RIP Stan Lee (1922-2018)

A sad day. Numerous sources have confirmed the passing, this morning, of legendary Marvel Comics writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee (b. Stanley Martin Lieber, 1922-2018). My condolences to his loved ones and friends, and to his colleagues and fans, who were legion.

It appears that TMZ.com and The Hollywood Reporter were among the first to break the news publicly; other sources, for example the Associated PressNew York TimesLos Angeles Times, and CNN, have followed suit.

Stan Lee in the US Army, c. 1942-45

Stan Lee served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1945. Website DoDLive (www.dodlive.mil) identifies this image as simply a “U.S. Army photo.”

Lee was 95 years old. Anyone who has been following coverage of his life over roughly the past year, since the death of his beloved wife Joan Lee in July 2017, probably knows how tumultuous his final days were, marked by rumors of frailty, vulnerability, and domestic chaos. Recent images of Lee on the convention circuit have sometimes been disconcerting, as the almost mythically peppy, seemingly indefatigable Lee finally began showing signs of age and dependency. Until very recently, Lee played the part of a Pop icon with gusto, getting out in the world, engaging his fans, and burnishing his legend.

Speaking personally, I had somewhat expected Lee’s passing, as the last few months have been filled with nerve-wracking, if sometimes contradictory, reports about his status. Yet I was surprised at how shocked, and saddened, I was to hear of his death today. The news brought tears to my eyes, and I am hard pressed to say why.

I have been critical of Lee, both in my book Hand of Fire and especially since his testimony in the Marvel v. Kirby legal case. I have also been critical of his hagiographers, those who tend to describe Lee as a real-life “superhero.” When I see the usual inaccurate coverage of Lee’s career, creative work, and relationships with other creators who worked under his editorship – and I have seen that sort of glancing, thinly researched coverage this very day – I confess I seethe with frustration. What Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon say at the start of their 2003 book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (which I consider the best single book about Lee) still applies:

Stan Lee is one of the most important figures in American popular culture. He is also one of the least understood. […]

Here is the truth about Stan Lee: he didn’t create Spider-Man or any of Marvel’s most famous characters. He cocreated them. The distinction matters, because in that distinction lies the essence of his considerable accomplishments. (ix)

This seemingly simple yet crucial caveat is still routinely swept aside when reporters reach for superlatives to put Lee’s work into context. Just what is meant by “cocreated” is something I tried to wrestle with, too tentatively perhaps, in Hand of Fire – and that is indeed a question that continues to bear upon Lee’s reputation, one that has implications for the breadth and nature of his accomplishments.

Hand of Fire seeks to split the difference between praising Lee as Marvel’s editorial architect and criticizing him for his untrustworthy, often self-aggrandizing accounts of how Marvel actually worked in its 1960s heyday. Here’s a key passage:

Of course “Stan Lee” has long served various author-functions for fans, not least the conferral of a single tone or attitude on what is, really, a shapeless amassing of decades’ worth of inconsistent, heterogeneous work. But though Lee was Marvel’s impresario and publicist par excellence in the sixties and early seventies, and though at first he contributed to the comics’ content as a scripter, polishing if not steering the work of various narrative artists, he did not solely create any enduring Marvel properties. Nor did he, in fact, serve as scenarist for many of the most celebrated Marvel comics of the mid to late sixties. By the same token, Kirby – though he provided the conceptual material, the character designs, the unmistakable graphic style, the pacing, and, eventually, the plotting and overall direction of the Marvel books with which he was linked – did not solely author any of the seminal Marvels of the period. His work was constrained and subliminally altered at the editorial level, with text that reshaped and at times redirected his plots. Furthermore, Lee’s vitalizing influence saturated Marvel and determined its editorial ethos. Kirby worked harder, but, commercially, Lee made things happen. (94-95)

This passage, which has been quoted and talked about, is one that I’m proud of, for its preciseness, its refusal to take things too simply, and its distance from the angry, intemperate things I would have said had I written Hand of Fire at a younger age. Yet during the Marvel v. Kirby case, and even since, I have not been able to convince myself that an “angry, intemperate” response was wholly uncalled-for. I tried to write the book more or less dispassionately, but since then I’ve often been passionately angry about Lee’s continued prevarications when it comes to the question of who did what at Marvel back in the sixties. It has been easy to blame Lee, or rather, hard not to blame him. He has been, after all, a Grand Old Man of American comic books (as Raphael and Spurgeon put it), a totemic figure, and one with the power to shape the way people view history. I wish he had been more forthcoming.

