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FOG! Chats With Jess Nevins About His Book, ‘The Evolution of The Costumed Avenger: The 4,000-Year History of the Superhero’

One part librarian.  One part researcher.  One part writer.  One part obsessive genius.

That’s probably the easiest way to describe the work of Jess Nevins.  His passions have resulted in reference works that immediately belong in the personal libraries of the pop culture and pulp culture obsessed. His latest book, The Evolution of The Costumed Avenger: The 4,000-Year History of the Superhero is an unprecedented detailed history and development of the superhero. 

Jess took some time to discuss the book, heroic archetypes and his upcoming projects.

*  *  *  *  *

FOG!: I think I first became aware of your work through your Kingdom Come and later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen annotations. What inspired not only those projects, but also the continuing titles that you covered?

Jess Nevins: I’ve always been a list-maker. It’s a temperament thing. I can never remember all the things that I want to remember, so I make lists. Before I did the comic book annotations, I ran a very successful Hollywood gossip web site that was essentially one giant list of gossip. Before that, I made lists of other things that interested me that weren’t covered elsewhere—notes toward books I’ll never write.

So when something catches my eye and interests me that I know I won’t remember all the details of, I inevitably end up making a list of it. (It could be argued I’m OCD in that regard). It was a natural thing to combine that with my love of comics and literature. I’m just fortunate that other people were interested in what I wrote.

Alan Moore filled the various LOEG with one obscure reference after another. At any point, did you feel that the work just being overstuffed with Easter Eggs, or do you think Moore genuinely intended that level of detail.

Well, first off, a lot of the detail comes from Kevin O’Neill—most of those visual-only walk-on cameos are O’Neill’s rather than Moore’s.

But to your question: I think Moore intended that level of detail, yeah. He wants the series, as he’s said, to incorporate everything from the world of fiction, and he’s taking advantage of the format of the comic book series to make a fiction mosaic.

I think part of your question, though, or perhaps just the inevitable follow-up, is whether or not the focus on the Easter Eggs detracts from the story.

That’s a personal judgment, of course, but I think there has been a point or two where the lure of Easter Egging perhaps overwhelmed Moore and O’Neill’s story sense.

Your next big project was The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. What was the genesis of that project?

It really began as me making a list of characters that weren’t covered (yet) in LOEG—me wanting to get ahead of the annotation-making as much as possible. But I quickly discovered that there was a lot more to Victorian literature than I’d thought, that the books rewarded a close reading or in some cases rereading, and that perhaps I had something interesting to say about them.

After a while, somewhere around the 250,000th word, I realized that I had more than just the content for a large web site on my hands, that I had the makings of a book—and, better still, a book I’d want to read.

I’ve long belonged to the Disraeli school of thought that if I want to read a book, I write one. I write the books I want to read. A book delving into the genres and arcana and obscurities of Victorian popular literature? Sign me up for that!

The result was pretty good, I think.

Much of the work that you cover have decade after decade of material. What is your research process?

I begin by finding the most recent work on a subject, and then I bibliography surf—I see what books that author used, and then read them. And so on backwards and backwards, if I have to. I also use academic databases, like JSTOR—I’m an academic librarian, so I have access to resources a lot of people don’t. I do a lot of searching in those databases, and in places like Google Scholar and jurn.org.

After I’ve compiled enough research material—and a lot of times bibliography surfing just yields many books saying the same thing in different ways—I start writing. It’s a work-intensive way to go about doing things, but it’s the only way I know how to do things.

Your latest work , The Evolution of The Costumed Avenger qualifies the notion of a superhero by using the term heroenkonzept. Can you explain what that means?

It’s a German term I swiped from a German historian. Basically, it means the core concept or set of concepts behind a hero, everything from origin to superpowers to personality. “Hero concept” (a rough translation of heroenkonzept) didn’t seem to carry the same punch, so I went with the German original.

Superman’s heroenkonzept, for example, might be: “last survivor of a doomed planet” + “powers beyond those of mortal men” + “hero hiding behind a meek, passive human persona” + “farmboy goes to the big city” + “beacon of hope to other heroes” + etc etc etc.

Is there such thing, in your opinion, of a superhero archetype?

I think there are superhero archetypes, plural, yes. But I don’t think there’s any one archetype. Most genres of literature have archetypal characters. Westerns have black hats and white hats, ranchers and wanderers, cowboys and Easterners, and so on. Mysteries have hardboiled detectives and cozy detectives, cops and robbers, Holmesian Great Detectives and Gentlemen Thieves, and so on. Why should superhero literature have its own set of archetypes?

What those archetypes are…well, that would make for a great bar argument at a superhero con. You’d have your Overman/Übermensch, like Superman; Warrior Woman (Wonder Woman); Urban Avenger (Batman); Patriot (Captain America); Kid Sidekick (Robin); Man in a Machine (Iron Man)—alternatively, Capitalist Hero (Batman/Iron Man); the list could stretch out for quite some time.

But of course to be an archetype or icon there have to be imitators and others like the original. Which is why I’m wary of the over-use of the words “archetype” and “icon.”

But that’s an answer to a different question….

For millions of people, the mention of the first “superhero” immediately goes to the cover of Action Comics #1, with Superman throwing a car. Where does the costumed avenger originate and how did you go about researching the concept.

