Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more.
In the meantime enjoy the show:
Alex Grand and co-host Jim Thompson interview comic archivist, author, critic and historian, Peter Sanderson who was a regular contributor to Julius Schwartz’ Flash Grams in the 1960s, to Omniverse with Mark Gruenwald, DC Universe’s Who’s Who making Crisis on Infinite Earth’s possible with Marv Wolfman. He discusses joining Marvel indexing and writing biographies and assessing strengths in the Handbook of the Marvel Universe, writing the Marvel Saga, the Wolverine Saga, working under Jim Shooter & Tom DeFalco, the end of his Marvel tenure, Mark Gruenwald’s death, the circumstances of the layoffs during the 1995 bankruptcy era, working with Bill Jemas, working for IGN for Comics in Context, later for Kevin Smith, and publishing various works on Marvel history and continuity like Marvel Vault 2006 with Roy Thomas, Marvel Travel Guide to New York City 2007, and curating an exhibition on Stan Lee for Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.
Peter Sanderson Jr. is a comic book critic and historian, as well as an instructor/lecturer in the New York area concerning the study of graphic novels/comic
books as literature.
🎬 Edited & Produced by Alex Grand, ©2021 Comic Book Historians
Sound FX – Standard License. Images used in artwork ©Their Respective Copyright
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Peter Sanderson Biographical Interview by Alex Grand & Jim Thompson
📜 Video chapters
00:00:00 Pete Sanderson
00:00:18 Early life in comics
00:02:36 Composite Superman | Mort Weisinger
00:07:30 Superman continuity
00:08:37 Julius Schwartz’ Flash Grams
00:11:17 1960s Marvel
00:13:58 Julius Schwartz’ Flash Grams, 1966
00:15:49 Fanzines | Bonnie wilford
00:18:16 Major at Columbia, undergrad
00:19:44 Superhero genre, following DC?
00:21:20 Columbia University Library
00:23:19 Omniverse with Mark Gruenwald
00:25:20 Simonson, Claremont | Handbook Marvel Universe
00:26:29 Columnist for Comics Journal, 1982
00:28:00 X-Men Companion, Two volume book
00:29:08 Dwight Decker, Rick Marshall
00:31:28 History Of The DC Universe
00:35:55 DC Universe vs Marvel Universe
00:39:04 Justice society
00:40:28 Marvel Continuity
00:41:58 Continuity becoming meaningless
00:46:14 Marvel Universe Handbook
00:49:15 Mark Gruenwald, Tom DeFalco
00:51:29 Writing Marvel Saga, 1985
00:53:00 George Olszewski
00:55:57 Marvel Universe Encyclopedia, 1986
00:57:42 Wolverine Saga, 1989
00:59:18 End of Marvel tenure
01:03:06 Mark Gruenwald’s death
01:09:25 Jim Shooter
01:12:31 Who are the most underrated
01:18:51 Steve Gerber, Don McGregor, Archie Goodwin
01:23:52 Comics in Context, 2003
01:28:06 Publishers weekly
01:29:26 Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, Book
01:32:07 Kevin Smith
01:32:59 Marvel Vault 2006 with Roy Thomas
01:33:38 Marvel Travel Guide to New York City 2007
01:37:08 Curating Stan Lee Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art
01:39:00 Comics and Ageism
01:42:49 Change in comic writing
01:44:35 Silver Surfer By Slott & Allred Omnibus, Daredevil by Mark Waid & Chris
01:46:34 Flintstones, Mark Russell | Hanna-Barbera Snagglepuss
01:52:57 Watchmen, HBO | Alan Moore
01:54:08 Teaching Comics & The Course
01:57:46 Wrapping up
#Peter Sanderson #MarvelUniverse #HandbookOfTheMarvelUniverse
#MarvelUniverseEncyclopedia #DCUniverse #MarkGruenwald #MarvelBankruptcy
#ComicBookHistorians #CBHInterviews #CBHPodcast #CBH
Transcript (editing in progress):
Alex: Welcome again to the Comic Book Historians Podcast, with Alex Grand and Jim Thompson. Today we’re proud to have writer, historian, and Marvel and DC Comics continuity policeman, Peter Sanderson. Peter, thank you so much for joining us today.
Sanderson: Oh, thank you for inviting me.
Jim: Your birth year was 1952, Massachusetts, tell me something about your early life.
Sanderson: Well, I was born in Milton, Massachusetts. Then my parents moved to Sitchuit, Massachusetts which is through the south along the coast of Massachusetts. And that’s where, as a very small child, I first encountered comics. I’ve been reading comics as far back as I can remember. They were sold on a mom-and-pop store in Sitchuit that my mother would take me to, and then, they had racks and racks of comics. What I remember is that it’s… Or at least the ones I remember, were Dell Comics, Walt Disney characters, Hanna-Barbera characters, Warner Bros. characters.
I don’t remember what the first comic books were that I bought, but I know, even back then, even as a small child, I knew that the comics I like best were the Donald Duck stories in the Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and the Uncle Scrooge stories which of course were all done by Carl Barks. Although I had no idea of his name, nobody did back then, who’s at comics. But I was able to recognize his very distinctive style both as a writer and as an artist.
Jim: Besides that, were you reading… You were a little young for EC Comics.
Sanderson: I was too young for EC Comics. I’m not even sure if I… Let’s see… Yeah, I would be a small child… This would have been in the ‘50s but I don’t even remember seeing EC Comics.
Jim: And not MAD either?
Sanderson: As expected, this was after they, EC… The horror books basically went under.
Jim: Okay. I see. Obviously, there were superhero comics, where you reading them?
Sanderson: I don’t remember superhero comics in Sitchuit. I do know that after we spent my early years, like when I was in Kindergarten in Sitchuit, we moved to another location, in Milton, where I went to grade school.
And I remember that occasionally, I would see superhero comics in the store but I actually sort of felt that they were scary, back then. They were drawn in a much more mature style than the funny animal comics. And I’d see covers like Green Lantern fighting a monster, or I remember seeing Hawkman fighting a winged gorilla. I was just put-off with them. I just thought, like I said, that they were too scary.
Sanderson: It wasn’t until 1964, however, that’s when I started buying superhero comics. I’m not exactly sure why. It’s just that I went to a store that had DCs, and I saw a comic that caught my attention. I picked it up and I was immediately hooked. And you want to know which one it was.
Sanderson: It was a copy of World’s Finest, which back then was these Superman-Batman team up book. And the lead story was the origin of the Composite Superman.
Jim: Sure. I know that one.
Sanderson: And I was talking before the broadcast, about characters like Two-Face who have their faces split in half. The Composite Superman was one of those. He had his whole body split in half, one side of him looked like Superman, one side of him looked like Batman. I’d certainly seen the Superman Fleischer cartoons on TV, but this was my first exposure to Batman. And really didn’t know much about either character.
But I think maybe, the cover of that issue has Composite Superman flying down, and looking strange in his half Superman, half Batman, and it had his green face. And there’s a list on the side of the comic book cover, saying, “This character has the powers of all the Legions of Superheroes”, and lists all these Legionnaires. And I thought, “Ooh, what’s this? This sounds interesting.” Then I read the comic, and like I say, I was hooked immediately.
It was a very unusual comic for the Mort Weisinger era of Superman. Because, for one thing, Superman and Batman were not triumphant at it. They basically survived but they were unable to defeat this character. And the story is really told from the Composite Superman’s point of view. He is a loser named Joe Meach who tries to make a reputation for himself as sort of performing stunts in public, and keeps having to be rescued by Superman. So, he’s really jealous of Superman.
Superman, of course, is really nice to him and gets him a job as a janitor at the Superman Museum. But this just feed Meach’s resentment of Superman. “I deserve better than this, but I’m a janitor. And this whole museum is devoted to this guy”.
Then this becomes a horror movie. One night, while he’s doing janitorial work after dark, he’s doing it near these statuettes of the Legion of Superheroes that Superman brought from the future. Now, I look back and I think, this is sort of weird that 10 centuries before the Legion comes about, people on Earth know about them, in the 30th century.
But anyway, these statuettes were made with the special process that like focuses sort of like beam on the actual Legionnaires to create these miniature copies of them, statuettes of them. But what nobody realized was it also duplicated their powers. So, there’s a storm raging outside and a bolt of lightning reaches into the museum, and hits this table with the statuettes, and bathes Meach in its energy and becomes the Composite Superman. And he ends up, basically trying to take over the world.
Sanderson: He builds his own sort of fortress of solitude with then a huge statue of himself grasping the world, a globe in his hands. And the only reason that Superman and Batman survive this is that he’s got them captured, he’s going to fly them into a major city, and then reveal their secret identities, and all of a sudden, abruptly, the energy charge that he got from the lightning begins to wear off. So, he flees, he goes back to the museum, but he hasn’t got enough power to shoot a lightning bolt at the statuettes. And so not only does he lose his powers, he loses his memory of being the Composite Superman. The story ends with him just being this resentful janitor again.
I think from the way I described this; you could see how unusual story this was. It’s also proof that those people who like make fun of the Weisinger era in Superman, and say it’s all juvenile stuff, this was pretty good. This reminds me, in retrospect, more of a Marvel story.
Alex: I see. So, you feel that Mort Weisinger was a good editor?
Sanderson: I think he had ups and downs. I think that there are some real classics, like this one that came out of his reign. But most of the stuff he did is trivial, unforgettable, and juvenile, and silly, which is why there’s such a backlash against him. But it is true that in the Silver Age, Weisinger presided of this huge expansion of the Superman mythos. Come up with Supergirl and Krypto, and Brainiac, and Candor, and the Phantom Zone and all, the Legion… These are all enduring achievements.
I should say that I found out years later, that Composite Superman was written by the science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, and the artist was, of course, Curt Swan, the infinitive Superman artist for the Silver Age… I should also say that I subsequently found out that during the Silver Age, Weisinger brought Jerry Siegel back to write some stories like Superman’s Return to Krypton some of which, like that one are indeed, enduring classics.
Jim: So, did that lead you into being interested in Superman and the Legion, and the worlds established from that? And that’s what got you hooked, in terms of that universe building continuity aspect of comics?
Sanderson: Yes, it did. Starting with that, I started buying the entire Weisinger line of Superman comics, Superman Action, Adventure, World’s Finest, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and… I’m forgetting one… But anyway, I’ve got the whole Superman line of books from Weisinger. And yes, I did notice, and it did appeal to me that they had a continuity that extended through all the books. And that they were, every so often, I’d see references to like previous stories of the Legion or other characters.
Nothing really changed, usually, in a Weisinger Superman story, they usually returned to the status quo at the end of the story. But I was aware of this whole mythos, and there were, occasionally, text features which I think were probably written by E. Nelson Bridwell. That would explain things like different kinds of Kyptonite and so forth. So, yes, I found that very appealing.
Jim: At some point, did you start to think, “Hey, I would like to do this. I would like to be involved with this when I grow up.” Or was that way off?
Sanderson: We’re getting way ahead of ourselves here. The next step, is that when, it’s early 1966, when the Batman TV show came on the air. And by coincidence or not, the issue of Batman that came out that month had the Riddler on the cover, and the Riddler was in the first episodes.
Jim: Is that that spanning Riddler with Carmine Infantino?
Sanderson: No. This is Riddler by Gil Kane. This is the second Riddler story in the Silver Age. And I already knew who Batman was from World’s Finest, and I like Batman. So, I decided, “Okay, I’ll try the Batman comics.” And this is how I discovered the Julius Schwartz edited line of comics. I went on from Batman in Detective to Flash, still done by John Broome, Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, and Green Lantern still done by John Broome and Gil Kane, and Adam and Hawkman still written by Gardner Fox.
Flash was my favorite of these books. My first issue of Flash was The Gauntlet of Super-Villains! which is the Flash running between six of his colorful Rogues’ Gallery foes. And again, I must have some sort of interest in lists because I thought, “Well, look at all these great looking characters.” And the story by Broome and Infantino was really good. I realize now, when I reread it years later, how a lot of it was tongue and cheek humor, because the story ends basically with, you know, “Oh, it’s not just the six villains in the cover, it’s like, it turns out that super gorilla Grodd is behind all these.”
So, you get seven of the classic Flash villains, and the humor comes at the end when Grodd is defeated because he kept beaten up by a female gorilla, he’s been sharing a cage with at the zoo. And that gives Flash the opening to defeat him. But at the time, I took all of these seriously.
But I do think one of the good things about the Silver Age Flash that most people do not get is that that they work as a serious fantasy adventure but there’s usually a subtle comedy element in it. Like Captain Cold’s crush on various women, or stories like, in which the Mirror Master goes to a self-help class to try to figure out if they can teach him how to make better plans to defeat the Flash.
Jim: And The Trickster… The Trickster is hilarious.
Sanderson: The Trickster is outright funny. But it’s like, they often do this subtle humor, and I think, too many people look at Silver Age DC stories and they say, “Oh, their silly.” But no, I think that Schwartz, and Broome, and Fox knew what they were doing when they were putting humor in the story. The humor was probably for older readers, or for themselves.
