comics

STAN - SOME KIND OF A MAN

I know parents who tell their kids about metaphors and meaning way before those concepts are useful. Maybe they’re hoping it'll prepare them for the exams they fear, which often amount to preparation in turn for a job they’ll come to hate. I was lucky - my mum and dad told me stories instead. Mum’s adventures in Italy working as a nanny for a Jewish family who came to Britain to flee the Nazis. Dad’s escapades dispensing rail warrants during national service, one reason I came to love the Bilko show - resentment of the army made up for by the opportunities it presented to the nimble of thought. It taught me that school, and systems like it, could be gamed.

The books of legends I devoured gave me a feel for the epic, the magical, of right and wrong and the ways they can be thwarted. Comics had crossed my path, but at that point I’d enjoyed them - humour stories mostly - without them making a real impact. And then I encountered superhero comics. All of the stuff about justice, and honour, that moved great heroes like Thor and Lancelot to do greater things to make the world right - it was there in the glorious stories of costumed adventurers living in a world more or less like our own. There was even a superhero version of Thor, and a kid who called out Shazam - the initials of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury - to transform into a champion.

The first superhero comics I came across were from DC. I was ill, at my gran’s place in Devon, and to occupy me she opened up a trunk of comics collected by one of my uncles. Whatever delirium I was experiencing was heightened by those four-colour beauties, even more when the first I read turned out to be a parallel world story with two versions of each character. The effect was kaleidoscopic, but it was Marvel I turned to when I started buying comics of my own. Something about the characters registered more. Like me, they were flawed.

It wasn’t just the heroes, and what they got up to, brilliant though it often was. John Buscema’s art on The Avengers had a vital urgency that felt indefinably right; Jack Kirby’s depiction of the noble and stoic Black Bolt was Shakespearean - a mute king and his court; the intense emotions and cosmic scope of Jim Starlin’s hero Adam Warlock were dwarfed only by the ideas underpinning his story; Jean Grey’s tragic transition from her early role as Marvel Girl before becoming first Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic run on X-Men. I was buying many of my comics second hand, imports from the last decade I hoovered up at random, piecing together my particular version of the Marvel universe. And I got to know the names of their creators thanks to the Bullpen Bulletins that would appear in every issue. They were put together by the man at the heart of it all, Stan Lee.

Those promotional pieces were brilliant. They presented creators like Rascally Roy Thomas and Ring-A-Ding Romita hanging out in a clubhouse for grown-ups. The truth was probably more Made Men from what I gather, but I was 12 and excited by hints about forthcoming stories that would shake the foundations of this or that character. Sometimes there’d be word of new heroes to come, like The Human Fly (a rare disappointment from the House of Ideas). And it was all written in the breathless carnival barker tone that James Ellroy does so well at public events.

Stan Lee was a huckster, a shill, a hustler with a heart of gold and a tendency not to give his collaborators the credit they deserve. But he loved his characters, and Marvel, and knew how to connect with kids through stories that looked tacky to some but often featured a wider vocabulary than the newspapers read by those who looked down on them. Stan’s Soapbox was the centrepiece of the Bullpen Bulletins. Here’s a chunk from one he wrote in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was shot:

"Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can't be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them, is to expose them — to reveal the insidious evil they really are."

Stan was talking about the legacy of World War Two and the history of his family. Like many who shaped the evolution of American comics - Will Eisner, Max Gaines, Bob Kane, Julius Schwarz among them - Stan Lee was Jewish. His experience growing up in an immigrant family shaped the publications that went out with his name on, never mind how much work he put into them. That’s stuff for another day, and Stan was like us all of his time. The morality that came across in the comics he had a big hand in creating is pretty straightforward, and it’s notable that very few of the characters created since Marvel’s 60s and 70s heyday have taken off with the public.

The Marvel films we watch feature heroes from that earlier era. Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk and others are characters whose very simplicity - the core of each can be captured in a handful of words - allows them to be vehicles for some great stories. Their designs, thanks to Kirby, and others including Steve Ditko and Dave Cockrum, have more or less stood the test of time. Interesting that the characters which have taken off more recently are anti-heroes like Wolverine, Punisher, and Deadpool.

