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cic2008-03-25.jpgJust before Christmas I began my extended commentary on Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics, his eagerly awaited book that serves as both a biography of Jack Kirby, the greatest adventure and fantasy artist in 20th century American comic books, and as an art book showcasing his work (see “Comics in Context” #207: “Royal Retrospective”), Right after New Year’s I did another installment of this column about the Kirby book, though half of it was actually about the BBC documentary In Search of Steve Ditko (see “Comics in Context” #208: “Creative Differences”). Then I agreed to postpone the rest of my commentary until Harry N. Abrams published the book in late February.

In the meantime I’ve devoted this column to other worthy subjects, such as Bob Clampett (“Comics in Context” #213), Steve Gerber (#214, 215 and 216), Darwyn Cooke (#217), Stephen Sondheim, of all people (#218), and Mephisto’s marriage counseling (#210). But now it’s March, Kirby: King of Comics is in stores, and I’ve received to go-ahead to resume what I consider not so much a review as my series of critical annotations on this landmark book.

Those of you who have read my contribution to the Beat’s annual survey this year know that I am interested in seeing how much coverage Kirby: King of Comics receives in the mainstream media. This would be a useful sign of just how wide and deep the mainstream culture’s new interest in the comics medium actually is.

So far I haven’t found much. But on Sunday March 23 The Washington Post ran a review by novelist Glen David Gold, a Kirby admirer who had already written about him in the catalogue for the “Masters of American Comics” exhibition (see “Comics in Context” #155: “Two American Masters”).

In his review Gold refers to David Michaelis’s recent biography Schulz and Peanuts that portrayed cartoonist Charles M. Schulz as a deeply troubled man (see “Comics in Context” #204: “Was It a Dark and Stormy Life?”). “Evanier, in contrast, presents Kirby as a decent and generous soul with some understandable fits of frustration. . . .but a reader”–by which Gold really means a specific reader, himself–”hungers for something deeper to explain his violent and angry imagery.”

Evanier refers to the nightmares that plagued Kirby after his return from World War II. Alluding to these, Gold continues, “Kirby seems to have had post-traumatic stress disorder after World War II, and I suspect that certain recurrent figures in his artwork came from his unconscious attempt to work out the horror of the battlefield.”

Well, perhaps the last part of the statement is true, although all one need do is look at the Captain America artwork from the early 1940s in Evanier’s book to see that Kirby was already creating explosively violent imagery before he ever entered the army. Gold may be overstating the case by claiming that Kirby had “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Yes, his nightmares were a symptom, but is there any evidence that Kirby’s behavior when he was awake was altered by his war experiences? The National Institute of Mental Health’s website states that people afflicted with this disorder “avoid situations that remind them of the original incident” that induced the severe mental stress. Then why did Kirby continually draw on his war experiences in his stories, as Evanier points out in the book?

On the other hand, Gold may be underrating Kirby’s “fits of frustration” as a source for his anger. In his book Evanier pointedly reprints Kirby’s full-page close-up of an enraged Silver Surfer from Silver Surfer #18 (September 1970) as an expression of the intensity of the feelings that led Kirby to quit Marvel for DC (see Evanier, Kirby: King of Comics, p. 162).

Moreover, I should think that Kirby’s childhood as a gang member on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, continually getting into fights, as Evanier describes in his first chapter, and as dramatized through the book’s reprinting of Kirby’s story “Street Code,” easily provides part of the explanation for the “violence” in Kirby’s comics.

Certainly Kirby, the co-creator of the Hulk must have known what it was like to feel anger, even rage. But to characterize Kirby’s visual imagery as “violent and angry” seems to me misleading. I wonder about the mindsets of various contemporary comics editors, writers and artists who inflict rape, mutilation and murder on longrunning characters. But I never have the sense that Kirby inflicts unwarranted cruelty upon his characters. (Even violence inflicted upon “Terrible” Turpin in The New Gods, unusually brutal for a Kirby book, ultimately serves to heighten the courageous cop’s heroism.) Ben Grimm’s battle cry, “It’s clobbering time!”, is more often than not an expression of joy. There is an exuberance about the heroes’ fight scenes in Kirby’s work, like Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn dueling in swashbuckler movies. Captain America’s action scenes embody the classic American spirit, striving for freedom, triumphing over oppression. Other Kirby heroes may not be explicitly patriotic in theme, but they represent a similar spirit.

