The Mid-Life Crisis of the Great Commercial Cartoonists


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Further to Dan’s excellent post on Wally Wood, one way to think about Wood’s career is to realize that he followed a pattern common to commercial comic book artists of his era. Think of Kirby, Ditko, Kane, and Eisner (and maybe also John Stanley). All these cartoonists started off as journeymen artists, had a mid-life crisis which made them try do more artistically ambitious work, but ended up being thwarted either by the limits of their talent or the constraints of marketplace.

Jack Kirby had his midlife crisis in the late 1960s. He already had a formidable body of work, arguably the best adventure cartooning ever done in the comic book form, running from the explosive patriotic bombast of the early Captain America to the mind-stretching cosmic adventures of the Fantastic Four and Thor. But by the late 1960s he was tired of playing second fiddle that blowhardy glory-hound Stan Lee. So Kirby made is big break for DC and became the auteur behind the hugely ambitious Fourth World series. I’m very fond of the Fourth World series, and even enjoy the aspect of them that is most often mocked, Kirby’s peculiar writing style, which to my ears at least has a kind of vatic poetry. Be that as it may, DC comics wasn’t willing to give the series the support they deserved and the books were canceled mid-storyline, leaving us with the fragments of a promising epic. Kirby would go on doing fascinating work, but he never really got over the sting of losing the Fourth World. None of his subsequent work had the same crazy ambition as the Fourth World.

(Posted above is a prized example of Kirby’s dialogue, from The Forever People #3 (1971). Talking to the glib evangelist Glorious Godfrey, Darkseid says, “I like you, Glorious Godfrey! You’re a shallow, precious child — the Revelationist — happy with the sweeping sound of words! But I am the Revelation! The Tiger-Force at the core of all things! When you cry out in your dreams — it is Darkseid that you see!” Has there ever been better super-villian dialogue? And just as Darkseid was partially inspired by Nixon, I have a hunch Glorious Godfrey owes something to Billy Graham, Nixon’s all too servile Christian sidekick).

Ditko had his mid-life crisis a few years before Kirby but over the same issue, the desire to escape the constrictive shadow of Stan Lee. Ditko’s solution to his mid-life crisis was to divide his work into two: for the commercial companies he would do solid journeyman work but not pour himself into the art as he had done for Spider-man and Dr. Strange. Instead, Ditko would express himself in his didactic libertarian stories, found in Witzend, various fanzines and small press ventures. Again, the work has value. Critics have barely started to look at the visual inventiveness of middle and late period Ditko. Still, it’s fair enough to say that Ditko limited himself by constantly expressing his political ideas through the constraining vehicle of vigilante pulp fiction.

Gil Kane had his mid-life crisis  in 1968. He had spent years mastering his craft and now wanted to do comic books that could be read by adults. The result was a series of books in inventive new formats – His Name is …Savage (1968) and Blackmark (1971). While these book have Kane’s trademark vigour, the best that can be said for them is that they are higher-order pulp, readable enough but nowhere near art. Eventually health problems would curtail Kane’s ambition, but these health issues were coupled with something else. He had a diffident, self-doubting streak that prevented him from doing comics that displayed the full range of his well-stocked mine.

Will Eisner’s mid-life crisis occurred in the mid-1970s. He had been doing educational comics for two decades and was at that point more of a businessman than an artist. But contact with intelligent fans like John Benson as well as underground comics convinced Eisner that he could return to comics and do work that was closer to literature than to the pulp fiction that marked the beginning of his career. The results were mixed. Books like A Contract with God (1978) dealt with big issues like in an earnest manner and eschewed the formal aspects of pulp fiction. But still, Eisner’s storytelling remained heavy-handed and maudlin, closer in spirit to soap operas than to James Joyce.

I think the careers of all these men followed a similar trajectory: they all reached for the brass ring, and didn’t quite reach it, although I think Kirby came close. That might be a matter of personal opinion. I keep going back to Kirby’s comics in a way that I don’t with the others. And middle and late period Ditko remains territory to be explore. Still, I think any history of comic books in the 1960s and 1970s needs to focus on the mid-life crisis of the great commercial cartoonists.

As a post-script I’d also add that maybe John Stanley also had mid-life crisis circa 1960, when he was about 45 years old. At that point he gave up Little Lulu, his greatest success, and started doing some very interesting and innovative comics: Thirteen Going on Eighteen, Kookie, Dunc and Loo, Melvin Monster… most of which, alas, didn’t do well in the marketplace. Was Stanley perhaps the earliest victim to the  mid-life crisis of commercial comics?

