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The Comics Journal Library 6: The Writers

By Mike Everleth ⋅ April 9, 2006

The Comics Journal Library 6: The Writers

The history of superheroes can be broken up into three eras (so far). The first era began with the creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. This is generally referred to the “Golden Age” of comic books where the superhero tales were generally brief, garish throwaway entertainment. Dozens, if not hundreds, of costumed crimefighters were created during this period with only a couple really striking into the general public’s consciousness: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America. (Superman, Batman and the Captain all also starred in their own movie serials.)

The second era began with the introduction of the Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, which brought a new humanism to superheroes. I believe most comics historians won’t agree with me on this. The conventional wisdom is that Julius Schwartz, John Broome and Carmine Infantino‘s re-invention of the Flash in 1956 initiated comics’ “Silver Age.”

While Schwartz re-invented the DC heroes, like Flash, Green Lantern and the Atom, and grounded them in a science fiction background, they were still in the same mold of the classic, one-dimensional square-jawed heroes. I don’t want to diminish Schwartz’s amazing achievement. What he did was make superheroes popular again after languishing in obscurity for many years and without the phenomenal success of his new Justice League of America, Timely/Atlas publisher Martin Goodman wouldn’t have even asked Stan Lee to create the Fantastic Four. But it was Lee and Kirby’s–and Steve Ditko‘s–humanizing of superheroes that really propelled them to the next level.

For example: The Thing. Lee and Kirby took Schwartz’s science fiction approach to the origin of the entire Fantastic Four. But for their member Thing, while “cosmic rays” give him astounding super-strength on the level of Superman, but at the same time he’s transformed into what looks like a giant turd. It’s a fairly basic characterization, but it gives the Thing a tortured persona that makes him seem more “real” than any hero previously. I think most people can relate: We all think we look like a giant turd at some time or another, don’t we?

Finally, the third era began with Alan Moore‘s groundbreaking miniseries Watchmen in 1986. Where Lee, Kirby and Ditko created superheroes with “real” personalities, Moore posited the idea “What if superheroes existed in the real world?,” bringing an even greater level of realism into the world of superhero comics.

A brilliant history of the first era of superheroes is the massively well-reviewed and well-received Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones, which gets into the lives of both the enthusiastic creators and shady publishers of comic books from the ’30s to the ’60s. I read this phenomenal book several months before I started doing book reviews on the Underground Film Journal, so I just wanted to give it a little plug here.

Gerard Jones also co-wrote, along with Will Jacobs, another landmark comics history book back in the ’80s: The Comic Book Heroes: From the Silver Age to the Present, which covers the second era of superheroes (they also revamped the book in the mid-’90s, but I don’t have that edition). Jones and Jacobs’ book does a great job covering the characters and comic series of that time, but as far as a real personal account of that era the latest Comics Journal Library edition is a phenomenal history.

The Writers collects interviews from The Comics Journal magazine–the premiere magazine for intellectual comic book dissection–conducted with the most influential comic writers from the second era (along with an exhaustive chat with celebrated author Harlan Ellison, who has always maintained a close relationship with comics even though he’s only written minimally for them). These are the guys who took the concepts developed by Schwartz, Lee, Kirby, Ditko, etc. and really ran with them to see how far they would go.

Most of the interviews are conducted after the writers have finished with their most celebrated creations and thus they are filled with reflections on their own careers, the overall state of the comic book industry (which seems to be continually on the edge of teetering into shambles) and the place of comics within the larger culture.

The only interview I could have done without is Chris Claremont, who goes on and on about the minutia of his X-Men, which I have never been into. But, with that one exception, the interviews are phenomenal. First, there’s Steve Englehart who after coming off legendary runs of Captain America, The Avengers and Detective Comics is totally fed up with the business, but finds it next to impossible to break into the “normal” publishing world (book publishers basically call him an illiterate for writing comics). Steve Gerber, who brought new levels of surrealism to Marvel‘s Defenders and the concept of intelligent social satire to Howard the Duck, is found equally burned out on the business. Gerber even develops an ingenious new marketing strategy to comics that’s met with financial success, but totally rejected by Marvel’s stagnant publishing strategy.

Several of the early interviews would make one think Gerry Conway (Spider-Man, Firestorm) was the most hated man in comics, but who in his own interview comes across as very affable and owns up to his mistakes (Gerry’s now a major writer/producer on the Law & Order TV franchise). There’s also Denny O’Neil, who brought the concept of social relevance to comics with his run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow (a quote from which graces The Writers‘ cover) and who explains why comic books have lagged behind every other entertainment medium as such: Comics don’t attract the best business minds.

The Marv Wolfman interview gets into a little too much tedious detail about his New Teen Titans run, but it’s interesting to hear one of the all-time greats discuss his limitations as a writer and how somebody with zero interest in horror comics wrote one of the greatest horror runs of all time: Marvel’s Dracula. Archie Goodwin, a great writer in his own regard, discusses moving comics into more adult areas as an editor on Marvel’s Epic Illustrated magazine and Epic line of creator-owned material (a novice idea at the time).

The interview I was most anxious to read was Len Wein, probably my favorite writer from this era, especially his run on The Mighty Thor, my favorite superhero. This interview, though, conducted by my friend Bob Greenberger, focuses more on Len’s experience as an editor at DC. Best question:

Bob: If we’re stuck with superheroes, what can we do to keep them interesting?

Len: Damned if I know.

But, I think Len did know. Alan Moore may have written Watchmen and ushered in the 3rd era of superheroes, but it was Len who “discovered” Alan and brought him to work on American comics, specificially revamping Len’s creation the Swamp Thing. It could be argued that the most important creator in the second era of the superhero is Len Wein. Between creating Swamp Thing, Wolverine and the “new” X-Men and having the foresight to hire Alan Moore and work as the editor on Watchmen, Len has been involved with some of the biggest developments in one of comics most creative, fertile periods.

Buy The Writers at Amazon.com!