In writing about Mark Evanier’s new book Kirby: King of Comics (2008, Harry N. Abrams), I’ve expressed my astonishment at the blindness that so many people in the comics industry showed towards Jack Kirby’s amazing talents from the 1940s onward. Just look at all the magnificent illustrations with which Evanier has filled this book, from throughout the entire length of Kirby’s career. Wasn’t his greatness as an artist obvious?
In my last installment, I didn’t have a chance to describe the extraordinary artwork in the chapter devoted to Kirby’s work at Silver Age Marvel. For instance, look at the splash page for “A Monster at My Window!” from Tales to Astonish #34 (August 1962) (Evanier, Kirby: King of Comics p. 113). As you might expect from that title, there’s something humorous about this grotesque monster clinging to this apartment house wall. But nonetheless the image is simultaneously both comical and genuinely eerie, like a nightmare set down on paper.
My favorite illustrations in this chapter are the reproductions of Kirby’s pencil art, before it was inked, of four pin-ups of members of the Inhumans Royal Family from Fantastic Four Special #5 (1967). There’s the regality of Black Bolt, conveyed through a simple pose with his arms raised as if in benediction (Evanier, p. 142). There’s the power and speed of Karnak splitting a machine in half, a perfect example of Kirby’s prowess in capturing a sense of energy and movement within a static picture (Evanier, p. 145). Then there are portraits of the two sisters, Crystal and Medusa, which radiate different sorts of sexiness. Crystal leans forward and looks and smiles enchantingly directly at the audience, as if forming a personal bond with the individual reader (Evanier p. 143). Her big sister Medusa stands further back from the “camera,” and seems more mature and independent in attitude, but even more physically impressive (Evanier, p. 144).
Immediately after these Inhumans pictures comes another extraordinary portrait which resembles a pin-up in that it is another full-length depiction of one of the FF’s cast of characters. But in this page Kirby turns the full-length portrait to dramatic purpose, providing the unforgettable splash page introducing his and Stan Lee’s single greatest issue working as a team: Fantastic Four #51, featuring “This Man. . .This Monster!” (Evanier p. 146). There stands Ben Grimm, the Thing, whose monumental figure incarnates power, and yet his pose and the expression on his face convey bewilderment and melancholy, as if he has no purpose in life for his power, as if he does not know where to turn. Torrential rain pours down around and in front of him, creating a three-dimensional effect. The downpour might be a visual metaphor for the harshness of Ben’s fate. It could also signify Ben’s own inner melancholy, or even the heavens weeping for this man trapped in a monster’s body.
The “Masters of American Comics” museum exhibition had to resort to displaying a printed version of this iconic splash page (see “Comics in Context” #155: “Two American Masters”). At first I assumed that Kirby: King of Comics’ reproduction of this page was shot from a photostat (as indeed the Inhumans pinups were), which might explain the black border and the notations on top. But Mark Evanier has informed me that he and Abrams used the original art for FF#51’s splash page, and that, indeed, most of the illustrations in Kirby: King of Comics were shot directly from the original art.
Then there’s a page from Tales of Suspense # 80 (August 1966) pitting Captain America against the Red Skull in single combat (Evanier p. 151). Compare this to the relatively primitive but promising Cap vs. Skull sequence from Captain America Comics #3 (1941) that Evanier reprinted earlier in his book (Evanier pgs. 52-53) to see the vast strides that Kirby had made as an artist in twenty-five years. It’s not just that by 1966 Kirby was drawing handsomer, more powerful figures with a heightened realism to them, but also that Kirby had so greatly grown as a dramatist. Look at the characters’ facial expressions, body language and movement, the composition and staging, and the pacing of the battle.
