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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Jack Kirby

Stan Lee predicted in his original 1961 Fantastic Four synopsis that the unpredictable and monstrous Thing would prove to be the most interesting character to readers. He was right—so much so that after four issues, Marvel premiered a new title that featured a main character based on the Thing:

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The first cover of The Incredible Hulk makes the monster motif explicit, asking “Is he man or monster or … is he both?” Lee combined the standard superhero alter ego trope with the uncontrolled transformations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kirby models the Hulk on Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein. Like those mad scientists, Dr. Bruce Banner is “tampering with powerful forces,” only now his hubris transforms himself into his own monstrous creation. The opening panel features “the most awesome weapon ever created by man—the incredible G-Bomb!” moments before its “first awesome test firing!” Kirby draws its creator with a “genius” signifying pipe as he takes “every precaution,” even as General Ross insults him for cowardly delays. Though Banner risks his life to save Rick, a teenager who has driven onto the bomb site, that kindness is erased by the Hulk who, after his first Geiger-counter-triggering transformation, swats Rick aside, uttering his first words: “Get out of my way, insect!” Lee likens him to a “dreadnought,” the twentieth-century’s most massive battleships, and soon he is speaking like a supervillain, “With my strength—my power—the world is mine!,” and threatening to kill Rick to keep his identity a secret.

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The first issue would be a complete repudiation of the superhero formula if not for the late entrance of another “brilliant” scientist-turned-radioactive-monster; the Soviet Union’s Gargoyle captures the Hulk, threatening the balance of power: “If we could create an army of such powerful creatures, we could rule the Earth!” Like the Hulk, the Gargoyle is controlled by no nation, savoring that his “cowardly” comrades and “some day all the world will tremble before” him.

The Gargoyle is stopped not by the Hulk’s might, but Banner’s “milksop” kindness, reversing the Clark Kent trope that had defined the superhero genre for two decades. The crying Gargoyle would “give anything to be normal!” as Kirby draws him shaking his fist at a portrait of Khrushchev because he became “the most horrible thing in the world” while working “on your secret bomb tests!” As a result, he accepts Banner’s offer to cure him “by radiation,” and in turn destroys the Soviet base and rockets Banner and his sidekick back to the U.S.: “So we’re saved! By America’s arch enemy!” Although Banner hopes for the end of “Red tyranny,” he remains “as helpless as” the Gargoyle against his own “monster”.

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In addition to changing from gray to green, in the second issue, the Hulk seizes control of an alien spaceship to use it for his own purposes: “With this flying dreadnaught under me, I can wipe all of mankind!” and it is again Banner, using his “Gamma Ray Gun” invention, who stops the alien invasion.

These are not the tales of a standard dual-identity superhero, but a Clark Kent battling both external threats and his own supervillainous alter ego. Steve Ditko inked Kirby’s pencils for the second issue, cover-dated July 1962, a month before the premiere of Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. Ditko’s Hulk bore an even greater semblance to Karloff, and now Peter Parker looked like a younger version of Bruce Banner. The Hulk does not begin to resemble a superhero until the following month.

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In the third issue, the military attempts to destroy the Hulk by launching him into the same radiation belt that created the Fantastic Four, but instead his transformations, which were previously trigged by nightfall, become unpredictable. Rick briefly gains hypnotic power over the “live bomb” of the now golem-like Hulk, evoking another admonitory fable: “It’s too much for me! I’ve got the most powerful thing in the world under my control, and I don’t know what to do with it!”

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Kirby and Lee could not settle on a clear premise, with the Hulk changing personalities and transformation plot devices every other issue. In the fourth issue, Banner invents a self-radiating machine in order to “regain the Hulk’s body—but with my own intelligence,” which, though seemingly successful, creates a “fiercer, crueler” version of Banner inside a Hulk who is still “dangerous” and “hard to control.”

The new Hulk no longer tries to kill Rick, but now speaking like the Thing, he tells him to “Shut your yap” and to “get outa my way!” before foiling the Soviets’ next attempt to capture him and again build “a whole army of warriors such as you!” Though he prevents another invasion, this time by an underground race led by an ancient immortal tyrant, the Hulk ends his first adventures in the following issue articulating his defining nuclear allegory: “Let ‘em all fear me! Maybe they got reason to!” In the issue’s second story, he thwarts a Chinese Communist general, and yet the Hulk insists that “the weakling human race will be safe when there ain’t no more Hulk—and I’m planning on being around for a long time!!!”

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By the sixth issue, the last of the original, one-year title run, the Hulk has reverted to a supervillain and considers teaming-up with an invading alien against the human race “to pay ‘em all back!” Though the Hulk ultimately defeats the alien, winning a pardon for his past crimes, Banner has less and less control of his transformations, suffering delayed and partial effects with Banner briefly retaining some of the Hulk’s strength and, more bizarrely, with the Hulk briefly retaining Banner’s face. Rick concludes: “The Gamma Ray machine—it grows more and more unpredictable each time it’s used! If Doc has to face it again—what will happen next time?”

“Next time” was delayed by over a year, after the Cuban missile crisis led to a paradoxical drop in Cold War anxieties. After a few appearances in other titles including The Avengers, the Hulk and his cancelled series were renewed in 1964 as one of two ongoing features beginning in Tales to Astonish #59. Both the Gamma Ray machine and Banner’s unpredictable transformation were forgotten, and the Hulk soon evolved into the canonical version of the character: a well-intentioned but toddler-minded creature misunderstood and mistreated by the authorities.

 

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Stan Lee suggested a central “gimmick” in his original 1961 synopsis for the Fantastic Four:

“let’s make The Thing the heavy—in other words, he’s not really a good guy … Let’s treat him so the reader is always afraid he will sabotage the Fantastic Four’s efforts at whatever they are doing—he isn’t interested in helping mankind the way the other three are … the other three are always afraid of The Thing getting out of their control some day and harming mankind with his amazing strength … The Thing doesn’t have the ethics that the other three have, and consequently he will probably be the most interesting one to the reader, because he’ll always be unpredictable.”