Sanderson: So, then… Again, this is still in ’66. I had seen, in a barbershop, one issue of Spiderman, by Stan Lee, and John Romita, Sr., and it didn’t impress me that much. I think this was the story involving the Rhino, but that was my first exposure to Marvel. But what really got me hooked on Marvel was, in the fall of ’66, probably in response to the Batman TV show’s huge success, there was the Marvel Super Heroes animated show. Now, animated should be in quotes because it had minimal animation. Obviously, it had had to be done at the speed of light to debut in the fall, right after the Batman show that debut the previous winter.
But what they did was, they grabbed five days a week, each day was a different super hero; Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Sub-Mariner, and The Hulk. And what they did was they took stories directly from the comic books. So, it wasn’t just Stan and his collaborated stories, they also used the artwork, doing minimal animation on it.
By this time, I was going to Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, a high school. There was a store in Braintree, within walking distance of the school… Sometimes, I’d walk down there after school ended, and I think it was a little mom-and-pop store, and they had Marvel Comics. Now, I had never seen Marvel Comics on sale, before this. I don’t know whether it was some sort of distribution problem in the Boston area or what, but I saw a bunch of Marvel Comics, so I picked up a batch, and loved these even more than the show.
In some cases, I remember the first… And then I found a store in Milton that also carried Marvel Comics. And in some cases, I remember what the first issue of a particular series was. Like I got a Tales of Suspense which had a Stan and Colan story, Iron Man versus Mandarin. And in the back, a Capt. story by Stan and Jack Kirby, with Capt. versus Batroc the Leaper, and this is the one with the famous page where Stan says in the caption in the beginning, “Let’s not put dialog in here, and let’s just let Jack go.” And it’s like a nine-panel grid of this amazingly dynamic fight between Capt. and the Batroc. And there have been nothing like that in all that I ever seen at DC.
Similarly, the Colan story, the front of the issue, Colan had this sort of style that was… It strikes me now as being influenced by the great illustrators in magazines, or comic book artist Alex Raymond, because it was very realistic, very illustrative. Similar to Kirby stuff, even the Carmine Infantino and Kane stories that I’ve seen on DC, I had never seen anything with this much dynamism, this much energy. So again, I got hooked on Marvel.
Now, the next phase is… I think by this point I’d already started doing this, that Julie Schwarts had letter columns, and I started writing long letters to his various books. And I, rather quickly, became one of his regular letter writers.
Jim: Now, this was what? At age 12, 13, something like that?
Sanderson: I was in high school so I was older than that.
Sanderson: We’re talking ’66, so I would have been 14.
Alex: And so, you’re talking about the Flash-Grams, JLA Mailroom and all that, right?
Sanderson: Right. So that, pretty soon, it was like they were the foremost regularly published writers in Julie Schwartz’ letter columns were Guy H. Lilian the Third, Irene Vartanov who has since become a good friend of mine, Mike Freidrich and me. And sometimes, they do, like two pages of letters, and I would get an entire page devoted to one of my letters. I wrote very long pages. This is the start, really, of my becoming a comics critic and a comics historian because I was commenting on what I liked about these stories.
Jim: Were you able to buy anything you wanted? It sounds like you were reading a lot of the books.
Sanderson: There wasn’t that many. It was seven Superman titles, and then when I went to the seven Julie Schwartz titles, I pretty much gave up the Weisinger titles.
Jim: Oh, I see.
Sanderson: I keep up… I continued reading the Julie Schwartz books, after I discovered Marvel. But Marvel wasn’t printing that much stuff back then. That was when they’re still under distribution restrictions, so there’ll be like 10 new comics a month and then a couple of reprint books, so it wasn’t that much. But since I had so few comics, I would read the DCs and Marvels like over and over, and over. And I soon started writing to the Marvel letter columns as well, and they didn’t publish me as often, but I did a lot.
Alex: So there were other fans that kind of looked at it, a lot of the comics, like you did, to put it in continuity, and I think of like Mark Gruenwald as an example of somebody who’s reading a lot of the comics, and also kind of cataloguing it mentally. I think he manifested that in his Omniverse fanzine, which he did with Roger Stern and some other contributors who Roger was also doing Charlton Fanzines. Were these fanzines like Omniverse, or the Charlton ones, were you reading those? Were those an influence on you at all?
Sanderson: No. No. In the 60’s, I was completely unaware of fanzines. I’d see the names of other readers in the letter columns, but I had no contact with any of them. The contact started…
Now, we jump to 1975… I should say that there is a point in the late ‘60s, when I gave up on the DCs. This was a point at which Fox and Broome were leaving… Had left, and I was just tired. I thought that the DCs were just not as good as they used to be. But I kept up with the Marvels. Then around 1970, when DC started to revitalize itself with the things like the Denny O’Neil- Neal Adams Green Lantern, and the Julie Schwartz’ revamp on the Superman, and Denny’s and Julie’s revamp of Batman that I got into DCs again. But anyway…
Sanderson: In the early ‘70s, I was still writing letters regularly to DC and Marvel. And in ’75, I already moved to New York for attending Columbia University, from ’69 to ’73. And then I came back in ’75 to go to grad school at Columbia. When I moved to New York this time, I got a letter from Bonnie Wilford, who was the mail editor at Marvel. And she said that she and her boyfriend wanted to meet me. Her boyfriend was a writer, who had just taken over the revival of the X-Men.
So, I met Bonnie and Chris Claremont for lunch. Chris gave a party, then invite me. And I started slowly but surely, to meet lots of Marvel pros. And before I really started meeting other Marvel fans, it was, I’d say, late ‘70s when I started going into things like the comic book conventions in New York, basically, the Creation Con back then, that I started meeting people like Peter Gillis, and Melanie Crawford, and other people who are basically fans of Marvel and DC comics, and who would eventually become professionals.
Jim: I want to go back to the college stuff a little bit, because I’m interested in that. What was your major at Columbia under grad? And what were you thinking of doing?
Sanderson: I thought I was going to be a teacher.
Jim: Ah… And why, you became a teacher?
Sanderson: Well, in the sense that you write essays about comic history, you are in a sense teaching your audience. I mean, I have done some teaching, when I was a grad student. They had me teaching a remedial course in English Composition to college students at Columbia. I did tutorial work at Fashion Institute of Technology. And years later, I taught a course in Comics Criticism at NYU, but not enough people signed up for second year, so that just faded away.
In many ways, I feel like I have mixed feelings about how I got into comics, because I think that it’s quite possible that I wouldn’t have gotten into comics if it hadn’t been for the Silver Age DCs and Marvels which was so adventured, and just had so much energy, and appeal. That’s what got me into being a comics fan.
There’s a dinner that I went to years ago, a bunch of fellow Marvel pro, and at this dinner John Byrne looked at all of us and said, “We’re all lifers”, which meant we’re in this for life. Now, it’ll be nice if Marvel and DC realize this, and would offer me work, or offer work to some of the other people who were at that dinner… But it’s true, we are so devoted to this medium and to the superhero genre, that that was what our lives are going to be devoted to.
Jim: That’s a good segue in terms of superhero genre. When DC started to experiment, and they did things like Bat Lash, and when Ditko went over and was doing Creeper, and Hawk and Dove, things were getting a little bit different at DC, where you following those or did you not really care for that stuff?
Sanderson: I wasn’t following the ones you just mentioned. For some reason, I was just sort of weary of venturing the yard beyond familiar territory. The books that I was reading at this period were, again, the Julie Schwartz books, which I thought were a lot of revolutionary stuff was going on. Again, what Denny and Julie were doing in revamping Superman, the fact that Julie and Denny, and Neal Adams revamped Batman. Julie actually has revamped Batman twice. He did it with the new look Batman in the early ‘60s which is the first Batman comics I saw.
Sanderson: And then after the Batman TV show flamed out, and the sales plunged again, then Julie, and Denny, and Neal came up with the, what became the Dark Knight version of Batman, the grim obsessed avenger. So, it’s around 1970 that the Batman that we now know, from comics, and movies, and TV, really originated. And that was in fact Julie, and Denny, and Neal, trying to update the Batman from 1939, the very earliest form of Batman, trying to recapture that atmosphere and bring it into the present.
I also liked what Julie, taking over and revitalizing Superman. Not so much what was going on with other classic Julie books like Flash and Green Lantern, but it wasn’t until years later that I went back and I looked at the Ditko stuff.
Right now, this may be jumping ahead again, but before the quarantine, the last several years, I’ve been trying to spend the day a week at the Columbia University Library, even like five years ago, because I’m an alumnus, so I can get to use the library for free. Only like five years ago, they only had three books relating to comics. But my friend, Karen Green, who’s a librarian there, has built a collection that’s now well over 10,000 volumes.
Jim: Yes, we love Karen. I’m friends with Karen as well.
Sanderson: Right. And so, this is one way in which I’ve gotten to read comics that I missed in the years past, or that I was too young to read, or that was from before my time. For example, I’ve read a lot of EC Comics there. And I remember, looking for weeks and weeks for Bat Lash because it said in the catalog, they had a Bat Lash collection, and it finally showed up in the stacks, and I devoured it.
I think that if I’d been aware of Bat Lash in the ‘70s, I probably wouldn’t have been interested anyway because I wasn’t in to Westerns… That was a result of another one of my interests, which is film. When I got to Columbia as a college student, I started getting interested in film, and film history, and even though I never liked Westerns before that, I thought they were this sort of macho genre that had no appeal to me.
When I started watching classic John Ford and Howard Hawks Westerns, I started to like the genre. So, now I have no prejudice against it, so I was eager to find Bat Lash and track it down.
Jim: Yeah, Hawks is my favorite director probably, and Rio Bravo may be my favorite film of all time.
Sanderson: Good Choice.
Jim: I went to USC grad school for film, critical study. We have a lot we can talk about in terms of that, if you only had the time. I enjoy your Facebook page very much for what you talk about.
Sanderson: Well, feel free to give me a call, any time…
Sanderson: If you want to talk about this. Now that I’m trapped in the house, between the quarantine and the health problems, I welcome phone calls from friends.
I think the next step in the history of my career is that, once I started reading comic book pros, and other major comic book fans, this is when I met Mark Gruenwald.
Alex: Okay, this is 1975, right?
Sanderson: After ’75… ’75 is when I met Claremont. Gruenwald was probably ’76 to ’77. I’m just guessing here, off the top of my head. He was stand offish at first but then we started to become friends, and I think that even though Mark didn’t have the kind of academic background that I have, but he was basically, had this scholarly instinct. He and his father had written this Treatise on Reality in comic book fiction… That’s not the real title but that’s more of a paraphrase of the title. In which they were exploring how parallel worlds work in comics. Mark was also a huge DC fan, and Gardner Fox and Julie Schwartz were idols to him.
But he had ended up at Marvel, and he really liked Marvel too. This is when he brought me on board to work on Omniverse, which was his fanzine that was actually sort of scholarly in itself, unlike most fanzines. Because he was interested in exploring time travel, and parallel dimensions, and other dimensions in DC and Marvel Comics. And he actually set up rules of time travel which, when Mark was there, Marvel followed to some extent, which now, everybody at Marvel and DC ignores, or are just unaware of.
So, I only got really to work on one issue of Omniverse, because there were only two issues that came out. We started work on the third issue, but that never happened. I’m still friends with Mark’s wife, Catherine.
Every so often, I say to her, “You know, it’ll be great to re-launch Omniverse.” But it never seems to go anywhere, and I’m at a point where I’m not going to do this for free, like I did back then. I’m looking for some sort of means of making money off my comics knowledge, but… anyway…
So, I was working with Mark on Omniverse, and so we’re becoming friends, and then when Louise Simonson left the staff at Marvel as the X-Men editor, her assistant Ann Nocenti was promoted in her stead. Ann at that point, she’d never been a comics fan, and the idea of Mark Gruenwald, and Ralph Macchio, two editors at Marvel… Why I guess, they may have still been assistant editors at that point. Their idea was that Ann needed an assistant who had a thorough grounding in Marvel history to help her out.
Sanderson: So, they recommended me, to Ann, to be an assistant editor. Chris Claremont, of course, loved the idea so, I got to be an assistant editor. I stayed a little over a year as assistant editor, working on X-Men, and New Mutants, back when Chris was collaborating with Bill Sienkiewicz… Star Wars. And then I end up leaving because I wasn’t quite getting along with Ann. Now, Ann and I are great friends, whenever we run into each other, I got a big hug… It’s a kiss. It’s not a hug, it’s a kiss.
But what really was happening was that Mark was now an editor and was starting up the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe… Oh, and before that, DC was starting, what became the Who’s Who in the DC Universe.
Jim: Yeah… I want to go back a little bit, Peter, because I think there’s a gap here… Because what year are you talking about at Marvel?
Sanderson: We’re now talking about the early ‘80s.
