An Interview With Cary Bates - The Silver Age Superman Scribe Discusses DC

Written by Bryan Stroud

Cary Bates (on the left) sits with Elliot S Maggin (on the right).

Cary Bates (born in 1948) is an American comic book, animation, television and film writer. He is best known for his work on titles like The Flash and Superman. Cary began submitting ideas for comic book covers to DC Comics at the age of 13, and a number of them were bought and published. The first was the cover to Superman #167 (Feb. 1964) when he was 17. Bates spent most of his career at DC Comics working on Superman and the super-family of heroes, although he also worked on Justice League of America, Captain Atom, and several other titles. He began working for the publisher in 1963 and continued to do so until the early 1990s. Among his contributions to the Superman mythos, he and artist Curt Swan co-created the supervillains Terra-Man, the 1970’s version of the Toyman, and the superhero Vartox. In 1972, Bates and artist Art Saaf launched the first Supergirl series.

Justice League of America (1960) #123 pg.13.

Bates caused quite a stir among fans when he wrote The Flash #275 (July 1979) wherein the title character's wife, Iris West Allen was killed. And a major shakeup occurred when The Flash would inadvertently kill his wife's murderer (Reverse-Flash) in The Flash #324 (Aug. 1983). This led to the story "The Trial of the Flash" in which the hero must face the repercussions of his actions. Bates became the editor as well as the writer of The Flash title during this time and oversaw it until its cancellation in 1985.

Bates appeared in his own comics as himself several times, alongside superheroes such as the Silver Age version of The Flash and the Justice League of America. In 1987 and 1988, he wrote some stories for Marvel Comics' New Universe line and created the Video Jack series at Epic Comics with Keith Giffen.

His other work includes the comic strips The Lone Ranger (1980–1983), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1981–1983), and Disney's Gargoyles during the 1990s. In 2008 he returned after a 20-year absence to Marvel and wrote True Believers, a limited series about a team trying to uncover secrets in the Marvel Universe. Bates made a return to writing Superman, this time as an Elseworlds story titled Superman: The Last Family of Krypton, published in August 2010.

Maybe it was because he was a character in a Justice League of America story I read as a boy or maybe it was simply my enjoyment of the stories he crafted, but I set out to interview Cary Bates and it was a little challenging to find him.  He doesn't seem to do conventions or keep a higher profile like some of his peers, but thanks to a little luck I was able to enjoy an e-mail interview with a writer I've long admired.

This interview originally took place via email on August 21, 2011.

Action Comics (1938) #354, written by Cary Bates. Cover by Curt Swan.

Bryan Stroud: Who hired you?

Cary Bates: Mort Weisinger was the first editor I worked for. He was familiar with me from the dozen or so cover ideas of mine he used in the mid-sixties. Once I attempted writing he bought my second attempt at a full script (and the cover idea to go with it). It was an imaginary story for World’s Finest Comics.

Stroud: As a lettercol writer from Ohio, did you ever imagine you’d work for DC?

Bates: Not at first… but once both Mort and Julie Schwartz began using some of the cover ideas I submitted, it seemed like less and less of a stretch.

Stroud: When did you first visit the DC offices?

Bates: The summer of 1964. They were at 575 Lexington Avenue in those days.

Stroud: Did you have a favorite Silver Age story as a fan?  

Bates: Way too many to choose from. Oddly enough, I was a huge fan of both Mort and Julie’s books. Even though their approaches were vastly different in many ways, both editors were ‘old school’ when it came to story hooks. They preferred to start with a strong cover first, then sit down with a writer to work out the plot to go with it. I supplied cover ideas for all my early scripts for both editors. But certain stories of theirs were direct inspirations for stories of mine. For example, Julie and Gardner Fox came up with “Flash of Two Worlds”(which introduced Jay Garrick and Earth-Two), and that in turn led me to create Earth Prime (see below).

Stroud: How about a favorite that you wrote?

