Monday, July 25, 2011
Artist: Jack Kirby
Collects: Rawhide Kid #17-25 (1960-61)
Published: Marvel, 2006; $49.99
Rawhide Kid was one of the earliest Silver Age collaborations between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but for whatever reason it’s also one of the least talked about. Beginning just one month before the premiere issue of Fantastic Four, the Lee/Kirby version of the Rawhide Kid was actually what we might call a “relaunch” or a “reboot” today. Sixteen issues of the series, written by Lee and illustrated mostly by Bob Brown and Dick Ayers, had been published from 1955 to 1957, when it was cancelled. It wasn’t until 1961, four years after Kirby had rejoined the ranks of Marvel, that a 17th issue finally saw print. It might as well have been the first issue of a completely different series.
Much like Atlas’s short-lived Black Knight series in the 1950s, Rawhide Kid is surprising in its resemblance to Marvel’s early superhero comics. Like Spider-Man and the Hulk (and unlike the traditional heroes of Silver Age western comics), the Kid is a hopelessly misunderstood, even hated, figure. Branded a murderer and hunted by the law, he’s actually a good-hearted young man who does his best to help out in whatever town he happens to find himself in, no matter how untrusting the locals may be. Some of the best issues in this collection end with the Kid actually playing into his bad reputation to save the day – a gesture that both ingratiates him to the townspeople and necessitates his swift departure at the end of the story.
Lee’s success at shaping the Kid into such a tragic figure (and in so few pages, too) is pretty impressive, especially given that there’s not much of a supporting cast for him to play off of. The lack of recurring characters is the book’s only real weakness, since it leads Lee and Kirby to constantly fill space with scenarios that get somewhat repetitive after a while. In the stock story that grows most tiresome, a generic desperado challenges the Kid to a shoot-out in the hopes of proving himself the fastest gun in the West, only to be shown up by the Kid’s dazzling speed and accuracy with a pair of Colts. This being a mostly bloodless era in comic book history, the Kid’s enemies are always defeated the same way, with their guns harmlessly shot out of their hands.
It’s this basic formula, however, that makes the more unique stories really shine. One of my favorites, in which the Kid vows never to use his weapons again, reminded me of the excellent Bruce Lee film The Big Boss – a fitting connection, since Stan Lee was a professed fan of the martial arts actor (but also an interesting one, in that the comic came out ten years before the movie). Kirby’s artwork here is excellent, and for whatever reason, it’s actually significantly better, from a technical standpoint, than the first few issues of Fantastic Four. The reasons for this difference aren’t clear, but perhaps Kirby felt a simpler style was more befitting of a comic about superheroes (a genre which he hadn’t drawn regularly for a number of years at this point), while a more detailed one was better for westerns.
Either way, Kirby made the right decision; Rawhide Kid legitimately evokes the feel of a classic Hollywood western, and the characters of Fantastic Four stand out, as superheroes arguably should, in colorful, iconic, pop art style. But more on the Fantastic Four next time. For now, Rawhide Kid is a great example of a Lee/Kirby work that straddles two eras of comics – one in which storytellers still clung to the familiar tropes of the Golden Age, and another in which they pushed comics to a place the medium had never gone before. It was a time of emerging self-awareness, playful experimentation, and reluctant ambition. It was a time when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby stood on the edge of greatness.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Artists: Joe Maneely, Jack Kirby, Fred Kida, John Romita Sr., Syd Shores, Werner Roth, George Roussos
Collects: Black Knight #1-5, Yellow Claw #1-4 (1955-57)
Published: Marvel, 2009; $59.99
One of the more unusual releases in Marvel’s long-running hardcover series, Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Black Knight/Yellow Claw is both a peculiar mash-up of two very different series and a true gem of 1950s comic book storytelling. Make no mistake, there is absolutely no connection between Black Knight and Yellow Claw – one is medieval in setting, while the other is a contemporary spy thriller – aside from their both being short-lived series with art by Joe Maneely. But it’s a nice way of packaging the two titles nonetheless, since neither is long enough to have warranted an individual release.
I went into the book expecting Black Knight to be a little dull, to be honest; Errol Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood aside, I’m not that interested in the 1940s and ‘50s Hollywood version of the Middle Ages, from which this comic very obviously takes its cues. After only a few pages, though, it became clear that writer Stan Lee was also influenced by, of all things, Golden Age superhero comics. In fact, there’s a lot more to the Black Knight than the average medieval protagonist. Although he spends most of his time as King Arthur’s mild-mannered nephew, that’s really just his secret identity; whenever the king’s life is in peril, he pretends cowardice and steals away to become the Black Knight. In his daily life he’s despised by the court, especially by the woman he loves – who, in the typical fashion of superhero stories, is infatuated with his mysterious alter ego. The formula isn’t at all unlike the one used in the early appearances of characters like Superman, Captain America, and Spider-Man, but seeing it transposed into medieval times gives it a unique spin.
