Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Forty-five years ago I became a comix nut.

My first haul.

Forty-five years ago this week I became a comix nut.

I was 10 years old. I had never really been into comic books, nor had the thought ever entered my mind of becoming a comix creator. I drew for fun, obsessively, but that was it. Yeah, I read Mad magazine when I had the opportunity. What kid didn't? I read the newspaper comics page religiously, too. I liked some of the Saturday morning cartoons based on comic books, like the Superman-Batman Adventure Hour or Spider-man, but the books themselves? The squeaky spinner rack at Vann's Drugstore in my hometown never held much allure to me. I always bolted straight to the toy aisle when my mother said I could pick something out as a reward for tagging along on her errands. When I returned with a Matchbox or Hot Wheels car, she'd invariably say "Pick something out for your little brother." Well, I certainly wasn't going to get him anything as good as my prize, so I'd pluck a random comic book off the rack. This small stack of battered comic books was all we had in our house.

Until July 1970.

Every summer the Family Backderf vacationed at an old lodge in Ontario's "cottage district," a string of several dozen lakes about three hours north of Toronto. We always went to the Wig-a-mog Lodge, on the sunny shore of Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog (above).  It was great. A week of swimming, canoeing, shuffleboard and fishing. My parents vacationed here before I was born and it was a part of my life as far back as I could remember. The water was so clean you could dip your hand in a take a drink!

Wig-a-mog, had a gift shop, above, in the lower level of one of the two main buildings. It was called the Tuck Shop. Not sure what that means. It was a cramped little store, with knotty pine walls. Sliding panel doors covered the front when the store was closed. It was divided into two small rooms. Each manned by one of the bored college kids who staffed the lodge. The room on the right, which takes up most of the photo here, consisted of a long counter, that shielded the more "valuable" wares from guests. The more expensive cheesy souvenirs, and toiletries and batteries, that kind of thing. 

To the left, just off camera in this pic, was another room, which you could enter. The counter in this second room, manned by another staffer, stretched along the back wall. In front of the counter was a candy bar rack. An ice cream freezer was in the corner, and a pop machine. There were all kinds of cheap souvenirs displayed on shelves: pennants, t-shirts, and fake Indian crafts, like miniature totem poles and birchbark canoes. Guests were free to browse and handle the goods in here.

And on a wall rack, behind the counter and safe from sticky kid hands, were comic books. An entire wall of colorful covers. It's hard to see in this bad photo, You can just make them out to the left of the girl at the counter, peaking over the shelves that divided the two rooms. Spot the green and blue buckets there? The top few rows of the comic book rack are visible beyond, on the back wall. It's full size is hidden behind the panels, but I recall it being about eight feet high and at least that wide. The staffer, always a young girl, had to stand on a stepstool to reach the top rows. 

Historically, the big attraction for me was the array of strange and wonderful Canadian candy bars, a completely different variety than the boring Hershey and Mars offerings at home. My little brother and I were each given $5 at the start of the week, big money then. My old man only gave me 50 cents to mow our large lawn, so $5 was like a whole summer's pay!  My brother always blew his wad on Day One on a stupid totem pole or something, but I liked to stretch mine out, supplemented with allowance and lawn-mowing money I'd been saving, so I could buy a couple candy bars each day, making sure to enjoy them luxuriously in front of my now-penniless sibling, who eyed me with seething jealous hatred. 

In 1970, I was 10 years old and poised to enter the 5th grade. The organized kid stuff at Wig-a-mog was beginning to lose its appeal. Capture the flag again? Screw that. So I spent the days by myself, daydreaming and wandering the grounds. Halfway through the week, I was bored stiff. I wandered into the Tuck Shop that afternoon when it opened after lunch and carefully selected my candy bar for the day. As the girl rang it up on the ancient cash register with a loud ka-CHING, my eye wandered up to the wall display. Back home at my local drugstore, the comix were stuffed haphazardly into a spinner rack, but here in the Tuck Shop, spread across an entire wall, it was a mesmerizing visual lure.  I pointed to a copy of Fantastic Four #102 and said "I'll take that, too." An impulse buy that changed my life.

I walked out to a little point, above, jutting into the lake, free from people, and parked under the shade of a spruce tree. Probably that very tree on the left! The twerps in the canoe weren't there. Waves gently lapped at the shore and my nostrils filled with the aroma of water and pine needles. I read the FF as I munched the candy. As I walked back to our cabin, I read it again. Then a third time on the porch. That was it. I was hooked. 

