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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