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