Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Books: Kirby: King of Comics


Kirby: King of Comics
By Mark Evanier

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Yeah. To be honest - I wasn't really much looking forward to reading this. I mean - it felt like I'd already done most of my "homework" (which is what doing this blog feels like sometimes) when I read that Men of Tomorrow book and so - in my big pile of books to read - it's kinda just sat their lying at the bottom (which seemed the best place for it - I mean it's a pretty colossal book - the kinda thing you'd grab if someone broke into your home and you were looking for the best thing to whack them across the head with). And then: when I did start reading it (and a few months ago now I should admit) I only got a few chapters in (like halfway through Chapter 3) - and - well - yeah - reader: I got bored - and so - I put it aside and said to myself (avoiding my own eye contact): yeah yeah yeah - I'll come back to it and read it properly sometime real soon - I promise! And then - well: nothing.

I was kinda tempted just to post like a one paragraph review [1] (something like; this is a book about Jack Kirby - that's the guy (Joss Whedon aside) who's pretty much responsible for The Avengers movie - he never really got his fair dues - it's an outrage - the book is his history - end) - but then - well: I've been doing a pretty job (recently) if I do say so myself - of not being so half-assed with the blog and trying (mostly) to write stuff a little bit more than the bare minimum.

And then: well - at two different websites that I like to read now and again (ok - fine - I have them saved on my favourites) - Grantland and The Comics Journal website (which is worth tuning into if only for Tucker Stone's Comics of the Week column - which is always so very enjoyably caustic [2]) - extracts from a new book called Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (by some dude named Sean Howe) [3]. Looking back - I don't really know how I got to this point - sitting - eating breakfast and reading about the history of Marvel comics (and like I said - not once - but twice - on two previously unconnected websites) and it not being something awful (I mean - about two years previously I think that if you'd given me the option of reading about the history of Marvel - I would have given you a polite smile and a "thanks but no thanks" - and yet here I was - reading this stuff willingly and with no hope that I would be getting anything out of it apart from the pleasure of reading it...). And - well - I guess that made me think that maybe - reading a whole book about Jack "The King" Kirby (well - reading as in - picking up from where I left off at least...) wouldn't have to be quite such a chore.

So: I went back and decided to give Kirby: King of Comics another go and (you know what? you know what?) I'm super glad that I did.

But then I guess a lot of what made my second-go-around so much more fun than the first-time-a-go-round is that - as the book is arranged chronologically (boring) all the fun stuff (ie Marvel and Stan Lee) doesn't really happen until Chapter 4 ("Facing Forward") and so before you can get to all that you need to make your way through all the build-up and well - frankly - that's the bit that I could have done without (and if you want some advice? If you're starting the book and you're getting bored then I would just skip to the good part - you're not missing much if you do): I mean - it's like if you're reading about John Lennon - who cares what he did before the Beatles? Let's get to watching him fighting it out with Paul (is that so wrong?)

I guess I'll also say this just before we start: the thing is with non-fiction book reviews (that is - you know - the proper books: without any pictures ) is that for me it feels like it can be a little bit tricksy to work out what exactly to write - with comic books (yes those are the ones with the pictures) even if you give away the whole plot it can be difficult to give away too much as long as you only stick to just writing about it. Because (unless of course you scan in images and pages from the book: which is something a lot of review sites tend to do - I guess because it makes things a lot easier to talk about - instead of trying to sum up how the art looks in words you can just go: see? It looks like this [4]) words can never really come close to replicating the experience of actually reading a comic. But books - I mean - what I'm going to do now is basically just highlight and quote all my favourite bits of the book which means that (by the time I'm done) there might not be much left for you to enjoy (it'll be like watching Goodfellas when someone's already done the "what am I clown?" bit - you know?): but whatever. I just wanted you to know I guess that it's something that I'm aware of (and feel a little bit bad for) - but then - well - deal with it - because I'm gonna do it anyway (hell yeah).