FF #102 was Jack Kirby's swan song at Marvel. Fed up with Stan Lee's ceaseless gloryhogging, he was off to DC to start on his incredible Fourth World project.  In fact, Stan Lee addresses Kirby's loss in the Stan's Soapbox in this very issue, promising the "bushy tailed and bewildered" Bullpen will "turn ourselves on, knock ourselves out and do ourselves in to prove once again we're the boldest and the best!" Groan. Typical hokey doggerel from gasbag Stan. I didn't know any of the backstory back then, but I knew what I liked, and I liked this book. A lot. 

The cover, a John Romita rush job since Kirby quit before he had time to draw the cover, is actually pretty lame. Not sure why this book caught my attention. Maybe my curiosity was peaked by the FF Saturday morning cartoon of a couple years previous. But the story inside grabbed me and didn't let go. This was my introduction to Kirby and I'd never read anything like it. I was fascinated by the power and flow of his artwork. 

As Kirby books go, it's a pretty pedestrian one. That last year at Marvel, Jack was mailing it in– well, by his standards anyways– while furiously (and secretly) developing the New Gods for rival DC. But I didn't know that at the time and even mailing-it-in Kirby is amazing! I pored over this sequence, especially how he drew with those squiggly muscle shadows. I couldn't stop looking at this art. I wonder, if I had randomly selected a book by another artist, if I would have been so mesmerized? My life and career could have been dramatically different!

I rushed back to the Tuck Shop before it closed, and bought five more books. The next day, I purchased every Marvel book they had in stock, then all the DC ones. By week's end, I had cleared the rack, even the lame titles like Mighty Marvel Western, everything except the girlie romance books, the Archie stuff and the Harvey and Gold Key shit, which I knew was awful. The haul is a who's who of comics greats. Stan was still writing the dialogue for most of the Marvel books, with Roy Thomas handling the lesser titles. DC was entering the peak of its marvelous Infantino era, when Carmine oversaw a fascinating array of titles and concepts.  Outside of Kirby's brilliance, Gene Colan's artwork was like freeform jazz, so fluid and organic. Gil Kane's loosey-goosey figures were mesmerizing. I marveled at Nick Cardy's precision, Neal Adam's delicate linework and Wally Wood's masterful heavy inks. 

I returned to Ohio with a stack of 18 comix, shown at the top of this post, immediately hopped on my bike, rode to the drugstore, strode straight to the spinner rack and grabbed another armload of books. And that was that. I was lost to comix forever. The toys and obsessions of my youth were immediately forgotten. I spent countless hours drawing comix. Here's one of my efforts from later that summer, totally copping Kirby and inspired by that FF #102. Just like that, my life's calling was clear.

1970 was the ideal year to become a comics fan. All the modern masters were still at their peak, or damn close to it, and a new generation of brilliant creators was just entering the field. Both Marvel and DC were offering an exciting array of experimental titles. That would all turn to shit by 1975, of course, when both companies morphed into dull corporate entities, but there was plenty to read until then. And the Silver Age classics were still dirt cheap. Heck, you could find piles of them at flea markets and garage sales! There was so much to read and study I couldn't keep up with it.

Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog was always magic to me, for that reason. The Family Backderf only went there one more summer. My mother disliked the new owner of Wig-a-mog, so we began vacationing in New Hampshire instead. As the years wore on and I tired of mainstream comics, I'd think back wistfully to the Tuck Shop and that sense of wonder I felt discovering comic books for the first time. Would I ever have that feeling again?

In turns out, yes. In 2006, 36 years later, when I returned, this time with my own family. 

I was recovering from cancer treatment, and it was slow going. The cancer was in remission and the outlook for a full recovery and cure was excellent, but I didn't feel that great. I was fatigued all the time and mentally drained. My career had also stalled, as weekly papers began their sad decline. It was the toughest period of my life. Career wise, I decided I needed to try something new. I'd been tinkering with long form comix before I got sick. Got a couple Eisner nominations! But it had been, at that point, four years without a new project. I needed a vacation, someplace by water, to re-charge and rejuvenate. I thought, hey, why not Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog? An online search revealed that Wig-a-mog Lodge was still there, but was now mostly timeshare condos. Ugh. But right across the lake was a classic old-time lodge, Halimar, one I remembered from back in the day. I booked a week there.