Bates: I’ve always had a fondness for “Flash: Fact or Fiction” which introduced the concept of Earth Prime. In fact I just wrote a “sequel” of sorts (guest-starring Julie Schwartz again) some forty years later for the Justice League Retroactive 70’s book that DC put out this summer. And the double-sized Flash #300 I did with Carmine [Infantino], which was an overview of Flash’s entire career wrapped up in a macabre plot that posited a hospitalized Barry Allen wrapped in bandages, who it turns out, was struck by lightning years ago in his police lab... and was now discovering that his entire life as the Flash was a fantasy he created to help him forget he is paralyzed and bed-ridden.

DC Comics Presents (1978) #10, written by Cary Bates. Cover by Ross Andru & Dick Giordano.

For Mort, one of my favorites was a three-part story for Action Comics where the Time Trapper sent Superman on a one way trip into the future much farther than anyone has ever gone before, so far in fact, time finally looped on itself and Superman’s life began all over again. I can’t speak for Mort but for me this story was definitely influenced by Kubrick’s 2001, which had just come out the year before.

Stroud: You wrote in many genres, superhero, Western, mystery, etc.  Did you have a favorite?

Bates: Probably super-heroes… though I always enjoy trying to pull off genre mash-ups. In retrospect I never thought the Superman villain Terra Man that Julie and I created ever quite worked on all cylinders. I had much the same feeling watching “Cowboys and Aliens”, which I felt was a not-entirely-successful 2011 attempt to combine westerns and science-fiction.

Stroud: Was there a storyline or lines you wanted to tell that were rejected?

Bates: Oh sure. One that comes to mind was a pre-John Byrne proposal for a Superman reboot that would have seen Superman clinically die and be brought back to life… only to discover he had been ‘de-powered’ and had partial amnesia, in essence “erasing” much of his past history (at least from his mind, anyway). In general it had some of the elements of the Byrne version but without resorting to a total continuity wipe of all the Weisinger stuff.

Stroud: It seems Mort Weisinger had a problem with the hippie culture at the time. True?

Bates: I never discussed it with him, but yeah, you could say he had “issues” with the younger generation. Whenever I came up to the DC offices to see him, he insisted I wear a tie (and I believe this rule was applied to [Jim] Shooter as well). Mort once told me he didn’t want Jack Liebowitz (DC’s owner back in the day) to walk by his office to see him talking to some “hippie”. But on the plus side at least he didn’t ask me to get a haircut.

Stroud: Did you create any characters?

Bates: During the Silver Age, several Legionnaires and few Superman villains (Faora, Terra Man, Captain Strong, etc.). Most of the original characters I came up with appeared in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s (Steve Lombard, the Captain Atom supporting cast, a few new Flash villains and supporting characters).

Captain Atom (1987) #1, written by Cary Bates. Cover by Pat Broderick.

Stroud: Among the superhero books you worked on did you have a preference?

Bates: I was always partial to Superman and Flash, which is probably no surprise to anyone given my long tenures with both characters.

Stroud: Many artists interpreted your stories, such as Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Ross Andru and Kurt Shaffenberger.  Who did you feel the best job interpreting your scripts?

Bates: I especially enjoyed my Superman and Flash stories with Swan and Infantino, since I was a big fan of both artists when I was reading DC comics as a kid. Curt must’ve drawn close to two hundred of my Superman stories and Carmine did the last several years of Flash’s run with me. But in retrospect though I will say it might have been better for my career if I had worked with a wider range of artists, especially some of the younger up-and-comers of the era.

Stroud: You were pretty much exclusive to DC, but did a little work for Marvel and Warren. What were the differences in the companies?

Bates: The non-DC work was either limited or short-lived. At Warren I was writing occasional stories over a two-year period and only had contact with the editor, Louise Simonson. At Marvel, I was working exclusively with Bob Harras, writing fill-ins on a few of the New Universe titles before the whole line was cancelled. I was exclusive to DC at the time I was doing Warren stories, so I had to get a special rider attached to my contract. The New Universe stuff came along after I had lost both Superman and Flash as regular assignments, so it helped fill in the gaps while I was ramping up Captain Atom and Silverblade at DC. 

