Saturday, August 13, 2016

"In the Conversation for Greatest of All Time"

Doug: I have an anecdote I've been wanting to share for the better part of a month, and various real-life tasks and events (well, and writing comic book reviews) have conspired to keep me from bringing this to you. It's Friday evening as I write this, and I will alternate my attention between this post and the Olympics coverage.

Back in mid-July, as I've done for the past six summers, I helped with the facilitation of two national teacher conferences at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. During one of the sessions at the English/language arts conference, teachers from around North America were discussing whether or not they'd use Art Spiegelman's Maus with middle school/junior high-aged students. Several voiced concern that the material was a bit too mature for that audience. One of the young teachers in the room raised her hand and remarked that her husband was an artist, and his grandfather had written a graphic novel that fit the bill. I was in the back of the room observing the session, but you know my ears perked up -- face it, it's not just anyone who can say their grandfather wrote a graphic novel. She went on to say that the graphic novel that she has successfully taught from was called Yossel. The author? Joe Kubert. I about fell off my chair.

When the session ended I approached the young teacher who'd offered the suggestion to her fellows. I just wanted to express to her, and to her husband, how much joy their grandfather had given me, really since the time I was six or seven years old. She was very grateful, and said that she had never actually met Kubert but had heard so many things about him. She added that her father-in-law, Joe's son-in-law, would be at the conference on the next day and would I like to meet him. I agreed, and later was able to express many of my same sentiments. It was a wonderful conversation, and everything I'd ever heard about Joe Kubert as a human being was confirmed by his son-in-law.

Yesterday marked four years since Joe Kubert's passing (it is the same date, in some crazy comic cosmic twist of fate that Mark Gruenwald and Mike Wieringo passed as well). One of the things I wanted to say to Joe Kubert's family was that Joe was a treasure; the man is in the conversation of the greatest artists of all time in the comics industry. They appreciated that so much.
When I returned home from Washington, DC, and I've mentioned this, the Jack Kirby's Thor Artist Edition was waiting for me. On the first day I was able to look through the book with some degree of detail, I was also telling my wife the Kubert story. But when I got to the last pages of the Kirby book I had to add on. Near the end of the last text piece in the book was the date Jack Kirby died: February 6, 1994. I shrugged, and said aloud that I remember exactly where I was when I heard that he'd died. There aren't many figures in comics history who would merit mention on a national radio newscast, but Kirby did. I was about to get out of the car with our oldest son, then 2 1/2 years old, to leave him at childcare before I headed to school. It's one of those types of dates that gets burned into the human mind. I told her that the artist of the book I had was one of the greatest creators ever.
I sat at the desktop computer in our living room some 14 years ago when I found out that John Buscema -- my all-time favorite penciler -- had died. Place, time, setting -- I'll never forget.

So that brings us to this weekend's conversation, and it's multi-faceted. First off, maybe the important question is "how does a creator make your list of all-time greats?" Is it pretty objective? For example, I don't have a tremendous amount of experience with the work of Alex Toth, but I'll accept the opinions of those who say he's in the conversation. Same with Frank Frazetta. For both men, a large chunk of their important output was before my fandom. Or, is your all-time list populated by your personal favorites?

For me, I would have to say that people like Kirby, Kubert, Toth, Jack Davis, Frazetta, John Severin, and others are pretty much pillars of the industry. But can I add Buscema, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, and even John Romita to the mix?

What about you?


Redartz said...

Doug- that's a great story, about your meeting with the teacher. Meeting an artist or writer who's work inspired you can be a wonderful experience. Sometimes such meetings are impossible, but the chance to express your admiration to a family member of said creator is a blessing as well.

As to your question: it's a big one. How do I determine 'the greatest'? It's subjective to some point, as their work must be among my favorite. Influence in the industry is another consideration. Skill, obviously; originality, definitely.

Among my greatest list: Kirby, Kubert, Buscema, Frazetta, Russ Heath, Carl Barks, Walt Kelly (yes, known for comic strips mostly, but he also did work in comic books). Incidentally, I have tried to think of some current artists who might qualify; there certainly are some but I think more time is necessary to illuminate those with lasting influence.

