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Understanding Superhero Comic Books Interview with Alex Grand & N. Scott Robinson, Ph.D.

On the Comic Book Historians Podcast June 26, 2023, special guest-host and resident CBH book Editor and Globo Comico social media founder, N. Scott Robinson, Ph.D., interviews Alex Grand,  author of the new book, Understanding Superhero Comic Books A History of Key Elements, Creators, Events and Controversies , delving into its in-depth exploration of the origin, growth, and major influences of superhero comic books. The discussion illuminates how iconic characters such as Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America are more than just fictional characters, but reflections of their societal contexts. Further, they delve into the contributions of pivotal creators like Julius Schwartz, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jim Starlin, John Byrne, and Alan Moore, highlighting their unique takes on superhero realism, design, revitalization, and deconstruction.


N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Hello everyone, and thank you for tuning in to the Comic Book Historians podcast. My name is Scott Robinson and I am the guest host today where we talk to Dr. Alex Grand, who is the author of the new book Understanding Superhero Comic Books A History of Key Elements, Creators, Events and Controversies. The book was published by McFarland Publishing in June of 2023. Alex is the founder of the Comic book Historians, website and social media. You can find his work on YouTube and Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. Alex, let me be the first to welcome you to the podcast.

N. Scott Robinson, Ph.D. (left) Alex Grand (right)

Alex Grand: Hey, thank you, Scott. You know, your voice is so soothing. I’m really glad you’re here and doing this. I thought it would be weird if I hosted my own interview on this. Didn’t make sense. And Scott has been my editor on this book, you know, really wonderful kind of my sensei in how to approach a thesis, especially that of my book, which is a narrative history of the origins of the superhero comic book. It’s various proto elements. And then once it was formed, how various key creators increased the trend toward realism in the superhero comic book to keep this commercial unit economically viable. I could think of no one better than you to lead this discussion.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Well, thank you. I was happy to be a part of the project and to work with you. Alex Let’s first talk about how you got into comic book history. In college, you studied largely medical pursuits, but you also were a media minor. Does that play a role in how you present comic books history to people?

Alex Grand: Yeah, I was a visual arts minor and I was editing short films and had this urge to be like a filmmaker one day, but I instead went a more practical way in life, I guess. But it always stuck with me and I read comics as a kid and He-Man mini comics. That’s how it all started and then the newsstand comic books at 7-11, Spider-Man and his amazing friends on TV and whatnot. After my grad school was over, I ended up on Facebook running into comics history groups and found the whole thing was fascinating. Then I saw Steve Ditko’s, Doctor Strange and Jack Kirby’s pre-Marvel stuff, which made me realize there was more to it than the typical narrative that is put out there in the mainstream. As far as the Stan Lee version or the Bob Kane version, no, there’s more to comics history that predates all those guys anyway, and then writing little articles on my website and then turning each article into a video and then interviewing various comics creators, artists, writers, editors, letterers, Inkers and getting a holistic concept of the superhero comic book. Then interviewing Jim Steranko and reading his history of comics was like a real big mind explosion for me, which was why it was such an honor for him to write a foreword for this book. And you were my preceptor in this. I kind of liken it to Uma Thurman and her sensei in Kill Bill. It was a big project. This was as hard as my my grad school degree was. By writing this thesis and the way this turned out, it turned into almost a degree in comics history in a sense and thankfully that was validated by the good people at McFarland & Co. who publish books of this nature.

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N. Scott Robinson, PhD: So personally, I think I would probably would have preferred to work with Uma Thurman herself. [Alex laughs] There’s a comparison I’ve never heard before, so thanks for that. Obviously writing a book is a much more serious endeavor than the kinds of things that you’ve done with the Comic Book Historians social media, the YouTube videos and the articles that you write are always engaging and informative, but the kind of research that one has to go in to put together a 350 page academic book is quite different. So could you tell me a little bit about the research? You tie a lot of things together, you know, radio and early film and and the pulps and and all kinds of things. How how did you, you know, approach doing that kind of research for a book narrative.

