Byron Coley and Thurston Moore’s “Bull Tongue” column from Arthur No. 30 (July 08)

by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore

from Arthur No. 30 (Oct 2008) [available from Arthur Store]

This new Little Claw 7” on the Physical Sewer label which they had on their last roadtrip doesn’t even sound like them. But what do they sound like anyway? They sounded like the greatest goddamned fucking band on the planet the time we saw ‘em. Two minimalist drummers, a guitar dude with a nice underhook rhythm rip and a girl with a badass no wave slather tongue tearing hell out of her slide guitar given half the chance. And not all hellbent rage either—some nice licorice melt drizzle crud groove too. Fuckin’ awesome. This 7” sounds amazing but like some other weirdness was at play in the living room or wherever this beautiful session went down. You’re fucking nuts not to locate this—try their myspace roost.

Although the material is clearly posed, the new Richard Kern book, Looker (Abrams), is as voyeuristic as Gerard Malanga’s classic Scopophilia and Autobiography of a Sex Thief. Kern’s volume combines a feel of chasing a subject and photographing her without her knowledge, with some purely 21st Century tropes (dig the upskirt end papers), but the feel seems to also be a tribute to the ’70s Penthouse mag vibe. The nudes and font and the introductory essay by Geoff Nicholson all combine to create a volume with a much more gentle charge than Kern’s last book, Action. On the virtual opposite end of the photographic spectrum is David B. McKay’s Yuba Seasons (Mountain Images Press), which has some of the best nature photography we’ve seen in a long time. McKay has spent 40 years photographing this Northern California river and the area around it, and he has captured something really mind-blowing about the interaction of water and light and stone. The landscapes are great, but the river shots are beautiful, mysterious, fast and deep. You can feel them as much as you see them. Really fine.

There’s been a whole ark-full of gospel comps the last few decades and Lord yes they are always welcome but just when you think the well is dryin’ up along comes this motherfucker of a manic backwoods backstreet romper Life Is A Problem (Mississippi Records, 4007 N. Mississippi Ave., Portland, OR 97227 tel.: 503-282-2990). It’s been out a while and is even in a second pressing (without the first pressing’s bonus 7”) and is compiled by Eric and Warren from the Mississippi record store and label in Portland, OR and Mike McGonigal, who also annotated. It’s a 14-song set with some really raw guitar blowouts, handclap n’ chant fever stomps and sweet as ‘Bama honey singing. Some names on here we know like the lap-steel slasher Reverend Lonnie Farris but there are some straight up surprises. Particularly “Rock & Roll Sermon” by Elder Charles Beck, where he rails against the devil’s music, all the while kicking rock n roll ass. More sanctified sounds promised from this label in the future. Before this LP they issued a comp called I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore 1927-1948 which is also sheer beauty digging into tracks released by immigrants to America delivering early Zydeco, Salsa, Hawaiian slack key, etc.

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London Review of Books | Vol. 26 No. 8 dated 15 April 2004 |

My Marvel Years

Jonathan Lethem

In the mid-1970s I had two friends who were into Marvel comics. Karl,

whose parents were divorced, and Luke, whose parents were among the most

stable I knew. My parents were something between: separated, or separating,

sometimes living together and sometimes apart, and each of them with lovers.

    Luke had an older brother, Peter, whom both Luke and I

idealised in absentia. Peter had left behind a collection of 1960s Marvel

comics in sacrosanct box files. These included a nearly complete run of

The Fantastic Four, the famous 102 issues drawn by Jack Kirby and scripted

by Stan Lee, a defining artefact (I now know) of the Silver Age of comics.

     Luke was precocious, worldly, full of a satirical

brilliance I didn’t always understand but pretended to, as I pretended

to understand his frequent references to ‘Aunt Petunia’ and ‘The Negative

Zone’ and ‘The Baxter Building’. He was disdainful of childish pursuits

and disdainful of my early curiosity about sex (I didn’t catch the contradiction

in this until later). Luke didn’t buy new comics so much as read and reread

old ones. Luke’s favourite comic-book artist was Jack Kirby.

