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Monday, August 13, 2007

Marvel Stamps

Well, as promised long ago, Marvel has released their commemorative superhero stamps. Same deal as the D.C. stamps last year - classic characters by the artists who made them famous. Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Steve Ditko, Frank Miller..., you know, REAL artists. Not like those yo-yos who have work hanging in the Louvre.

Funny thing about this collection is that, even here in my small town (we're talking less than 500 people) these things sold like gangbusters. The local Postmaster indicated much higher than normal sales, even taking into account other commemorative sheets, like the Star Wars collection. It's enough to make me think one of two things is true: 1) My town has lots of closet comics fans, or 2) Many of them read them during their childhood and are buying out of nostalgia. I figure the later is most likely, as the median age here comes in just under 40.

Another funny thing. Well, more annoying, actually. The USPS released the Marvel collection with a beautiful 3-D diorama, which I begged the Postmaster to chuck my way when the promotion was over. That turned out to be a no-go, due to Marvel's desire to hold on to all promotional material. "Something to do with copyright," he said. Now, I'm not one to automatically assign shallow and childish motives to large companies (wink, wink), but what the heck would be the harm if collectors got 'hold of the promotional material? Worst comes to worst, it ends up on Ebay, which...., is probably what would have happened had I gotten it.

Ah, well. At least I got the stamps. And a Star Wars sheet for my seven-year-old nephew. Life is good.

Kirby Was King - Not God

(Originally posted at Komikazee. Edited.)

I want to address a touchy issue, here - one that could get me in trouble with a small but very loyal handful of comics fans. Now, don’t assume the tone of the article by the title; that’s just to grab your attention. There is and never has been any intention on my part to take away from the amazing body of work that is the career of Jack Kirby. Personally, I believe him to be one of the most prolific, talented, dynamic and influential comic book artists ever to grace this fine earth. Folks, that ain’t slanderous

No, my intention is to address the opinion held by some Kirby fans that he single-handedly saved the comic book industry during his first tenure at Marvel Comics, which saw new ground laid in the superhero genre. Many collectors know that the comics industry was going through a difficult period at the time, brought on in part by two events: the Senate hearings in April of 1954, which were a result of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book, The Seduction of the Innocent, and the advent of television. The outcome was a greatly diminished readership. Shortly after, however, Jack Kirby co-created, among other properties, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The Hulk and The X-Men.

Anyone living with their head above the sand for the last 40 years need not be lectured on the enduring charm and cultural significance of these characters. However, to declare that group of achievements solely responsible for pulling an entire industry from the edge of a literary precipice demonstrates one of two things, in my opinion; a sad lack of knowledge of the history of the medium of comic books or a willingness to dismiss the significant contributions of so many other individuals. With as much brevity as possible, I’ll attempt to catalog just a few of these creators and some of their accomplishments.

Stan Lee - I think it must be remembered that, where Marvel characters are concerned, Kirby was a co-creator, not a sole creator. His “partner-in-crime” as it were was concept- and pitch-man extraordinaire, Stan Lee. While the opinion exists that Jack was the true creator, whereas Stan was the ultimate cheerleader, a little knowledge and clear thinking leave no doubt that those wonderful brainchildren of Silver Age Marvel were the result of the genius of both men. Without one or the other, they would no doubt have turned out somewhat different from the characters we know so well, today.

Steve Ditko - Ditko was the co-creator (along with Lee) of the most recognizable and well-known character Marvel has produced to this day; Spider-Man. Ditko, wholly responsible for Spider-Man’s costume and appearance, gave the character, as well as his supporting cast, visual identity. Of course, Lee is the writer who breathed life and angst into the often forlorn Peter Parker. And, despite the recurring belief by some Kirby fans that Jack had a hand in the character’s creation, I believe it’s accepted by most today that his version of Spider-Man was far too “heroic” in form and didn’t fit Lee’s vision for a teenaged superhero. Additionally, the “obvious” influence of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s “The Fly” (1959), sometimes sited due to their similar powers, is questionable. After all, what characters based on bugs aren’t liable to have powers that resemble each other’s?

It was Spidey’s visage which eventually became Marvel’s standard. It was Spider-Man who first enjoyed a crossover event with rival company D.C., in the now-legendary Superman Vs. Spider-Man treasury edition of 1976. All with no Kirby influence over the original version of the character, despite his penciling the cover of Amazing Fantasy #15.

Julius Schwartz - It is said by some that Schwartz actually helped herald the Silver Age of Comics, as the editor, overseer and concept man behind the first appearance of the Barry Allen Flash in D.C.’s (then National Periodicals Publications) Showcase #4. No less than that, however, he was also instrumental in streamlining the Golden Age versions of Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom not long afterwards. All of this, to no small fan acclaim, of course. As if that weren’t enough, he introduced The Justice League of America, which, if you’ve heard the oft-told account of a fateful golf date involving Atlas (now Marvel) publisher Martin Goodman and Schwartz, during which was discussed National’s success with the group book, you know that the League was the inspiration for the Fantastic Four. Also worth mentioning is the obvious influence of the JLA upon the popular 70's cartoon, The Superfriends, which came well after comics’ Silver Age. It should also be noted that Schwartz’s work (along with that of the artists and writers involved, of course) is considered by historians to be responsible for restoring the appeal of the comic book superhero, as well as boosting the over-all popularity of comics after the afore-mentioned Senate hearings. Schwartz was also important in the Silver Age overhaul of the Batman character, and in bringing the creative team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams to prominence.

Batman Live-Action T.V. Show - Ok, this one’s not a creator, but it is an important event that took place during the Silver Age of comics. Though scorned by many fans today for it’s campy treatment of the Dark Knight, it can’t be denied that the program placed the property squarely in the public eye. With ready-made catch-phrases galore (“Holy-follow-it-with-any-word-or-phrase-of-your-choice, Batman ”), the introduction of the Bat-Tusi, and the television-bred “kitchiness” of so many phrases preceded by the word “Bat” - Bat-phone, Bat- , Bat-shark-repellent ( ), etc. - the televised adventures of the Caped Crusaders lead to greatly increased sales of the comic book, making the Silver Age that much better for D.C.

Keep in mind, I haven’t even touched the subjects of Mad Magazine, ACG or Archie Comics, both of which were still going strong and were appealing to a whole different demographic than the superhero crowd. This, despite Archie Comics’ failure in the cape-and-tights genre at that time. Teen humor was where it was at, Daddy-O

So, did Kirby save comics? I tend to think not. But, no doubt, some loyal fans will hold on to their assumption. For the sake of intellectual honesty, however, weigh the evidence, won’t you? Try becoming a student of all of comics history, rather than that which applies to Kirby, or even simply reading comics. Expand your horizons with books such as The Comic Book Heroes, by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, or Great American Comic Books by Ron Goulart. Try digesting a subscription or two of Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego, a wonderful periodical covering the rich history of the medium. The knowledge you gain may convince you that the work of Jack Kirby, as great as it is in it’s energy, individuality and influence, was not the work of a supreme being single-handedly leading comics out of the valley of the shadow of death. But, rather, it is a section in the grand tapestry that is the history of the medium, and the legacy of a supremely talented and likeable man.