Some readers have told me that Hand of Fire goes too easy on Lee, or on the official Marvel history, that Lee did not contribute substantially to the comics’ content – or if he did so, then only negatively – and that he emphatically did not “steer” the work of Jack Kirby. I remain unsure of quite how to tell the story, but am convinced that Lee added considerable pizzazz, spirit, and warmth to those comics; his voice mattered. Of course I’m equally convinced of what the above says about Kirby: that Kirby provided the concepts, designs, storytelling, pacing, style, and eventually, though perhaps to some degree even at the outset, the plots of the Marvel comics he drew. The same is emphatically true of the work that the late Steve Ditko did under Lee’s editorship. The record is murky, but we do know that Lee expected Marvel’s artists to plot and to make fine decisions about pacing and storytelling, and we do know that stalwart artists Kirby and Ditko had proven their ability to create comics stories from scratch again and again prior to the Marvel explosion. Obviously, they didn’t need Lee in order to make comics – though they did need Lee to create Marvel Comics. What Lee himself had to say about the working arrangement at Marvel shifted over the years, from (sometimes) frank acknowledgment of the artists’ contributions to (sometimes) insistence that he himself had provided what was most important about the characters. In any case, the “Marvel method” of production has permanently clouded the question of who did what, who inspired what, and to what extent Lee and his artists truly worked together.

Back cover to Stan Lee's "Secrets Behind the Comics" (1947).

The back cover to Stan Lee’s 1947 book, “Secrets Behind the Comics.” As reproduced in “The Secret History of Marvel Comics,” by Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo (2013), page 156.

I’ve worried over these things, and felt these conflicted feelings, for quite a while, and will surely continue to feel them. Anyone paying close attention to Kirby’s career story must think about the gap between the official history (even the history adopted by Marvel in the wake of the Marvel v. Kirby settlement) and what must really have happened among the disparate talents and personalities that made possible the massively multi-authored vast narrative that is Marvel. Anyone who has delved deeply into Kirby’s story must also be have a version of Stan Lee’s story on their mind, even if that version is, like mine, conflicted.

When I was a kid, though, ah, Stan Lee’s name was one to conjure with, and his voice became as familiar as my own. I read more comics than I can count that started with this claim:Stan Lee presents

Lee’s name became part of a reading ritual; he was the figurehead of figureheads, a magic character. And to this day I have a feeling for the idea of “Stan Lee” that no amount of research has been able to quell. I was reminded of that this morning, and the feeling, oddly, hurt. Having spent the last few days pawing through some too-long-neglected boxes of comic books and reliving some of my long-ago days as a fan and collector, I may have been too-perfectly primed to be shocked by the news of his passing. News of his death sent me into a fog.

Words like charlatan and huckster cling to Lee, and comparisons to carnival barkers, or even P.T. Barnum, are never far away when Lee is the topic of talk. I understand why; frankly, those words are deserved. Lee knew this well, but he wasn’t simply a shill. A shill would have had his hour, but then faded, and fast. Lee, though, was something else. He combined the larger-than-life qualities of a Marvel hero with the affability of a beloved neighborhood character and the approachability of an old friend. Sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of his seeming mendacity and conveniently porous memory. I’ve had that version of Lee in my head for nearly thirty years and counting. But sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of being a kid with a comic book in front of him, with a whole great big world spreading out before him, and I feel, still, a certain awe and gratitude at the whole crazy business.

RIP Stan Lee. I cannot imagine my life as a reader and thinker, nor my coming of age as a comics scholar and critic, without him. As editor-impresario, Lee brought the work of Kirby and a gaggle of other disparate artists to market under one colorful banner, and in so doing enriched my life and the whole American comic book field. I don’t know if I can call Lee one of my cultural heroes – I suppose Hand of Fire tells the story of my loss of faith – but at one time he surely was, and I cannot but thank him for that. Working in tandem with other singular talents, Lee helped transform the comic book, and though his greatest period as a writer-editor spanned just a decade – only a fraction of his long career – what he helped bring to the newsstands in those days, the heady days of Kirby and of Ditko, and of the dawning Marvel Universe, was stupendous.