Although Ben Grimm is an “ex-war hero,” Lee describes him as “surly,” “unpleasant,” and “brutish,” even before radiation transforms him “in the most grotesque way of all,” making him “more fantastically powerful than any other living thing.” Early issues emphasize the same qualities. While Kirby and other artists had previously drawn superheroes as uniformly handsome, the Thing is “a walking nightmare” with a misshapen body and a face as unattractive as Moleman’s. In the second issue, Sue whispers to Reed: “Sooner or later the Thing will run amok and none of us will be able to stop him!” and Ben, “a juggernaut of destruction,” confesses: “sometimes I think I’d be better off—the world would be better off—if I were destroyed!” Many readers felt the same about nuclear weapons.

Even aside from the Thing, Kirby and Lee portrayed the Fantastic Four as superheroes who produce rather than assuage anxiety. Kirby opens the first issue with an image of frightened pedestrians pointing at the flare Reed has fired to gather the team; police officers remark that “the crowds are getting’ panicky!” and that “[r]umors are flyin’ about an alien invasion!” During their origin sequence, Johnny calls both Ben and Reed “monsters,” before uncontrollably transforming into a Cold War version of the pre-Code Human Torch and accidentally starting a forest fire. “Together,” declares Reed, “we have more power than any humans have ever possessed,” a familiar superhero refrain now given new nuclear-era meaning.

The second issue opens with a three-page sequence of the Fantastic Four committing acts of sabotage, causing news agencies to declare them “public enemies” and “the most dangerous menace we have ever faced!”—an opinion repeated in #7 when a “hostility ray” turns the world against them as “four monsters,” “the worst menaces ever to threaten this land!” The acts of sabotage were actually performed by shape-shifting Skrulls, and though the Fantastic Four are not powerful enough to defeat “the mighty invasion fleet menacing Earth,” they end the “stalemate” by showing the Skrulls other Jack Kirby drawings from Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery and so convincing them that humans have armies of “monstrous” warriors ready to protect them. The first cover features one such monster, only now the Fantastic Four serve as monster-fighting monsters trying to protect the city from it—a defining introduction for the MAD-era superhero type.

The Fantastic Four’s early antagonists evoked similar atomic fears with striking repetition. Moleman targets “every atomic plant” (#1), the Skrulls attack a “new rocket” test site (#2), Miracle Man steals an “atomic tank” (#3), and the 1940s Sub-Mariner vows revenge on the human race when he finds his underwater city destroyed: “The humans did it, unthinkingly, with their accursed atomic tests!” (#4). Dr. Doom, after bringing “forth powers he could not control” (#5), stokes the Sub-Mariner’s hatred, describing “that monster of a bomb” that destroyed his civilization (#6). The Thing mistakes an alien spaceship for “a new missile test,” while on Planet X, “Driven by fear and panic, our people are turning against each other! Soon nothing will be able to stop the riots nothing except the doom which is hurtling toward us!” (#7). Finally, the Puppet Masters controls his victims by carving their likenesses in “radioactive clay” (#8).

Lee’s “gimmick” to include a bad guy within a team of good guys altered the standard superhero plot structure by splitting the heroes’ focus between fighting external threats and containing an internal one. Alan Moore, reading The Fantastic Four #3 as a child, had “the impression that [the Thing] was on the verge of turning into a full-fledged supervillain,” not “the cuddly, likeable ‘Orange Teddy-bear’ of later years. Stan Lee recalls writing the character in a 1981 interview:

“I tried to have Ben talk like a real tough, surly, angry guy, but yet the reader had to know he had a heart of gold underneath … People always like characters who seem very powerful yet, you know they are very gentle underneath and you know they would help you if you needed it.”

Lee’s recollection is of the later characterization, not the Thing of 1961, whose surliness was not a disguise. When Ben says to Sue in the first issue, “Now let’s go find that skinny, loud-mouthed boy-friend of yours!”, Lee scripts her response at face value: “Oh, Ben—if only you could stop hating Reed.” According to Lee’s original synopsis, Ben “has a crush on Susan,” “is jealous of Mr. Fantastic and dislikes Human Torch because Torch always sides with Fantastic,” and “is interested in winning Susan away from Mr. Fantastic.”

Despite Lee’ stated intention, his and Kirby’s rendering and readers’ perceptions of Ben grew more sympathetic. Ben complains to Reed: “At least you’re human! But how would you like to be me?” and Sue herself is sympathetic: “Thing, I understand how bitter you are—and I know you have every right to be bitter!!” When Ben returns to human form for a few moments after passing through the radiation belt again, Torch consoles him too: “She’s right, pal! That was just a start!” In #3, despite renewed fighting with Torch, Ben intervenes to save Reed’s life: “Reed can’t dodge those dum-dums forever, I gotta do something!!”

By #6, Kirby and Lee are no longer portraying overt conflict between the characters, and with #8—coincidentally on sale during the Cuban missile crisis—Ben’s “crush” ends and his character is redefined by the introduction of an alternate love interest. The Puppet Master’s blind step-daughter, Alicia, disguises herself as Sue, fooling all of Sue’s male teammates. Though Ben suffers another temporary transformation to human form, Alicia’s love is permanently transforming: “This man—his face feels strong and powerful! And yet, I can sense a gentleness to him—there is something tragic—something sensitive!” The Thing transfers his affection to Alicia, who reciprocates and humanizes his previously inhuman character: “the clinker is—she likes me better as the Thing!” In the following issue, Alicia calls Ben “my white knight! You are good, and kind, and you will never desert your friends when they need you most!”, prompting Ben to hug his teammates: “us white knights don’t desert their companions in arms! I’m with ya, gang!”