      Karl was precocious, secretive and rebellious,

full of intimations of fireworks and drugs and petty thievery that frightened

and thrilled me. He was curious about sex, and unaware of or uninterested

in the early history of Marvel superheroes. For him, Marvel began with the

hip, outsiderish loner heroes of the 1970s – Ghost Rider, Luke Cage, Warlock,

Iron Fist. His favourite comic-book artist was John Byrne.

     Karl got in trouble a lot. Luke didn’t.

     Though all three of us lived in rough parts of Brooklyn,

Karl and I went to a terrifying public school in an impoverished neighbourhood,

while Luke went to St Ann’s School, safe in moneyed Brooklyn Heights. Karl

and I were forced to adopt a stance of endurance and shame together, a kabuki

of cringing postures in response to a world of systematic bullying. That

was a situation I could no more have explained to Luke than to my parents.

Karl and I never discussed it either, but we knew it was shared.

    In 1976 Marvel announced, with what seemed to Karl and

me great fanfare, the return of Jack Kirby, the king of comics, as an artist-writer

– a full ‘auteur’ – on a series of Marvel titles. The announcement wasn’t

a question of press conferences or advertisements in other media, only sensational

reports on the ‘Bullpen Bulletins’ pages of Marvel comics themselves, the

CNN of our little befogged minds at the time. Kirby was the famed creator

or co-creator of a vast collection of classic Marvel characters: the Fantastic

Four, the Hulk, Thor, Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, the Inhumans. In a shadowy

earlier career he had also created Captain America. His career reached into

prehistory: the notion that he was about to reclaim his territory was rich

and disturbing. In fact, what he would turn out to bring to Marvel was

a paradoxical combination: clunkily old-fashioned virtues that had been outmoded,

if not surpassed, by subsequent Marvel artists, together with a baroque

futuristic sensibility that would leave most readers chilled, largely alienated

from what he was trying to do. Later, I’d learn, Kirby’s return created

rifts in the ranks of the younger Marvel writers and artists, who resented

the creative autonomy he’d been granted and found the results laughable.

At the time, all I knew was that Kirby’s return created a rift between myself

and Karl.

     Kirby hadn’t been inactive in the interlude between

his classic 1960s work for Marvel and his mid-1970s return. He’d been in

exile at DC, Marvel’s older, more august and squarer rival. In his DC work

and the return to Marvel, where he unveiled two new venues, The Eternals

and 2001, Kirby gradually turned into an autistic primitivist genius, disdained

as incompetent by much of his audience, but revered by a cult of aficionados

in the manner of an ‘outsider artist’. As his work spun off into abstraction,

his human bodies becoming more and more machine-like, his machines more

and more molecular and atomic (when they didn’t resemble vast sculptures

of mouse-gnawed cheese), Kirby became great/awful, a kind of disastrous genius

uncontainable in the form he himself had innovated. It’s as though Picasso

had, after 1950, become Adolf Wölfli, or John Ford had ended up as

John Cassavetes. Or if Robert Crumb had turned into his obsessive mad-genius

brother, Charles Crumb.

As a child, I suffered a nerdish fever for authenticity and origins

of all kinds, one which led me into some very strange cultural places.

Any time I heard that, say, David Bowie was only really imitating Anthony

Newley, I immediately lost interest in David Bowie and went looking for the

source, sometimes with the pitiable results that this example suggests.

So I was always moving backwards through time, and though I was born in

1964 and came to cultural consciousness some time around 1970, I adored

the culture of the 1950s and early 1960s: Ernie Kovacs, The Twilight Zone,

the British Invasion, Lenny Bruce, the Beat writers, film noir. I tended

to identify with my parents’ taste in things, and with the tastes of my

parents’ friends, more than with the cultural tokens of my own generation.

With Luke, I went to see a Ralph Bakshi film called Heavy Traffic, in which

an unforgettable animated sequence accompanies and illustrates, with crude

(and rude) drawings, the Chuck Berry song ‘Maybelline’. Thanks to that

film I fell in love with Chuck Berry, and while every kid in freshman year

of high school was defining their identity according to whether they liked

a) Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd and The Doors or b) The Clash and The Specials

and Bad Brains or c) Cheap Trick and The Cars and Blondie, I was looking

into z) Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. It’s a commonplace that we 1970s kids

were doomed to glance backwards, out of our impoverished world of Paul McCartney

and Wings, to the era of the Beatles, but I was the only 12-year-old I’ve

ever known who got into an extended argument with his own mother about whether

the Beatles were better before or after Sergeant Pepper – my mother on the

side of ‘I Am the Walrus’, me on the side of ‘Drive My Car’.

