Making of the Marvel Universe
Kirby or Lee?
When I wrote about the Marvel Universe in my book The Art of the Comic Book, I decided that Jack Kirby was more responsible for the uniqueness of the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee was. I ranted on about it for several pages, and among the witnesses on Kirby’s behalf were the hero groups he’d participated in creating in earlier years—the Boy Commandos, for instance, and the Newsboy Legion and so on. All groups with members who had distinct, even quirky, personalities. It would be easier, I thought, for a man with that history to create the Fantastic Four than for a man who’d been writing Millie the Model and My Friend Irma. There’s more to my argument than that, but I’ll let you dig it up (pp. 43-47, big pages, small type—in other words, a longish argument) at your convenience. The only serious assault on my thesis was made by Earl Wells in a 1995 issue of The Comics Journal, No. 181, that included several articles about Kirby. Much as I admire Wells’s attempt to solve the question of authorship of the Marvel Universe by using the analytical methods of literary criticism, I think his deployment of those methods is based upon an erroneous premise and therefore leads him astray. Wells examines Jack Kirby’s work on the New Gods series at DC in the early 1970s and compares it to the work he did while at Marvel in the 1960s. So far, Wells is on solid ground. Then he loses his footing: noting that the spirit of the New Gods books is antithetical to the spirit that animates the Marvel books of the previous decade, he concludes that the same man could not have written both—ergo, the true author of the Marvel books was Stan Lee, not Jack Kirby.
While it is true that the whole body of work produced by any creator such as Kirby should be taken into account when examining any aspect of that work, the examination must also recognize that the creator might change his mind or attitude over the period of time that his work is produced. Wells maintains that he considered this possibility, but he dismissed it because, as he says, he can’t understand how “a writer or artist could have made such an
about-face and then not have written or talked about it.” And Kirby, he says, never wrote about it or talked about it. In a subsequent revision of his essay for the Comics Journal Library volume, Jack Kirby, Wells said: “Some attribute the change to artistic growth on the part of Kirby. [I am at least one of those “some.”—RCH] I don’t see the New Gods as an organic artistic development from the Marvel stories; to me, the two bodies of work represent opposite points-of-view on the same subject matter rather than stages of development.” As you might expect, I disagree.
Kirby may not have spoken about his change of heart or about how his view of heroism evolved. But I agree with Wells that there is ample evidence to support his notion that Kirby viewed heroism differently at different times in his career. In the common parlance of literary criticism, this sort of change is called “growth.” In short, Kirby grew as an artist and as a storyteller; and as he grew in technical proficiency, he also grew philosophically, and that growth, in turn, is reflected in the themes of his work. And the evidence can be found in the same places Wells looked for evidence to support his contention—that is, in the works themselves, not necessarily in any interview Kirby ever gave. The work of any artist is, after all, the most legitimate place to look for the artist’s attitudes.
Wells writes that “it is difficult for me to believe that the same man, an adult professional with years of experience, over the course of only five or so years [the span between, say, the birth of the Marvel Universe and the genesis of the New Gods], could have written with such deep feeling about two such widely divergent themes—on the one hand, that great power requires responsibility, sacrifice, and suffering, and on the other, that great power is so dangerous that even a philosophy of responsibility, suffering, and sacrifice can be twisted into an obsession with death and [be] made to serve anti-life.”
But if we assume that a creative artist grows and matures during his career, we can find in Kirby’s growth the explanation for the difference between the New Gods and the Marvel heroes.
Wells says “Kirby was writing about war” in the New Gods. I agree. And Kirby had written about war before—in the early 1940s, when, with Europe plunged into the Nazi maw, he and Joe Simon created Captain America. The character personified patriotism, pure and simple. And that’s what patriotism was during the years of that war—pure and simple. It was uncomplicated, uncompromised, unequivocal devotion to the principles for which the nation said it stood. And Captain America was not a complicated personality. He embodied those high-sounding principles.
