Friday, July 2, 2010

Comic Books are Dead: The King & I

Comic book burning bastards; John Byrne, Galactus (FF #257)

Jack Kirby was an early master of a bastard genre. Kirby is the artist who gave us The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Captain America, and The X-Men. His art is brash. He took the limitations of cheap printing and even cheaper paper and stretched them into an epic career, leaving behind enough material to be explored by generations of American artists. Kirby combined acid colors with great heavy bands of black to stunning effect. All the angst, agitation and action of modernism are on display in Kirby’s art. His comics combine strange Freudian undertones of fetish, with the mourning alienation and wild-man machismo of the lost generation. The worlds he imagined are impenetrable chrome and anodized masses of cylinders, cubes, and spheres. Figures are likewise massively built in a way alien to most comics today – these guys weren’t carrot shaped Fabios, they were great garbage can men with arms and legs like tree trunks sheathed in ringed metallic skins of purple and green. Great stuff.
How do I know all the great stuff? Through some reproductions, a couple good books I've read, and a life time of endless lectures at comic book stores and back yard BBQs. Always these lectures were delivered by some guy just a few years older (about 6) than me; guys who had first hand knowledge of something I never actually got to see. It was only recently that I realized that this was not a personal failing or some socioeconomic tell.  I had access to very few Kirby comics growing up because of an accident of history. 
Jacqueline Rush LeeUnfurled:Devotion Series (2008) Jack Kirby, Mr. Miracle?

A couple years ago I read Jonathan Lethem’s essay about being a fan of Kirby during the 70’s, Identifying with Your Parents or Return of the King, it got me thinking about why I hadn't been buried up to my hips in Kirby comics as I was growing up. One very real reason is for my Kirby-ignorance was that I had no older brother. My nearest equivalent (my cousin Nick) was all about classic rock and body building (still is). Even if Nick had been a comic book guy, it would not have mattered, he grew up in the exact same uncanny valley of sans-Jack that I did. Nick was only a couple years older than me. The well informed comic geek would no doubt expound on the personal politics of Marvel comics and end by skewer Stan Lee as a sell out. I don't buy it. Kirby is the fall guy for an entire generation who sold their souls and are unwilling to look into the hole where their hearts used to be. Comic books are dead and we have no one to blame but our selves. We are we? The geeks.
John Byrne, The Invisible Woman (FF #270), Yves Klein, Sale of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial sensibility (1962)

Jonathan Lethem is the type of guy who lectures me about my aesthetic ignorance, who rubs my nose in the banality of my childhood; the inauthentic baseness of personal taste. I have never met Lethem. I don't know what kind of guy Lethem is, but I do know how old he is. I was born a crucial six years after Lethem, who writes about discovering Kirby in stacks of old comics collected by older boys. I remember finding just such a stack of old comics when I was ten. My Father had remarried and my step mother had three sons who were all over a decade older than me. I had found their stash at the summer house in Main. This is the point in the narrative where I am supposed to describe an awaken, a turning point, a Rubicon of American boyhood should have been crossed that summer, but it wasn't. 
This was 1980, just about the time comic books were recognized as a valuable collector commodity, which meant all the great piles of old comics had been gathered up and sold to ass holes who archived them in clear plastic bags and filed them alphabetically in long cardboard boxes especially made to hold neat rows of comic books. 
Someone (he will go forever unnamed) had gotten there before me and gathered up all the valuable titles and sold them to a dealer. I was left to spend the summer pick through a pile of Donald Duck and Archies with just enough really bad Action and Detective Comics (Superman and Batman) to make me think I had found a real stash. Lethem is just enough older then me to have made a full contact with Kirby. He started reading when older brothers still left piles of comics lying around, before comics turned into a branch of philately.
Ronald Reagan Stamp (2004); John Byrne, Mr. Fantastic (FF #271)

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