Friday, April 19, 2013

BAB Book Review: Lee and Kirby -- The Wonder Years

Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years (November 2011)
AKA The Jack Kirby Collector #58, MSRP $19.95 (cheaper online)
Mark Alexander

Doug:  Here's a strong suggestion for you -- buy this book!  Seriously, if you liked Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, if you're a fan of the Silver Age Fantastic Four, or if you are interested in the never-ending debate of "who did what" in regard to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, then you need to own this.  I bought this when it was first available, but as can be my habit did not immediately get to it.  It's been long on the "to read" list, and as March turned to April I sat down to read it.  Well, that took only a couple of days, as it is just gripping.  Author Mark Alexander goes where others have gone before in terms of Marvel history and some anecdotal evidence skewed toward either Lee or Kirby -- but it's his own point of view often interjected that makes this part history, part blog, and part biography.  The outcome is a well-wrapped package that showcases a partnership that one could say was to comic books what Lennon and McCartney was to popular music.  NOTE:  I'll supply just a few page samples in this review.  At the end of the post there will be a link to the TwoMorrows site, where you can open a much longer .pdf preview of the book.  Thanks.

It's been customary for me over the years to do my book reviews in a "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" format.  If you're expecting that here, you won't find it.  As I finished the book, I couldn't help but feel two things -- I'm glad I bought this those many months ago (and should have read it earlier), and I wanted to hook up the FF dvd-rom and read each issue of the Lee/Kirby run and see if my impressions agreed with Alexander's.  Here's the way the book is organized, table of contents first:
  • Introduction
  • "Fourword"
  • Prologue
  • The Knockoff Champion
  • Winds of Change: The 1950's
  • The Days of Dr. Droom
  • Genesis
  • The Early Years
  • Momentus
  • Apotheosis
  • Decline
  • Epilogue
  • A New Take on an Old Classic
  • This is a Plot?
  • Afterword
  • Source Notes
  • Postscript
As you might guess from the chapter titles, the first three are basically histories of various periods in Timely/Atlas/Marvel.  Much attention is paid to Martin Goodman, the owner of the various incarnations of the comics publishing companies that would eventually become known as the "House of Ideas".  We then are walked through the ins and outs of the post-War years, the monster phase, etc.  I don't recall there being any groundbreaking news in the first part of the book, so if I was going to have a "the Bad" section this would have to be it.  But I wasn't put off by it -- if nothing else, it was nice to see stories I'd read from the typewriters of Les Daniels, Sean Howe, et al. corroborated in another book.

Once Alexander gets to the Lee/Kirby collaboration on the Fantastic Four mag, it's really a buckle-your-seatbelt ride.  Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Alexander's style is that in spite of the fact that this book was published within the sometimes-Kirby-apologist The Jack Kirby Collector, it's a very, very objective study.  In the Introduction, publisher John Morrow tells us that The Wonder Years was originally imagined as a long article or series of articles in TJKC.  Mark Alexander had published articles in the magazine before, and through his relationship with Morrow was able to make the case that this could be a book.  The results are very nice, as this has all of the visual qualities of a regular issue of TJKC, but with a singular focus.  Anyway, back to Alexander's impression of Stan Lee...  From the chapter "This is a Plot?":  A funny thing happened on the way to this book.  From the outset, a conscious decision was made to avoid any "who did what" debates regarding Jack and Stan's individual contributions to Fantastic Four.  But with no preconceived agenda whatsoever, we kept finding more and more evidence that shows Stan was actively involved in the plotting of Fantastic Four, to some degree or another, during Kirby's entire run on the series (p. 146).  For me, it's the willingness to report what was dug up, to cite the folks who were there (Flo Steinberg, Roy Thomas, Marie Severin, and Sol Brodsky), and then to just let the reader reflect on his or her own prejudices that makes this a great read and a nice resource to own.

 In addition to the chapter titles, Alexander divides his examination of the Lee/Kirby years by eras based on his own observations.  Interspersed throughout the text are long sections of musings on each of the 102 issues on which the dream team collaborated.  He calls these sections by the name he's given to each period, and then includes his thoughts "At a Glance".  These pages compose what I would approximate as the "blog element" of the book, and those divisions are:
  • The Age of Innovation (covers #'s 1-6)
  • The Ayers Age (covers #'s 7-20 and Annual #1)
  • The Roussos Period (covers #'s 21-27)
  • The Stone Age (covers #'s 28-38 and Annual #2)
  • The Transitory Period (covers #'s 39-43 and Annual #3)
  • The Cosmic Era (covers #'s 44-67 and Annuals #4-5)
  • The Age of Inertia (covers #'s 68-102 and Annual #6)
In each of these capsules Alexander is careful not to give us a plot synopsis -- he remarks late in the book that for anyone who wants such a thing, copies of the Official Marvel Index to the Fantastic Four can be found for cheap.  Instead, Alexander helps us note trends over a span of issues, gives his take on the awesomeness (very rare -- basically Dr. Doom and Galactus) or lameness (the Red Ghost -- because according to DC, everything's better with monkeys) of a given issue's villain, and innovations wrought by Kirby (especially when a collage is included).  Additionally, each cover is shown and its inker is noted.

Mark Alexander is not hesitant to heap praise on Fantastic Four or on either or all of the book's creators.  Conversely, he is quick with criticism as well.  Of note, he really has harsh words for the transition of Madame Medusa from a sexually-charged villainess who, in the author's opinion could have gone on to be a major villain, and to Stan Lee for his major faux pas in #99 where he reveals that Crystal and Black Bolt are brother and sister.  Wait...  then that would make Black Bolt and Medusa... oh my.  He also traces developments in the magazine that can be directly tied to mandates from Martin Goodman, such as the order that multi-part stories cease to be written.  Another example of Goodman's influence was the switch away from "twice-up" 12"x18" bristol board to the smaller 10"x15" art board.  Kirby felt especially constrained by the smaller drawing surface, and Alexander notes two direct results -- more close-ups of characters, and a regular use of four-panel lay-outs on Kirby's pages.

As with any TwoMorrows publication, they don't skimp on the art.  They've done a nice turn for us in this book with plenty of finished art that showcases Jack's various inkers.  But as any regular readers of The Jack Kirby Collector know, it's the penciled pages that are the real treasures and there are plenty of samples from throughout Jack's 102-issue run to look at.  As I mentioned, every FF cover from Stan and Jack's collaboration is reproduced (albeit in a thumbnail-sized image) as well.  I'll leave you with this, and you can consider it homework.  If you click on this link, it will take you to one of the 1978 Fantastic Four cartoons from Depatie-Freleng.  I'll caution you ahead of time that this was the H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot era.  Ugh.  But the reason I mention it is that Jack's entire storyboard for the film is included in The Wonder Years.  I thought that was totally unexpected, and a very nice touch.

Did I mention that you should buy this book?


Doc Savage said...

Glad to hear it's more objective than TJKC. I stopped buying that magazine because I got tired of hearing "Stan did nothing, Jack did everything." One needs merely to consider that Stan had at least equal success when partnered with Steve Ditko, whereas Jack achieved this level of success with Joe Simon, but neither managed it on his own or when partnered with lesser talents.

I must say I don't see Medusa having any potential to be a major villainess on her own. Prehensile hair isn't that exciting. I remember a Spider-Man issue she turnes up in and thinking how silly it was that Spidey would have any trouble handling her. Let alone the whole FF!

david_b said...

Totally agreeing with Matt.. I get annoyed when fans come up and think they have some sort of definitive idea of who had the most input based on what.. some interview..?? Seriously..?

They weren't in the room when stuff was created, nor were they close friends with the movers and shakers to gauge what element of truth or lie is involved. And then they try to project what they believe as who did what towards whether they like or dislike someone else for saying something different. AND to have Stan come out and slightly alter recollections.., it's all a silly game. Not worthy of my time, nor does it subtract from my enjoyment to play 'Who's idea was it'. I take interviews with a grain of salt and simply enjoy the product. I say it was indeed a healthy mix of both, and stop short of who wrote what dialog.

Doc Savage said...

Someone should start saying it was all Artie Simek!

J.A. Morris said...

Sounds like a great book, thanks for posting the review.

We've talked about it here before, but it comes down to comparing the stuff Lee & Kirby did together with the stuff they did after the "break-up".

If Kirby was the writer-artist on FF, it would've been a good series, but not a great one. It would've been like the Fourth World stuff, where we got pages(and pages) of stilted dialogue that most folks can't relate to, with pretty pictures.

Bruce said...

This book looks great! I will have to check it out.

The Kirby/Lee run on FF is so remarkable for its sustained excellence. It took them a while to find their stride, but once they did, they produced legendary stories on almost a monthly basis for years. I'd be interested to read this book's issue-by-issue run-down of the Kirby/Lee era.

I get a bit tired of the "(Kirby/Lee/Ditko) deserves no credit/deserves all of the credit" arguments. It's clear to me at least that all three deserved to be recognized as creators of the Marvel Universe and without any one of those three, comics as we know them would've been a lot poorer.

Edo Bosnar said...

Wait, what? You mean there's actually someone out there who DOESN'T think it was all Artie Simek?

J.A. Morris said...

Just to complicate things a bit:

Nothing against Kirby, but the art in the FF goes up about 10-fold with the arrival of Joe Sinnott inking Kirby in #44.

Check out some of the issues inked by Chic Stone, Dick Ayers, Frank Giacoia,etc next Sinnott's work. it's like the series went from the 1940s to the 1960s in a few issues.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree with Bruce and David_b - the Kirby vs Lee debate is tiresome and trite. Both men contributed greatly to the success of the FF, and yes, JA Morris hit the proverbial nail on the head when he says that book made a major leap in quality when Joltin' Joe Sinnott started doing the inking over the King's pencils.

Sometimes the right combination of writer and artist creates a masterpiece, such was the case with Lee/Kirby/Sinnott on the FF, and later on with Claremont/Byrne/Austin on the new X-men. Separately, they would not have made such magic; in comics, synergy really does exist, the end product being much greater than the sum of the individual inputs.

- Mike 'comics socialogy professor' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Fred W. Hill said...

Last weekend I finished reading Howe's Marvel The Untold Story. Having been a regular reader of The Comics Journal in the early '80s, there wasn't much in the book that really surprised me - reading many of those TCJ interviews and articles and letters regarding Marvel behind-the-scenes long ago burst any bubbles I had about the Merry Marvel Bullpen. Howe hardly delved at all into the controversy over who did what in the Silver Age, although at one point he quotes Lee stating, in effect, the idea of doing a comic about Thor was entirely original with him and no one had ever done so before, leaving me to think that Howe should have pointed out to the readers that Jack Kirby had drawn a short story about a normal guy who was magically transformed into the Norse God of Thunder about five years earlier for the Distinguished Competition. Whether or not Kirby came up with the idea himself is irrelevant because the Marvel version is so obviously similar that its far more likely that Kirby suggested the idea to Lee rather than vice versa. And that would have been in the same period when Kirby dusted off his & Simon's similarly old idea for Spider-Man (or Silver Spider) which was originally saw publication in revised form as the Fly and at Marvel wound up being considerably revised by Ditko, after he pointed out to Lee the similarities between Kirby's version of Spider-Man and The Fly.
At any rate, as many others have pointed out, Lee with Kirby or with Ditko produced some incredible work and revolutionized the content & narrative style of superhero comics. At the very least, Lee allowed Kirby & Ditko to expand the way they told stories to a greater degree than other comics companies would have allowed at the time and helped mold them in such a way that they were fun for the fans to read as well as awesome to look at.
I'll definitely have to add Lee & Kirby -- The Wonder Years to my library.

Dandy Forsdyke said...

Just bought this book on your recommendation. In fact it arrived today and looks very nice indeed. Some quality bedtime reading awaits!

Doug said...

Dandy --

I'd sure appreciate it if you stopped back by upon reading a bit of the book and give your own impressions of it.

I hope I was right!



Anonymous said...

Madam Medusa should have stayed a villainess and a member of the Frightful Four. Her star quality dropped when she left the evil FF and just became a member of the Inhumans. Medusa was at her best as a rival to Susan Storm!

spencer said...

Totally agree!

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