PS. Among the several obituaries I’ve read today, I would recommend  Jonathan Kandell and Andy Webster’s careful one for the New York Times, and Michael Dean’s excellent one at The Comics Journal. (I don’t agree with Dean’s assessment of Lee’s skill as a writer, versus Kirby’s, but it’s a lovely, insightful piece, with a ringing conclusion.)

Stan Lee at Stan Lee Day, 2016

Oct. 7, 2016: Lee enjoys “Stan Lee Day” in NYC, at Madison Square Garden (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images, obtained from the Los Angeles Times).

PPS. I just rediscovered this odd, ambivalent poem I wrote about Stan Lee years ago. I think it captures both my gratitude and my ambivalence. ‘Nuff said.

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Jack Kirby at 101

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CH at the entrance to the MoPop exhibition, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, 28 April 2018. Photo by Mich Hatfield.

Today, August 28, 2018, would have been the 101st birthday of the incandescent Jack Kirby, a comics creator and man we know a lot about but who yet who remains, to me, a mystery and a challenge. I expect he always will.

In honor of this, Kirby Day, I’m rerunning below, in slightly updated and differently illustrated form, a tribute I first posted to this blog two years back, on Kirby’s 99th birthday. (This tribute became the seed of the essay “The Familiar and the Uncanny,” which ran in the Kirby section of the Comic-Con International 2017 Souvenir Book.)

Arin, page 2, panel 3

You could say that I have Kirbymania. After all, a big part of my thinking and reading life orbits around the idea of Jack Kirby. I wrote an academic book about Kirby; I’ve curated exhibitions of his work, and co-edited a catalog full of his art.  I’ve written a handful of articles for The Jack Kirby Collector. In one way or another, I’ve been following Kirby and his work for most of my life, starting I don’t know when (sometime before I turned ten, which is about when he became my favorite comic book artist) and intensifying in my twenties, when I discovered comic shops and began to chase down Kirby books I had not seen as a kid. I’ve thought about and grappled with Kirby in waves, and can mark off certain phases of my life on the basis of how my view of Kirby changed. Sometimes he has been the very center of my interest in comics, and at other times a persistent background. The terms of my attention keep changing. Over the past dozen years, though, as thinking about Kirby has turned into a program of academic work, my interest has been constant and especially intense.

So, yeah. I have Kirbymania, and I don’t see that changing. Despite the rigors of working on a major Kirby exhibition and catalog (2015)–a dream, a blur, a happy madness–I can’t help but feel that I’m not done with Kirby, and never will be. The truth is, he’s still a mystery to me. There is so much to take in: the crushing hardships of his life, which he refused to be crushed by; his rare and intense gift for comics storytelling; the push and pull of contrary feelings and the gear-grinding clash of ideas in his work; his galloping imagination and yen for Big Things; above all, the great, unstinting generosity of his talent and temperament, which transformed deadline-crazy freelancing into an amazing outpouring of art that was, always, surplus to requirements. How can someone do that? How can that be possible, to wring, from a life steeped in the memory of poverty and violence, work so generous and vivid, so free of cynicism even when it ventured into the darkest places?

Kirby still has me baffled. I don’t think I’ll ever get him all figured out. Lord knows I’ve tried. It was Kirby who lured me into trying to figure out, in Hand of Fire, the whole strange business of cartooning: a mix of figuration, pictographic symbolism, and ecstatic handiwork, all driven toward to simplification and typification by narrative intent–but never merely reducible to an intention that could be simply paraphrased in words. It was Kirby who got me past analytical formalism, back to the wild sweep of the whole comics page. It was he who got me over my adolescent embarrassment at, hell disavowal of, things I really enjoyed and still enjoy: outrageous cartooning, grandstanding images, superhero yarns, space opera, Pop sublimity, plain reckless joy. It was Kirby who kicked me in the slats at age ten, and then again at age forty-plus, when I needed to take a post-tenure plunge into rediscovered pleasures, and needed to own them on a bigger stage. It was always Kirby. And I kept, keep, trying to figure him out. Talk about a glorious fool’s errand.