Marvel began with a Cold War plot gimmick that resulted in unplanned character complexity and then ad hoc revision, producing the unified family-like Fantastic Four that would define the series and a new superhero character type that would define the Marvel universe.

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Trump promised a return to the Golden Age, and the Golden Age in superhero comics was the 40s and early 50s–an era far from golden for African Americans. Ester Bloom writes:

The boundaries of America’s “golden age” are clear on one end and fuzzy on the other. Everyone agrees that the midcentury boom times began after Allied soldiers returned in triumph from World War II. But when did they wane?

Some put the end point “at the economic collapse of 1971 and the ensuring malaise.” For superhero comics, that late 50s and 60s era is called the Silver Age. Maybe that’s the historic period Trump wants take us all back to? Let’s take a look. Here’s what it meant to be black in the Golden Silver Age:

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The 1954 Comics Code mandated that “Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible,” and its first decade and a half saw an end to overtly racist caricatures and an incremental shift toward more complex representations (Code 1954). Initially, however, superhero comics avoided black characters entirely and employed no well-documented black creators. President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and the 1961 freedom riders bus tour testing desegregated interstate travel in the South produced no immediate reaction in superhero comics. But when Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby returned to World War II for the first issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in 1963, they included African American soldier Gabriel Jones in the seven-member outfit—even though President Truman did not sign the executive order desegregating the armed forces until three years after the war ended. The first issue was on sale while Martin Luther King was arrested during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and the second while King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 Civil Rights marchers in Washington, D.C.

Obeying Code guidelines barring racial ridicule, Kirby gives Jones no caricatural features. If not for his skin tone—rendered in the African American-signifying gray typical of the period—he could be mistaken for white. Kirby instead renders two white characters with occasionally exaggerated expressions (188, 189). If Jones’s musical skills are a racial stereotype popularized by jazz celebrities Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis (“‘Gabe’ used to blow the sweetest trumpet this side of Carnegie Hall!”), they do not stand out in the relatively diverse but otherewise all-white company of an “ex-jockey from Kentucky,” a “one-time circus strongman,” “an Ivy-League college” grad, an Italian “swashbuckler” actor, and a Jewish mechanic (Lee et al 2011: 184-5). While Kirby and Lee treat Jones respectfully, they also employ him minimally. He is one of the least depicted characters in the premiere episode, and, unlike Binder and Wojtkoski’s 1940s Whitewash Jones, Gabe Jones is never central in terms of plot or panel composition, speaking only four times in twenty-three pages. Whitewash spoke more than twice as often, twenty-eight times in his first fifty-seven pages.

The following year saw the ratification of both the 24th Amendment, which overturned voting taxes in the South, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Lee Falk had been scripting General American English for Lothar since the mid-1950s, and after artist Fred Fredericks replaced the late Phil Davis on Mandrake the Magician in 1965, Lothar would no longer wear his 1930s costume but open shirts, trousers, and shoes. Fredericks also experimented with facial features, which, given the black and white newspaper medium, sometimes resulted in a white-looking African prince. After the murder of Malcolm X in February, the attack on protestors in Selma, Alabama in March, passage of the Voting Rights Act and riots in Watts, California in August, and President Johnson’s “affirmative action” executive order in September, 1965 also saw the first African American hero featured in his own comic book title. Dell Comics’ western Lobo, featuring the titular black cowboy, premiered in December 1965, but folded after its second issue, nine months later.

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Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s most significant contribution to the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in superhero comics was the introduction of Black Panther in Fantastic Four. The issue is cover-dated July 1966, three months prior to the founding of the national Black Panther Party for Self-Defense organization. Kirby had intended the character to be named “Coal Tiger,” and his costume design would have revealed his race by exposing his face. Lee, who routinely reprised Golden Age characters and characteristics, may have revised the character’s name after Paul Gustavson’s 1941 Black Panther, a white superhero in Centaur Comics. Fantastic Four #52 is also a variation on Richard Connell’s classic pulp fiction short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” with Black Panther, the chieftain T’Challa of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, inviting the Fantastic Four to his kingdom “for the greatest hunt of all!” (Lee & Kirby 2011: #52: 4). After being nearly overpowered by Black Panther’s superior Wakandan technology, the Fantastic Four escape his traps, and he surrenders. Despite this villainous introduction, the following issue begins with a “dance of friendship” performed by tribesman reminiscent of 40s-era Africa stereotypes, as Black Panther recounts a Batman-like origin story in which his father is murdered and he vows revenge against the killer—who coincidentally is attacking Wakanda at that moment. With the Fantastic Four’s help, Black Panther defeats his enemy and, with their urging, pledges himself “to the service of all mankind!” (#53, 20). As a result, the character does not serve what Kenneth Ghee identifies as “the sociological function of any redeeming hero mythos; that is working to save his own people first” and so is only “a generalized ‘humanitarian,’” not a “Black superhero” (2013: 232, 233).