This page also demonstrates Stan Lee’s mastery of dialogue. Lee conveys Captain America’s deep commitment to his ideals without making it seem dated or hackneyed. Look at the Captain’s speech to the Red Skull, vividly voicing the hero’s hatred of tyranny and contempt for cowardice and hs fervent respect for “the forces of freedom.” (Could this be the same Captain who passively underwent that tongue-lashing from that reporter who claimed he was out of touch with America in the aftermath of Civil War?) Look at how Lee shows us Cap’s anger at the Skull, but also how Cap–unlike the Skull–controls his anger: the thought balloons (which have fallen from favor with today’s writers) provide a running subtext to Cap’s dialogue, showing us the professional soldier in action, continually formulating and evaluating his strategies. As for the Skull, nowadays writers would claim that everyone rationalizes his own actions and would therefore consider it unrealistic that the Red Skull would consciously, even proudly, align himself with “evil” and the “forces of bigotry, greed and oppression.” But even though he added so much psychological realism to the superhero genre in through the Marvel revolution, Lee must have realized he was still dealing with the mythic. Stan Lee endows the Red Skull with a skill with language as great as the Captain’s and makes the Skull’s glorying in his own evil dramatically persuasive. In defiantly declaring that “so long as men take liberty for granted” that “the forces of the Red Skull creep ever closer to the final victory!” Lee powerfully makes clear that the Skull is as passionately committed to his ideology as his eternal rival, Captain America, is to his patriotic ideals.
Kirby: King of Comics also reprints the splash page from Lee and Kirby’s “The Silver Burper!” (Evanier p. 156), probably the funniest story from the entire run of Not Brand Ecch, Marvel’s version of the sort of superhero comics parodies that Harvey Kurtzman put into the early issues of MAD. Kirby is so good at this surreal visual slapstick that I wish he’d had more opportunities to draw comedy. Wacky as this page is, the rest of the story is way funnier (such as the page I located and displayed in “Stan Lee: A Retrospective” last year at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art). When is Marvel going to get around to publishing an Essential Not Brand Ecch paperback?
Later in his book, Evanier devotes a two-page sidebar to Kirby’s experiments with combining drawn figures with photographic collages to create astonishing effects in his comics (Evanier pgs. 170-171). This is yet another instance in which this visionary creator was ahead if his time: comic book printing was not yet sufficiently good to convey the effects he intended his collages to convey. If only Kirby were able to create and publish his collages now.
Even when I saw my first Kirby Fantastic Four as a boy, I was impressed by his artwork, which was more powerful and dynamic than any comics I’d ever seen previously. As I looking through Kirby: King of Comics, it seems to me that Kirby’s greatness as an artist is clear to anyone who has eyes to see.
But are there comics readers today who, like DC’s editors in the 1950s and 1960s, just don’t “get” Kirby’s work? Will there be comics aficionados who look at Kirby: King of Comics who won’t appreciate the extraordinary art within?
I was struck by the Beat’s recent comments on a debate at Blogarama about the tumbling sales for Mark Waid and George Perez’s revival of DC’s Brave and the Bold. Quoting comics artist Ryan Dunleavy’s comment, “I don’t like George Perez’s artwork,” the Beat exclaims, not entirely ironically, “‘Don’t like George Perez’???? Wha–? That’s heresy!” Perez, after all, has had a long career as one of the top artists of the superhero genre, going back to the 1970s, perhaps peaking with his work on The New Teen Titans in the 1980s, and experiencing a resurgence of fame in the last decade with projects like the long-anticipated JLA/Avengers (see “Comics in Context” #14: “Continuity/Discontinuity”). And now he’s suddenly fallen from favor?
The Beat then quotes Ed Ward’s comments that “The fact that it reads like older, pre-decompression comics is, I’m pretty sure, one of the reasons it’s a tough sell to contemporary readers. . . .
“I know that it definitely takes a lot more effort for me as a reader to find an ‘in’ to a book by George Perez than it takes me for almost any other contemporary books, and it it’s more work for me to stay involved. The adjustment in my headspace feels very similar to the adjustment in headspace I need to make as a film viewer when I’m watching something from the silent-era as opposed to something contemporary.”
The comparison to film is important. When I entered college, I quickly became a cineaste, not only going to see contemporary American movies, but also foreign language films, and classics from the past, from Buster Keaton to Ingmar Bergman, at the many revival film theaters in New York and boston back in the days before home video. I never had any difficulty adjusting to the different looks and styles of films from different countries or decades: the basic principles of cinematic storytelling remain consistent. So I have always been somewhat baffled by people who refuse to watch black and white films or movies with subtitles and by the people who, as Roger Ebert put it, act as if film history began with Star Wars.