Every morning after breakfast, I dragged an adirondack chair to a shady spot on the water's edge, above. Directly across the lake was old Wigamog Lodge. The Tuck Shop was gone, replaced with a gym, but the wooded point where I read that copy of Fantastic Four was still there, unchanged. With a sketchbook on my lap, I burrowed my feet into the wet sand and spent the days thinking and writing, staring across the lake at that point as I did so.

It was here that Otto "The Baron" Pizcock came to me in flash, almost fully formed. Here's how he first looked, above,  in my sketchbook. I grew ever more excited as the book took shape, and worked until sunset every day. My wife grumbled that she was a "comix widow." By week's end, I had conjured up the other characters in Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, and written fully half the book that would propel me into my new career as a graphic novelist.

Once again Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog worked its magic.

That first comic book haul:

Silver Surfer #18 was another of the final Kirby books, this one with the classic "fuck you" last page directed at Lee. It's a book with one of the  most interesting backstories in comics history. I'll get to that ,in detail, in another post.

Amazing Spider-man #88 was a typical example of Marvel's flagship title. Lee and John Romita, his favorite artist, whose work I always found a little antiseptic.

Marvel Tales #28 was one of the fat 25-center reprint books, this one with a couple Ditko Spideys (why were these so much better than the regular title?) and a Ditko Dr. Strange. Whoa. Crazy stuff.

Batman #224. This wasn't anything like the Adam West tv show! That cover was my first glimpse at Neal Adams.

Brave and the Bold #91. Beautiful Nick Cardy cover and inside art.

Astonishing Tales #1. I loved how Wally Wood drew Dr. Doom. Didn't realize it was a greatly diminished Wood. And another Kirby story? When you add in Thor and the Inhumans story in half of Amazing Adventures, Kirby drew FOUR BOOKS in his final month at Marvel! While also working hard on the Fourth World project. No wonder Stan was despondent when Kirby resigned.

Amazing Adventures #2. The Inhumans story is drawn and written by Kirby. To my knowledge, his short run on this title is the only time he received a writing credit during his Marvel Age run, a major beef, along with Lee's shameless glory hogging, that led to Kirby's defection to DC. Note, however, that Funky Flashman still puts his name first. Hard to believe Jack was fed up, huh?

Capt. Marvel #21. My intro to Gil Kane art. Lee always grumbled that his art "looked gay." 

Daredevil #67. I noticed right away there seemed to be as many Gene Colan books as Kirby ones.  Marvel had artists with widely divergent styles. I picked up on that right away.

Flash #199. Chairman Mao lobs a missile at the US! Man, this Cold War stuff was downright hysterical in tone. Hey, let's scare the shit out of 10 year olds! Nothing like propaganda.

House of Secrets #87. DC's horror mags were great fun.

Iron Man Annual #1. Great reprints from 1967. More Colan, drawing Iron Man. And then, Kirby steps in as a guest artist and HOLY SHIT! More Kirby art I couldn't stop staring at, above. I still can't stop staring at it. This is when it clicked for me.I want to draw stuff like this! Yeah, sure, kid. You want to draw like Kirby. Good luck with that! But eventually it led me to my own path.

Justice League #82. Hmmm. The DC books were noticeably less interesting than the Marvel ones.

Marvel Super-heroes #28. These reprint books hinted at a wondrous treasure trove of back issues waiting out there for me to discover. Really wasn't that big a trove, since the Marvel Age only began six years earlier. Of course, when you're only 10, six years is almost a lifetime.

Mighty Marvel Western #10. Ugh. What can I say? I was desperate.

Superman #229. THIS was the world's best-selling title? Yawn. 

World's Finest #195. Another lame book. I couldn't figure out why Batman in his own title was cool and totally square in this one.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Most Overrated Comic Book Series Ever

Marvel's Silver Surfer is commonly regarded as the groundbreaking title that introduced adult themes and political commentary to mainstream comic books. 

It's also possibly the single worst title of the Silver and Bronze Ages! But the story of The Silver Surfer title is a tragic tale, full of betrayal and resentment, one that changed the comix world forever.... just not in the way the principals involved expected.

