Jack Kirby Was the 20th Century & other notes


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Saturday, March 6, 2010


Foxhole #1 (1954) by Jack Kirby.

More gleanings from my notebook:

Herriman’s Missing Signature. Michael Tisserand has a question: “Does anyone know (or have any ideas why) George Herriman generally no longer signed neither his daily nor his Sunday comics in their final years? How uncommon is this? Are there any reasons having to do with comics production, or is this a purely personal decision? I also noticed that there were periods of time in Herriman’s early stint at the Los Angeles Examiner where he didn’t sign his comics. These are the only comics in those issues that are unsigned.” Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

Jack Kirby Was the 20th Century. Jack Kirby was the immigrant crowded into the tenements of New York (“Street Code”). He was the tough ghetto kid whose street-fighting days prepared him to be a warrior (the Boy Commandos). He was the patriotic fervour that won the war against Nazism (Captain America). He was the returning veteran who sought peace in the comforts of domestic life (Young Romance). He was the more than slightly demented panic about internal communist subversion (Fighting American). He was the Space Race and the promise of science (Sky Masters, Reed Richards). He was the smart housewife trapped in the feminine mystique, forced to take a subservient gender role (the Invisible Girl). He was the fear of radiation and fallout (the Incredible Hulk). He was the civil rights movement and the liberation of the Third World (the Black Panther). He was the existential loner outcast from society who sought solace by riding the waves (the Silver Surfer). He was the military industrial complex (Nick Fury). He was the hippies who rejected the Cold War consensus, and wanted to create their own counterculture (the Forever People). He was the artist who tried to escape his degrading background (Mister Miracle). He was feminism (Big Barda). He was Nixon and the religious right (Darkseid and Glorious Godfrey). He was the old soldier grown weary from a lifetime of struggle (Captain Victory). There was hardly any significant development in American 20th century history that didn’t somehow get refracted through Kirby’s whacko sensibility. Jack Kirby was the 20th century.

Those Sexy Canucks. Canadian film directors (Atom Egoygen, David Cronenberg, Dennys Arcand) are notably obsessed with outré sexuality. What can we say about Canadian cartoonists? Chester Brown’s next book will be about his relationship with prostitutes. Julie Doucet has depicted a menstrual period that overflows to drown out a city, and a woman who performs fellatio on a beer bottle. Joe Matt, honorary Canadian, has spent much of his life editing porn movies. Skim, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, is about a teenager who falls in love with her teacher. Unease at gender ambiguity is a potent theme in Dave Cooper’s work. Dave Sim … well … we all know about Dave Sim.

Why Notebooks? If you don’t write down your thoughts, they flit away from you. More to the point, it’s hard to know what you think until you’ve made the effort to put it into words. Unarticulated ideas have a ghostly half-life, like a still-born child, half-way between a promise and a prescence. Keeping notebooks can therefore be forms of thinking; not that notebooks always or very often live up to that ideal. Guy Davenport – the great essayist, short story writer, and occasional cartoonist – recommended the notebook method to the publisher James Laughlin. Some of Davenport’s (typically brilliant) notebooks have been published in his collection The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art, as well as a very obscure literary magazine called Vort. My own notebooks are a pale and shallow homage to Davenport’s masterful efforts in the genre. Of course, Davenport never would have posted his notebooks on blogs.

The Origins of the Death Ray. “A lot of people I went to high school with that were really nasty, evil little brats and when I see them now they’re all running recycling centers and things like that, but I can still see it in them. They still have that nastiness, but they just sort of learned to bury it somewhere. But it’s still there. And I don’t think people change very much. I think that the whole notion of a character arc is sort of false,” Dan Clowes in interview with Matt Silvie, The Comics Journal #233 (May 2001), pp. 58-59. “To make a long story short, I ran into Stoob at the dump. First time I’d seen him in twenty years. Turns out he runs a recycling center on the west side and does something else with solar energy or something … a real solid citizen. I wondered if he knew how lucky he was. Guys like him turn up on their feet. He even asked about Louie, if you can believe it. Mister Nice-Guy. He couldn’t fool me, underneath it all he was still the same guy. Nobody every changes,” Andy in “The Death Ray,” Eightball #23 (2004), p. 40.

Books Have Family. From my essay in the upcoming Chris Ware essay collection: “the design elements of the Walt and Skeezix books deserve attention. First of all, these books have a similar look and feel to the Jimmy Corrigan hardcover. Placed next to each other on a book shelf, the design of these volumes bears a striking resemblance to the Jimmy Corrigan cover: all of these books are oblong, with dust-jackets in muted colors (highlighting pink and yellow); in each book, the space on dust-jacket is thoroughly exploited, displaying art on both the inside and outside.” Evan Dorkin in a comment to an earlier post: “But for a further, and I think very real, example, if you hold up the George Sprott book along with the Doug Wright book, it’s kind of hard to tell which book is about a fictional person and which one is about an actual cartoonist, as they both seem to be about Seth’s design.” Side by side, Jimmy Corrigan looks like the son of Walt and Skeezix, the Collected Doug Wright looks like the brother of George Sprott. Books are like people, they have family too.