Top of my list: Will Eisner, no question. He had it all: great artistic ability, a great writer as well. Innovative, a fantastic storyteller. A giant in the history of the comics medium. And just a great guy...

Humanbelly said...

Something that I've always really, really appreciated about this fantastic world we live in, with its wildly diverse spheres of interest- and their attendant passionate devotion, even- is that an absolute giant in one particular field is also the guy across the cul-de-sac with the slowly dying lawnmower to someone who doesn't follow that fellow's specific accomplishments. What's so cool is that every field of interest, large & small, has its immortal "giants"-- its own list of Greatest of All Time-rs. It has the neat effect of both making aspiring "giants" of just about anyone with a passion or interest in something that speaks to their heart, AND of keeping all of those giants that we admire accessible and human and real. Down-to-earth. It's sort of an opposite (and optimistic) take on Shelley's OZYMANDIUS.

There are the obvious high-profile Greatests-- Movie stars; NFL Quarterbacks; authors/playwrights; musicians; political leaders and so on.

And there's a step down to worlds that have a devoted following, but maybe not so broad of one-- Comic book artists (sure); musical theater stars; NAASCAR stars; science fiction authors; non-mainstream sports; dance, and ohhh so many that I'm not bringing to mind.

But where it's truly cool is when you get down into fields of high specialization. Fossil hunting (the trilobite world alone is wickedly combative!); Bird breeding/showing; knitting; almost any category of animal husbandry; ANY type collectible/hobby pursuit (there are giants in the coin & stamp worlds, make no mistake!); ANY type of specialized ethnic or folk music (still not handling the disbanding of Pyrates Royale after 25 wonderful years. . . ).

You just never know-- the person behind you in line at Chipotle might indeed be a Giant.

I once did a vaudeville week with a magician guest-artist who, it so happened, was a legend in the world of Artistic Saddlery.

A buddy of mine has become a regional authority in investment-coins (his mailman hates him. . .)

My own HBWife has, no kidding, rock-star status in her particular field (victims rights legislation).

We just caught the draft horse team competition at the county fair, and although there were only four different stables represented, it was obvious that everyone knew each other, and that these rivalries carried a lot of weight in that one small, competitive community. Tears and palpitations for many of the categorical victories.

I know, I know--- I'm kinda tangenting off a bit here-- Doug's very thoughtful post just got me. . well, a-thinkin'-!

(PS-- so sorry for the sparse attendance of late-- BUSY life and on-going computer issues are limiting my ability to be my more usual contributory self-!)


Martinex1 said...

Welcome back HB; we missed you around these parts. What you said is absolutely true. I was just thinking about that very thing while watching the Olympics. Sure, Michael Phelps is a once in a lifetime superstar, but the shot putters and rowers and archers and skeet shooters nabbing medals and gold over the years may live in our neighborhoods and may be a work or social acquaintance. I've been working with a gentleman who was once an NFL lineman -who knew? I sure didn't until it came up in casual conversation.

On the topic of comics, Gene Colan was always a great in my eyes. I first experienced him in Silver Surfer #2 in the Watcher back-up story "The Coming of the Krills". And then followed him in Daredevil and Sub- Mariner all the way to Silverblade. I cannot say why I initially thought he was great but I loved his weird character contortions and shadows. I never had the chance to meet him, but I hear he was a great guy and very good with fans. I missed the opportunity at a convention and regretted it. When he passed about five years ago in June, I reread some of his classics. I still think he did the best take on villains like Mr. Hyde and Cobra. Gene the Dean!

Doug - you have some great stories.

William said...

Awesome story Doug. I could just picture your head suddenly popping up when you heard the words "graphic novel", Huh? And then "my grandfather was named Joe Kubert." What the…?? LOL Sounds like a very memorable meeting.

