Monday, June 2, 2008

Kirby’s Comics

Great article by John Hodgman from the NY Times on comic legend, Jack Kirby. Yes, THAT Jack Kirby.



In 1970, Superman went down a rabbit hole: a secret tunnel on the outskirts of Metropolis leading to a bizarre underground world inhabited by hippies, drop-outs and mutant creatures.

“Welcome to the wild area, brother,” announces the first person he encounters, a bearded young man meditating atop a giant mushroom that spits poison gas. “You are now free to do your own thing!”

This was issue No. 133 of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” — the first to be written and drawn by the comics legend Jack Kirby. And so, without knowing it, Superman (and the reader) had wandered into what would come to be known as Kirby’s “Fourth World” — a weird saga of warring gods that for a brief moment hijacked the normally staid line of DC Comics and plunged it into bracing, beautiful oddness, and which is now fully and lovingly collected in the four-volume Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus (DC Comics, $49.99 each).

Besides the psychedelic jump-start he gave to Jimmy Olsen, Kirby started three new titles — “The Forever People,” “The New Gods” and “Mister Miracle.” All chart the conflict between two families of the New Gods: those on the peace-loving planet of New Genesis, and those living in the warlike world of Apokolips. Apokolips is ruled by the evil Darkseid, who seeks the “anti-life equation” that will erase all free will in the universe but his own. Pitted against him is his son, the monstrous yet noble Orion, raised on New Genesis to love peace but ultimately doomed by his addiction to war.

It was a cosmic “epic for our times,” with one foot in ancient myth and the other in the wildest science fiction. And unusually for a comic book story, it was designed to be told slowly, over many years, and to come to an end.

But it was also a personal epic. Kirby, as you ought to know, was the King. He got the nickname while working at Marvel comics, where, with Joe Simon, he created Captain America. Later, with Stan Lee, he helped fashion a completely new, psychologically rich aesthetic in comics, reviving a flagging industry and unveiling a pantheon of pop-culture deities — the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer — that still walk the earth today.

But Kirby’s share of the riches they generated was modest. Like nearly all comics artists of the day, he worked for hire. Born in 1917, Kirby (né Jacob Kurtzberg) was a pugnacious child of the Depression-era Lower East Side and thus far more likely to favor a sure paycheck over a smartly negotiated contract. (Often, there were no contracts at all.) By the end of the ’60s, fights with Marvel over money and growing resentment over Stan Lee’s celebrity led Kirby to an unthinkable defection to the competition.

DC, by contrast, offered him vast creative latitude and an almost overdetermined amount of credit. “KIRBY’S HERE!” shouted bold sunbursts on the cover of early Kirby issues. The Fourth World was to be his liberation — the place where he would at last get to do his own thing.

The results were startling. Kirby fans already knew that his art was muscular and kinetic, and in this collection, he’s at the height of his powers. His characters are always in motion, leaping and punching at impossible angles, straining at the panels that try to contain them. Kirby’s writing was the same way. His stories were linear — even primitive. But there is something powerful and melancholy and personal that weeps in Orion’s epic, city-smashing rages.

At other times, though, the pages cannot seem to keep up with Kirby’s astonishing imagination. Concepts, characters, subplots and themes are wildly thrown into the mix like drunken punches and then abandoned, never to be seen again: A whole city “hewn from the giant trees of a great forest”! Space giants lashed to asteroids! Werewolves and vampires living on a miniature planet in a scientist’s basement (a planet with horns on it)!

In the biography Kirby: King of Comics (Abrams, $40), the King’s longtime confidant and assistant Mark Evanier writes of Kirby that “when a new idea came to him, he jotted it down on a scrap of paper and, usually, lost it. Once, he got careless with a cigar, started a small fire in his workplace and lost over 50 concepts” — or, as his wife, Roz, put it, “‘a whole day’s work for Kirby.’”

Some of Kirby’s concepts were beguiling. Mister Miracle, a warrior of Apokolips who flees to Earth to become a “super escape artist,” keeps a “Mother Box” up his sleeve — a small, living computer that can enable its user to do almost anything, so long as it is sufficiently loved. In Kirby’s world, all machines are totems: weapons and strange vehicles fuse technology and magic, and the Mother Box in particular uncannily anticipates the gadget fetishism that infects our lives today. (The Bluetooth headset may as well be a Kirby creation.)

