One of the more fascinating aspects of old timey comic creators is how they execute small things that end up having huge ramifications for a character down the road. We’ve switched now. A lot of marketing Marvel and DC comics promise, “This Will Change Everything!” Readers and fans know going in to expect turbulence.
Of course fans will endlessly debate the value of those changes. We just saw all this unfold with Hickman’s X-Men books which furnished a massive overhaul of many characters and concepts once considered the bedrock of the X-Universe. It’s not just the changes so much as how those changes age and how future creators capitalize on them (even with retcons as a safety net).
An example is Detective Comics #31 cover dated September 1939 where writer Gardner Fox introduced Batman to his first baterang. This was after issue 29 where Fox accessorized Batman with a handy utility belt. Two small and innocuous contributions―a Batarang (current spelling) and the utility belt―are now iconic and synonymous with the character. Both sanguinely introduced in two issues that did not come with a “This Will Change Everything!” promise even though they literally did!
So who was Gardner Fox and how did he change “everything?”
Enter Forgotten All-Star: A Biography of Gardner Fox by Jennifer DeRoss. The book reveals the untold story of one of comic books’ best luminaries.
There’s an interesting evolution how we talk about the old timers versus the new creators. For the new guys we talked about the Geoff Johns’ run on The Flash or Scott Snyder’s Batman run. We talk and debate about significant runs on characters. With many of the old timers, we talk about their work in totality. Gardner Fox did a lot of work for DC Comics. It respectfully acknowledges their signification but it’s also vague; it’s hard to quantify in any sort of meaningful context the breadth of their massive contributions.
With Fox, contributions is the key word. By his own estimation, Fox wrote 4,200 comics (plus 160 novels!). It’s safe to say that one could talk to him about many aspects of a writer’s life save writer’s block.
The title of the biography is Forgotten All-Star. This is a play on words to Fox’s overlooked legacy while pointing to another contribution that made a major impact. In All-Star Comics #3, Fox created the first superhero team: The Justice Society of America. The Justice League and Avengers wouldn’t populate comic book pages until the early 60s! This is still 1940. A date that instantly prompts a caveat to appraising the antique value of Fox’s historical comic book additions.
Typically, it isn’t fair (is that the right word?) to evaluate old time comics using a present lens by the same criteria we employ today. There’s a multiverse of difference between a comic book reader in the 40s and 50s, with all of their societal attitudes, and a modern reader actively enjoying Marvel movies. It is weird to levy criticism against past comics or characters when they not yet fully formed; in a sense their clay hasn’t dried yet. There are DC comics from the 40s where Batman actively dispenses justice with a gun (a pulp leftover from his time as a pseudo Shadow). Awkward.
When it comes to Fox’s work, biographer DeRoss does a great job of contextualizing Fox’s comic stories. This includes one of the more controversial moments of Wonder Woman’s continuity. Yup, that time when she was the JSA’s secretary in the 40s. The controversy is a bit bizarre considering she was initially saddled with a bondage agenda. It’s been decades but, in a way, Wonder Woman will always be tied to that!
DeRoss devotes an entire chapter to Wonder Woman’s time as the JSA’s secretary. This gives enough space for contemporary readers to grapple with all of the nuanced elements. Detailing Wonder Woman’s entanglements allowed DeRoss to highlight how Fox typical wrote women in contrast to his era.
In the end, the assertion that Fox was sexist because he made Wonder Woman the secretary of the Justice Society of America is easily refuted, as he had very little control over the decision nor was he in a position to protest it once it was made.”Forgotten All-Star: A Biography of Gardner Fox
Her conclusion is supported by the range of remarkable female characters Fox gifted to DC. Zatanna and Hawkgirl to name a few. Even an evil Superwoman (because Girls Just Want To Have Fun).
For DeRoss, this project began at the University of Oregon Libraries. Fox donated his notes, correspondence, samples of his work, story ideas and research to the University. It is the donation of the Gardner Fox Collection that forms the smooth spine of the book. DeRoss also received assistance and input from Fox’s friend Roy Thomas, another undervalued comic book creator. He emboldened her to pinpoint patterns in Fox’s work and life.
For us as fans, Fox’s contribution will ultimately be the innovations and characters he gave to the DC Universe. From the “Flash of Two Worlds!”, the big bang of the Multiverse would evolve into a Crisis by the 80s. The Crime Syndicate of America used most recently by Geoff Johns in the 2013 crossover Forever Evil. A broad range of good guys and bad guys including Jay Garrick-Flash, Hawkman, Atom (Ray Palmer) and Shade.
DeRoss astutely writes in the book’s introduction:
DC still does not promote their own history in the way companies like Marvel will do, and when they do, the artist and their editors tend to get more attention than the writers.Forgotten All-Star: A Biography of Gardner Fox
We’ve seen that with Stan Lee, with his big personality, seen as the face of Marvel. His co-creator Steve Ditko, absent of the gift of gab, suffers a legacy largely overlooked.
That’s what makes Forgotten All-Star inspiring. It immediately reminds comic book fans of Fox’s work and offers encouragement to those trying to break into the medium. Ultimately, Fox’s legacy is defined by his time at the typewriter. He made small changes that had major impacts. Want to “change everything”? Then get to work.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!