Saturday, December 20, 2008

Thoughts on Jack Kirby and "Tales to Astonish" by Ronin Ro

Karen: Recently, Doug and I read a book called “Tales to Astonish – Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution” by Ronin Ro. Sharon had read the book long ago and was the one to encourage us to read it. It chronicles Kirby’s life and also looks at the comic book industry over the years, with a fair chunk of time spent examining the early years of Marvel Comics. Now that we’ve all read it, we’ve decided to do a group review and discussion.

Doug: Many thanks to Sharon, and to the close-out bookseller from whom I bought this tome! It was a steal at $5!! What an interesting resource to have in my library.

Sharon: I had a suspicion you both would be interested in reading this…I’m so glad you picked it up! Since I’ve waxed poetic many times about the subject of Kirby and Marvel for the past couple of years on the Avengers Assembled boards, it’s exciting to see the two of you avail yourselves of the information in Ro’s book. His book provides a readable, basic introduction to that era.

Karen: While I had known some basic history in this area, this book really filled in a lot of details. There are quotes from many comics professionals and a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stories. It’s a fun, quick read, despite some rather pedestrian writing by “Ronin Ro” (what a goofy pseudonym). My biggest complaint about the book itself is the lack of any annotation – no footnotes or even simple attribution of quotes in the text itself. There’s also no bibliography or index! From what I gather, many of the quotes in the book have been found in other sources. So it may be that the book is a hodge podge of previous works, all lumped together here.

Sharon: The lack of “academic annotation” is maddening, but he does list the names of people whom he says he consulted for the book…plus there’s a great list of source material, items no self-respecting comic historian or even plain ol’ fan should be without!

Doug: I have to tell you that as a history teacher and reader of many research-based books that I was academically offended by this book. Hear me: it’s an interesting read, a serious grabber! But I simply could not believe that any author would think it satisfactory to make such claims as were made, to offer quotes from particular people – some matter-of-fact, some to be honest quite damning toward other players – and never cite the source of the information. I’m serious – if Ro was a student in one of my college-bound classes and turned in a paper like this he would fail solely on his lack of referencing.

Doug: Saying that, I suppose I (we, if I can speak for my colleagues) am guilty of throwing my two cents into these discussions each week without directly citing sources for information that might not be common knowledge to our average reader. However, you the reader have the ability to leave me (us) a comment – I certainly feel I would owe an inquisitor the courtesy of revealing any source material I use in making these wonderful posits!

Doug: I especially liked that Ro began the story in the Golden Age, an era of comics history that I know too little about. One of the interesting facts about the Golden Age that continues to stand out for me is the proliferation of Jewish creators working in the industry: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Gil Kane, and on and on. As a history teacher who focuses on Holocaust study, I just find this an interesting legacy – that these men have given me one of the loves of my life.

Karen: The focus is on Jack Kirby, and he appears to be a somewhat tragic (almost pathetic) figure. It’s clear that Kirby never felt like he got the recognition he deserved. Certainly one could argue this was true. It’s clear today that both he and Stan Lee – and not Lee alone – were responsible for the creation of the Marvel Universe, and that Kirby was far more involved in plotting stories than originally thought.

Karen: It does seem like Lee got most of the glory in the past, but in recent years he seems to be more willing to share credit for the characters with the artists. But back in the late 60’s, seeing Lee get so much attention obviously drove Kirby to prove he could stand on his own, and he left Marvel for DC, where he thought he’d have a chance to create his own universe with the New Gods. But I think his obsession with being successful on his own probably made it impossible for him to ever really succeed again.

Doug: Several weeks ago when we did the 1st Appearance post about the Incredible Hulk, I cited Origins of Marvel Comics as my source for the material. In that book, each origin story was introduced by Stan relating the formative conversations/presentations of these iconic Marvel characters. As Ro points out in this text (over and over), Stan was quick to take credit for just about every idea that became a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. In fact, Jack is said to have been thoroughly disgusted at Stan’s boldness in allowing only his name to appear on the cover of all of the Origins series books. As Karen said, it was just another thorn in Jack’s side, another source of hurt feelings and long-festering animosity.

Karen: When I first started reading comics, Kirby was already at DC. From reading reprint titles like Marvel’s Greatest Comics, I knew who he was and that he was the artist behind all the great Marvel heroes. But I guess I didn’t feel any special reverence for him. In fact, when he returned to Marvel in the 70’s, I found myself unimpressed with most of his work. The primary reason was that his writing was terrible. There, I’ve said it. I know some Kirby fans love everything he did, but his writing was excruciating. I still feel annoyed when I think of his “Mad Bomb” story in Captain America. It was obvious to me, even at a young age, what Lee had brought to their collaborations.

