In 1976, my first issue of FOOM came in the mail, about Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel. He actually hadn’t been gone all that long, but at that time DC and Marvel were perceived as Ormadz and Ahriman, and even that was too vague for me to process because the Marvel fanfare said nothing about what he’d been doing during his … uh, hiatus “over there,” i.e., the New Gods collectively speaking, and others.
At age 11-12, I wasn’t committed enough to the 60s comics enough to care that much. I probably knew more about them than nearly any other kid, as I carefully kept the crap magazines we got at school with their reprints of Marvel characters’ origins, and I was mainlining the first two books of the Origins of Marvel Comics series, so at least I knew how important Kirby’d been to the titles I liked, but the scratchier style of the early 60s hadn’t sold the young me on his greatness, although, you might find this odd, I appreciated how he drew credible clothes. Remember, there weren’t any collections to read the Galactus stories in, and as for the FF reprint title that did in fact run, well, that was money I didn’t have. I was disappointed that my first FOOM issue had to be about some guy rather than any of my favorite characters – a lot like I felt about stupid stuff about paleontologists in my dinosaur books when they could have been talking about more dinosaurs.
… and man, what a letdown his Captain America was. Later, I would read late-60s Kirby and gasp at the changing angles of point-of-view, integrated with the bodies in motion from panel to panel – here, there was nothing like that. There was no motion or dynamism at all; the figures looked like those old paper dolls held together by grommets, dropped at random. The clothes didn’t look anything like clothes. Also, every character looked, how can I put it, genuinely stupid with staring, slackjaw expressions, even the ones who weren’t currently being rendered mindless by the madbomb. That was the story: a “madbomb” device made people go berserk. (pause) And? And nothing; that was it, for eight straight issues. Steve Rogers as a person had literally no identity or decision-making agency at all. In my immediate experience, compared to the title’s previous few years of Englehart’s uncompromising critique of the American Dream, including the hip black emphasis in the Falcon stories, this was dog food. In my later reading comparison with the dazzling range and complex character development of the Fantastic Four which Kirby clearly supported or even authored with his art, it was bewildering.
Nothing got better. His big new title The Eternals was a crashing bore; it didn’t help that I was a youthful, contemporary scoffer at the chrome-plated angelism of Chariots of the Gods. I bought his 2001: A Space Odyssey only to see even more clearly that the story itself (book, film, comic) was plain bland. Then they pulled McGregor off The Black Panther and Kirby took up the title. After “Panther’s Rage,” we get this?!
The motion lines don’t help a bit; the Panther looks like nothing so much as a parade float bobbing gently in the air. I freely admit that I didn’t read the Panther stories past the first issue, and also that current image searches show me that some panels are pretty beautiful. I’m willing to give them a fair shot one day and won’t make any ignorant claim about the stories themselves. But again, going by what I did see as a young reader, I was fresh off one of the most stunning depictions of a black protagonist in the history of American fiction, and wasn’t spending quarters for an apparent endless series of locations and set-pieces with an apparently wooden hero. Not stepping up to the content of “Panther’s Rage” seemed to me a colossal cop-out at the editorial level, and still does.
It just didn’t seem like Kirby. I’ve struggled for a long time to reconcile it – Kirby was surely one of the founding members of cosmic zap, to my mind the peak achievement of Marvel Comics. Had it been spent? Maybe his age had finally overtaken him? Had his unhappy time at DC worn him down? Was it simply asking too much of a single man to pull off a third conceptual revolution in comics? Was the editorial situation something like, “do Captain America like you used to Jack,” not letting him ripsnort anew? Was Captain America himself too much a cipher to work with? Or conversely, too developed? My God, in retrospect, who would want to return to a wholly simplistic character one had done in the 40s, briefly rebooted in the early 60s, and who now required a whole new “return” in the late 70s after having been in the hands of an effectively alien generation?
Or … and this may hurt you deeply … I harbor the unfortunate suspicion that Kirby couldn’t write. Wait, before you turn into the madbombed crowd … I mean that his writing was necessarily synergistic. With Lee, for instance, the two made solid gold; on his own, it didn’t come together. I hear you sputtering out there! Kirby did it or Lee did it, either/or, nothing but, out there! I’ve heard it all: that Kirby really composed and wrote everything, and that Lee just filled in some words.