I actually had the great privilege of speaking to Joe Kubert on the phone once back in 1989 (after I had applied to the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art). I had sent in some art samples as part of the application process and to my great surprise Joe Kubert called me on the phone. He said he liked to personally talk to all prospective students before admitting them to the school. He also said he wasn't especially impressed with my art samples, but he liked my enthusiasm, and had decided to let me attend the school that semester. He also told me that I could probably rent a place nearby the campus with some of the other students on so forth. All-in-all I we spoke for about 15 minutes. He was a very nice guy, and I was really looking forward to attending his school.

Unfortunately I just couldn't swing it financially, what with having to move to New Jersey and afford rent and tuition and supplies, etc. So, I ended up attending the local art institute near me so I could still live at home for free. It's still bums a little to this day.

Anyway my nominees for Greatest Comic Artist Of All Time list is pretty typical as it includes Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Joe Kubert, and I'd also throw Steve Ditko and Wally Wood into the mix. And I would personally have to add John Byrne to the list as a contender as well (even thought he himself probably wouldn't agree). But his sheer body of work and influence on the industry (not to mention future artists) cannot be denied.

Rip Jagger said...

I have two ways to calculate "greatest", essentially comparing raw talent and skill with impact. Some artists have been loaded with talent but nonetheless have had limited effect on the field overall. Others lack some of the skills but their impact is enormous. When you find a creator who comes in at the top of both lists, he gets in line for "greatest".

And for that reason I always lead with Jack "King" Kirby. His talents were undeniable, innate and powerful and his impact over the decades (in tandem with Joe Simon and Stan Lee and later by himself) are undeniably influential, even defining for the field.

Below him I put Will Eisner, the best storyteller the field has produced and someone who early on got that more could be made of comics than publishers were willing to promote.

After that it gets more debatable as the list descends.

I'm a Alex Toth fan of the highest order but his impact on comics expanded less beyond his own considerable efforts, though what he gave us in animation is stellar and potent.

John Buscema was to my mind the single best artist to grace a comics page, combining the lush beauty of Alex Raymond with the punch and power of Kirby, giving readers a palpable combination. He was influential beyond his own work, but so damn good no one could match him.

Jim Steranko was amazingly influential despite a meager output. But there's no denying he changed for many how a comic book page looked, taking what Eisner had done and giving it a pop culture spice.

Joe Kubert is one of those talents who gets ignored often in these things because like Buscema he did so much work that people I think took him for granted. Tarzan remains my favorite of his work, but his war covers are some of the best the field has ever seen.

Neal Adams changed the way we thought about comics, adding realism to a field which had already established a set of abstract norms. He mixed it up and freshened what was a field full of energy but sometimes lacked focus.

Other names which come to mind are Jose Luis Gracia-Lopez, a beautiful draftsman who made pages read effortlessly. His pages so well composed that we often overlooked his talent. I'd put Jim Aparo and Pat Boyette into that category too, both men were true artists who did their own lettering adding to the overall effects they created.

There are many grand talents in the field.

Rip Off

Garett said...

Great story about Kubert, Doug! I'm a big fan of Yossel. I love the charcoal pencil fine art look of the art, on grey paper with white hilights. He could have used ink, but kept experimenting into his old age. Great story too, with a personal connection for Kubert. Also enjoy his Tarzan, Sgt. Rock, and other graphic novels.

How to determine the greatest? I remember a conversation I had in university with a fellow student, who said that Sgt. Peppers was the greatest album of all time. I asked him, how often do you listen to it? Almost never. That struck a chord with me. If it's so great, wouldn't you want to listen to it? So I tend to go with what I love in these discussions, instead of trying to come up with an objective answer.

Kirby--yes! Huge output, overflowing creativity, powerful compositions and figures.

Neal Adams, yup. Photographic influence combined with comic dynamism. Not so much on the writing/story side, so he's a step under Kirby.

George Perez, yes! I've been reading again through his New Teen Titans, and amazed at the high level of quality and creativity and detail in his work-- often 27 pages/month! There's a human warmth to his work that must come from the man himself. Also he seemed to start out great right from the get-go, and has stayed up at a higher level over the decades than his contemporaries.