Comics fans know the legend. The Surfer was the creation of Jack Kirby, who threw him into  Fantastic Four #48 without discussing it with editor-scripter Stan Lee. Kirby plotted his own books, and Lee filled in the word balloons, based on Kirby's margin notes. Stan considered this "writing" and has trumpeted himself as the creator of all Marvel's classic characters and stories ever since. Only in the last decade has that lie unraveled.

The Surfer became an instant fan favorite with the hippie college kids who were, for the first time, reading comix. With Lee's careful cultivation, the Surfer was granted his own title in 1968 and became a cult sensation unlike anything Marvel had published before. For 18 classic issues, from 1968 until the book was lamentably canceled in 1970, writer Lee kicked down barriers, elevated the comic book genre to unknown heights as legitimate literature and paved the way for the modern comix of today. The critical acclaim showered on Lee made him the first comic book writer who was taken seriously as an author.

Well, that's Stan's version, anyways. As with most of Lee's self-aggrandisement, it's total bullshit. 

The reality is The Silver Surfer was a tiresome dog of a book, a preachy, nonsensical parable that is one of the worst titles Marvel published at the time. It was also a commercial flop, and rightly so. By the time the ham-handed Lee had finished with him, the Surfer had lost virtually all his appeal. 

It was also the character that cost Stan, and Marvel, the creative heart and soul of the company, Jack Kirby,

Back to the beginning. In 1967, fandom was just beginning to organize and be a force. Stan was starting to get speaking gigs at colleges and universities. Lee admits in his accounts of these early gigs, that he was completely flabbergasted by the rousing welcome he received from college audiences. Neither Lee nor Marvel had much of a clue, in the days before marketing and computer tracking, and when Marvel was the crappy lowest rung, operating on a shoestring, in Martin Goodman's publishing empire, that anyone outside of 11-year-old boys were buying their books, let alone college students. Here was an unexpected, and untapped, market. More importantly, here was an escape for Stan, a way to become more than the funny book hack he'd always been and a way to make a lot more dough than he was making at low-paying Marvel. He was overjoyed. Speaker fees started piling up, Stan was feted and worshiped at every appearance... and transformed into the Funky Flashman of comix legend.  He hasn't stopped since! For the last 40 years, Lee has made millions simply being Stan. This started in 1967, with the Surfer, a character he didn't create but claimed as his own.

After Fantastic Four #48-50, when the mail started pouring in praising this cool, chrome character, Lee realized he had a hit on his hands, maybe one to rival Spider-man! And the way the college kids were digging the Surfer, maybe this was Stan's ticket to greater things. Lee was already thinking Hollywood and getting out from under the boot of the tyrannical Goodman. Lee had big plans for the Surfer and carefully guarded the character. All other writers were, according to reports, barred from using the Surfer in their books unless Stan gave the ok. And in 1968, when the onerous distribution contract that limited the number of titles Marvel could publish each month ended, a new Surfer solo title was announced with the usual bombast and choruses of "Excelsior!"

But, surprise, surprise, Kirby, the Surfer's creator, wasn't the artist! That gig went to John Buscema, then relatively new to Marvel and best known as the penciler on The Avengers. Kirby stayed on Fantastic Four and Thor, and got the new Captain America title instead.

So Stan pilfered a character that Jack solely created, and was, curiously, the only one that Lee ever admitted was Jack's creation alone, to cash in on Marvel's first cult hit. And then kept Kirby off the book! 

Why? Could it be that Stan wanted all the glory? Or maybe he just wanted to prove to everyone he could flourish without Kirby? Or was Stan reluctant to take Kirby off the best-selling titles Fantastic Four, Thor and Capt. America for an experimental project? Stan, to my knowledge, has never offered his reasoning behind this decision, but it proved to be a fatal one. Kirby wasn't on board with this at all. In fact, He was furious. So much so, he refused to offer Marvel any new characters from then on, retorting to Lee's pleas for new ideas with a curt "You're the writer. You think them up." In conversations with his inner circle and allies, he was more blunt: he would never again give Marvel a Silver Surfer to steal from him. Stan, of course, had no clue of Kirby's feelings. The theft of the Surfer was the last straw and Kirby secretly decided to bolt to rival DC with his New Gods concept as soon as his Marvel contract ended in two years. Lee's machinations cost Marvel its star artist, the guy who had pretty much single-handedly created the entire Marvel cast and the wildly successful house style. 