Jim: Okay. So, let’s talk for a few minutes, about… In like 1982, you were working as a columnist for Comics Journal. The first thing I read that you did was a review of the Eisner book, the hardcover that had come out. And then you were writing on various books reviews and other things, on a consistent basis.
Sanderson: I don’t consider that being a columnist because that implies a regular column… Yeah, you’re right… In the ‘70s and early ‘80s before I started going pretty much full time for work directly for DC and Marvel, yes, I was getting into fanzines, and I wrote for The Comics Journal, off and on. I wrote a whole lot of lead stories for Amazing Heroes. There was one magazine called Comics Feature that friends of mine were editing, I did some writing for that.
Jim: Were you doing interviews at that point too? I know you did several with Steve Gerber, like this. I want to talk about that a little bit before you start actually working.
Sanderson: Amazing Heroes story pieces were almost always interviews. I would interview whoever was coming up with a book that they wanted feature that month, and I’d talk to the creators. And I also did previews of the coming year in comics. The whole issue, there would be previews of the coming year, so there would be short pieces on every Marvel and DC comic. And I enjoy doing those because I got the chance to talk to loads of people for those, because I’d end up writing 10 of those little previews.
And also, I guess my high point, in the spirit of doing interviews, was when I did a two-volume book called The X-Men Companion which were extended interviews with everybody I could find, who had worked on the X-Men at that point. I didn’t get Stan, but I did get Roy Thomas, and I got Len Wein. I got Chris Claremont, and John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum.
Every so often, somebody will write to me and mention that they really like the The X-Men Companion. I don’t know if I still have copies of The X-Men Companion, but I know I have copies of all these Amazing Heroes issues.
Jim: Did you work directly under Gary Groth or Kim Thompson? Who were the people you got to know from that area, from The Comics Journal?
Sanderson: I got to know both Gary and Kim. I even get invited to parties at their place, when they had a big house in Connecticut, before they moved to the West Coast. Kim was in charge of Amazing Heroes, so I’d be dealing with Kim on that. Gary was in charge of The Comics Journal. But really, it’s like, I basically just did the articles and sent them in. We never had conferences about them, and they always seemed satisfied with my work.
Jim: And did you know the other people that were working there, like Decker, and Rick Marshall, and the other columnists?
Sanderson: I knew Dwight Decker, he’s still a Facebook friend, as is Rick Marshall. But I didn’t know Rick Marshall from Fantagraphics. I knew Rick Marshall from when he was running Epic at Marvel.
Jim: Oh, I see.
Alex: Yeah, so that was 1980, and he left, and Archie took over.
Sanderson: Because in these years, before I started doing actual work for Marvel and DC, I would be visiting the offices a lot. I now realize what a golden time it was, in retrospect, when I was in comics professionally because… Well, I still am, it’s just that I don’t get work now. A lot it’s like, whatever reason, I am over retirement age, and new generations have taken over at both companies…
But it was a period when Marvel – DC were both in New York, which is a big deal. So, you can work for both, you could take the subway from one office to the other.
And there’s a huge comic book community in New York, because both of the major companies were here. That was before a lot of comics professionals start to spread out over the country because the internet made it much easier to live elsewhere than New York, and still work in comics. And so, this was good for making contacts, for getting to know people… I used to have a reputation for knowing everybody in comics. Because I’d also, in the ‘80s, started to go to the San Diego Con, for example.
It’s also was a great time because the baby boom generation who’d grown up on the Silver Age comics was really just coming into its own. Now, they were getting to be in charge as the editors, or as writers of major series, here to launch projects to go different directions in the comic of past. Especially in the mid ‘80s, you know, the period of Dark Knight and Watchmen, and so forth.
And also, it was a period when my comics career, people will find this unusual, but I almost never had to ask for work. I was always invited. Mark invited me to work at Marvel. Marvel, put in Len Wein invited me to work on the Who’s Who. Even when I transitioned to writing books for companies like Abrams and DK, about Marvel history.
Again, I’d be recommended by somebody at Marvel, or be invited. I love those days when people invited me all the time, and kept me steadily at work for the last two decades of the 20th century.
Alex: Did you work at DC, before Marvel?
Jim: Yes. And I’d just realized that this is another thing that I should do to fill the gap. On the very start of the ‘80s, Marv (Wolfman) and Len were planning to do, what became Crisis on Infinite Earths. And they were also planning to do a series called History of the DC Universe, which years later turned into this two-issue thing that George Pérez drew. They decided that they needed someone to research DC’s history so that they could write these projects. So, they hired me to come in twice a week, and go through the DC library and take notes on character appearances and issues in which major concepts were introduced.
I think they really underestimated how long this would take. They thought this would take like three months. It took a year, and by that time, I was going in there three times a week. But yes, I read through the entire DC library, as it stood in the early ‘80s. That was amazing because I was getting to read all these Golden Age comics, that I never thought I’d see. They had a bunch of Fawcett Captain Marvel comics that I’d never thought I’d get to see.
Alex: So, they had that in their archives even the Fawcett stuff because they had bought the rights. Okay. That’s awesome.
Jim: So, how did that make you feel? As you learned all that history, and then saw it all jettisoned to some degree with Crisis? Do you feel that was a good move on DC’s part?
Sanderson: I don’t think so. I can see the argument that there. For example, Superman’s history have become dated. Like Superboy, for example, the classic Weisinger Superboy. Now, I think back to what I think, “Okay, if you have this small town… In the Weisinger days, they never specified where Smallville was. I mean now, it’s generally assumed to be in Kansas, and I think that’s because of the Dawn of Superman movie. Although, they actually shot the Kansas sequences in Canada.
But if I think about it now, I think, if Metropolis was supposed to be on the East Coast, there was, at one point… I don’t know, maybe Nelson Bridwell came up with this, where there’s one point which DC established that Metropolis, I think, was in Delaware, and that Gotham City was in New Jersey, so they were close to each other, and they were also close to New York City.
But anyway, thinking about it, the Weisinger Superboy, Smallville might have been in like the country side of Pennsylvania or upstate New York, or near Long Island. There’s no sign that it was in the Mid-West…
Sanderson: But anyway, if you had a teenage superhero, with powers as great as Superboy, turn up in a small town, where ever it is, the media is going to descend on that town. It’s a huge story. And how, in a small town, with a limited number of people, are you going to keep a secret identity secret.
I don’t know if that was their reason for getting rid of the traditional Superboy, but I can understand how you might need to revise Superman’s history to deal with this. But I think for the most part Crisis was sort of upsetting to me because they’re killing off characters, and at this point, DC was claiming, “If we kill someone off in Crisis, they’re dead for good.” It seems naïve now. Because now, death doesn’t mean anything in DC and Marvel anymore… Any character that gets killed will get brought back, either by the same writer and editor, or by different writer or editor team later on.
Alex: Right. Two years later, usually. Yeah.
Sanderson: Right. At that point, why are we killing off Supergirl? Why are we killing off the Silver Age Flash? I like these characters.
Even some of the minor ones, like why are you killing off my favorite Flash villain, the Mirror Master for no reason at all, just as a throw away. And I also think that DC’s continually revamps our mistake. It’s like, don’t get too attached to any one story at DC anymore because wait a few years and they’ll undo it.
I mean the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when Scott Snyder came up with his own basic version of Batman: Year One, because I thought, if any story line, it’s like untouchable, it’s Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One which they had been doing sequels to, that had been reprinting forever, which everybody agrees is great, but they undid it. Or I understand that they’ve also un-smoothly undone Alan Moore’s stories. How can you do that?!
And so, it’s like I’m much happy about Marvel, that miraculously, over the years is still kept its continuity intact for the most part.
Alex: Yeah, to some degree. Yeah.
Jim: That’s what I really want to explore with you a little bit, and I’m glad you brought it up; is the difference between the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe, specifically in the context of continuity. Even though Marvel seems ridiculous sometimes, in some of the directions it goes, it doesn’t jettison it, whereas DC… Starting with Crisis, but then accelerating with New 52, and all of that becomes insulting to people like us who actually care about that continuity going forward.
Sanderson: That’s also, that the audience has changed over the years. Because, I remember that there used to be writers, you’d ask them why they basically repeat a storyline from a few years back with this character. And they’d say, “Well, it’s because most of the audience turns over every few years, and people like you who have been reading forever and who remember all these stuffs, you’re the minority.”
Sanderson: But look, in the world of comics that we’ve got now, it’s mostly adults who read them. And there’s so much reprinting of old stories, libraries, not just Columbia but libraries around the country, like the South Orange Library nearby where I live, has a comics collection. So, these old stories live on in libraries, they live on in reprints. You can go on ComiXology and get stuff going all the way back to the ‘30s.
So, it’s like, people aware of this can easily be aware of these past stories. And they can be easily become aware… Let’s say, the Jack Kirby Eternals are way superior to the most recent Eternal Series… Not Neal’s, the one after that, that Marvel has done, just to give an example. Or they know the high points of the Fantastic Four history are, or Thor history. So, I don’t think it’s wise to just dismiss stories that are older than a few years because there are people who, nowadays…Though I think there are lots of people who know these stories, and read them, and like them.
Now, the difference between DC and Marvel continuity, it used to be, that DC continuity, they had it. Like I said, I was fascinated by the whole mythos of the Weisinger Superman. But story, for the most part, the continuity never advanced. It was rare that you got an event that changed the status quo, like the introduction of Supergirl.
Now, DC continuity is totally malleable. I mean, you might have thought that when they did Crisis on Infinite Earth, okay, we’d set our universe in order, or at least a way… Oh, that’s another thing, the explanation for Crisis, why they did Crisis was that supposedly, they thought that readers were confused by all the multiple Earths. But I’ve long contended for years, that the only way you can appreciate Crisis is that you understand the multiple Earths. Because it makes no sense if you don’t know about Earth One, and Earth Two, and Earth Three and so forth. And they have like virtually every character in the DC Universe show up in that series, so it’s actually really complicated.
It shows that Marv and Len, and Dick Giordano may have thought that the Multiverse was too confusing and they had to get rid of it, but in fact, I think the success of Crisis shows that people understood and like the Multiverse.
Jim: I think with that, in it changed DC in an interesting way, because bringing in the Justice Society as part of the regular continuity, not an alternate world, gave a legacy aspect to it; that I think they did a good job on, to some degree.
Sanderson: There’re good things and bad things about that. There are good aspects to the fact that you had one Earth, where the Justice Society appeared before the Justice League. The unfortunate thing is that you could no longer do stories about the Golden Age versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
But anyway, now, DC continuity is totally malleable. I remember, for example, that Geoff Johns wrote a series that was supposed to be setting out Superman’s origin story. A definitive new version. And of course, this meant that for quite some time now, DC had undoing the deal, I think. They had not only been undoing things from Crisis, bringing back Supergirl and Krypto, for example.
Sanderson: But also, they had been… John Byrne’s revamp of Superman was pretty much completely undone by that point. And so, Geoff Johns wrote this Superman origins miniseries which was supposed to be the definitive retelling, and then just several months later, Grant Morrison, when they did the New 52 did a new origin for Superman. He couldn’t even wait a year. These sorts of things drive me crazy.
Marvel, on the other hand, they have, for the most time, kept their continuity intact. Part of the game at Marvel is, if you make a big change in the series, that you find a way to put it back the way it was. I was very impressed for example, that Dan Slott, in Amazing Spider-Man, did this years-long story arc in which Peter Parker became what you’d never think Peter Parker would become. He became rich, famous, and ventured in entrepreneur, and supposedly, according to one story, had more money than Tony Stark. Dan got a couple of years of good story out of this, and then he found a way to undo it believably, and had Peter go back to the impoverished nobody that we’re used to.
That’s the great thing about Marvel, they keep the continuity intact so that the Stan and Jack stories, for example, are still a vital part for the continuity. They are still drawn upon for new stories, like, again, Slott with Fantastic Four. I like the way he’s tied it with Iron Man. I like the way he’s continually doing call backs to classic stories of past while doing new contemporary stuff with the characters.
Jim: Although Peter, I’d say Marvel is also infamous for doing it badly, sometimes. And I think that if Mary Jane…
Sanderson: The thing is to do it well… I mean, Marvel Age of Comics is now what? Nearly 60 years old. You’re going to have mistakes during that period, and you’re going to have people doing things well. And you just have to hope that the things that are done well have more enduring impact, and that the mistakes get undone.
Alex: Doesn’t continuity kind of reduce in its meaning with the illusion of change that started to kind of happen in like the early ‘70s of Marvel, where the characters didn’t age as fast, and so then, continuity almost… It starts becoming a little… And I’m a continuity guy… But it becomes a little more meaningless because they grow a lot in the ‘60s, like they’re graduating high school, and starting college, but then after that, it seems like the age kind of… It’s like exponentially flattening out where they’re kind of staying the same age now but then the continuity is still going. It gets a little strange, the sense of time gets more and more inflated and warped over time.