Those are my top 3. I also just picked up the book How to Draw from Life by Joe Kubert. Life model drawings by Kubert, which combines my love of comics and fine art. I haven't had a chance to read through it yet, but many great sketches and drawings of nudes, and Kubert's comments on them.

Redartz said...

HB- good to hear from you again! Excellent comments, I fully agree about 'giants in all fields of life'. Actually, you had me at "trilobites" - one of my favorite extinct species (if that isn't contradictory).

William- nice call on Byrne. A giant indeed...

William said...

If we are going by who we personally think is the greatest comic book artist of all time (meaning who's art we most enjoy looking at) then I do have to go with John Byrne myself, followed by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, George Perez, and Neal Adams (mostly for his Batman work).

I put Byrne at the top because he is one of those artists that I would buy a comic just because he drew it. When I was growing up Byrne was the quintessential comic artist that I judged all others by. In fact when I got rid of most of my comic collection, some of the only things I kept were the books that featured Byrne art.

I've gone so far as to make sure that I have pretty much everything he ever did for Marvel and DC in either comic book form or TPB (or in many cases both) from The X-Men, to Iron Fist, to Marvel Team-Up, to The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, and Superman, Byrne was (and is) "the man" in my book. So, I'd be lying if I said I thought that any other comic artist ever did it better, which is pretty much the definition of who one would consider the "greatest".

That said, I would be a fool to deny the greatness of Jack "King" Kirby. His contribution to the overwhelming success of Marvel Comics is insurmountable, but I thought that after he left Marvel and went to DC and then came back to Marvel again that he had lost a little of his mojo. I really started getting big into reading comics around the mid 70's, so my first exposure to Kirby was during his second life at Marvel, and as a result I wasn't as influenced by him as much as I was Byrne. I only discovered a true love and appreciation for the King from back issues and reprints of his early Marvel work.

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, that is indeed a great story. I have Yossel, by the way, although I'm bit embarrassed to say that I have yet to read it (I've paged through it, though, and I can confirm Garett's assessment: the art is superbly rendered).

HB, out of all the people you mentioned, the one that caught my eye and made me think, "hmm, I want to know more about that," is your wife...

As for the question at hand, I'm not even going to try - I can't be objective here. Also, most of what William wrote about Byrne applies to me as well. A few of my other favorites who I consider the greatest of all time would be Walt Simonson (almost equal to Byrne in my esteem), Wil Eisner, Gil Kane, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Howard Chaykin, George Perez...

Anonymous said...

HB, your comment reminded me of O.J. Simpson's arrest in 1994. The story was all over the news here and my mother said to me "Who is he, Colin ? I've never heard of him". I'm sure that's what most people thought so it's a bit odd that the story and the following trial got so much coverage over here. Even I only knew him from Naked Gun and the Twinkies ads in Marvel comics :D

Humanbelly said...

Yep, perfect example there, Colin. Exactly right.
A similar one on my end-- in 1985/86 I was living in an incredibly sketchy rooming house while I was finishing grad school. The majority of the other tenants were assorted foreign students going to the local universities. There were a couple of wonderfully sweet young woman from mainland China that shared a room on my floor. Both were violin majors, and spoke almost no English at all. But during the course of one hopeful chat (heh-- sitting on the roof of the front stoop. . . ) we "conversed" about who our favorite musicians were. I led with The Beatles---- and got a complete- I mean COMPLETE- blank stare from them. I tried to make sure we weren't just having a translation problem or anything. . . nope. These two young women had never, ever heard of the Fab Four, and had no familiarity with any of their songs that I thoughtfully hummed/sang/played for them. Nothin'. I was dumbfounded. But it was also a necessary and welcome bit of enlightenment.

Ah, Edo-- my lovely wife is the Director of Public Policy for the National Center for the Victims of Crime. She's one of the smartest people I know, as well as being a fundamentally good and self-less individual. She's an absolute gem, and my good fortune in being married to her is something I marvel at every day. I can only assume that she latched onto me for the same reason Jessica Rabbit hooked up with Roger Rabbit-- "He makes me laugh. . . "


Doug said...