Besides, if you pay attention, Kirby doesn’t draw that much actual violence. He characteristically takes an abstract approach to it: he draws a flash of light representing impact, rather than actually showing a fist connecting with a jaw, as we shall see in the course of my commentary.

In other words, whereas recent superhero comics, at their worst, exhibit a sadistic fascination with pain and suffering, Kirby’s comics use images of the human body in action–running, leaping, flying, and even fighting–to convey sheer, uplifting joy. Far from exuding anger, Kirby’s comics communicate a positive outlook on humanity and the prospects for the world.

At the point in Kirby: King of Comics where I left off in January, World War II had ended, and DC Comics’ editorial had lost interest in having anyone–even the brilliant team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby–act as outside suppliers for them. So, after a few commercial misfires at Harvey, Simon and Kirby launched the romance comic genre by creating Young Romance, which became a tremendous hit. So much for the foresight of the DC bureaucracy circa the late 1940s.

Although Evanier doesn’t make a point of this, the illustrations in this section of the book show that Kirby was rapidly growing as an artist in the postwar years. Look at the stoical face of the figure in the electric chair in the cover from Justice Traps the Guilty #8 (1948) (Evanier p. 73) and the classically handsome build of the half-crouching diver (as a school of fish drift past him, in a lovely grace note) in the cover of Black Magic #189 (1952) (Evanier p. 77).

An impressive page by Kirby and Simon from Boys’ Ranch #2 (1950) (Evanier p. 81) demonstrates their skill in enabling their characters to “act.” One usually thinks of Jack Kirby as drawing situations, emotions and characters that are larger than life, on an operatic scale. But consider the subtlety he shows on this page.

In the second panel a Native American, Running Bear, races from a burning cabin, carrying a white boy he has rescued. There are no words in this panel, nor the speed lines so often used to indicate motion in comics. The figure of Running Bear is positioned as if running, but has a stillness about him as well. His face concealed, pressed against the baby, to shield both the child and himself from the flames, his arms firmly wrapped around the boy, Running Bear seems like an iconic figure of parental concern. Pieces of wood are falling from the cabin, yet they seem to hover around Running Bear, as if time has stood still for a moment as he makes his escape. Rather than give us a conventional look at flames, Kirby takes a nearly abstract approach. as if Running Bear has emerged from a portal of light and shadow. In the right foreground we see the back of another Native American’s head, with his left hand raised, watching. Again, we are shown no facial expressions, and read no dialogue, yet the onlooker’s sense of concern comes across simply from the position of his hand and the tilt of his head. He stands in for the reader, reacting as we should, with a certain awe, to the sight of this heroic rescuer of the child escaping this inferno.

In panel three the rescued child wails silently, venting emotion as openly as an infant, but his rescuer is far more reserved, looking outward, presumably at the burning cabin, as he states that the child’s parents are dead. There is a look of quiet melancholy in hs eyes, reinforced by the darkness beneath his eyebrows and the thin lines indicating shadows along his cheeks.

Running Bear declares he will adopt the white child, but another tribesman insists that he return the boy to the flames. This is a serious clash, but Kirby and Simon continue to underplay effectively: in panel five Running Bear looks grimly at the other Indian, clenching his jaw in quiet anger, as he states, simply but firmly, “I keep the papoose!” Bawling only a moment (and two panels) before, the baby is now quiet, looking warily at the other Indian while seeming comfortable in Running Bear’s grasp, apparently recognizing him as his new protector.

The final panel of the page is a little masterpiece of “acting,” as running Best looks down at his newly adopted son, with parental warmth, the child responds, smiling up at him, and the other Indian watches, his jaw set in a tight frown, clearly resentful of Running Bear’s decision.