But I certainly can’t deny that these people not only exist but comprise the vast majority of today’s movie audience. I may know plenty of people who share my devotion to Turner Classic Movies, but I am well aware that even though it shows so many films that were popular with the mass audience in their time, TCM has only a small niche audience now compared to scores of other TV networks. For me the downside of the collapse of the Tower Records chain was that its stores sold DVDs of classic films from the first half of the 20th century whereas most video stores do not.
Similarly, as faithful readers know, in this column I write about comics and cartoon art from throughout the 20th century into the 21st. The recent explosion of books reprinting classic comic strips and comic book stories from the past demonstrates that there is substantial interest in the classics of the medium. A classic, after all, is defined as a work that remains vital and relevant despite the passage of time.
But classics don’t necessarily appeal to the mass audience. Far more people are going to watch American Idol than a telecast of a play by Shakespeare. The mass audience is usually drawn to more contemporary work that fits the tastes and fashions of the time. Some of this may endure, much of it will not. Recently Fox reran The Simpsons episode titled “That 90s Show,” which drew much of its humor from pointing out just how silly various fashions and fads of the 1990s already seem less than a decade later.
This dispute about George Perez’s comics allegedly being hard to read reminds me of anecdotes I’ve heard about people simply being unable to read comic books. The visual language of comics may seem intuitively obvious to you and me, but apparently it bewilders other people. They haven’t learned how to read comics. Are there people who don’t know how to read Jack Kirby comics?
George Perez, like so many other comic book artists who began their careers in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s, was greatly influenced by Jack Kirby’s work. If the current mainstream comic book readership finds it difficult to “adjust” to Perez’s art, what would they think of Jack Kirby’s work? Is it possible that a generation of comics readers has arisen, most of whom do not “innately” respond to Kirby’s artwork?
The aforementioned Ed Ward wrote in a comment to The Beat’s blog that “I didn’t like Kirby’s work as a kid either! I’ve only been able to start appreciating his work over the last few years, and I’ve still got a TON of friends who grew up the same time I did who can’t stand his stuff and dismiss it as ‘ugly,’ ‘old,’ and ‘unreadable.’” (”Ugly”?! Did they see those pin-ups of Crystal and Medusa?)
You, the reader of this column, may protest that you’re in your teens, twenties or thirties, and you love Kirby art. Good for you. There will be plenty of exceptions to the rule, just as there will continue to be a substantial number of teens and twentysomethings who become aficionados of classic movies, as I did. But I’m talking about the tastes of the majority of the audience.
The Beat asserts that “there is no denying that the Ultimate/Identity Crisis/52 generation of superhero comics readers IS a generation of superhero comics readers, and not just the lingering survivors of an older tribe.” She continues, “While old timers like The Beat turn up their noses at this ‘decompressed’ storytelling–rejecting what seems like plotlessness and a lack of pacing, for today’s readers, this is what they expect from comics.”
Regular readers know that I am no admirer of “decompressed” storytelling, either. I believe that this style straitjackets the artist, preventing him or her from realizing the visual potential of a story. The Marvel revolution was not just in writing but in visual storytelling. Before, comic book artists worked from full scripts, and so the writer was dominant. Through his “Marvel method,” Stan Lee came up with basic plot ideas, often in collaboration with the artist, and then let the artist draw the story, filling out the plot; the Lee would script the dialogue and captions to fit the visuals. This method allowed Jack Kirby and other artists much more freedom in co-plotting (or entirely plotting) the story, conceiving it in visual terms, and establishing its pace. As a result Marvel developed a new, dynamic firm of visual storytelling.
For decades the “Marvel method” was used not only at Marvel but at DC and throughout the American book industry. But in recent years the fashion has apparently shifted back towards writers doing full scripts, plotting and dialoguing the story before the artist starts drawing it. So it should be no surprise that writers have self-indulgently resorted to “decompressed storytelling,” turning out dialogue-heavy but visually static sequences. If Lee and Kirby launched the “Marvel revolution,” then this is the Decompressed Generation’s counterrevolution. (So first the Baby Boomers were succeeded by the “MTV Generation” that wanted their entertainment to move faster, like the rapid cutting in music videos, and now, somehow, we have a generation of comics readers that prefers a tediously slow pace. How did this happen?)