And once Kirby stopped furnishing new ideas in 1968, Stan didn't conjure up a single new character of significance in his remained three years as Marvel's chief scripter. Not one!

The Silver Surfer debuted with full-page promos in nearly every Marvel book. And this was no mere comic book. This was a double-size, 25-cent squarebound, usually reserved for Marvel's annuals. All original from from to back! Even the annuals were usually a 22-page original story, followed by a couple reprints. Clearly, this title was something special. 

What it turned out to be was the soapiest, sappiest, dreariest comic book Marvel ever published. Lee concocted a ponderous back story for the Surfer, without the input of Kirby, and strained mightily to make it philosophical and deep. He failed. The book was a weepy bore. The supporting characters were totally forgettable. The villains were lame. Stan couldn't produce a single character of note in 18 issues. There was a dead love interest, and frequent battles with the devil (!!). But not the Biblical devil, no, the Comics Code prohibited that, so this was Faust's Mephisto, appropriated to be one of Marvel's many Lords of the Underworld, along with Pluto and Hela in Thor, who ruled over, I guess, completely different hells. 

Lee hacked out one repetitive story after another. The humor that infused other Marvel books, and which was Stan's great strength as a dialogue filler, was totally missing. The Surfer wails about the madness of humanity and war and suffering. He moans about his lost love. He agonizes over being trapped on earth. Blah blah blah. Stan hoped this book, his and his alone, would prove he was the brains behind Marvel. It proved the opposite. Without a genius like Kirby, Stan fell flat on his face. "Face front" indeed!

Poetry! Sheer Poetry! The question mark after The End adds
a philosophical twist that reduces the reader to tears.

Problem was, Stan was never really much of a writer. He was a great persona, the "Stan the Man" of legend, and a genius at promotion, particularly self-promotion. He didn't really "write" at all. The famous Marvel Method required most of the actual writing to be done by the artist. In the case of geniuses like Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby, or a pop-art savant like Jim Steranko, it was a method that produced the best comic books ever made. The art was brilliant, the plots were full of action and surprises. When the pages came in, with notes suggesting dialogue written by the artist in the margins, Stan punched out the word balloons. Lee could only really write one way, and there wasn't a whole lot of difference between his characters. Spider-man, Daredevil and Ben Grimm all talked like Stan, all quibs and cracks. The books were also filled with notes from "Ye Editor" or "Smiley" cracking jokes about what was happening on the page. We kids ate it up. To us, it was a homey neighborhood club and we were all in on the lingo. Then you reached the Bullpen Bulletins page in the back and were treated to unfiltered Stan. Excelsior! Face Front! Mighty Marvel is on the move! Good writing? That it most certainly wasn't.

Some have suggested that Lee hung on to the "writer" credit to pad his paltry income at the time. He was a salaried employee at Marvel, one of the few in the tiny Bullpen of the Silver Age, but he got a freelance writing rate for every book he worked on. Lee did this at home in the evening, all twelve or so new books that Marvel published every month (remember, Marvel was operating under the distribution deal that greatly limited their titles, that's why they had all those funky double-feature titles like Tales of Suspense). Stan was a master at squeezing every dollar he could out of his gig. That's not a criticism. It was a brutal business and Marvel's owner, Martin Goodman, who was the uncle of Stan's wife, was a picayune overseer. But this money grab didn't sit well with Kirby and Steve Ditko, who were really writing the books, only to see Stan get paid for their work!

Someone start throwing fruit at this ham.

Compounding the syrupy dialogue and ponderous plots was the art of Buscema, easily the hammiest of Marvel's artists. Buscema is akin to a stage-eating hack in a local Shakespeare troupe. Every gesture, every facial expression, is exaggerated to comic extremes. If a character is sad, he doesn't just frown, he buries his head in his arms and bends over in abject emotional agony. If he's angry, his back is arched and fist raised in utter fury as he thrashes around the panel. Reading a Buscema story is like the Richard III ward in the Monty Python sketch The Home for Bad Acting. Don't get me wrong, Buscema was great on superhero books like The Avengers, which was great duke-it-out fun, but here on the weepy Surfer, ugh. And Stan was much more heavily involved in The Silver Surfer than he was in any other book. Buscema recalls Lee tearing apart his pencils on the first few issues and ordering much revision, something Lee would have never dared try with Kirby.