But on to the fun: and like I said up above: the best bit of this book is around the halfway mark when Jack and Stan get together and start producing hit after hit after hit after hit (that's: The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, The X-Men and (depending on who you believe - and for me this wasn't something that I was previously aware of) Spider-Man [5]. I mean - yeah before that there's stuff about his life as a street-kid and all that (and for your hardcore Jack Kirby fans - you should know that towards the start there's a rare Kirby story (presented in sepia tones) that comes across like Will Eisner (if you like that sort of thing) and then after that (altho there's an early career highlight when he creates Captain America with Joe Simon) there's his wilderness years when - not really being equipped to do much else apart from draw comics - he bums around doing cheap knock-offs and romance comics that all seem to only last a few issues before they're cruelly cancelled... But then: most of this was stuff that I already knew from reading that Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book - so it didn't really manage to hold much of my interest... (sorry Mark). It's only just before we get to the good part that we start to get hint's that something big is coming (and the foreshadowing is almost farcical - like if it happened in a movie you'd think it was too chessy) like: Kirby making a short story for DC about a man finding the hammer of Thor and transforming into the God of Thunder... a story about "a brute called the Thing." ...several creatures named the Hulk and (my favourite) "a sorcerer named Dr. Droom (Dr "Droom"? What the hell is a "Droom"? An evil broom maybe?) for Amazing Adventures magazine. (As well as getting a sense of just how dire and unprofitable comics were:  "Jack told of walking into the offices one day around 1961 and finding Stan [Lee] weeping. The comic line had been discontinued. "They were taking out the office furniture" Kirby recalled on more than one occasion  "I told them to stop.")

And then: yeah - it's on to the Stan and Jack show: with the white-hot fire of creation (did you know that the mighty Galactus was inspired by "science magazines" and the fear of a hostile corporate take-over?) slowly giving way to the smouldering flames of resentment as Stan nabbed all the glory while Jack was left worrying about whether he would ever get his due recompense and recognition (and so we get heart-breaking sentences like: "There was a steadfast belief that the company's financial success would trickle down his way.") And it's interesting seeing the different reasons why it happened that way: one suggestion is that it was hard for the general public to make sense that one person did the writing whilst the other one sorted out the artwork [6] - so that even when Stan and Jack would meet journalists together - the article that was printed would only just mention Stan. Then there's the fact that Stan had more connections and was way higher up in the corporate rankings - while Jack was just a lowly artist: the janitor to Stan's executive manager. And (most cruelly of all) there was the fact that Stan Lee was just - well - (if you've ever seen Stan Lee talk then you know that this is just stating the obvious) - a natural showman: He "...gave a much better interview than Jack. He was witty, charming and eminently quotable." While Jack Kirby was more. Well - like he man himself says: "If you'll notice the way the Thing talks and acts, you'll find that the Thing is really Jack Kirby... He has my manners, he has my manner of speech and he thinks the way I do." So - you know: not so good at being presentable [10]. And (at the risk of making too much hay out of it - and being a little bit too earnest): there's kinda one of the problems with the modern world - forget about when American is going to have it's first women President - you know what are the chances of them electing someone who isn't photogenic? (At this point - pretty much non-existent I'd say - no? [11]).

I don't know if this was intentional (I suspect not) but I like the way that the more you hear about Stan Lee in this book - the more that rosy image of American's favourite uncle starts to slip away: and there's loads of little remarks scattered throughout the book (and I know - maybe this is just me) - that start to seem like cheap shots: Like: "Cosmic rays. and all forms of radiation, in those days of atom bomb testing and scares, would prove to be an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all origin device for any comic scripted by Stan Lee." [12]

And then - well yeah - after the highs - the rest of the book charts the slow descent of Kirby's career as he's subjected to various humiliations such as seeing one of his poster artworks (artworks posters?) for the Incredible Hulk being "redone" by another artist - where the guy does nothing more than just change the face: and then gets all the credit. And lot's of stuff like that. (Oh - and I don't want to forget to mention Marvel's head honcho Martin Goodman who sounds amazing: here's the book talking about Spider-Man's first appearance in an anthology magazine called Amazing Fantasy: "Goodman hated it and cancelled the comic before receiving any sales figures... Subsequent reports, bolstered by reader mail and Stan's enthusiasm for the property, would prompt him to launch a Spider-Man comic the following year - the same month, in fact that he declared The Incredible Hulk a flop and cancelled the book." [13]. I mean - it ends on a high note: but then I guess when you have a whole life to pick and choose from (and especially someone as influential as Jack Kirby) you can spin the narrative in whatever way you like: I mean - it would have been equally possible to leave the reader feeling bummed out and howling at the injustice of it all (maybe just a sentence comparing the amount of money Kirby earned and the money that Marvel earned out of him - or something like that?).