Allegedly “decompressed storytelling’ is more “cinematic.” But I recall Frank Miller saying, at the time that he was doing Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, that in writing comics he sought to pare away any panels or dialogue that weren’t necessary. He believed in dramatic economy. There was important meaning in every shot and every line of dialogue; otherwise, Miller would have deleted it. This seems much more like a genuine cinematic storytelling to me. There are now movie and TV writers who perpetrate “decompressed” scenes in comic strips, perhaps because if they tried to inflict such longueurs on screen, the scene would hit the cutting room floor.
According to my “Rubber Band Theory of Cartoon Art” (see “Comics in Context” #75), this state of affairs will not last. The Image “look” of the early 1990s eventually largely fell from favor, and someday some new young artists will rediscover the lessons of the great visual storytellers of the 1960s, like Kirby. The Beat observes that “The average Oni, D&Q or Top Shelf book has more “traditional” storytelling than corporate comics these days, and are created by young cartoonists with completely different sensibilities.” It’s as if “corporate comics,” by their very nature, saturate themselves in the excesses of current commercial fashion, while an even younger generation rebels against the current establishment by rediscovering “traditional” visual storytelling.
One of the miracles of Marvel in the 1960s is that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, et al. were consciously experimenting with new ways of doing comics. They didn’t have the “corporate” sensibility that now seems to dominate DC and Marvel. Indeed, Stan was continually making jokes about DC, which he called “Brand Ecch” (hence the title of Not Brand Ecch): he saw Marvel as the innovative, visionary rebel and DC as the stodgy establishment, following a conventional wisdom that was quickly growing outdated.
Might there be another, perhaps more disturbing reason why some readers might not properly appreciate this book devoted to the life and work of Jack Kirby?
Recently the Beat also ran a blog entry on the “fallout from the court decision granting the heirs of Jerry Siegel partial ownership of the copyright to his mythic co-creation, Superman. She wrote this moving commentary:
“Obviously, this case will go to appeal, and the legal battle will go on for years and years. I couldn’t find any mention anywhere of the age of Joanne Siegel, the original inspiration for Lois Lane, but she has to be in her 90s. Begin to ponder the years of fighting this woman has gone through, and this legal victory–one that has come not through any groundbreaking legal precedent, but through the application of established copyright law–and you can’t help but think the good guys have won, at least for a day.
“With that in mind, the attitudes displayed on many message boards accusing the Siegel family of ‘greed’ or worrying that this is a terrible decision for the character of Superman are stunning examples of ignorance and selfishness. . . .the case of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel–living in poverty for years even as a character no ever denied they created made hundreds of millions of dollars–is infamous as one of the most unfortunate examples of financial disparity in the history of intellectual property.”
One of the comments for this blog entry noted, “Fandom has really embarrassed itself this go-round.” I’ll say. This is followed by a debate in the blog entry’s commentary section over whether Siegel should be blamed for bringing his bad fortune upon himself by signing a bad deal (the only one he was offered) for Superman in the first place.
One of the primary themes of Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics is to show how Jack Kirby, a man of creative genius, one of the people most responsible for Marvel’s spectacular financial success, had to struggle for recognition of his achievements and even to make enough money to support his family. Does the ignorance and selfishness of many people’s reactions to the Siegel court decision mean that there are people who will read Kirby: King of Comics and will not sympathize with Kirby’s struggle? Are there readers who will argue that since Marvel had no legal obligation to give Kirby the credit and financial rewards he deserved, that they had no moral obligation to do so?
How different is this from the circa-1968 Marvel executives’ attitude that Evanier so bitingly describes in his book? “Not only was Jack refused [such credit and financial security], but he was lectured like a child with no sense of the world in which he lived” (Evanier, p. 153).
So, if Jack Kirby were still with us, still doing important work and still underpaid, would the Decompressed Generation of comics readers care?