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10 Responses to “Jack Kirby Was the 20th Century & other notes”
  1. EH says:

    Uhm re: #3, Doug Wright, Hal Foster, John Byrne, Lynn Johnston, Seth, Bryan Lee O’Malley.

    PS this isn’t meant as a negative comment or a discouragement from printing these unformed thoughts. They are great!

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Believe me, you don’t want to get me started about the sex in Lynn Johnston’s work or Hal Foster’s work … let’s just leave it at that.

  3. eh says:

    Haha. Good response. I would love to see it.

    Mmmmmmaybe I’ll revise my point: “sex” or “gender issues” or “body issues” are incredibly broad topics and one can find something to say about those topics in the body of virtually any artist or group of artists.
    Wikipedia lists these Canadian cartoonists.

    Are you suggesting that a majority of them are any more “obsessed with outré sexuality.” than a comparable list of cartoonists from other nations would be (especially other nations with broad socially liberal policies towards sex in public discourse and books in general)?

    Re: Jack Kirby Was The 20th Century:
    You shift back and forth between Jack Kirby’s biography and Jack Kirby’s artistic output by saying Jack Kirby “was” the things that appear in his comics. I would love more elucidation on that. How does depicting these things, at times uncritically, make him those things?

    Again, as a thought experiment: could these things be said of another artist with a similarly broad 60 year artistic output. I mean, that in itself would be tough to find, but let’s just suppose. Wouldn’t anyone producing such a large volume of work over such a long period of time necessarily reflect in some way the many things going on around him? IS that unique to Kirby?

  4. inkstuds says:

    Add Robin Bougie to the list of sexy canuck cartoonists. Cinema Sewer and Sleazy Slice are underrated testaments.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @inkstuds. Bougie! How could I have forgotten Bougie!

  6. patrick ford says:

    Alternative cartoonists on Kirby:

    Jim Woodring: I met Jack in 1982, when I began work at Ruby Spears Productions. Jack was their star designer (that’s “star designer” not charity case.); his job was to work at home on large drawings of characters, hardware, and environments.
    Every Monday he would saunter in with a thick stack under his arm. All the in-house cartoonists would gather to look at them one by one, and pore over them. Jack was treated with great respect because he was an elder and a legend, but the awed admiration we all demonstrated for his work was not polite deference. His drawings were inspirational to all of us. He was like a wild spraying geyser of the substance we struggled pitifully to evoke in driblets. Even those among us who had never read super hero comics and saw Jack without his aura, so to speak, stood in awe of him. He was more than a master; he was the comic book impulse incarnate.
    We loved to draw him out in conversation because he was completely unpredictable: his mind was nimble and unfettered by convention. I never heard him tell an anecdote that was not heavily spiced with benign absurdity. As with his drawing there was something precociously fragile about his sledgehammer approach to storytelling. One sensed that a hard life had made Jack tough, but that the great child’s heart of which he was the custodian had been sheltered and saved at all costs, and that this heart was the force that drove him.”

    David Mazzucchelli: “The man who gave us “The Pact” also gave us “The Digbats of Danger Street.” His imagination was protean, and his bizarre and inventive creations populate some of the most surreal stories in comics.”

    Chester Brown: I have at admit I couldn’t see Kirby’s brilliance when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I hit my adult years that I was able to really appreciate Kirby. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the same time I was starting to appreciate underground comics. Kirby wasn’t slick and refined—it was raw and beautiful.”

    Seth: “I think I can say without overstatement that, next to Charles Schulz, Jack Kirby was the artist who inspired me the most.”

    Joe Matt: A few years ago I found myself purging my comic collection of almost all mainstream comics, over 10,000 comics, the exception was complete runs of many Kirby titles. What can I say? Kirby’s not the King–he’s the man.

  7. inkstuds says:

    @jeet I should bring you some sleazy’s to tcaf. Have you read Josh Simmons Elf Rape story?

  8. Re: Sexy canucks – on the Québec side, Jimmy Beaulieu definately ought to be mentioned.

  9. […] Jeet Heer at Comics Comics declares Jack Kirby to be the embodiment of the 20th century, and I agree wholeheartedly. I'll just quote the whole shebang here: Jack Kirby Was the 20th […]

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