Comics & Context

With your indulgence, I’d like to prattle on a bit about an aspect of this wacky field of… what is it? Comic book scholarship?… that’s becoming increasingly important to me, as I slowly and surely begin a return (of sorts) to a realm I had some participation some years back. It’s about, like the header states, the comic book in context.

My primary passions as a kid were history and comic books. Like I’ve previously mentioned, our mom did us a wonderful favor by taking her two youngest children, that’s Andy and myself, on a year-long sojourn to Europe. We stayed for varying lengths of time in Ireland, England and France. I was 11 and 12 during the trip; ADC, two years younger than me, and we didn’t go to school per se. But we were educated constantly as we were taken on, for instance, a nationwide tour of the cathedrals of Great Britain. My brother and I got a taste of European history, one that spans thousands of years, and were exposed to a sense of time and space very different than we have in the States. It was a fascinating experience and one that changed our lives, making us, I’m convinced, into creative people.

Though it was 1970-71, World War Two, in particular, was still very much in evidence, such as when we visited the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral or walked past plaques mounted along the Seine dedicated to the fallen of the French Resistance. So history became a living thing in my consciousness. And so much of great interest was taking place during those times, as well — the moon missions (I avidly followed the near-tragedy of Apollo 13 while in London), the Vietnam War, the re-emerging “troubles” in Ireland, and (of extreme importance) the rise of the counter-culture, which suggested there might be other ways of looking at things.

And, of course, we found comics. Or rather, we embraced them as Our Own. Was it because, as a preteen, I look at American comics — and comix — as something profound because I was seeking profundities at that tender, curious age? Or did, in fact, comics have more to say during that tumultuous era?

Though much maligned as a sub-genre of American funnybooks, I confess I loved the era of “Relevancy in Comics,” the more tied to present-day issues, the better. I reveled in underground comix, even if I didn’t understand everything I was reading. Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow spoke directly to me, as did the “Radical Chic” parody by Roy Thomas in The Incredible Hulk, R. Crumb’s work, Dan O’Neill, The Liberators in The Avengers (whatever happened to them? Those (ahem) chicks were cool!), even some Corben stories were allegories of Vietnam, for instance… anyway, it was a fertile period for injecting reality into the fantasy of comics, whether folly or not. And I particularly loved it because connections were being made that I could relate to…

The moment I remember best about melding history and comics was reading the Tales of Suspense “Origin of Captain America” story by Jack Kirby — reprinted in Captain America Annual #1 — when it all started to click for me. Most other heroes were disconnected from precise years and eras. Heck, the reinvention of Golden Age heroes was hardly a novelty by the early ’70s and they had, in the revivals, lost any context, any linking to their times… We can look at the Superman of 1938 and surmise he was very much a product of the Great Depression, that he represented the sense of “otherness” and a need for acceptance by mid-western American Jews, that he represented the gathering strength of a nation as war neared on the horizon. But the Superman of 1945, the context shifted, as American self-identity shifted, and he became a different (and far less interesting) character, like the Mickey Mouse of 1950 compared to ’35.

But I recall a lightning bolt hitting me upon realizing that Captain America, Jack Kirby’s Captain America, would always be linked to the fight against Hitler. Inseparable. In my understanding, character and context could not be separated. It was that aspect, along with my firm conviction that Steve Rogers, drawn as Aryan as could be envisioned, was in fact Jewish, a stand-in for Jack himself.

So, here I am delving in minute detail the characters and concepts Jack created in The Fourth World, and the closer I look, the more I find. (As the Vulcan would say, “Fascinating.”) And, thinking about the upcoming court battle between the Kirby Estate and monolithic Disney, I’m reading The Forever People # 4, and I open up to the double-page spread on pgs.2-3:

Kids, was Jack prescient or what??? I don’t know if he was making an oblique, specific reference to The House That Walt Built, but it is hard not to look at it any other way in light of what is transpiring today…

As this blog starts looking into Jack’s take on the then-revolutionary DNA predictions in the pages of Jimmy Olsen, and then into what, perhaps, Apokolips and Darkseid represent in the “real world,” among many other subjects, I’d like to continue examining the context of his magnum opus… and I hope y’all will join in.

[Mea culpa for the disjointedness of this chat — this was supposed to be yesterday's "Sunday Bonus," but funny how life gets in the way sometimes. I'll try to polish this up at a later date...]

13 thoughts on “Comics & Context

  1. J.A. Fludd

    Happyland is one of Jack’s most disturbing visions, though disturbing in a fascinating way. Some of the things that happened there are among my favorite parts of the Fourth World saga. I look forward to seeing if you’re going to touch on the specific things I’m thinking of, and what you have to say about them.

  2. patrick ford

    I love page one of Forever People #3:

    “It’s the truth. Glorious Godfrey is speaking the truth.”

    “He voices what’s in out hearts!”

    “Tell us how our pride is being attacked and dragged in the dust.”

    “It’s the others, Godfrey! Those who don’t think right!”

