Superman 1.20: Contest of Champions

Sure, you like Superman; maybe you like him a whole lot. But did you spend six weeks in 1977 going from one newsstand to another, hunting for copies of Aquaman, Jonah Hex, Starfire, Unknown Soldier, Challengers of the Unknown, The Secret Society of Super-Villains, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth and Welcome Back, Kotter, each at 35 cents a throw, just for the chance to win a walk-on part in Superman: The Movie? There are all kinds of heroes in this world.

I don’t know where you were in late spring 1977, but unless you were Edward Finneran and Tim Hussey — and how many of us, in these troubled times, can truthfully say that we were — then you must have been wasting your time and your nickels. The event was called The Great Superman Movie Contest, and it propelled Mr. Finneran and Mr. Hussey into a very brief but memorable career in blockbuster movies.

Specifically, they appear in the shot where the football players run past Clark and the shouty coach, and drop their helmets at Clark’s feet. The two contest winners are the kids in gray, and as they pass Clark, they each spin around and say, “See you later, Clark!” — “See you later, Clark!” It’s really cute.

I don’t like to pick favorites, but I have to say that I think Mr. Hussey, who’s the first one in line, gives a better performance. Young Finneran is good, I’m not saying he’s not, but there is a kind of artless grace in Hussey’s spin that I think elevates his performance above the ordinary.

Superman: The Movie was the first big-budget comic book film, and the relationship between the film and the comic book was fairly complex. Editor Julie Schwartz was in charge of the Superman titles at DC, and he didn’t think that the comic should do anything in particular to connect to the film; Schwartz thought the books were selling just fine, and the movie would bring new readers to the comic. It didn’t, as it turned out, but that’s a story we’ll pick up another day.

In 1977, Superman was the brightest star in the DC Comics firmament, headlining six regular titles — Superman, Action Comics, Adventure Comics presents Superboy, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Superman Family and World’s Finest, plus featured roles in The Super Friends and Justice League of America.

DC clearly saw that it was helpful to have a Superman-heavy presence on the newsstands when the movie came out — Adventure Comics switched from featuring Aquaman to Superboy in October 1977; they added a seventh title, a Superman team-up book called DC Comics Presents in August 1978; and they published four extra-large format Superman comics throughout ’78, including Superman vs Muhammad Ali, which we will definitely be discussing in detail at a later date.

But the only direct connection between the comics and the movie were two brief but exciting promotional activities — The Great Superman Movie Contest in spring 1977, and The Second Great Superman Movie Contest in fall 1978.

The first contest offered a grand prize of spinning around and saying “See you later, Clark” in a feature film, plus hanging out with Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill in Calgary and getting a tour of the DC offices in New York.

Entering the contest was a bit of a rush. On the letters pages of selected DC comics with August and September cover dates, there was a little strip at the bottom with a letter on it. You needed to collect enough letters to spell out two words: S-U-P-E-R-M-A-N, and then either C-L-A-R-K or K-A-L-E-L. That’s 13 comics total, and not necessarily the ones that you wanted.

The contest ran in comics with August and September cover dates, which came out in late spring, because cover dates are always dated a few months ahead of your lived experience. There were only 9 issues with August cover dates that had the contest, and 33 issues with September dates, so it was mostly a one-month experience; I bet there were a lot of kids asking for an advance on their allowance, so they could break into show business.

You had to have your submission in by July 15th. They chose the winners on July 18th, and then notified the prize winners by telegram; the winners had to hustle out to Calgary just a few weeks later.

The kids had a good time, which is nice; Mr. Finneran wrote an article for Back Issue magazine in 2018, and talked about what a neat experience it was. It was probably a little deflating that they didn’t get to meet Christopher Reeve or Margot Kidder, or see anybody in a Superman costume flying around Pinewood Studios, but they met the stars of the 1940s serials and they got to see Calgary in August.

The Second Great Superman Movie Contest happened in late fall 1978 — in comics with January and February ’79 cover dates, natch — and was considerably more difficult to enter.

The first prize was “the actual cape worn by Christopher Reeve in the filming of Superman: The Movie!” which is very cool; I can imagine “Do you want to come over and see Superman’s cape?” could be an effective pickup line, in the right circumstances. I don’t know if other people measure things in pickup potential, but I do, and there is game in Superman’s cape.