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Alex Grand: So this starts in 2015. One of my friends, Mike Delisa, said, look, you know, you got to read old newspaper strip reprints. You got to look at the old pulps. You have to do all that stuff. And I took it to heart. Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, you know, you name it. I read a decade’s worth of each of those things and then went back and read all sorts of comics history books put out by all the major publishers. I must have read hundreds of them, newspaper articles. I started really just gathering information. There’s 1200 citations in this thing. You know, I had to go back and find all that stuff and everything I thought or everything I made notes on. I had to find which page I fount that stuff on and so that took two months to kind of go back all over again. But it was nice because it allowed me to fact check myself. It definitely adds a certain credibility to what I wrote there. I was really being journalistic about it. One thing I’d like to say about this is that it’s not written in a way that’s unfeeling. I think there is definitely an empathetic story about it, and it’s written in a way that I think would appeal to all people, whether they’re non-academics academics. I think it’s really meant for really for everybody.

 

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: When I first saw the manuscript before, it wasn’t at its final form, it had a lot of pictures, way more than I think a publisher was ready to put out. But I found that so engaging right away, all these connections that you make with modern superheroes, with the past and a variety of media, I almost wish, you know, people could see all of that stuff that I saw. But, you know, right away I knew there was a story here that could be documented. In your book, you break the book into five parts. Let’s talk briefly about each of these parts of your books. The first part, Building Blocks, covers early origins of comic books and comic book strips, legacy and storytelling and how that influenced the development of superheroes pulps to comics. And then you connect Hollywood cinema with the Golden Age comic books and classic American illustrators, as well as other historical figures like Houdini to superheroes. So could you tell us a little about how you made these connections and the building blocks part of your book?

Doc Savage had a Fortress of Solitude before Superman

 

Alex Grand: Well, the basic idea there is that other media with other characters, proto elements, pulp magazines, comic strips, vaudeville performances, various pieces of American illustration, proto superheroes, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Springheeled Jack, Etcetera. All that came together as building blocks to form the initial superhero comic books. Some of them are from direct quotes of the creators. The Houdini reference is definitely from Walter Gibson being Houdini assistant and then writer for The Shadow, which was lifted content wise by Bill Finger to structure Batman, even Bernarr McFadden another character and publisher, I found a Jack Kirby quote that said that their first love story comics were really modeled after McFadden’s romance  pulp magazines. And there are these publishing similarities between Macfadden and then the later genre specific pulp magazine publishers like Martin Goodman, Harry Donenfeld, and these are the guys that started DC Comics and Marvel Comics. MacFadden’s Physical culture magazine was an influence on Joe Shuster, who drew the first Superman adventures that he co-created with Jerry Siegel. Don Heck saying that he modeled the early depictions of Tony Stark after Errol Flynn, even Neal Adams, his Green Arrow, has an Errol Flynn influence.

Don Heck modeled Tony Stark from Errol Flynn

 

Alex Grand: The Ka-zar comics that were based on the Ka-zar pulps, were basically a riff of the Tarzan stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The comic strips as per Bob Kane, as dubious as his past is, he gave some great info. He said that there is a lot of Dick Tracy in the Batman. So what are those characters and what were those pre superhero characters? And Dick Tracy, fought the Blank, the weird villain that Steve Ditko seems to model the Question after. The comic strips were the early choreographers of consumable cheap entertainment in comic form and where the comic language comes from going back to the 1600s political pamphlets and dialogue balloons in England and how that factors into comic storytelling. It’s amazing the the placement of dialogue balloons and how old that is. Even with the design of a good comic book cover, that goes back to American illustration and how a good poster, a good composition of one picture that can try to tell a story in just one picture can factor into a good comic book cover. All that is in that building blocks chapter to try to give you a sense of how comics are a medium and that the superheroes are a genre, but they came from pre-existing elements.

