Listen to Mythology in Newsprint on KUNV

FD460EDA-D439-4842-BBD6-634D293241A5

News: Audio of my Kirby talk “Mythology in Newsprint,” which I gave at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on April 26, is now up for listening online, thanks to KUNV, the Public Radio station at UNLV, and its program UNLV Speaks:

http://kunv.org/april-26-2019/

(Thanks in particular to KUNV’s Kevin Krall and Dave Nourse.)

This talk covers Kirby’s role in the creation of the Marvel Universe, the nature of “Marvel style” comic book production in the 1960s, and the importance of cartooning as narrative drawing (as opposed to illustration). It draws passages from Hand of Fire as well as the introductory essay to the Comic Book Apocalypse exhibit catalog that Ben Saunders and I wrote together. The talk concludes with some thoughts on the self-reflexive, sometimes self-questioning tendency in Kirby’s later work, and in particular a reading of Kamandi #29 (“The Legend,” May 1975), in which Kirby reflects on superheroes as mythic figures.

The talk incorporated scores of images (mostly drawn by Jack Kirby) timed to my comments, and unfortunately those aren’t visible through this radio broadcast — but I hope that the argument is clear and my enthusiasm carries over. At one or two points you can hear me refer to opening remarks by Ben Morse (Visiting Lecturer in Social Media at UNLV, and former Editorial Director of New Media at Marvel), who kindly introduced me. The audio here lasts an hour (though it does not include the post-talk Q&A that the audience and I had together).

This talk was part of the UNLV College of Liberal Arts’ University Forum Lecture Series (and ironically happened on the official opening day of Avengers: Endgame). Thanks to Ben and all who had a part in bringing me to UNLV and hosting me so graciously — including the institutional co-sponsors, UNLV’s Departments of English and History, World Literature Seminar, Great Works Academic Certificate Program, and College of Fine Arts. Most of all, I want to thank, again, my friend and fellow Kirby-head, Jarret Keene, poet, scholar, and Assistant Professor in Residence and World Literature Coordinator for the UNLV English Department. Jarret invited me out and made this gig possible — and his own insights about Kirby are provocative and important. Check out his work, and look forward to more of his writing on Kirby in the years ahead. He’ll open your eyes.

Thanks, Jarret!

PS. As I’ve said on this blog before, I met so many good people during that lightning trip to Vegas. My thanks to them all.

Advertisements

Mythology in Newsprint: PS

DD915820-98AB-4140-A238-93EB6E7480AC.jpeg

The crowd awaits (John Hay and Jenessa Kenway in the foreground).

Last Friday I had an oh-so-brief but fantastic visit to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where I gave my talk “Mythology in Newsprint,” interacted (and talked Kirby!) with some wonderful people, and signed and sold copies of Hand of Fire. The talk happened at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art (which is great—check out the current exhibition, Sorry for the Mess), as part of the UNLV College of Liberal Arts’ University Forum Lecture Series. We drew a full house on a Friday night—not too shabby for a university lecture! (Of course there were jokes about choosing between a lecture and Avengers: Endgame.)

I spoke at length—man, what a patient crowd—about Kirby’s co-authorship of the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, the primacy of narrative drawing in the Marvel production process, how Kirby changed the superhero genre, and finally, how his later work, starting in the 1970s, became increasingly self-reflexive, as Kirby ironically commented on his work, his field, and his fans—a point borne out by a brief reading of Kamandi #29 (1975), “The Legend.”

9102DACE-F81A-46FE-862F-CFD9C8690D6E.jpeg

The UNLV crowd was gracious, engaged, and delightful. Q&A was robust, the conversation in the lobby afterward was warm and welcoming, and the kind remarks and thought-provoking follow-up I received from so many people were profoundly encouraging. Thank you all!

40E2F54D-4A79-40B8-89EE-845C08F47FE4.jpeg

Getting started. Looping a couple of splash pages from THE NEW GODS just before the talk was a last-minute choice.

