MICHAEL CAMPOCHIARO: Your site, Gone & Forgotten, is one of the longest-running comic book blogs on the internet, going on twenty years now. What led you to not only start the blog, but to focus its content on less well-known or just plain weird comics?
JON MORRIS: Both of my parents collected comics before I was born, so I grew up in a house full of ‘em – particularly old and obscure ones. My father, when he came to the U.S. from Germany as a kid, taught himself to read English using comic books, and my mother was just a fan of the art and optimism of so many of these books.
This means that, besides reading comics myself and keeping up with the books which were coming out month-to-month, I also had access to a veritable archive of weird old comics. I grew up knowing who “Bob Phantom” and “The Black Cat” were when not even kids who’d been alive in the Forties knew who Bob Phantom and the Black Cat were. I’m not sure if this is a badge of honor or a reason to walk into the ocean, but there you have it.
When I started writing Gone&Forgotten, I don’t think “blogging” was even yet a word. There were, however, loads of sites specifically dedicated to comics, although most of them focused on a single character or the latest comics on the racks. There were only a couple of other folks writing about strange comics which had fallen out of memory (I specifically remember Seanbaby.com popping up around this time, and loving the hell out of his Hostess ads archive and commentary, as well as a site dedicated to the dumbest villains of the Marvel Universe).
Whatever the case, I just realized that weirder old comics and characters weren’t going to get any love unless someone went out of their way to start documenting them and, lacking any other tangible talents or inclinations, decided that I must be that guy!
CAMPOCHIARO: You obviously have a deep knowledge of comic book history and must have had plenty of characters to draw on for your latest book, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains. Still, the logistics of compiling both books must have been awesome. How daunting was the process, narrowing down who to include or who to leave out?
MORRIS: Both with this book and The League of Regrettable Superheroes, it starts with a list – which runs about 1,000 characters long. The process of winnowing them down is probably the second-most time-consuming part of the process, behind doing the reading and the research leading up to the writing.
After that, it’s a matter of running through the list and identifying which characters have something unique or interesting enough about them to warrant five hundred words. Then there’s the matter of spreading them out so that one company, title or creator isn’t too over-represented (unless, like with Joe Simon in the Regrettable Superheroes book, I’m trying to craft an overall narrative about the creator’s career), and THEN my wonderful editor, Rich Chillot, without whom none of this would be possible, shoots down half of them and makes me start over.
Then there’s the acquisition of the source material. Many of these characters, I recall primarily because I used to have an obsessively immense collection of comic books. The last time I’d thought to count it before I sold or gave away the lot of ‘em, it came to fifteen thousand comics, and I’d picked up a lot more before they finally wore out their welcome.
But they’re all gone now so, if I want to write about these characters, I have to go scour the comic shops and online shops and pick up replacement copies of all the originals. If I end up writing a third book, this is going to start becoming an obsession again …
CAMPOCHIARO: Can you talk about how the political climates during the various times these characters were created influenced them?
MORRIS: Obviously, wartime – both hot and cold – is the furnace in which many villains are forged. It’s pretty easy to take a Nazi, with their highly stylized look and inarguably evil philosophy, and turn them into a world-class supervillain. Heck, they worked so well that comics have pretty much never shaken them. Even eighty years later, Nazis keep popping back up in comics. This is, of course, only one of a few similarities between the real world and the world of comics, I suppose…
Perceived threats from abroad or from counter-culture always make for fertile fields in which cartoon villainy can grow. It’s understandable to have villains connected with organized crime (usually ethnic, in some manner, which is an issue comics writers and editors might want to reconsider), drugs, weapons-running, and so on. The obsession with making villains out of hippies, slackers, activists and beatniks, at different times throughout comics history, is a little less comprehensible. A costumed vigilante delivering extrajudicial beatings to nutjobs in jumpsuits probably doesn’t really have the moral authority to tell a super-powered Earth First!-er to stop blowing up bulldozers.
Cultural fads make for some of the more fun villains – and mashups. For instance, the Satanic Panic of the Eighties was wed to a potent disdain for disco culture in an issue of Justice League of America which introduced The Satin Satan, a demonically-possessed disco diva who stole men’s minds. And then, of course, there’s Swarm, a Nazy made of bees whose genealogy can be tied right back to America’s dread of killer bees and the Boys from Brazil …
CAMPOCHIARO: We all have our favorite oddball villains. I’m particularly fond of a couple of more outlandish Batman foes. Please tell me Crazy Quilt almost made the cut?
MORRIS: Crazy Quilt was most definitely on the list, as were a number of your weirder Batman villains. In fact, there were probably enough of them to constitute a volume of their own – The Eraser, Calendar Man, Zebra Man, Kite Man, Polka Dot Man, not to mention the more outrageous original characters created for the live-action television show and assorted cartoons. And then, given villains with names like Captain Stingaree, the Ten-Eyed Man and Condiment King, there probably could have at least been a follow-up supplement, t’boot.
CAMPOCHIARO: The other Bat-villain I have a soft spot for beyond all reason would be Magpie, and you did include her in one of your sidebars, “Beast-Named Bad Guys.” That warmed my heart, I must admit. Who are your personal Magpies of Crazy Quilts? The characters you enjoy seeing pop up now and then, even if you can’t fathom why?
MORRIS: I’m a Superman guy, myself, so a lot of my dear, inexplicable favorites happen to come out of that character’s lengthy, prodigious history.