The Blank premiered in Dick Tracy (1937) well before The Question (1967)

 

Alex Grand: What are those elements and the science fiction elements from amazing stories that Jerry Siegel read and he has a little fan letter in one of those issues that was overseen by Hugo Gernsback, who was seen as the first science fiction pulp magazine publisher and and how important he was. I felt it was important to show that comics didn’t come from nothing and wasn’t created in a vacuum, and how the comic books medium carried the superhero genre and vice versa, since there was no other good medium that could portray the fantastical elements of the superhero other than comics. 1950s TV just couldn’t really do that in any good way. I guess you could think of The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves, but even that is quite hokey compared to the well-drawn theatrics of the comic book depicted by comic book superstars like Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson, and Jack Kirby. These guys visually outdid those kind of storylines better than any other medium could. That medium and that genre were a perfect marriage for a long time.

The Comic Book greats of old…

 

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: So one of these proto elements that you cover in this section obviously is the term Superman and how that was bandied about in the pages of Doc Savage and athletes, you know, the Superman who were weightlifters and bodybuilders. The other proto element is the detective in the comic strips like Dick Tracy with a whole cast of villains and masked villains and how that sort of relates to Batman. But one of the really interesting ones I didn’t know about was the magicians that were around in that time in the 40s and the sort of connections to Doctor Strange. Could you tell us a little bit about that connection and specifically the comic strip connection also to Doctor Strange in the art and and possibly on Ditko as a writer?

 

Alex Grand: Yeah, right. My concept of that is the magicians provided what superheroes later provide to consumers. An illusionary super element that people could view at a vaudeville show and watch the theatrics of someone like Houdini or the great Blackstone and get this sense that these figures are super in some way and they use whatever illusions or devices or special effects of that period to create a certain stage appeal that would create escapism for the audience. That element shows up in the Golden Age of comics where there was a bunch of magician characters. There appears to be two kinds of these interesting magicians; the top hat guys and the turban ones. Ibis, the invincible, the turban type generally were American figures using some sort of Eastern mysticism. The most famous magician is Alexander, the one who knows with his turban. His backstory is interesting because he was an American guy who studied Eastern culture, and then he uses that culture as a show to entertain viewers. His posters were just huge with the white man with turban, which were used in the movie Chandu with Bela Lugosi. And that story is about an American man who goes to the east and develops magical powers to fight occult characters. Doctor Strange is a Steve Ditko primary character. But that origin story is something that Stan Lee had done before in Doctor Droom with Jack Kirby, the same as Chandu, which he says in his Origins book that Chandu was an influence in Doctor Strange. So these magicians are a part of that early genesis. Actually, Mandrake the magician also had a real person as a counterpart, a real Mandrake. That strip was a precursor to Zatara whose daughter, Zatanna, is now a popular character. So there is still that magician influence present in some modern superheroes. They’re preserved and crystallized into different forms, but it comes from that need for early vaudeville escapism.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: And what about the possible influence on the sanctum sanctorum and the art that you identify in the comic strips in newspapers on the Doctor Strange.

Alex Grand: Steve Ditko looked at the Spirit by Will Eisner, and there are definitely panels in there that can be precursors to Doctor Strange’s sanctum sanctorum. But a lot of that illusionary stuff that Steve Ditko did was amazing and record breaking in comic books, but that language of showing abstract, surreal imagery and was also present in comic strips, especially Polly and her Pals and these really interesting comic strips in the 20s where panels depicting dreamlike states of an astral plane like that we see in Doctor Strange comic books. Part of that discovery was what made this all so great. Formalizing it, of course, in a way that everyone can enjoy was work I also enjoyed, but the discovery of those tidibts was like nothing else.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: And what about the other connection that you make from the comic strips for example, Popeye and the character Wolverine.