Particular thanks are due, once again, to organizer Jarret Keene, my fellow Kirby scholar and friend and a great writer:

DBEB8BC1-9A1D-493D-AC8F-3233DD90796E.jpeg

Jarret (Monster Fashion) Keene, without whom…

It was a delight to spend time with Jarret, after a gap of too many years, and to meet his partner Dr. Jennifer Keene, Interim Dean of Liberal Arts at UNLV, as well as their boys Dylan and Devon. Likewise, it was lovely to meet and talk to Jarret’s colleagues, among them Dr. John Hay (of the English Department, author of Postapocalyptic Fantasies in Antebellum American Literature) and Ben Morse (Visiting Lecturer in Social Media, and former Editorial Director of New Media at Marvel Entertainment), who kindly introduced my talk. Also, I got to meet and talk to creators Ariel Sparx and Edward Tyndall; members of the Barrick Museum team, including Deanne (D.K.) Sole and LeiAnn Huddleston, who helped me out a lot; and members of the UNLV English graduate student community, including Carly Hunter, Jenessa Kenway, and Gary Lindeburg—all of whom are doing mind-expanding research.

Finally, I have to say, it was a thrill to meet artist and author J.H. Williams III, whose conversation is as wide-ranging, joyful, and energetic as his work is brilliant, and the delightful team of Ralph Mathieu and his wife Katherine Keller, of Alternate Reality Comics—a great shop that, thanks to Jarret, I got to visit on Saturday before flying out. I regret that I didn’t get very many pictures of these fine people and spaces, but here’s one:

5E16459C-A2AD-43AE-A2C6-0E8D16E22B30.jpeg

Jarret Keene (left) and Ralph Mathieu in the middle of Ralph’s eye-boggling super-shop, Alternate Reality.

What a pleasure. I lead a charmed life. If my wife Michele could have joined me in Vegas, the experience would have been perfect! I look forward to visiting again—and to collaborating with Jarret Keene on other things Kirby-related (regarding which, watch this space for future announcements).

PS. I believe that KUNV (the Public Radio station at UNLV) will post audio of my talk in the coming weeks. I’ll link to that when it happens!

Mythology in Newsprint at UNLV!

Newsflash! Tomorrow, Friday, April 26, 2019, I’ll be at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, giving a talk titled “Mythology in Newsprint: Jack Kirby on Heroes, Demigods, and Comic Book Fandom,” as part of the UNLV College of Liberal Arts’ University Forum Lecture Series.

3D0B6033-4D3B-4B67-B8F0-7846D303A9C5

This talk will take place from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art / Harry Reid Center, Room 135. It will focus on Kirby’s role in the revival and transformation of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, his mature turn toward myth fiction and epic fantasy, and, as I near the end, the self-reflexive questioning that marks his late work. Expect a ton of images, much talk about narrative drawing, and several minutes on Kamandi! Books will be sold and signed afterward.

I promise that this image will be involved (click for a better look):

A15CF4F3-1EE1-4EF3-BAF1-99A2CA71CC2C

I owe this opportunity to the co-sponsorship of UNLV’s Departments of English and History, World Literature Second-Year Seminar, Great Works Academic Certificate Program, and College of Fine Arts — and to the generosity of my friend and fellow Kirby scholar, Jarret Keene, Assistant Professor in Residence and World Literature Coordinator for the UNLV English Department.

F27D2B72-5CE3-4AB5-ABB9-1F35A02F4D17.jpeg

Jarret is a widely published poet, a musician, a journalist, the author of Monster Fashion (2002), A Boy’s Guide to Arson (2009), and the rock band bio The Killers: Destiny Is Calling Me (2006), editor or co-editor of several Vegas-themed anthologies, and a fiercely original soul who is writing his own book about Kirby (I can’t wait!). Our friendship dates back to, I think, 1998, and he was one of the editorial voices who helped Hand of Fire become a better, more focused book, for which I can’t thank him enough.