Lowery Woodhall regards Black Panther’s first story arc as “a frustrating one to read from a racial standpoint,” beginning with “a ruthless, cunning and ferociously independent black man” and concluding with his “almost immediate emasculation” (2010: 162-3). While Lee and Kirby replace Black Panther’s personal duty of avenging his tribe’s previous leader with a superhero’s generically all-inclusive and so predominantly white-focused mission, they also portray him in a complex mix of racial tropes. While his costume and codename reinforce animalistic stereotypes, Black Panther reverses the racial structure of “The Most Dangerous Game” by assuming the role of the white hunter. He also defeats his enemy primarily through his intelligence: “You did not realize—I am a scientist too–!” (Lee & Kirby 2011: #53, 19), an opinion echoed by the Fantastic Four: “Apparently the talent of inventive genius is not limited to any one place, culture, or clime!” (#54, 8). His “jungle” palace includes “the latest fashions from Paris” and a grand piano played by “the world’s most renowned pianist” (#54, 7, 4). Lee also uses the Thing’s dialogue to mock his and Kirby’s use of African tropes common to comics since the 40s: “Yer talkin’ to a guy who seen every Tarzan movie at least a dozen times!” (#53, 6), and Black Panther admits, “Perhaps my tale does follow the usual pattern” (#53, 7). Kirby’s visual merging of Tarzan motifs with science fiction technology, however, reversed those Golden Age patterns. Still, Derek Lackaff and Michael Sales note how the character is undercut by the fact that “the sovereign Black monarch of a high-tech civilization is rarely allowed to exercise that power and authority” (2013: 68).

Lee followed Black Panther with the 1967 introduction of newspaper editor Robbie Robertson, second only to editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson at Spider-Man’s The Daily Bugle. Identified only as “Robbie” through dialogue, the character enters giving orders to a white reporter after Jameson has been abducted: “I’ll hold down his desk, while you see what you can uncover! Let’s go, boy! There’s no time to waste! (Lee & Romita 1967). Depending on production time, the August cover-dated inclusion of a graying black man in a position of authority directly follows president Johnson’s June nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Marvel integrated the Avengers when Black Panther joined the team in an issue on sale while Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis and President Johnson signed the third and final Civil Rights Act in April 1968. Lee editorialized in his December 1968 “Stan’s Soapbox” in Fantastic Four #81: “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today . . . if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, then we must fill our hearts with tolerance” (Lee 1968). DC, in contrast, prevented creators from introducing black characters. Future Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who wrote for Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes from 1966-70, recalled:

I wanted Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire, and Mort [Weisinger] said, “No, we’ll lose our distribution in the South.”… those were the rules back in those days. That’s another reason why Marvel appealed to me, because they were daring to do things that DC wouldn’t do. (Cadigan 2003: 53)

Weisinger, who had edited Superman since the 40s and was vice president of public relations, left in 1970.

[So much for the Golden Silver Age. But maybe Trump supporters have yet another era in mind? I’ll continue my search next week.]

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When did the Silver Age of comics end and the Bronze Age begin? There’s no definite year, but the 1973 “SNAP!” of Gwen Stacy’s too-perfect neck in Amazing Spider-Man #121 is a contender. 1970 is a bigger year, with Jack Kirby’s move from Marvel to DC, plus the start of Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil’s Green Lantern / Green Arrow. Steve Ditko left Marvel for Charlton in 1966, turning both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange over to new artists for the first time. Marvel veteran Bill Everett took on Doctor Strange with Strange Tales #147, but for me Strange Tales #154 is the sea-changing Silver-to-Bronze moment. It’s the first episode of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D. that the recently hired Jim Steranko wrote, penciled, and inked in 1967.

Like other artists Marvel hired in the 60s, Steranko imitated Jack Kirby, first auditioning by inking two of his penciled layouts for a proto-S.H.E.I.L.D story, and then by adopting the Kirby-defined Marvel house style. Gil Kane, who started freelancing at Marvel in 1966, explained during a 1985 panel discussion at the Dallas Fantasy Fair:

“Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field…. They would get artists, regardless of whether they had done romance or anything else and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby…. Jack was like Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me, that’s what I had to do. It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.”

After passing his employment test, Steranko apprenticed by inking three of Kirby’s twelve-page Nick Fury episodes. Kirby had co-created the series with Lee in 1965, but after the inaugural Strange Tales #135, nearly a dozen different artists had worked on the title. Kirby also co-penciled the two issues leading up to Steranko’s run, which suggests that Steranko’s credited “illustrations,” “artwork,” “rendering” may include more than just inking. Kirby is credited only for “layouts,” and they certainly look like his. Issues #151-3 are a close match to Kirby’s first Nick Fury episode:

#135: Seven regular 3-row pages

-= story 1, page 06 =-

-= story 1, page 12 =-

(including three implied 3x2s),

-= story 1, page 03 =-

-= story 1, page 07 =-

three regular 2-row pages (including two implied and one actual 2×2),

and two full-page panels (including the opening splash).

#151: Ten regular 3-row pages (including four implied and two actual 3x2s), one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).

#152: Ten regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and two actual 3x2s) one regular 2-row page, one full-page panel (splash).

#153: Nine regular 3-row pages (including seven implied and one actual 3×2), two regular 2-row pages (one implied and one actual 2×2), one full-page panel (splash).

Kirby draws no irregular layouts, so panel heights are consistent on each page and, since three-quarters of the layouts are regular 3-row based, across a majority of pages too. Of the thirty-six 3-row based pages, twenty-six are also 3×2 (typically implied, occasionally actual). The percentage is higher in Kirby’s last two issues, with seventeen of nineteen regular 3x2s. All rows include either one, two, or three panels of equal width. When he does vary from 3-row layouts, he uses 2-rows instead, averaging two 2-row pages per issue. Each issue begins with a full-page splash panel and ends with a 3-panel row in a regular 3-row page. Excluding full-page panels, each issue includes between five and eight pages with a full-width panel; twice in one issue, two full-width panels appear on the same page. Kirby draws no full-height panels or sub-columns, so all reading is horizontal. All panels are also rectangular and framed by gutters. Kirby draws no insets or overlapping panels. The overall effect is lightly varied and highly orderly.

The Nick Fury layouts changed with Steranko’s first solo issue:

#154: Four regular 3-row pages (including one implied 3×2), three irregular 4-row pages, two full-page panels (including the opening splash), one irregular 2-row page, one regular 2×3, one mixed column-row page.

