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.

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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

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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!

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

Kirby (and Kirby Studies) in Moselle

 

Nov. 11, 2017. Studying Kirby never gets old. These past few days I’ve been in Metz, France, learning new ways to think about him and his work.

Metz lies in France’s northeast corner, in the region of Lorraine, not far from the German border. It belongs to the Département (i.e. administrative region) of Moselle—that is, within the Moselle River valley. It is about an hour and a half’s ride (by super-fast TGV train) from Paris. To me-—to my awestruck American eyes—it seems like a pleasant city that wears its history like a badge. It’s home to the Saulcy campus of the University of (Université de) Lorraine, or UdL, which is where I’ve been these past few days.

To commemorate this, Kirby’s centennial year, the Département of Moselle is paying tribute to him and his work with a series of comics-related events and exhibitions (see kirbysuperheros.fr). That is what brought me to the UdL.

Metz was a pivotal place in Kirby’s life—which is an understatement. As a 27-year-old combat infantryman in World War Two, Kirby took part in La Bataille (Battle) de Metz, which raged in the Moselle from September to December 1944. He was lucky to survive; most of his comrades-in-arms did not.

To be specific, the 11th Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division of Patton’s Third Army came to Metz in early September 1944. From September 8th to 10th, Kirby and some 1200 other soldiers took part in an ill-fated bid to cross the Moselle at Dornot-Corny (Dornot being a village on the west side of the river, and Corny a village on the opposite shore). They were ordered to establish a bridgehead and drive the Germans from the Fort St. Blaise. Opposing them were battle-worn German soldiers reassigned from the Russian front (the Voss battalion), as well as fresh graduates from a SS school (the Berg battalion) and elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. The Moselle had become a heavily defended German frontier, so the Metz campaign was hard-fought and brutal. Dornot-Corny in particular became a disaster. The Americans were poorly informed and ill-prepared; lines of communication were tangled, and roads clogged; rain poured down, and the waters of the Moselle were ice-cold. Expected support did not come, and artillery support, when it came, inadvertently killed Americans (“friendly fire”). The Germans, for their part, rained artillery on the Americans nonstop; shells whistled and howled through the air, explosions ripped up the ground. Many Americans huddled in makeshift foxholes in a small wood that they came to call Horseshoe Wood (named for the horseshoe-shaped pattern of the troops’ movement). Trees were blasted apart—wooden shrapnel flew—and the woods were laid bare.

The roughly mile and a half of territory around Dornot-Corny became a killing ground. Of the 1200 Americans who went into it, 945 were eventually reported lost or wounded. Within days, American troops did establish a bridgehead further south, at Arnaville, but Dornot-Corny was remembered, if it all, as a defeat—the kind of thing armies would prefer not to remember, in fact. Indeed Dornot-Corny been has been described as “une bataille oubliée” (a forgotten battle). The people of Metz, however, have worked to make sure that it is not forgotten, and the events of September 8-10 are now memorialized as “60 hours in hell.”

Jack Kirby lived through that.

I visited Dornot-Corny two days ago. I will say more about that in a later post, and hopefully with a few photos. It was an oddly appropriate Veterans’ Day observance, so to speak. Suffice to say for now that the experience was moving and eye-opening, and I will not forget it. Thank you to Elisabeth Gozzo and the Association Thanks GIs for working so hard to preserve the memory of the soldiers and their sacrifice.*

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How and why did I get to Metz? I was invited to speak at the colloquy or symposium Expérience autobiographique et bande dessinée de genre: le récit de soi in spaces contraints (Autobiographical Experience and Genre Comics: Self-Narratives in Constrained Contexts), organized by scholar Jean-Matthieu Méon of the CREM (Centre de eEcherche sur les Médiations, or Center for Media Research) at the UdL. The impetus for this colloquy was Kirby’s centenary, as indicated by the subtitle Autour de Jack Kirby et de son passage en Moselle/Traces of Jack Kirby’s War in Moselle—thus the symposium built on Moselle’s larger Kirby tribute. Méon worked generously, tirelessly, to involve me in the symposium, arrange my travel to France, and make sure I understood things despite my language deficit—for which I cannot thank him enough. (Merci mille fois, Jean-Matthieu!)