    At the moment in my childhood I’m describing, bodies were

beginning to change, and the exact degree and nature of their changes created

some psychological opportunities and thwarted others. Karl at 13 grew tall,

handsome and dangerously good at looking adult; Luke and I were still small

and childlike. Karl identified, as I’ve said, with Marvel’s existential

loners: the Vision, Warlock, Ghost Rider. By becoming tall and rebellious

– he’d begun to write graffiti, smoke pot, fail in school, pursuits I only

barely flirted with – he’d eluded childishness by a bodily rejection of it

and by rejecting obedience. The cost was exile from continuity with what

was attractive in our parents’ worlds. That cost didn’t bother Karl, not

at that moment anyway.

     So here was how, for a time, I tilted back to Luke:

he and I were partners in a strategy of rejecting childishness by identifying

with our parents and sneering at rebellion. As paltry new teenagers, we

adopted a ‘you can’t fire me, I quit’ position.

     Marvel was complicit in my muddled yearning backwards;

ours, I should say – mine, Luke’s, even Karl’s. By the time of Kirby’s return,

talk of Marvel’s ‘greatness’ was explicitly nostalgic. Any argument, based

on a typically American myth of progress, that our contemporary comics might

be even more wonderful, was everywhere undermined by a pining for the heyday

of the 1960s. This was accomplished most prominently in Stan Lee’s two

books: Origins and Son of Origins, which reproduced and burnished the creation

myths of the great 1960s characters. Nostalgia was further propagated in

Marvel’s reprint titles: Marvel Tales, which offered rewarmed Spider-Man,

and the too-aptly-titled Marvel’s Greatest Comics, which put forward the

Kirby-Lee run of The Fantastic Four. This was a bit like Paul McCartney and

Wings playing Beatles songs on Wings over America. We 1970s kids couldn’t

have been issued a clearer message: we’d missed the party.

    In the Origins books, Lee notoriously undersold the contributions

of his artist collaborators – mostly Kirby, but also Steve Ditko, the penciller

of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Later, in a dispute over the ownership

of original drawings, Kirby was given extensive chances to play a grouchy

old David against Marvel’s corporate Goliath, and the comics world rallied

around him. He also made public claim to being the sole author of the great

characters that had made the Kirby-Lee partnership famous: the Fantastic

Four and all their sublime villains and supporting cast, Hulk, Thor, Silver

Surfer (he even once threw in Spider-Man for good measure).

    In Marvel’s greatest comics, Lee and Kirby were full collaborators

who, like Lennon and McCartney, really were more than the sum of their parts,

and who derived their greatness from the push and pull of incompatible visions.

Kirby always wanted to drag the Four into the Negative Zone – deeper into

psychedelic science fiction and existential alienation – while Lee resolutely

pulled them back into the morass of human lives, hormonal alienation, teenage

dating problems, pregnancy, and unfulfilled longings to be human and normal

and loved and not to have the Baxter Building repossessed by the City of

New York. Kirby threw at the Four an endless series of ponderous fallen

gods or whole tribes and races of alienated antiheroes with problems no

mortal could credibly contemplate. Lee made certain the Four were always

answerable to the female priorities of Sue Storm – the Invisible Girl, Reed

Richards’s wife and famously ‘the weakest member of the Fantastic Four’.

She wanted a home for their boy Franklin, she wanted Reed to stay out of the

Negative Zone, and she was willing to quit the Four and quit the marriage

to stand up for what she believed.

     I seriously doubt whether any 1970s Marvel-loving

boy ever had a sexual fantasy about Sue Storm. We had Valkyrie, Red Sonja,

the Cat, Ms Marvel, Jean Grey, Mantis and innumerable others available

for that. We (I mean, I) especially liked the Cat. Sue Storm was truly

invisible. She was a parent, a mom calling you home from where you played

in the street, telling you it was time to brush your teeth. Not that she

wasn’t a hottie, but Kirby exalted her beauty in family-album style headshots,

and glimpses of her, nobly pregnant, in a housedress that covered her clavicle.