Alex Grand: The anti-hero concept in the Popeye comic strip by E.C. Sagar, not the cartoon, which had more of a cheese ball effect. He had very much of those qualities that the Thing and Wolverine also had. Anti-heroes that didn’t really know what their purpose was. They would do heroic things because they were put in that position. But it’s not like they were out on a mission looking for it much of the time. Especially with Wolverine, there is the mysterious past, hanging out in places like Singapore with an old pirate lifestyle and having these unbreakable bones, which Popeye also had. There’s one panel where someone’s trying to cut into Popeye’s neck with a saw and they’re shocked that it’s like metallic wire. Even Popeye was somewhat surprised that he has this weird healing factor after he was riddled with bullets. Why isn’t he dying? And everyone’s trying to figure it out. It had been done before in those pages, and it was such a successful formula for a comic anti-hero character. I say anti-hero because it’s not like they’re going out necessarily on a mission for justice all the time. His first battle with Bluto, was impressive. Bluto was a savage, bigger, feral version of Popeye. When they were fighting, onlookers were shocked and yelling, “Look at these two Supermen” years before Superman was a thing. “Look at these two Supermen. They’ve been fighting for hours. For God’s sake. This is beyond what any human being could ever do” and that’s also how Wolverine and Sabretooth were. It’s important to note that comic strips were doing this kind of stuff before and that it was appealing to a pre superhero audience. They were using a lot of the same formulas that superhero comic books are now using.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: And when you talk about Popeye the Sailor here, we’re talking about the comic strip, not the cartoon. There’s a huge difference between the two. Let’s go on to the second part of your book where you talk about the rise and fall of the superheroes. And here you talk about a lot of litigation between some of the companies over superheroes and copyright, the influence of science fiction on developing a sort of more modern type of superhero, and then the Golden age artists and then some of the controversy that these comics of the 50s got into.

Alex Grand: Well, as popular as superheroes were during World War Two, they start falling off the grid toward the latter 40s and early 50s. This all starts around certain legal antics surrounding Superman and industry reactions to that. One thing that was interesting about Superman is DC Comics would basically send cease and desist letters or start legal action against competing companies doing a similar comic book because there wasn’t a superhero genre the time. There was just Superman who had all those qualities. So it was basically that one character and no one could infringe on that character, Wonder Man by Victor Fox or the original Captain Marvel Shazam, or Master Man, another character by Fawcett. The costumes were different. The origins were different. Even the sources of their powers were different. DC Comics says, “too bad, you guys can’t do superheroes. Only we can.” That’s what keeps Superman really the number one character because of all these legal actions from DC, which I find interesting, that it was lawyers that helped establish his dominance and how that creates a roadblock for a lot of companies who are probably asking, “Well, what are we going to sell? Let’s do other genres then,” which was the case especially after World War Two. You have love stories and crime stories. Crime stories were more sensational and violent and the more they were selling the more graphic publishers made the cover.

Alex Grand: Then those companies now start being able to make money during that period of time. A lot of golden age comic artists that made superheroes what they were, They start leaving the industry for various reasons. Either their art got out of style or they were no longer welcome, like with Joe Shuster. Or they went off to other media that were more respected, like Alex Schomburg doing illustration for magazines. Or you have Will Eisner working in the Spirit newspaper comic strip insert. There was a professional exodus of artists away from comic books like with Mac Raboy leaving for the Flash Gordon comic strip. The new generation starts coming in and Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, who had done stuff earlier but they were growing up. This next generation of creators starts affecting what these comics start to look like. So they start gearing up. They’re about to do something special. In the meantime, non-superhero genres are being depicted. If Crime starts selling, then more publishers start doing it. EC Comics does this, and add a fantasy element to that, so it turns into horror pretty fast because it’s a lot of the same moral stories. But instead of a guy getting shot, maybe he turns into a zombie and eats a guy. There’s like this extra little weird punch line at the end by throwing something like cannibalism in there.