    “This is our world! They have no right to meddle with it!”

    Talk about current events.

    In the ’70s, like yourself, I was taken with O’Neil and Adams. Unlike Kirby, their work from that period doesn’t work for me today. It’s the O’Neil writing which now seems dated, while Kirby’s is as timeless as a great folk song.

    Many things I liked as a kid have gone the way of orange marshmallow peanuts.

    Kirby is like a really good apple pie.

    1. JonBCooke Post author

      “Kirby’s [writing] is as timeless as a great folk song.”

      Nailed it!

      So much of what completely held me rapt in the ’70s has less of an impact these days, but I still do respond to earnest, honest intent (maybe more so than when I was a teen, actually). When they were appearing on the stands, I was mad for Don McGregor’s writing in “Killraven” and “Black Panther,” and while it was verbose and at times overwritten, Donald Francis has such heart in the work, that I overlook some of the pretension. It’s PHONY writing that doesn’t do it for me, and that’s the vast majority of comics. I can count on my right hand (okay, maybe two) writers who still give me a jolt: Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Brian Michael Bendis (his noir stuff), Bruce Jones and, of course, Alan Moore, in addition to Jolly Jack. (Yes, Don, you’re on my list! And I dig Steve Skeates, too, to be honest…)

  3. John S.

    Jon,

    I came home from work this evening (Monday) and turned on my computer, expecting to perhaps see one new entry in your stellar Fouth World blog, but imagine my surprise when I was greeted by no less than THREE new postings! You keep this up and we’re gonna have to start calling you “the Jack Kirby of bloggers”!

    And to answer your (rhetorical?) question: Yes, comics DID have more to say during that tumultuous era. They also had more sensitive, intelligent writers to say it, and more sensitive, intelligent readers to read it!

  4. JonBCooke Post author

    Thanks, John! Well, Jack is infectious, to say the least. My finger tips are starting to square-off!

    I think the influx of college-age (and college-educated) readers certainly helped to take comics writing to a higher level. I think, too, the operative word here is READERS, as opposed to FANS. Fans who turned professional, who wrote Superman because it was always their dream to write Superman, not because they necessarily had a yearning to seek a higher truth in their writing, often made an awful lot of drek, in my opinion, and they harmed the art of comic-book storytelling. (I know, I’m being kind…). It’s not about the characters; it’s about STORY, dagnabbit!

    (Oh, and I’m not saying most of the journeymen scribers in the biz were seeking higher truths. But the great ones were. I think even a crazyman like Kanigher was in “search of something” with his lunatic stories, whether he admitted it or not…)

    1. John S.

      I concur wholeheartedly with your observations. Personally, I can’t stand modern comics. They’re nothing but self-referential fanboy trash. Even the journeymen writers of the past were better than the fanboy hacks of today — because they, as professionals who were required to produce clear, accessible storylines, at least understood the fundamentals of their craft.

  5. JonBCooke Post author

    Oh, SNAP! Why don’t you tell us how you really feel, John?

    If you’re talking mainstream super-hero stuff, I pretty much agree with you, though I have enjoyed Bendis, Bruce Jones and a couple of other guys in recent years. Now, of NON-mainstream material, there are a lot of good storytellers, including Craig Thompson, Jim Woodring, Crumb (always), Jeff Smith, Mike Kunkel, Peter Bagge, Linda Medley…

    Kirby transcends. I was reading an intro to Raymond Chandler’s short story collection (which also contains his superlative essay on detective fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder”), Pearls are a Nuisance, where the author writes, “Some of us [writers] tried pretty hard to break out of the formula [genre], but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.” Chandler transcends the detective fiction genre; Kirby transcends the super-hero genre… the formula, the genre, is the starting point; art needs to be the goal. Even if one falls short, it’s the trying that matters…

  6. John S.

    Yeah, I was talking about mainstream super-hero stuff.

    Kirby’s work is transcendent in all genres, not just super-heroes. His crime, science-fiction, Western, war, horror and romance comics were all better than the ones done by his peers.

    It’s not necessary to always exceed the limitations of a formula to do good, professional work; but it usually is necessary to at least meet the established standards and understand and respect the basic, foundational elements of a thing that made it successful in the first place. Modern super-hero comics writers don’t even do that. They warp, stretch and destroy perfectly good and successful characters and story formulas by trying to graft elements onto them which don’t belong. You can’t turn Batman (for example) into The Young and the Restless or Apocalypse Now — or anything else. And to try to do so only produces work which is pretentious, offensive and silly — and destroys the formulas which made Batman successful in the first place. So if Batman is no longer enough for these fanboys, my suggestion to them is that they go out and read a real book for a change, and leave Batman alone.

    True Art is not created by editorial committees in comic-book publishing offices; it’s made by INDIVIDUAL ARTISTS with a distinct personal viewpoint, a message to convey, and the skill to convey that message in a clear and compelling fashion. That’s what Jack Kirby did, and that’s why he was a true Artist.

    And yes, that’s how I REALLY feel.