Only three of Steranko’s layouts appear in Kirby’s issues: two full-page panels and an implied 3×2. Like Kirby, Steranko favors regular rows, although not exclusively. Unlike Kirby, Steranko’s 3-row based layouts are a minority, comprising one-third rather than three-quarters of the total pages, and where slightly more than half of Kirby’s pages are 3×2 based, Steranko’s one implied regular 3×2 is the rarity.

Three of Steranko’s regular 3-row pages lightly modify Kirby by including three new elements. First, two rows are divided into four panels; Kirby’s rows never exceed three panels. Second, some panels are irregular, and so their widths vary within the same row; Kirby’s panels are always divided equally. Third, two full-width panels include insets, effectively creating a row of two irregular panels; Kirby draws no insets.

Six of Steranko’s layouts contradict Kirby completely: three irregular 4-rows;

a regular 2×3; an irregular 2-row; and a mixed column-row page. Although the final page features the first instance of vertical reading, the concluding two-panel sub-row echoes the regular 3-panel row that concludes each of Kirby’s issues too.

Despite the range of differences between Kirby’s #153 and Steranko’s #154, most of Steranko’s additions can be found in Kirby’s earlier work:

 The Fantastic Four #1 (August 1961) includes irregular 4-row pages, regular 2x3s, rows of four panels, and rows of irregular panels. Fantastic Four #2 include the same variations, but 4-rows and 2x3s vanish afterwards.

With the exception of splash pages, The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962) is also entirely regular 3-row based, with only three pages that vary the format with irregular panels or a regular four-panel row.

By The Avengers #1 (September 1963) Kirby’s layouts are also almost entirely 3-row based, with no more than three panels per row, and only two rows of irregular panels; the one irregular 2-row implies a 3×3 grid.

The X-Men (September 1963), published simultaneously, has even fewer variations: a subdivided panel in a regular 3×2, and one row of two irregular panels.

The twelve pages of Kirby’s Captain America feature in Tales of Suspense #59 (November 1964) are even more rigid, containing only regular 3-row layouts, all but one implying a 3×2 grid.

The Nick Fury episode of Strange Tales #135 (August 1965), Kirby’s last new series for Marvel, is comparatively diverse. Becoming the Marvel house style seems to have required Kirby to regularize his layouts, presumably so they could be more easily imitated. Variation and innovation are not qualities easily taught, and they do not produce a unified style across titles.

Although Kirby appears to have curtailed his own style to create the Marvel house style, insets and columns are still rare in his early Marvel work too. Fantastic Four #3 does include one, partial inset with its own gutter, and #5 features a highly atypical 1×3 page—which Steranko echoes in his next Nick Fury issue with a three-column page of his own.

One of Kirby’s very first comic books, the eight-page “Cosmic Carson” in Science Comics #4 (May 1940), includes four sub-columns, but no page-height ones. The following year, Captain America #1 includes sub-columns too.

“Cosmic Carson” also shows Kirby’s early use of a regular 2-row with a top full-width panel; identical layouts appear in Strange Tales #s 135, 151, and 152 as well as Steranko’s later #157.

Overall, however, Kirby uses columns rarely, while for Steranko they would become part of his signature style. His next column concludes #160, then beginning with #166, at least one appears in nearly every issue. #166 includes two: a regular 1×2 and, more distinctively, an irregular 1×2 in which the first column is an unframed, full-height figure defining the panel edges of the second column.

#167 includes no columns—in part because of its seven full-page panels, including Steranko’s innovative fold-out “quadruple-page spread,” which also doubled the price of the issue from twelve cents to twenty-four.

#168 then includes three columned pages in a row: an irregular 1×2 with no panel divisions;

an irregular 1×2 with the first column divided into five regular panels; and a highly irregular 1×2 in which the unframed full-height figure overlaps with the three panels of the second column.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D then switched to its own independent title, and #1 featured another irregular 1×2 with an unframed, full-height figure.

#2 includes a lone column and a later half-column of insets on a full-page panel, as does #3, and #5, Steranko’s last, includes a new column layout of a regular 1×3 with only the middle column divided into six irregular panels.

Because Steranko fell behind schedule, another creative team filled-in #4, marking the beginning of the end for Steranko at Marvel. He would leave the following year, 1969, after objecting to Stan Lee’s editing of his work. Steranko’s penultimate issue, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D #3, bears little relationship to Kirby’s earlier layouts:

1: full-page splash panel

2-3: mixed column-row, a two-page panel with a column of letter-shaped panels

4: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

5: irregular 2-column with three irregular insets over the page-panel

6: irregular 3-row with two insets in the middle row and one inset in the bottom row

7: irregular 2-row with two full-width panels

8: mixed column-row, beginning with a full-width panel, followed by a nearly full-page panel with a two-panel column of insets

9: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-column of full-height columns, with a top row of four regular insets

10: regular 3-row with irregular panels

11: mixed column-row, an irregular 2-row with a two-panel column of insets over a full-width half page bottom column

12-13: two-page panel

14: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

15: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset

16: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a three-panel column of insets over a middle full-width panel

17: irregular 3-row with irregular panels and one inset

18: irregular 3-row with irregular panels

19: irregular 2-row with a column of text beside a nearly full-page panel

20: mixed column-row, an irregular 3-row with a sub-column of two insets

Although nine of the twenty pages are exclusively row-based, only one features rows of uniform height, and six additional pages include a mixture of rows and columns. The complexities are greater when also considering unframed and overlapping panels, but the contrast to Kirby’s last issue, published a year and a half earlier, is already stark:

1: Full-page splash panel

2: regular 3×2

3: regular 3-row with top full-width panel implying a 3×2

4: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2

5: regular 2×2

6: regular 3-row with middle full-width panel implying a 3×2

7: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

8: regular 3-row with bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

9: regular 2-row with a top full-width panel implying a 2×2

10: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

11: regular 3-row with a bottom full-width panel implying a 3×2

12: regular 3-row

Kirby built the Marvel house style on a 3×2 grid and punctuated it with an occasional 2×2. After both Kirby and Steranko left Marvel, Kirby’s flexible page schemes would give way to a norm of irregular layouts, fluctuating between 2-, 3-, and 4-rows, with an open base pattern. Kirby’s Silver Age layouts were gone.