Alex Grand: But that starts getting the attention of lawmakers and parental groups. And Fredric Wertham starts threatening comic books with governmental interference. Comics have to change their tune pretty quick. And so then the comics code happens. There’s a collapse of the industry and it starts affecting distribution. You can’t do crime and horror, and then you can’t really encroach on doing superheroes because DC might sue you or the ones that you can do don’t make any money because the standard superhero from the early 40s just stopped being interesting. The Golden Age superhero just had those three qualities which Pete Coogan has mentioned in his book, the Mission for Justice, the superhero costume / codename and a superpower. That’s all they had. They didn’t really have much character development. There was no real sense of relatability or realism to them. They fall out of line, and now you’re kind of relying on science fiction, westerns and romance, but you have to water it down. It can’t be too exciting. So what’s the comic industry going to do, especially in the 50s if TV has now soaked up a lot of the audience? So you have to be able to appeal to the audience in a way that you can show that comics can have an edge over TV and TV can do those genres better than comics can.

Barry Allen was named after Barry Gray and Steve Allen.

 

Alex Grand: So that’s Julius Schwartz’s genius finding a viable way of restarting the superhero with Barry Allen, the Flash, using narratives that can navigate these industry challenges using relatable science fiction. And that was, a real key point because the early Flash comics that Julius Schwartz oversaw with Carmine Infantino and Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, they were hugely impactful. They were different because first you have a character that accidentally got their powers in a way that made a lot more sense than the Golden Age Flash’s hard water inhalation. Even Julius Schwartz in our friend David Armstrong’s interviews, he said that hard water inhalation makes no sense. Let’s do something a little more interesting, like lightning and chemicals. But it wasn’t just that because he made the actual character himself more relatable through other means. The way The Flash didn’t really know he had powers. And then he’s experiencing the powers with the reader, like he’s an everyday guy and he’s seeing a bullet slow down in front of him. “Whoa, what is going on? Why am I seeing this?” And he’s discovering his powers with the reader, that additional human element. So that brings back the superhero comic book in a way that feels new and exciting. That starts off part three The Flight of the Superheroes, jump started by Julius Schwartz.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: The coming of Marvel Comics, other sort of trends of that period that are sci fi based, like Monsters becoming heroes, and then some of the other newer types of creators with Lee and Kirby and Ditko working together and how their superheroes are so different from the Golden Age Superheroes. The Marvel method’s credit controversy and then Stan Lee working on superheroes beyond comic books and Jack Kirby’s Space Gods. So there’s quite a bit in the third part about how the superheroes developed, but in a snapshot. What were some of the things that you discovered about that period that marked Superheroes has sort of developed past the 40s and the Golden Age?

 

Alex Grand: Julius Schwartz’s renaissance of DC Comics changes how superheroes were approached and I go into detail about that. DC also retcons Wonder Woman who has a whole different style once Andru and Esposito come into the mix. Curt Swan coming in Superman and Otto Binder as a science fiction writer from the pages of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel. There’s definitely more of a science fiction push which occurs around the same time that Julius Schwartz is redoing his stable of superheroes. Martian Manhunter, the new Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, the pilot, and him discovering his powers through willpower. The new version of Hawkman, which was not a reincarnated Egyptian guy anymore. Now he’s a space cop from the planet Thanagar as a science fiction story. They all come together in the Justice League, but that’s at the point where now Martin Goodman’s watching and saying, “we need to make our version of it,” which leads to the birth of the Marvel Universe in response to what Julius Schwartz did. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko did it in little pieces at a time. They first had monster comics, situationally weird comics in Amazing Adult Fantasy and Journey to Mystery. But I think a lot of that monster stuff starts shifting into superheroes where they reuse their names like Cyclops.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: And it’s also interesting. It seems like the effects of litigation are also felt during this period because companies like Timely or Atlas becomes Marvel and they start to redo some of their characters from the older books rather than create standard superheroes. Like Hulk was originally a monster a new version in the 60s, even Werewolf By Night was a title that had been used previously by Atlas and then is later on in the Bronze Age becomes a monster hero during the horror craze.