Yellow Claw is a fascinating read as well, albeit for completely different reasons. Although the first issue, like the majority of Black Knight, is drawn by the excellent Joe Maneely, the writing leaves a little to be desired. Penned by Al Feldstein (the former head writer for EC Comics, which had closed shop for good two years earlier), the Yellow Claw character is essentially just a clone of Fu Manchu, an evil Chinese mystic bent on world domination. Despite the formulaic structures of this first batch of short stories, Feldstein does do an admirable job of dodging the racist undertones that have plagued most literary works featuring Fu Manchu and characters modeled after him – and he does so in large part by giving the stories an Asian-American protagonist, in the form of FBI agent Jimmy Woo.
Interestingly, though, Yellow Claw is less remembered for the positive (and progressive) portrayal of its Asian-American hero than it is for the fact that it heralded Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel Comics after several years working for the competition. Kirby picked up the book’s reigns starting with the second issue, from which point he both wrote and drew the comic for three full issues before its cancellation. This was the first work Kirby had done at Marvel since his departure from the company in 1941, and the energy he brings to the page is pretty exciting, even if the stories themselves are too short to leave much of an impact. Still, with its off-kilter plots and bizarre-looking bad guys, it’s a weird and wonderful comic in that special way that just screams “Kirby.”
As good as Kirby’s work is, it’s also worth pointing out what a brilliant and imaginative artist Maneely was as well. His work on Black Knight made me feel I’d been thrown into some early MGM Technicolor spectacular, and his one issue of Yellow Claw is notable for the sheer breadth of convincing facial expressions throughout. Sadly, Maneely was killed in a car accident (at the age of only 32) just three years before the beginning of Marvel’s 1960s superhero revival. It’s fascinating to think of how much different the comics industry might have been if he had lived to contribute ideas to the Marvel Universe, and I’m looking forward to learning more about him in Michael Vassallo’s upcoming biography (which is essentially previewed in a lengthy essay by Vassallo at the end of this volume).
As wildly different as Black Knight and Yellow Claw are, this book turned out to be a really great read. This is a fun book for continuity buffs, too – Jimmy Woo continues to run around with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Agents of Atlas today, and it was revealed at one point that the modern Black Knight is directly descended from the medieval one depicted here. Between the quality of the stories and the fact that it features the work of two truly excellent artists, it’s an incredibly nicely done package.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Artist: Jack Kirby
Collects: Red Raven Comics #1, Marvel Mystery Comics #13, Captain America Comics #1, Yellow Claw #3, Rawhide Kid #17, Amazing Adventures #1, Strange Tales #94, Hulk #3, Amazing Spider-Man #8, Avengers #4, Sgt. Fury #6, Fantastic Four #48-51 & Annual #5, Thor #134-136, Amazing Adventures (vol. 2) #1-2, Captain America #200, Eternals #7, What If? #11 (1940-1978)
Published: Marvel, 2004; $29.99
Much like the Stan Lee volume of the Visionaries series, Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby takes an approach to the career of one of Marvel’s greatest creators that’s more befitting of the term “catch-all” than “greatest hits.” But while that worked well for Lee, I’m not sure it works as well for Kirby, whose work at certain points (especially during his third prolonged stint at Marvel, during the 1970s) occasionally misses the mark. Thankfully, most of the comics in this volume are great reads, with only a few falling into the “subpar” category.
There are more Golden Age stories in this book than in Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee, and it’s especially nice to see a story reprinted from Red Raven Comics – a series that lasted only one issue before its cancellation in 1940, and which fans have been patiently waiting to have collected in its entirety for several years now. In a rather nice touch, this collection also includes a Captain America story from every era that Kirby worked on the character. Unfortunately, though, Cap’s Golden Age origin story suffers from a pretty bad restoration job. It’s readable, but having seen much better reproductions of the same issue in other collections, it’s hard for me to look at this one for more than a few moments at a time. Kirby’s latest Captain America story (from 1976) is underwhelming too, but for different reasons; while the artwork is great, the hamfisted plot and dialogue both fall flat.