Longtime Marvelites may realize that Kirby later restaged this scene of a warrior adopting an orphaned son of his enemies, in the Tales of Asgard story in which Odin found and adopted the infant Loki (in Journey into Mystery #112, 1964).

Then there’s the cover to Simon and Kirby’s war comic Foxhole #1 (1954) (Evanier p. 85). Recently a friend and I were leafing through a copy of Kirby: King of Comics at a bookstore and came across this page, whereupon my friend declared it to be one of the greatest comics covers ever. (In his Washington Post review, Gold says he was stunned by it as well.) In the foreground is a soldier, his face wrapped in bandages, save for one eye, and his mouth, holding a cigarette. The bandages on the side if his head are stained with blood. He wears a helmet with two thick dents caused by bullets. He looks something like DC’s later war comics character, the Unknown Soldier. But the man on the foxhole cover is another of Kirby’s iconic figures, this one representing both the horrors suffered in war and the survivors’ ability to endure. The soldier is writing a letter to his mother, and we see part of it floating above a scene of the aftermath of battle, with corpses on a shore and medics attending a wounded man. The letter provides easy irony: the war is “a day on the beach.” But the soldier isn’t smiling or even looking at what he’s writing. His single eye stares emptily, as if he is lost in his own thoughts about the war, disconnected from the brave, witty front he is putting up for his mother back home. This cover is an entire story in itself.

Simon and Kirby and their studio kept busy and prospered during this period, but Evanier quotes Kirby as saying it was “too good to last” (Evanier p. 80) and it didn’t. I’ve learned from my own experience and observing those of others that when you–and your colleagues–are in a successful period in your life and career, it may seem as if it will last forever, but everything changes, and success can be surprisingly fleeting. Kirby had enough insight to realize this even this early in his career, with greater triumphs and equally great disappointments still lying before him.

Apart from “Street Code,” the only complete story reprinted in Kirby: King of Comics is “The League of the Handsome Devils!” from Simon and Kirby’s Fighting American #2 (1954). Fighting American and Speedboy were variations on Captain America and Bucky: the patriotically-themed hero and his kid sidekick. Evanier points out that by 1954 the superhero genre was mostly “passe.” Indeed, as I noted two weeks ago, except for the Big Three of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, superheroes had virtually vanished from comics, and the superhero phenomenon must have seemed like a passing fad that had run its course. Hence, Simon and Kirby thought that taking a tongue-in-cheek approach might breathe new life into it. However, Evanier points out that “Fighting American. . .just got sillier and sillier, prompting one critic to suggest that Joe and Jack were deliberately screwing with the formula they’d invented, just to see if anyone would notice” (Evanier p. 88).

A sign that a genre has run its course in its current form is when it degenerates into self-parody. Hence, for example, Universal‘s versions of Dracula and Frankenstein originated in serious horror films in the 1930s, but were reduced to playing villains to Abbott and Costello by the late 1940s. I’ve also seen it said that you know when a genre has run out of steam when Mel Brooks gets around to parodying it. With Fighting American it seemed that not even two of the foremost creators of the Golden Age of superheroes could take the genre seriously any more.

But thinking about Fighting American, I realized that in one way Simon and Kirby were once again ahead of their time with that series. Didn’t Fighting American in 1954 anticipate the “camp” treatment of superheroes in American pop culture a dozen years later, most notably through the 1966 Batman TV show? Wasn’t the Batman show really a parody of the superhero comics of the 1940s and 1950s, viewed from the ironic perspective of the 1960s, as if the genre had failed to adapt to changing times?

But I don’t believe that any major genre truly dies. Rather, it may languish until an inspired creator finds a way to revitalize it for a new generation and time, as, say, George Lucas did for the “space opera” with Star Wars or the adventure movie serial with the Indiana Jones movies.