Alex Grand: The element there is, look, we can’t do a character like Superman. They’re going to sue us. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, they did a character called Private Strong for Archie in 1959. Red, white and blue character, super strong, had all these abilities. This prompted a cease and desist from DC because they couldn’t do that. So there’s this rock and a hard place where Stan, Jack and Steve are like, fine, maybe we can make monsters into superheroes and not have a Superman type of character, some perfect guy. Let’s actually go the other way and let’s take this relatability over at DC. Let’s go next level. Let’s make imperfections. Let’s make them monstrously relatable and compound that with radiation based powers. DC Comics didn’t do radiation based superpowers first, so they couldn’t sue anyone who did it. Thank goodness, because if they did, they more than likely would have sued anyone else who tried using radiation based powers. Spider-man, a monstrous name. Hulk’s a monster story. That was not a hero. He was a monster that would do the right thing when put in a certain situation. Tony Stark’s heart problems, monstrously imperfect. Who was Thor’s first enemies? They were these rock monsters from Saturn. There was this monstrous aspect to it and how monsters transition into superheroes and how you can actually create a whole stable of these flawed, realistic characters without copying Superman. And they’re not going to dry up and become boring like the Golden Age Superheroes did, because now not only do they have relatable science fiction causes to their powers, like the Schwartz team did, but now they have flaws and imperfections with raw human realism. There’s almost a journey in the superhero genre where you’re adding levels of realism to it to make it more relatable to the newer audiences, maintaining commercial viability. You’re going to get buyers using that. It’s all about what is selling, what’s everyone else trying to copy to make money?

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: So from the Golden Age, where they were tools of propaganda and largely into the Silver Age, where the science fiction origins and the flawed personas and the relatability or the realism aspect, largely introduced by Marvel, is a clear development. But in part four of your book, you talk about four other things that develop the superhero that are also very interesting the influence of people like Jim Starlin and John Byrne and Alan Moore and the coming of the superhero graphic novel. Could you tell us a little bit about what some of those modern developments of the superhero were?

Alex Grand: Well, yeah, because once the flaws and imperfections come in into comics, then in the 70s there’s a little bit of a slump. There are newspaper articles saying, Oh, where’s Marvel going from here? Are they just going to repeat the same old thing? Steve Ditko seemed to abandon realism for the idealism of his personal political beliefs, and Jack Kirby left, and he seemed to abandon realism because he went off to create the space gods that he focused on in the 70s, the New Gods and the Eternals 2001, Space Odyssey. Stan felt so passionate about Marvel superheroes that Jack Kirby Ditko and himself created and wanted to expand them into other media. So what’s going to happen to the superhero comic book? And that’s what part four is about; who’s going to come in and take superheroes to that next level? The answer was death. There’s a lot of people experimenting with death in the early 70s, but it was Jim Starlin that really made it a pop cultural event that everyone read. Thanos, the Cosmic entity of Death were symbolic of that and he created those for Marvel Comics, and as he’s doing different comics throughout the 70s, he’s bringing those characters in and continuing his own multi-issue saga that I think Kirby was trying to do with the New Gods.

Alex Grand: But Thanos was more interesting that Darkseid because he wants to kill everyone. Death is a much more relatable, realistic fear than an anti-life equation. What can an average comic reader relate to? Well, I think the fear of death is the next step in realism and why that’s the direction that buyers were going with. Because if a superhero is in a battle and they save everyone in the story, which is what they were doing, well, what have they learned? They’ve learned nothing from that. But if literally millions of people have died and all they can do is minimize death, then they have to live with the fact that people died and that they could die any second. I think that became even bigger with the Infinity Gauntlet when half of the Marvel Universe died and everyone was so afraid that they were next, introducing that fear of death into the superhero genre, I think that was huge.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Not only was it the fear of death, but actually killing major characters. Captain Marvel from Marvel Comics or Robin in DC. I mean, he’s got a quite a hit list there of achievements.