I found the three issues of Thor collected here to be a little disappointing too, although I think that has more to do with personal taste than the comics’ objective quality. Kirby’s linework is somewhat hindered by Vince Colletta’s inking job, to be sure, but the trouble for me had everything to do with the story. It features the first appearance of the Knights of Wundagore, a group of super-evolved animals that behave like the Knights of the Round Table – suits of armor, broadswords, the whole bit. The simple fact is that I’ve never liked them, and I probably never will. But if the concept sounds it’s like your cup of tea, then I imagine you’ll find the story perfectly satisfying.
If the three-part Galactus story is the archetypal Lee/Kirby superhero masterwork (and trust me, it is!), then the fourth issue is absolute Silver Age perfection. To describe it in any detail would be to spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but suffice it to say that this issue has no less than four entire pages which remain, to this day, among the most recognizable and iconic in the history of superhero comics. I honestly can’t find the words to articulate how much I love this comic and the three issues that precede it, other than to say that they’re some of the most emotionally affecting and beautifully illustrated stories I’ve ever encountered in this medium. Stories like these are what make me want to read comics.
There’s plenty else to discover in Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby, but telling you any more at this point would just be spoiling the surprise. Although it’s not as well-rounded overall as the Stan Lee volume, a handful of the stories are superior to anything else collected in either book. In fact, the Fantastic Four issues are absolutely four of the best comic books of the Silver Age, and they number among my personal all-time favorites as well. They’re worth the price of admission alone – not that they’re the only enjoyable comics in this collection, by any means.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Artists: Jack Kirby, Al Avison, Joe Maneely, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Marie Severin, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane, Barry Windsor-Smith, Darick Robertson
Collects: Captain America Comics #3 & 16, Suspense #29, Amazing Adult Fantasy #11, Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #11 & Annual #3, Daredevil #7 & 47, Silver Surfer #5, Thor #179-181, Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 & Annual #5, Marvel Premiere #3, Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special 1995 (1941-1995)
Published: Marvel, 2005; $29.99
When Marvel launched its creator-focused line of oversized Visionaries hardcovers in late 2004, it only made sense to start with the two most prominent figures in Marvel history: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. For both books, the process of selecting which issues to include couldn’t have been an easy one. Perhaps it’s wise, then, that instead of trying to create “best of” collections for either, Marvel opted to create volumes that simply give the reader a feel for the sheer range of these creators’ talents. Indeed, Marvel Visionaries: Stan Lee excludes a fair number of stories I would have numbered among the writer’s “greatest,” but that’s quite all right – after all, you would need multiple books to collect all of those stories, and the ones they did choose do just as good a job of demonstrating the sheer diversity of Lee’s talent.
The book opens with a great biographical introduction to Lee, written by longtime Marvel writer Roy Thomas (who was himself the subject of his own Visionaries collection); it’s a great crash-course on the writer’s history at Marvel, especially if you haven’t read anything else by or about him. Lee’s first-ever published work, from the pages of Captain America Comics, occupies the first few pages. While it’s fairly primitive in comparison to Lee’s later work, the stories are still interesting to see – and hey, you have to start somewhere, right?
The years between Lee’s first work in the Golden Age and the debut of the Fantastic Four in 1961 make up the most underrepresented time period in this collection, with only a few short stories from the mid-1950s. They’re nothing to write home about, really, although “The Raving Maniac,” a commentary on the public outcry against comic books going on at the time, is kind of amusing. The real meat of this collection comes in the form of Lee’s Silver Age superhero work, and this book delivers a great variety of characters and artists. It would have been easy for Marvel to include a ton of origin stories in this book, but luckily, they only include one – Spider-Man’s, which is arguably Lee’s best.
From here, the superhero stories range from an early issue of Daredevil – featuring an unlikely fight between the title character and the Sub-Mariner – to some of Lee’s final work as a regular writer at Marvel, including a Bronze Age Dr. Strange comic drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. Along the way, the book showcases Lee’s ability to tell short, self-contained stories (such as a quick FF tale answering some of readers’ most frequently asked questions), in addition to well-developed, multi-issue arcs.
The first arc in the collection is a three-part Thor story in which Loki tricks the thunder god into switching bodies with him. Unaware of Loki’s evildoing, Odin banishes Thor (in Loki’s body) to Mephisto’s realm, while the actual Loki runs rampant in Midgard. The story is actually more notable for its art than its writing – it features Jack Kirby’s final work on Thor, and some of Neal Adams’ first at Marvel – but it’s a good example of the overblown, faux-Shakespearean style Lee was fond of using in comics dealing with gods and god-like characters.