There’s Terra-Man, a space cowboy who uses weapons like radioactive tumbleweeds and strength-granting chewing tobacco to fight the Man of Steel. An old favorite was Funnyface, an evil cartoonist who invented a device which made comic book characters come to life. There was also a super-powered fellow named Karb-Brak with a crazy red mustache whose super-power was that he was allergic to Superman (I still don’t get it), a yowling monster called the Galactic Golem, a whole passel of Toymans, the exceptionally great Prankster, and a raft of villains who’d only ever made one performance and then effed-off to nowheresville. I’d count his many, many foes who were Kryptonian gorillas in that company, to be sure.
Also, as a long-time Daredevil reader, there are more than a few of his old enemies whom I’d always enjoyed. You don’t see enough of The Jester these days, or Man-Bull, and I think I preferred The Owl when he was just a stocky guy who kind of looked like Benny Hill and could float.
CAMPOCHIARO: Yes, Daredevil has an extremely underrated rogues gallery. Speaking of underrated, until you introduced me to Brickbat I never knew I needed a character in my life that wore a Batman cowl and accessorized with a lime-green suit instead of a cape. Now I want someone to revive the character. Who were some of your favorite villains from the book, and why?
MORRIS: I get genuinely excited about Captain Black Bunny, the opposite number to Golden Age funny animal superhero Hoppy the Captain Marvel Bunny (Captain Marvel was a big franchise back in the Forties, an anthropomorphic version of him made perfect sense at the time – and now, for that matter). Part of it is that I’m a big fan of Chad Grothkopf’s art, but I also feel a sense of ownership of the character. His sole appearance was a book which was missing from the online archives of public domain comics, and it was the first book I bought specifically to scan and contribute to the Digital Comic Museum (digitalcomicmuseum.com).
I’ve also got a personal connection to Bloor (Dictator of Uranus!). Many years back, the group of artists with whom I hung out stumbled across a copy of Bloor’s first appearance (and his only appearance, more or less) and fell collectively head-over-heels in love. We collaborated on a Bloor-themed minicomic, which remains one of my favorite things in which I’d ever participated.
Outside of that, there are really dozens. I’m always keen to see old Daredevil villains – Stilt-Man, Mandrill, Angar the Screamer and so on – pop up, but they rarely do outside of the context of being cannon fodder or joke characters. This is a shame, I think they’ve all got stories that can still be told about them. I’ve also had a longtime affection for Steve Ditko’s nihilist beatnik supervillain Our Man, which has a lot to do with the densely-written philosophical argument which goes on between hero and villain. Comics could use more philosophical screeds featuring weirdos in armor and maniacs in spandex …
CAMPOCHIARO: Definitely. Ditko and Steve Gerber could always be counted on to inject plenty of philosophical screeds into their characters’ dialogue. So, when it comes down to heroes and villains, who do you find more fun to write about?
MORRIS: Sort of depends on the overall career of the character. Heroes tend to stick around a lot longer (it’s their name on the masthead, after all), so they end up evolving and adapting as the culture moves on around them. Villains, for the most part, tend to pop up once or twice in short succession, and then disappear for long stretches of time. Writing about either of them is like having a friend who’s lost a lot of weight – if you see them every day, you can barely detect the changes, but the difference is shocking if you only check in with them once a year or so.
That’s the nature of these characters, in terms of contextualizing them to the culture which created and nurtured them. There are very few villains, really, who show up every month (like Lex Luthor, for instance, who’s such a fixture of the Superman titles that he may as well be a supporting character rather than a villain) or even once a year or so, the vast majority have a half-dozen appearances under their belt and then – poof! – you don’t see them again for a decade or so.
For my brand of writing, the pleasure in writing about a character has a lot to do with how the character can be tied back into the cultural zeitgeist, who its creators were and, frankly, how much fun I can make of their costume or name. I’m not too proud to admit that my technique involves a lot of holding a character up to the audience and shouting “LOOK AT THIS JERK!”
CAMPOCHIARO: Why are the villains in the book worth celebrating? What’s their legacy, or place, in popular culture?
MORRIS: The thing about pop culture is that it’s really just culture that’s happening now, and these villains reflect the fears, concerns and aspirations of the different eras which spawned them. And, to some degree, their silliness or absurdity is the ultimate commentary on our cultural concerns. When you look back at these villains and see insouciant teenagers cast as terrors, or the magnified menace of Red Scare rogues, or the recession-fueled paranoia of suburban bad guys, it casts into stark relief the extent to which panic informed our reaction to the concerns of the day…
CAMPOCHIARO: The comics and characters you look at in the book are gloriously silly, unencumbered by any need to be “cool” or even relevant. Not to sound like a couple of old guys moaning about how those kids need to get off our lawn, but do you think that aspect has been lost in modern comics?
MORRIS: Heck, man, let’s go ahead and tell these kids to get off our lawns! Why do we even have lawns in the first place if rowdy teens are just going to hunt Pokemon on ‘em? It’s a real waste of a lawn!
There’s still plenty of room for absurdly wonderful villains in comics and, in fact, the audience seems to be hungry for them. If I do have one complaint about the current trend of goofball villains is that they tend to either be dusted-off evil old weirdos brought out of retirement just to get laughs or they’re pretty blatant attempts to be ridiculous. There was a lot of sincerity in characters like your average giant mutated radioactive world-conquering Scralet Beetle, or shout-happy hippie Angar the Screamer, or too-hip hellion Tino the Terrible Teen. There’s not quite so much sincerity in a character with a crotch-mounted cannon and who calls himself “Codpiece,” to name an admittedly twenty-five year old character…
Luckily the current crop of comics writers includes a pretty significant number of genuinely good writers with a solid humor streak, and they’re able to keep the balance between risible and relatable alive. Good on ‘em, I say! They’re welcome on my lawn any day.