inventive than that.
Inside, the story begins with Superman confronting Metallo, the Man with the Kryptonite Heart, whom he’d put in prison just weeks previously (funnily enough, I covered that issue recently, click here). Metallo is crowing about having escaped jail.
The goon doesn’t have the upper hand for long, though, as newscaster Lana Lang tells us.
The fight allows Lana to segue smoothly into another story, as a newcomer to Metropolis watches her on the WGBS 6 O’Clock Report.
Back in the studio, co-anchor Clark Kent is chided by his new boss, while Lana tries to make nice with Lois Lane.
As she takes off her make-up, Lana equally drops her facade of friendship.
Next day, the red-headed reporter covers the opening of Draper’s new prison. The architect shows off the cells, each individually tailored to ensure a Superman foe stays put, but Lana is singularly unimpressed. Unprofessional. Rude, even.
And then Superman shows up, with a surprise gift.
He means well, even tailoring a Jimmy Olsen-style signal device to match Carl’s penchant for pendants, but he’s stolen the poor guy’s thunder. Carl swallows his pride, the main thing is that the prison is up and running.
The signal pendant is activated, and Superman comes flying to the rescue.
Faster than a speeding bullet, Superman arrives at Lana’s apartment, where his old friend gets a rude awakening.
But not for long. Soon, both Superman and Lana are out cold, at the mercy of… the Master Jailer.
And we learn just how the man Superman believes is assistant warden Larry Latimer has enough power to beat the Man of Steel.
The time has come. The Master Jailer unmasks.
Did you see that coming? I can’t remember if my teenage self did, after all, Carl seemed such a nice guy – a bit of a sad sack, but decent. As depicted by penciller Curt Swan and inker Frank Chiaramonte, Carl is a handsome guy, and darn trendy by the standards of the time, particularly so in comparison to the drabs who inhabited DC books back then. It’s a shame the colours of talented Adrienne Roy were especially ill-served by the separation process, making Carl’s hair seem like it’s running after a bad dye job and his pupils blotchy, but you can see he’s at least as physically attractive as Superman – it’s a wonder shallow Lana isn’t all over him.
And his costume is great – the segmented outfit with bars on the torso and a keyhole on his belt, along with manacles on Carl’s calves and the aforementioned spooky mask… it’s striking. It just screams Master Jailer… compare it to the similarly themed Legion baddie Grimbor the Chainsman, who dressed like a refugee from an S&M club. The Master Jailer looks menacing, yet classy. Just look at that first panel outside of Lana’s apartment. Swan seemed especially inspired by Pasko’s script – the Master Jailer looks truly formidable.
And as written by Pasko he really is a sympathetic figure, until his heel turn. He wants to do good, he hasn’t come looking for Lana, and when old feelings resurface, he tries to fight them. Obviously, at some point he’s snapped, but he’s doing all this for love. Twisted love, admittedly, but is he so different from Lana, who indulges her obsession with Superman (‘the big lug’) even though that ship has long since sailed?
The dialogue is melodramatic, but not to excess – Pasko knows what his readers want and he’s giving it to them… fun, intelligent superheroics. He even provides food for thought in Metallo’s meditation on crime and punishment, which perfectly sets up Carl’s prison project. The only problem I have is that Carl explains how the cells work in front of the likes of Luthor; even if they’re soundproof, there’s no way he doesn’t lip-read, or understand everything via observation of gesture and body language. Still, Pasko has but 17 pages, gotta move that story along.
And I love the social commentary in Metallo being allowed to keep a heart that’s deadly to Superman because ‘it’s less expensive to replace than radium’.
Lana reads Lois as smug, but as written by Pasko, she isn’t; she’s simply self assured, comfortable with where she and Superman are. Over his tenure Pasko had Clark, Superman, Lois and Lana endure endless up and downs, but always edging towards a mature relationship between the future Mr & Mrs Superman. And Swan and Hunt beautifully capture this nuanced Lois.
Pasko even gave us new supporting characters such as associate news producer Martin Korda, who, after being introduced amid villainous shenanigans, has settled in as comic relief for readers tired of the boorish Steve Lombard.
Having the opening fight with Metallo switch from ‘live action’ to TV recording is a clever touch on Pasko’s part, refreshing the action while moving us forward in time.
I loved re-reading this comic. Sure, there’s a nostalgic element, but it’s nostalgia for a Superman issue that has a strong plotline, intelligent action and characters who move the story forward. At base, it’s a hugely entertaining superhero yarn, and Pasko did this every single month. He’s one of the best Superman writers ever and DC should collect his entire run.
As for what happens next, the story only gets better. Here’s that link to Supergirl Comic Box Commentary… Anj is waiting for you.