Doug: I, too, came to know Kirby in the pages of Marvel’s Greatest Comics. At the time, Rich Buckler, then George Perez, was penciling the Fantastic Four. While there was no doubt that Kirby’s books were full of fast-paced action in the mighty Marvel manner, I didn’t think his rendering fit in with what I was then-accustomed to: Buckler, Perez, Sal Buscema, John Buscema (who interestingly enough, would have been down my list at this time), Ross Andru, Jim Aparo, Joe Staton, and Dave Cockrum. Kirby’s fingers were square (a point made in Ro’s book, specifically in discussion about Kirby near the end of his career), his facial expressions sometimes extreme. A few years later, when (as you say, Karen) Kirby was given Captain America, his style was so dramatically different that I could hardly stand it. I bought the Marvel Treasury Special Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, but didn’t appreciate it. Now, many years removed, I can say that I have an appreciation for this material, and truly treasure it as representative of the twilight of the King’s career.

Karen: Despite my dislike of his writing, I feel badly for how Kirby was treated when he returned to Marvel. It seems like many of the younger staff had no respect for him, which is ludicrous when you consider he built the universe they were playing in. Granted, the man needed a good scripter to work with, but the kind of petty acts that occurred during his second tenure at Marvel are inexcusable. And of course, on top of all that was the problem with getting his original art returned, which became huge and the over-riding cause in Kirby’s later years.

Doug: As Sharon so aptly paid homage to men like Neal Adams (in our earlier series of X-Men discussions) for their work in obtaining creator rights/benefits, it is a shame that Kirby’s pages were stolen from Marvel and ultimately from him. Anyone who peruses the original art section on Ebay knows that it is difficult to find any Kirby page that sells for less than $800. Literally, he was deprived of a treasure worthy of a King’s ransom (how’s that for a pun??).

Karen: One of the most shocking things to me was that artists would steal other artists’ original art and sell it! Both John Verpoorten and Gil Kane are mentioned as having done this. How low can you get?

Doug: Yes… “snake” was a term that leapt to mind.

Karen: Despite adversity, Kirby was incredibly productive. It’s mind-blowing, especially in the context of today’s artists, that Kirby would produce 15 pages of artwork a week! I imagine most pros today don’t produce 15 pages in a month. Besides that, he was also designing characters all the time, and in the early days of Marvel, he was laying out a lot of the issues, and doing covers! When he finally got his original art back from Marvel, it’s shocking to think that the 2100 pages he did get back were only a small fraction of what he produced over the years.

Doug: Karen, your guess of 15 pages a month is not far off. As you know, a standard comic these days is 20 pages (although with the recent habit of making the former page one splash a recap page, new art drops to 19 pages), which comes out to five pages a week. And given how many books today have a tough time staying on any kind of regular shipping schedule, you are right that today’s pencillers can’t seem to get it done at even what would have been a snail’s pace for Kirby.

Karen: I’m left with mixed feelings after reading this book. While it’s interesting to learn about what was going on in the comics industry, it does shatter the illusion of the ‘happy’ Marvel bullpen. All those Marvel Bullpen Bulletin pages gave me the impression that Marvel was a wacky, fun place to work. But the more I read about what was going on, the more disabused I become of that notion. I’m sure there were good times but, like any workplace, it had its share of problems. I guess despite all this, I still find I can enjoy the stories from that era, even if I know better now about what was really going on behind the scenes.

Doug: I wonder if it was Stan who wrote the copy for the entire Bulletins pages. They certainly read with that Stan Lee bombasticism that we all knew and loved – but I doubt that, given all of his other responsibilities, he had the time to churn out that propaganda each month.

Sharon: According to Danny Fingeroth in Write Now! #18: yes, Stan wrote all the copy, at least up through 1972. For more details, see the great article by David Kasakove, "Finding Marvel's Voice: An Appreciation of Stan Lee's Bullpen Bulletins and Soapboxes.” I’d mentioned this article on the AA! boards not too long ago and it’s a fantastic read.


Dr. Pym said...

Wonderful post. Thank you, everyone, for checking this bad boy out! I will certainly pick this book up, as well.

My opinion on Kirby is that he was the best of his time... however, when it came to the 70's, his time had obviously passed. He was still great, but his art was looked at as a parody of comic book artists.

Kirby, to me, reminds me most of Wink Martindale. Wink, better known as the host of Tic Tac Dough, was a great game show host in his own right. However, whenever you see game show parodies on television or cartoons, they are usually ripping on a caricature of Wink: The big cheesy smile, the cheesy voice, the overexcitement.

Kirby's work in the 70's probably looked very much like someone trying to make a caricature of comic books. Take his Captain America run for example!

That's not to say that Kirby wasn't respected by most other comic book artists, and I'm not saying that his work was bad. I'm just saying that Kirby was a guy who was placed into the "old comic book people of the 60's" by the time the 70's rolled around, and he probably looked out of place with the other, much different artists of the time.

Doug said...

You raise some great points, Pym. You know, for a young pup you sure know a lot about stuff I grew up with! Wink Martindale was a treasure of the '70's!

You can find this book cheap, to be sure. While we've noted its faults I would still recommend it -- it's an easy read and the anecdotes in it are very good. Like Karen said, it leaves one doing a little head-scratching as to just what the Marvel Bullpen was really like. Somehow I don't think it was much like those self-parodies that tended to show up in the backs of the early Annuals where Stan is jumping around his office while Kirby, Colan, and Heck are drawing it all. Maybe that did happen a time or two, but as time went on things seemed to grow less cheery.

Mike Mitchell said...