I’ll tell you who I don’t hear that from. I don’t hear it from anyone who’s worked with a specific kind of artist in a visual form. A lot of people who can draw spectacularly are also fantastic plotters and character developers if and only if they can bounce it off another person during the process, because they’re crap at it if they can’t. The other person can’t be just anyone, but the one person the artist trusts to “get it,” to “know it” – usually the co-creator of the work or this phase of it, although sometimes a specific editor or an uncredited romantic partner, but in whatever case, always teamed through a special creative aesthetic. Without that other person, they get distracted by this-or-that panel or two-page spread and spend a whole month on it, or conversely they spend all 22 pages on the opening scene. They can’t get a plot to intensify, and merely complicate it or repeat its current state over and over. They rely more often on their standard page compositions and body positions. Although their art loses none of its straightforward beauty, its dynamism and driving role in telling the story are gone.
Talking about it at all, and especially on the internet, is badly flawed without stacks of comics right there in front of us and mutual trust that we’ve read them recently and without commitment to fan identity politics. I’m not even sure that latter is possible except with a very few long-term friends. Looking at single panels or pages will not do it, because I’m not talking about the beauty and the awesommme, but about how stories work, how characters experience crises, what they do and why, and how it turns out.
I don’t need a big debate about genius writer-artist creators. I’m not claiming they don’t exist, but we can celebrate rub-his-photo-on-your-body day some other time, and frankly, after fifty years of talk about “singer-songwriters” and “auteur filmmakers,” I’m pretty sure it’s all been said.
Had Kirby’s great work always been synergistic? I do not regard the auteur concept very highly, so that’s not a putdown. It’s asking a real question, which I’m inclined to think is answered “yes.” No one really wants to say this because all kinds of things, including his amazing impact and his crucial subcultural position as the contract-screwed creator; it’s tied as well to the prevalent idea in the 80s, launched by his famous 1981 interview, that Lee was at most a “dialoguist,” a corny tinhorn barker who rode to success on the backs of greater men …
I’m sick and tired of that stupid conversation. I am convinced by my own observations:
- When working with a “by the script” artist, Lee and that artist turned out mediocre work.
- When working with Lee, a “visionary” artist like Kirby and Ditko turned out genuine journalism and literature in a shocking new art form.
- When working without Lee, those same artists turned out passionate and often beautiful work, but also gaudy, unstructured, ending-less, and ultimately ineffective.
Here’s Howe’s account (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, p. 65 in my edition):
Occasionally, when Kirby came into the office, he and Romita would catch a ride home to Long Island with Lee. Romita would crawl into the back of Lee’s Cadillac and listen while Lee and Kirby discussed plots. As the convertible dodged in and out of Queens Boulevard traffic, they would volley ideas, each oblivious to the other.
“It’s almost like I was watching Laurel and Hardy,” Romita said. “These two guys are in the front, two giants, and Jack is saying, ‘Well, Stanley, what are we going to make the kid like? Is he going to be a wizard? Is he going to be a genius? Is he going to be super-powered, or is he going to be a normal kid in the midst of a crazy family?” Stan would say, ‘Well, let’s try this,’ and, ‘Let’s try that.’ So Stan would go off on a tangent and Jack would be talking about what he thought should happen. Jack would go home and do what he thought Stan was expecting. And when Stan got the script [I presume here he means breakdowns with margin notes or even finished art -RE], I could hear him say, ‘Jack forgot everything we were talking about!’ And that’s what led to making slight changes to Jack’s stories, because Stan was under the impression that Jack had forgotten what he had said.”
Hey, it’s my blog, and I think Howe goes too far with his phrasing “each oblivious to the other.” What Romita’s views exactly are, and how this compared to his own significant creative collaboration with Lee, I can’t say. (Notice he does not state the either/or dichotomy.) But where he apparently heard two people “not listening,” I hear collaborative work exactly as I’ve done it myself, between people who don’t need to say “uh huh” or any other bridging devices. Soaking in what the other’s saying is the default, editing or tweaking it on the fly (spoken words to art, or art to dialogue) is expected and valued. For certain pairings, this is how it’s done, and for many artists, this is how it has to be done. Maybe Romita’s Laurel-and-Hardy is more apt than Howe interprets – in that the two comedians were a team.
