Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Of comic books, colors, movies, and Jack “King” Kirby

I’ve been on a little journey. It’s taken me back to my childhood and connected me with the memory of my father, who died last February. Of all the things he left me — which I discussed in an earlier blog entry — the first was comic books, most especially those by his two heroes, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby.

I’m sure I’ll be exploring Eisner at some point in the future, but for the time being I’ve been on a Kirby Krusade, since I “inherited” my dad’s comic collection — the sad fact being that the possessions of those without a will are simply taken, although he did verbally like to say, “These are yours after I’m gone….”

Besides the sentimental attachment I have for Kirby’s work thanks to my dad’s reverence for it, two things spurred me on to reread his comics. The first was reading Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics, a coffee-table book that, as thoroughly engaging and informative as it is, left me wanting more. (Evanier has noted that the book was a preliminary to a bigger Kirby bio that he’s working on — until we get the next bio, this one is a great starting point.)

Young Kirby, taking no nonsense.
The second was attending a panel about Kirby at the Parsons School of Design in October 2016 — a presentation of the “NY Comics and Picture-story Symposium,” run by the visionary cartoonist Ben Katchor. The panel is available on YouTube (with wobbly audio, especially when the Skype guests are spoken to) here; its title was “Crossing Kirby: the ‘King of Comics’ in context of social issues and ‘fine’ art.” The panelists discussed Kirby from a number of intriguing angles, but it was the splash pages and double-page spreads shown onscreen that made me want to revisit his comics.

One thing that struck me was that those who spoke the most favored the comics my father and I had stopped buying, because they seemed to be kiddie fare that Kirby did in the wake of his ambitious and amazing “Fourth World” saga in the early Seventies and The Eternals in the mid-Seventies. Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and Kamandi were all touted as some of his best titles — in fact Kamandi was cited by two panelists as the one comic they’d recommend to someone who knew nothing at all about Kirby’s work.

[Note: I’ve since reread Kirby’s run on Kamandi, and it’s much better than I remembered but is far from the first thing I’d recommend to someone who doesn’t know Kirby’s work, due to its rather bizarre anthropomorphic animal aspect.]

Given my memories of those books, I was indeed surprised, but decided that I needed to travel once again to “the Kirby-verse” (a DC phrase used to hype his work). I began at the best entry point, the "Fourth World" comics — they're my recommendation if you really want to have your mind blown by some of the finest, boldest, smartest, and yes, craziest comics of all time, *and* if you can easily obtain the four books that contain these titles.

DC issued beautifully designed “omnibus” books collecting just about all of Kirby’s comics for the company in the late 2000s. The books were so popular and so under-produced that some of them sell for insanely high prices on Amazon and eBay (if you’re looking for The Demon collection, you pretty much need to break out the credit card or just find the original 16 comics in lesser shape at a lower price….).

The Fourth World Omnibus is a four-volume collection of his overlapping, early Seventies DC comics The Forever People, The New Gods, Mr. Miracle, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen — the latter being the finest silk purse over made out of a sow’s ear in comic history, and the home of most of the aforementioned really crazy stuff.

In that burst of 55 comics (and two later epilogues, the second of which is beautifully written but jarringly drawn), Kirby offered the best proof that it was he who gave birth to the Marvel revolution in superheroes (along with Steve Ditko — credit where credit is due). While they admittedly lacked Stan Lee’s energetic and polished dialogue and captions, the Fourth World books showcased Kirby’s flair for crafting heroes as modern gods, villains that were sometimes ridiculous (“Virmin Vundabar” was a fave of my father’s) and sometimes profoundly tragic, and situations that seemed to have spun from Kirby’s own nightmares. (One torture chamber disguised as an amusement park in The Forever People is wildly effective, even by today’s far more graphic standards.)

Rereading these comics (and catching up to the issues I missed way back when), I was struck by several things. The first is the sheer exuberance with which Kirby tossed off indelibly complex and innovative (and sometimes intentionally absurdist) ideas to the reader — assuming that he/she would fully understand.

The second is the deeply Freudian level of his comics, especially in regard to the aforementioned nightmare situations. The third “discovery” was one that has been mentioned before, but bears repeating — that George Lucas really did rip off aspects of the Fourth World comics for Star Wars (as if stealing Kirby's design for Dr. Doom’s mask for Darth Vader wasn't blatant enough). This influence should've been acknowledged by Lucas in every interview he did – Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell, my ass….

The fourth and final thing is that one of the elements that the DC editors reportedly hated about the Fourth World series became an industry standard a few years after the titles in question were all cancelled (the longest-running title, Mr. Miracle, lasted only 18 issues). Kirby chose to have his comics overlap, so that each one added to a tapestry of a greater story about an oncoming war between two different factions of “gods.”