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First time I lost a tooth, I ran to the top of the steps and yelled, “My tooth came out!” I couldn’t see my mother in our laundry room, but she performed a reasonably convincing shout of excitement, ending with: “Looks like someone’s getting a visit from the tooth fairy tonight!”

My five-year-old body went rigid. Blood drained from my face. Tooth fairy? Who the hell was the tooth fairy?

I must have a gothic disposition, because I assumed this creature would be coming for the rest of my still-attached teeth. One of Poe’s narrators does that, plucks out his beloved’s beautiful incisors and bicuspids with a pair of pliers. But Germany’s E. T. A. Hoffman is the better source for inverted fairies. A student in my English Capstone assigned the 1816 “Der Sandmann” to our class earlier this semester. Hoffman takes the harmless Sandman, bringer of sleep to dozy children, and twists him into “a wicked man” who “throws handfuls of sand into their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody; and he puts them into a bag and takes them to the half-moon as food for his little ones.”

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That’s the guy Metallica is singing about. Although the Hans Anderson version isn’t all goodnight kisses either. Ole-Luk-Oie, the Dream-God, may be very “fond of children,” but if you’ve been naughty, he holds a black umbrella over you all night so come morning you’ve dreamt nothing at all. His sibling is named Ole-Luk-Oie too, except “he never visits anyone but once, and when he does come, he takes him away on his horse, and tells him stories as they ride along. He knows only two. One of these is so wonderfully beautiful, that no one in the world can imagine anything like it; but the other is just as ugly and frightful, so that it would be impossible to describe it.” The other Sandman isn’t a Dream-God. He’s Death.

I prefer Hoffman’s eye-plucking fairy. He reveals “the path of the wonderful and adventurous” as the child-narrator tries to unmask him. That’s right, “the terrible Sand-man” is a dual-identity supervillain. The kid recognizes his father’s business partner, a literally Satanic lawyer who practices alchemy by night. If the Faust allusions aren’t clear, then note his “sepulchral voice” and the laboratory explosion that kills the hapless dad. Hoffman even quotes Goethe after strumming the Übermensch theme song: “Father treated him as if he were a being from a higher race.”

Enter Golden Age comic writer Gardner Fox. He must have spent a lot of time under Ole-Luk-Oie’s other umbrella, the one with the pictures twirling on the inside. He dreamt up the Flash, Hawkman, Dr. Fate and the Justice Society of America. Bill Finger usually gets credit as Batman’s original writer, but Fox wrote six of the first eight episodes, each almost twice as long as Finger’s introductory 6-pagers. Instead of apprehending jewel thieves and serial killers, Fox’s phantasmagoric Dark Knight faces down a werewolf-vampire and some guy who steals faces and puts them on talking flowers.

Sandman golden age

When Finger returned Batman to the grit of crime alley in 1940, Fox dreamt up the Sandman, your standard fedora-wearing Mystery Man, except in a World War I gas mask. He stole his knock-out pellets from Batman’s utility belt (a Fox invention), though they’d already been field-tested by Johnston McCulley’s Bat and WXYZ’s Green Hornet. When Jack Kirby and Joe Simon got tired of spinning Timely’s umbrella of characters, they traded in the Sandman’s business suit for a red and yellow leotard and a sidekick named Sandy. They kept the color scheme when they revised him again in 1974, this time as the Sandman of Hans Anderson lore, a protector of children’s dreams. That’s the dopey series Neil Gaiman reawakened in 1988.

absolutesandman

I was too busy mourning the collapse of Alan Moore’s short-lived Mad Love company to take adequate notice at the time. Gaiman stripped off the leotard, but I still considered his white-skinned Morpheus just another superhero reboot. I thought the future of comics was Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Big Numbers and Dave McKean’s Cages. I was wrong. McKean’s publisher Tundra died almost as fast as Mad Love. I’m sure he made better money painting Sandman covers anyway.

Sandman is easily the best-selling and best-regarded comic of the 90s. When I attended a comics forum last month, it was the only work to receive its own three-scholar panel. Unfortunately the forum was in Michigan after a bout of “snow thunder” had reduced the state to a lake of frozen slush, and none of the three panelists showed up. Maybe the empty podium was their way of evoking a night spent under the Sandman’s black umbrella.

I prefer Gaiman’s non-graphic novels anyway. Stardust was one of the last books I read aloud to my kids, my wife regularly teaches American Gods, and Coraline once shattered an MFA-induced writing block of mine, not just its twirling dreamscape, but the deceptively Stein-esque simplicity of its sentences. This also lead to a parenting low point when my wife and I refused to leave a matinee of the film adaptation even though our son was trying to claw over the back of his seat to escape. And yet the emotional scars did not prevent him from later writing a book report on Neverwhere. He likes Good Omens too.

Like Hans Anderson, DC spun-off the Sandman’s sibling Death, but when Gaiman killed Sandman, his contract stipulated that it would stay dead. Because, as Ole-Luk-Oie warns his listeners, “You may have too much of a good thing.” I was paying enough attention to buy that 75th and final issue, a riff on Shakespeare’s Tempest. It turns out the bard is a bit of a Faust himself. The talentless hack accepts a contract as the Sandman’s front man, inundating the world with dream stuff for centuries to come. “There is nobody in the world,” wrote Hans, “who knows so many stories as Ole-Luk-Oie, or who can relate them so nicely.”