The writers and artists who took over The Fantastic Four after Kirby and,

later, Lee departed the series, seemed impatient with the squareness of

Sue and Reed’s domestic situations. Surely, these weren’t the hippest of

the Kirby/Lee creations. Nevertheless, if you (I mean, I) accept my premise

that the mid-to-late 1960s Fantastic Four were the exemplary specimens,

the Revolver and Rubber Soul and White Album of comics, and if you further

grant that pulling against the tide of all of Kirby’s inhuman galactacism,

that whole army of aliens and gods, was one single character, our squeaky

little Sue, then I wonder: Invisible Girl, the most important superhero

of the Silver Age of comics?

     I’m breaking down here. The royal we and the presumptive

you aren’t going to cut it. This is a closed circuit, me and the comics

which I read and which read me. Stan Lee’s rhetoric of community was a weird,

vibrant lie: every single true believer, every single member of the Make

Mine Marvel society or whatever the fuck we were meant to be called, received

the comics as a private communion with our own obscure and shameful yearnings,

and it was miraculous and pornographic to so much as breathe of it to another

boy, let alone be initiated by one more knowing. We and you don’t know a

thing about what I felt back then, any more than I know a thing about what

you felt.

     I’d be kidding if I claimed anyone much cherishes

the comics of Kirby’s ‘return to Marvel’ period. Even for souls who take

these things all too seriously, those comics have no real place in the

history: they define only a clumsy mis-step in a dull era at Marvel, before

the brief renaissance signalled by the ascent of the Chris Claremont X-Men.

Here, joining the chorus of the indifferent, is Kirby himself, from an interview

in Comics Journal which ranged over his whole glorious career:

Interviewer: ‘It always seemed like your last stint at Marvel was a

little half-hearted.’

Kirby: ‘Yeah.’

There’s something else I’ve sensed about the Kirby/Lee partnership:

Kirby must have been a kind of ambivalent father figure to Lee. He was

only five years older, but they were crucial years – crucial in defining

two different types of American manhood. Kirby came of age in the 1930s,

was toughened by his Depression boyhood and perhaps scarred by his frontline

experiences in World War Two. Lee was more like the coddled 1950s striver

who lived in the world his parents had fought for and earned. This difference

perhaps underlies the extremes of The Fantastic Four: Kirby concerned himself

with a clash of dark and light powers, and passionately identified with alien

warrior-freaks who, like John Wayne in The Searchers, were sworn to protect

the vulnerable civilian (or human) societies they were incapable of living

among. His vision was darkly paternal. Lee’s was the voice of the teenage

nonconformist, looking for kicks in a boring suburb, diffident at best about

the family structures by which he was nevertheless completely defined.

     Now, when I consider the steady alienation from

humankind of Kirby’s bands of outsiders, I wonder if he might be one of

those who could never completely come home again. But he did try to come

home in 1976, to Marvel. Karl and I bought the hype, and bought the comics.

And Karl didn’t like them, and I did. Or anyway I defended them, pretended

to like them. Karl immediately took up a view, one I’ve now learned was

typical of a young 1970s Marvel fan: he said Kirby sucked because he didn’t

draw the human body right. Karl was embarrassed by the clunkiness, the raw

and ragged dynamism, the lack of fingernails or other fine detail. Artists

since Kirby had set new standards for anatomical and proportional ‘realism’:

superhero comics weren’t supposed to look cartoonish anymore. I, schooled

both in the love my father, an expressionist painter, had of exaggeration

and fantasy, and in Luke’s scholarly and tendentious devotion to his older

brother’s comics, decided I saw what Karl couldn’t.

    In my defence of Kirby, I was conflating comic art and

comic writing. I need to quit conflating them here. That is to say, it’s

possible to argue about the moment 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 in the Marvel work without Lee. Or the deprivations

involved in trying to love his galactically distant and rather depressed

storylines. As a writer, he always stank.

