Editors rarely get credit for the good stuff their writers and artists do and usually get the blame for the bad stuff they do (that goes for sports coaches, music producers and most other people in that situation).
When I first joined "organized" comic book fandom in the early '70s, the primary source material for behind the scenes information, articles on comics from past decades, interviews with the creators, etc. was fanzines. Fanzines are magazines for fans by fans. They were usually money-losers, but full of enthusiasm. 300 copies was considered a big print run. I tried to get as many as I could and read them over and over.
That's where I first learned who did what back when no credits were given on the comics themselves. That's where I learned how comics were done, about the creative process involved, and about the craft of creating comic books. The more I learned, the more I appreciated them. I also learned the names of people responsible for changing an editorial direction of a certain series for the better. Or for worse.
Jack Schiff's name came up a lot in the latter category. He edited Batman comics in the late '50s and early '60s, when the Darknight Detective fought monsters and aliens nearly every issue. Those storylines seemed so out of place and formulized, especially coming as they did between two excellent periods for the character: the late '40s/early '50s of Whitney Ellsworth and the mid-'60s of Julie Schwartz. (We knew who the editors were because they were listed in the indicias' small type in the front of every comic.)
By talking to various creators, the early fanzine writers knew that the writers of the wonderful Batman stories from the late '40s and early '50s were the same as the ones of the uninspired tales (to be kind) of what came to be known as "The Jack Schiff Era," so we KNEW where the blame lay: with the editor. Some of the fanzine writers were livid about what Schiff did to one of their favorite characters. "Jack Schiff" became an adjective for an editor who just collected a paycheck, had no feel for the characters and writers he was editing and ruined the good work of his predecessors.
In the course of interviewing creators for 'Nuff Said!, I spoke with quite a few writers and artists from the late '40s and early '50s. Each of them thanked me for the nice things I and the callers had to say about their work, but wanted to share the credit with their editor: Jack Schiff. Jack was the real editor then, not Whit Ellsworth, who was more the editor-in-chief although he was the hands-on editor of the Superman books.
I admit I was surprised when I first heard that, since it contradicted what I'd been reading about Jack for a couple of DECADES. But then I kept hearing it: praise for Jack Schiff. One of the best editors in the business, so many people called him. He left the writers alone when they wanted to be left alone and gave intelligent guidance when they asked for it. He never told them what kind of stories they had to write or draw (accepted thought said otherwise). He never interfered in a negative way, not like (they name him, so I will as well) Mort Weisinger (Mort edited the Superman books in the 1950s and ‘60s and is to be credited for introducing many concepts that are considered "Classic Superman" today. His knack for raising sales figures and keeping them high shows him to be excellent at what he did, even as his bluster and personality pissed off a lot of creators with the way he did it).
Now that I knew Jack Schiff was responsible for the good stuff, I started asking these creators what happened during the '50s to change the direction of the Batman books from classic great comics to classic bad comics. The assumption had been those science fiction B-movies of the '50s (the movies which make so many old-time science fiction fans cringe at the term "sci fi"). But actually, the Superman TV show is what happened. Whitney Ellsworth went to Hollywood to oversee production. He was the perfect choice. Besides editing the Superman comics, he knew a lot of people in Hollywood from when he quit DC after he married an actress in the late '30s and moved to Hollywood for her career. Whit's presence is probably the main reason the source material of "mere comic books" was treated with some respect on the Superman TV show even as the Senate of the United States was condemning them (quite amazing when you think of it in that context).
When Whit left New York, Whit's assistant Mort Weisinger became the editor of the Superman titles. So what does this have to do with Batman? DC Comics, especially then, was more like a combination of separate companies, all under different editors, than one company with one universe (for the most part, the "DC universe" really didn't come until much later). But they still all worked in the same office. Mort's rather fiery personality, so I'm told, completely overwhelmed Jack's more introverted personality and he convinced Jack to put more sci fi (meaning that in the pejorative b-movie sense) into Batman. Mort was also friendlier with the boss, Jack Liebowitz, which might also have influenced Jack into listening to Mort.
I'm sure it seemed logical and commercial to Mort. Those movies were doing well. The concepts were working for Superman, which outsold Batman (though the TV show was probably the major influence there, as it would be when the reverse was true in the mid-'60s). Most fans look upon it as trying, and failing, to turn a concept into something it was not. Of course, that is done even more often and with less success in current comics. I'm sure most of you can think of plenty of examples.
But leave Jack Schiff alone!
This article originally appeared on the fantasticon web site in 1999.
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