  7. patrick ford

    Jon: “Now, of NON-mainstream material, there are a lot of good storytellers, including Craig Thompson, Jim Woodring, Crumb (always), Jeff Smith, Mike Kunkel, Peter Bagge, Linda Medley…”

    Now, you’re talking my language. Crumb and Kirby are my top two comic book creators ever. Speaking of Kirby transcendent. Of interest is the way Woodring speaks of the same “child’s heart” in Kirby that Bernstein described in Beethoven.

    Jim Woodring: I met Jack in 1982, when I began work at Ruby Spears Productions. Jack was their star designer; his job was to work at home on large drawings of characters, hardware, and environments.

    Every Monday he would saunter in with a thick stack under his arm. All the in-house cartoonists would gather to look at them one by one, and pore over them. Jack was treated with great respect because he was an elder and a legend, but the awed admiration we all demonstrated for his work was not polite deference. His drawings were inspirational to all of us. He was like a wild spraying geyser of the substance we struggled pitifully to evoke in driblets. Even those among us who had never read super-hero comics and saw Jack without his aura, so to speak, stood in awe of him. He was more than a master; he was the comic book impulse incarnate.

    We loved to draw him out in conversation because he was completely unpredictable: his mind was nimble and unfettered by convention. I never heard him tell an anecdote that was not heavily spiced with benign absurdity. As with his drawing there was something precociously fragile about his sledgehammer approach to storytelling. One sensed that a hard life had made Jack tough, but that the great child’s heart of which he was the custodian had been sheltered and saved at all costs, and that this heart was the force that drove him.”

    David Mazzucchelli: “The man who gave us “The Pact” also gave us “The Dingbats of Danger Street.” His imagination was protean, and his bizarre and inventive creations populate some of the most surreal stories in comics.”

    Chester Brown: I have at admit I couldn’t see Kirby’s brilliance when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I hit my adult years that I was able to really appreciate Kirby. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the same time I was starting to appreciate underground comics. Kirby wasn’t slick and refined — it was raw and beautiful.”

    Seth: “I think I can say without overstatement that, next to Charles Schulz, Jack Kirby was the artist who inspired me the most.”

    Joe Matt: A few years ago I found myself purging my comic collection of almost all mainstream comics, over 10,000 comics, the exception was complete runs of many Kirby titles. What can I say? Kirby’s not the King — he’s the man.

    1. JonBCooke Post author

      Thank you, Pat, for mentioning a number of other storytelling experts (with absolutely correct opinions, I must add!). Mazzucchelli’s Kirbyesque story, “Big Man,” is a great homage to The King and a superb story unto itself. I am in awe of his melding of Toth and Jack, and then going beyond…

      The “child’s heart.” Yes, that’s it. Twain had it, so does Crumb, in his odd way. So many of the greats retain that most fragile of things. Kirby’s reveals a brutal upbringing yet he was able to find refuge — in the pulps, comic strips, movies, and (thank God!) the physical shelter of the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a sort of Boys Club (still in existence!), which kept him out of the clutches of street gangs and gave him a place to be creative. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was also a well-loved son, which also nurtured him and protected that organ. His experiences on the street are revealed as rage in his work but the fact he was cared for is reflected in the hope that is there as well.

  8. JonBCooke Post author

    In my pantheon of bona fide comic book geniuses, I rank Crumb at the top, and Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman just a tiny bit below Robert. Now, BRILLIANT, there are a pretty good number, starting with Will Eisner. But genius is that rarest of qualities and, like the terms masterpiece and excellent and perfect, it’s a word bandied about far too frequently.

  9. patrick ford

    Jon,

    Kurtzman is very close to the top of my list.

    If he’d inked more of his own work, I’d be on Cloud Nine. The Jungle Book is always at hand in my house.

    In a recent conversation with [Alter Ego associate editor] Jim Amash, Jim told me whenever he spoke to Kurtzman, all Harvey wanted to talk about was Jack Kirby. Kurtzman would go to lengths explaining what he called occlusions in his inking technique, something he’s taken right from Kirby’s inking style in the late ’40s.

    Have you seen the new Crumb interview from Paris Review?

    The whole is now online: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6017/the-art-of-comics-no-1-r-crumb

  10. JonBCooke Post author

    No, I haven’t read that interview yet. Will get to it and thanks for the tip. (I love that Web site, BTW.)

    Amash is a great interviewer.

    My introduction to Kurtzman — when I first recognized his artistry — was similarly mind-blowing as when I initially encountered Kirby. Standing at a used book rack, thumbing through a Ballantine paperback of Mad comics reprints… “Black-and-Blue Hawks,” it was… and there was steam rising off of the top of my head, like Goody Rickels! I think I was 12. Like JO #133, I remember the season, the location, the time of day… (a Thayer Street bookshop, in October, in the evening, in case you were wondering!) Wood’s embellishment of that splash page girl’s shapely gam caught my attention; the group’s facial expressions changed my life…

    “Hawkaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!”

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