Comic Book Historians

Peter Sanderson: Comics' Archivist part 1 with Alex Grand & Jim Thompson

June 01, 2021 Comic Book Historians Season 1 Episode 84
Comic Book Historians
Peter Sanderson: Comics' Archivist part 1 with Alex Grand & Jim Thompson
Show Notes Transcript

Alex Grand and Jim Thompson interview comic archivist, author, critic and historian, Peter Sanderson who was a regular contributer 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.  In the first of a two parter, he also discusses joining Marvel indexing and writing biographies and assessing strengths in the Handbook of the Marvel Universe, writing the Marvel Saga, the Wolverine Saga, and working under Jim Shooter and Tom DeFalco. Edited & Produced by Alex Grand.  Images used in artwork ©Their Respective Copyright holders, CBH Podcast ©Comic Book Historians. Thumbnail Artwork ©Comic Book Historians.

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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.

Jim:                 Yes.     

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.

[00:05:04]

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.”

[00:10:11]

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.

Jim:                 Okay.

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.

[00:15:01]

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?

[00:20:04]

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…

Jim:                 Okay

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.

[00:25:00]

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.

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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.

[00:30:01]

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.

[00:35:00]

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.

[00:40:01]

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.

[00:45:00]

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.

[00:50:01]

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.

[chuckle]

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.

[00:55:00]

I like the whole series, the recent History of the Marvel Universe series.

Jim:                 Mark Waid stuff??

Sanderson:     Yeah.

Jim:                 Yep.

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.

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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.

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