Alex Grand: A beautiful hit list, but the corporatization of comics prevents a certain permanence to these deaths due to the illusion of change in comics, which goes back to Little Orphan Annie in the 20s. Creators can’t really change too much because you’re messing with a repeatable income source for a company. But it still gave us that moment when that Infinity Gauntlet #1 came out when readers believed, “Wow, these guys could die.” Even Thanos murdering entire planets and killing Pip the Troll Gamora dying. I mean, Jim Starlin is a genius and he’s a veteran. He brought a war sentiment to comics. When you’re a soldier, even the Vietnam War kind of taught people that you can’t save everybody. You barely get out yourself. I think that falls in to his effect on the superhero and the superhero story and the superhero saga. And that’s what kept readers going. Like, wow, what’s going to happen net? We don’t know.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: You see the influence of that storyline even in the last Avengers film when some of the characters died and I remember the same exact sense of shock and disbelief as when I read the death of Captain Marvel in the in the early 80s. Reading the end and “oh my God, he’s really dead.” They killed superheroes, and the same thing in the movie, and audiences just weren’t prepared to see major characters like Iron Man or the Black Widow or Vision die. That’s the Jim Starlin effect. What about John Byrne? Can you tell us a little bit about his role in modernizing superheroes?

Alex Grand: Well, John Byrne is important because there’s a point at which you have to make the 60 stuff appeal to a new audience. And he succeeded in modernizing superhero comic books for Generation X kids like myself. His work in the X-Men, Avengers, especially Fantastic Four, Superman, it was multi company as well as multi comic. There’s a John Byrne effect in all of them where he brings back the stuff that made the 60s stuff cool, but he modernized it, gave it a new shine, gave it a new purpose. In the 80s he made those 60s characters matter again to the next generation. And that’s important and that’s hard to do. And that’s what maintains the relevancy of those characters. Now, in a lot of ways Marvel and DC have to people who can repeat the John Byrne effect. Can you make the same old characters feel new using what made them great to begin with? The fact that he could both write and draw that stuff? Amazing.

Kirby (1960s left), Byrne (1980s right)

 

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Now in your book you talk about Alan Moore as the last creative force that developed superheroes. Briefly describe what you see is that element that Alan Moore introduced into comics and why we haven’t reached any new ground since then.

Alex Grand: Alan Moore continued into the next stage of realism after Jim Starlin. The stages of realism progress over time during the evolution of the superhero genre. It follows certain stages of human degradation, and I say that in a joking way, but it’s still true. Golden Age. offers the idealism of the superhero. In the 1950s, you have the relatability of the human element. In the 1960s, you have flaws and imperfections, and in the 70s you add the fear of death into it. Well, what usually happens when people fear death? We saw this during the pandemic when there’s a fear of death, selfishness occurs. Grab as much toilet paper as you can. It’s mine.  Alan Moore demonstrated that superheroes in the real world would be geopolitically used in a selfish manner. Those powers would be used selfishly. They would become self-involved, they would follow through on their vices. They would want to be left alone. They really wouldn’t care so much about the human condition. That’s the deconstruction of the superhero but in human terms, he added selfishness as a state of being, and that the superhero’s inherent mission of justice goes away in the real world. If realism in superheroes is what everyone wants, then Alan Moore just took that realism to the nth degree. Okay, fine. You want realism? Here’s realism. And it wasn’t pretty, but it was such a revelation that caused many other writers and creators to copy that formula of selfish superheroes in the real world. They’re not even heroes. They’re just superpowered jerks.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Like CEOs of corporations.

Alex Grand: They’d rather be rich or follow through on addictions. Dr. Manhattan would rather play with sand on Mars than save anybody. It completes an arc of realism and now you have these different elements that writers afterwards can siphon from, recombine, use again in the 90s that Extreme Age of Comic Books. Let’s use all that stuff and make it more intense. Let’s make it more graphic, let’s make it more violent. But it’s really reusing a lot of those elements that the Pioneers put out.