Kirby was scarcely alone in embracing these ideas at that time. Indeed, most Americans embraced a kindred idealism—and they did so unquestioningly. So did Kirby. For Kirby, the struggle was between Good and Evil, and the heroes of his fictions were the Good Guys.
Kirby continued to subscribe to this idealism through the war and into the post-war era. But by the time he reached Boys’ Ranch in 1950, his understanding of the nature of Good and Evil had achieved a more nuanced balance than before. If we consider only the “Mother Delilah” story in No. 3, we find a seriously flawed hero (the long-haired kid Angel) and a villainess (Delilah) not altogether bad. I examine this story in great detail in The Art of the Comic Book (out in January 1996), so I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that the tales in
Boys’ Ranch are markedly different from the somewhat one-dimensional patriotic epics of World War II.
But then, none of us were as simple-minded about our country or about Good and Evil in the 1950s as we’d been in the 1940s. Working with his long-time partner Joe Simon, Kirby nonetheless tried to revive the clarity of war-time patriotism with another super-powered patriot, Fighting American, in 1954. An unabashed attempt to cash in (this time) on a patriotic creation like Captain America, Fighting American was a crusader against Communism, which, in the McCarthy atmosphere of that time, was a noble thing to be. Unhappily (as I point out in The Art of the Comic Book), the timing was wrong: McCarthy and his minions were discredited just about the time Fighting American hit the stands. Simon and Kirby quickly revamped their concept and attempted to produce a satirical book. Alas, neither of them was much good at satire.
But perhaps in the foundering satire of Fighting American we have the seeds of the self-mockery that distinguishes the early Marvel creations. Couldn’t Kirby have brought that notion with him to Marvel? Suggested it to Stan Lee as a novel approach to heroism? And couldn’t Lee, the man who scripted My Friend Irma and other similarly juvenile humor titles, have seen in the concept a place where his penchant for humor could be exercised and immediately pounced upon it. Why not?
It’s pretty clear from the testimony quoted in Wells’ article and in other places in the same issue of the Journal that Lee ginned up plot ideas and that Kirby accepted some of them and rejected others as he fleshed out the ideas that Lee rained down upon his head. Overhearing a story-development session from the back seat of a car, John Romita reports: “Stan would plot the Fantastic Four with Jack, and they would both come in with their ideas, and they would both ignore each other. Each one would have their own ideas, and I could see that the other guy was countering with another idea. . . . So when Jack got the story in, sometimes Stan would say, Gee, Jack forgot what we talked about. And I’m sure Jack thought the same thing, that Stan forgot what they talked about.”
The pages of art that Kirby turned in transformed Lee’s story ideas into dramatic action. And Lee embellished the action with his verbiage, writing captions and speech balloons that gave the stories a self-deprecating patina. Kirby could not have injected any such mocking tone into the tales; but Lee’s contribution was as lyricist, refining the creative output of his collaborator. This is no small achievement. But the creative workhorse here was, in my view, Kirby, not Lee.
Despite the mockery, the stories were still celebrations of the heroic, as Wells maintains. So how did Kirby get from the Marvel ambiance to the New Gods ambiance? The latter shows that Kirby, once a believer in the redemptive and triumphant power of heroism, had lost his faith—or, rather, had tempered it with an almost cynical realism. He did what all of us did as we progressed from World War II through the Korean War to Vietnam.
Kirby was as fond of his audience as he was of drawing and storytelling. Any comic book reader who spent any time with him can testify to that. And Marvel’s success with the college crowd (slightly older readers than he’d been working for prior to that time) doubtless made Kirby more aware of the blighting impact of Vietnam on American youth than he had been before during either of the other conflicts he’d witnessed. His readers were being marched off to a war they despised for reasons that seemed wholly irrelevant. Kirby could scarcely have ignored what was going on around him—and around his readers.
This was another war. But by now, we had all learned something about how war works in a purely political context, a war fought not to win but to make a political statement. An endless war. But this time—in sharp contrast to the wartime 1940s —many Americans viewed war as futile and, ultimately, meaningless. Kirby, I believe, came to share that view, and he incorporated his attitude into the New Gods books. And heroism in that context was certainly less heroic.