Vilhelm_Pedersen,_OLE_LUKØJE,_ubt

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captainamericanewdeal6

Is the War on Terror over yet? It was written to be a mini-seriesAfter the 2003 fall of Baghdad, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld outlined plans for an immediate invasion of Syria. Lebanon, Somalia, and Sudan were up afterwards, with Iran crowning the Bush Administration’s “seven countries in five years” plot.

It was a naive story, one modeled on World War II and the swift collapse of the Axis. A decade later, the American public can’t even stomach Syrian air strikes let alone a ground invasion. We would all like the War on Terror to be over, but it’s evolved instead. Now we’re stuck with a less combative but never-ending Cold War on Terror.

That could prove a problem for superheroes. Costumed crusaders make lousy diplomats. Captain America would just infiltrate those Syrian chemical depots. The Human Torch would take out Iran’s nuclear plants with a few fire balls. The Sub-Mariner wouldn’t negotiate with Russia; he’d fly in and grab Snowden by the throat.

It will take a few Hollywood mega-flops before superheroes change their big screen tactics, but I predict that change is coming too. Just look at the last time America’s legion of leotards faced a cooling of national attitudes.

Captain America 1954

1954 should have been a good year for superheroes. Sure, the plummet in post-war sales wiped most superpowers off newsstands, but the Man of Steel had made the leap to TV. The first two seasons of Adventures of Superman were looking like a hit for ABC. No wonder Atlas (formerly Timely, soon Marvel) Comics decided to revive their golden age sellers. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America cranked out a million copies a month during the war, with Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch right behind. Now the three were fronting their own magazines again. The Torch even returned atomic-powered, a happy side effect of the nuclear testing that awakened him from his desert grave. 

Over at DC, superheroes hid on the home front during World War II. Except for a smiling, patriotic splash page selling bonds, you wouldn’t have known there was a war on. That’s part of why DC’s trinity—Superman, Batman, Wonder Wonder—were the only supers to survive the post-war plummet. They stayed out of Cold War politics too. The Man of Steel never came near the Iron Curtain. Instead of bashing Commies, Adventures of Superman softened Superman’s crooks into cartoonish comedy. DC stapled “the American way” to the old “truth and justice” credo, and that’s as far as the Red Scare crept into Superman’s true blue tights.

But at Atlas, superheroes remained bound to America’s real-world supervillains. So with Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito vanquished to the Phantom Zone, they used the Cold War substitute. Sure, Joseph Stalin was dead, but Soviet sickles and hammers still replaced swastikas on Sub-Mariner’s first cover. Captain America stands with his shield raised in a self-congratulatory cheer below his new 1954 tag phrase “Commie Smasher!”

It made sense. Joseph McCarthy’s communist-vilifying absolutism was a good fit for unexaminedly violent supermen populating a patriotically distorted fantasy world of pure good and evil. The timing was right too. McCarthy’s popularity popped in 1950 with his never-substantiated charge that the State Department was infested with Communists. When Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block coined the pejorative term “McCarthyism,” the Senator embraced it. His 1952 McCarthyism: The Fight For America even linked Communism to Hitler.

Atlas wasn’t the only comic book company backing McCarthy. Prize Comics hired Simon and Kirby to revive their brand of patriotic violence with another star-chested super soldier. Simon had titled his original Captain America sketch “Super American,” but he and Kirby went with Fighting American for their Cold War redo. Doing Captain America’s resurrection one better, Fighting American was literally a corpse, a dead World War II hero and right-wing TV commentator reanimated and inhabited by his puny kid brother. And that’s the best definition of “MyCarthyism” you’ll even find. 

So why didn’t any of these superpowered pinko-pounders last even a year? Captain America and the Human Torch went down in flames after just three issues. Sub-Mariner dribbled out ten. Stan Lee blamed the flop on the “stridently conservative scripting,” the same script McCarthy was working from. As a Senate chairman, he accused the U.S. Army of harboring masked Commies, and so the Army-McCarthy hearings kicked off in April 1954. On newsstands the same month, the first cover of Fighting American boasted: “Where there’s Danger! Mystery! Adventure! We find The NEW CHAMP OF SPLIT-SECOND ACTION!”  The hearings ended in June, the cover date of the last issue of Human Torch. The last Captain America was removed from newsstands the following month. Which means Atlas made its cancellation decisions during the hearings. Commie-bashing superheroes fell with their Commie-bating role model.

Instead of cancelling, Kirby and Simon went a different but equally anti-McCarthy direction. June-July is the last non-satirical issue of Fighting American. Prize introduced a redesigned logo for August-September, and the new cover includes two clownish communist villains and the ironic warning: “Don’t laugh—they’re not funny—POISON IVAN and HOTSKY TROTSKI.”

Fighting American cover

Jingoistic superheroism was literally a joke. The Senate condemned McCarthy in December, while Fighting American joked his way into Spring. Simon and Kirby had an eighth issue ready, but Prize never printed it.  When McCarthy died in 1957, he stayed dead too. Captain America rose a decade later, but he was a changed man. Marvel even declared that 1954 guy an impostor. Stan Lee said he wanted to express his own “ambivalent feelings” through the new Captain and “show that nothing is really all black and white.” Or white and Red.

If history repeats itself, superheroes will be a joke again soon. But first our contemporary McCarthies and their “stridently conservative scripting” would have to flop. The GOP’s polls plummeted after the shutdown, but Senator Cruz and his Tea Party cohorts look fine in their gerrymandered districts. According to his filibuster transcript, Cruz even believes he’s a member of the Rebel Alliance fighting the Evil Empire in Star Wars. It’s not a comic book, but the two-dimensional thinking is the same. The Tea Party is happy as long as they have that pinko Obama to bash in the name of the American way.