Entering was rough, though. You needed to get hold of at least 25 different DC titles — an almost 100% increase from the first contest’s paywall — and each one had a multiple-choice question about Superman history. The questions were randomly distributed over 40 issues, including House of Mystery, The Unexpected and Weird Western Tales, and you just had to keep buying comics until you collected all 25 questions.

And DC Comics was not fucking around with these questions. If you think that multiple choice questions are easy, then DC Comics will deliver a hard lesson about reality.

Here’s question #1:

Women with the initials “L.L.” have always played an important part in Superman’s life. He met one such woman, Lori Lemaris, the mermaid from Atlantis…

a) as Clark Kent while on assignment at sea for the Daily Planet
b) when he saved the underwater city from destruction
c) when she telepathically contacted him for help
d) while Clark was a student at Metropolis University

And that is question number one. You would think they’d go easy on the first couple, get you accustomed to your situation, but no: they go straight to 1959 mermaid knowledge. Life is stern and life is earnest, children, and if you do not appreciate that, then DC Comics is here to educate you on the subject.

The answer is d), by the way, which I happen to know because I take an interest in undersea superhero relations.

But I am not special, and here is question #9 to prove it:

Nearly everyone on Krypton owned a “Jor-El”, an amazing creation named after the man who invented it. The “Jor-El” was…

a) an all-purpose vehicle for land, sea and air
b) a home-maintenance robot
c) a robot teacher
d) a portable weather-control device

The internet has informed me of the answer to this question, thanks to the Supermanica wiki, but I didn’t have internet access in fall 1978, so I would have fallen flat on this one. It comes from a 1960 Superman story called “The Revenge Against Jor-El!” and the target market for this contest was not even alive in 1960. The Second Great Superman Movie Contest does not like you. It thinks you suck, and it wants you to fail.

#8 is a fun one, as well:

Everybody knows Jor-El had a younger brother, Zor-El, who was Supergirl’s father. Jor-El also had a twin brother named…

a) Amn-El
b) Mon-El
c) Kal-El
d) Ral-El
e) Nim-El

The thing I like about this question is that it starts out saying that “everybody knows” something that I don’t believe I’d ever heard of. It’s basically saying that you have already failed at this question before the question has even started, and “everybody” knows how ignorant you are. Why are you still trying? says The Second Great Superman Movie Contest. You worthless sack of shit.

I’m going to give you a couple more, just in case you still have a will to live. Here’s #18:

According to the Superman television program of the 1950s, before becoming editor of the Daily Planet, Perry held the post of…

a) Commissioner of Police for Metropolis
b) Mayor of Metropolis
c) ambassador to the Court of St. James
d) representative to Congress

The answer to this one, obviously, is I don’t know, how could I possibly know this, I live in 1978 and I am only a child.

This one knocks me out, question #24:

Lara’s occupation before she met Jor-El was…

a) computer programmer
b) astronaut
c) usherette at a 3D video theatre
d) inventor
e) physicist

So, again, I don’t know, and the only way I could know is if I wait several decades for the internet to be invented, and then Supermanica would tell me that “she worked in a shop that manufactured robots”, which isn’t even one of the choices.

But everybody had to do their best and get a postcard to DC Comics by January 2nd. They received 2,000 entries, which they had to grade by hand, and only 21 entrants got all 25 questions right. To pick the winner, they got Christopher Reeve to come and do the drawing — he was in New York to do the Today Show, which was right across the street from DC’s offices.

The winner of the Superman cape was Darvin Metzger of Bountiful, Utah, who enjoyed it very much, as naturally he would. Of the other 20 entrants who got all the answers right, Reeve picked 10 out of the box as second prize winners, who each got a page of original Superman art by Curt Swan. The other 10 got a 2-year subscription to their favorite DC comic.

To qualify for a third prize, the entrants had to get at least 15 questions correct, and they were supposed to each get a one-year subscription to their favorite comic. But then it turned out that 1,400 of the 2,000 entrants qualified, and that’s a lot of one-year subscriptions to give away. So they sent all the third prizers a form to fill out that offered them a one-year subscription, or…… they could get a “DC Prize Pack” of 20 books that would include “classics from the DC library” (i.e., old back issues that were lying around), some foreign editions (which were also lying around) and at least one autographed comic (autographed by whoever happened to be in the office). Apparently, enough winners opted for the DC Prize Pack that DC Comics managed to stay solvent for a little while.