    I did try to love the storylines. It mattered to me. With

Luke’s help I’d understood that Kirby represented our parents’ values,

the Chuck Berry values. In Kirby resided the higher morality of the Original

Creator, that which I’d sworn to uphold against the shallow killing-the-father

imperatives of youth. Luke, it should be said, never cared about Kirby’s

return. He was a classicist, and didn’t buy new comics. I was on my own,

hung out to dry by The Eternals.

     Karl and I were drawing comics in those days. Well,

not really comics; we were drawing superheroes – we’d design a character,

detail his costume and powers and affect, then speculate on his adventures.

I was profligate, quickly generating a large stack of characters, whose

names, apart from ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘The Hurler’, I can no longer recall.

Karl drew fewer characters, more carefully, and imparted to them more substantial

personalities and histories. One day in Karl’s room, he and I were arguing

about Kirby and I formulated a rhetorical question, meant to shock Karl into

recognising Kirby’s awesome gifts. Who else, I asked, had ever shown the

ability to generate so many characters, so many distinctive costumes, so

many different archetypal personas? Karl said: You.

     At the time my ego chose to be buoyed by Karl’s

remark. But really he’d identified an increasing childishness in Kirby.

None of the army of new characters at Marvel was ever going to mean much

to anyone. They were only empty costumes, like my own drawings. There was

something regressive about Kirby now – he’d become self-referential, the

outsider artist decorating the walls of private rooms.

     The comics Karl and I actually relished in 1976

and 1977, if we were honest (and Karl was more honest than me), were The

Defenders, Omega the Unknown and Howard the Duck, all written by a mad genius called Steve Gerber, and Captain Marvel and Warlock, both written and drawn by another auteur

briefly in fashion, Jim Starlin. As far as the art went, Gerber liked

to collaborate with plodding but inoffensive pencillers such as Jim Mooney

and Sal (‘The Lesser’) Buscema. Those guys moved the story along well enough.

Starlin’s were drawn in a slickly hip and mildly psychedelic style, but with

the ‘realistic’ musculature that the moment (and Karl) demanded, rather than

the Franz Kline kneecaps and biceps of Jack Kirby. Gerber’s tales were wordy,

satirical and self-questioning, and stuffed full of homely human characters

dealing with day-to-day situations: bag ladies, disc jockeys, superheroines’

jealous husbands, kids who faced bullying at their local public schools.

His attitude to the superhero mythos was explicitly deflationary. Starlin

was more into wish-fulfilment fantasies of cosmic power, but he was droll

and readable, and the scrupulous way he drew his psychedelia was actually

(I see now, paging through the stuff) indebted to Steve Ditko’s early version

of Doctor Strange. Enough. The point is, Gerber and Starlin were the two

creators whose (commercially non-viable) work was pitted in the day to day

contest against the return of the king, and they were winning, hands down,

even in my muddled and ideological heart.

Karl and I were in intermediate school in Brooklyn together until the

summer of 1977. Though our friendship was strained towards the end of that

time, both by Karl’s physical maturation and by the increasing distance

between his rebellious nonconformity with the adult world and my parent-identifying

nonconformity with the teenage world, we continued sporadically to buy and

evaluate Marvel comics together until the end of eighth grade.

It was high school which severed our connection, for what would become

years. I went off to Music and Art, in Manhattan, a place much populated

by dreamy nerds like me and perfectly formulated to indulge my yearning

to skip past teenagerhood straight to an adult life; many of my best friends

in high school were my teachers. Karl was destined for Stuyvesant High,

where he drifted into failure and truancy. Later he’d land at one of our

local public high schools, John Jay, where he was forced to continue battling

a world of bullying I’d left behind.

Luke, meanwhile, was still safe in the preserve of private school, where

he might be subject to the push and pull of peer pressure, but was better

isolated from the starkness of the bankrupt city around us. Our friendship,

mine and Luke’s, was restored somewhat during those high school years, though

my public school experiences had made me worldly in ways that Luke’s stubborn

cognition, and the advantage of his older brother’s influence, couldn’t

quite match. As for physical maturation, I now shot ahead, catching up with

Karl (though he wasn’t around for me to make the comparison), while Luke

still lagged slightly. Now, I think, I was to Luke as Karl had been to me.

