The Good and Evil History of Superheroes, from the Desk of Jess Nevins


If you are a hardcore fan of vintage science fiction and fantasy, you know who Jess Nevins is. If you’re Jess Nevins, you know vintage science fiction and fantasy.

You know you’ve made it when bloggers make memes of you.
“The stuff I do, I’m usually the first into it, just because of the amount of effort required to dig up these obscurities,” Nevins said. “Really for every one valuable nugget I unearth, I’m reading ten times as much rubbish, for lack of a better word.”

Nevins, a Texas-based librarian and researcher, became known among geekdom studying the most unusual of forgotten speculative fiction lore, from cataloguing long-forgotten public domain superheroes to identifying the origins and references in every minute detail of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. His latest book, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4000-Year History of the Superhero, hits stores on February 28th, 2017, as both the culmination of his lifetime of reading historic fiction and comic books (so far, anyway) and an introduction to the ever-expanding web that connects genre fiction to its past.

“I was reading comic books and science fiction when I was a kid; I’ve always been a geek,” Nevins said. “I was your average fanboy for a lot of years, but it was really with the start of the internet that I started seeing ways that I could share my geek knowledge and earn a name for myself.”

He began with his own fansites on the now-defunct Geocities and responding to growing numbers of followers on LiveJournal, and slowly built up a following that included many comic book and fantasy writers Nevins had appreciated as a reader.

The One the Pros Turn to for Help

Unofficial, but who did that introduction…?
“I’ve done research for writers before,” Nevins said, nonchalantly. “Most of the time, people who contact me, they want the research, but they don’t have the time to do the research.”

This means Nevins has worked with fan-favorite writers like Bill Willingham, Matt Fraction, David Avallone, and Ed Brubaker, even contributing text-pieces to some of their books. Nevins’ work has appeared in Fatale, Incognito, and Kill Or Be Killed, three of Brubaker’s creator-owned works.

“I was reading Ed Brubaker in Sleeper years and years ago, and now I have his e-mail address and I could e-mail him at the drop of a hat,” Nevins said. “I still feel like a fanboy most of the time, and being in this position is like fanboy-made-good.”

Of course the coup de grâce was connecting with comic book writing icon (and recent comic retiree) Alan Moore.

“He first saw my annotations because he was doing an interview with Spin Magazine and the reporter for Spin showed him my annotations on line, and he was very complimentary at the time,” beamed a proud Nevins.

A publisher arranged a conversation between the two, and Nevins jumped at the chance to connect with Moore for future research.

“We hit it of very well and away to the races we went,” Nevins added. “He’s a really sweet guy, but it’s really, really intimidating. … It’s a frightening thing to talk to Alan Moore.”

Moore – and his artistic collaborator Kevin O’Neill – read through Nevins annotations and did have some corrections to make. Nevins used his own research to make educated guesses about the literary references in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and at least one point was based on fan speculation, and that point was wrong.

“The question of Mina Murray being a vampire was a hotly disputed one when the first league came out,” Nevins admitted, noting that he kept the theory in as it was so widely discussed by fans. “I didn’t think she was [a vampire], but I didn’t have any more evidence than anyone else was, but Moore was quick to point out that, no, she wasn’t.”

Bringing the Obscure Back to the Public

You know you’d watch this movie.
While Nevins earned geek cred with his detailed annotations, it was his willingness to dig into the pulpiest of dime novels and share his finds with the world that made him a hit with fans and creators.

“Part of what I do is just for the sheer pleasure of sharing this information,” he said, adding somewhat sheepishly, “and part of it, as with most writers, is feeding the ego.”

Whether inspired by Nevins research or not, many writers began using more obscure old heroes in comics after Nevins’ character lists hit the internet. One find in particular, the gun-toting simian cowboy, the Six-Gun Gorilla, immediately sparked in the public’s imagination.

“I took that from an 80, 90 year old book on British story papers, and wrote about that, then found the original in the British library and made copies of the original and put that online, and other people have taken that and run with it,” Nevins said. That includes Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely’s Six-Gun Gorilla and Brian Christgau and Wes Huffor’s Six-Gun Gorilla: Long Days of Vengeance. Both Spurrier and Christgau have acknowledged how important Nevins was for their projects.