It was felt at the time that this was too confusing or too oblique for readers, but a few years later that became the norm — to the point that it stopped readers like myself from following certain titles, since their overlapping plotlines meant you either had to spring for nearly all the titles being published by DC or Marvel at that time, or give up understanding what you were reading (which was never the case with Kirby's “overlap”).

My current rereading of Kirby's work is still in the first of three “stages” I’ve planned: first, the Seventies work Kirby wrote and drew for DC (his high water mark, in my opinion), then his “comeback” Marvel titles, and then the Sixties Marvel classics. The last category includes Captain America 100, which my dad had Kirby sign to me at a Phil Seuling comic convention in the early Seventies. Jack couldn't have been nicer, but I was terrified to meet him for some reason (weird kid). My dad was delighted to shake his hand. (Kirby's work meant a lot to him over the years.)

There is a reason I’m writing this blog post now, though, instead of after my reading “plan” is complete, or when Kirby's 100th birthday occurs later this year (on August 28th). I wanted to draw attention to the work of a YouTube poster who calls him- or herself “Kirby Continuum” and has posted over 200 videos of a great range of Kirby's art, from all periods of his career.

Sure, watching a YT video — replete with images explored with the “Ken Burns effect” in which we travel *into* the picture — is a terrible way to attempt to “read” comics (in fact they really can't be read in that fashion, except for the vids the poster has noted are “panel by panel”). I've found, though, that it's a wonderful way to review Kirby’s work, and it also clearly demonstrates that the current flood of comic book movies lack the elements that make these comics such an immersive experience, even though they are “merely” colored sheets of paper that lack CGI, 3-D, Imax, and charismatic stars playing the heroes and villains.

The Kirby Continuum poster seems to have spent an incredible amount of time making each of the videos. If you're a newcomer to Kirby’s work, you're better served by just reading the comics, but these videos are pretty wonderful for those who are already fans or who would like a quick, curated look at his work. It’s also very nice to have such a heartfelt tribute to the delirious wonder of Kirby's work on the most-watched site on the Net.

The fact that DC and Marvel may not be thrilled by the videos means that, if you are a comic or Kirby fan of any stripe, you should check them out sooner than later. Interestingly, the poster’s use of music underneath the images might be a bigger potential problem, since YouTube has a capricious and mind-bogglingly arbitrary way of enforcing its highly flexible (and often ridiculous) rules.

On the subject of the modern-day comic-book movie, a little tangent is in order here. These movies are a mainstay in today's Hollywood although, for me, they capture very little of the magic of the comics they're based on. The problems are obvious. First among them is the tedium of the origin story. Comic fans do love a good origin story, but they are never, ever a favorite issue of the comic. These stories simply supply the cornerstones of the character's mythology, and are what you must move beyond to the get to the actual fun, namely the confrontations with the crazy and colorful villains — and, thanks to Marvel, the self-loathing and meditative moments of some of the heroes.

A related problem exists in the tone of the films. Since these are live-action features, the moviemakers feel they must “ground” the action in some sort of recognizable reality. It could be argued that that was part of the Marvel “revolution” in storytelling — Spiderman and friends existed in real American cities rather than the patently fake Metropolis and Gotham City. But let’s be serious about this: the action, the supervillains, the immediate donning of multi-colored costumes (in primary-colored hues) signal instantly that we are in a comic book universe, not the real one that we inhabit day to day (unless your hallucinogenics are particularly potent).

In the most magical and way-out comics by Kirby and Steve Ditko, the characters can't possibly be grounded in anything resembling our reality because the cities they inhabit are very often just wormholes to other universes (physical and metaphysical) where anything at all can, and does, happen. To add a note of mundanity to that kind of storytelling is to miss the point entirely.

The biggest problem, though, with the comic book movies that have flooded into multiplexes in the last few years is how goddamned *bleak* they look in comparison to their source material. Certainly film noir has had its place in the comic world from Will Eisner’s The Spirit onward — Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Sin City are heavily indebted to noir, as are many other great comics. But as for superhero comics, even the other great grim masterwork of the Eighties, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, had a BRIGHT color palette that was completely lost in translation to the movie screen. 

Moore has since mocked the grim straitjacket that Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns put on comics (most amusingly in his Supreme series). But the comic book movies embrace this noir overlay, both in tone and attempts at monochromatic color. One gets the impression, though, that these filmmakers have never seen an actual film noir (well, okay, one in their college film class), but instead have based their notion of noir on Blade Runner and other sublime modern-day recreations of the look and feel of the noir cycle.