Sanderson: Well, a couple of things here to set this in context. One is that when Stan and Jack and the others were creating the Silver Age Marvel Comics, they had already been in the comics business since the ‘40s, or earlier I guess in Kirby’s case. And they had seen so many ups and downs in the comics business, and then seen so many series that they had worked on flourish for a time and then go away.
So, I don’t think that when they, in the ‘60s, Stan and Jack and company really realize that these characters they’ve come up with are going to last over a half a century, and more. So, that’s why Stan and Ditko, for example, were sort of moving Spider-Man’s life along at a good clip. In the ‘60s, they had him graduate from high school, they had him go to college. Probably the last sign of that is when Stan suggested that Peter and Mary Jane get married.
The other thing is, when they got to the ‘70s, and a new generation coming in to write the comics, I think they began to realize that these books could go on indefinitely, so they had to slow things down, because nobody wanted Spider-Man to get too old.
I don’t want the characters to age in real time. There’s a really nice series, that recently, Marvel had published called Spider-Man: Life Story, in which Spider-Man starts his career in 1962, and ages in real time from decade to decade so he’s a senior citizen by the final issue, not in the present.
And similarly, I recently was pointed to a Fantastic Four annual that Karl Kesel wrote years ago, in which Ben Grimm travels to a parallel world, and what he finds out is the Fantastic Four there started their careers in 1961, and they’re now middle aged. This was a story that was done in the late ‘90s. Ben is sort of amazed by this because he says, “We weren’t even around in 1961. This is Kesel having some fun with the way Marvel time works, that it goes very slowly.
With Marvel cinematic universe, it’s going to work differently because we have real people playing these characters. And that’s why, in the last Avengers movie, some of them actually get written out. Two of them dies, one of them… I assume everybody who watches this has seen the Avengers: Endgame by now. Well, anyway… They get rid of Tony Stark, and the Black Widow, and Captain America in various ways.
Now, maybe, for all I know, they plan to introduce a new guy as Iron Man, sometime in the future.
Or maybe, 10 or 20 years from now, they’ll just reboot the whole cinematic universe, so they can cast a new actor as Tony Stark. I don’t know. But in the comics, most people who read the comics now were not around in the ‘60s to read them in the Silver Age. So, if you have the characters age in real time, by this time, most of the characters of the Silver Age would be retired, and you’d have new people in those roles, probably… And I don’t know.
I want to read about Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, and so forth. I want to read the original… And one of the things about… If you’re a superhero comics fan, and you’re not talking about DC, where they do a reboot every two seconds… One of the things about Marvel is you just have to accept it as a convention of the genre that you have these characters with 50, 60 years of adventures that somehow, have to be crammed in Marvel time, into 10 to 15 years. You just have to accept that. If it helps, not every single story has enduring value, your typical, say Web of Spider-Man story is not going to be referred to in a new Spider-Man story.
Alex: That’s a good point. Yeah, so you can kind of take those out… Okay. Let’s go back to your history. I want us to kind of make sure we cover… When you were doing the work at DC, then you were talking about Mark Gruenwald, inviting you over to Marvel, so did you work for both at the same time, doing the scholarly archival work, or did you just jumped from DC and go to Marvel and do that?
Sanderson: When I was reading through the DC library, that’s the only professional work I was doing, unless you count the interviews for fanzines, for example. But I think that the Who’s Who and the first version of the Marvel Universe did overlap. Yes, there were years that I was going back and forth between the two companies.
Alex: Were you also then reading all the old Marvel comics, as well as like the Timely and Atlas stuff while you’re working with Marvel then?
Sanderson: No. Because DC has a very complete library. Apparently, I’ve heard that recently that they had a big theft, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But for the most part, they had a really complete collection, in bound volumes that went back to the ‘30s. So, I could read things like Doctor Occult stories and More Fun Comics.
Marvel, on the other hand, notoriously had a bad library. There were loads missing because they’ve been stolen over the years. And they certainly had almost nothing before 1961. It wasn’t really until I started going to the Columbia Library, the last several years, that I have been able to read a lot of Timely stuff. And of course, now, Marvel… I don’t know what’s going on at Marvel these days… Well, I only know as much as the general public knows, for the most part. But Marvel has been reprinting a lot of stuff from Timely or Atlas, and a lot of it is available in hard copy, so I see them in Columbia Library, or there’s a lot of vintage Timely and Atlas stuff that you can get on ComiXology, in digital form.
So, I expect that what’s happened is, I know that in my final days at Marvel on-staff, that they were starting digitizing… Instead of relying on collections of stacks of past stories, they’ve started to digitize everything. So, it’s available by computer, and I think they went on to somehow find stuff that they didn’t have at their library, like the Timely and Atlas stuff, and digitized that too.
Alex: So, when you were contributing to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, for ‘80s and ‘90s, you were basically reading over old comics going back to 1961, and kind of compiling biographies? Is that basically what did?
Sanderson: Yes. And of course, a lot of this stuff I didn’t have to look up, I knew it.
Alex: Yeah, you knew it already. Yeah, because it was your generation anyway. Then, was Jim Shooter pretty instrumental in pushing the Marvel Universe Handbooks?
Sanderson: Originally, Jim Shooter wanted to do something like trading cards with statistics for how strong characters were, for example. And Mark (Gruenwald) managed to talk him into turning it in to an encyclopedia of Marvel character. Like I say, Mark didn’t have an academic background comparable to mine but he was a scholar by nature.
Alex: I see. How did you guys establish… I’ve always wondered this, how many tons that The Hulk can bench press, versus Thor, versus Spider-Man…? Who’s coming up with those numbers?
Sanderson: I think ultimately it was Mark.
Alex: Okay. Mark Gruenwald did. That’s interesting. Okay.
Sanderson: This was a long time ago. It’s possible. I think that Mark might have done this for the big characters like The Hulk and Thor. With lesser characters like super villains, it’s possible that I came up with a lot of those. I don’t remember, because I’d look at the guidelines that they had established before the main heroes. And I’d say, “Okay, how does this villain match up to this hero?” Because I’ve seen fights between them… so I figured that the abomination has to be pretty close to The Hulk in strength, right?
Alex: Yeah. Right, right. Because yeah, I remember reading that.
I’ll never forget those numbers, like Captain American can bench press 800 pounds. I mean, for some reason, these numbers are burned to my mind.
Sanderson: Some people didn’t like that. Some people just didn’t like the characters’ powers being specified. But I think Mark thought it was important so that people knew that Captain America was not as strong as Spider-Man, who is not as strong as Iron Man, who is not as strong as Thor who is equal to The Hulk, except that… Somebody came up with the idea that The Hulk, based on the fact that the madder he gets, the stronger he gets, that if you get Hulk really enraged, he can go over the 100 ton limit.
Alex: Yeah, the 100 ton. You said there were guidelines. Who came up with this 100-ton, 10-ton… Were there guidelines set up for you guys for the main heroes?
Sanderson: I used guidelines, again, this is a long time ago. I don’t remember. But I think… I came in to Marvel Universe Handbook with the second issue. So, Mark pretty much wrote the whole issue himself, and so he was already establishing strength levels for these characters. So, I was basically just following his lead.
Alex: Okay. On Mark’s lead… Now, Tom DeFalco, was he any sort of resource or contributed towards any of the Marvel Universe bios, or anything?
Sanderson: No. Later on, he wrote some books for other publishers about Marvel characters. But no, he had nothing to do with that handbook, at the time. And I worked with the first three versions of the handbook, the original, the sort of deluxe version which was longer, and then the loose-leaf version, various update miniseries.
Alex: How did you then get started getting into the Marvel Saga in 1985 which you did with… 1985 to ’87, edited by Danny Fingeroth. Tell us about writing at the Marvel Saga, because I made a post about that recently.
Sanderson: I don’t really recall how Marvel Saga originated. But I do recall that what happened is I’d go over to Danny’s apartment on a regular basis, and we’d discuss and work out what was going to happen in each issue of Marvel Saga. I was hoping it would go on forever, but in fact, eventually, it was transferred to a different editor and it wasn’t selling that well so we had to wind up with Galactus Trilogy which was actually a good place to stop because that brings the early years of Marvel to their high point.
If I had to do it again, we had a limited budget on this, which is why it was mostly clip art. And I feel a little guilty about that, because sometimes, with the clip art, would actually alter the art. Like if it was a partial view of the character, we’d fill it out. Now, I think, tampering with Jack Kirby art is blasphemous.
Alex: Ha! That’s awesome. Uh-huh.
Sanderson: I was happiest with Marvel Saga when we’re able to do new pages. Like the first issue, I came up with the idea of, “Let’s start this with, where are all these famous Marvel heroes just before Fantastic Four #1?”, and we had new art for that. I remember later on, when we were doing the Angel’s origin, Danny and I agreed that the art on the original story was written really weak so we commissioned new art, and it was Bill Sienkiewicz who ended up doing it, which is great.
So, the big thing about Marvel Saga was George Olshevsky who was sort of a pioneer of indexing in comics. He had done a lot of indexes of Marvel Comics, both in his own, and later, officially for Marvel. And so, to some extent, he had figured out, in the early years, which stories had happened before which other stories. But he didn’t do a complete job. Like usually, it was like if he was doing like Fantastic Four… Oh, I don’t know, Fantastic Four #30, he’d have an addendum at the index. He’d have, “This character next appears in… This character next appears in…” But he wasn’t covering everything because he wasn’t indexing every series at this point, for Marvel.
So, what I had to do is, read all these stories, from the first run, 1961 through 1965. It’s where the Galactus Trilogy happens, and figure out which story happened when, in relation to all the other stories. Sometimes, you’d see that Stan would give you a good clue, like there’s Thor returning from a long story while he’s in Asgard, and he goes to the Avengers Mansion and he meets Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. So you know this happened after the issue in which the New Avengers, Cap’s Kooky Quartet got launched.
But anyway, I had to figure this out, and what I did was I made out these calendars. I was able to assign, each story, from ’61 to ’65, to a specific day of the year. And sometimes, you’d have multiple stories on one day.
Sanderson: Now, I don’t know if that’s possible to do anymore, for one thing, as you’ve noted earlier, in the ‘60s the characters still were aging in real time. But time moved more closely to real time back then. So, I think it’s possible to do that. But now, when you look back at nearly 60 years, of Fantastic Four stories, and you realize that they all have to fit within 10 to 15 years, I don’t know if it’s possible to do this anymore.
Another thing, I want to get into, is I really like the first issue.
I like the whole series, the recent History of the Marvel Universe series.
Jim: Mark Waid stuff??
Sanderson: I liked it. I particularly like the first issue which is basically stuff that happened way before Fantastic Four #1, going all the way back to the creation of the universe. And drawing in stories from all these different sources, and fitting them into a continuity. I really liked that. That is really well done. My only regret is that they never asked me to be a consultant on the book.
Jim: Which makes no sense.
Sanderson: I know. I mean, I’ve talked to people who have worked on Marvel Universe Handbooks… More recent Marvel Universe Handbooks. I was just talking to one earlier this week, and they loved the handbook that Mark and I was writing in. Really, with the original handbook, I started working on it with issue #2. And as the series went on, I was writing more of it than Mark was. And that’s definitely true of the deluxe version. That’s out of sight, out of mind, I guess.
Alex: So, then the Marvel Universe: Complete Encyclopedia of Marvel’s Greatest Characters were dating back to about 1986-ish, how’d you get involved in that?
Sanderson: I think I was asked to work on it. At that point, I’d have already been working on books from other publishers about Marvel characters in history. Like I say, there’s a period when… for about 10 years I was doing work for Marvel and DC directly, and then for the next 10, I was constantly being asked by people to write books for other publishers that Marvel had licensed rights to, official books about the characters in history.
I got the first book, the Abrams book about Marvel that I wrote, I got that through Mark Gruenwald’s recommendation… I should also say that to fill in another gap in my history, that after Marvel Saga was finished, and there wasn’t another Who’s Who or Marvel Universe Handbook being done at that point, that’s when I went to Mark, and said I was looking for work. Something else to do, because I really like working in comics and on comics history.
And that’s when he established the Marvel archivist position, which is basically, somebody who would sit in the bound volume room, and supervise them, make sure that books didn’t get stolen. And also, I would get to read through every Marvel book before it went to press so if I spotted some hollering continuity error, we could get it fixed to the last minute. And this lasted for a little while, but then we had Marvel’s dark days where there were all these different corporate moguls who were fighting over ownership, the company was going bankrupt. And we had major downsizing, it’s like they basically got rid of the entire baby boom generation at Marvel.
I survived the first one, but not the second, and they fired me without telling Mark they were going to do it.
Alex: I see. And we’re going to get to that, I promise. So, now, before we get to that though, you were writing the Wolverine Saga in the late ‘80s, 1989-ish or around 1989. I had those four issues with Wolverine #50. I had a Wolverine file in my house, and this was my definitive Wolverine history was, that Wolverine Saga. So, tell us about that.