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21 Responses to “The Mid-Life Crisis of the Great Commercial Cartoonists”
  1. patrick ford says:

    I very much agree with Jeet on the topic of Kirby’s dialogue.
    It’s my opinion that Kirby’s dialogue is not just good, it’s brilliant.
    What is even more amazing to me is the stuff a person would compare it to (the dialogue in basically every other super hero comic book ever written) has nothing going for it. Yet strangely Kirby’s dialogue is subjected to mocking scorn by your typical mainstream comic book fan.
    It is often described as “unrealistic” as if the dialogue in other super hero comic books IS realistic or even intends to be.
    Beyond that is it uniformly desirable that dialogue or art be realistic? If Kirby’s artwork can display “square fingers” isn’t the perfect match for it Kirby’s “square fingered” dialogue?

    Darius Drumm’s speach from Silver Star #2:

    “Well-! Can you imagine how I feel at this moment! You…You…obsolete old fool!…Using me as maudlin pap for your regrettable act! Stupid old mechanic. Builder of classic lives that tear up the roads of the brain…like vehicles of pain! Classic passions..Classic irony…Then classic vengeance! Eh, Dad…? It was like Genesis…Like the Big-Bang…First, darkness everywhere…and suddenly, light and sight…and wisdom…and that smug, ruthless face of yours Dad! Ours was a classic vendetta from the very beginning…The subject of “Battered Wives” was rarely discussed at that time…and there I was about to be born to one…but that didn’t elate you, you backwoods big mouth! You were the Grand Moogah—The Dean of Discipline! The Prophet For The Foundation Of Self Denial! Naturally it set off your awesome rhetoric… It was good enough to cover-up Mother’s so-called “accidental” bruises and focus all the attention upon the emergence of a new life…! “

  2. RWBoyd says:

    You are mainly talking about artists who felt they hadn’t achieved what they wanted to achieve, hence their midlife crises.

    But a comics artist who preceded them by many decades and had his own more conventional midlife crisis was Bud Fisher. His crisis was along these lines: “Why am I drawing this lame ass comic strip when their are so many showgirls to fuck?” He mostly stopped drawing Mutt & Jeff in the 20s and gave up having anything to do with its creating in the early 30s. But he owned the copyright, so he kept collecting checks!

  3. Dan Nadel says:


    I know what you mean, but I think “mid-life crisis” is a bit too reductive. Per Boyd, above, it implies chasing after showgirls. Seems to me that the phenomenon you’re dealing with has to do with a confluence of age and market and the culture. That is, the early-mid 60s showed artists what else was out there, on all levels, and the market rose again to support a variety of different efforts. At the same time, yes, Kirby, Ditko et al grew frustrated with their own contractual/editorial/financial restrictions. Ultimately, the language most of these guys spoke in their art was a pulp vernacular, so that’s what came naturally, which sometimes made for great work (Kirby) and sometimes not so great (Kane). I’m also reminded of Jack Katz, who has a wonderful interview in this month’s Alter Ego. Point is, I suppose, that these guys grew up a bit, their perspectives changed for a variety of reasons, and they wanted to try something a bit different.

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    Yeah, “mid-life crisis” can sound crass. But I think it’s important to realize that the term “mid-life crisis” comes not from pop psychology and Oprah Winphrey but from the real scholarship of Erik Erikson, who articulated the important idea of “social development”. According to Erikson, most of us go through fairly recognizable stages in our life cycle. The mid-life crisis is a normal pattern seen in many lives. In the case of Kirby etc. it lead to an interesting break in their artistic practise. Of course marketplace changes allowed them to experiment more but I also think that their mid-life work came out of a real, personal, existential crisis, one that made them clear a new path for themselves, for better or worse.

    Jack Katz is another good example. Anyone else we’re forgetting?

  5. Dan Nadel says:

    I hear you. There’s something there, but I think it’s important to see it as part of an evolution that that generation underwent in the 60s, as well as something more local. This brings me to an odd point about recent comics scholarship. Broadly (to say the least), there seems to be two schools — the whitewashing, somewhat bland approach and a more biographically intense, analytical approach. By this I mean almost none of the writing on Kirby has broached the fundamental weirdness (for lack of a better phrase) of the man and his work. But listen to any recording of him, or watch that mesmerizing Comic Book Confidential interview, and you have a sense of a man possessed. I’ve often wondered what the war really did to him, and how his life story would play out in the hands of less deferential or protective biographers. I still have yet to read something on Kirby that jibes with the man’s own statements. And I learned more about Toth and Raymond in Jack Katz’s frank and honest interview than in a dozen articles and books on the guys. Anyone trying to understand their career arcs is aided by knowing that Toth may have been a manic depressive and Raymond was often desperately unhappy.