I had this book a few years ago and recomended it to a friend who begged to borrow mine... and never returned it. I thought about pestering it back from him, but didn't because like you said... the book gives me mixed feelings.
The overall tone was bitter and petty, or at least that was my recollection. I know Kirby was mistreated, but I was hoping to hear more about his artistic style, and influences, and instead got a ring side seat for "too much information". I wound up even hating Stan Lee, and the whole Marvel industry for a few days after this read.

Now I look a little more objectively at the Kirby/Lee break-up as more like a Lennon/McCarthy thing, Or Martin/Lewis is another one, as with many such partnerships one alone never seems to be quite the force they were together.

Kirby will always and forever be the King to me... nothing, no tell-all's, no peeks behind the curtain will ever change that.

Doug said...

Mike --

Thanks for joining the discussion!

Your comparison to other break-ups is very appropriate. I believe it was said within the Ro book: what meaningful character did Stan create after 1970?

I'll tell you what reading this book has done for me -- it's made my eyes and ears perk up whenever Stan is talking. For example, in the introduction to the recently-released Marvel Chronicle (which we will be reviewing sometime in Februaray, by the way), there is a whole lot of "I" and not enough "we". Fortunately, as you go through the book and various characters are discussed, billing almost always reads "created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby" or "created by Stan Lee and Don Heck", etc.

Sharon said...

Welcome, Mike!

Kirby was the King, bar none. For evidence, just pick up "Stan Lee's Amazing Marvel Universe"--an oversized book you can probably find at a remainder table somewhere. This contains Stan's 50 greatest Marvel moments (mostly Silver Age), with text by Roy Thomas. Now, the most striking aspect of the book is that fully half of its "greatest moments" are illustrated by Kirby--no other artist comes close in terms of the sheer number of illustrations in the book. (Of the remaining half, about a third of it is Ditko's, followed by J. Buscema and Romita, and then smatterings of Wood, Everett, Steranko, Adams, Tuska, Miller, Colan, and some others.)

And if you do pick up this book, remember: don't lend it to anyone!

Doug said...

To all:

Last night I read the article from Write Now! #18 that Sharon referenced at the end of the post. It really was a great read and has given me a bit more perspective on what made Marvel so great in the 1960's.

While Kirby may have felt slighted by Stan, not getting his share of the acclaim, etc., I think this article spells out just why -- Stan was the face of the franchise in ALL aspects. Sure, people are drawn to comics by their covers -- hence it's the art that is the hook. But Marvel's name, increasing in the public's consciousness, was all due to Stan. Like Karen has said before, Stan was a huckster and a showman. He knew marketing -- to have worked for Martin Goodman, how could one not? So it was Stan who was interviewed, Stan who was asked to speak, and Stan who the public knew. While I don't think anyone would assume that the artists weren't somewhere toiling and working at improving their craft, it was Stan who was "available" to the consumer and to those with periphery interest in the genre.

So maybe Jack should have had more of a true concept of his role with the company -- no, maybe more like a concept of Stan's role with the company. I am not saying at all that Jack's resentment at his pay, creator rights, etc. was misplaced anger. But I am saying that some of the generally hurt feelings might have been avoided if fame was the sole issue. Fame became a side effect of Stan's role with the company.

Karen said...

It's nice to get back from visiting family and see the lively commentary on this post.

As a Christmas gift, I received volume 1 of the DC Jack Kirby Omnibus, which collects many of his his Fourth World stories. I began reading it and I have to say...his early work at DC is actually much better than what I recall of his 70s Marvel work. Sure, there are outrageous, even insane concepts (Miniature clones of Jimmy Olsen and Superman spring to mind), but all in all, it's been pretty interesting reading. If nothing else, the King was wildly creative!

Anonymous said...

Ronin Ro has a box of tapes from interviews he conducted with most of the people mentioned in the Book. He also mentioned some of the people he interviewed, but not all of them in the book itself. Many comics fans want the same three or four people telling Jack's story when some of these, according to sources, weren't really as close to Jack as they claim they were. This is the best book about that era and the only one to reveal why Steve Ditko left Marvel (among many other revelations).

Sharon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharon said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comments.

I'm a huge fan of Ro's book; it has been one of my treasured "go to" books since I first read it a few years ago (and as I'd mentioned, his book does contain a long list of sources... plus his thanks to his interviewees. I'd love to hear those tapes you mentioned; they must be fascinating!).

Ro deftly paints a picture of the comic industry as a business--a key factor that is overlooked in some books that deal with similar topics. As you aptly point out, the Ditko revelations alone (such as the marketing deal with Goodman) make this a must-read book!

Doug said...

RE: Ro's box of tapes.

I am not questioning his research (I have seen much of this information similarly reported elsewhere, so I know he didn't make it all up) -- my beef is with his absence of citation of sources. I'll stand by my former comments that it's just bad history to make claims and not attribute them to specific sources.

This is why, although full of wonderful anecdotes, this book reads like a novel and not as a history. I just can't go all the way in terms of believing everything between the covers until he tells me who said what and when.

I would strongly advise Ronin Ro to author a revised edition, complete with annotated notes from the author. In my eyes his credibility would soar!

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