The colloquy consisted of two days’ conversation in the UdL’s Salle Ferrari (a conference room arranged in concentric rings and with microphones everywhere!). Its main purpose, to paraphrase Jean-Matthieu, was to talk about Kirby, his life, his style, and his development, in order to talk more broadly about the category of “autobiographical comics”; or, in other words, to “expand the repertoire of authors, works, and formal strategies to consider when discussing the expression of autiobiography in comics.” As both autobiographical comics and Kirby are deep interests of mine, I was thrilled to have been invited. Moreover, the opportunity to talk about Kirby in a European context was something I had never experienced before—and frankly I had not realized how deeply Kirby’s work has affected so many readers outside of anglophone North America. To see such strong, firsthand evidence of this has been a great experience. Kirby studies is international!

Fourteen scholars gave papers: eight from France, three from Belgium, one from the UK, and two (including myself) from the US. In addition, Jean-Matthieu framed the event with opening and closing remarks, establishing a rich theoretical and historical context for our discussions. Following, in order of presentation, are brief notes about the talks. Some addressed Kirby particularly, while others dealt with different topics at the intersection of comics and autobiography studies:

  • Benoît Crucifix of the University of Liège, Belgium (whom I had met before), spoke on autobiographical readings of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley in the archival reprint volumes organized by Chris Ware and Jeet Heer.
  • Benoît Tellez spoke on autobiographical dimensions of Winsor McCay’s comics.
  • Maaheen Ahmed discussed authorial presence in works situated between autobiography and genre comics, including works by Pratt, Seagle and Kristiansen, and Larcenet, and how those works construct author-personas by invoking memories of past comics as well as memories of other media incorporated by comics.
  • Jean-Charles Andries de Levis discussed Alex Barbier’s Lettres au maire de V., and how the image of the werewolf in that and other works takes on an autobiographical function.
  • Benoît Glaude explored the phenomenon of pseudo-autobiographical texts attributed to comics characters (Little Nicholas, Corto Maltese, etc.), i.e. “the passage of non-autobiographical comics through the autobiographical literary genre.”
  • Pascal Robert spoke on the drawn signatures of cartoonist André Franquin and how those signatures assert the individuality and status of the author and renegotiate the relationship between author and editorial/publishing establishment.
  • Bounthavy Suvilay presented on the work of mangaka Hiroyuki Arakawa and how that work, as it conveys the story of a community rather than giving an individual confession, does not subscribe to Western conceptions of autobiography as genre but instead follows models specific to Japan.
  • Jean-Matthieu Méon spoke on the autobiographical works of the late Sam Glanzman and how they both conform to and exceed the conventional straits of the war comic genre.
  • Hugo Frey (University of Chichester, UK), with whom I have worked but whom I had never met, spoke on Hugo Pratt’s contributions to British war comics (Fleetway’s War Picture Library) in the late 1950s to early 60s, and how hints of Pratt’s later expressionistic style emerge even in these highly conventionalized comics.
  • Laura Caraballo (presenting a paper written in collaboration with Roberto Bartual) explored Kirby’s treatment of the sublime and the “concern for pure form” that emerges in the second half of his career, in relation to abstraction, Pop Art, and psychedelic art.
  • Éric Maigret presented on contested or fractured masculinity (or conflicts between hegemonic and subordinate masculinities) as the ground of Kirby’s personal and professional struggles, as revealed in diverse works.
  • Mathieu Li-Goyette (Université de Montréal, Canada) spoke on how Kirby’s war comics address the self “in a context of brotherhood” and heterogeneity, as analyzed within a schizoanalytic framework informed by the theories of Deleuze and Guattari.
  • Steven Brower (Skyping in from the US) discussed Kirby’s late works, particularly OMAC, as prophetic and dystopian “cautionary tales.”

I had the honor of leading off the colloquy with a keynote exploring Kirby’s changing view of war via his depictions of Japanese soldiers in two very different comics, one “The Treachery of Osuki,” a Boy Commandos story from Detective Comics #68 (Oct. 1942), and the other “Bushido,” a Losers story from Our Fighting Forces #154 (April 1975). My goal was to contrast early Kirby and late Kirby regarding the way he imagined the “enemy” and the nature of heroism in war—and to show how Kirby moved from wartime propaganda to more complex views. Along the way, I indulged my growing interest in the “kid gang” genre of comics pioneered by Kirby and Joe Simon in the early 1940s, and sought to place that genre in the context of Kirby’s autobiography as well as popular culture influences.