Here's the cosmic crybaby shedding tears again

Marvel pumped out 18 issues of this dreck. Stan desperately tried to be "relevant", which was the hot trend in comics as the Seventies unfolded. Problem was, he was too square to really take a stand. Staid DC was making headlines with its groundbreaking Green Lantern/ Green Arrow title in 1970, which tackled everything from bigotry to drug use head on, but Lee, as much as he lusted to be "down with the college kids," just couldn't bring himself to drop the ponderous parables for real social commentary. He was what he was: a 50-year-old square in a toupee whom lived in the burbs and worked for Uncle Marty. He was the "hip" Dad, trying to "rap" with the kids in the basement rec room. And as soon as he went back upstairs to watch Laugh In, the kids broke out the marijuana. 

The first sales numbers came in and were not good. The 25-cent format was a disaster and was dumped after a year for the normal 15-cent one. Sales didn't improve. Had this not been Stan's pet project, The Silver Surfer would have likely been canceled after a couple issues. Halfway through 1970, Buscema left the book. Herb Trimpe was to be the new artist. That was an interesting choice, and Trimpe was one of the better Kirbyesque artists at Marvel, but a fill-in was needed for one issue. The assignment was given to Kirby himself. It was the first time Jack had penned a Surfer story since the title began. The character had been noticeably absent in Fantastic Four. Trimpe actually inked the issue, the only time he worked on Kirby pencils, to my knowledge. Perhaps Stan wanted him to learn from the Master before taking over the art chores. New artists frequently worked over Kirby layouts. Silver Surfer #18 looks rushed, as do all of Kirby's books from 1970, because he was already secretly working on The Fourth World series for DC, but it is head and shoulders above any of the previous 17 issues. It's full of action and energy. Buscema's sleek, lithe crybaby is replaced by Kirby's regal alien. Makes you wonder what the title could have been if Jack plotted and drew it from the beginning. It drives home just why Jack was called The King.
Fuck yeah! THAT'S more like it!

Silver Surfer #18 was one of the first comic books I purchased. I was 10. I loved this issue and read it over and over. Couldn't understand why there wasn't a #19. Eventually, I shelled out for the earlier issues hoping for more like #18. Man, was I disappointed.

Kirby turned in Silver Surfer #18 and with his other books for August, along with his resignation letter. The raging Surfer at the end of Jack's final story would serve as his "fuck you" send off to Marvel. Stan was blindsided by Kirby's defection. Publisher Martin Goodman delivered the next blow. Cancel this lame title. 

It was the biggest disappointment in Stan's career. He complained about it in interviews for decades. It was too before its time, he groused. The college students loved it (I doubt that they did), but "the younger kids just didn't get it." That being the under-13 crowd that then made up the vast bulk of comic book readership, as opposed to today when the average age is more like 50. So it was their fault, the unsophisticated little bastards! Had nothing to do with Stan's epically awful writing! But we fan boys all just nodded our heads as Stan spun this tale over and over throughout the Seventies. And since those original Surfer stories weren't reprinted in one of Marvel's many re-run titles until the tail end of the Bronze Age, we had nothing to go on except Stan's spin. When I finally bought a couple Surfer back issues, I couldn't believe how rotten it was. This is what all the fuss was about?

In 1978, out of the blue, a Silver Surfer graphic novel appeared, by Lee and Kirby. We fans weren't tipped off months in advance like you are now. There was no comix press to speak of, or the publicity war machine of modern comic book publishers. This thing landed unannounced. I bought my copy at Walden Books in the mall. It was a fat trade paperback, published by Simon & Shuster (not Marvel) through its Fireside Books imprint. This is the same outfit that published Lee's nauseating Origin of Marvel Comics series, where our favorite gasbag first claimed sole credit for the creation of all of Marvel's characters.  

But, hey, Lee, Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott together again? The same trio that produced that original Fantastic Four arc and possible the greatest superhero comics ever made? Hell yeah! Kirby's art is great, and for the first time in his long career, was properly displayed on good paper and with top-of-the-line printing.  Comic books were still printed on newsprint then, remember. In fact, the repro was getting worse as comic publishers switched from metal printing plates to to cheap plastic plates. This is late-period Kirby, and his hand was loosening considerably, and who knows how much Sinnott cleaned up the pencils, but it's still a treat. Sadly, it was also the end of the line for Jack. He had returned to Marvel in 1976, but his contract had just ended and he was leaving the company for good, sick of being mistreated and underpaid. This book was his final project for Marvel. Stan hadn't written anything but Stan's Soapbox blatherings for six years. Only Sinnott was still at his peak. But the book looked good as I leafed through it in Walden's, certainly far better than the boring schlock Marvel and DC were publishing week in and week out in the late Bronze Age. So I plunked down $12 and made it mine.