But sometimes, his inventions were merely bizarre, driven by some opaque, unknown part of his brain. At one point, one of the Forever People, Kirby’s band of

dimension-hopping flower children, gives a small boy named Donnie one of his “cosmic cartridges” — a device at once resembling a bullet and a large, mysterious pill.

“I — it feels warm — like it was alive!” Donnie says as his features blur into the cosmos. “I — I’m everywhere at once — I — I see — everything — and everything moves — and makes a kind of beautiful noise!”

It’s hard to know what a teenager would make of this. But Kirby was writing just as much for himself. He was 53 when he undertook the Fourth World, and a veteran of World War II. But as Evanier points out, and as is evident throughout this book, Kirby was deeply inspired by the young generation that was renouncing war around him. His understanding of the youth movement was perhaps idiosyncratic (in Kirby’s world, the “Hairies” built their perfect society in a giant missile carrier they called “The Mountain of Judgment”). But they too were forging a new world; and the pleasure he clearly took in their efforts seems to have balanced the bouts of Orion-like rage. In one moment, Highfather of New Genesis turns to one of the young boys in his care. “Esak,” he asks, “what is it that makes the very young — so very wise?”
“Tee hee!!” Esak replies. “It’s our defense, Highfather — against the very old!!”

This is probably the only passage in the English language containing the words “tee hee” that has actually moved me.

This optimism pervades the first two volumes of the “Fourth World Omnibus,” and it helps the reader forgive its occasional excesses. It also lends poignancy to the failings of the second two volumes. For these are the books that document the premature death of the New Gods. By the 11th issue, as sales flagged, DC withdrew its Kirby mandate and the story ended, long before it was finished. Kirby was forced to wrap up as much of his saga as he could, in one rushed issue of Mr. Miracle, and then the wild area was closed.

There are no gods in the three volumes of Age of Bronze (Image; prices vary), Eric Shanower’s triumphant illustrated fusion of the many legends of the Trojan War.

“I’ve gone so far as to shove the gods offstage,” he explains in an afterword to the first in his proposed seven-volume series. “Not an original move on my part in retelling this story; it’s been in and out of fashion for centuries — but a decision which I think is relevant to this 21st-century world where so many are quick to look beyond themselves for answers or to assign blame.”

Instead, Shanower draws on intensive archaeological research and his own uncanny psychological insight to depict an ancient world that is wholly, tragically human.

Paris is not merely an abrasive, kidnapping cad; his tragedy begins when he realizes as a young cowherd that he is actually a prince of Troy who had been left for dead. It’s his desire to prove his worth as a royal that causes his horrible overreach: the capture of Helen — half seduction, half abduction — that leads to the disastrous war with the Achaeans. Meanwhile, you could make an argument that Agamemnon launches the thousand ships to retrieve Helen either for reasons of antique honor or out of a calculating desire to plunder Troy’s riches. But somehow Shanower locates both desires in his version of the Achaean high king, and he is transformed, suddenly, from competing literary interpretations into an actual person.

But it was always Achilles’ choice that made the story seem as remote as the moon. A choice between a long life that goes unsung and an early death that is remembered forever? Unless you are 19, this is a no-brainer. But Achilles, of course, chases glory. And in one of many expertly drawn battle sequences, we see Achilles’ skill and recklessness as he chases a young woman, the sister of a slain foe, almost playfully to the edge of a chasm. And then, in that queasy, silent stop-time that only comics can achieve, he watches her stumble, fall and die. It’s a stupid, pointless death — one of many in the book — and in her fragility we suddenly appreciate the desire to somehow ennoble life’s nasty, brutish shortness, even, irrationally, through war.

For how else to explain the Trojan War? The war we are currently in is dragging through its fifth year. But what Shanower’s book reminds us is that by this stage in the Trojan War, the fighting had barely begun.