But: hey - I'm gonna do the same kinda thing and just mention my favourite bit tucked away at the end: (This isn't actually connected to any of his comic work - but what the hell). Around about the time of the launch of the  The Pioneer 10 spacecraft [15] (which for some reason (?) the book calls the "the Jupiter Plaque") a newspaper thought that it would be a good idea for an article to approach a bunch of artists and have them submit their designs for what they would have done if they had been lucky enough to be asked to send their artwork out in space. Kirby drew (what else?) two superheroes (which the book says was done to scare away any aliens who saw it [16]) and the following text (which I managed to source from elsewhere - the book doesn't have the first part): "It appears to me that man's self-image has always spoken far more truthfully about him than does his reality-figure. My version of the plaque would have revealed the exuberant, self-confident super-visions with which we've clothed ourselves since time immemorial. The comic strip super-heroes and heroines, in my belief, personify humanity's innate idealism and drive. However, I would have included no further information than a rough image of the earth and its one moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between 'discoverers' and 'discoverees,' history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter Plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear trail to our door. My point is, who will come a-knocking - the trader or the tiger? [17]"

But yeah. Would I recommend this book? Well yeah - if you're a Jack Kirby fan: then apart from all the word stuff - there's loads of full-colour reproductions of his art to smack you - WHAM! - in the face (I mean - I haven't really read that much Kirby stuff - but still: I've never seen his stuff look better than how it does here): and it's nice how it all feels so honourable - as in: you can tell that it's written by someone who's doing his very best to try and honour Kirby's name and legacy: at the start of each chapter there's a different quote from such high profile names as Nicolas Cage ("It's clear when you see it that's it him. That's what art is about."), Harlan Ellison ("No praise is too much.") and - erm - the drummer from System of a Down (that's John Dolmayan as if you didn't already know...) - so that's nice too. Plus: like the book says: "To several generations Jack Kirby was comics." so it's cool to be able to take a peek under the hood and get a sense of both the legend and the man.

Here's to you to Jack.

[1] And in fact the only notes that I had written for it so far just said: "This is a nice book - super-sized and heavy" and "And - yeah - I mean - ok - that's a cool cover. HULK SMASH! And all that." - which such give you some idea of how empty my tank was... All I could think of to say was how the stupid thing looked. Never mind what was inside.

[2] Sample quote: "Did you know that Nicholas Gurewitch posted a new comic at the Perry Bible Fellowship site last month? Because if you did, then hey, screw you pal: that’s the sort of thing I would have liked to have known about, and I had to find out on wiki-fuckin’-pedia, and you know how I feel supporting Julian Asspackages, or whatever that guys name is. Wikileaks? Wikiwhatever, I don’t have time to listen to your keester anymore, as I just got an email that the cancer might be back. New PBF! It’s part of a string of heartbreak comics that might hit closer to home if I hadn’t gone full Zero Dark Thirty into not knowing anything about what goes on in the lives of the people who churn out the milkshakes that fill my particular trough. In other news: I now refer to comics as milkshakes, and I now think of reading as an experience akin to eating liquidized food out of a long piece of metal not dissimilar to a urinal."