Stan’s fictional world was a simpler one than ours, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of simplicity in creating stories for the young. Complexity will find them in time. Allow at least the possibility of being influenced by the values that led Spider-Man to look after Aunt May after his actions caused the death of Uncle Ben. With great power comes great responsibility, indeed. And if your own family is too confusing, be inspired by the Fantastic Four, who argue and fall out, but are always there for each other when the chips are down and Mole Man is threatening to collapse their Baxter Building home with his infernal digging. Or take a tip from Black Bolt, who knows things so dread that even to open his mouth will level a city. Stan Lee seems a million miles away from the Inhuman monarch, but there’s something they have in common, expressed in Stan’s familiar sign-off…

‘Nuff said.

THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING

Two of my favourite art forms are uniquely American - jazz and comics. And one way to articulate my enthusiasm for the work of comics legend Jack 'King' Kirby is through talking about jazz. Specifically, jazz in 1959.

In that year, an album was released that changed the face of music. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis is a beautiful, spare, and understated masterpiece, as So What continues to make clear. In comics, the equivalent might be the work of Alex Toth, who never drew a line that wasn't essential to convey his intent - look here for some of what Toth was doing in 1959. Every line is about telling the story, nothing is superfluous.

Compare to what Kirby was up to in the same year - he tells the story, but he's captivated by the chance to add detail. Each robot gives him a chance to come up with a new design, and the tech in the background is guaranteed to get a child's mind wondering just what function the switches and buttons have. It's every grown up's caricature of what comics are and why many wouldn't let their children read them, an explosion of grotesque imagination by an uncensored mind.

Kind of Blue is celebrated still. Rightly so - it's a thing of rare beauty. Just as highly touted at the time was the record Ah Um by Charles Mingus. It blares, it stomps, and people whoop and clap - where Miles transforms jazz into something elegant, Mingus is fascinated by its roots in churches and brothels, brandishing them while at the same time bringing different kinds of sophistication than those Miles was then fascinated by to a sometimes raw setting.

Mingus isn't talked about much these days. He's one for the connoisseurs. Something similar has happened with Kirby in some respects. His style went out of fashion at some point in the seventies, and many artists took pride in doing more 'realistic' illustration. But by then Jack Kirby had already created pretty much all the building blocks of what went out under the Marvel name. The Hulk. Captain America. Fantastic Four. Black Panther. X-Men. Thor (in his comics incarnation). Ant Man. Silver Surfer. There are at least a hundred other characters he created for Marvel alone.

Even if you don't follow comics, you'll know those characters, because of the films which they appear in. Sadly, Kirby never got to see the full impact he would come to have on popular culture, and was treated very badly by Marvel, who only now after his death are acknowledging his significance. Without him, Marvel would have a lot less to offer the world. Very few of their characters post-Kirby have taken off, and the publisher is now trying to persuade fans to be charmed by a reinvented version of Jack's creations The Inhumans despite none of the new characters having anything like the kind of weird visceral charm that Jack's originals have.

Jack Kirby would have been 99 this week. He was never remotely rewarded for his work in creating the multi-billion dollar enterprise that his characters have spawned. And that may yet be one of his biggest legacies to creators such as myself who want to create work in comics and other media, and to do so on terms that respect our ability to devise concepts that appeal to audiences and generate income as a result.

Charles Mingus never had to deal with the consequences of vast popularity, but Miles Davis did. He signed with Warner Brothers in 1986, and the contract meant they owned his publishing rights. As a consequence, Miles didn't write new material since he didn't feel he was being compensated suitably, and the reputation of his last few records - written by collaborators - suffers because of that choice. It's one Miles made knowingly and in strength - better that perhaps than to die with little of the recognition that's since come to him, which was Kirby's fate. At least Jack's estate reached an agreement with Marvel, so his family get to enjoy the legacy the artist deserved.

Treating creators fairly is a big subject, and it's got lots of facets. Kirby found he was treated a lot better in the world of animation than he ever had been in comics, and they're both worlds that I'm now beginning to be active in. It's thanks to creators like the ones mentioned in this piece that my generation of writers and artists are in a much better position to be rewarded for what we develop than our predecessors. We face different difficulties too, as audiences are used to getting what they want for free online from digital providers happy to let people have content while claiming to have no legal obligation to recompense its creators. There will always be a new battle, a new frontier for creators in their imaginations and their ability to prosper. I can only hope that I face mine with even a fraction of the imagination and energy that Jack Kirby did.