    Anyhow — who else is there? A few: Sam Glanzman did his autobiographical war stories, Toth did Bravo for Adventure, etc.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    Yeah, Toth and Glanzman follow the pattern.

    And yeah, we need real probing biographies of these guys, not fan celebrations, which is what we mostly have.

    It might be useful to see these guys in terms of the dates.

    Kirby born 1917, has an outbreak of creativity in 1961 (age 44), but becomes frustated in the late 1960s, breaks with Marvel, and then does his most personal work in 1971 (age 54).

    Eisner born 1917, become interested in the graphic novel idea in 1968 during a meeting with John Benson (age 51) does A Contract With God (age 61).

    Kane born 1926, does Savage 1968 (age 42).

    Ditko born 1927, does Mr. A in 1946 (age 40).

    Wally Wood born 1927, does Witzend 1966 (age 39).

    I don’t have the relevant dates for Toth, or Glanzman or Katz. But in the case of these guys, there is a pattern, although it looks like Eisner and Kirby, being older, more family men, were slower to make their break.

    And for me the real interesting one is John Stanley, born 1914. He started creating his own characters in 1961 (age 46).

    The changes in the culture, the new prosperity, artistic restlessness: these all played a part, but also maybe a sense in middle age that they had to do their personal work now, while there was still time.

  7. Jeet Heer says:

    Oh, and to pick up one other point: yeah Kirby was totally shaped by the war (and also his slum childhood). For him life was a battle. That’s everywhere in his work. We’ve yet to come to terms with this fact.

  8. Frank Santoro says:

    What’s the line from New Gods?
    “I have seen the word. And the word is BATTLE”

  9. Dan Nadel says:

    I do worry that this age-based analysis can too easily veer off into pop-psychology. I’m kinda unconvinced, though data does help. Anyhow, yes, what Kirby AND Wood and, for that matter, Whitney and many others saw in the war and what it did to them seems always muted in their bios. And now it’s far too late to really know. If life was about battle for Kirby, it was also about an epic sense of creation. A curious and amazing combo. Following your logic, Jeet, I suspect you could conjecture that Kirby and Eisner were “later” because they did, in fact, produce personal, advanced work in the 1940s (and in Kirby’s case, the 50s). So they were not quite so constricted. Incidentally, Russ Manning, w/ Magnus Robot Fighter, also falls into this category (sorta). And Richard Kyle does too. Kyle mentioned to me recently that he felt that one of the defining differences in the younger and older generations is that men his age (and Kirby’s and Manning’s, et al) remembered what life was like before WWII. That because of that they had an almost ineffable sensibility apart from their younger colleagues.

    Jeet, while I agree Stanley is a cartooning master, do you see the late work as “personal” in the sense that Kirby’s was? I’m curious about that, and how it manifests itself. Or is it more personal in the observational sense?

  10. Jeet Heer says:

    “If life was about battle for Kirby, it was also about an epic sense of creation.” YES! ABSOLUTELY! Some of Kirby’s best stories about how even in the midst of terrible violence and suffering, beauty can emerge. I’m thinking here of “Himon” (Mister Miracle #9).

    About Stanley, I’m just starting to come to terms with his 1960s work (Thirteen, Melvin Monster etc.) but some of it does strike a personal note that is stronger than most of his earlier stuff. And certainly the fact that he was creating his own characters, rather than brilliantly redeploying other people’s characters as he had hitherto done, is important. But we stil have to figure out the shape of Stanley’s career.

  11. patrick ford says:

