Comic Book Legends Revealed #504
Welcome to the five hundred and fourth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the first five hundred (I actually haven’t been able to update it in a while. It’s actually kind of weird. I’ll work on it!). This week is a speciall All-Superman edition! Did Superman really cause a disagreement between Albert Einstein and Isaac Asimov? Did the introduction of the Supermobile in Action Comics inspire the toy or was it the other way around? And did DC seriously fabricate a bunch of “famous” Lois Lane stories?
NOTE: The column is on three pages, a page for each legend. There’s a little “next” button on the top of the page and the bottom of the page to take you to the next page (and you can navigate between each page by just clicking on the little 1, 2 and 3 on the top and the bottom, as well).
COMIC LEGEND: Superman’s speed sparked a disagreemnt between Albert Einstein and Isaac Asimov
Superman comics often depicted Superman’s speed. And while the exact levels of his speed rarely came into play, when they DID, they were often described as being at some pretty over-the-top levels, like 1954’s Superman #89, which shows that Superman is faster than light and time itself.
So it IS true that Superman comics of the early 1950s featured at least one instance of Superman discussing being faster than the speed of light.
Okay, so we go to the story at hand. Larry Tye, in his great book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, discusses Mort Weisinger a bit, beginning with how weird it was for Jerry Siegel to be working for Weisinger, having some guy tell HIM, the creator of Superman, how Superman was supposed to act…
Whatever Jerry thought, it was Mort who now was Superman’s boss as well as his mouthpiece…An MIT class sent Mort a letter from Albert Einstein, who asserted that nothing, not even Superman, could move faster than the speed of light. Mort consulted his “good friend” Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, who said that “Professor Einstein’s statement is based on theory. Superman’s speed is based on fact.” Mort knew everyone, or pretended to, and he had no shame promoting himself and his comic book star despite his feigned modesty.
It’s a great line and a great story.
Now is it TRUE?
Right off the bat, a big red flag for me is the fact that Mort Weisinger did not even officially take over the Superman titles until around 1957 (officially 1958). When he took over officially, it was a pretty big demarcation point – as he changed the books dramatically, including stuff like adding a letters column. Weisinger’s letters columns were famous (I have a whole feature just devoted to Weisinger’s letters columns). Weisinger was certainly no shrinking violet – he loved publicity and he pretty much made himself the public face of the Superman comics when he took over. So right there, it just seems unlikely that the scenario described would have taken place, since Einstein passed away in early 1955.
However, while Weisinger OFFICIALLY took over in 1957/1958, he had been working for DC editorial since the 1940s and had specifically been working on the Superman books for a number of years under Whitney Ellsworth, who eventually gave up the Superman titles because of his involvement with the Superman television series. Ellsworth began working on the Superman TV series in the early 1950s, so there were a number of years there where while Ellsworth was still enough in charge that Weisinger couldn’t put his own stamp on the book, Weisinger was likely doing a lot of the day-to-day editorial work on the Superman titles of the time (except for the time when Weisinger was also out in Hollywood working on the show, too. I presume Jack Schiff was covering things then). So theoretically, if something wanted to contact a Superman editor in 1954-1955, Weisinger possibly could be that guy (although, again, there was no letter column at the time, so it seems a bit hard to believe that the class would send in a letter before there was a letters column – as an aside, before there were letters columns, comic would use text pieces instead, like this one from 1953’s Action Comics #178…
But here’s where the story really falls apart for me. The first time this story was ever told was by Mort Weisinger himself, a year before he died. In the lead up to the Superman movie’s release in 1978, there was a lot of interest in Superman and in October of 1977, Weisinger wrote about his history with Superman in a long piece that was syndicated in a number of newspapers across the country. And in that piece, Weisinger tells that story just about the way that Tye does. Tye, in fact, is quoting Weisinger there (Weisinger refers to Asimov as his “good friend,” hence Tye’s quotes for that). However, note what else Tye says about Weisinger:
Mort knew everyone, or pretended to,
The bolding is mine, but Tye gets the point across well. Weisinger was always known to involve himself in a bit of puffery during his lifetime. So the notion that this story just magically appeared over twenty years after it allegedly took place just sounds like a load of hooey (especially as it requires us to believe that Weisinger wouldn’t have bragged about it in public before 1977).
Which leads to the nail in the story’s coffin. Here’s Asimov himself in Nebula Winners Fourteen in 1980, three years after Weisinger invented the tale:
Weisinger, a couple of years ago, made up the following story:
“Isaac Asimov was asked how Superman could fly faster than the speed of light, which was supposed to be an absolute limit. To this Asimov replied, ‘That the speed of light is a limit is a theory; that Superman can travel faster than light is a fact.’”