[3] The Grantland one is here (it's pretty boring at the start - but gets better about halfway through (be warned: it's a pretty big article) and after that Shannan the She-Devil picture you start getting stuff like this: "When they weren't at each other's apartments getting high, they were rampaging around with Starlin, Al Milgrom, and artist Alan Weiss, a Las Vegas–bred ladies' man who shared a Queens apartment with a rotating cast of five stewardesses. Together, they'd ingest LSD and wander Death Wish–era Manhattan at all hours. "We sort of took New York as this vast stage set," said Weiss. "We would launch ourselves to some part we hadn't seen yet, and go explore, day or night." There was the time they traipsed by security guards and wandered through the World Trade Center while it was being built. On one July night they went to Lincoln Center for a screening of Disney's Alice in Wonderland and hatched a Doctor Strange plot that included a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Then they walked to the U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan and climbed around on Daniel Chester French's four statues of the continents, where they envisioned a Defenders story in which Doctor Strange transformed each statue into thousands of living soldiers to battle hordes of Atlantean invaders.") The Comics Journal one is here. (It's a lot shorter and more concerned with showing how evil (and stupid) Marvel could be in the face of the 90s comic gold-rush than the joys of the creative process): my favourite bit: “If the Punisher appears in a panel with another character,” Jim Starlin was told, “that character should be killed within the next few pages by either the Punisher or someone else. If the Punisher appears with any object, it should be destroyed in an explosion as soon as possible.”

[4] And yeah - I will admit that recently I have been thinking about maybe following suit and adding pictures into the main body of the text of these posts (you know: it would make things look a bit prettier, and would help to break up the text - and would make talking about the artwork a lot easier ("See? It looks like this.")). But - well - if I started then it would feel like I would have to retroactivily go back and do it for everything: and - well - that could take a while: plus - there's something to be said for committing to a certain way of doing things and just sticking to it no matter what. And - hell - someone it's good not to have those crutches (and - hell - now I think about I guess it's something that I can hold my head up about? "Pictures? On a comics blog? No thank you. I'm much better than that if you please." etc)

[5] Yep. There's a contingent of people out there that think that Jack Kirby had a hand in the creation of everyone's favourite web-crawler (and - no - I'm talking about this). But - hey - I'll leave it to you to read the book and let you make your own mind up in the face of the evidence (What do I think? I dunno if I could say for sure either way...).

[6] In fact - due to the "Marvel Method" (writer and artist sit and have a chat and work out the basic story beats - artist goes away and draws it all - and then writer comes in afterwards and fills in the word balloons) - it's more like Stan Lee would says something like "Wouldn't it be great if the Fantastic Four had a fight with God?" and then Jack Kirby would go away and then come back with the Galactus trilogy. In fact - Stan Lee had so little to do with the story that the first time he ever saw the Silver Surfer his first remark was something like (sorry - I should have written it down - but I think this is pretty much right): "Who's the nut on a surfboard flying through the air?" [7]

[7] And yeah: the way that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came into conflict is worth it's own footnote: the author doesn't make that much of it - but there's a moment when he remarks that: "Jack saw the Surfer as a creature formed of pure energy, one who had never been human, which explained why he'd been roaming about the Fantastic Four comic, asking Earthlings to explain love and hate and other (to him) alien concepts. In Stan's story, the Surfer had been a man on another planet who scarified human form to save the woman he loved." Because that right there seems to expose the fault-line in the way that tended to do stuff: the fantastical versus something a lot more down to earth: the cosmic instead of the mundane. Of course when these view-points were blended together you got the kinda of great mix that you get in the Fantastic Four - where one second they're battling space monsters while the next - they're squabbling amongst themselves (families huh? Who'd have 'em?) but it also makes sense in terms of their characters - Stan always with one eye on how things were gonna play and the best way to game the system: while Jack spent most of his time with his head in the clouds - staring up into the infinite and orchestrating epic battles between demi-gods and beings of awesome power [8]. And even tho (yeah - I'll admit it - I'm not that much of a fan of his artwork [9] - shocking I know) I still know which mentality I prefer: and which one tends to produce the stories that it entertains me to read (here's a clue: it's not the one with the cornball ideas of people sacrificing themselves in order to save the women they love: that's a bit too much like cheap overwrought melodrama for me...).

[8] Which I guess is how he managed to successfully predict the rise of the San Diego Comic-Con. Quote: "It will be where all of Hollywood will come every year to look for the idea of next year's movies."

[9] In fact (and I hope that all the Kirby fans out there won't hate me too much for saying this?) but my favourite bit of art in the whole book was the Sky Masters of the Space Force stuff (yeah - not the most subtle name out there...) only to then discover that it's one of the few bits (only bits?) of artwork where it's Kirby working with someone else (some guy called Wallace Wood). Oh well - I guess the pure unadulterated Kirby just isn't for me. Maybe it's too potent (actually - claustrophobic would be a good word to sum up how it makes me feel) or something - I dunno. But hey - I tried.