The book ends by reprinting a number of vintage pages containing Lee’s famous “Stan’s Soapbox” column, and these are a real treat. The column was his way of connecting with readers on a regular basis and letting them know what was going on behind the scenes at Marvel (remember, these were the days before Twitter!). They make me eager for a complete collection of these pages; and yes, it’s true that the Hero Initiative published a book with just the text of the columns themselves, but I’d love to see a book consisting of scans of the pages in their entirety.
Whether you’re a new or old fan of Stan Lee, this book is a great read. It represents a huge variety of his work, some of which is a far cry from the sort of thing we’re used to seeing reprinted again and again in these types of collections. There are relatively few duds, too, the only real one being a short Spider-Man story (reflecting on the 1995 death of Aunt May) that Lee wrote long after he had stopped working in comics on a regular basis. Even despite its relative weakness in comparison to his other work, though, it contributes to the collection’s goal of showing that Lee is a writer unafraid to tackle any kind of story – not to mention one who almost always delivers a fun and entertaining experience in the process.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Artist: Jack Kirby
Published: Abrams, 2008; $40.00
Kirby: King of Comics was a pretty big deal when it came out a couple of years ago. It had been nearly fifteen years since the death of Jack Kirby, and finally, it seemed, the definitive biography of one of the best (if not the best) artists in comic book history had arrived. And although there are certain parts of it that could have been improved, I’m happy to say that for the most part, it delivers on expectations.
Writer Mark Evanier is really the perfect fit for a biography of Jack Kirby – having worked as Kirby’s personal assistant starting in the late 1960s, and having written hundreds of comics and TV show episodes himself (including every episode of Garfield and Friends), he not only understands the craft involved in telling a story, but he also probably knew Kirby better on a personal level than most people did. He certainly knew Kirby better than anyone on an artistic level, having witnessed firsthand the many ways in which Kirby’s style evolved over the years.
Evanier begins the story of Kirby’s life with the artist’s rough-and-tumble childhood. Raised in New York City during the Great Depression, Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) spent much of his youth getting into trouble with a gang of neighborhood kids – a group that would serve as the archetype for a number of Kirby’s creations, including the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, and, much later, the Yancy Street Gang, with whom the Thing has a comedic ongoing rivalry in Fantastic Four. From the start, Evanier does an excellent job of demonstrating the ways in which Kirby portrays various aspects of his youth in his work.
As we follow Kirby throughout his early career, we come to see him as a young man dedicated to the art of comics but struggling to land assignments that would stick. By providing information and artwork for every major Kirby creation (and plenty of lesser-known ones, too), Evanier paints a nuanced picture of Kirby’s personality, values, and work ethic, as well as his love for the medium. He also makes it clear that Kirby’s career was defined in a big way by two major partnerships: one with Joe Simon that lasted from 1940 to 1955, and the other with Stan Lee from the late ‘50s to the end of the following decade. Both partnerships took Kirby’s work to increasingly greater heights over the years, setting him up for an eventual explosion of creativity (on his own, at DC) that would propel him through the rest of his career.
One of the biggest draws of this book is the sheer amount of original artwork presented, much of it never before seen, and the fact that the pages are so large is a huge plus. There are covers, preliminary and finished interior artwork, sketches and commissions, you name it. My favorite thing reproduced in the book, though, has to be a letter that Kirby sent to his wife Roz during his stint in the Army during World War II. Not only do the words border on absolute poetry, but the bottom of the page contains a beautiful depiction of faceless, trenchcoat-laden soldiers running through the night – not in panic, you can tell, but in patriotic duty and brotherhood. It’s pure Kirby, and in the best way possible.
I only have a few complaints with the book, and although they’re largely eclipsed by everything it does right, they’re still worth mentioning. One is that Evanier devotes barely any attention to the various inkers who worked with Kirby. In particular, it would have been interesting to know more about what Kirby thought of Vince Colletta, who has come under heavy fire in recent years for the many alterations he made to Kirby’s linework during his inking process. Evanier does devote a few pages to Joe Sinnott, who in my opinion was the best inker Kirby ever had, but it would have been nice to hear about some of his more controversial artistic collaborators as well.
My other main problem with the book is that it’s simply too one-sided at times. In the past, Stan Lee has been depicted as a villain in respect to his role in Kirby’s late-‘60s departure from Marvel. Evanier doesn’t take that exact approach but he doesn’t do much better either, arguing that Stan was little more than a corporate stooge who was “jockeying for his own place” in the company at Kirby’s expense. But as Evanier himself admits earlier in the book, Kirby was never a very apt businessman; in the early days, it was Joe Simon who did all the heavy lifting as far as getting assignments and ensuring that he and Kirby were always able to put food on the table. I think the likelier scenario here is that Kirby wasn’t as business-savvy as he should have been, and he simply paid the price for it. Evanier also sort of takes for granted that Kirby was the best comic book artist who ever lived, and while I’m certainly tempted to agree with him, I think that many people who don’t will feel that certain parts of the book (especially towards the end) border on hagiography.