Stroud: Which editors did you enjoy working with?

Bates: I got along well with just about all of them, but I’ll probably always remember Julie as the one who was the most entertaining. As I mentioned I got to revisit Earth-Prime when I was asked to write the 70’s edition of the DC Retroactive JLA… so I gave Julie a big guest starring role. Maybe it was because my four years with Mort had prepared me for anything, but for the most part I was able to get along with just about every editor I was teamed with, including grizzled veterans like Murray Boltinoff and Bob Kanigher, who rarely end up on anyone’s favorites list.

Adventure Comics (1938) #381, written by Cary Bates. Cover by Curt Swan & Neal Adams.

Stroud: You wrote Superman #200, one of my all-time favorites, and Superman #300, another favorite.  Was that by chance or by design?

Bates: Not really…it just turned out my tenure on the character was long enough for me to be there for both of those landmark issues. I believe #200 was Wayne Boring’s very last Superman story… and #300 (which I co-wrote with Elliot Maggin) was the story that Mark Millar went on record as saying served as the inspiration for his “Superman Red Son” graphic novel.

Stroud: You followed the Gardner Fox notion of writing Julie and other “Earth Prime” characters into comics.  Cary Bates even became a super villain.  Was that enjoyable or did it make it harder to plot?

Bates: While Julie and Gardner Fox both appeared in a Strange Adventures one off story in 1962, I believe I was the first person to write Julie into DC continuity when I created Earth-Prime (Flash #179, “Flash: Fact or Fiction”).   At the time I had recently started working for Mort, who tended to be very territorial with his writers but he made an exception to “loan” me out to his long-time friend Julie.  It was the first story I ever wrote for Schwartz ( in the summer of 1967, though it didn’t appear until the following year).   The story has been reprinted many times but for some reason one of those reprint versions erroneously placed Fox’s name over my credit.

Stroud: You’ve been depicted a couple of times by artists, to include Dick Dillin and Kurt Shaffenberger.  Who did you the most justice, so to speak?

Bates: Maybe the Irv Novick version. It appeared in a 70’s Flash story where I ventured to Earth-One.

Stroud: Whose idea was the photo cover featuring you, [Bob] Rozakis, [Nelson] Bridwell, Jack C. Harris and Carl Gafford on Superman #289?

Bates: I can recall the four of us and a photographer traipsed over to Park Avenue on a cold winter’s day for that shoot, but I have no idea who came up with the notion of putting real people on the cover.

Justice League of America (1960) #124 pg.7

Stroud: Was writing Hercules different from writing other mythological stories?

Bates: Not so much. The main attraction of that assignment was getting a chance to work with Walt Simonson. I think I only did two or three issues with him before it was cancelled.

Stroud: You were one of the new young writers and even followed Jim Shooter on the Legion.  Did you feel at all intimidated?

The Flash (1959) #179, written by Cary Bates. Cover by Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

Bates: Back then (mid-late sixties), Shooter and I were anomalies; before we came along, DC had never hired teenagers to write major books and characters. Jim and I didn’t meet until years after Mort retired, though he would tried to fan the flames of competition (and insecurity) by telling each of us the other guy was the better writer. Looking back, Shooter and I were probably resented by any number of veteran writers in their 40’s and 50’s who had been slogging away at DC for years.

Stroud: Did you have any aspirations to edit?

Bates: No. Sitting behind a desk 9 to 5 dealing with writers, artists, schedules, office politics, etc. was never something I aspired to. Toward the end of my 15 year stint on the Flash I did take on a writer-editor role, but that was to expedite matters once it had been determined the book was being phased out to accommodate Flash’s imminent death in the Crisis cross over.

