I’ve been reading stories by Gardner Fox all my life. And thoroughly enjoying them. His “upstanding citizen” version of iconic heroes may have, in some ways, fallen out favor today. But to so many fans, his work is the bedrock upon which superhero comics are built upon. Upon reflection, his version of herodom may also be what other comic innovators pivoted from. For example, Marvel introduced flawed heroes with human shortcomings as an alternative to the Gardner Fox style of heroes. Indy heroes of the 80s introduced non-traditional protagonists as something new. Even DC comics, where Gardner Fox did so much of his writing, would, by the 80s, showcase heroes with dark histories or motivations, in stark contrast to their Golden Age and Silver Age heroes.
I loved his stories. I loved his heroes and his twisty plots. His scientific explanations and extrapolations always made me think that much harder. And in the worlds that Gardner Fox created, friendships really meant something.
But I didn’t know much about Gardner Fox himself. I was enthralled when John Siuntres, in his excellent Word Balloon Podcast, interviewed Jennifer DeRoss who just wrote the biography of Gardner Fox. Forgotten All-Star: A Biography of Gardner Fox is a winner, and I had to reach out to the author. Here’s what she had to say:
Ed Catto : I understand you had a family member who was very pro-comics when you were growing up. What’s the whole story behind that?
Jennifer DeRoss: Many people in my family read comics, but my grandmother was my biggest literacy advocate. She is primarily a fan of the Sunday Funnies and would even clip out the strips she thought I would enjoy and mail them to me because I lived outside of any newspaper circulation areas. Garfield has always been her favorite and she still has quite the collection of Garfield related merchandise. She is also fond of Silver Age DC and when I took an interest in the superhero genre, she was more than happy to support that love.
My grandma would buy me comics right alongside her soap opera magazines every time we went grocery shopping together. She also exposed me to some of the older superhero cartoons, although she would eventually regret that a little after I began obsessively watching the Aquaman VHS every day.
EC: Oh, I too love those Filmation Aquaman episodes. I feel like TV’s Aquaman taught me to say “Let’s head for home, Tadpole” after family outing. I’m afraid my daughters got tired of hearing this phrase.
And does your answer mean you enjoy “old comics” and less of “new comics”?
JDR: I enjoy them both, but “old comics” hold a special place in my heart. Some “new comics” are objectively better in a lot of different ways and I have several favorites that fall into the modern category. That said, there is a certain kind of thrill I get when reading something that was cutting edge back in the day and watching the way that comics have evolved to become what they are. There is a nostalgia factor at play as well. Something about the quality of the paper, the smell of the comic, that older style of coloring… the experience of reading “old comics” simply feels more authentic to what I think of when I think about reading comics.
EC: Gardner Fox was a quite a writer, but many younger fans might not know much about him. Can you give us a bit of background on him?
JDR: Gardner Fox was a lawyer turned writer who focused on comics, short stories and novels. His career spanned more than four decades, starting before Superman was published in the late 1930s all the way to the start of the creator-owned independent comics boom in the mid-1980s. He was at the center of too many firsts to list, with perhaps the one of the biggest being when he wrote “Crisis on Earth-One!” And “Crisis on Earth-Two!” which started the tradition of having annual crossover events like we are still seeing today. It wasn’t just superhero stories either. He wrote in many different genres including westerns, historical fiction, sword-and-sorcery and science-fiction. As if that weren’t enough, he was also very supportive of his fans and fandom in general serving as a sort of propagator of the next generation.
EC: Didn’t Gardner Fox create quite a few DC characters?
JDR: Yes! Of all the characters he co-created, Flash (Jay Garrick) is probably his most popular. In the same issue we are first introduced to the speedster, we are also introduced to another of Fox’s big co-creations: Hawkman. The list is far too big to list here, but a few other co-creations that are worth noting include Doctor Fate, Starman, Zatanna, and Batgirl. Speaking of the Bat family, while Fox is not considered a co-creator, he did shape Batman in some pretty crucial ways such as giving him his famous batarang. Further, he was the co-creator of the Justice Society of America and the Justice League of America making him the first to put a group of superheroes on a team.
EC: Your book Forgotten All-Star: A Biography of Gardner Fox looks like it was a labor of love. How’d you go about writing it?
JDR: It really was. The longer I worked on it, the more important it felt because every new discovery only further proved how much Gardner Fox deserved to have his story told. Because so much of his story had never been brought to light before, I spent so much time researching! Every time I found a piece of the puzzle, it gave me a clearer idea of what the larger picture was. Essentially, I tried to break his story into smaller chunks and put everything I had that was related to that chunk on a document of its own. Sometimes, I would immediately have strong thoughts on something or see a connection to something else, so I could get to work writing a paragraph or two. Other times, it was more of a bullet point outline. Once I felt I had enough to really get started, it was almost like I was gluing all the individual chunks together into what became the parts of the book and, eventually, it became the book itself.