I assure you it never happened and I never said it, but it will be repeated, I am quite certain, indefinitely, and it will probably be found in Bartlett’s quotations a century from now, attributed to me, after all my writings have been forgotten.
Obviously, Asimov is remembering the made up quote slightly incorrectly, but the main point is that:
A. It seemed highly unlikely that the story ever happened
B. One half of the parties quoted in the story specifically said it didn’t happen.
That’s enough for a false from me!
Thanks to Larry Tye and Isaac Asimov!
Check out my latest Movie Legends Revealed at Spinoff Online: Did the Ghostbusters originally travel through time and other dimensions?
On the next page, which came first – the Supermobile TOY or the Supermobile’s appearance in Action Comics?
January 2, 2015 at 10:01 am
Its possible the date on the release of the super mobile is wrong or perhaps it release was staggered in different markets – the super heroes range (batman, superman, spiderman) was advertised in the 1978 corgi catalog including the supermobile. I distinctly remember buying that issue of Action Comics and running out to buy the Supermobile soon after. However, I live in the UK (as does Corgi) and it was common for US comics to be distributed sporadically and stay on the racks for months – I do remember being at the seaside at the time when I bought the comic so it would have been summer 1978 (any time between June and August). Also, I seem to recall having two – a larger one with detailed Superman cockpit figure and a smaller ‘Matchbox’ with a basic non-painted superman pilot – perhaps the small one was released first?
January 2, 2015 at 10:23 am
Phantom Lois Lane Stories? Sounds like a job for Grant Morrison! Quick, spin up an alternate Earth and get those lost Lois stories published, pronto!
January 2, 2015 at 10:47 am
I feel like I’ve read a story where Lois goes to Krypton (she ends up competing with Lara for Jor-El, the less said about that the better), but it was in one of the Showcases, which start in the late ’50s, so it definitely didn’t see print in 1944.
January 2, 2015 at 11:05 am
As publication in those days was irregular, as were numbering and dating of issues, isn’t it possible that at least a few of those stories were published but have since been entirely lost?
Andy E. Nystrom
January 2, 2015 at 11:10 am
Aside from being pre-Internet, one other advantage Mort had was that in his era there were little to no collected editions unless you count reprint Annuals as such. So not only can someone with the actual issues fact check these days, so can someone with with the proper Omnibus/Archives/Showcase Presents volume.
By the way, Superman: The Golden Age Omnibus should be part of any Superman fan’s collection. Every Superman story from cover date June 1938 (first appearance) to December 1940 in order of publication, alas missing Lois Lane Cub Reporter and Lois Lane’s College Sweetheart due to them not existing.
January 2, 2015 at 11:11 am
Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez is such an incredible artist that he can make even a dopey concept like the Supermobile look cool.
January 2, 2015 at 11:12 am
Even as a kid, when the supermobile story first came out, I immediately knew it was created as a toy tie-in. I’m not sure whether I had previously seen the toy advertised (could it have been advertised before it actually was available?) or it was just that it looked like it was based on a toy, but there was no question in my mind, either way.
Andy E. Nystrom
January 2, 2015 at 11:21 am
“As publication in those days was irregular, as were numbering and dating of issues, isn’t it possible that at least a few of those stories were published but have since been entirely lost?”
Extremely unlikely. Action, Superman, Showcase, and Lois Lane had consistent numbering until the reboots of the 1980s and I’ve never heard of any inconsistent publishing for those specific titles. Plus those titles are of key interest to collectors and have been well documented and many stories within reprinted. And Overstreet would note if an issue of any of those titles was believed to be completely destroyed. I just did a keyword search for “Lois Lane’s College Sweetheart” and the only references I found were about it not actually existing. In some cases thematically similar stories probably do exist (like Lois visiting Krypton as noted above) but not those exact stories.
January 2, 2015 at 11:34 am
Well, seeing as Mort had a reputation for misrepresentation, and seeing as I have absolutely no empirical or anecdotal evidence to support my hypothesis, Occam’s Razor…
January 2, 2015 at 12:34 pm
I totally had a Supermobile toy when I was a kid, though I was savvy to the fact that it wasn’t really a thing (well, hardly a thing) in the comics.
January 2, 2015 at 12:40 pm
Interesting that Superman did not know his home planet was called Krypton in 1944 despite having Kryptonite as a weakness in 1943, on the radio.