Unfortunately, reading it for the first time was akin to watching a re-run of Star Trek on the tube. How many times have I seen this one? Yawn. Oh well, I'll just watch it awhile until the pizza delivery guy shows. It's a significant book, the first all-original GN published by one of the Big Two, and one of the earliest GNs period, but it's not a particularly good book. It was the original storyline from FF #48-50, stripped of the Marvel Universe continuity and of the Fantastic Four. It was Stan Lee trying once again... and failing once again... to be deep. Lee was still doggedly chasing that adult "sophisticated" audience. They weren't interested any more now than they were in 1968. Nor were the comix fans, since this was just a re-hash, and a dull one at that. There were lots of philosophical sermons, and a ridiculous love angle. Not even Kirby could save this dreary bore of a tale. The book was a critical and commercial  flop. 

"The icy touch of dread disaster?" Does disaster have an icy touch?  Luckily she's a woman and stands with him fulfilled. God, what doggerel. Not even Kirby could save this dialogued manure. 

This time, Lee couldn't blame it on "the kids."

Lee tried a few more times. A one-shot  in 1982 with John Byrne, by then Marvel's star artist and heavily channeling Kirby as the writer-artist of  Fantastic Four (a very enjoyable stint btw, especially the first few years) was another snoozer. Then one last time in 1988, when the great Moebius volunteered to draw Silver Surfer: Parable. As much as I love Moebius, it's the same old, same old from Stan, and in the end the Surfer is (surprise!) brooding again.

The End of "Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year"

Posts like these are akin to kicking around the rubble years after a building has collapsed,  but I feel it's worth some thoughts. Pelican Books has just announced it's canceling its annual Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year series after 42 years. The 2015 edition will the last. Above is the 1985 edition, the only year one of my cartoons made the cut, in my brief, frustrating career as a mainstream political cartoonist. Gad, it seems like a lifetime ago.

Never heard of this book? Yeah, not surprising, but once upon a time, BEC was the biggest release in the political cartoon world. Every bookstore carried it and political cartoonists longed to be featured in its pages. Get 4 or 5 cartoons in an edition you were a big deal. Get only one in and it was a source of much grumbling.

The dude behind BEC was Charles Brooks, an old-school, veteran cartoonist from Birmingham, AL, who pitched the series to Pelican in 1969, when he was President of the Assoc. of American Editorial Cartoonists. Brooks felt political cartoons needed a showcase tome. The AAEC was a big deal back then, several hundred strong, with a lot of clout. Presidents would come to their conventions in DC to deliver keynote addresses! Brooks himself was a lesser light of the Herblock School- heavy on the grease pencil, slap a label on everything, strain those visual metaphors, and jokes? What are those? He edited this series and selected the cartoons, so even though he was a pretty minor cartoonist, this role elevated him greatly in the field. Here's one of his typical cartoons. Real knee-slapper, huh?

Brooks edited the series until the 2012 edition. He passed away at age 90 while working on it.

When I began my political cartooning career as a college scribbler at Ohio State University in 1981, I immediately snapped up a copy of the newest issue the day it was released. All the university bookstores carried it! I pored over the cartoons, studying them, and noted who was doing interesting work. What I noticed right away, though, was, man, a lot of these guys really stink.

And then in 1984, I "made" it. There's one of my cartoons, upper left, printed the size of a matchbook. It was a pretty minor honor. Every member of the Assoc. of American Editorial Cartoonists got at least one cartoon in BEC, and I had just been accepted into those ranks. One small cartoon? That was Brooks telling me, sorry, kid, you're nothing special. Hard to argue that at the time.

I devoted eight years to political cartoons. Three in college at Ohio State, 2 1/2 as a staff political cartoonist for a dying rag in West Palm beach, FL, then 2 1/2 more as the back-up political cartoonist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer (among my other duties). That's how much the genre has changed. Thirty years ago, papers had more than one political cartoonist on staff, because those cartoons were considered too vital to go without when someone went on vacation! 