Stroud: You share some co-writing credits with Elliot Maggin and Martin Pasko.  How does co-writing work?

Bates: With Elliot, after we worked out the plot together I would do the panel breakdowns and then he would write the dialogue balloons. It happened at least twice… once on the two part JLA-JSA team-up that featured Earth-Prime… and an acclaimed four-part Superman story that appeared in the mid-seventies, “Who Took the Super Out of Superman”.

Stroud: Writing is a very solitary exercise.  Were deadlines difficult?

Bates: It depends. When juggling two or three regular books at once, missing a deadline can cause a cascade effect that can really screw you up. For scheduling reasons most of the stuff I wrote for DC in 80’s was done in two stages… first I’d write the panel breakdowns in order to get pages to an artist ASAP… then write the dialogue balloons weeks later on top of the penciled pages. But often even when I was on time schedules would overlap so I’d be doing breakdowns for one story while dialoguing another. These days I only do full scripts… and because I don’t have to turn out several books a month, I have the luxury of taking more time on assignments. But there are always exceptions. A few months ago when I took on two of DC’s Retroactive books they were already on the fast track, and my issues were scheduled back to back… all of which meant I had just two and a half weeks to turn in two full 26-page scripts. Invariably anyone who writes comics over the long haul comes up against occasional deadline binds and you have to deliver. It just goes with the job.

Nightmask (1986) #3, written by Cary Bates. Cover by Al Milgrom.

Stroud: What enticed you to go into comics, a relatively scoffed at profession?

Bates: I started very young, submitting cover ideas that started appearing on DC covers from 1964 onward. When I sold my first script in the fall of ’66 I was a freshman in college in Ohio. My parents started having financial problems around that time, so had it not been for my writing I would not have been able to continue paying tuition… so it would not be inaccurate to say Superman put me through college. I graduated with an English degree, which would have probably led me into teaching had I stayed in the real world, but I chose to move to New York to continue writing comics full time.

Stroud: Tell me about your time at Continuity.

Bates: I rented office space there from ’75 to ’88. Several of your other interview subjects (Larry Hama, Greg Theakston) have gone into quite a bit of detail about how Continuity was a sort of an industry hub for freelancers back then, which was definitely true. I think I was the only writer there, everyone else were artists. Aside from all the comics pros that would regularly stop by, you never knew who’d you run into. I remember meeting Siegel and Shuster up there (this was when Neal [Adams] was helping them negotiate a stipend and screen credit from Warners when the first Superman movie was in production). Though Chris Reeve never showed up (to my knowledge), we’d get occasional visits from actors who were associated with comics properties, like Jack Larson (the 50’s Jimmy Olsen). Continuity is also where I first met John Haymes Newton (the original Superboy on the Salkind-Viacom syndicated series from the late ‘80’s). As it turns out, it was the Superboy series that ended by long tenure at Continuity, because the following year (’89) I moved to Florida where the series was being filmed when Ilya Salkind offered me a gig as executive story editor.

Stroud: Please tell me your memories of…Julie Schwartz.

Bates: He could be irascible and intimidating (I think he worked at it) until you got to know him, but I had a head start on just about all of my peers because our working relationship began when I was just 16. At the time I was just a fan and lettercol writer visiting the DC offices (such things were allowed back then)… but I think he was impressed by the fact I had two dozen crudely-drawn covers under my arm (out of that first batch, I think he ended up using 3 or 4 of the ideas). All in all, I worked with Julie for about 20 years consecutively, right up until the Byrne Superman revamp of the mid-eighties.

Justice League of America (1960) #123, written by Elliot S Maggin & Cary Bates. Cover by Dick Dillin.

Stroud: Mort Weisinger.

Bates: As I’ve said, Mort started my writing career. Many others have gone on record over the years how he could be an unpleasant and difficult man, but here again I guess I fared better than most… perhaps because I was just 16 when I first met him. And since he was the first editor I ever worked for, I had no one else to compare him to (except Julie).

Stroud: Jim Shooter.

Bates: As I’ve said, we didn’t actually meet until well after our respective Mort experiences. And since Jim spent the vast majority of his career at Marvel while I was at DC, we never worked together either.

Stroud: Nelson Bridwell.

Bates: I always got a kick out of Nelson’s encyclopedic knowledge of arcane facts and trivia on just about any subject you could imagine. And his range of interests extended far beyond comics. He could recite lengthy passages from Shakespeare without missing a line.

Stroud: Denny O’Neil.

Bates: I shared an office with Denny briefly at 909 Third Ave, DC’s location before the Rockefeller Center days. Because we had become friends in the 70’s, we worked well together in the 80’s when he was my editor on Captain Atom and Silverblade.

Stroud: Wayne Boring.

Bates: Never got to meet the man.

Stroud: Carmine Infantino.

House of Mystery (1951) #240 Pg.9, written by Cary Bates with art from Ruben Yandoc.

Bates: As a kid I was a huge fan of Carmine’s art on Flash, Adam Strange and Julie’s “new look” Batman, but by the time I got to know him he had traded in his drawing board to become DC’s editorial director. Years later in the ‘80’s, when he returned to penciling (and Flash, fortunately for me), it was often surreal for me to contemplate the fact I was now writing the Flash scripts that Carmine was drawing, when twenty years earlier I was just another fan who was eagerly devouring every Flash comic the day it hit the stands.

Stroud: Kurt Shaffenberger.

Bates: Only knew him as someone I’d occasionally say hi to in the halls.

Stroud: Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.

Bates: I don’t believe I ever met Mike, but I worked with Ross for about a year in the late ‘70’s. A real interesting guy, and someone else who had many interests outside of comics. Some of the radical tone and plot shifts that took place in my Flash stories while Ross was the editor were a direct result of his input.

Stroud: Curt Swan.

Bates: All class, a total gentleman. One of my fondest memories of Curt was when he and were flown out on the Warner corporate jet to Metropolis Illinois for the initial grand opening of their Superman exhibit. This was some time in the early ‘70’s.

Stroud: It looks like you left comics in the 80’s, but have recently been making a comeback. Did you feel you had more to contribute?

True Believers (2008) #1, written by Cary Bates. Cover by Paul Gulacy.

Bates: After being away from comics for quite a while, primarily working in TV and animation, it was quite easy for me to get back in the groove again. Maybe because the 15 years I spent doing other things recharged my batteries or something. In any event, over these past three years I created a mini-series for Marvel (True Believers)… for DC I wrote the a 144 page Last Family from Krypton, the first Elseworlds story in over a decade. And aside from the aforementioned Retroactive books I’m currently writing a creator-owned series for DC that will be out sometime in 2012. So I guess the simple answer to your question is “yes”.

Stroud: I was surprised to learn from Len Wein just how many different places a writer can work, such as video games and cartoons.  Have you done any interesting work of this type?

Bates: Of the half dozen or so animated shows I worked on, Gargoyles (for Disney) was probably the most interesting. The producer was Greg Weisman, who was my co-writer on the ‘80’s Captain Atom revival. But in general, for a variety of valid and logistical reasons, you just don’t get the same degree of creative freedom in TV that you get in comics. I also worked on a few video games in the early nineties, but never made the attempt to pursue that field as a career choice.


Bryan Stroud

Bryan Stroud is a longtime fan of DC Comics, particularly the Silver and Bronze Ages, and has been published in a number of places over the last decade plus, to include the magazines Comic Book Creator andLurid Little Nightmare Makers and websites like The Silver Lantern and Comics Bulletin.  Bryan wrote the afterword to “Think Pink,” is a frequent contributor to BACK ISSUE magazine, Ditkomania and co-authored Nick Cardy:  Wit-LashHe and his indulgent wife have dined with Joe and Hilarie Staton and Jim Shooter.  He owns a comic book spinner rack that reminds him of his boyhood.