EC: It’s hard to find good news in today’s headlines about the Catholic Church, but Fox seemed to live quite a life based on all the “good parts” of organized religion, didn’t he?
JDR: Gardner Fox was a staunch Catholic who prayed every day and made sure to attend church every week. He also went to a Vincentian school that put forth the belief that one can find God in providing service to others. It is that last part that Fox seems to have taken to heart and this focus on helping other people appears throughout his writing career and in his comic work especially. Part of this comes out in what appears to be a strong drive to educate his readers, which he saw as being powerful enough to end wars, about not only justice and equal treatment but also about literature, science, and more.
My favorite Fox quote touches on this: “I believe in the brotherhood of man and peace on Earth. If I could do it with a wave of my hand I’d stop all this war and this silly nonsense of killing people. So, I used the super-heroes’ powers to accomplish what I couldn’t do as a person. The super-heroes were my wish-fulfillment figures for benefiting the world.”
Another important touchstone for a discussion of how he had the ability to keep only the “good parts” of religion is Strange Adventures’ “Evolution Plus! The Incredible Story of an Ape with a Human Brain.” There are still places where it is a fight to include the theory of evolution in schoolbooks, but Fox included factual information about the scientific theory in this comic story regardless of the fact the theory was at odds with his Catholic faith. His children would carry on this drive for service and find their own ways to further Fox’s humanitarian ideals.
EC: I always seemed to confuse John Broome with Gardner Fox. Were the two men friends?
JDR: You are not the first to say that! They shared writing duties on a few characters with Green Lantern being perhaps the most obvious example. When trying to tell them apart, I’ve noticed Fox’s stories were more focused on the science fiction aspects, while Broome was better with characterization. Broome’s stories seemed to have a little more personality and humor in them. As far as a friendship, the signs to seem to indicate a yes. Broome even named two characters after Fox: Atomic Knight/Gardner Grayle and Green Lantern/Guy Gardner!
EC: Your blog, Jennifer’s Comic Blog, is pretty cool. I recently read your entry on Gardner Fox’s pulp stories. What kind of things do you like to write about?
JDR: Thank you very much. It is something I never seem to have time to fully dedicate myself to, but it is fun to sometimes take on smaller writing projects that are a little more personal. I tend to like writing about things that are culturally informed and serve some kind of purpose. You might say I have that in common with Fox. If I am going to put something out into the world, I want it to have a positive impact on the people who read it. I want to encourage people to think about the world we live in and how we all fit within it.
EC: What’s your favorite Gardner Fox comic and why?
JDR: That is a hard one for me, but “The Flash of Two Worlds” from The Flash #123 is definitely a contender for top positioning. I have found that the reasons why a particular Gardner Fox written story is my favorite has changed now that I have so much context for everything. For example, I love the story about how “The Flash of Two Worlds” came about. And I love the way that Gardner Fox saw it as nothing more than using an old science fiction device when we now look back at the story and see the introduction of Earth-Two as this huge moment in comic book history. I also love the characterization at work. Barry Allen ends up in the situation because he was helping his girlfriend and entertaining some kids! And it is sweet to see Jay Garrick retired and happily married to Joan Williams. The way that the two speedsters interact is charming too. Who doesn’t love seeing Barry Allen so excited to be on a case with his childhood hero? Of course, it is also an exciting thing for me every time Gardner Fox writes himself into the story too.
EC: And the follow-up question for an expert like you, what’s your favorite obscure Gardner Fox story (or character) and why?
JDR: The Zatara tale in Action Comics #46. First of all, I love Zatara. The way that the crazy things Fox comes up with for his Zatara stories are often treated so nonchalantly just kills me and this is a perfect example. It is non-canonical, but it was also Hitler’s first appearance in a DC comic. The story kicks off with a mention of a war covering three quarters of the globe and then asks, “What can one man do?” Well, if that man is Zatara, quite a bit! I like that it literally gives voice to the children who might be reading comics and thinking about the ways the superheroes therein could help in the war effort. The story culminates with Zatara bursting through a wall and turning Hitler’s furniture against him… that’s right. Not only is this a story does Zatara convinces Hitler to renounce his position in Germany and go into self-exile, this is a story where we get to see a step stool spank Hitler.
How can you top that?!?
EC: Wow! I sure can’t top that one, Jennifer. Thanks so much for your time and insights.