When Simon and Kirby created Fighting American, the birth of the Silver Age of Comics, with the debut of editor Julius Schwartz’s revamped Flash in Showcase #4, was only two years away. But the true revolution in the superhero genre would come about in the early 1960s through Stan Lee’s collaboration with Kirby, Steve Ditko and others on “the Marvel Age of Comics.”

Thus Kirby would be in large part responsible for the resurrection and reinvention if the superhero genre which transformed it from a wartime fad into an enduring component of American popular culture that has now spread from comics into novels, cinema and television.

But, it appears, it was Stan Lee who was the essential catalyst in the Marvel revolution. Simon and Kirby were content in Fighting American to mock a genre that had seemingly run its course. They did not come up with a way of revitalizing the superhero genre for the postwar era. It was Stan Lee who instigated taking the superhero genre in a new direction that led to its great success in many media today.

Evanier explains that the particular Fighting American story he reprints was originally published just before the institution of the Comics Code Authority, the comics industry’s self-censorship board, and was subsequently republished in 1966. He provides “before” and “after” versions of the first panel after the introductory splash, showing a murder victim being seized from behind, as his hat falls off to one side. In Kirby and Simon’s original, a menacing hand extends from the right, holding an ice pick, about to thrust it into the victim’s chest. A hand from the left grips the man’s throat. The victim’s eyes are tightly shut, and his tongue extends outward as he screams: “AAAA!” In the Code-approved 1966 version, the ice pick, the sound effect for the scream. and even the hand that gripped the victim’s throat have all vanished. The man’s eyes are now open, and his tongue is no longer visible (Evanier p. 88).

But I find I prefer the second version to the first. Kirby puts such anguish into the murder victim’s face, and creates such a vivid sense of movement –the way the man’s head tilts back, the way his hat falls away–that he creates a powerful image of desperation, pain, and distress. The hand on the right may no longer hold a weapon, but clenched into a fist, it remains both ominous and mysterious. The deleted scream, ice pick and tongue seem like gilding the lily. The later, simpler version is perfectly sufficient, again demonstrating Kirby’s ability to capture iconic imagery on the page.

The rest of the story has some striking visual images. Take panel four of page two (Evanier p. 90), in which the two gentlemanly murderers bow, hats in hand, to an elderly lady. The two men do not look alike, and yet their identical poses and expressions make them comical mirror images of one another. The top of a skyscraper rises above each man’s head, adding to the sense of duality.

The topmost panel of the story’s fourth page might be the archetypal Kirby image of a punch (Evanier p. 92). Kirby doesn’t actually show Fighting American’s fist connecting with the bad guy’s jaw; rather, Kirby has created a picture of the sheer energy of the punch. Fighting American’s left arm is at the bottom of a half-circular arc tracing the movement of his fist. There is a flash of light, signifying the energy released by the force of Fighting American’s blow. The villain is catapulted away, so powerfully that he seems to fly through the air, and collides with a wooden post, which snaps and shatters from the impact. Kirby and Simon have given us not the punch itself but its immediate aftermath, which provides the more dramatic image.

The most remarkable visual sequence in the story comes in the bottom tier of the fifth page (Evanier p. 93). On first glance it seems to be a cinematic sequence in which a single villain pulls off his face mask over the course of three panels. Look again and you’ll find that each of the three panels depicts a different man, each ugly in a different way. But Kirby and Simon have staged the sequence so that in the first panel a man begins pulling off his mask, which still covers the top of his head; in the second, a different man has pulled his mask entirely off, and in the third, an unmasked man grotesquely smiles in triumph as he lifts his mask up high. It looks like a single continuous action divided among three men. This serves a thematic purpose, as well, linking the three men together as members of the “Handsome Devils” by having them act in unison, just like the handsome bowing murderers on the second page. But this tine the effect is not comedic but eerily bizarre.

In the middle tier of the next to last page of the story, Kirby and Simon devise a variation on the classic pyramidal composition in art. This time the pyramid consists of the three bad guys, bunched together, framed in either side by Speedboy and Fighting American, each delivering knockout blows. The plots in Fighting American might not have been serious, but Simon and Kirby’s devotion to the craft of visual storytelling was.