Although my own generation of comics aficionados regards Kirby as an icon, much of that audience also turned against him and his work thirty years ago. Those who don’t already know the basic narrative of Kirby’s career may be shocked to learn from Evanier’s book that in 1978, his career in comics seemed finished, and “Readers of the day didn’t seem to notice” (Evanier, p. 197). By then Kirby felt “hostility from the Marvel editorial staff,” who, the decade before, had been such passionate admirers of his work. But by that point he was being referred to as “Jack the Hack” (Evanier, p. 187).
Hard as many of you may find that to believe, it was true. By that time I had gotten to know various people at Marvel, even though I was still years away from turning comics pro, and I heard people disparage Kirby with that nickname. I didn’t, but I found myself disappointed with Kirby’s mid-1970s work, although I’ve learned to appreciate some of it more with the passing decades, as you can see from my lengthy appreciation of his Eternals series and Neil Gaiman’s Eternals revival that ran in this column last fall (starting with “Comics in Context” #194: “Eternal Verities”).
By 1970 Kirby left Marvel and went to work as editor, writer and artist for DC Comics; his former nemeses Jack Schiff and Mort Weisinger were no longer there. This was when Kirby began work on his amazing “Fourth World” family of comics–The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and a radically revamped Jimmy Olsen–centering on the war between the “new gods: of the planet New Genesis and Kirby’s greatest, most monumental villain (next to, or arguably greater than Doctor Doom) Darkseid, master if the planet Apokolips. Bursting with astonishing creativity, continually spawning brilliant new characters and concepts, the Fourth World books are now rightly regarded as classics.
Evanier notes the parallels between The New Gods (in the first half of the 1970s) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (starting with the first film in 1977): “In New Gods, Orion had called upon a power called the Source in confrontation with his father, Darkseid. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker called upon a power called the Force when he battled his father, Darth Vader” (Evanier p. 177). Evanier could have tweaked that line to make the comparison even stronger: Darth Vader, after all, draws power from the “dark side” of the Force!
For whatever reason, the “Fourth World” books did not rival the sales of Marvel’s top books, as DC presumably expected, and instead came to be regarded, correctly or not, as commercial failures. Another Kirby creation, Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, proved to be a moderate success. (Oddly, Evanier says the series had “a young human protagonist and a lot of people with animal heads” [Evanier p. 181]. That may be what they looked like, but characters such as Tuftan really were animals who, following “the Great Disaster,” had evolved the abilities to talk and to stand upright like humans.)
But Kirby ended up returning to Marvel, by which time Stan Lee had moved up to the position of publisher and was no longer scripting comic books on a regular basis. Now Kirby edited, wrote and drew his own comics, including Captain America and Black Panther, as well as his new creations The Eternals, Machine Man and Devil Dinosaur. But these too were commercial disappointments, and the ambitious Eternals, which I regard as Kirby’s last great series, was canceled. “Jack wasn’t connecting with the [then] current Marvel readership,” Evanier concedes. And thus, startlingly, the man aside from Stan Lee who was most responsible for the Marvel revolution found himself treated as a has-been only seventeen years after Fantastic Four #1.
Why did the audience turn against Kirby? In his book Evanier suggests that one reason might have been the “florid, theatrical voice” of Kirby’s dialogue and captions (Evanier, p. 165). But Stan Lee also often wrote narration and certain characters’ dialogue in an operatic, larger-than-life style, and it worked for him. It’s not that readers resisted a “theatrical” style of scripting back then; it’s that Stan did it far better than Jack did. (Again, compare Kirby’s suggested dialogue in the borders of his original art for Silver Age Marvel with the way that Lee reworked it.)
I wonder if in part Kirby was a victim of his own previous success at Marvel. Stan Lee had urged artists to draw more like Kirby, and by the mid-1970s a new generation of artists who had grown up reading the Silver Age Marvels, and who had incorporated Kirby’s influence into their own work, dominated mainstream comics. So perhaps Kirby’s own mid-1970s work no longer looked as distinctively different to the readers of that time.