Sanderson: There’s a lot more Wolverine history that’s been added since then.
Alex: There has… Yeah. Oh, yeah, for sure.
Sanderson: And that’s probably coming after stories set more recently. I’m talking about his back story.
Alex: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, they’ve added way more which… I’ve tracked that stuff down, and that’s fine.
Sanderson: I don’t like Wolverine tortured; I think that was Chris Claremont had a point at keeping it mysterious.
Alex: Yeah. Right… Yeah, they got a little weird with that.
Sanderson: Too many writers and editors don’t believe in the power of mystery.
Alex: Right… Then Marvel Saga issue #22, Peter David wrote about the history of Peter and Mary Jane, and Marvel Saga had like kind of a little change in style there. What happened with that situation? And were you not a Peter and Mary Jane fan, as far as them being married?
Sanderson: I don’t remember that at all.
Alex: Oh, okay. Well, Peter David wrote that issue, is what I’m saying. He wrote issue #22.
Sanderson: He did?
Alex: Yeah, the history of Peter and Mary Jane.
Sanderson: I wasn’t even aware of that at the time.
Alex: Oh… okay. Interesting.
Sanderson: That’s interesting. I’m finding all about this, decades later.
Alex: [chuckle] Okay.
Sanderson: This must have been after Danny left as editor, because Danny would not have commissioned an issue by somebody else without telling me, or asking me.
Alex: That could have been. Yeah. That could have been.
Sanderson: Danny’s remained a good friend, right through the present.
Alex: Right through the present… Okay, so now, let’s go back to the dark days of Marvel, and then Jim’s going to the next section. Okay. First, what year did you leave Marvel exactly?
Sanderson: I don’t remember. I’d have to look it up… though it’s in the ‘90s… Mid ‘90s.
Alex: Okay. Mid ‘90s… Okay, like ’95-ish. Okay.
Sanderson: I would say it was about the transition to writing these books, so that was okay.
Sanderson: I didn’t like being thrown out; I didn’t like all these people I knew being thrown out. I didn’t like the direction that Jemas and Quesada were initially embarked on with the books. Although, I think after another 10 years I started to see books by… You know, there are Marvel writers now like Dan Slott, like Jason Aaron, like Nick Spencer who I really like. But I didn’t like what’ll happen to a lot of the books right after Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada took over.
I never thought there was a point to the Ultimate line, so when the Ultimate line finally got cancelled, I thought, “Well, see, that was a waste of time. Just like a thought.”
Sanderson: The only good things that came out of the Ultimate line, as far as I can tell… I mean, it was basically… Well, I would say why don’t we have an Earth Two? The only good things were the African-American Spiderman, which is a good idea. And setting in motion the process that got Samuel L. Jackson to play Nick Fury.
Alex: So, in those final days in the mid ’90s, at Marvel, and people were getting let go, and there was bankruptcy, and this was with the Revlon people under Perelman. Mark Gruenwald passed away around this time. Tell us about your relationship with Mark and do you feel like the situation at Marvel contributed to his death?
Sanderson: Okay. First, before I get into that, another gap to fill, which I nearly forgotten, which was that after I stopped… They’d buy me off the archivist position in the major downsizing, immediately, I got hired back to come in a couple of days a week to be a proofreader because Flo Steinberg was the proofreader at that point, who was as genuinely wonderful as you’ve heard. I really loved talking to her. But she only wanted to work like three days a week, so I would come in the other two days. And I got to sit next to George Rousseau, which is interesting too. I really should have talked more to him about his history working with Bob Kane way back in the early days of Batman. But I really wasn’t aware of it at that time, but I do enjoyed talking to him.
Then after the Jemas-Quesada administration got installed, I remember the head of the production department coming in to me one day, and say, “We’re going to have to let you go as proofreader. Editorial likes what you’re doing, production likes what you’re doing, but we have to get rid of you.” So, make of that what you will. I wasn’t getting paid that much to be proofreader, but I suspect they really wanted to bring in somebody who would work even cheaper. That was when I really left Marvel finally. Again, I was continuing to write… You’d think that with me writing these books for all the publishers about Marvel history of characters, that they’d be nicer to me.
And now of course, over time, Ralph Macchio has retired, Tom Brevoort is really the only person left from the days that I was at Marvel, regularly. So, it’s a whole new generation, so I don’t think most of them even have heard of me… Grant Morrison was there until a year or so ago. He would invite me in, to do podcasts every once in a while. But now my only real connection with Marvel is that when they have one of the screenings of the Marvel movies, I get an invitation, which is very nice. But of course, now it’ll be like at least till November, before we got another Marvel movie…
I got invited to the big… Which you may have seen on TV. The big Marvel Celebrates Stan Lee TV special. I got invited to be at that. That was really fun because so many people who’re still on the East Coast who used to work at Marvel, from my generation, were there. So. it was like a wonderful reunion.
Sanderson: But anyway, back to Mark. Mark was… Okay. There are many things that were great about Mark. Mark was sort of beloved at Marvel, by editorial and production. Mark was sort of the spirit of the Marvel bullpen. It’s as if like Mark grew up reading Stan talking about the Marvel bullpen, and people who worked at Marvel as if it was like a really fun place to work. And now most people realize that Stan was basically doing a lot of spin there, that most of the people he was referring to were working out of their homes. But it’s as if Mark really wanted to make that happen for real.
Mark was sort of like our morale officer, unofficially. He would organize parties in the office. There’d be stunts that he’d do like he would decorate his office in weird ways. For example, there’s a TV anchor, in the New York area, named Michele Marsh, who was really good looking. Mark developed a sort of obsession with her, and he started putting photos of her up all over his office wall. This led to a Michele Marsh day at Marvel, where everybody on staff sort of crowded into Mark’s office and they were all wearing a Michele Marsh masks. And there was another time when he put his desk up on a platform. So, he was sort of towering over everybody who came in. And he filled the floor with torn paper, I guess from comics. And so, you had to sort of wade through all this paper to get to Mark. Or another time when he decorated the office like it was a medieval dungeon, and it was fun working with Mark.
The original version of the Handbook, we often had to work nights on that because it was so much work doing that. Like I would work on entries in my home in Queens, and then early evening I’d travel into Manhattan in to the Marvel offices and continue to write there on a typewriter at Mark’s assistant’s desk… And sometimes, Mark was there, or one of his assistants, David Wohl and they’re doing production work on the book. And I’d be there typing away until like 11 o’clock at night and then I’d leave.
Marvel’s location, which was like 27th and Park Avenue South, back then, this is in the ’80s, you go outside that time of night and you’d have to avoid the hookers in the subway.
So, Mark, he was a source of fun. He was a really hard worker. Now when the downsizings came, like I said, I was called into this tribunal of three; Bob Harras is one of them. One of the interesting things about the tribunal was that within a year all of them were gone from Marvel too. Like it was a day when everybody was sort of in his office, nervously awaiting, wondering if they were going to get the call and to see the tribunal. And if you did then the tribunal would tell you, you were being let go. One staffer was so upset by this that he actually fainted.
And so, after I got told by Harras and the other two staffers, they were from different departments at Marvel, that I was being let go, I went into Mark’s office and told him. I remember the look of shock on face because they had not let him know this beforehand. Now, it is said that… There are people who believe… Well as you say, Mark died soon after this.
Oh, another thing that happened was that Mark was no longer writing Captain America, and he had the Avengers books taken away from him because this was when they were referred down to Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld, and … Anyway, so Mark died, of a cardiac arrest I think, very soon afterwards. And there are people, including myself, who believe that this was a reaction, to seeing what had happened to all his friends, so many of his friends at Marvel, during the downsizing.
Alex: As a reaction to his colleagues and friends being fired you mean, right?
Sanderson: Yeah. During the ’80s, there’s always a lot of tension when Jim Shooter was editor in chief. And a great deal of relief when then Marvel got rid of him and Tom DeFalco was promoted to take this place. Because everyone liked Tom. He was very easy going. But, despite all the tension, what made Marvel so much fun back then, was Mark. And like I say, he’s like the spirit of Marvel. Tom Brevoort even said that after his passing.
And no, I don’t have that much contact with Marvel, anymore. They recently moved last fall, but I’ve been to their previous offices, in midtown Manhattan several times. But when I walk around there, it’s like a big advertising office with a lot of young people. I find myself thinking, is this what, like John Romita Sr, and Archie Goodwin felt when they walked around Marvel in my time? “Oh, we’re the two old guys and all these young people.” Everybody at Marvel looks really young to me now.
It’s like an advertising office, you don’t see the weird… There are Marvel posters on the wall, but you don’t see the gag posters or the decorated offices. If they have office parties, I’d never hear about them. So, it’s like really, even after Mark died, and Jemas and Quesada, took over, I was still there as proofreader. Remember? And I somehow… The editorial office was so quiet, whereas they were always bustling with happy noise during the ’80s, and everybody was pretty much isolated in a cubicle. And I remember being sort of horrified one day because I was sitting across from the office of one of the new editors, and he was going over a script with one of his writers. He was questioning specific words in the dialogue and I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, this sort of micromanagement would never have happened, even under Shooter.”
They also, Marvel is on the 10th floor of this building on Park Avenue South. They closed off the receptionist’s office, on the 10th floor. They had locked doors and you need a special card to get through the doors. And they wouldn’t give me one of those cards. So, in the days when I was there for proofreading, when I came back from lunch, I had to wait for somebody to let me in.
Alex: That stinks because of all the time that you put into that place. Yeah.
Sanderson: My only meeting with Bill Jemas came on September 12th, 2001, the day after 9/11. Because I came into the offices to do my usual proofreading, I had no idea that they had closed the offices for that day. And so Jemas came to the door and told me that the offices were closed. So, I went home.
Alex: So then last question, and then Jim will talk about some of your post Marvel stuff, is do you feel, like you said that Jim Shooter, although was kind of micromanaged, to some extent, the micromanagement was worse later. Do you feel it’s an injustice?
Sanderson: Everything was worth slamming. The downsizings were way worse than we could ever have imagined during the Shooter era. Because Shooter, he gave people a hard time. But only a couple of people ended up getting fired.
Alex: Right. So, do you feel it was a justice or an injustice that Shooter is so vilified moving forward in comics history?
Sanderson: Hmm, I’ve going to be diplomatic here. I think Shooter did a lot of good things; that he set up an editorial structure that gave Marvel an order, and discipline that it really needed. Before Shooter, you are constantly having the dreaded doomsday deadline doom, where the story is worth getting in on time, so you didn’t end up writing a re-print.
And this was happening over and over. And you had a lot of writer-editors who were, as however talented they might be, were not necessarily disciplined, in terms of schedules. So, Shooter started up, an editorial structure with editors and assistant editors, and adhering to deadlines. And this was all important.
On the other hand, he did tend to, not micromanage dialogue, but he did tend to insert himself perhaps more than they should have, into the making of the comics. He wasn’t diplomatic himself. Like he’d look at a finished comic, and he’d review it, and he’d write things like, “Arghh!” in the margins. That’s a way of hurting editors and writers and artists feelings. There’s stories about how he was lecturing Gene Colan about how to do comic storytelling. He’s the one who had basically insisted on changing the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga, for better or for worse, because what he wanted was for Jean (Grey) to be sent to a cosmic prison and be tortured for the rest of her life.
And now, I look back and I thought, “Oh, my gosh.” So, John Byrne, Chris Claremont came up with the alternate, which Shooter accepted of having Jean commit suicide… And yet, a few years later, Layton launched X-Factor, so they undid the end of the Dark Phoenix story. But Shooter, he would raise objections to a lot of what writers were doing. He also had sort of retrograde ideas. I mean his ideal, for comic storytelling seem to be the kind of nine-panel grids that Ditko did all the time. So, you could see why someone like Colan would raise his wrath. And back then, it was a question of like someone like Chris Claremont, try to find a way to do what he wanted to do in such a way that it would get past Shooter.
Some people, he seemed to leave pretty much alone, like Walt Simonson on Thor. And he’d encouraged some new comers. He was an early advocate of Frank Miller’s work… So, Shooter, was a mixed bag. He did good things and he did not so good things. I don’t think he should be vilified. I think, you should take a balanced look towards him. And I do think it’s unfortunate that he seems not to… But that’s true. I mean, he’s another boomer who doesn’t get enough work in comics. I sort of wonder why you don’t see more from him as a writer.
Jim: Peter, that’s actually a perfect segue to the question… Well, before I start asking you about Comics and Context, and some of the other things that you do, after Marvel. And your columns and your writing, and your books, I wanted to ask you a question exactly about that… As a comic historian, who do you think are the creators who are most… Or managers, or artists, or writers, who are most underappreciated, undervalued, and should be known by audiences today more than they are?
Sanderson: Well, Mark Gruenwald, for one.