Garett --

I really like what you said about returning to the work. That's a great gauge.

If I use that -- and a lot of this as a measuring tool has to do with access to the material -- then I'd go with John Buscema, Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, George Perez, and John Romita. Those would be the artists whose work I turn to over and over. Joe Kubert would lurk somewhere outside that list, but again that's due to access. I would like to get into some of his Sgt. Rock, and especially Enemy Ace. And I do want to purchase the aforementioned Yossel, as well as Fax From Sarajevo and Dong Xaoi - Vietnam 1965.


Humanbelly said...

Ooo-- Enemy Ace was a HUGE personal favorite during my 3rd grade year of childhood-disease binge-reading. . . ! I think it may have suffered in popularity because, even in the mid-60's, WWII still loomed large, and there was something off-putting about having a "bad-guy" German protagonist-- even one from the previous Great War.

Golly what a great book, though. I keep asking for the two volume collection for Christmas, annnnnnnd keep not receiving it!


Doug said...

HB --

I think the two Enemy Ace Archives can be had on eBay or various discount graphic novel sites on the (relative) cheap. Which is why I need to find and read them.

I was kept awake last night -- not really, but the thought did come to me ;) -- by the fact that in my previous comment I did not mention John Byrne. I was thinking about that, especially after Williams passionate post in favor of Byrne as one of the all-time greats. My next thought was that Byrne hadn't come to mind when I typed my little list, using Garett's parameter. Why was that?

Here's what I came up with, and I want to lead this comment by clearly stating "I like John Byrne's work." (so much so, that a week from Monday you'll see me gush over his Batman and Captain America book". BUT... I don't generally read his work because it's his work. For example, if I want to read a classic X-Men story, I go to the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne/Austin All-New, All-Different stories because they are "classic" X-Men tales. Not because of John Byrne's art. I guess we could split hairs and say that those stories are classic because of Byrne, which may (probably is) true. But I'd then say that the Count Nefaria 3-parter in Avengers #s 164-166 is a great Avengers story whether it had been drawn by Perez or Byrne. I don't like it and re-read it because of Byrne.

I will read Savage Sword of Conan stories that might otherwise sit on my shelf when I need a John Buscema fix. I will go to those stories for Buscema.

So again -- I love John Byrne's stuff. Love it. But I'm having this crisis of conscience in that I don't think he's in that category for me with the "I will read a story because "X" drew it". I kind of feel badly about that, but it seems to be the way it is.

Good call on Steranko, too. Fleeting output, but noteworthy of course.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Doug and the BAB crowd:

Back again for my second comment here (I posted something about JSA about a month ago).

For me, Neal Adams was the guy who raised the bar for everyone else. I'd been reading comics as a kid from about age 7 in 1965 to late 1968. There was about a year and a half break from comics as I entered junior high school, but my younger brother got me hooked again when he came home with 4 new comics in mid-1970. One of these was one of those Aquaman issues with the Neal Adams-drawn Deadman folded into the Steve Skeates/Jim Aparo main story. Another was an Irv Novick Batman (the one with the Beatles on the Neal Adams cover).

At the time, I was stunned. Comics had come a long way during my brief hiatus. Soon I was thrilling to the debut of Ras al Ghul by O'Neil and Adams, and of course the Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. Eventually I'd picked up all the back-issues of Adams' Deadman in Strange Adventures, his Spectre issues, The Inhumans in Amazing Adventures, the Kree-Skrull War issues, and all the Adams' X-Men.

All of this was so far advanced from what I'd grown up with. And you'd see his influence on those who came later, especially Frank Brunner on Dr. Strange and even later with Bill Sienkeiwicz on Moon Knight in the early 1980s.

Nick Cardy was another of the greatest. Sure, his early Aquaman issues weren't terribly groundbreaking, but by the middle of his run on that and Teen Titans, Cardy (who usually inked his own pencils) had evolved tremendously.