 

I wish I could share photos from the actual symposium proceedings, but I did not get any good ones of the speakers speaking—partly because the setting was small and intimate and I didn’t want to make anyone feel awkward, and partly because most of the presentations were in French and I was straining to understand them. The colloquy included both French and English talks, but frankly when it comes to French, I have seulement un trop petit peu (though this trip has given me some practice) and cannot converse in the language, so I relied on notes and impromptu help from colleagues. Fortunately, all presenters used PowerPoint, and most embedded in their slideshows text in whatever language they were not speaking; in my case, for example, I prepared French-language text for my talk. So that meant that I could follow the outlines of arguments in cases where I could not grasp the details of language. But I was keenly aware of my language deficit and working hard to show that I was listening and trying to understand—an occasionally frustrating experience, but overall the group worked hard to realize Jean-Matthieu Méon’s vision of a truly international summit. Everyone was gracious about it. I have to say, it was intense to spend so much energy trying to pick out whatever words I could recognize; fortunately, most presenters explicitly framed their talks in terms of theoretical perspective, methodology, and corpus of study, and those academic habits, which I’m familiar with, helped make up for my lack of fluency in the language. (In all, six presentations were in English and eight in French.)

This was a tremendous intellectual workout for me, and a great social occasion too. I got to make new friends, stretch my understanding, get a renewed feel for French language and culture, and—as I’ve said—learn that there are diverse international perspectives on Kirby. I only wish that I could have made it Metz earlier this year, and spent more time there, so as to fully experience the region’s celebration of Kirby (again, see kirbysuperheros.fr).

Once again, my deepest thanks to Jean-Matthieu Méon and his colleagues for making this happen!

KIRBY VIT!

*(My two main sources for the above account of the battle at Dornot-Corny are, one, my memories of conversations at the battle site, particularly the recollections of historian Elisabeth Gozzo; and two, the commemorative booklet Une bataille oubliée: les têtes de pont de Dornot-Corny et d’Arnaville, 2009, partly written by Gozzo and sponsored by the Office National does Anciens de la Moselle and the Association Thanks GIs, which Gozzo leads. They have done some wonderful “memory work” to make sure that the terrors and sacrifices of the War are not forgotten.)

CSUN Celebrates Kirby’s 100th

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Kirby lives.

This coming Monday, August 28, is Jack Kirby’s birthday—I call that Kirby Day. What’s more, this particular August the 28th would have been Kirby’s 100th birthday, his centenary. To think of what Kirby lived through, from his boyhood on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, to his passing in 1994, fills me with awe, and his work continues to fill me with a sort of tongue-tied gratitude for its never-ending richness. I try to observe Kirby Day on this blog every year, but on this 100th anniversary it seems especially urgent.

Monday the 28th also happens to be the first weekday of the new (Fall 2017) semester at my school, California State University, Northridge. That these two events—one the centennial of an artist vital to comics, visual culture, and my own life, and the other the perhaps-routine but still always exciting start of a new school term—should coincide seems a bit crazy, but too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. So CSUN, and particularly the Comics@CSUN initiative that I head, will be commemorating Kirby’s 100th in two ways:

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First, I have curated an exhibit of Kirby works from the 1940s to the 1980s, called Jack Kirby @ 100. This exhibit consists mainly of comic books, photographs, and art prints, and will be up in the Oviatt Library’s Music & Media wing from August 25 (that was today) through October 1. From The Boy Commandos  and Young Love to Captain Victory and The Hunger Dogs, this show gives a small but vivid window onto Kirby’s comic book career.

Second, this Monday the 28th—Kirby Day, the centennial edition!—I will be moderating a panel discussion with two great, Kirby-inspired comics creators who have taken Kirby’s influence in their own unexpected and original directions: Mark Badger and Tony Puryear. The panel will take place in the Oviatt Library’s Jack & Florence Ferman Presentation Room from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., and will be followed by a visit to the exhibit (upstairs).

Both the exhibit and the panel discussion are FREE and open to the public—readers, please feel free to drop in! For more info, see the Comics@CSUN Events page, or just visit the CSUN homepage. And please help spread the word via social media, with the hashtags #KirbyAt100 and #ComicsAtCSUN. Thanks!

It’s been a challenge to do these things while also preparing new courses for a new semester—but there’s no way I could let this centennial pass without officially observing it at CSUN! Thanks to the University and all my colleagues and sponsors who helped make this happen, and to the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center for their unstinting support! (Check out the Museum’s own schedule of Kirby centennial events this weekend, at its popup museum in NYC’s One Art Space.)

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PS. Don’t forget to support Jillian Kirby’s annual charity drive, Kirby 4 Heroes, which raises funds for the Hero Initiative, a nonprofit that supports veteran comics creators in need! Each year the drive has been raising more and more money—let’s make Kirby’s centenary a record-breaking year! This is a project Jack Kirby would have been behind 100 percent.

Kirby lives.

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