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FOG! Chats With Author Christopher Irving About His New Book, ‘Cliffhanger: Cinema’s First Superheroes’

What doesn’t Chris Irving do?  From educator to author to publisher to pop culture historian, there isn’t much that he doesn’t have his hands in.  His newest book,  Cliffhanger: Cinema’s First Superheroes takes a look a the history of the early comic book industry with the development of the movie serials of the 1940s based off superheroes.  He sat down to discuss the book, his favorite serials and more.

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FOG!: What was the genesis of your new book, Cliffhanger: Cinema’s First Superheroes?

CHRISTOPHER IRVING: Back in 2006, when I was working at TwoMorrows and had just finished The Blue Beetle Companion, I wanted to extend my study of comic book media to the serial book. Way back in 2001, I inherited a box of serials on VHS tapes that belonged to the late, great Gray Morrow–gifted to me by his wife, Pocho–and it cemented my fascination with the black and white precedent of later superhero film and TV. On the surface, they’re incredibly goofy, but when you really look more deeply, they can feature the best stuntwork (even by today’s standards), practical effects, and superhero casting. Old movie serials married my love of film with my love of Golden Age comics, and it felt a natural.

Over the years, the project got bumped around, completed in chunks, and put on the backburner while I pursued a few other book and research projects. I dusted it off a few years ago and, with John Morrow agreeing to publish it, dove in headfirst and researched the folks behind (and in front of) the camera even more fervently than I had before. I’m lucky to have had such an amazing amount of professional and personal growth happen in the 17 years since I started work on Cliffhanger, and know it has resulted in a much better book than I could have done ten years ago.

The focus of the book are the superhero serials. What quantifiers did you use to identify titles for inclusion as serials such as The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Tarzan and Flash Gordon, are mentioned, but not focused on?

These are characters expressly from comic books, not strips and pulps. However, those characters get mentioned throughout the book, especially the very influential Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy serials. Had I included them, it would have turned this into more of a reference book and not have allowed me to go as in-depth on the intertwining of both comic book and serial history.

I would love to write a second volume that features the comic strip and pulp heroes, but that can come after I finish my PhD and take a nap!

I’m not sure if you experienced this growing up, but there used to be a restaurant chain, The Ground Round, that would project serial chapters, Three Stooges and The Little Rascals shorts.

As we’ve moved on in terms of entertainment, do you feel that there could be a market for cliffhanger shorts in today’s world?

God, I would have loved that place!

I grew up off Three Stooges reruns on TBS, and my first serial exposure was a chapter from Zorro’s Fighting Legion. I didn’t know what a cliffhanger was and was left very, very depressed when I saw Zorro apparently die at the end! After that, it was the VHS reissue of the 1943 Batman serial, as well as a cheap VHS of the Captain Marvel serial.

When researching the book, did you come across any fascinating trivia or unmade serial ideas that were never produced?

Oh, yeah! The original Superman serial was going to be at Republic, but that fell apart at the last minute and Republic converted it to the lackluster The Mysterious Doctor Satan. The Superman mannequin (used to replicate his flying) was later redressed as Captain Marvel.

There was fan speculation of a Spy Smasher sequel or Bulletman serial, but those never happened. Jack Mathis, who wrote the definitive history of Republic Pictures, called Valley of the Cliffhangers, looked through all of Republic’s records and has no documentation of that. Part of the book was addressing those rumors (along with Captain America having been a reworked Mister Scarlet) that had nothing to back them up.

What, in your opinion, are the five must see superhero serials?

  • Spy Smasher is my favorite, particularly for Kane Richmond and Marguerite Bennett
  • The Adventures of Captain Marvel is a CLASSIC
  • Captain America was woefully miscast and a terrible adaptation of the comics (he has nothing in common with the real Cap, not even in his secret identity), but is a phenomenal action serial with stunning cinematography. If you can get past those aspects of it, the serial is way under-rated.
  • Batman with Lewis Wilson! I have a soft spot for it, since it’s one of the first serials I watched, warts and all. It’s also the most indicative of the racism rampant in WWII-era media, as the villain is a Japanese mad scientist. But Lewis Wilson was a great Bruce Wayne/Batman; incidentally, his son is Michael G. Wilson, coproducer of the James Bond films, who was kind enough to grant me an interview.
  • Last but not least, Atom Man vs. Superman! Kirk Alyn was a great Clark Kent/Superman, and Lyle Talbot such an under-rated Lex Luthor. He laughs ONCE in the whole serial and it’s absolutely chilling.

One of the major differences from the serials to comic book movies now is simply that interest in the films doesn’t seem to continue on to the original source material. The serials directly influenced the launch of the 1966 Batman tv series, which became a phenomenon. Do you think that the success of modern comic book films is the result of the influence of the cliffhanger serials?

I think the serial influence led to Batman and also Star Wars, which worked its way into the modern superhero cinematic universe. Like the serials, the MCU invites/demands audiences to come back to view the next chapter. The biggest difference, I think, is the realism of superhero action in the Republic serials: stuntmen like Yakima Cannutt and Davy Sharpe performed death-defying stunts without the aid of CGI or a large budget. It’s the closest you’ll ever see to a real-life superhero on screen.

What are your Top 5 favorite movie serials?

Including superheroes:

  • Spy Smasher
  • Flash Gordon: Buster Crabbe plays Flash with a conviction, despite how absurd it gets. I show this one regularly to my classes and they fall in love with it each time. We also always fall in love with the Goth girl bad-ass, Princess Aura, and love Dale Arden’s amazing wide-eyed expressions of shock, Ming’s wardrobe, and Professor Zarkov’s absurd refusal to wear pants.
  • Captain Marvel
  • Perils of Nyoka: It features the lovely and vampish Lorna Gray as the badguy and she is assisted with a man in an ape suit (playing an actual ape). It also has Lone Ranger star Clayton Moore in a supporting role.
  • Manhunt in Darkest Africa: The inspiration for Indiana Jones, this is under-rated serial director Spencer Bennett at his finest, working for Republic in this bang-up serial with a Nazi basher.

What are you currently geeking out over?

Finally got to watch Twin Peaks: The Return and went nuts for it! Am digging White House Plumbers on Max and am about to watch Spinning Gold (about Casablanca Records) on Amazon tonight.

As for comics stuff, I’m LOVING Tom Taylor and Bruno Redondo’s Nightwing, my buddy Mike Allred (with writer Peter Milligan) on The X-Cellent, and just saw most of Across the Spider-Verse the other day. My son, Grayson, didn’t let me finish it, so I’m heading back to the theater solo to see how it ends!

The Editors new album is living in my car’s CD player right now and I’m still getting to know the newest from The National.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to discuss?

I continue to put out my biweekly podcast, Inner Workings. I’m working on a PhD in Media, Art, and Text at VCU (where I’m an assistant professor in Communication Arts), which looks at Superman in media and aims to create a theory for the superhero as intermedial figure. Mike Allred and I are excited about the new Madman Atomic Action figures, the first of which are still up for preorder before they go to the factory. After I get through those big projects, I plan on starting on my big book on New York City.
My biggest project, though, remains my five year old son, Grayson. He’s keeping me on my toes!!!!!

Cliffhanger: Cinema’s First Superheroes is available now
from comic book stores or directly from TwoMorrows.com

For more info, visit ChristopherIrving.com
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