No rebel, I had nonetheless begun to smoke pot, which Luke still distrusted.

No whizz with girls, I was at least comfortable with my puppyish interest,

while Luke remained, for the time being, gnarled up.

Between me and Luke, Jack Kirby was still a tacit god, but only on the

strength of his canonical 1960s work. Luke and I, righteous in our reverence

for origins, didn’t between us acknowledge Kirby’s continued existence.

It would have been unseemly, like dwelling on the fact that Chuck Berry had

had a 1970s novelty hit called ‘My Ding-a-Ling’. Whether Karl continued to

buy comics I couldn’t know. Our argument about Kirby was lost, along with

much else, in the denial surrounding the state of our friendship, which had

attenuated to an occasional ‘hello’ on the streets of the neighbourhood.

In the last year of high school, before college changed everything,

Luke and I still drifted together occasionally. Now it was he and I who

drew comics – not innocently wishful superheroes, but what we imagined were

stark satires, modelled on Robert Crumb and other heroes of the ‘underground’.

Luke had by then begun dating girls, too, and one of our last collaborative

productions was a Kirby parody called ‘Girlfriends from the Earth’s Core’.

A two-page strip, it reworked the material of a failed double date of a month

before, when Luke and I had taken two girls, soon to be our first bitter

exes, to a fleabag movie theatre at the Fulton Mall. Luke ‘pencilled’ the

pages, and I was the ‘inker’ – I specialised in Kirbyesque polka-dots of

energy, which we showed rising from the volcanic bodies of the two primordial


I know them both, Luke and Karl. Luke’s parents are still married, and

Luke and his wife live in a New England town. The oldest of their children

is called Harpo – more of the reverence for early 20th-century culture that

always drew us together. Luke works (as Kirby once did, when he was demoralised

by the failed return to Marvel) making animated films. His conversation still

features Fantastic Four-derived phrases such as ‘Aunt Petunia’ and ‘Clobberin’

Time’. I see Kirby flashing in his eyes; I know for him it’s more real

than it ever was for me.

Me, I’m a fake, my Kirby-love cobbled from Luke’s certainty, Karl’s

resistance and Stan Lee’s cheerleading. My version of an older brother

was Karl, and Karl wasn’t reverent about Kirby. Kirby was merely on the

menu of the possible, alongside Starlin and Gerber, alongside Ghost Rider

and Warlock, alongside forgetting about comics and getting into girls or

music or drugs instead. Karl never had that kind of crush on his own or

other kids’ parents – a crush on the books on their shelves, on the records

in their collections.

Karl still lives in the Brooklyn neighbourhood to which I’ve returned

and which he never left. He lives down the street, and we’re both only

a few blocks from the once treacherous precinct of our shared school. Last

week I had him over, and we dug out a box of Marvel comics. These were the

same copies we’d cherished together in 1976 and 1977 – for, in an act surely

loaded with unexamined rage, I’d bought Karl’s comic collection from him

in the middle of our high-school years, when his interest drifted, when our

friendship was at its lowest ebb. He wasn’t desperate to contemplate our

old comics, but he was willing. While we were browsing the Kirbys of the

return era, he corrected my memory in a few specifics. He raised the possibility

that the argument about Kirby, which had seemed to me loaded with the direst

intimations of the choices we were about to make, the failures of good faith

with our childhood selves we were about to suffer, had mostly been conducted

in my own head. It happened when I put a stack of Kirby’s 2001’s in his hands.

‘I really got into some of these issues,’ he said. I could see his features

animate with recollection as he browsed Kirby’s panels, something impossible

to fake even if he had a reason to do so. ‘I remember this comic book really

blew my mind.’

‘I thought you never liked Kirby,’ I said feebly, still stuck on my thesis.

I explained what I thought I remembered.

‘No, I remember when he first came back I was a little slow to get it,’

Karl replied. ‘But you had me convinced pretty quickly. I remember thinking

these were really trippy. I’d like to read them again, actually.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘I just never liked the way he drew knees.’

Jonathan Lethem’s novels include Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress