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Soundtrack: The Verve Story, Disk One 1944-1953

Wow! I’m in a talkative mood today/tonight!

I ranted at length on “The Pop Culture Gadabout” on the subject of Singin’ In The Rain’s inferiority to Swing Time, Gold Diggers of 1933, and a few other films (RIP Donald, give Francis the Mule a hug for me!)

I engaged in some back and forth with Doc Nebula over whether it would be a good thing if scientists could settle this whole reincarnation question.

I tried to register over at Pulse:

http://www.comicon.com/cgi-bin/pulse.cgi?http%3A//www.comicon.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi%3Fubb%3Dget_topic%26f%3D39%26t%3D000046

(thanks for the reference NeilAlien!)

in order to get in on all the craziness going on there thanks to Michael David Thomas’s big thumbs down on Jordan Raphael & Tom Spurgeon’s Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book and Mr. Raphael’s subsequent childish replies… Unfortunately, Pulse wouldn’t let me register, because I don’t have a stylish-enough e-mail account… Oh well. By the way, I read the book (and loathed it) a couple of months ago, but more on that later…

Also, if Sean Collins had a comments thread, I would certainly have checked in there to applaud his humour piece, er, review of Jeph Loeb & Jim Lee’s Batman series Hush. Suffice it to say, Mr. Collins has an instinct for the jugular worthy of Edgar Allan Poe (and anyone who hasn’t read EAP’s evisceration of William Ellery Channing’s poetry is really missing out!)… Sean certainly doesn’t inspire me to want to return to my late-eighties habit of buying 70 reserve titles off the racks every month… To be fair, I never liked Batman, and the only issues I ever really actively looked for were the ones drawn by Gene Colan in the early eighties, and even those weren’t very interesting (just more of Doug Moench’s Moon Knight desires…)

And A.C. Douglas has added me (along with Forager) to his select Blogroll! Very classy A.C., maybe we can be friends after all…

Okay, now, without further ado: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Battle for the Soul of the Silver Age—My Twelve Cents’ Worth:

Whilst stickering new hard-covers at work tonight, I kept ruminating upon Geoff Klock’s book… After more consideration, I think I’ve isolated what I find most troublesome about it: when discussing the version of Silver Age that he claims Warren Ellis’s work would eventually supersede, Klock acts as if Stan Lee didn’t exist. To make matters worse, in my quick critique of the book, I pretty much treated King Kirby the same way. Of course, the Lee-Kirby war goes way back, and has only intensified since Jack’s death, but what I’m starting to see is that this is more than just a personal feud over the attribution of creator credits—it’s the fault-line of an enormously important interpretive divide.

On the one hand, we have Klock’s (Ellis’s) paradigm, which equates the Silver Age with Jack Kirby. And on the other we have those who, like me, believe that the most definitive contribution to the Silver Age was made by Stan Lee. People who hold the second opinion clearly (is there anyone besides me? please tell me there is!) would not see Planetary as the culmination of any tradition that they recognize. Reading Klock, you get the impression that he considers the main difference between the Silver and Golden ages to be merely the oft-mentioned fact that the super-powers go from being magic-based to science-based. Oh, maybe “characterization” sharpened up a bit, and continuity started to become important, but basically, according to Klock (and—unless I’m wrong, and please let me know if I am—Doc Nebula as well) Golden Age and Silver Age super-heroes are the same animal… And there’s a lot of truth in this—if you’re looking at DC. But, I submit that, at Marvel, there’s a lot more than that going on.

Now, Jack Kirby doesn’t change, from one era to the next—except in the fact that he kept getting better at doing what he had been doing since he created Captain America—i.e. depicting high-octane action though the use of highly stylized, almost cubistic renderings of powerful figures in motion against wildly imaginative, alien backdrops. Pure Kirby characters are always supremely competent human beings or Gods—either “justified” or Ancient, and often (to invoke Tammy Wynnette & the KLF) both…These are characters who always know where the action is, and what to do when they get there (it starts with an uppercut to Hitler’s jaw, and just keeps rollin’). Kirby’s people are strong, confident, and obsessed with the accoutrements of their power. If you want an idea of what I mean, here’s a vintage Kirby moment from 1958:

Green Arrow & Speedy hitch a ride on a giant arrow from “Dimension Zero” and find themselves stranded in that very same null zone. Of course, this is Green Arrow’s cue to think, “Will we ever get back? Will we ever see the arrowcave—or the arrowcar? Will we see those days again when kids flocked around us in department stores, asked for our autographs, and played with the Green Arrow toy arrow kit.” (Adventure Comics #253; reprinted in The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told, 62).

Clearly, the Green Arrow is one fucked up guy—he’s a HERO alright, and if you want to find latent fascism in his attitude, I’ll join you. On the other side of the sixties, Jack went back to doing this kind of character, in his 4th world stuff and his Eternals stuff, and his atrocious mid-seventies Captain America stint. Now, surely anyone can see that the FF, the X-Men, and Ant-Man et al are nothing like this (Thor seems to have been a sop to Kirby’s wonted mode, and, not surprisingly, Stan really went crazy with the self-parodying dialogue in that strip).

In my opinion, the major change (at least at Marvel) is that superheroes become stand-ins for the reader, instead of objects of worship, and this is Stan’s doing all the way (or, at least Stan & Steve Ditko’s). Ditko’s vision is very similar to Stan’s, although it’s a lot grimmer—this is not a writer vs. artist debate, it’s a conflict between two fundamentally different conceptions of the superhero. And it’s Kirby’s conception that needed Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s critique in the eighties, and has had its Id completely unleashed in the pages of The Authority. The Lee-Ditko formulation spawns a completely different tradition (although the two traditions often coexist between the covers of the same magazine, as in the FF, where Lee’s “spiritually conflicted” protagonists clash with Kirby’s godlike figures, or, in the case of Galactus, God himself, basically)—the one I intend to write my dissertation on–which, I believe culminates in the work of Mark Gruenwald (on Captain America) and Grant Morrison (on Animal Man).

I’ll explain what I mean by this cryptic pairing tomorrow. I’m awfully tired.

Good night friends!

8 comments

  1. Think you might be onto something here (good catch on the <>Green Arrow<> comparison) and I’d love to see you develop it more.

    Oh yeah, and the Young Fresh Fellows fan in me applauds your soundtrack selection of Minus Five yesterday.

  2. Dave,

    You are in danger of falling into one of the common traps when talking about Kirby.

    This post, and your last one, deserves a more thorough response, but I’d just bring up a few points:

    1). Stan Lee may be responsible for The Avengers and The Hulk, but the Fantastic Four is all Kirby. (Almost everything in the Fourth World comics comes out of one Kirby’s ideas for the FF).

    2). Kirby’s heroes, especially in the New Gods, are a lot more complex than you’re giving them credit for. Kirby just wasn’t interested in the trappings of psychological realism, like Stan Lee et al. Which is why, when you apply psychological realism to Kirby’s comics you get a revisionist take on super-heroes. But reading Kirby this way is a mistake: he’s dealing with decisions not desires. (see “The Deathwish of Terrible Turpin” and “The Glory Boat”).

    3). Kirby’s mid-70s run on “Captain America” is the best take on that title except for Kirby and Simon’s original series. ‘Nuff said.

    You may have hit on something regarding Planetary, however. I can’t see getting too excited about the book without being invested in Kirby’s creations in some way.

    J.W.

  3. Forager,

    Thanks for the response–please elaborate (especially on the mid-70s Cap–in truth, I haven’t read any of those since about 1989, so my opinions aren’t of much value on this subject. I’m certainly willing to listen to your argument…)

    On Kirby & “psychological realism”. I’ll just lay my cards on the table here and say that the main thing that I think distinguishes Marvel in the Silver Age from anything that came before it is the way that the comics seem to have been narrated by Coverdale from Blithedale Romance–and Stan Lee is entirely responsible for that! When Marvel started using other writers (Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, and Gerry Conwaymost prominently) they all stuck to the basic template Lee had devised, and it never failed as long as they did so–and some of them notably Thomas & Englehart, certainly surpassed the founder. When you say the FF was all Jack Kirby, I’m just not convinced, because Kirby didn’t have it in him to bring that strange quality of humorous self-reflexivity to the narrative that was, for me, the hallmark of the Marvel line…

    Just imagine, for example, that the stories about Kirby coming up for the character design of Spider-Man all by himself are true–would that make him responsible for what the Amazing Spider-Man series actually became? Jack certainly might have made up all of the characters and situations the FF encountered, but Lee still makes an important contribution, and changes the way the whole is perceived, simply by filling in those boxes and bubbles (it’s important to me anyway–I can understand how people get so caught up in the operatic splendor of the drawings that they don’t really notice the narrator’s tone. You can do that on the FF–you cannot with ASM or Dr. Strange, because there the drawings are more in sync with the narrator…)