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Always, always, Kirby carries me away.

I keep coming back to the generosity of the work. Anyone who has studied Kirby has read stories about the generosity of the man, and knows that Jack Kirby was loved by many because he himself had love (not just fury) inside him. He was a good man from hard origins who worked in a pitiless, exploitive business, who endured and did hard things, but he was nonetheless a good man. What I’m thinking of, though, is the graphic generosity of the work. Kirby almost always looked at his art from a storyteller’s point of view–which is fair, because he was, as he said, a writer with pictures–but his refusal to stint on the drawing made his pages livelier and more beguiling than almost anyone else’s in the business, and made his head-spinning stories habitable, believable, and authentic somehow, in spite of the wild premises. That he gave so much of himself to drawing those stories helps explain the feeling of aliveness that they give off: a feeling of commitment.

Over the decades, Jack Kirby set an impossible standard for comic books, showing how far a creator could go even without what should be the minimal assurances of creative ownership, editorial control, and financial security. And Jack wasn’t a martyr; often he was a great success, though he learned repeatedly what could happen to a success when the rug was pulled out from under him. He was a survivor, but more than a survivor, he was the very model of what it took to succeed against long odds. That he did succeed in shaping the lives and imaginations of so many–again, there’s the mystery.

Sometimes I think about how very different Kirby is from me: in upbringing, ethos, personality. After all, I’m an academic; I like theory, and live by analysis. Kirby, on the other hand, lived by storytelling. I’m aware that my life has been very different from his, that the intersection of his work and mine is a miraculous fluke. I wonder, how can something be so familiar to me and yet retain its power to surprise? His work does that: it manages to be lovable and uncanny at the same time. As I said, I can’t figure it out. But I am certain that the academic and the writer in me owe their opportunities to the electrifying example of Kirby and what he showed me.

Chasing the mystery of Kirby, of his genius for comics, is a lifelong pursuit. To say that I’m grateful to be doing it is a hell of an understatement.

Capt Victory subspace

And away.

So: Happy 101st, and profoundest thanks, to Jack Kirby. And a Happy Kirby Day to us all. How odd to think that I’m celebrating his birthday by celebrating the gift he gave to me–but what else is new? May the years to come bring even more and better, and more widely-read, work in Kirby studies. There is a depth and strangeness to Kirby’s work that will never give out, and will continue to prod and inspire our own work, in his wake. In his orbit.

Jack Kirby’s Marvels on Imaginary Worlds

Imaginary Worlds label

I had the pleasure of being among the scholars interviewed by host and producer Eric Molinsky for “Jack Kirby’s Marvels,” an episode of Imaginary Worlds, his biweekly podcast  on the Panoply network about science fiction, fantasy, and geek culture.

An experienced radio reporter and producer, Molinsky has worked for NPR, PRI’s Studio 360The New Yorker Radio Hour, and many other programs. He has been producing Imaginary Worlds for nearly four years, and in that time has done more than ninety episodes. Molinsky describes Imaginary Worlds as “a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief.” This particular episode, “Jack Kirby’s Marvels,” explores the question of “Kirby’s influence on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” The show includes a visit to the Tenement Museum of New York’s Lower East Side, featuring IW assistant producer Stephanie Billman and museum educator and guide Jason Eisner; and historical commentary from Mark Evanier, Kirby’s biographer and onetime collaborator; Rand Hoppe, Acting Director of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center; and Arlen Schumer, designer, illustrator, and popular culture historian (The Silver Age of Comic Book Art). I’m in there too.

You can listen to the episode (about 32 minutes) via the links above, or right here:

(My first moments come in around 16:50, he said egotistically.)

I’m glad to have done this, and in such good company. The end results are sharp, professional, and engaging. Imaginary Worlds boasts top-notch production and creates an interesting audio-imagescape (with, in this case, sound bites from Marvel movies woven into the mix). It’s a thrill to be a voice on such a show. Further, I’m happy to hear Kirby credited, unambiguously, as the source of so many of Marvel’s enduring properties from the Sixties.