    Kirby’s story Street Code is it is a virtual Rosetta (Key)Stone which places his entire world view in context, and in only a few pages.
    Kirby felt that man as an individual had to struggle to overcome an instinctive nature.
    That instinctive nature is rooted in man’s being descended from as Jared Diamond puts it, “The Third Chimpanzee,” or as Kirby put it “Killer Baboons.”
    I think in Kirby’s eyes the “soul” of man is; man can (should) be reflective, and self-aware. He should be able to recognize the instinctive urges which can overwhelm his better judgment. This is always a struggle even intelligent men can be governed by impulse, just look at how many sex scandals there are.
    Kirby had a greater “paranoia” about man than he did about individual evil.
    His thoughts on Hitler read as Kirby seeing him in much the same way as Hitler was recently described by Bob Dylan.
    Dylan:”Yeah sure, looking back in hindsight, you can see that someone would have to take control. But still, it’s so perplexing. Like why him? You could see that the man’s a total mutt. No Aryan characteristics whatsoever. You couldn’t guess his ancestry. Brown hair, brown eyes, pasty complexion, no particular type of stature, Hitler mustache, raincoat, riding whip, the whole works. He knew something. He knew that people didn’t think. Look at the faces of the millions who worshipped him and you see that he inspired love. It’s scary and sad. The torch of the spoken word. They were glad to follow him anywhere, loyal to the bone. Then of course, he filled up the cemeteries with them.”
    Kirby: “There’s always going to be somebody around in a hidden corner, there was a housepainter running around in Austria being kicked out of flophouses. He was in the saddle there for 12 years, and left an awful lot of corpses.
    I quoted Hitler in the Forever People. Glorious Godfree’s looking at a crowd and says,’The entire crowd while I was talking to them had the same expression, it never wavered.'”
    If you watch baboons you’ll find the leader jumping up and down pounding on a rock shrieking, and the tribe gathers around him, they won’t move a muscle, like Hitler at the Nuremberg rallies, at his signal they will go out and kill.”

  12. Chris Lanier says:

    This & Dan’s Wood piece make for some interesting reading. I couldn’t agree more that the “fundamental weirdness” of Kirby’s work is glossed over despite being right there on the surface — it’s only in a medium that’s built up on fundamentally weird premises where such essential strangeness could go unremarked upon. I can’t read something like the “Dingbats of Danger Street” or the bizarro “2001” run without being aware that no one was looking over Kirby’s shoulder — or if someone was looking over his shoulder, they were keeping their mouth shut.

    Though I value strangeness, I’d personally stop short at calling Kirby’s dialogue “good.” His carnival-barker-meets-William-Blake constructions are certainly distinctive and entertaining. But there’s little variation across his characters — they’re all talking “Kirby Speak,” and it flattens them out. At least with Lee (who’s far less interesting to me as a creator), Reed Richards and Ben Grimm spoke in different registers, and can be distinguished as personalities by the contents of their word balloons.

    Commercial comics strike me as being stranger than commercial film of the era, I assume because the production costs were lower and there were fewer people involved in pumping out the final product. Though today, the ascendency of geek culture might have imported some of that strangeness to the mainstream — for example, looking at how deeply weird and Ed Woodian Lucas’ second star wars trilogy was. I haven’t subjected myself to a full Michael Bay movie since The Rock, but the descriptions of the Transformers movies make them seem like entirely bizarre conglomerations of adolescent anxieties, half-digested minstrelsy, high-tech gloss, and body-function shtick.

    When that much money’s in the mix, weirdness tends to lose the charm of the weird. If it’s basically one person inflicting their visions on a piece of bristol board, it looks benign and maybe even bracing — when an entire studio of people is bent to a director’s weirdness, it seems a little totalitarian. Well, “totalitarian” is pushing it, but it’s dispiriting to see so many talented technicians put at the service of such relentless kitsch.

    Jeet and Dan’s posts did make me think there might be some illuminating parallels that could be drawn between the film industry and the comics industry in the 60s and 70s. Like the established comics pros seeing the rise of the young turks, and trying to adapt themselves to the new trends and new freedoms (with often mixed results), there were a few filmmakers who worked their way up through the studio system, and tried for a more personal or at least looser approach as the studios lost their hegemony.

    I’m sure I’m blanking on a lot of names, but at least off the top of my head, there’s Nicholas Ray attempting an experimental feature at the end of his life, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” Powell’s notoriously career-killing “Peeping Tom,” Preminger’s “Skidoo.” You could also trace some interesting changes in the work of Orson Welles, though he was far enough outside the studio system (even while he was working inside it) that he’s an odd fit all around — which perhaps goes some distance towards explaining his successes in both modes.

    And like the interesting link between Wood and Spiegelman, there seemed to be a fair number of intergenerational friendships, from one wave to the next — Ray with Wim Wenders, Powell with Scorcese. In both the comics and the film industries, it raises some interesting questions about personal expression, and how people who have learned to express themselves through commercial or genre infrastructures seem to have a difficulty reinventing their language. Or at least adapting themselves to a fundamental shift in values regarding what constitutes creativity, and the importance of a personal vision to it.

