Monday, July 28, 2008

My eyes were opened...

IT WAS Give Our Regards To The Atomsmashers - Sean Howe's 2004 flawed collection of essays by "real" writers on comics - that first shocked me into realising that Jack Kirby wasn't this untouchable comic artist god.

In Jonathan Lethem's essay, The Return Of The King or Identifying With Your Parents, he looks at his Brooklyn youth, linking it with Kirby's initial legendary run with Marvel in the 60s and his ill-fated (but much feted at the time) return to the fold in 1976.

Howe dares to question Kirby's work on such titles as Captain America, The Black Panther, The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and 2001: "In fact, what he would turn out to bring to Marvel was a paradoxical combination: clunkily old-fashioned virtues...together with a baroque and nearly opaque futuristic sensibility that would leave most readers chilled, largely alienated from what he was trying to do."

Lethem also disses Kirby's DC work on his "massively ambitious and massively arcane" Fourth World.

He talks about how he and his childhood friends - big fans of Jolly Jack's 102-issue run with co-creator Stan Lee on The Fantastic Four - were "mostly baffled" by his later run.

Anyone who describes Kirby's late 70s run as "autistic primitive genius" and "great/awful, a kind of diastrous genius" deserves a Pulitzer in my book.

And, frankly, no-one could have summed up better the essence of the Lee/Kirby collaboration: a Lennon/McCartney-style relationship who "really were more than the sum of their parts, and who derived their greatness from the push and pull of incompatible visions".

And the harsh coup de grace: "I'd be kidding if I claimed anyone much cherishes the comics of Kirby's 'return to Mavel' period - 2001, The Eternals, Machine Man. Even for souls who take these things all too seriously, those comics have no real place in the history; they define only a clumsy misstep in a dull era at Marvel, before the brief renaissance signaned by the ascent of the Chris Claremont X-Men..." Ouch.

Wait, there's more. And it's all true: "It's possible to debate the moment in the 70s when Kirby's pencilling began to go south. He was good; he got worse. What's undebatable is the execrable, insufferable pomposities of Kirby's dialogue-writing in the Marvel work without Lee. As a writer, as opposed to an "idea-man", he always stunk." Double ouch.

Ultimately, Howe's radical (heretical) ideas about the "untouchable" Jack Kirby blew my mind and allowed me to think that it was OK to question aspects of Jack Kirby's work without feeling like some kind of evil devil-spawn.

BTW, as a whole, Give Our Regards is a remarkably disappointing book. Many of the essays are painfully literate - in the "I'm an author, but look, Mother...I'm writing about comics. How frightfully lowbrow of me" style that I've come to loathe and despite in wanky publications like The Comics Journal. There are a couple of entertaining pieces - Glen David Gold's piece on regret, Warlock and original art collecting and Brad Meltzer's fond memories of The New Teen Titans - but you really should only seek out a cheap second-hand copy before handing over your dollars.

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