That’s the route I think Kirby’s thinking took. And that’s why the New Gods books, although produced by the same creative personality as the Marvel Universe, seem so anti-thetical. The New Gods books represent just another step in the philosophical and psychological evolution of Kirby’s thinking about life and heroism. The New Gods, as Wells says, were not 1960s Marvel heroes. They were, rather, 1970s Kirby heroes.
That Kirby attempted such a mature and nuanced treatment of heroism was due, probably, to his realization that comic books could be made for older, more mature, readers than before. His experience with the Marvel books had shown him that. With the New Gods books, then, he simply took the next step. Kirby’s entire career can be seen as a progression. I’ve indicated some of that progression here; in my book, I indicate other aspects of it. For now, however, it is perhaps enough to say that if we view the creative artist as a growing, developing consciousness, we can easily explain what Wells finds so inexplicable, the conflicting views of heroism and human nature found in the Marvel Universe and in the New Gods universe.
As for why Kirby never spoke or wrote much (if anything) about this change in his attitude about heroism, that is scarcely strange. From World War II to Vietnam, Kirby experienced what I may call the Great Disillusionment. To a man for whom patriotism and doing good were once important values, the deterioration of traditional patriotism during the anti-war protests of the late 1960s and the accompanying doubt about the morality of the war (its goodness in the sense that America always wages war on the side of the angels) must have been deeply disillusioning. But would a man of Kirby’s patriotic cast of mind then speak of such things? I think not. I think instead of talking about it, he wrote stories about his disillusionment—the New Gods stories. But by the time he wrote those, he was a different man than the man who wrote the Marvel superhero comic books, and that’s why I think he wrote both of them.
While we’re on the subject of the early Marvel Universe, let me offer another notion about it—namely, that the much remarked upon issue-to-issue continuity that pretty early began to distinguish Marvel books was not the result of a conscious marketing or artistic decision but the accidental consequence of the need to produce more and more books in less and less time.
The earliest books offered self-contained stories. But as the line became successful, the impulse was to capitalize upon that success by producing more and more books. It is more difficult to invent stories that have endings than it is to crank out storylines that simply go off in one direction or another—without, at the moment of conception, having any particular conclusion in mind. And since the imperative was to manufacture Product, story endings were superfluous. Story directions— something moving in one direction of another, any direction—were all that were needed to fill the pages of Product; with the direction of a storyline in mind, an artist like Kirby or Steve Ditko could plunge ahead, penciling pages and illustrating incident after incident, without a thought for the future beyond the issue on the drawingboard. In lieu of an ending, there was simply a caption, announcing, “Continued in the next issue” (or words to that effect).
As work progressed along the direction of a given storyline, ideas were generated—new incidents were tacked on to the initial conception of the storyline, nuances of character development were introduced, and, at various but unpredictable points, “endings” were reached. My guess is that most of these so-called endings were chanced upon as the storyline unfolded rather than envisioned at the launch of the storyline.
The books were undeniably exciting. They also stimulated sales of successive issues. All of this was “success.” No question.
But the storytelling practices thus initiated were degenerative: they led to more of the same haphazard plotting of stories with direction but without conclusions. And the result is that we had great bodies of would-be “literature” that is meaningless because the stories lack the endings that would give significance (and, hence, meaning) to the incidents they embody.
And to some extent, we still suffer from the triumph of this practice. We can still find books that have no stories with endings being produced, willy nilly, by “writers” who think stringing incidents together, one after another, is “storytelling.” These writers, it seems to me, don’t understand what a story is. And nothing in the industry’s most resounding success story—the Marvel story—could persuade them of the necessity for acquiring the self-discipline essential to good storytelling, the discipline that imposes an ending (and therefore a meaning) upon the direction of a narrative.
For insight into the contents of The Art of the Comic Book, click here.