    Lastly, though it’s more of a sketch than an actual stab at biography, I think Jonathan Lethem’s essay about Lee and Kirby has some of the gimlet-eyed perceptiveness an ideal biographer might bring to bear on Kirby’s work. Since links aren’t formatted in the comments section on comicscomics, I’ve posted the link below rather than doing it inline:

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  13. patrick ford says:

    The assertion by Chris that Kirby’s dialogue shows, “little variation across his characters — they’re all talking “Kirby Speak,” and it flattens them out,” is an opinion that I find incomprehensible.
    I’m well familiar with this opinion, I’ve seen it brought forward time and again, often combined with an assertion that Kirby needed someone (like Stan Lee) looking over his shoulder.
    What is interesting to me is the contrast between my opinions and those of many silver age comic book fans. My opinion is Kirby was an exceptional writer, and his work in silver age super hero comic books at least to my tastes is unique in that I can still read and enjoy it. The stuff he is often unfavorably compared too I find to be stone cold dead.
    You could search and never find more distinctive comic book characterizations than the ones brought to life by Kirby. There is not the slightest similarity between the way Orion, High Father, Captain Victory, Darkseid, Darius Drumm, Scott Free, and dozens of other characters speak. They are the most fully formed characters I’ve ever run across in super hero comics where typically you find one dimensional cyphers. Stan Lee is touted by a few people for his characterization, but his orenica only blows about three notes.

  14. […] What I’m worried about: My mid-life crisis will be nowhere near as bombastic as Jack Kirby’s. […]

  15. EH says:

    I have a dream that one day our characters will be judged, not by the gamma-irradiated color of their skin, but by the content of their word balloons.

    Er, sorry, was just struck by that turn of phrase.

    I think someone should rewrite and rerecord the song “The Ballad of John Henry” as “The Ballad of Jack Kirby” (my favorite version is either Johnny Cash or the Bruce Springsteen/Pete Seeger). It’s about a man struggling against the machine and in Kirby’s case the Machine could be the corporate editorial dictates of the funnybook industry.

    He beat the machine, but his mighty heart burst in the process.

    Ok ok, my one actual contribution to this discussion:

    One think I notice about Wood, Toth, even Kirby and Eisner to an extent is that they were somewhat shackled by growing up entirely within “genre” storytelling. Like, they couldn’t conceive of doing work that wasn’t fundamentally structured as the cheap sweatshop-produced children’s entertainment that they had been trained in, even when, after their mid-life crisis and at the peak of their careers, they had editorial freedom.

    Perhaps putting economics next to the psychological analysis would help:

    1) the “market” at the time seemed to only support comics with people hitting each other a lot

    2) many of these artists came up at a time when being a comic artists WASN’T perceived as being artistic expression, but a job, like any other, and they took it to feed their families

    one of my teachers used to say, “People said Kirby never owned anything [referring to his characters or intellectual property]. That’s not true, Kirby owned a house, and a car and maybe a boat at some point…” part of the point he was making is that by agreeing to work for the big comic publishers, these men all got the chance to lead comfortable middle-class lives of relative affluence in post-war America, be breadwinners for their family.

    That’s a choice that relatively few comic book artists now are given the opportunity to make, and I bet a lot of creative indie cartoonists would totally take the boring, less creatively fulfulling “corporate” cartooning job if it offered the steady paycheck it once did.

  16. […] the "mid-life crises" of several comics artists that saw them make a leap to more ambitious works. [Comics Comics] Ghost Rider […]

  17. bryanocki C says:

    come on you jokers. Their kids went to college and they suddenly had some time on their hands and missed Play around the house.

    Why can’t i vote on ben jones today. Thats my mid winter crisis.

  18. […] When comic creators hit middle age. Think of Kirby, Ditko, Kane, and Eisner (and maybe also John Stanley). All these cartoonists started off as journeymen artists, had a mid-life crisis which made them try do more artistically ambitious work, but ended up being thwarted either by the limits of their talent or the constraints of marketplace. […]

  19. JRVJ says:

    With all due respect, I don’t think Eisner is a good example of this theory, because Eisner produced very good and varied work after coming back to the comics field.

    Some of that work is out of print or out of favor, but I think a Contract with God, Life on Another Planet (a very good work, by the way), New York: the Big City (an absolutely brillinat tour de force, IMO) and A Life Force (a good, though flawed attempt at a great graphic novel) stand the test of time.

    Also, I have some late issues of Will Eisner Quarterly, and there’s some pretty good short stories in there (I haven’t read it in over 20 years, but I’m thinking of the one with the old gentleman under a palm tree looking at a kid building a sand castle).

  20. […] 3 part post over at The Comics Journal site/blog (which was a response to Jeet Heer’s essay “The Mid-Life Crises of The Great Commercial Cartoonists” over at Comics Comics). Not only does Groth amusingly compare comic aritsts and creators to prison […]

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