Turning the Clock Back - Greg Sadowski on Supermen!

Greg Sadowski on Supermen!

The late 1930s and early 1940s gave rise to dozens of legendary heroes who are still around today, including Superman, Batman, Captain America and the Spirit.

And then…there were the rest.

Greg Sadowski, best-known as the author of the award-winning retrospective on Bernie Krigstein, B. Krigstein, is about to take readers back to the early days of comics, when heroes weren’t just heroes…they were Supermen!. The upcoming anthology from Fantagraphics features some of the earliest comic book superheroes and some of comics’ most legendary creators, including Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, along with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem (Omega the Unknown). We talked with Sadowski about the origins of his book, and the madness readers can expect to find inside.

And as a special bonus, we’ve included a story that was cut from the final book that just happens to star a character soon to be revived by DC. Read on to find out more…

Newsarama: Greg, tell us a little about Supermen! – what it is and who's in it.

Comet, page 1

Greg Sadowski: Supermen! is a collection of twenty full-length stories, ten full-bleed covers, and various house ads that trace the development of comic book heroes from 1936-41. The collection of stories include some of the earliest by Jack Kirby, Jack Cole, Bill Everett, Basil Wolverton, Fletcher Hanks, Lou Fine, and Will Eisner, who were not only inventing the superhero, but the modern form of comic books.

NRAMA: Why did you want to do this project?

GS: I've always been attracted by those early heroes. I was introduced to comics in the early 1960s by my older brother, who was a big DC fan. I remember reading the 25th Anniversary Superman Annual which included a few very early pages, and I was fascinated by them. One day, my brother presented me with this comic as a gift, but to my annoyance I saw that he had scissored out all of the bonus golden age material! I guess he thought it might be valuable some day, or maybe he felt it was too much for a dumb kid to appreciate.

Comet, page 2

Then, years later, when I began collecting myself, I was frustrated that those early golden age books always seemed out of my price range. That gave this material a kind of unobtainable quality - which of course makes you want it all the more.

Maybe I did the book just so I could read it myself; I would have loved to have found this book on the rack. Now I'm hoping that other people, adults and kids, will also find it interesting enough to buy.

NRAMA: What did collecting these stories show you about the evolution of the superhero concept at the start of the Golden Age?

Comet, page 3

GS: I do show a few very early (1937-38) pre-Superman stories, when they were tentatively feeling their way, and those provide a nice set-up for what follows. But "super" as a concept began with Superman, and then the approach was basically throwing crap at the wall and seeing what stuck.

The more significant evolution for me was in the form of comic books itself, that is, the art of graphic storytelling, and how the best artists continued to improve and refine their skills from story to story. Wolverton, Cole, Eisner, Kirby, Hanks, and the rest were really inventing a new art form, and to me that's the exciting thing. The heroes themselves are a lot of fun to wrap a book around, but in the end they're kind of incidental and I feel ill at ease trying to pontificate on them.

NRAMA: And who are some of the oddball heroes to show up? Bonus points if you include Speed Centaur...

GS: Well, they're all oddballs, but I'll name-drop a few: "Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle," "Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime," "Stardust the Super Wizard," "Fero, Planet Detective," "The Face," "Dirk the Demon," and "The Comet," who killed first and asked questions later (if ever).

No Speed Centaur this time, but I'm doing a Centaur (Publications) book next, so he'll be in there.

Comet, page 4

NRAMA: Speed Centaur, your day will come…!

Now, in the promotional materials, you have the cover for Wonder Man – for those who don't know, narrate the story of this legal nightmare.

GS: Actually, I decided to cut the Wonder Man story. The art just wasn't that great. I show a 1939 "Yarko the Great" story by Eisner that's much better. Also, I plan on eventually doing a book of early Eisner comic book stories, and felt that Wonder Man would work just as well in that context.

The "legal nightmare" you're referring to is that in 1939, publisher Victor Fox hired Eisner to create him another Superman, which Eisner did a little too faithfully by creating Wonder Man. DC was all over that book (Wonder Comics no. 1) as soon as it hit the stands, and was awarded an injunction a month later to prevent the character from ever reappearing. But the character was so obviously a rip-off that it was no great loss. Actually, the lawsuit forced creators to become more original, which was better for everybody.

Comet, page 5

NRAMA: Now, you've got Jonathan Lethem doing the introduction – how did he come on board, and how does it feel to have his endorsement?

GS: I'm thrilled that Jonathan's a part of this. I loved his foreword; he was able to express a lot of my feelings about this stuff that I wouldn't even have attempted to articulate. I have no idea how he came on board, though. Gary, Kim, or Eric at Fantagraphics must have had the idea to approach him.

NRAMA: What do you hope to accomplish with Supermen!, and what do you feel readers and creators of today can learn from these stories?

GS: I hope to accomplish some royalties, that would be nice! I didn't approach it overly analytically, although I did have a general arc in mind. I simply tried to find the strongest material to tell the story of the early heroes and their creators to the best of my ability, and present it as handsomely as possible.

NRAMA: The book covers through 1941. Do you see yourself doing future volumes, and if so, what would you like to include?

GS: Superheroes actually became pretty boring (to me, anyway) after 1941. They spent the war years fighting the Axis powers, then after the war they fell out of fashion until the early sixties.

If I do another superheroes book, it would probably be from this same period - there's a lot of great stuff I didn't have room for. But the next book I do along these lines will be devoted to Pre-Code horror. It's about 30% completed.

NRAMA: What's next for you?

Comet, page 6

GS: Eventually I have to finish the second Krigstein book, but there's a few easier ones I want to do first: a history of the early comic book company Centaur, and the Eisner and horror books. Then hopefully I'll have enough royalties coming in to afford me the time to tackle Krigstein once and for all.

And now, a special bonus: A story from Supermen! that didn’t make the final cut is spread throughout this interview. It features the very first appearance of a character that’s due to show up in DC’s The Brave and the Bold very soon. Here’s Greg Sadowski to introduce him…

This is Jack Cole's first attempt at a superhero, the Comet from publisher MLJ's Pep Comics no. 1 (January 1940). The hero's power, a disintegrating ray that shot from his eyes, was usually directed at his adversaries in his early appearances; he evaporates quite a few criminals in these six pages (although in one case he simply tosses one to his death).

MLJ did try to tone him down in later issues, by having him blow out car tires instead of craniums. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to pay ten cents to see that, so the character was killed off in Pep no. 17 and replaced with his kid brother Bob, aka the Hangman, who returned to the brutality they tried whitewashing out of the Comet.

Newsarama Note: Of course, the Comet got better…

I decided to replace this in Supermen! with the Comet story in Pep no. 3, which has a better script and more dynamic art and breakdowns. In any case, Cole soon tired of the character and would relieve himself of the Comet after Pep no. 4.

Supermen! flies into stores this February.

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