It's that time of year again. You know, when every headline writer on earth breaks out the "BAM!," "POW!," and "ZAP!"
Yup, Comic-Con International – the world's biggest comic-book and pop-culture convention – is being held this weekend in my fair city of San Diego.
Visitors and reporters spend much of their time on the convention floor, but there's more to Comic-Con than booths, posters, and celebrities. Walk upstairs and you'll find dozens of serious-minded seminars about topics like the history of comic books and the evolution of superheroes.
Can't make it to America's Finest City to hear about these hot if geeky topics? Never fear. Gerard Jones, the San Francisco-based comic-book historian, artist, and author of 2005's "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book," is in town and took questions about eight decades of comics.
Q: How did comic books first come into being?
A: They came out of the newspaper comic strips, which were mostly humor along with things like Tarzan and Dick Tracy.
The first comic books were just reprints of the newspaper comics, a way for people to read their favorite strips with continuity. But some publishers couldn't sell newspaper reprints and began to commission new material.
The artists were largely guys who were trying to make it as newspaper comic strip artists but hadn't made it. They tended to be young, oddball, and not quite as sophisticated and polished; their work was seen as unfinished and not ready for prime time
For example, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were consistently rejected when they were peddling their Superman idea to the newspaper syndicates. One syndicate said it was an immature piece of art.
Q: Why did this kind of work become popular?
A: There was an audience that wanted this rougher, more peculiar stuff that wasn't refined by art school and years of experience. And a lot of kids wanted that raw connection with the fantasies of the artists who weren't much older than them.
Most of the guys who created the stuff that lasted were in their late teens or early 20s. They could tap into the action and adventure that kids wanted but couldn't get enough of in the newspaper comic strips.
Q: How were comic books groundbreaking in terms of reaching kids specifically?
A: Newspaper comic strips were sort of like broadcast TV: You had to reach a broad audience. If a strip was only being read by 12- year-old boys, it wouldn't survive. They had to appeal to kids, older kids and adults to some extent.
With comic books, publishers discovered there was a big enough audience of just adolescents out there to support the industry. In a way, comic books were the first business built almost entirely by purchases by kids and teenagers.
Q: When did comic books begin to seem disreputable?
A: Early on. For the most part, comics were frowned on by pretty much everyone. No one would even have linked them to movies or even early television as a respectable medium.
Some early publishers did really sleazy pulp-fiction magazines, and there were shoddy, bottom-end publishers. The comics were vivid and energetic but very unpolished, and a lot looked crass and vulgar to people.
And a lot were about guys fighting. They really leaned heavily on violence, more nonstop combat than you'd see in a movie.
Q: Comic books came under fire in the 1950s as contributors to juvenile delinquency. That seems silly now, but were the critics onto something about how the comics were violent and sexualized?
A: Some were very gruesome and very sexualized, with cruelty and sadism going on in a lot of stories. Parents were legitimately alarmed with some reason. But there was this huge backlash that gutted business to the point where nothing that wasn't safe for an eight year old would see print.
It was really a little kids' medium until you get to the '70s, when the older fans become a bigger part of the audience – the old, hardcore beleaguered fan boys who kept arguing that this stuff was worth looking at and saving.
Q: When did comic books take a turn toward the dark side?
A: That came out of the mid-1990s, when it became the style to do the self-referential, queasy-making, rough, dark and violent comics.
Part of it was the pop culture movement of the times, when you can see the similar things in action movies. You get more and more of the scary and gritty approach, the "Terminator" style.
It was the point when the audience became almost entirely people over 20, those who had read a ton of comics when they were younger and grew tired of the old templates. They wanted to be startled.
Q: Where are comics going now?
A: The big superheroes – Superman, Batman, the Avengers – aren't changing much. Not that much inventive stuff is being done. It's in a conservative phase since it's so much being driven by the movies. What you see on the screen is similar to what you see in the comics.
There's also a movement toward more lightness which shows up in things like the "Avengers" movie, "Iron Man" and "Thor" – more of a sense of the superhero as light and funny as opposed to dark and haunting.
Q: What else is changing?
A: One of the great things about comics is how they've been such an easy-entry and democratic field.
It's always been so easy to get work out in comic-book form that you couldn't get out as a movie. The gatekeepers tend to be loose and new and untutored talent can get out there. That's increasing as web comics become more popular. Eventually what they're pioneering will be reflected by Marvel and DC.
Q: Superheroes like Batman and Superman have been around just about forever. Are any new ones being developed that could have staying power?
A: Spider-Man and X-Men are about 50 years old and those are the most recent popular superhero creations. I don't see anyone really glomming onto new superheroes.
There is this fascination with old heroes who have been around for longer than many of the fans have been alive. They have almost a mythological quality because they have been around forever, but it's exciting to see them re-injected into the present.
Q: Is this a good thing?
A: It's nice to have a sense there are these heroes who have been there for a long time and link us all the way back to World War II and the Depression. Past generations knew the same heroes, and that's a good thing.