The initial sailing of the thousand ships led to the Achaeans’ invading the wrong island. Weeks were spent making peace with the understandably peeved King Telephus of Mysia and burying the many dead, before a huge thunderstorm sent the Achaeans home for good. It would be years before the invasion could be launched again, and throughout the story, Shanower deftly shows us the horrible toll the war took on the Achaeans’ families, fortunes, resources and nerves. (Perhaps the only thing that might rival the tedium of ancient war is the act of drawing a comic about it.

Shanower began researching the first volume in 1991 — it was published in 1998 — and the latest, Volume 3A, was released just this year.) And then, of course, the worst toll of all: Agamemnon is told that before the fleet may sail again, he must kill his own daughter. How could Helen ever have been worth it?
The story of Iphigenia’s slaughter makes up the slow, wrenching heart of Book 2, “Age of Bronze: Sacrifice.” Patiently, with enormous skill and a palette of starkest black and white, Shanower reveals Agamemnon’s torment. He is torn between a genuine fear of godly wrath on the one hand, and a mundane fear of his own army’s rebellion should he disobey the godly command — one he knows may be wholly fictitious. This is the vise in which Agamemnon is caught, but it is Iphigenia who is crushed.

Not surprisingly, one of Shanower’s most lively characters is Odysseus, the sharp-witted strategist and trickster who is Agamemnon’s right hand. Before this dark section, it is easy to get caught up in the cinematic friendship they share, and indeed the long sequence in which Agamemnon recruits Odysseus and the other members of his crack team can’t help mimicking the giddy fun of a heist film (this is, one might argue, the first heist film of them all).

So it is particularly affecting when Shanower recasts the legend of Iphigenia’s magical rescue — how her body was switched at the last moment for a doe’s, and her spirit was drawn to the gods — and transforms it into a story told by Odysseus to comfort Iphigenia’s grieving mother. But this time, the trickster fails: in one single, stark panel, Shanower captures in Clytemnestra’s face a shattered shore that the rosy fingers of myth cannot ever touch.

“How can I expect anyone else to recognize me after 20 years,” Odysseus says at the end, referring to his own dark prophecy, “when after only four years I feel as though I wouldn’t even recognize myself?”

Is this bit of self-analysis too modern for a hero of antiquity? Perhaps. But for all his historical research, Shanower’s world never feels more convincing than when it reminds us that these humans — who died millenniums ago, if they ever lived at all — still feel painfully close.

In 2002, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra began their own epic journey, which recently wrapped with the final issue, No. 60, of Y: The Last Man. (These comics have been collected, thus far, into nine paperback volumes, with the 10th coming in July. They’re published by Vertigo and priced from $12.99 to $14.99.)

It is the story of Yorick Brown, a recent college graduate who, like Mr. Miracle, is an escape artist. We first meet him as he hangs upside down, straitjacketed in his Brooklyn apartment. He is talking on the phone with his girlfriend, Beth, who is in Australia. “Do you ever think about destiny?” he asks as he slips his bonds and avoids asking her to marry him. “Why does fate choose one man over another?”

Something of a dummy, Yorick is completely unaware of the casual chauvinism of his question until, a few moments later, destiny makes its choice against all men. A plague runs through the world, killing every male mammal, mysteriously and all at once — except for Yorick (and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand). Somehow, he’s escaped. As members of the world’s better half seek to rebuild society, Yorick sets out to find Beth. Along the way, he’s taken under the wing of a secret agent named 355 and relentlessly pursued by those who want to make use of the last man on earth — or destroy him for good.

It’s this kind of gimcrack episodic storytelling that makes “Y” addictive and got Vaughan hired onto “Lost” last season. But there’s more going on here. Like the best sci-fi writers, Guerra and Vaughan weave their story out of canny and provocative speculation over what an “unmanned” planet would mean. Yorick and 355’s odyssey reveals a world in which the police and fire departments are annihilated, and supermodels take jobs as garbage collectors cleaning up the dead. But at the same time, the Israeli Army is the best-trained force in the world, and Australia — one of the few countries to allow women on submarines — rules the waves.

In addition, one might point out, such a plague would mean the almost total collapse of the comic book industry. That’s one more reason to be grateful for Pia Guerra, whose clear lines and expressive faces ground the work and make the death of billions of people what it should be: horrifying and sad.
At one point, in Washington, Agent 355 reminds Yorick that the death of every man on earth is not just a premise for an adventure. “They turned one of the monuments into an ad hoc memorial for all of the men,” she says.