Vegas, here I come!

RIP Greg Theakston (1953-2019)

Sad news: Greg Theakston—publisher, artist, former convention organizer (The Detroit Triple Fan Fair), longtime member of Neal Adams’s Continuity Studios, Kirby inker (The Hunger Dogs; Super Powers) and Kirby scholar—has passed away at the age of 65. My condolences to his colleagues and loved ones.

Theakston published, under his Pure Imagination imprint, a great many books of vintage comics and of comics history. For me, especially early on, his books on Kirby were valuable compendiums of comics and lore, anecdote and example. Especially important to me were the two volumes of his biographical  Jack Kirby Treasury (1982; 1991), the several volumes in his Complete Jack Kirby reprint project, and the second edition (2000) of his reprint of Kirby’s classic comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force. While the artwork in Theakston’s comic book reprints was typically drawn from published comics that had been stripped of color through a destructive chemical process nicknamed “Theakstonizing,” and thus did not quite do justice to the comics as originally printed, these collections did the great service of filling in what had been only vague outlines in my mind before. I got a hands-on feeling for Kirby’s early work from these tomes. In addition, Theakston’s two-volume biography of Kirby, Jack Magic (2011), is well worth seeking out, peppered as it is with insights and quoted remarks drawn from his personal acquaintance with Kirby. Along with biographers Mark Evanier, Ronin Ro, the late Stan Taylor, and Ray Wyman, Jr., Theakston sought to make sense of Kirby’s life and career, even as he sought to bring evidence of that career before our eyes via reprints. Beyond Kirby, too, Theakston provided such resources as his Pure Image magazine and various “readers” devoted to generally public-domain material by classic cartoonists like Jack Cole, Lou Fine, and Wally Wood. So, Theakston did a lot, and taught me and other readers a fair amount.

True, I learned to be critical of Theakston’s books. As I see them now, they tend to be haphazardly edited and aesthetically barren; the Pure Imagination “house style” is functional but graceless. Further, the books were high-priced, and aimed strictly at a captive audience of specialists. Most vanished quickly. Theakston moved on, his books seemingly a random scattering rather than any sort of coherent pattern. (His Complete Jack Kirby was anything but.) Moreover, Theakston became a vexing figure in recent years; in 2014, he publicly accused the Jack Kirby Museum of stealing more than 3000 photocopies of Kirby’s art from him (a claim disputed by the Kirby estate itself). That dustup caused some Kirby devotees to turn away from him, shaking their heads. I was one.

I never “got” Theakston artistically. Despite his enthusiasm for Kirby, aesthetically he seemed worlds away from what excited me about Kirby’s art. I gather that Theakston was a prolific magazine and paperback cover illustrator, but the samples of his work I’ve seen strike me as beholden to pulp nostalgia in ways that interest me no longer. He inked Kirby in ways that struck me as more tame than dynamic. What’s more, I have to admit I’m a skeptic when it comes to the brand of retro glam-cheesecake-pinup art that seemed to hold him in thrall and fueled some of his longest-lived publishing efforts (The Bettie Pages; Tease). Theakston’s way with paint seemed to have more to do with that kind of Vargas/Elvgren aesthetic than the rowdy cartooning of Kirby, and, well, I’m no convert. But it would be mean and foolish of me to deny that I benefited from his nostalgia, his enthusiasm, his immersion in vintage comic and pulp art. There was a time when I snagged every Pure Imagination book on Kirby that I could, and I see a bunch of them on my shelves, right here.

My one brief meeting with Greg Theakston (which convention was that at?) led to nothing; he seemed uninterested. But that makes no difference; the important thing to me is that he showed me aspects of Kirby I had never seen before, and helped me get a clearer picture. In particular, his 1982 Kirby Treasury meant a lot to me. So, thanks to Mr. Theakston for being a Kirby studies pioneer. RIP.

 

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.

Advertisements