And what about the cape? Well, Darvin sold it in 1988 for $600, and then it turned up at a Sotheby’s auction in 1997, where it sold for $23,000. It changed hands again in 2019 at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills for $155,000.

Somehow, all of this activity sold either comic books or movie tickets or both, and then Superman fought Muhammad Ali, for the sake of intergalactic peace. We’ll check back with DC Comics again soon to see what else they got up to in 1978, but first, let’s get the hell out of Smallville.

This weekend:
91.1: The Murderability of Crowds.


Footnotes:

After all that, if you’re still interested in learning more about the contest and the cape, there’s a 2020 Esquire article about what happened to the cape that is unbelievably extensive and also a fun read, if you’re into that kind of thing. There’s also a 2013 blog post by DC production direction Bob Rozakis about the behind-the-scenes intrigue of the second contest.

You can also read up on Lori Lemaris in “The Girl in Superman’s Past” (Superman #129, May 1959), and the “Jor-El” in “The Revenge Against Jor-El!” (Superman #134, Jan 1960).

This weekend:
91.1: The Murderability of Crowds.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

16 thoughts on “Superman 1.20: Contest of Champions

  1. The Second Great Superman Movie Contest offers as “Ten Second Prizes” a Page of Original Superman Artwork. That wording is ambiguous. It could mean the winner gets to keep the prize for ten seconds. They hand you the page of super-artwork and let you read it for ten seconds. Then they snatch it away from you and hand it to the next winner for his or her ten seconds.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Can I say that I love Lori’s ruffled party dress, Donna Reed pearls and good girl hairdo? Yeah, she’s a mermaid but not EVERY mermaid wears a seashell bra. pre raphaelite tresses and ropes of the undersea jewels, thank you very much. Even if they’re reading your thoughts without permission for years on end, SOME mermaids are ladies.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Based on what Larry Niven says about Clark/Lois (“Superman is no relative to homo sapiens” is the tamest line in that section), I can only imagine what he’d have thought of Clark/Lori (although, hey, it was college — everyone experiments, right?) BTW, Niven was arguably wrong about Clark/Lois — at least in the TV Arrowverse continuity — given that they can produce viable offspring.

        Pulling our heads out of the collective gutter for a moment, fans in the mid-70’s would have been familiar with the Superman television program of the 1950s, “Thank you, Syndication Man!” “No problem. Now, my work here is done! Away!”

        Unfortunately, Syndication Man’s superpower is cutting 6+ minutes out of old episodes of _The Prisoner_ and _Star Trek: TOS_ to accommodate today’s longer commercial breaks…

        PS, IIRC, that show is next weekends’ Binge on Decades TV.

        Like

      2. Unfortunately, Syndication Man’s superpower is cutting 6+ minutes out of old episodes of _The Prisoner_ and _Star Trek: TOS_ to accommodate today’s longer commercial breaks…

        PS, IIRC, that show is next weekends’ Binge on Decades TV.

        The Prisoner was last week’s Binge.

        Like

    1. From time to time I stop in our local comic book store and thumb through the back issues. There were so many comics printed in the late 70s, and so many comic book buyers of those days saved everything they bought, that comics with banners on the cover promoting those contests are a big chunk of every box of vintage DC titles. So I, for one, am reminded of the contests whenever I do that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My heart goes out to Darvin Metzger, who got a measly $600 for the cape, and has to be aware that it sold for, well, considerably more money. If only he’d held onto it a while longer. His decision to sell it early was not, ahem, bountiful.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I WAS alive in the 1950s, I DID watch Superman and I had NO IDEA Perry ever had any other job.
    Could you submit multiple entries covering each possibility?
    Oh, how I wish Lara had been an usherette at a 3-D video theater!
    Looking forward to Superman v Ali.
    Also–there was a Welcome Back, Kotter comic book?!

    Like

  5. I live in about 20 miles from Bountiful and so it was “Super” awesome to read that a fellow Utahn had won the cape. But so disheartening to see that Mr. Metzger sold for way too low…but I can’t blame him as he was in serious need of money at the time.

    Like

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