 

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: The last part of your book is about the coming of growing diversity in superheroes and the aftermath of all this. It seems to suggest that perhaps we might be in the beginnings of a new age. Maybe diversity is the next age of comics here. Can you talk about that part of your book?

 

Alex Grand: You know, I don’t know if it would be count as necessarily another age, but it certainly does feel like there could be an acknowledgment that there are other people and that we need to see them as human and let’s give them adventures, too. Now, we’re in an age where we have all these things to choose from and narratively push a direction where all superpowered beings can star in these narratives and they’re not necessarily Caucasian. Let’s actually have characters from different backgrounds, whether they’re different races, different genders, different sexualities going through the various stages of human behavior. I think especially after the George Floyd incident, maybe that was a wake up call in some ways where all these complex superhero stages and emotions, well, let’s have people from various backgrounds go through that. Two people that I’m grateful for. Trina Robbins and then Professor William Foster, both of whom I met and invited onto the podcast because I felt like I needed their perspective there as well as in my book. Trina as a historian of women in comics, I called her and we went back and forth on the Women in 20th Century Comics section, and she was so nice and she helped me and I was really grateful for her attention. And Professor Foster, historian of characters of African descent, we had back and forth phone calls, emails that really made sure that my African Americans in 20th century comic books chapter was done correctly. They’re mentors in that sense on those topics to me, so to have their involvement was really kind, but also I think adds a dimension that needed to be added to this. We need to acknowledge women creators and women characters in comics and African American creators and African-American characters in comics. They both go back to the 1890s when a lot of the American comics like the Yellow Kid, were being pioneered.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Well, if comic book superheroes have been on this developmental journey to reflect realism, you know that we largely see from the change from the golden age to now, it makes a lot of sense that this diversity that we see is a reflection of that kind of realism. Women and African Americans and the LGBTQ community and Asians societies are quite diverse today, and you see that diversity reflected in a lot of television and video games and movies, with women as very strong characters. It makes sense that this type of realism felt quite strongly in comic books and superheroes. Today, maybe we are at the beginning of the diversity age, who knows?

 

Alex Grand: Yeah, yeah, it could be. And one thing I wanted to do at the end of my books was go over the death of the 20th century comic book greats. Through the book, there’s information on the creators as well as the characters throughout and their journey making key comic books. They perfected the superhero comic books, but how did they end? How did they die? Because that’s the end of the story for them as well. So my last chapter thanks them and acknowledges their passing and discusses the mechanisms of their deaths. It was interesting, to see that a lot of them died from heart attacks, cancer, strokes and Alzheimer’s. Despite their superhero status to us historians, they were human like all of us, with a medical finale that ends our life journey. So I wanted to acknowledge that in a way that respected and also thanked them for creating this world and this industry that we’re so into.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Well, it is quite a journey that the book takes the reader on from the development in the early days of comic book strips, right up to the diversity we see reflected in comic book films and TV shows and what happened to not only superheroes, but all the creators, especially.

Alex Grand: Now comics are geared toward one day becoming a movie. And so trying to figure out were all these superhero comic book movies came from is important to point out in my book to see that comics are not necessarily there to develop the narrative art of the comic because this genre has moved sideways to other media. So where’s all that coming from and who are the people responsible? We should all acknowledge who these people were.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Well, you can read all about it. And Understanding Superhero Comic Books by Alex Grand, and this is available from the publisher McFarland on their website. It’s also on Amazon. There are links to it on the websites as well.

Alex Grand: And Barnes and noble.com target walmart.com. You know they’re all there.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: And you might see Alex this summer at Comic-Con in San Diego so he might be able to find a examine a copy in person yourself. Alex thanks for coming on and telling us about your book today and we look forward to some more material soon.

Alex Grand: Thanks, Scott. It was a pleasure. I appreciate you.

N. Scott Robinson, PhD: Happy to be here.

Understanding Superhero Comic Books Docuseries episode here:

 

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