Essentially, as I was researching the superheroes of the 19th century, it occurred to me that there were two classes of them: the superpowered ones, and the ones who wore costumes or disguises. So I slapped labels on to them: Übermensch and Costumed Avenger. And I used them as the basic schema of my book.

How I went about researching them…well, once I had my two classes, it was a matter of seeing which cultural and literary heroes fit into those classes. Surprisingly, most of the proto-superheroes did; I’d stumbled upon a very useful and also accurate way of separating proto-superheroes.

As for the “how”…I made a list of historical literary and fictional and cultural heroes who I thought were influential on the modern superhero, and I began researching them. But I kept finding that I had to push farther back. Robin Hood, after all, is hugely influential on modern superheroes—but he wasn’t the first heroic outlaw of medieval literature, just the most famous, and I had to go back to people like Hereward the Wake to see the influences on the myths of Robin Hood. But as I did more research I found that the medieval heroic outlaws had an awful lot in common with the latrones, the heroic outlaws of Roman times. And they in turn were influenced by the boukoloi, heroic outlaws of Pharaonic years.

The act of putting on a costume to fight crime has a lot of roots, but one important one is the Ku Klux Klan, unfortunately. And before the Klan, it was the Molly Maguires, and before the Molly Maguires it was the French forest rebels, the demoiselles of Ariege, and before them various Irish rebel groups.

What’s the line from Watchmen? “Nothing ever ends.” Nothing ever seems to have a true beginning, either. I kept pushing and pushing and eventually found myself at the start of human popular culture, the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” 4000 years ago. Beyond that, there’s no going.

Do you think that in the history of the costumed avenger, characters such as Gilgamesh, Robin Hood or King Arthur are the same as a superhero?

Not exactly. I call them “proto-superheroes,” because they obviously aren’t superheroes in the modern sense, but they have a lot of the elements which make up superheroes. In the book I make the case that superheroes aren’t binary, yes-they-are/no-they-aren’t creations. It’s not black and white, because for every rule saying “a superhero must” exceptions can be made. There are superheroes without superpowers, without costumes, without supervillains, without origin stories, without all the things that superheroes usually have. I argue instead that superheroes work on a fuzzy logic continuum, with one end being “less of a superhero” and the other end being “more of a superhero,” and that there are a number of elements—I list seventeen in the book, though I could have listed a lot more—that make up that continuum. I argue that the only real must-have for a superhero is heroic intent/selfless mission, and event that is arguable.

So a character like Enkidu (Gilgamesh’s sidekick), while not a superhero in the modern sense, nonetheless has a heroic mission, superpowers, an unusual origin story, and a costume of sorts (his Wild Man’s unwashed body and long hair). He’s more than just your usual culture hero; he’s a hero-plus, a proto-superhero. Same with Robin Hood and King Arthur and Roland and El Cid and so on. They have the superheroic elements which set them apart from your usual heroes of myth and legend.

Why are superheroes important?

They are wish-fulfillment figures that respond to cultural needs and desires. In previous eras we had heroes of ballads and epic poems who fought our culture’s enemies. Now we have superheroes who fight the enemies of our modern culture. I don’t see any real difference between a Robin Hood and a Green Arrow in that regard, and I don’t see superheroes going away any time soon for that reason. Superhero comic books may eventually go under as a genre, but there will still be superheroes in other media. We need them too much to let them go away.

You’ve also just released the long gestating Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes. Are you still planning your Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes? What else are you working on?

Oh, god, Pulp Heroes. Yes, that should be out by the time you read this. It’s a beast—1600 manuscript pages, 740,000 words long, but there’s never been anything like it.

In fact, the manuscript is so long that while we’re selling Pulp Heroes as one ebook, I’ve had to split Pulp Heroes into four books (Pulp Detective, Pulp Cowboys, Pulps Adventurers, and Fantastic Pulp Heroes) to sell them as print books.

I’ve been working on Pulp Heroes since 2001, off-and-on, more on than off the past decade, and I’m really anxious to have it done and for the world to see it.

I actually finished the Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes a while back, and after running a Kickstarter campaign for it made it into a web site.

Currently, I’m working on three things: a roleplaying game (The Ministry, for EvilHat—“X-Files in 1958 England” is the elevator pitch), two book chapters for a British publisher’s history of science fiction (due out end of the year), and book on the history of horror literature in the 20th century. The game should be done in a month or so. The book chapters are due the first week in April. That leaves me with just the book on horror literature to work on, and I’m projecting that to be done sometime in 2019.

Of course, I have novels out to publishers, and I’ll drop everything to work on one of my novels in case a publisher is interested. And when the odd story idea grips me I write short stories and try to sell them. But my main focus right now is the game, the chapters, and the book.

What are you currently geeking out over?

Sadly, I don’t have much time for consuming things for pleasure any more—I’m too busy doing research! The last book I read for pleasure that I really enjoyed was Giorgio de Maria’s Twenty Days of Turin, which was a really good surreal horror novel about Italy in the 1960s/1970s. It’s not Lovecraftian, and I wish reviewers would stop saying that it is; its horror is of a different type. Good fun.

 

The Evolution of The Costumed Avenger is now
available from bookstores and e-tailers.


The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes
is available HERE!

For more details, visit jessnevins.com

 

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