Other elements of science fiction’s past have taken root among fans thanks to Nevin’s research, including a renewed interest in the “boy inventor” trope, adventurers like Frank Reade Jr., the Edisonade, and obscure comic book superheroes.

“You never know what people are going to draw from,” said Nevins, himself a burgeoning fiction writer. “I don’t begrudge anyone making use of the stuff that’s out there, if I didn’t want it used, I wouldn’t put it out there.”

His pride and joy, in this respect, is The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, which catalogues numerous heroes, villains, monsters, and inventions of the penny dreadful age.

From Studying Writers to Becoming One

Collector’s Item!
Nevins already has some short fiction published, with several others on the way. “The Student of Rats,” a steampunk Frankenstein-inspired story, can be found in Shimmer #14. A weird Western story appears in This Twisted Earth anthology, due out next month, and in November, Skelos #2 features what Nevins calls “a revisionist Lovecraft story.” Something to be on the lookout for.

“Doing the professional thing has made me ever more conscious of just how lucky I am in terms of non-fiction publishing and understanding the struggle it is to become a professional fiction writer,” he said.

His latest non-fiction book, The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4000-Year History of the Superhero, comes out February 28th from Praeger.

“It’s basically tracing how the idea of the superhero developed using major proto-heroic examples, and then up to the appearance of Superman,” he explained, adding that the book continues tracing patterns to the present day.

Some 4,000 years ago, the Epic of Gilgamesh was recorded on clay tablets throughout what is today Iraq. Chronicling the adventures of a maladjusted demigod king named Gilgamesh and his best friend and fiercest rival, the beast-man Enkidu, the ancient poem is seen by many as the first heroic tale written down, and for Nevins and others, the first superhero story.

Coming soon!
“I think that Enkidu qualifies as the first superhero more than Gilgamesh, but in my first chapter I actually talk about definitions and why defining superheroes is problematic,” Nevins said, adding that his own definitions changed as his research deepened.

“The degree to which you could go back with superheroines, those go back further than I would have guessed,” he explained. “They have roots with the lady knights of the middle ages. … It’s the same thing with people of color as superheroes. … By my way of thinking Enkidu is the first proto-superhero, and well, he’s not a white guy. The tradition of superheroes as being white men, that’s a comic book thing, but if you go back before comic books there’s a more even spread of ethnicities.”

On that note, not all of his research turned up politically correct messages.

“There were other things that were not quite so pleasing to discover, like writing about the tradition of superheroes costume,” he said sullenly. “The whole idea of costumes, as a trope, you have got to trace that to a Klan.”

He explained while secret identities and costumes can be traced to different areas of myth and fiction, the 20th century concept of a hero ducking away to dress in a masked costume and fight crime (or what was perceived as crime), owes a lot to fictional books like Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman and the movie it inspired, The Birth of a Nation.

“Not that I want to talk about the Klan in any positive way, but when it comes to influence, you kind of have to admit it,” Nevins begrudgingly noted.

Heroic Diamond in the Rough: Moll Cut-Purse

NPG D28535; Mary Frith ('Moll Cutpurse') after Unknown artist, published by  William Richardson
Beyond all that “rubbish,” as Nevins termed it, there were some nuggets of gold, like the earliest example of a hero with multiple identities, costumes, and a contentious relationship with authority.

“One of my finds was this female character based on a real person in Elizabethan England who was well known in real life for being a crossdresser and violent – what they called the Roaring Girl,” he explained.

This hero may have been something of a Robin Hood to the downtrodden, but definitely a thorn in the  side of government officials. Mary Fritch, better known by her nom de guerre Moll Cut-Purse, would steal from those who abused their power, and humiliate anyone in the wrong. Her influence continued into the 17th and 18th centuries, as she‘s considered one of the (many)  influences of the popular literary antiheroine Moll Flanders, and later heroes like  the Scarlet Pimpernel.

“In plays about her from 1605, she’s shown protecting the innocent. … She’s got a codename, she’s got a costume, she’s got a heroic mission. To me that qualifies her as being a proto-superhero.”

Nevins hopes when his new book comes out, it will encourage more in academia to consider superheroes alongside similar historical and mythic heroes.


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