Sanderson: He wasn’t a great writer but he was a very good writer. He did Captain America, going for 10 years. I think Quasar was really interesting. Quasar, was sort of like doing a DC character like Green Lantern, but setting it in the Marvel Universe. And his triumph was Squadron Supreme, which is one of the great comic series of the mid ’80s and sort of was gotten overlooked in the wake of even bigger deals like Watchmen. But the Squadron Supreme limited series, very much reflects Mark because, as I’d said, he idolized Julie Schwartz and Gardner Fox.
The Squadron was originally created by Roy Thomas as a parody of the Justice League. Mark was taking it seriously as analogs of the Justice League. What he was doing is showing what would happen to the DC Silver Age Justice League if they were set in a Marvel type world.
The big theme of this is about the road to hell is paved with good intentions, that after a disaster strikes their parallel Earth, the Squadron take control, like martial law. It’s not clear whether it’s the whole world or just the United States, but they are determined to create a utopia. On the process of that, even though they’re well-intentioned, they violate various freedoms and various rights. If you’re, for example, a big second amendment fan, you’re probably going to object to the way that they confiscated everybody’s gun.
And this was sort of like a callback to what Doc Savage used to do. They would brainwash criminals that they’ve captured so that they wouldn’t commit crimes anymore. But then you see, in the course of the series, how this sort of power corrupts them when the Green Arrow analog uses this brainwashing technology on the Black Canary analog to make her fall in love with him. And it ends with the Batman analog, Nighthawk leading a revolutionary rebellion, to overthrow the Squadron, which is led by Hyperion who was a Superman analog.
And there have been so many series, like Kingdom Come, and Injustice, and Superman: Red Son that have come along afterwards, which are basically pitting a tyrannical Superman, or a Superman who has sort of overstepped his bounds against Batman, who leads the revolution, and represents regular humanity.
I mean, even as seen afterwards as the Original Dark Knight gets Superman against Batman. That all started really with Mark. He was the first one who really did this, what’s become this trope, in superhero comics.
Sanderson: Also, for the New Universe books in the ’80s, Mark did the best one, D.P. 7, which was a bunch of people who would develop paranormal powers and we’re put in sort of an asylum where they would learn to use their powers like Professor X’s school, but also cope psychologically with the stresses of becoming a superpowered person. And eventually they find out that this asylum is being run by people who are trying to exploit the superhumans and so a bunch of them flee and lived these filmatic lives traveling the country. And I’ve longed thought that this is a series that would make a great television series. If anyone from Marvel studios is watching this, if you’re looking for more stuff from Disney Plus, this would be a good one.
Jim: I would just add, in terms of Gruenwald doing that with Squadron Supreme, that he was smart enough to do it with non-Marvel Universe characters, that DC when they did it in Identity Crisis, with having Zatanna actually wiping out memories and doing that with the consent of half of the heroes, to me that was just horrible. What happens there, because it takes that darkness and it actually applies it to the regular continuity heroes. I know you wrote about that, right?
Sanderson: Identity Crisis took a fall for that reason. For that reason, it also… Well, the horrible murder of Sue Dibny.
Jim: Yes. One of the most, just lovely characters in the whole DC Universe.
Sanderson: And also, the Elongated Man series was a comedy mystery. You don’t take comedy characters, and rape and murder them. But anyway, the closest thing that I can think of at Marvel, that was the horrible storyline, David Michelinie wrote it, unfortunately, in Avengers in which Carol Danvers is in effect, hypnotized and raped by this son of Immortus, Marcus, and impregnates her.
The Avengers, when she gets back, just sort of nod their heads and say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And Chris Claremont was so infuriated about that, that when he did an Avengers Annual later, he had Carol sort of call the Avengers on the carpet about the horrible way that they had treated her,
Jim: Yes. I mean she actually said how angry she was. And I thought that was very smart to dig themselves out from that. I’m not a big fan of rape of superheroines, anyway. I think it’s…
Sanderson: That’s a good point you made. It’s similar to when Alan Moore originally wanted to do the Charlton superheroes in Watchmen. Dick Giordano, I think was making a similar point. He didn’t want the Charlton heroes to be like turn dark and dysfunctional. So, he wanted Moore to come up with his own character, so Moore came up with the Watchmen that we know. Most of whom you can see their foundation of the Charlton characters, but he’s changed some of them up. Then the Watchmen, like the Squadron, were basically characters that the readers didn’t have an emotional investment in, at first. Then it’s easy to have them turn bad.
Sanderson: But in the case of the Squadron, keep in mind, Hyperion and the rest, didn’t realize they were doing bad until these things started blowing up in their face, and Nighthawk finally beat them. And they had the epiphany that, “Oh my, what have we done? We’ve established this tyranny with all the best intentions, but it’s still a tyranny.”
Now, you want to hear about other people, I think are underrated?
Jim: Yes. Give me a couple more.
Sanderson: My old friend, Peter Gillis, who was working for Marvel and DC in the ’80s like me, and I did a lot of what I thought, brilliant stories. He did an Eternal series, which has never been reprinted, but maybe when the Eternal movie comes out, it will be. He did amazing issues of What If. He did good issues of Captain America, and a good long run on the Defenders. He was pushing the boundaries of what you could do with the superheroes’ stories. And yet he’s never really been a fan favorite, or after the ’80s he stopped getting work. Although, he’s back doing independent comics now. But it’s like, I think he’s an underrated writer.
There are other writers that, if we’re talking about the color generation, like I keep waiting for Steve Gerber to be rediscovered, not just by current readers, but by the mainstream press because it’s been said that he was doing Vertigo comics before Vertigo. He was making major moves towards more sophisticated comic book stories in the ’70s. He deserved to be rediscovered.
Don McGregor, I’m really happy that the movie people, they not only use… What Don was doing in his Black Panther stories, in the ‘70s he was getting a hard time from other people in Marvel editorial. Things like, “Why do you have to do a series with no white people in it?”.
Jim: This is my objection to Shooter, is most of those people left Marvel because of Jim Shooter’s decisions or behavior. And that was my favorite error of Marvel, probably.
Sanderson: Well anyway… It’s like Don, he wasn’t getting support at Marvel when he was doing these stories. He wasn’t getting paid much. He was originally sort of pushed off the Black Panther in the middle of the storyline. And yet now, he’s getting more recognition in the world at large. He’s on the Black Panther movie DVD. He got invited to the premier. The movie, of course, is full of stuff that they took from Don, and also from Christopher Priest. That’s like the Black Panther, the movie, this billion-dollar franchise is largely adapted from the work of Don McGregor who got a pittance for it. And the thing is, that I would like to think that Don would get more comic book work, out from this. But no, he doesn’t.
Jim: We just interviewed him just a weeks ago. It was a real treat.
Sanderson: Yeah, he’s wonderful.
Alex: Would you happen to know who at Marvel editorial was giving Don the hardest time?
Sanderson: He never mentions names, so I don’t know. I can make guesses but I don’t know. And I’d rather not make a guess… Yes, a lot of people left Marvel in the ’80s because of Shooter. And you could argue that DC’s revitalization would not have happened without Shooter because John Byrne left because he was fed up with Shooter. Frank Miller left because he was fed up with Shooter. The Superman revamp, and Dark Knight, which were the major phenomenon of DC in the mid ’80s that really got the company moving again.
It’s funny about Byrne, because Byrne used to throw these huge parties. He owned a mansion in Connecticut. And yes, this was back in the days when you could make real money off of comics. He had a mansion in Connecticut and he’d throw these big parties a couple of times a year and he used to invite like basically everybody in the business. There was one summer party, he’d invited Dick Giordano too, and Shooter was there too. Right under Shooter’s nose, during that party, John was talking to Dick Giordano about going to DC and revamping Superman.
Now, I’m not sure that Don left because of Shooter because I think once Shooter rose to power Don was already gone. But I’d have to check that.
Jim: We should probably move on and talk about your Comics and Context column. Is there anybody else you just want to fairly quickly say people should be invested?… I agree with Steve Gerber completely.
Sanderson: Well, in one of my talks with you guys before we did the podcast, one of you mentioned Archie Goodwin as an editor. Also was a writer, because he was a consummate craftsman as a writer, and he was beloved as an editor. He was behind the Epic line, which of course, Marvel has no equivalent of now. He was doing a lot of experimenting in new directions and giving creators room to experiment.
And when he went to DC, I remember him telling me that he thought that the secret of being a good editor was to pick the right people. and then let them do what they want. Trust them… I think maybe because Archie was never a writer who did… Yeah. Well, Manhunter, the work he did with Walt Simonson, at the start of Walt’s career, is this enduring gem. But for the most popular books that Archie wrote aren’t like major collectors’ items now. And so, I don’t think younger generations really know about him or appreciate him as much as they should.
Jim: Yeah, I agree. The works he did at Warren in the late ’60s when he brought in people like Steve Ditko… Gave him some of the best works Ditko ever did.
Sanderson: And you see, at the time I didn’t even know about that. Those are all the books that I’ve read only when I started visiting the Columbia Library’s comics collection… Oh, and also, he wrote the Star Wars comic strip and comic strips of Secret Agent Corrigan with Al Williamson doing the art for both. Those are really good. I’ve read those at the Columbia Library as well.
Jim: Let’s talk about Comics and Context. You started that in 2003?
Sanderson: That sounds about right. I did it for about five years.
Jim: You talk about Dark Shadows, and your love for Dark Shadows, and then Top Cat, and then comics, and… Just everywhere.
Sanderson: Well, I have no problem dealing with animation because, for my money, comics and animation are closely related art forms. You’ll notice if you follow my Facebook page that every day, I do anniversaries and birthdays for major people in both comics, and in animation. As well as other related fields, like I’ll do New Yorker cartoonists, for example. Last week, I did Leonardo DaVinci because he did caricatures. He’s another one of the fathers of cartoon art.
Dark Shadows, which I really love… Sometimes, I would give myself leeway to do something that’s in fantasy or science fiction, even though it wasn’t comics. Maybe if I had the blog to do over, again… Well, I enjoy writing about this stuff. The thing is that I was doing it for no money, and it took a long time to do these columns because it always turned into like 10 pages typewritten. Well, not only do I keep being told nowadays that blogs are dead, but even back then I was being told that people will only read short entries in blogs.
I have no idea how many people used to read Comics and Context, so I’m always grateful when I find somebody who did. I’d like to do something like this again, but I’ll have two problems with me.
One is my recent health problems, that three years ago I fell outside the Columbia Library. I had fractured my hip, and when I was in the hospital for five months, they discovered that I had kidney disease. And so, my health has not been that good that that’s sort of varies my energy level. Today I’m feeling energetic because I’m talking to you guys. I like to get my energy level up to the point where I could do writing every week because I want to spend my senior years leaving a body of work, at least do one more book on my own. Which is this bios thing that’s titled Various Great Comics of the Past, and Comics Creators.
And the other problem is that it’s hard for me to justify doing stuff for free anymore.
Jim: So, when you say no money, you mean literally no money?
Sanderson: No, I’m now past my retirement age, and it’d be nice to have a source of income. Really after spending in my lifetime studying, criticizing, writing, comics histories, I really wish… When people tell me that the comics business is booming, or that comics are taken more seriously than ever by the mainstream, I keep thinking that if it was really that good, I’d get offers of work. I’d have friends who’d get offers of work. But I’m still looking out for the opportunity to do something more with comics, to do another book, to do another blog, but I… Yeah, if it was going to be another blog, I’d want it to be hosted somewhere where people go and actually see it because I don’t think most people were even aware of Comics and Context at the time.
Jim: Yeah. What I was going to ask is, besides the ones that are still up through Fred, are the others available online or are they lost?
Sanderson: I’ve not checked for a while. Last time I checked, may have been a year or two ago, and I could find a whole lot of them online.
Jim: I could find the 2010 ones because they were on Fred, but I was having trouble with the others. In a throw back to when we first started talking, it’s sad that when they reprint the comics as well, so many of them don’t include the letters pages.
Sanderson: Well I guess DC’s new facsimile editions, I think they include the letters pages, don’t they?… But yeah, I probably have most of them Comics and Context on an old computer but the old computer has been dying. So, I hope that they’re not lost forever. What’s possible is that Ken Plume, who was my editor on my column Comics and Context, he may have copies of all these stuffs.
Jim: You should find out cause that’s a historical artifact, in my opinion. I’d like to see them preserved.
Sanderson: And sometimes people say, if only you could find somebody to publish them, or publish some of them anyway. If, say for example, I decide to do a book about superhero movies, I’d already reviewed a lot of them in Comics and Context. And that I’d have to write a whole lot of new movie reviews, of course, but it could be a basis for a book.
Jim: Oh yes, absolutely. We should talk about that. That’s an interesting subject as far as I’m concerned as well. Was there a difference between what you were doing there, and what you were doing for Publishers Weekly? Was that the same style of column? You were doing that around 2007.
Sanderson: Publishers Weekly, I’d be asked to do reviews, and I got paid very little for them. That’s like, apart from the books that I did for places like Abrams at DK, virtually everything, throughout my career, whether it was Amazing Heroes, or it was Publishers Weekly, paid nothing or virtually nothing. And for whatever reason, Heidi Macdonald stopped offering, or, whoever was in charge of the comics reviews at Publishers Weekly stopped offering me those. But I was dealing with them for a while.