But despite Simon and Kirby’s mastery of their artform, the comics industry was in sharp decline, in large part due to the widespread allegations in the 1950s that comics fomented juvenile delinquency. Simon and Kirby’s own company, Mainline, went under, and Simon became an editor at Harvey. One of the greatest artists in the business, Jack Kirby, who had been riding high only a short time before, was now on his own and out of work. World War II aside, it was the scariest time of his life,” Evanier recounts, literally giving Kirby nightmares about being unable to support his wife and children. This man of extraordinary talent found himself figuratively on the edge of an abyss. Considering the economic news in the papers lately, and commentators likening the present day to 1929, perhaps it is easier for many of us today to comprehend what that must feel like.

Some of us might also identify with Kirby in that, like many creative people who are best suited to working in their art, he was temperamentally unsuited to networking and self-promotion. Simon had been the businessman in their partnership; “as skillful as he [Kirby] was with stories and art, he was still weak in the area of salesmanship” (Evanier p. 99).

People in today’s comics industry might further see parallels in their own lives with Kirby’s dilemma in looking for work outside comics. “No luck,” reports Evanier. “His skills only seemed marketable in one line of radically diminishing work. If he could do anything else, he didn’t know what it was” (Evanier p. 99). Kirby was one of the greatest masters of his chosen artform, yet the rest of the world regarded him as useless.

After a short stint doing the Yellow Claw for Stan Lee at the company that would later become Marvel, Kirby briefly reunited with Simon to create Challengers of the Unknown at DC. Silver Age artist Gil Kane asserted that the DC production department “kept demanding Jack strip his work of all the sharp edges and stylistic innovations that gave it its power and energy” (Evanier p. 101). This is an example of corporate conventional wisdom at its worst: unable or unwilling to perceive Kirby’s true artistry, these champions of mediocrity demanded that Kirby reduce his creative standards to their level. Evanier quotes Kirby as saying, “They kept showing me their other books–books that weren’t selling–and saying, ‘This is what a comic book ought to be’” (Evanier p. 101). This is the measure of their blindness: they would rather go down with the ship rather than try something different that might save them in a changing market. Yet Kirby, who had had so many hits over two decades by this point, was hardly a radical newcomer! And, to pose a rhetorical question, just how do the artistic reputations of the majority of DC’s pencilers of the 1950s compare to Kirby’s nowadays?

Perhaps you are telling yourself that the world of comics is much more enlightened now, a half century later. Is it? Ask yourselves which of your favorite artists or writers–newcomers or veterans–isn’t getting enough work in comics right now, perhaps because his or her work doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom at the major companies about “what a comic book ought to be” in today’s market. Who’s being unjustly ignored now?

Next came Kirby’s remarkable collaboration with another legend, Wally Wood, on Sky Masters, a newspaper comic strip about space travel: Wood’s inking endowed Kirby’s visions of the fantastic with the look of precise, detailed realism.

It might have seemed an ideal project, except for the fact that Kirby was getting paid so little for it. The real life villain of this piece was DC’s Batman editor Jack Schiff, who demanded an undeserved cut of the earnings. It’s bad enough for Schiff’s reputation that he presided over Batman during the series’ creative nadir, but that merely makes him guilty of having bad taste. The Kirby book casts Schiff as a greedy, vengeful man who did his best to sink Kirby’s career; Superman editor Mort Weisinger also comes across quite poorly in Evanier’s telling.

A half century ago Schiff and Weisinger doubtless thought that no outside party would ever learn about their mistreatment of Kirby, and even if anyone did, no one cared about people who worked in comic books. But today’s comics company executives and editors should take notice. There will be more biographies about major figures in American comic books, and autobiographies by some of them as well. Kirby: King of Comics will be far from the last book that probes the history of the American comics industry. If film histories provide an example, these scholars are far more likely to take the side of the creative artist in a dispute with one or more of the “suits.” Today, for example, who defends the RKO studio’s corporate decision to take The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) away from its director Orson Welles, severely cut it, and shoot a new ending? People at comics companies should now ask themselves: how will their decisions look to historians ten, twenty or fifty years from now? The present administration at Marvel had nothing to do with the company’s poor treatment of Kirby in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, yet that still stains the company’s reputation, and probably will continue to do so for years to come.