    Please don’t interpret any of this as an attack on Jack Kirby–I do find (most of) his work fascinating. But for the purposes of my dissertation, I’ve chosen to isolate elements that he just wasn’t responsible for…

    Dave

  4. There’s a lot I could say here, and maybe I will on my own blog, I don’t know. But the gist would be, anyone who tries to boil the Silver Age, or the Modern Age, down to a dichotomy between Lee and Kirby’s approaches to superhero comics, is grotesquely oversimplifying. And it’s a futile oversimplification. I do not think either Stan Lee or Jack Kirby (or Steve Ditko) really comprehend fully what their own or each other’s contributions to the Marvel Silver Age was. Therefore, none of us can, and frankly, I don’t think this is a case where there is an objective truth that can be achieved. This is creative stuff on their part and perceptual, analytical stuff on ours, which makes it pretty much entirely subjective. I enjoy debate as much as anyone else, but the ‘Lee cheated Kirby’ vs. ‘You’re crazy, Stan was a god’ argument bores me to tears and I simply won’t do it. They both had a lot to do with it, as did Steve Ditko and, perhaps, Gene Colan, Don Heck, and Wally Wood.

  5. I understand the point you are trying to make, with DC’s heroes were meant to be ‘worshipped’ while Marvel’s were more meant to be a reader’s projection point into the narrative, their human avatar in that universe. I think, again, you are oversimplifying, however. DC’s heroes, like all the heroes who preceded them, were indeed two dimensional and larger than life, and Marvel’s heroes were (and this was the stunning break through) three dimensional and as such, more realistically detailed. But both sets of characters (pantheons, if you will) were very much larger than life, for the simple reason that life, and especially good and evil, and much simpler in essence in both the Marvel and DC Universes than they are in the real world.

    Beyond that, the kid sidekick was really the first attempt to create an audience entry point, or a character the reader could empathize with and project themselves into, in comics, and it was an artifact of the Golden Age. DC’s Superboy was very much an attempt to do stories with their primary character where he was less distant and Olympian and more emotionally accessible and sympathetic, as was the Teen Titans, and that perhaps can be traced back to Kirby’s Golden Age ‘kid gang’ books. So, again, I don’t think the dichotomy you (or perhaps Klock) are/is trying to establish is a valid one.

  6. This is actually my third post, but the comment thread stacks them in reverse order, so, just bearing that in mind, this one is just batting clean up on some minor talking points from other posts:

    Kirby’s mid 70s Cap simply stunk, mostly because it followed hard on the heels of the BEST writing the character ever had or ever would (to date) receive, Englehart’s. Kirby does not write three dimensional characters (at least, as I define the term) and while you can do a lot of fun things with two dimensional characters, it is simply unacceptable to see one that has been so convincingly and persuasively portrayed in a three dimensional fashion revert to Kirby’s frantic, capering, garish conceptual flatness. It’s actually rather gruesome and horrid.

    Kirby’s complete inability to work with any kind of really sophisticated or subtly nuanced story concepts is probably showcased best in his attempt to do a PRISONER comic for Marvel in the 1970s, which simply didn’t work at all. And please don’t think I don’t like Kirby’s work; there is no bigger OMAC or KAMANDI fan than I, and I enjoy the NEW GODS quite a bit, too. Kirby’s work on Cap might well have been fine in the early 1960s, but following what Englehart did with the character, it simply had no credible place in the canon.

  7. Darren,

    Just a final note on the Kirby/Lee thing (who am I kidding? this is going to be my lefe for the next two years!):

    I agree with you about the bankruptcy of fannish conflicts over which man deserves credit for Marvel’s silver age… but what I’ve been trying to get at is that, well, that stuff happened quite a while ago now, and not many of the people who engage in these debates are talking about the ACTUAL Stan & Jack any more.

    Basically, “Stan Lee” is code for the type of innovations that I’ve been talking about for the past couple of days (i.e. super-hero comics in the tradition of the American Romance, especially as written by Nathaniel Hawthorne). “Jack Kirby” is code for a completely different set of characteristics within the same works of art–and, clearly the second interpretative emphasis is in the ascendant right now. What I want to do is rescue the first from obscurity–that’s how it works in the academy, it’s a critical see-saw, and the truth is (hopefully) in the record of the movement…

    Dave

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