I think one of my problems though, with Publishers Weekly, is that Heidi had kept sending me, stacks of books that they’d gotten in and none of them had anything to do with the superhero genre. So, it was sort of like… And I don’t confine myself to the superhero genre, these books tended not to be to my taste.
Jim: Ah, that’s interesting. I noticed that when I was looking at some of them, it didn’t seem like your wheelhouse, exactly.
Sanderson: Even though I could do like… I’ll read Eisner books, I’ll read Kurtzman books, I’ll read Moebius, I’ll read various French comics. Tintin. I’ll read genres that are not superhero genre. But I basically am an expert at, or consider myself an expert on the superhero genre at Marvel and DC.
Jim: What do you think of Peter Coogan’s book? Which I think is very important to the understanding of the genre.
Sanderson: Peter Coogan’s books, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, I think it is an extraordinary book. I think everybody who’s in the superhero comics studies should read it. I had, some months back, I was having a fight with various people on Facebook about it because Peter sets out the definition. He sets out the definition of what qualifies a character to be a superhero. I think these are very important guidelines this sets out. And I think that he argues convincingly in favor of all of them, and so I follow them myself, but there are other people who I was having arguments. Like people saying Batman is not a superhero because he has no superpowers, or people saying that Shadow is a superhero.
No, he’s a pulp vigilante. Or the Phantom, I agree that the Phantom is an ambiguous case, but I really don’t think the Phantom goes all the way.
Superman is the very first super hero, and part of the reason is that it was Superman that inspired all these imitations, within a year or two. Whereas the Phantom, I think, even though he first appeared as a costumed vigilante who was operating in the big city, they very quickly moved into his jungle location. So, I think that he really should be classified as a jungle hero in the Tarzan mode. Peter Coogan agrees with me about the Shadow, and the Phantom, and Batman. I mean, there’s very little space between us in terms of…
I think my only real quarrel with Peter is that after he it comes up with all these specific qualifications for being a superhero, like you have to have a costume, you have to have an insignia, you have to have extraordinary abilities, whether they are superhuman or not, things like that, you’ll have to have an ongoing mission. But when it comes to defining a supervillain, he has a much broader definition. So, example. he includes Professor Moriarty; he includes the James Bond villains like Goldfinger and Blofeld.
I tend to think that, there’s part of me that thinks supervillains should be reserved for the costumed villains, the ones who battle the superheroes. But still, I can still see Peter’s point. I mean when I watched Silence of the Lambs, I think, “Hmm, Hannibal Lecter is sort of a supervillain.” There’s the ambiguous cases like Superman’s main enemy is Luthor, who’d usually doesn’t wear a costume, and usually doesn’t have super powers. But since he’s Superman’s arch enemy, he must be a supervillain. But then, you look into Luthor’s history and there are plenty of stories where he has a costume. And there are stories going all the way back to Golden Age with the power stone storyline in which he has super powers too. So, it doesn’t bother me to call Luthor a supervillain.
Alex: Right. Before I go on to this next section, quick question. When you were doing the Comics and Context for IGN and then you moved over to a site called Fred, did you have any association with Kevin Smith during any of this time?
Sanderson: No. You Ken Plume moved out… He was my editor on this, and who was the one who got me to do the column. He had the connection with Kevin Smith. But to this day, I’ve never had any contact with Kevin Smith whatsoever. Maybe someday, but I’ve never, so far. Like I say, I didn’t get paid by Kevin Smith when I was doing it for Fred, and when I was doing for IGN, I didn’t get paid either. And then I read a story about how this company had bought IGN for millions of dollars, and I’m thinking, “So, IGN can’t afford to pay me?”
Alex: [chuckle] Exactly.
Sanderson: I don’t think anyone, apart from Ken Plume and IGN, really appreciated my work, anyway…
Alex: Yeah, that’s interesting… So, tell us about working on The Marvel Vault in 2006 with Roy Thomas. This was a visual Marvel history… How was, let’s say, working with Roy in comparison to working with someone like Mark Gruenwald?
Sanderson: Roy wasn’t the editor. The editor was… I dealt with the editor at the company that published Marvel Vault. I didn’t really have contact with Roy because it was basically decided that Roy will handle Marvel history up to a certain date, and then I would take over. So, it wasn’t a collaboration with Roy at all. Although, I know Roy, I’ve met him a few times, we get along fine.
Alex: Okay. So, it was just more like it was just your section of the book and he had his other section. Okay… Now tell us about, these are some fun projects, so a Marvel travel guide to New York City in 2007. This is interesting. It’s kind of like exploring Marvel’s New York City. Tell us how that came about.
Sanderson: Oh, again, I don’t really remember who asked me to do this, and how that came about. I was asked, it’s not like I wrote out a proposal and submitted it to publishers. I’ve never done that… Well actually I have. I had an agent at one point, and I did some proposals for him that he tried to sell around, but he never got anywhere with them. And eventually, he dropped me as a client because they said I wasn’t bringing in enough money. But this agent never found work for me. I thought I’d be asked by other people to work, do projects and then I’d tell the agent, and he’d negotiate the deal. So, if there’s such thing as an agent who actually finds work for comics historians, I’d like to know.
But anyway, I really enjoyed doing the Marvel Guide to New York City. Because really, you can walk around Manhattan, and if you know enough about Marvel history, you continue with classic places that Marvel stories happened there. Even like in the first Avengers movie, the big fight with the aliens at the end, happens right in front of Grand Central Station, on Park Avenue South, just several blocks away from one of Marvels old locations. And whenever I walked down to Grand Central now, after that movie, I always think, “Oh, they got this place in such good shape after the big battle with the aliens”.
Alex: [chuckle] They really cleaned it up real nice. Damage control.
Sanderson: Really. I was researching the travel guide, basically, my own memory of Marvel stories, and what I could find online. So that if I had like the access to the Columbia Library back then I’d be able to do much more.
And even since the book came out, there have been… Like Dan Slott has been very good at using real New York City locations. Like there’s one issue of Spiderman where there’s a party at Bryant Park, or Paul Tarvey had Peter Parker, working at a scientific firm that was down at South Street Seaport.
I enjoyed that sort of thing and what I’d really like to do… For a time, I thought if only I can find somebody who would pay me to do guided tours of New York City, pointing out Marvel locations. But then I find out somebody had beaten me to it. But I’d really like to do, like a sequel to that book. And maybe add a whole lot of stuff to it or maybe do an expanded version like Marvel’s Guide to the United States and deal with Marvel stories that are set in like Los Angeles or San Francisco, or Chicago, or the Everglades for Man-Thing. Things like that.
Similarly, I mean I wish that Abrams would have, after I did the Marvel Universe book for them, that they would have invited me to do an update, but they never did. And, it may be that they no longer have the rights to do Marvel stuff because ever since Disney bought Marvel.
Alex: Yeah, that’s right. That’s when a lot of these stuffs stops, is around 2008 or so when… Then Disney buys it and then a lot of those books kind of disappear.
Sanderson: I don’t go into bookstores that often anymore, but I remember the last time I was at Barnes & Noble, I said, “Oh look, here’s some Marvel and DC, encyclopedia type books that I wasn’t asked to work on because nobody knows me anymore.” But some of those are still being done, but not made really as regularly.
There was a time when, after I was hot doing these books, then Tom DeFalco for a while, seemed to be doing a lot of Marvel books for other publishers, with DK and so forth. Then there’s Matthew Morrison, and I think he still does them from time to time. But I don’t know if there are as many as being done, as they were back then.
Alex: So, then tell us about curating the exhibition on Stan Lee for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.
Sanderson: I was doing that. I was teamed up with a friend who did a lot of work at the museum, named Ken Wong, and we traveled to various collectors that we had knowledge of, and asked them to look through original art pages that Stan had written. Look through them, and decided what we’d want. And we did have contact with some of the real big guns of Marvel collectors, like Society of Illustrators now has done some amazing Marvel shows, Marvel art shows. There was that big Marvel exhibition that toured the world, which I saw when it was in Philadelphia that had a lot of really great original Marvel art.
Sanderson: But anyway, we contacted a number of collectors in the New York City area. We got some pages. I think we’ve managed to cover pretty much every aspect of Stan’s work in comics. The delightful thing was when we had opening night and Stan was there, and to see how much he liked the exhibit. Also, he was so excited by it, I remember, there was an exhibition case that had stuff from top to bottom, at one point, he got down on his knees on the floor to look at the stuff on the bottom of the case. Because Stan was, until his last few years, despite his advanced age, he was amazingly active.
I remember when he arrived at the museum, he took a brief nap, I think. But then he was full of energy.
Alex: Yeah, that’s cool. So, did you get to chat with him much during that?
Sanderson: No, not much. But, of course, I got to meet him there. Not the first time… I first met him in the ’70s when he was making an appearance at a small convention in Boston. But this was the first time I’d really met him since. Even though he’s done introduction to some of my books, or, at least, sections that had his name on them. But yeah, we didn’t really talk much, but I did enjoy the fact that I was introduced to him as the co-curator and that he loved the exhibits so much. So that’s a bright memory.
Alex: I got one last question and then Jim’s going to do the last section… You brought it up, kind of talked about it a little bit, but comics and ageism. All right. There’s a funny thing there, where it seems like comics, are they a young person’s world, not just in the fans but in the creator and artist. If they are to stay, somewhat culturally relevant to that time, it seems like what they end up doing is they hire younger people, kind of let go some of the older ones, and then a cultural amnesia tends to take place. Where it’s almost like there’s this 15 or 20 year… After 20 years, and the people back then are kind of forgotten. What’s your take on that? Is ageism inherent in the comics industry or is that just a myth?
Sanderson: Well, that’s weird because early on, in the ’60s in the Silver Age, it was mostly people who had started out in the Golden Age, so it was mostly middle-aged people. Like Stan and Jack were middle age when they created Fantastic Four #1, which shows, by the way, how valuable middle-aged comics creators can be, that they did their best work in early middle age.
I should say that there are some people like Jim Starlin until Marvel got him angry again, recently, he was doing work for Marvel.
Peter David still works regularly for them. There are other people from my generation, or slightly younger, who you see who is still… Like Colleen Doran seems to be busy all the time, which is interesting because Colleen had a style, which in the ’80s that wasn’t like any of the male superhero artists that I wondered how well she’d do in the comics industry. But a lot of those male artists have fall by the wayside. She keeps growing strong because there’s a bigger market for the kind of fantasy projects that she often does.
Sanderson: It’s not like ageism is… And people seem to be happy when they could get Walt Simonson to do something for Marvel. But there seem to be a handful of people who are still held in high enough regard that they still invite them to do work. But yeah, it still seems to be that most of the baby boom generation has been discarded. It took longer at DC because they didn’t have the downsizings. In fact, there are old friends of mine from Marvel, like Mike Carlin who are still at DC, still in the business. Although Mike has switched from comics to animation, so maybe that’s the point here, to keep in mind. Putlery Jamonds who was one of my Marvel contemporaries, she at DC. Bobby Chase, Bob Harris, although part of that is when Bob Harris went to DC, he brought over some of the people that he knew and liked from Marvel.
At Marvel, was the fact that the downsizings cleared out most of the baby boom generation and they knew Jemas-Quesada administration hired a lot of new people, who it seemed to me, had little connection or knowledge, or a liking for the works of the past. And part of this is sort of inevitable that you get young people. Always the new generations of young people who come along and fill editorial positions, and to come up as new writers. But yeah, I wish that, especially since there is, as I say… I don’t know what the audience is now. What, is it mostly people of younger generations who just don’t care about the Gold and Silver Age stuff? Or the stuff from the ’70s and ’80s? Or, you know, how much of this is…
When you see these big hard cover volumes recreating stories for past decades at Marvel and DC, who is buying these? Who has enough money to buy these? It seems to me there must be a substantial market of middle-aged and now senior citizens like myself, who are interested in the older stories and the older creators.
Personally, I wish Steve Englehart was working at DC and Marvel. I wish that Don McGregor was doing more work. I wish that Peter Gillis was working at DC or Marvel. Chris Claremont is under contract, but they toss him a couple of stories a year to do, but nothing else really. Not since his Nightcrawler limited series.
Jim: Do you think at some degree, Peter, the writing, the structure of comics has changed and you’re referring to people who believed in doing… Certainly, Englehart did continuing stories, but the notion wasn’t too do it based upon a six-issue trade paperback, that their style is different.
Sanderson: I assume the writers could adapt to doing six-issue works that we collected as the trade paperbacks. But it is also true that you have to move with the times. And that in some ways, you look at the Stan stories for the Silver Age, and in some way respects they’re dated. I could see how new readers could say, “Well, Stan’s dialogue is corny”, but the thing is if you look past the corniness, it’s highly effective. He always gets the effects he wants. He makes these stories live. They’re vivid through his dialogue and narration.