None of this was acceptable talk when I returned to comics in 1985, and to some extent, it’s remained bad manners to this day. It became so intertwined with Kirby’s legal struggles that saying anything but The King Did It All is tantamount to keeping a poor old man’s original art away from him and the host of other nastiness which the Cadence Marvel did in fact pull. (Over which Lee had no authority whatsoever.)
There’s something deeper too. That old DC/Marvel rivalry is embedded farther down than most thought can reach, certainly in the readers of my approximate age, and even for people who should know better – perhaps especially for them, thinking of the writers and critics who were most invested during the time that pros criss-crossed back and forth like jumping beans before it was out in the open. The Kirby/Lee dichotomy is often rooted in that older, deeply-felt, adolescent-acquired (or professional bitchfest-acquired) war: [Kirby did it + New Gods is the pinnacle of comics + Marvel is the EvilCorp] vs. [Lee did it + The Fantastic Four is the pinnacle + Marvel is the Squee.] I’m hoping with no actual hope at all that what I’m saying isn’t merely getting pinned into that.
Hurtin’ you again now: New Gods and the related content gains a good deal of its critical status because it’s unfinished. Fanwank and its horrible professional counterpart are suckers for the JFK effect, or for us geeks, the Firefly effect: it’s the best ever because of how incredible it was about to be!
See, and now the geekmind kicks in with “Ron thinks the New Gods sucks” or some such thing. Of course not! What’s there is great – but it ain’t finished, it ain’t a story, and it ain’t got those things which show us a story’s rising action. The human characters almost seem ordinary and interesting, but they fall short. Darkseid’s cool because the reader is sure he has a Pie, not because he does. But Orion’s his son! And it matters … a little. Only a little. But it would have! Yes, I think so too; it seems to be setting up for it. But we don’t know how much or, more importantly, how well. You see?
Pageantry? That it’s got. Imagery? Unbelievable, no question, paint my van with it. Resonance? Yeah! Sometimes. Inspiration? Fucking Boom Tube. Story in action? Strongly indicated, so tempting to say yes, but not quite, in fact … no. It’s not that it’s cut short from its conclusion, but that it doesn’t manage to get going. But it would have! Yes. But we don’t know how much or, more importantly, how well. You see?
Yes, Firefly gives us about five good episodes out of nine, and its level of “good” is very good, but remove all fanwank and anticipation, set aside the stylistic excitement about westerns for instance, or psycho-girls, and all that but it would have, and you do not end up looking at an amazing story. New Gods, The Forever People, The Fourth World, et al., are the same, ever so much more so. It’s not just “not getting there yet,” it’s an internal feature of what’s there to be seen. Internally, the events poke at story, talk of story, but are continually distracted.
And as I see it, based exactly on my own experiences with artists, where it doesn’t get going, let alone “get there,” is exactly in that zone of “this artist needs his synergy.”
(What’s been done with the material since at DC is an entirely different matter and isn’t relevant to my point here.)
When I look at Kirby’s own written-and-illustrated work, for real, not for what it could have been or was “obviously” about to be, and compare it with his work in tandem with Lee, the comparison is binary. The former is bold and mind-boggling, but ultimately, immediately over – its impact spent – upon first contact. The latter leaves you gasping in the grip of the story both right in its rising action, when any kind of conclusion seems so nightmarish and disastrous, and having finished actually after all, now amazes you that it was over so soon.
Here, I feel sad. It’s Howe’s book that brought it home to me, really, because in the full reading it does celebrate the Lee-Kirby synergy explicitly, and it also makes it clear that Kirby was unhappy at DC and went back to Marvel like a shot as soon as it was possible. My reading of it adds this line of my own: But when he arrived, Stan was gone.
Links: 365 reasons to love comics
Next: I, said the Fly
Posted on May 14, 2015, in Heroics, Storytalk, The 70s me and tagged auteur theory, Black Panther, Captain America, cosmic zap, Darkseid, Eternals, Firefly effect, FOOM, Forever People, Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, New Gods, Stan Lee, Steve Englehart, The Comic Book Heroes, van painting. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.