Others who I'd rank near the top: Howard Chaykin (Iron Wolf), Walt Simonson (Sword of Sorcery), Bernie Wrightson, Frank Brunner, Mike Kaluta (check out Kaluta's Carson of Venus or Frankenstein tales). Rich Buckler also was great -- Deathlok, Black Panther, Fantastic Four.

Let's not forget Jim Starlin: Captain Marvel and Warlock alone define an epic career.

George Perez and John Byrne were both essential -- a gentler style, more an extension of Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson's excellent work from the 1960s.

Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell -- Legion of Super-Heroes, X-Men, Warlord, Green Arrow.

But getting back to the earlier masters: I love Joe Kubert's Sgt. Rock, but I think I'm even more impressed with his beautiful work on Tarzan. Murphy Anderson's Hawkman and John Carter of Mars were also top-notch.

And as for the King himself: I was more of a DC guy, so main exposure to Kirby was his Fourth World. I bought that first Kirby issue of Jimmy Olsen and was hooked right away, reading all of the New Gods, Forever People, and Mr. Miracle. Kirby had a boxy, almost simplistic approach to human figures compared to Adams and some of the others I've mentioned. But he was a master of creating epic battle scenes -- when Captain America punches someone, you FEEL it. His New Genesis, Apokolips, and Asgard are gigantic invented worlds of future technology and mythological greatness.

While I still lean towards Adams' harsh edges and realism (in people like Ethan van Scriver or Ivan Reis in the modern age), Kirby still holds my esteem as one of the greatest. And although Perez and Byrne don't make me go "WOW" in the same way, they both have a clean, pleasantly-approachable style and a strong sense of anatomy and drawing human figures in action, whether they are flying through the air or punching aliens and gangsters into submission.

In the modern era (2000-present), I have to add Jim Lee and Greg Land as among my favorites. Both get a lot of hate -- Lee for his early scratchy penciling style and impossible costumes for women; Land for his "porn" poses and repetitive facial expressions.

Finally, let's not forget the Golden Age greats that I was exposed to thanks to DC's generous reprints in the 1970s -- our Bronze Age: Jack Burnley's Starman, Sheldon Moldoff's Hawkman and the Black Pirate, Lou Fine's Black Condor and The Ray.

Terry in Virginia

Humanbelly said...

Y'know, I'm rarely able to let one of these conversations go by w/out saying "Hal Foster! Hal Foster!", whom pretty much every Silver Age comic book artist lists as either an influence or at least an inspiration. . .


The Prowler said...

I will say this about that:

For what it's worth, this is one of those topics that, with the flood of memories, also brings that twinge of melancholy. So much of my time lately has been taken up with scanning my collection, and scanning my collection and then scanning my collection. As I kicked around the subject, I kept going back to what got me started in this whole world of comics (Make Mine Marvel):

Charles M Schulz. Peanuts got me into sequential art, characters, storytelling. Peanuts taught me how to "read" comics. That guy, for me, is "The Man".

You know, has Byrne ever had a whole topic all to hisself?

(Memories, my memories
How long can you stay
To haunt my days
She came without a farthing
A babe without a name
So much ado about nothing
Is what she'd try to say
So much ado my lover
So many games we played
Through every fleeted summer
Through every precious day

All Dead All Dead
All the dreams we had
And I wonder why I still live on
All Dead All Dead
And alone I'm spared
My sweeter half instead
All Dead
And Gone
All Dead...)

Redartz said...

Doug and HB- yes, absolutely, Enemy Ace was a winner! My favorite Kubert work. Fantastic depictions of those early planes. Great stories too; the one where Von Hammer finds a puppy is gut-wrenchingly powerful (and still hard for me to read, I've a real soft spot for critters...

Prowl- nice comment on Charles Shulz. He was The Man, like you I cut my comic reading teeth on Peanuts, way before discovering Casper, Archie and the Barks Ducks books. There must be millions upon millions of people out there with Charlie Brown strip collections sitting on their shelves. I still do...

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