But, ahem, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how my own perspective differs from that ultimately taken by the ‘cast. In particular, I disagree with the angle of the last seven minutes or so, as Molinsky pivots from the Marvel Sixties to Kirby’s stormy Seventies, including the Fourth World and then his troubled return to Marvel in the mid-decade. I was sorry to hear so much great work summarily dismissed, and to hear the show repeat the canard that Kirby had never written dialogue before 1970 (false) and, worse yet, that he really couldn’t, that as a writer his work was “clunky” and inelegant. This is an old chestnut among Marvel fans, but of course I don’t buy it. When I reread, say, New Gods #5-9, Mister Miracle #9, The Demon #1, Kamandi #11-16, Eternals #8-10, or Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, this claim makes no sense to me.

Jack Kirby’s Marvels” seems determined to highlight Kirby’s contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe above all else, which would be fine if that choice of focus were explained at the outset as simply one of many possible angles—yet at the same time the show tries to encapsulate all of Kirby’s career, the result being a too-brief and frankly misleading sketch. Molinsky privileges Marvel “IP” even as he reads Kirby’s work through the lens of autobiography; what emerges from all this is an odd mashup of Marvel-centric fan lore with the biographical tendency in Kirby studies. In effect, the episode makes Marvel (and I find this terribly ironic) the center of Kirby’s life story. The rest of his career, both before and after, is thinly documented, or simply undocumented (Captain America Comics is the one thing brought up from Kirby’s early career). Again, all this would be understandable if the ‘cast had clearly announced its scope and intentions up front—but instead it offers, by way of an ending, a quick, misleading capsule summary of the rest of Kirby’s career, presented as a tragic fall.

IMO the show gets bogged down at the intersection of Kirby bio and Marvel movie IP, and the cost is obscuring history. You would never know from this ‘cast that Simon and Kirby scored other big hits besides Captain America in the WWII years, such as The Boy Commandos. You wouldn’t know that comic book sales peaked in the early Fifties, after the heyday of the superhero, or that superheroes were not the barometer of the industry’s health. You’d never know that Kirby did his most lucrative, and one of his most influential, genres, romance, from the late Forties through late Fifties. (I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: you cannot explain the Marvel superheroes of the Sixties, with their domestic melodrama and expanded though sentimental women’s roles, without the influence of romance comics.)

“Jack Kirby’s Marvels” does good work in highlighting Kirby as Marvel’s co-founder. Kirby’s centrality is never questioned, and Molinsky and company have edited many voices into one succinct, riveting account. Further, the early portion of the ‘cast, with the visit to the Tenement Museum, could be eye-opening to many (the tenement segment is great). For these reasons, I hate to go public with my criticisms, which may smack of ingratitude. But I have to admit my heart fell during the final fourth or so of the ‘cast, and I reckon I should state for the record how my interpretation of the history differs.

It’s a shame that the episode’s emphasis on Marvel IP causes it to short-shrift other important aspects of Kirby’s biography, including huge successes like the Commandos and Young Romance, the harrowing details of his military service, the ups and downs of his partnership with Simon, and the upheavals in the comic book market after the mid-Forties. Finally, I was disappointed by the episode’s ending, which comes down to, simply, a reaffirmation that both “Jack AND Stan mattered”—a conclusion that is hardly surprising, indeed by now has become standard. I guess that was a gesture toward closure, and listeners do need closure—but so much gets swept under the floorboards when we do that.

Marvel Exhibition at MoPop Dazzles and Overwhelms

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At the exhibition entrance. Photo by Mich Hatfield.

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes (which opened this past Friday at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture) merits the hype. The exhibition turns the history of the Marvel superhero brand into a heroic narrative, framed in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is, with focus on the Marvel of recent movies and television. Yet running through it and grounding it is a rich sampling of original comic book art from 1939 to the 21st century. Staged in colorful, immersive sets, the show juxtaposes originals, published comic books, and outsized reproductions with newly created paintings and statues, movie props and costumes, and other memorabilia, all set to a thrumming music score in Avengers mode (courtesy of Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer) and introduced with a breathless seven-minute film prologue. From the start, the show packages the origin story of Marvel as high drama. Meanwhile, amid the celebration, curators’ text and interactive digital displays provide, for the very interested, historical depth and nuance. In other words, the exhibition strives after solid historiography within the context of gosh-wow mythology, a tension that leads to intriguing complexities for those willing to engage every medium and mode of learning that the show offers. My wife Mich and I spent hours in the show last Friday, and could have spent hours more if only we had had the superpowers needed to overcome aching feet and the need for food and sleep! It’s pretty overwhelming.