Thus some of the mysteries relating to these movies that fascinate (and alternately, depress) me. Such as, why are SO many people going to see them, when the majority of the same people wouldn’t be caught dead looking at an actual comic book? Is the allure of Robert Downey Jr. making snarky remarks (can he actually do anything else?) while wearing fake iron armor that strong? Do couples who need a place to covertly make out really want to do it while a CGI Hulk runs amok onscreen? Are there enough people who really want to see a fucking *third* series of Spiderman movies?

Even the ads are too damned dark!
There has been much talk about how these comic book movies are killing cinema. I am of two minds about that: 1.) Cinema is pretty much already dead, with the exception of a handful of great auteurs whose work most of the American public wouldn’t go to see if their life depended on it; 2.) At their best, comic books are magical, and their onscreen equivalents shouldn’t look as goddamned BLEAK as these CGI-saturated adventure pics do.

The bright colors that adorned Kirby and Ditko’s art was part of the package and remains one of the most important parts of the brilliance of comic art (ask Roy Lichtenstein — he knew which panels to steal… er, grab). I can’t think of a worse way to describe something linked to great comic books than to say “drab,” but that is indeed what these movies are.

Much has been discussed on the Net about the “orange and teal” color scheme that predominates in fantasy/action/comic book movies these days. The blogger at "Into the Abyss" documented the look in great detail, trying to offer an explanation about why it “took over” action cinema (answer: computer color-correction). His incisive essay was supplemented by this article in the Guardian and this overview of the whole phenomenon.

I would go further than the critics who decry the “orange and teal” phenomenon. What I see when I watch these comic book movies is a mess of many muted colors. Captain America in a drab-blue costume, Dr. Strange wearing a drab-red cape, Thor looking all-over goddamned drab. And so the actors and scripters try to “perk up” the characters — in the recent Dr. Strange movie, he’s a modern-day pop-music buff who makes Beyonce jokes. The joy of reading the old Strange comics was that he *didn’t* make gratuitous comments about Iron Butterfly or Vanilla Fudge — these characters exist in “the present,” but, again, they are not in our world. Rendering them in a “realistic” fashion makes them as boring as a “snappy” neighbor on a family sitcom.

There seems to be two very potent arguments for the incredibly, mind-numbingly, bleak looks of these films. The first is that the drab color palette reflects that of many videogames. I am not a gamer, but have been fascinated by the darkness of the majority of the best-loved games (and the computer-generated android-ish-ness of the animation ). The fantasy games intended for younger players are bright and eye-grabbing, but the comic book moviemakers are looking to attract teens that enjoy the “darker stuff.”

The second reason for the bleakness of the colors is indeed the fact that computers now drive the film world. The points made in the articles cited above are all valid, but I’d underscore the fact that action and fantasy films have gotten “darker” in look since CGI has become a major factor in filmmaking.

CGI effects can be “disguised” by an utterly drab color palette, and so CGI-animated characters like the Hulk will just melt into the overall ugliness. The cinema has gone from Gertie the Dinosaur and Gene Kelly dancing with Tom and Jerry to a bunch of guys dressed up as Marvel heroes interacting with a computer-animated Hulk….

On a related note about comics adapted to other media, the 1966 Batman series was viewed by comic fans as a double-edged sword — a thoroughly enjoyable celebration of the intoxicatingly silly aspect of superheroes and villains. But it also became a thorn in the side of comic readers, since it seemed to say that comics were nothing but camp. And so the comic book movies of today (going onward from the 1989 Tim Burton Batman) adopt the post-Dark Knight Returns hardboiled pose and look — this works when a talented filmmaker like Christopher Nolan is at the helm and is just dark and dull when a hack like Jon Favreau is directing (and what exactly happened to Kenneth Branagh’s career that the one-time “new Olivier/new Welles” directed the Thor movie?).

Ah, but we still have the comics themselves. And Kirby’s are among the finest ever — I will set aside the “we hate superheroes!” position adopted by Crumb and numerous underground/alternative cartoonists. Art Spiegelman in particular has noted his disdain for Kirby. Fine, who cares? Because when someone praises funny-animal comics and slams superheroes, we’ve hit yet another perfect example of fan-geeks mocking other fan-geeks.

Away from the dissenters and the inferior adaptations: Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics (a bizarre name that reportedly was dreamt up by DC and never truly embraced by Kirby himself) were published from 1970 to 1974. The Kirby Continuum poster has put up a review of these comics called “Fourth World Frenzy.” Again, it can’t be read in any conventional sense, but it does show off the brilliantly bombastic visuals:

If you’d like to journey through a whole issue from that period, here’s the first issue of The Forever People, “panel by panel”:

A fan-favorite issue of The New Gods and one of Kirby’s own personal favorites of all his work, “The Pact”:

Onward to The Demon, one of two terrific series that Kirby did for DC after the company killed off his “Fourth World” books (the other being “The Losers” in Our Fighting Forces). It’s been noted that Kirby didn’t really want to do a supernatural series, but what he came up with is so very distinctive that the character was resurrected by both Alan Moore in Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman in The Sandman.