[10] In fact it sounds like Jack Kirby talks the same way I write: "He had a tendency to ramble from topic to topic, leaping about and leaving one sentence unfinished while he began three others." (A kindred spirit!)

[11] But hey - as with most things - Doug Stanhope says all this stuff much better than I ever could.

[12] And working my way through the book I kept being reminded of a thing Tim O'Neil over at The Hurting last month where he basically listed every single major comic book writer (from Alan Moore all the way to Jim Davis) and then wrote down the nastiest possible thing he could about them (I least I think that was the point - maybe I got the wrong end of the stick? I dunno - you can read it for yourself here) the Stan Lee one (the thing that kept springing into my head as I read) puts it really succinctly when it says: "Probably deserves every bit of credit alongside his collaborators, but will go to his grave vaguely dissatisfied by the fact that no one likes a company man." (and yeah Stan Lee = a company man through and through). (Or (even better) like Alan Moore recently said: "...back in the day “there was a reason why “Jolly” Jack Kirby wasn’t always jolly, why “Sturdy” Steve Ditko wasn’t always sturdy, and why “Smiling” Stan Lee was always smiling.”")

[13] To which the author Mark Evanier [14] (for some reason I kinda imagine him as sounding something like Troy McClure) wryly notes: "Talk about a guy who was slow to realise when he had a hit on his hands."

[14] I was looking for some more information about him and found this on amazon: Mark Evanier met Jack Kirby in 1969 and became his assistant and official biographer. A writer and historian, Evanier has written more than 500 comics for Disney, Gold Key, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, several hundred hours of television (including eight seasons of Garfield) and is the author of Mad Art (2002). He has three Emmy Award nominations and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers Guild of America - which well left me a little stunned. I mean - if he's written so much and has a Lifetime Achievement award then how on earth did he write such - pedestrian and unimaginative (oh the irony) sentences as: "He was the guy who took comics to new levels of imagination... and then he took those new levels of imagination to still newer levels of imagination." (I mean - really? That's the best you can do?)

[15] From the mighty power of wikipedia: "Pioneer 10 (originally designated Pioneer F) is a 258-kilogram robotic space probe that completed the first mission to the planet Jupiter and became the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System." At the behest of Carl Sagan Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 carry a 152 by 229 mm (6.0 by 9.0 in) gold-anodized aluminium plaque in case either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life-forms from another planetary system. The plaques feature the nude figures of a human male and female along with several symbols that are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft."

[16] You can see it here. (Although if it's meant to scare aliens off then I don't know why they're both smiling - wouldn't it have been better to have them looking stern with their arms folded?)

[17] In other words: DAMN YOU SAGAN - YOU'VE DOOMED US ALL!

Links: Andrew Tunney Article: Some Thoughts on Nick Fury.

Further reading: Marvel Visionaries: Jack KirbyAlan Moore: Storyteller, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, SupergodsSupreme.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

I have a lot of time for Mark Evanier. He's been writing very well crafted comics for longer than I've been alive (including stuff like Groo and Blackhawk) which are aimed at smart kids rather than adults, as more comics ought to be.

He's been involved with lots of popular tv shows which probably pay much better, but does comics just out of love for the medium and I think that shines through in his work.

He also writes one of the best blogs on the internet at www.newsfromme.com where you can also find lots of his essays. And if you ever used to watch the cartoon Dungeons & Dragons, which he worked on, then read the following to learn how you were being quietly indoctrinated...

Islington Comic Forum said...


I haven't had time to properly check out your links (also I've never even seen an episode of Dungeons & Dragons so I'm not sure if that last one will mean much to me?) but I think (and half-agree) with your thought that comics should be aimed more at smart kids rather than adults... (well - superhero comics at least: a lot of the fanwank continuity stuff that DC and Marvel tends to do seems to be more aimed at their older fans rather than "smart kid" readers - and - well - IMO: it does the comics no favors at all...)

Islington have a copy of Groo (Hell on Earth) have ordered it to see for myself... (Thanks!)