“Which monument?” Yorick asks.


(I don’t think you need the picture to figure it out.)

“Y,” of course, stands for the Y chromosome, for the man, Yorick, and for the question that propels him. The book is full of these kinds of twisty double meanings and thematic echoes that reward careful reading. When Yorick catches the deadly Agent 355 knitting in Book 1, No. 5, for example, the presumption is that it’s just an opportunity for some character-building repartee. (“What are you working on ... rifle cozy?” he asks.) How could he expect the breathtaking payoff the scarf will provide by No. 56, five years and 1,400 pages away, as he and Agent 355 stand under another, far more feminine monument, the Arc de Triomphe? (And if that scarf isn’t an allusion to Penelope’s shroud in that other odyssey — the Odyssey — I’ll eat my rifle cozy.)

No, Yorick surely didn’t see it coming, anymore than I did. For by the time you know him well, you realize that Yorick, alas, really is a dope. This in part makes up for the fact that this story about billions of women remaking the world ultimately follows the journey of a single boy. Worse: a fanboy. For while Yorick may be immune to the man-killing disease, he’s woefully infected by another contemporary plague — unceasing pop-culture references.

“Bad news, Frodo,” he tells 355, explaining that the unusual engagement ring he bought for his girlfriend is not secretly the reason for his immunity, as he had thought. “Any delusions I once had about me being the protagonist of some predestined epic quest have gone the way of boy bands.”

The story is told in real time, over five years, and as they pass, the initial reasons for the journey fade, like Helen, in memory. Yorick’s search for Beth gets backburnered again and again. The need for an explanation of the plague becomes less pressing. Instead, the plot stops and asks its characters for directions. And where does it lead? To a graceful world in which women are getting along just fine, thank you. (Hint: In a world where the Roman Catholic Church is pretty much kaput, cloning becomes much less controversial.) Yorick realizes that his great escape amounts mostly to pure, dumb, Elvis-y luck. He realizes he is not particularly strong, nor particularly important, and in so doing he becomes what we used to call a man — and what I will now call: an adult.

Kirby imagined a different future for comics, one in which creators would own their own work. One in which they could tell ambitious personal stories with beginnings, middles and ends. And one in which the individual issues would be collected into books, which would be sold in bookstores, and kept forever. Indeed, that is exactly the success that both “Age of Bronze” and “Y: The Last Man” have enjoyed.

But before you conclude that Kirby, who died in 1994, was nothing but a doomed prophet, there is more to his epic. As recounted by Evanier in his biography and annotations to the “Fourth World Omnibus,” by the end of his life, Kirby was rightly lionized by the fan community. He would eventually win back a great deal of his original art from Marvel, and so he profited from it as a kind of retirement fund. And while the New Gods died, they nonetheless achieved a sort of Achilles-like immortality. Because Kirby did not own the rights to his creations, his characters were rediscovered and reinterpreted by new generations of DC artists. (Indeed, Jim Starlin is currently killing them off once more in his miniseries “Death of the New Gods.”)

Finally, in the early ’80s, Kirby was given the chance to finish the story he had begun so long before. The graphic novel “The Hunger Dogs” provides the bittersweet coda to the “Fourth World Omnibus.” Given Kirby’s age at the time, it’s a remarkably accomplished, if uneven, work. But it is also surprisingly somber. Kirby’s faith in youth’s and technology’s ability to change the world has evaporated somewhat. Esak, the smiling, tee-heeing child, has grown into a deformed monster, creator of a doomsday device of such unrelenting magnitude that it even makes Darkseid nostalgic. “Old age is snapping at our heels — reaching for the hunter and the hunted,” he confesses to an old foe. “Perhaps I shall miss you when you’ve finally perished.”

While many believe this final chapter is something of a rushed failure, it contains elements that are bravely, authentically tragic. And as Evanier points out, the very fact that it is being reprinted now, alongside successful works like “Age of Bronze” and “Y: The Last Man,” makes it a strangely happy ending.


Brian M Logan

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