The two British masters sanded off the rough edges of the character (did he always speak in verse or not? Kirby didn’t seem sure…). But the original series of The Demon is brimming with originality and nicely creepy characters and situations:

A little break from the Kirby Continuum posts and onto the man himself for a bit. Some fascinating materials about Kirby’s life and work were posted by the folks at the Kirby Museum YouTube channel. There you’ll find some truly rare audio and video of Jack talking about his life and career.

The first, most interesting clip finds Kirby discussing his childhood on the Lower East Side. While many artists romanticize their past, Jack was very clear about the fact that he hated growing up in that neighborhood. He also underscores the fact that he wanted to get out of there as soon as he possibly could. Watch the video here.

The other amazing clip is a 1987 radio celebration of Kirby’s 70th birthday on WBAI-FM in NYC. The host, Robert Knight, had a surprise for Jack, who was calling in from California — a guest caller, none other than Stan Lee! To my knowledge, this is the only recording of the two former collaborators talking to each other.

This was after Kirby had publicly aired his grievances about Stan taking credit for things that he, Jack, had created. Stan’s public pose was to feign confusion over this, but it became clear over the years that Lee wanted to take sole credit for the creation of the characters, and all of the scripting (whereas in many cases, especially in the later issues, he just wrote the captions and the dialogue).

Kirby and Lee “make nice” throughout the interview, but toward the end (around 32:00 in) Stan makes a barbed remark about having written all the dialogue, which clearly rankles Kirby. In closing, Jack thanks the hosts for their hospitality but also notes, “Now you know what it was like….” Listen to the show here.

In closing, a short “survey” of the Kirby Continuum videos. First is the most eye-catching and amazing examples of Kirby’s work, his double-page spreads:

Then, two of his most famous story arcs from the “Silver Age” (the Sixties) of Marvel. First, the “Ragnarok” plot in The Mighty Thor:

Then what could be called the turning point for Marvel — the Galactus storyline in The Fantastic Four that introduced the Silver Surfer. According to one story, Stan Lee was perplexed by the character upon first glance and asked Kirby who he was, with Jack replying that he was of course Galactus’s herald. That tale, true or not, defines the way Kirby’s mind worked — if a herald was called for, he most certainly would be a chrome-looking alien humanoid on a surfboard!

And one of my favorite issues of Captain America, a retrospective which found Kirby returning to the comic during a brilliant “Cap is Dead” plot by Jim Steranko.

For those who are already fans of Kirby’s work, the Continuum poster has put up some interesting montages of rarer drawings and sketches. One series of these he calls “Kirby conceptions”:

A rarity I’d never seen before, a comic strip version of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, written and drawn by Kirby for the May 1967 issue of Esquire magazine:

Another great example of rarer Kirby panels and sketches:

And I’ll close out with one of the most interesting oddities. Kirby wrote and illustrated an oversized comic book adaptation of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1976. It was a very odd project, as has been noted by many reviewers, because Kirby’s art is rambunctious and over the top, and Kubrick’s is quiet and measured.

He based his adaptation on the Arthur C. Clarke novel and an early draft of the script, rather than the film itself; he also chose to add a narration to scenes that are very notably without dialogue in the film. A monthly, ten-issue series came out of this project, in which Kirby spun out stories about the cavemen and astronauts who were influenced by the monolith. It was a strange series that I plan to revisit soon.
The most intriguing thing about both the oversized “Treasury” and the comic series is that they are two of the only items from Kirby’s Marvel work that have never been reprinted — evidently the rights lapsed to the film, since everything else Kirby even touched has been reprinted in one form or another by the folks at “the House of Ideas.”

One of the most interesting things one learns about Kirby in the Evanier biography and the various interviews that are online is that Kirby didn’t think of his work as “art.” He certainly viewed himself as a craftsman, but he preferred being referred to as a “cartoonist,” and he had an immaculate work ethic that found him working on the comics all day and all night when he was fully connected with a project.

Thus I think it’s fitting to finish with a quote from Our Fighting Forces 153, in which Kirby’s narration for a really wonderful story about a geeky sci-fi pulp-reading soldier named “Rodney Rumpkin” who gets to lead a charge against the Nazis (it’s much better than it sounds) ends with this bit of wisdom: “To all the Rodney Rumpkins: Victories are won, yesterday… Recognition must wait for tomorrow….” 

Some of the above images came from the “Fuck Yeah Kirby” Tumblr. General information about Kirby can be found at the Kirby Museum website.

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