And it amazes me that there’s still a huge Jack Kirby cult, considering that his main work is now 50 years or more old, and that I look at today’s comics and I don’t see anyone who’s really drawing like him. In fact, I hope I’m just not being cranky here, but it’s hard for me to think of a current artist regularly working at Marvel and DC who I think is a real standout, and has really distinctive, powerful style. A lot of it looks like it’s all of the same mold to me.
Sanderson: Whereas when I started reading Schwartz’ DCs in the ’60s, I was seeing Carmine Infantino, and Gil Kane, and Murphy Anderson. When I went over to Marvel, I was seeing Jack Kirby, and John Romita, and Gene Colan. It’s like all giants… There’s so many comics being done now; you can’t have a giant in every book. Giants seem to be in short supply these days.
Jim: I think there are some good artists that are at Marvel. I mean, that do things that are distinctive. I thought that Dan Slott’s Silver Surfer with Allred was very distinctive, and was a really nice book.
Sanderson: He’s an exception to the rule.
Jim: I think Mark Waid’s Daredevil with Chris Samnee was an excellent writer-artist duo that I really enjoyed their work together too. But it is far and few between.
Sanderson: I was more impressed on Daredevil, with Mark’s writing. Allred is sort of like, he’s not a standard superhero artist by any means. He’s very stylized, and so he’s sort of a special case. But I did enjoy the work that he did on covers for the Batman ’66 series that DC did.
But I don’t think of Batman as a standard traditional superhero artists. There are artists from past generations who are still active and who are still really great, like Alex Ross.
I’m happy with some of the younger writers nowadays, than I am with the artists in general. I can’t say that I buy any books these days. I only buy a handful of comics these days, and I tend to buy them for writers, not for artists.
Jim: Are they mostly Marvel, or is it a mix of Marvel and DC?
Sanderson: It’s a mix, but DC keeps canceling the books that I like.
So, I mean, it’s Justice, ran for years, but it’s over now. Batman 66, ran for years, and it’s over. Then I discovered Scooby-Doo! Team-Up, which I loved, unexpectedly, because it was not just Scooby-doo crossing over with the other Hanna-Barbera characters, but with DC superheroes. And they usually did the Silver Age versions of those heroes.
Jim: Oh, some of those were fun. The Green Lantern one that Mark Russell wrote was really nice.
Sanderson: So, those were fun. I should collect more of them. I have about half of them. And it does, of course, raise the conundrum that that implies that the Hanna-Barbera funny animals and the DC superheroes inhabit the same Earth.
Jim: Did you read the Mark Russell Flintstones series, the 12 issues?
Sanderson: I did not like it.
Jim: You didn’t like it? I’m curious about that.
Sanderson: It goes back to my theory that characters are designed… I mean, well yeah, superheroes were originally read like mostly by children or by people who are teens and early 20s like the soldiers who read the superhero comics of World War II. But it’s like the superheroes, they were meant to be melodramas, and over the decades they have made a transition to becoming more sophisticated, and more adult.
Hanna-Barbera characters we’re done for children. They are meant to be comedies. So, when I read the Mark Russell Flintstones, and I see Fred and Barney talking about how they committed genocidal acts in Vietnam…
Sanderson: No!… On the other hand, I did like Mark Russell’s Snagglepuss.
Jim: Snagglepuss was great.
Sanderson: I did like that.
Jim: Snagglepuss, I’m not sure I followed the logic in that Snagglepuss is a funny character, and there’s suicide, and everything else in that series.
Sanderson: Well, I still think that Snagglepuss should be done as a comedy character, but I think that this is the exception to my rule because I think that that particular series was just so well done. And it didn’t have things like Fred and Barney committing war crimes either. It was sort of like Snagglepuss is an analog for real life, gay play rights in the 1950s.
Alex: Right, and that is interesting. Yes.
Sanderson: It deals with blacklisting and homophobia, and I thought that was really interesting. But it’s sort of interesting too, to I realize that when I was a small child and I was watching Snagglepuss cartoons… Never occurred to me that he was gay. But now looking back, I think that the Hanna-Barbera writers probably did intend him to be gay, and they got a to cast the sense.
Alex: It’s probably right. Because anytime I did a Snagglepuss impression, when I was a kid, a friend would be like, “Oh, you sound gay when you imitate him.” I was like, “Oh.”
Sanderson: Well, you might not know this, but there was a lawsuit in the ’60s because Snagglepuss was doing commercials for Kelloggs Cocoa Krispies, I think, and Bert Lahr sued because he claimed that they were ripping off his Cowardly Lion voice.
Alex: Oh, yeah… Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s true too.
Sanderson: I just saw the Wizard of Oz again on TCM recently, and it occurs to me that, to say that Bert’s Cowardly Lion sounds like Snagglepuss, is not quite right because the Cowardly Lion actually has this sort of street rhythm to his voice, even though he’s not a tough guy, he tries to sound like a tough guy. I think that Daws Butler, when he did these voices, he might’ve used someone like Bert Lahr as a jumping off point, but he took it in his own direction. Just like Daws Butlers, Hokey Wolf voice, everybody says that’s as Phil Silvers voice. But it doesn’t really sound like Phil Silvers, but it evokes the fast way that Phil’s Silvers talked.
Jim: I want to talk about your teaching that course you took, but I do want to go back to the Flintstones just for a second, and say, “As an ABC nighttime show that is a little bit different from some of the others in that it did deal with some adult issues such as infertility. And adoption and the difficulties with adoption and things like that.
Sanderson: There’s a big difference between adoption and war crimes. There’s a big difference between doing it funny, I struggle to see the Flintstones as a serious drama.
Alex: I think Alan Moore should do a good Hanna-Barbera interpretation. It might not be to some people’s likings, but guaranteed someone would rape someone if Alan Moore wrote Hanna-Barbera.
Sanderson: Oh yes, Alan Moore… In some ways he claims to be a feminist, and in some ways, he is but there’s just too many rape stories in his canon of work.
It’s like, when you think about it, Watchmen ends up with the epiphany that Doctor Manhattan has, that because the original Silk Spectre fell in love with a man who tried to rape her, and gave birth to the second Silk Spectre, that this is a miracle that justifies existence. I’m thinking this doesn’t happen. Women do not and should not fall in love with people who’ve tried to rape them. Rape is not a good thing.
Jim: But Alan Moore never had Sue Dibny raped, so I give him credit for being better than that.
Alex: There we go. He picked his victims…
Sanderson: At least, he’s doing it with his own creations and not with… [inaudible 00:50:42].
Jim: That was such a good… And then pinning it on Jean Loring, another woman… It’s just the most awful story. There is.
Sanderson: What about the infamous story about the dead girlfriend? I think it’s Green Lantern’s dead girlfriend… In the refrigerator?
Jim: In the fridge… Alex is going to defend that now, for like an hour, if we let him.
Alex: Well, Jim and I chatted with Kevin Dooley at the Comic Fest. He actually drew the door covering some of what was going on in that refrigerator. Now, he thought it would appeal to the young readers at the time.
Sanderson: Well look, it’s better now because you have more female writers and editors. But it’s almost like that Carol Danvers story, we mentioned earlier. I remember saying at DC in the ’80s, there’s this big poster, a roll up of a Crisis on Infinite Earth‘s cover with Superman, holding up the bleeding but corpse of Supergirl, and Superman has got throwing his head back and is wailing in torment. And I’m saying, “Why is DC selling a poster of a dead woman covered with blood for kids to put up over their beds?”
Why is it that it’s women always get killed? Much as I admire the dark Phoenix Saga, you could say that its subtext is, that women cannot emotionally handle power. I mean there’s all sorts of things that have been done in the past in comics. That now look like horribly misogynistic things. Like okay, V for Vendetta, go back to Alan Moore, supposedly for our own good. V captures Ivey, shaves her head and imprisons, tortures her a little. Then he says, “Well, this is for your own good because I wanted to have you recreate the… Go through the same experience I was in when I was held captive.
I’m thinking, “Why? Why do we have to torment this woman in order to too complete her training? Why?… “
Jim: You know, Peter, after when this is done, sometime in the next two weeks, I want to have a phone conversation with you about Watchmen on HBO too. Because I know that was a hard one for you to get into.
Sanderson: I never did.
Jim: You never really did, did you? Because that took Alan Moore’s and did turn it into essentially about women, which I thought was an interesting take on it. But I know you never warmed to the concept very much.
Sanderson: No, it was a story completely removed from what Watchmen was about. The characters that they carried over from Watchmen didn’t act like in character as far as I was concerned. And now of course, I’m not sure if there’s going to be a sequel to this because I know that the show writer for that Watchmen TV series has said, “Oh, I don’t have any more ideas. And what do you mean, I ended on a cliffhanger? I didn’t end on a cliffhanger.”
“Yes, you did” … I didn’t like Doomsday Clock either. It’s like I wish DC and Warner’s would just realize that Watchmen is just as, we don’t need a sequel to Hamlet or for Moby Dick. Watchmen stands on its own as a work of art. It should not have prequels and sequels. And even if you try, you’re not going to come up to the level of Moore and Gibbons. Leave it alone.
Jim: So, let’s talk about your teaching career. The course that you taught, it was on comics and literature?
Sanderson: Comics and literature at NYU. It was an eight-week course. So, I picked various books, most of them superhero genre, but not all. So, like Dark Knight was in there, and Watchmen was in there. There was a Sandman collection in there, but I also had A Contract with God, and I also had Maus.
I remember that I only had like maybe 10 students, and one of them was an older man. I remember having a big fight with him about with Contract with God, which he thought was terrible. Contract with God I think is uneven but I think that the title story is one of the best things that Eisner has ever done, and is a genuine tragedy. But he wouldn’t have any of that. I think at least one of the students thought it was going to be like a class where we’re talking about the latest issue of the Incredible Hulk and I had to disillusion him. But in any event, we offered it in a few subsequent years. Not enough people signed up for it.
So, like I said, I wonder if in a way I got into comics too early because part of me thinks that it’s because of the power of the Silver Age comics.
And that if say in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, if I’d been born later, maybe I wouldn’t have even seen comics. Because by that time, they were in special comic books stores, they weren’t on newsstands, or mom-and-pop shops. And it may be, that I’ll be more attracted to these characters in animated TV shows or in the movies, not the comics. And of course, the comics were not more uneven back then because in the Silver Age, there were only a handful of comics from Julie Schwartz and Stan Lee, but they were all on a very high level. The more the comic book companies expanded their output, the more uneven the lines became.
But also, that to trying to do things like teaching comics. I mean I have some friends who are successful at teaching at comic book courses, Karen Green, Diana Schutz on the West Coast, but maybe I was trying a little too early. Well, it’s sort of a moot point anyway right now, because again, I have the health problem, and we can’t go into New York City anyway, and all the city universities are closed. It’s been a long time since I tried to propose an NYU course, and I don’t think my contacts at NYU are there anymore.
What really bothers me is that I never did a dissertation at Columbia. I was so like everything but dissertation because I couldn’t think, I was subject dealing with Shakespeare, which was my main author as an English literature student, that hadn’t been done before. And I really would have wanted to write about comics, but it would have been impossible in 1978 at Columbia to do a dissertation on comics.
Now, of course you can, and now there’s a whole generation of people like Peter Coogan who teach comic book courses and write academic papers on comics and I missed out on that. It would be wonderful to have Karen Green’s job, which she gets to fly all over the world, it seems, as a comic book librarian.
Jim: That’s how we close out, that Peter Sanderson, a man ahead of his time by far.
Sanderson: You know, in a way, a lot of us were ahead of our time, because those of us who are reading Stan Lee’s superhero comics in the sixties, back when comics were considered by mainstream culture to be trash, that were only read by kids and stupid kids at that. I was being made fun off for continuing to read comics when I was a high school student. And now, now it’s like superheroes dominate popular culture. The Marvel Studio movies are hugely popular. But those of us who were reading the stuff back in the ‘60s, we were foresighted. We were ahead of our time. We were like a half century ahead of our time.
Alex: Well, this has been an awesome episode, Peter. Thanks for hanging out with Jim and I today. It really seems like you we’re a comic fan critic, historian, reviewer before it was culturally cool to do so that you were ahead of the curve on that and I think it’s great. I’m amazed by how much of my childhood in the ‘80s and memorizing the Marvel Universe and memorizing the Marvel Saga, it was all based on you putting it all together, and making it easy for a new fan like me who was 10 years old in the ‘80s, to be able to access works like Marvel Masterworks and all that stuff. You were the gateway for me to them, to look at the old comics.
So, on behalf of me and other gen Xers, thank you so much for introducing us to Marvel.
Sanderson: Thank you. Those are very kind words. I would just add that in the Marvel Universe Handbook, I was following the pattern set by Mark Gruenwald even though I took over as main writer.
Alex: All right. Cheers.
Jim: Thanks, Peter.
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