ObamaStalin_ChicagoNewsBench_DeviantArt_640x480

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bookcover

Google “jennifer egan” and seconds later the term “metafiction” will attach itself leech-like to the side of her postmodern head.

I know this because members of my university have made the possibly foolhardy decision to ask me to give a talk on the Pulitzer winning author for our 2013 Tom Wolfe Weekend Seminar. (This blog, of all things, attracted their attention.) I’m to place A Visit from the Goon Squad into “the context of contemporary American culture” with “a discussion of Egan’s special skills as a writer,” keeping in mind she will be “sitting right there in front of you.”

I regularly tell my first year comp students that even if we could materialize authors in our classroom (usually during a discussion of Henry James’ mind-blowingly ambiguous The Turn of the Screw), their opinions would be completely irrelevant. Readers and only readers determine the meaning of a text. Except of course in this case. Because that will be the actual Jennifer Egan. In the front row. Listening. To me. Blathering. About her book.

Jennifer Egan

Poetic comeuppance aside, the author’s physical presence will be especially apt for a discussion of Goon Squad. Chapter one opens: “It began the usual way . . .” and before you’ve waded in a dozen pages you’re knee deep in self-referential story-telling, overt comments about symbols and plot arcs and collaborative writing. Ms. Egan is pulling off her metaphorical mask and yelling: Look at me!

So now, after stretching to pluck David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction from my office book shelf, let me flip to Chapter 46: “Metafiction is fiction about fiction: novel and stories that call attention to their fictional status and their own compositional procedures.”

Apart from a requisite nod to the 18th century’s Tristram Shandy, Lodge spends most of his time chatting with John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gass coined the term in 1970, after Barth demonstrated the style in his 1968 novel Lost in the Funhouse. Slaughterhouse Five was published a year later. Add Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and a couple of short stories by Robert Cover, and there’s your course syllabus for “Goon Squad: Founding Fathers of American Metafiction.”

Except, wait, here’s that inevitable moment, my weekly plot twist, where I veer to where I must always veer:

Superheroes!

No, no, no, NO. American metafiction did NOT begin in the late 60s. It was not a highbrow literary phenomenon. It was the lowest of the lowbrows, the pulpiest of the pulps, that ultimate literary stepchild, the comic book.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby beat Pynchon by a half-decade. In Fantastic Four #2, on newsstands in 1961, Reed Richards convinces an alien race not to invade Earth by showing them drawing of monsters. “Those are some of Earth’s most powerful warriors!” he tells them, while thinking, “I pray he doesn’t suspect that they’re actually clipped from ‘Strange Tales’ and ‘Journey into Mystery!’” Two other Marvel titles sharing newsstand space with Fantastic Four.

Two issues later, the Human Torch chances onto a stash of old comics. “Say! Look at this old, beat-up comic mag! It’s from the 1940’s!!” It features the Golden Age Namor on the cover. “The Sub-Mariner! . . . He used to be the world’s most unusual character!” And guess who shows up two panels later?

In issue five, Johnny’s reading habits have expanded. Reed asks, “What are you reading, Johnny?”It’s The Incredible Hulk #1, out the same month. “A great new comic mag, Reed. Say! You know something—! I’ll be doggoned if this monster doesn’t remind me of The Thing!” Because he’s supposed to. Marvel created Hulk because of the Thing’s popularity.

The cover of FF #9 asks: “What happens to comic magazine heroes when they can’t pay their bills and have no place to turn?” But #10 is even bolder: “In this epic issue surprise follows surprise as you actually meet Lee and Kirby in the story!!” The authors stare up at the action from the front row.

Stan: “How’s this for a twist, Jack? We’ve got Doctor Doom as one of the Fantastic Four!!”

Jack:  “And Mister Fantastic himself is the villain!! Our fans oughtta flip over this yarn!!”

Fantastic-Four-10

As promised, Dr. Doom uses the Marvel duo to lure Reed into a trap.

Johnny: “Phone call for you, Reed! It’s Lee and Kirby! They’d like you to go to their studio to work out a plot with ‘em!”

Reed: “Strange…we just finished discussing a new plot yesterday!”

Thing: “Tell ‘em if they don’t stop makin’ me even uglier than I am, I’m liable to go up there and wrap this two-ton weight around their skinny necks!”

Issue 11 goes further still. The team has to stand in line to get a copy of their own comic book, and then they go home to answer fan letters, shattering the last remains of the fourth wall. Mr. Lumpkin, their mailman, laments in the final panel: “Blankety blank fans and comic magazine heroes, and letters to the editor pages! Ohhh my achin’ back!”

Stan Lee

The trend dies a quiet death in the next issue when the Hulk shows up with no mention of that comic mag John had been reading. Marvel traded in metafiction for multi-title continuity. That brings us into 1962, still eight years before Barth coins the term.

Of course metafiction is probably as old as fiction, older if you include other genres, metatheater, etc. The term was intended as a highbrow literary category, even though some of its most immediate influences were from pop culture, including such humble creatures as comic books. But Stan Lee is no source point either. His FF tomfoolery was influenced from 1950s Mad magazine. Plus the whole Silver Age can be read as a metafictional response to the Golden Age (Barry Allen, the new Flash, kicks off the Silver Age by reading an original Flash comic). And the Golden Age is filled with its own examples too. A group of characters go on strike in Captain Marvel Adventures, and there’s a Superman episode in which Clark takes Lois to a movie that starts with a Superman cartoon (so he has to prevent her from seeing the scene where Clark in the cartoon turns into Superman). Even Bob Kane’s early Batman episodes have their meta moments, so it’s present from the beginning of the medium.

And does all of this put Jennifer Egan into “the context of contemporary American culture”?

Um, no, not really.

So you’ll forgive me if I sign off now and finish reading Goon Squad.

‘Nuff said.

Jack Kirby

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