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Spidey and yours truly. Photo by Mich Hatfield.

Curated by Ben Saunders in collaboration with Matt Smith, Randy Duncan, Andréa Gilroy, and a complex team, and designed by SC Exhibitions, the show realizes the curatorial dream of “a comic book come to life” and exhibition-as-theme-park-ride. (I should acknowledge that Saunders and several other members of the team are close colleagues and friends of mine.) The largest official showing of Marvel artifacts ever, it seeks to appeal to multiple audiences, and I saw evidence last Friday that it had succeeded. During my time in the galleries, I watched visitors gush over everything from Steve Ditko originals (including, incredibly, a page from Spider-Man’s origin in Amazing Fantasy #15) to the prop Walkman used by the cinematic Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy. These auratic items—veritable talismans—are punctuated by succinct blurbs and digital displays, and by interactive artist’s “studio” simulations that shed light on comic book production methods, then and now. (I loved the simulation that allows users to “ink” a Kirby Thor page in the style of Colletta, Royer, or Theakston.) Some of the displays really get down into the weeds; attentive visitors can learn something about under-sung Marvel figures like Stan Goldberg, Marie Severin, Artie Simek, and Flo Steinberg.

Certain stops along the way raise bigger cultural questions that could support large exhibitions of their own. For example, exactly why were comic books targeted for suppression in the forties and fifties? Why did other genres eclipse the superhero after World War II? How can the formal affordances of the comic book page be used to depict action and violence? These issues are touched on glancingly, often in ways that might prod the curious to ask for more (or to go research the issues on their own, I hope). Other issues are posed more implicitly. For instance, why are many classic superhero stories premised on the death of beloved women? How or to what extent does this testify to sexism or misogyny? The exhibition includes examples of original art from three famous stories based on the deaths of prominent female characters: Gwen Stacy, Phoenix, and Elektra. All are impressive and important pieces, superhero classics even, but their co-presence in the exhibit calls out the genre’s reliance on this kind of gendered (and sometimes sexualized) violence.

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Original art from Miller’s DAREDEVIL. Photo by Mich Hatfield.

I should say more about this. The show’s climactic presentation of Frank Miller’s influential work on Daredevil—including Miller/Klaus Janson pages from issue #181 (April 1982) depicting the murder of Elektra that still have the power to shock—walks a tightrope between acknowledging the voyeurism and extreme violence of the story and OTOH keen analysis and appreciation of Miller’s artistry, especially in the area of page layout. Indeed, viewers are invited to reassemble comic book layouts jigsaw puzzle-style—a kind of pedagogical exercise I’ve often asked my students to do—in the very same alcove where the death of Elektra leaves such a disturbing impression. (Mich and I stopped and had a long talk here with scholar-artist-activist-teacher Leonard Rifas, whom we happily met while looking at the Miller pages.) The way formalism and ideological criticism collide in this space is a bit startling, suggesting a tug-of-war between different perspectives that seems to mark the exhibit as a whole. I would love to take a class full of students to the exhibition so that they could tease out some of these tensions on their own.

There are gaps in the show, naturally. My guess is that recent or still-ongoing interactions between Marvel and some of its licensees may have shaped what got included. For example, though The Fantastic Four’s founding role in Marvel Comics is clearly noted, FF pages are few. To be fair, a full minute of the opening film is devoted to the FF, and this lovely installation grabs your attention as soon as you’ve walked out of the film:

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Hanging out with the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing. The window behind him is animated, and turns up several surprises if you look long enough. Photo by Mich Hatfield.

This selfie-inviting space is one of the show’s highlights. I would have liked to see original art that demonstrated the FF’s importance as a source of other characters, such as the Inhumans, Silver Surfer, and Black Panther—but I did revel in this opening installation. Given the poor reputation of the FF’s film adaptations to date, and the state of editorially-enforced limbo that the title has been for more than five years, it’s encouraging to see Ben Grimm front and center.

It does seem to me that, while the exhibition is a treasure trove for comics fans, to some degree the history of the comic books is now hostage to the MCU brand. Properties that have proven generative in the comics but not yet spawned hit films, such as Kirby’s Eternals, are scanted. While certain properties are well  represented by both comic book art and movie costumes and props (the Black Panther installation does great work with the film’s costumes, for example), others have fewer or no movie items. Notably, the X-Men and Wolverine section lacks any film-related documentation. However, I should note that the sampling of original art in the X-Men section is very strong, with historic examples such as the Kane/Cockrum cover of Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975), the Byrne/Austin cover of Uncanny X-Men #136 (1980), two Miller/Rubinstein covers for the first Wolverine miniseries (1982), and a staggering collage by Bill Sienkiewicz (1984) that became this much-reproduced poster and cover image for The New Mutants:

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Classic NEW MUTANTS collage by Bill Sienkiewicz, 1984. Photo by Mich Hatfield.

(Longtime Marvel writer and editor Ann Nocenti, another key contributor to the exhibition, told me on Friday night that when she saw this piece on the wall she wept. Nocenti began her long tenure as editor of Marvel’s mutant titles in 1984, just before Sienkiwicz became lead artist on New Mutants.)

Other original art highlights in the show include Gene Colan and Joe Sinnott’s cover for Captain America #117 (1969) introducing the Falcon; Jim Steranko’s brilliant cover for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 (1968); and, holy cow, a surviving “Sub-Mariner” page by Bill Everett for Marvel Comics #1 (1939–the very first “Marvel” comic!). Generally, the exhibit places comic book art and movie artifacts side by side where possible, but the mix is ever-changing. In some cases the absence of original art seems to call forth the designers’ creative powers as if to compensate, as with the Ben Grimm installation or a splendid, disorienting Doctor Strange installation that I call the Ditkoverse. Said installation uses animated Ditko images and mirrors to dizzying effect (while also displaying costumes from that film).

 

(All photos by Mich Hatfield.)

As pure history, the exhibition does present some problems, including neglect of other comic book publishers and of Marvel comics outside of superheroes, inattention to the ways that other genres influenced the superhero, and only fitful attention to socio-historical context, that is, how shifts in social mores and entertainment media reshaped the superhero and the industry. The superhero genre does not stand in isolation—not in comic book or in film history—and attention to how Marvel worked with and against the times would help. (On the plus side, one digital display notes the company’s long history of frankly imitating other publishers’ successes—that’s really the story of “Marvel,” as we now call it, for most of its first twenty-plus years.) I suspect that spacing and design constraints, as well as a complicated collaborative process with multiple stakeholders, discouraged the exhibition from wandering too far from the path of “Marvel” per se, but I’ve long held that the history of the superhero, or of any company’s superheroes, cannot be told without reference to other genres and forces.

Those caveats aside, I feel like gushing—and that is an odd position for me to be in, as one who has spent time boycotting Marvel comics and films. I was happy to see Jack Kirby spotlighted from the very start of the show, essentially presented as cofounder of the Marvel Universe. The exhibition takes up the official history of Marvel as revised since the Marvel v. Kirby settlement of 2014, and fills out that history more than I usually see. Essentially, it brings Kirby to the fore as co-creator, with Stan Lee, of most of the founding Marvel properties. Lee and Kirby are characterized here as a partnership, with Kirby supplying characters and concepts even for Marvel titles he did not officially launch as penciler. This somewhat makes up for the relative shortage of original Kirby pages in the show (note that giant reproductions of Kirby art are all around). However, the official narrative of Lee deciding to give comics one more try and then reaching out to Kirby to help him—a narrative that I can’t quite credit—remains. Martin Goodman, the company’s founder, longtime owner, and boss, registers in this story but vaguely; Kirby’s interactions with Goodman are not discussed. Stan and Jack (the two Disney Legends) are the thing. Me, I wonder whether Kirby presented Lee and/or Goodman a raft of ideas in the early sixties, ideas that became the backbone of the Marvel Universe. I wonder about Kirby’s role as catalyst, and about his understanding of the terms of the collaboration, going in. That remains speculative. Suffice to say that Kirby has moved front and center, or alongside Lee at least, in the official narrative, and I was glad to see that repositioning affirmed in the show from the entryway onward.