However, the issues I have with Kirby: King of Comics aren’t so major that anyone with a love of Kirby or comic book art in general should avoid reading it. It’s essentially a biography and an art book rolled into one, packed with astounding images and written by the person who’s undoubtedly most qualified for the job. It’s easily the kind of thing I see myself pulling off the shelf again and again.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Published: Fireside, 2002; $14.00
The general outline of Stan Lee’s career in comics is well-known to many of his fans. Starting out in the early 1940s as a gofer for his uncle Martin Goodman’s publishing company, Timely Comics (later known as Marvel Comics), young Stanley Lieber quickly finagled his way into more and more writing assignments on titles like Captain America Comics, Mystic Comics, and USA Comics. After the departure of Jack Kirby and his partner Joe Simon in 1941, Lieber (under the pen name “Stan Lee,” and only 19 years old at the time) was made temporary editor-in-the-chief – a position that Goodman apparently wasn’t in any hurry to fill, as Lee would hold onto it for the next thirty years. During that time, he would modernize, humanize, and revolutionize the way that superhero stories were told.
In Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, the writer relates all of this information (and much more) in his own inimitable style. Along the way, we learn about Lee’s personal life – his childhood and initial (usually hilarious) attempts at finding a job, his brief stint in the Army during World War II, how he met his wife, and the creative processes behind some of his most beloved stories and creations. The stories about how he came up with heroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four will be familiar to many fans, but it’s nice to see them all in one place and with new details, along with Stan’s always thoughtful and amusing commentary sprinkled throughout. This is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive and definitive record we’re likely to ever get from Lee himself on just how the Marvel Universe began.
You might expect Lee’s autobiography to be somewhat one-sided, but I was surprised at how honest he was, especially when it came to his relationships with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – both of whom ended their association with Lee (and Marvel Comics in general) with considerably hard feelings. He’s very fair to both artists, fully acknowledging their tremendous contributions to the field of comics and admitting that he wishes things hadn’t ended so unpleasantly. He claims not to know the full reasons for either one leaving, and I believe him; neither artist was ever very good at expressing frustration in a constructive manner, and Lee has never been the kind to ruffle people’s feathers on purpose. He does go into some detail about the problems he was aware of (Kirby was upset that Lee got more attention in the press for Marvel’s success than he did, for example), and about the lengths he went to in order to try to amend them.
Less familiar to fans, I expect, is the story of what Lee did after he resigned as Marvel’s editor-in-chief in 1972, and this was actually the most interesting part of the book for me. As a matter of fact, he was still working for Marvel as much as ever, but in a completely different capacity – first as a public speaker on the college circuit (where Marvel Comics had become incredibly popular), and later as Marvel’s head honcho in Hollywood. One area I would have liked to see discussed in more detail is the Stan Lee Media catastrophe of the late 1990s, which involved Lee’s declaring bankruptcy and the arrest of his business partner for stock manipulation. Lee makes the whole thing seem pretty cut-and-dry, and perhaps he’s to be admired for that (I’m sure the finer details are more convoluted than I could possibly comprehend), but it just seems a bit glossed over. Still, if I had a choice between more on Stan Lee Media or having as much information as he included on his early life and the creation of the Marvel heroes, I would take the latter. The book doesn’t contain any information on the last ten years, since it was published in 2002, but perhaps someday soon Fireside will reissue the book with an additional chapter or two at the end. It would be especially interesting to get Lee’s thoughts on the current ongoing legal battle between Marvel and Jack Kirby’s heirs.
Excelsior! is a fairly quick read, partly because of its unusually large font size, but mostly because it reads in the same narrative voice that Lee spent years cultivating in his comics and in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column – a voice beloved to his many fans, and one that new readers, I’m sure, will find just as captivating. And that’s ultimately what makes it so worth the read: as much as you may think you know about the history of Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, absolutely nothing compares to hearing it straight from “The Man” himself.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Friday, July 1, 2011
The fun begins tomorrow, as we kick off the first week of the month with a biography of Stan Lee – written by none other than “The Man” himself! And after a look at Kirby’s recent definitive biography (written by his longtime assistant, Mark Evanier), we’ll get right into the heart of their work with a look at some of their finest contributions to Marvel Comics. As for what’s in store after that, you’ll just have to see – and I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride!