Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years (November 2011)
AKA The Jack Kirby Collector #58, MSRP $19.95 (cheaper online)
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:
- The Knockoff Champion
- Winds of Change: The 1950's
- The Days of Dr. Droom
- The Early Years
- A New Take on an Old Classic
- This is a Plot?
- Source Notes
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)
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?