I will say that Mich and I had a wonderful time at the exhibition. It’s a joy. I would love to be able to see it again and luxuriate in its spaces. More than an assemblage of stuff, Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes is a feat of habitable design and spatial and visual rhetoric—in Disney parlance, imagineering. More importantly, at least to me, it is anchored by an informed respect for the artists who first built the Marvel Universe and a fascination with the pages they made. This navigable spectacle is not just spectacular—it’s a scholarly work, even if perhaps hemmed in by commercial considerations. Credit must go to Ben Saunders and his fellow scholars for highlighting the artists who drew Marvel into being—for making clear, by design, that it is comic artists who are the source of Marvel’s expanded, transmedia universe.

 

(All photos by Mich Hatfield.)

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes runs at Seattle’s MoPop until January 6, 2019. It will be traveling to other cities after that, over the next three to four years. If you care at all about comics or superheroes or contemporary blockbuster movies—or about the role of Kirby in launching Marvel—I highly recommend you find a way to see it. Plan on spending some hours with it, and wear good walking shoes!

Personal PS. What a pleasure to talk to people at the exhibition like José Alaniz (a.k.a. Reed Richards), Randy Duncan, Danny Fingeroth, Andréa Gilroy and Shaun Gilroy, Tobias Kunz, Annie Nocenti, Eric Reynolds, Leonard Rifas, Jenny Robb, Rob Salkowitz and Eunice Verstegen, Ben Saunders and Larisa Devine, Christophe Scholz, and Matt Smith and his family. Good company! And thank you above all to Mich Hatfield for sharing these trips with me (and taking photos!) and making everything better.

MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes

MoPop's Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes (banner)

Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes, at MoPop. Art by Nick Bradshaw.

This weekend my wife Michele and I will be traveling to Seattle to take in the opening of MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes, the new, and reportedly very large and spectacular, exhibition at the Museum of Popular Culture (MoPop). Call this a belated birthday gift to self. The exhibition opens with a VIP Reception and Opening Party this Friday evening, April 20, and runs until January 6 of 2019.

The show—MoPop’s largest ever, and, I believe, the largest exhibition of Marvel artifacts ever—has been curated by my colleague Ben Saunders, founder of Comics and Cartoon Studies at the University of Oregon. Ben was a consultant, vital contributor, and catalog co-editor for our 2015 Jack Kirby exhibition at the CSUN Art Galleries, and has curated several other excellent comics exhibitions. Co-curating with Ben are my colleagues Matt Smith (Radford University) and Randy Duncan (Henderson State University). The project has also involved MoPOP curators Brooks Peck and Jacob McMurray, comics writer-editors Ann Nocenti and Danny Fingeroth, and another colleague of mine, Andréa Gilroy, also of the UO’s Comics Studies community (and Comics Crash Course). MARVEL: Universe of Super Heroes is jointly produced by German exhibitions company SC Exhibitions, MoPop, and Marvel Entertainment. It sounds as if it’s well worth the trip!

I understand that the exhibition has a theme park-like, immersive quality, with complex installations, statues, paintings, and film props and costumes, as well as original comic art, rare comic books, and other memorabilia. The Seattle Times‘s Paul Constant offered a mouth-watering sneak peek today (and last fall Forbes‘s Rob Salkowitz, also in Seattle, gave a useful heads-up).

I will be anxious to see how the exhibition tells the story of Marvel’s founding and early days, and of course what sort of presence Kirby’s work and career story have in the show (Constant’s article, I note, does not mention Kirby at all, which is a shame). Obviously, I’ve talked to Ben Saunders about this show (we began chatting about it long before it took its final form), and I’ve learned a great deal about curating from Ben’s insightful and committed work in that area—so I’m eager to see how it has all turned out. My sense is that it became a truly collaborative juggernaut and is going to be a bit eye-boggling. Can’t wait!

I look forward to meeting with colleague José Alaniz and hopefully other members of the Seattle comics community this weekend. I’ll be back with a report—with pictures, I hope!

Spider-Man statue at MoPop

Spider-Man at MoPop. Photo by exhibition designer Tobias Kunz, courtesy of Christoph Scholz of SC Exhibitions and Andréa Gilroy, via Facebook.

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