In 1959 Kirby briefly collaborated again with Simon on two projects, including Adventures of the Fly, a revision of a previous series concept of Simon’s, The Silver Spider. Since Schiff had slammed DC’s doors sit on him, Kirby had only one place left to find work: the company once called Timely, then known as Atlas, and that would soon take the name Marvel. Kirby, it seems, would have preferred not to work for Lee, who had been his former office “go-pher.” But Stan Lee recognized Kirby’s greatness as an artist, and, however obvious that may seem to us today, it appears to have been a rare insight back in 1960. Give Stan Lee credit as a visionary who could see back then what the editors at DC–and, indeed, the world at large at that time–could not.

Back then, Marvel, now this corporate monolith, was so small that, Evanier remarks, “some felt that he [publisher Martin Goodman] only kept the comics going so Stan Lee would have a job” (Evanier p. 111). Goodman had nearly shut the comics line down in 1957, and Kirby recalled Goodman briefly terminating the comics in 1961, although Evanier casts doubt on this.

What would have happened if Martin Goodman had closed down his comics line for good? If Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had never had the chance to collaborate on the Marvel revolution? If instead Lee and Kirby had both ended up leaving the comic book business–although what they would have done instead is a good question–and had never teamed up again? Would there be superhero comics today? Would there be superhero movies today? Would there be comic books of any kind, or the specialty stores that sell them? Would the graphic novel revolution of the last few decades have occurred without the comics shops and a prosperous American comics industry? Or would American comic books have simply died as the “mom and pop” stores that sold them to kids faded away. as did the 1960s head shops that sold the undergrounds?

Without Lee and Kirby’s Marvel revolution, which redefined and reenergized the superhero genre for a new generation of older readers, this column would not exist, nor would most of the Internet sites about comics, and most of us in America who have devoted our careers to comics as an art form would be doing something else.

How easily the course of American popular culture would have been different if Martin Goodman had given up publishing comics as a dead end, or if Stan Lee, feeling creatively frustrated, had quit comics in 1961 as he once intended, or even if Jack Schiff had not blackballed Jack Kirby from DC. How many lives would have been changed over the last four decades?

These are questions that Mark Evanier does not address in his book. What if circumstances had been different and Jack Kirby had taken a different path when he reached this crossroads in the history of popular culture? Now there’s a “What If?” story for Marvel!

But Lee and Kirby did come together at the right time and the right place, and in 1961 they jointly created Fantastic Four #1, the Big Bang of the Marvel Universe. Look at the familiar final pages of the FF’s origin story reprinted in this book (Evanier pgs. 116-117). We’ve ready seen in Kirby: King of Comics that Jack Kirby could masterfully draw action scenes, visually render characterization, and even draw monsters like the FF’s Thing. But in this collaboration of Lee and Kirby, both in the words and in the pictures, there is a sense of drama, rooted in character, expressed through dialogue and action, that is unlike anything Evanier showed us earlier in his book. Here at the crossroads, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby laid out the new road for the superhero genre and for American comics, as we shall see next week.

-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson

Comments:

One Response to “Comics in Context #219: Kirby at the Crossroads”

  1. Peter b. gillis Says:

    Angry?
    That’s a facile judgment.
    I don’t think Jack’s work is angry any more than Quentin Tarantino’s films are angry.
    I think the point is that Jack’s imagery was not original. He wasn’t inventing a violent world: it was already an ongoing concern. He took conventions that were as ritualized as prizefighting and turned it in to grand opera.
    I’m sorry to learn about Jack Schiff: I always thought he was tasteless, not a predator.
    The early DC offices must have been some place. brrrr.

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