My hypothesis is that comics readers of the 1960s expected–or–hoped–that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, each operating on his own, would produce work that was on the level of their great collaborative work of the 1960s. Stan Lee, who had relied so much on Kirby’s concepts and plot input, retired from writing comic books on a regular basis only two years after Kirby quit Marvel in 1970. On his own Kirby was capable of doing some remarkable work with characterization. For example, it strikes me that through Orion, in The New Gods, who hid his true, bestial features and his savage temper behind a handsome outer facade, Kirby anticipated what Chris Claremont and others later did with Wolverine. But Kirby’s tendency was to depict his lead characters as rather one-dimensionally good and heroic, as demonstrated by Ikaris in The Eternals, Mister Miracle, and his mid-1970s depiction of Captain America. But Stan Lee had accustomed readers to heroes with multidimensional personalities, who had character flaws, who engaged in introspection and self-doubt. A new generation of writers were arriving at Marvel and DC who would attempt to push the envelope on characterization yet further. Again, Kirby could come up with intriguingly complex characters in this period, like Kro and the Reject in The Eternals, but I suspect that the bland one-dimensionality of so many of his 1970s characters seemed dated to readers of that time.
But from this nadir in the 1970s, Kirby’s reputation would take a considerable upward turn only a decade later, as I shall examine in the final installment of my commentary on Kirby: King of Comics in the near future.
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF
I will be appearing on four, count ‘em., four panels at the third New York Comic Con. which is being held at Manhattan’s Javits Convention Center from Friday, April 18 through Sunday, April 20.
On Friday, April 18 at 6 PM, I will moderate the panel “Comic Artists Talk about Drawing,” with an eclectic lineup including Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), Dean Haspiel (Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter), Jim Lee (All Star Batman and Robin), Leonard Starr (the classic comic strips Mary Perkins On Stage and Annie), and maybe more.
Then if you just stay put in the same room, you can watch me moderate the 7 PM panel “Marvel 1958-1968″ featuring Silver Age artists Dick Ayers and Stan Goldberg, writers Gary Friedrich (co-creator of the Ghost Rider) and Denny O’Neil (who began his comics career at Marvel in the mid-1960s), Fantastic Four inker Joe Sinnott, and perhaps some surprise guests.
Then on Saturday, April 19 at 1 PM I will moderate the “Legion of Super-Heroes 50th Anniversary Panel” featuring Keith Giffen, Paul Levitz and Jim Shooter.
Later that day at 5 PM I’ll be at the first ever Quick Stop Entertainment panel, as will Fred Hembeck, where we’ll finally get to meet our longtime editor Kenneth Plume for the first time, and the audience will find out more about Quick Stop proprietor Kevin Smith’s next movie.
And on Sunday at 1:30 PM, I’ll be at the Simon and Schuster booth signing copies of The Marvel Comics Travel Guide to New York City.
Back in “Comics in Context” #200 I remarked that I still hadn’t written about Herge, whose centennial was last year, and his celebrated creation Tintin. Well, now I have, in an article in the March 25, 2008 edition of Publishers Weekly’s online newsletter Comics Week, “Herge at One Hundred” (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6544443.html?nid=2789).
LINKS IN THE AMAZON CHAIN
You can order Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics here. And Mark will preside over a “Kirby: King of Comics” panel at the New York Comic Con on Sunday, April 20.
In the 1980s I co-wrote four different versions of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, not counting the Update mini-series: the original; the Deluxe Edition with double-size issues; a multi-volume paperback version of the Deluxe Edition (which incorporated a small amount of new writing); and the Master Edition. Though Marvel has been publishing new Handbooks over the last several years, back in the 1980s the sales of the Handbooks were in decline. So Handbook editor Mark Gruenwald tried a new format: the Master Edition entries consisted not of text articles but of lists of basic data and statistics, with pictures of the characters to serve as a reference guide for artists, printed on looseleaf pages to be collected into binders.
Now, to my surprise, Marvel is now reprinting the Master Edition as two paperbacks. You can find the first of them here over at Amazon. Strangely, Amazon did not see fit to credit me or another of the principal writers, Murray Ward (though they have informed me that they will correct this), but you’ll find my name and Murray’s on the credit pages in the back of the book.
So now all of my past work on The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe is back in print! And will that be all the Handbook work I ever do? Stay tuned for further developments.
-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson
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