I loved drawing political cartoons in college. I was full of idealism, dug the notoriety and big-man-on-campus fame and naively believed cartoons could change the world. Haha. To quote Bugs Bunny: "Wotta maroon!" A few years as a pro working for cowardly assholes took care of that. By the time I got to the Plain Dealer, I was done with political cartoons. I wanted out.

Not uncoincidentally, the mid-Eighties, when I made BEC at last, was the tipping point of the genre. The biggest political cartooning stars were newspaper royalty. These guys were some of the highest paid people on staff. They were celebrities, feted (and feared) by politicians and power brokers in their own cities and even, for a few of them, in DC. Note who penned the introduction in the 1985 annual above. It's Tip O' Neill, the longtime Speaker of the House! His office wall was covered with political cartoons. That's what it was like to be a political cartoonist during the genre's heyday. Alas,  that was pretty much over.

Let's take it back in time a little bit.

The old guard, the generation of Herblock and Bill Mauldin, came of age after WW2. You can trace their lineage straight back to Thomas Nast, the guy who invented the political cartoon. Oh sure, there were others, but Nast was the main guy. Besides, the dude also invented Santa Claus, so let's not quibble over his legacy! Herblock took on Joe McCarthy and the Red Baiters. In fact Herblock coined the phrase "McCarthyism," which is still used today. Mauldin went after him, too, and also pounded away at Segregation. Both were hot-button issues in the Fifties and it took brass balls to stand up to political pressure, death threats and smear campaigns. But stand up they did, backed by fearless publishers and editors.

After Herblock and his many imitators, came a new generation, one that arguably produced the finest political cartoons ever. At the dawn of the Sixties, Pat Oliphant and Paul Conrad emerged  Then along came Don Wright and Jeff MacNally and a host of others. These guys avoided the labels and humorless metaphors for savage gags and hilarious caricatures. The grease pencils, conté crayons and stipple board were abandoned for (then) modern illustration techniques like ink washes, Zip-a-tone halftone screens and Duo-shade paper. The new breed were more influenced by Mad magazine than by Nast.

Unfortunately, as often happens, following this artistic revolution there was a great rush of lesser talents into the field, inspired by Oliphant and MacNelly, but possessing a fraction of their talent and vicious wit. They were known collectively in cartooning circles circles as "MacNelly Clones." MacNelly, by the end of the Seventies, had become the most widely reprinted political cartoonist in the world. His stuff looked great, and his moderate-right politics were easy to swallow, especially as the Reagan Era dawned. The Clones drew like him, they wrote like him, they lettered like him... some of them even aped his signature! But they lacked his brain. What resulted was an avalanche of derivative political gag-of-the-day cartoons, that said little and offended no one. 

At the one AAEC convention I attended in 1984, there was a school of acolyte Clones that followed MacNally about, like pilot fish swimming after a great white shark. This was the topic of much snarping among the other cartoonists, many of whom were MacNally Clones themselves. It was all a rather nauseating display. Editors, however, loved the Clones. This is what a political cartoon should look like, to their minds, because what they saw in other papers and reprinted in Time and Newsweek was MacNally. Even better if a cartoonist doesn't lob bombs, so the editor's sleepy mornings and 2-hour lunches aren't disturbed. Everybody's happy.... except the readers, of course, and there were fewer and fewer of those to worry about. And so the genre lurched to a dead stop. And there it has remained.

Oliphant famously groused, well into this trend, that true political cartoons had been "replaced by a frozen assemblage of sausage-fingered, big-nosed, giggle panels.” 

Why? Because something else was happening in the newspaper biz. In the Eighties, all the family-owned newspapers, and some were the most respected papers in the country, were being sold, one by one in rapid succession, to giant media conglomerates. Where once papers were run by local press barons who were deeply invested in their towns, they were now run by a faceless corporate board in some other city that only cared about the bottom line. Where once an editor was a local boy who had worked his way up from copy boy and cared passionately about the city and its politics, an editor was now a corporate flunky, interested only in clawing his way further up the hierarchy. And the last thing a guy like that wanted to do was spend all morning answering angry phone calls about some damn cartoon! 

The Corporate Flunkies' solution was to hire wimp cartoonists. The Clones fit the bill perfectly. Guys who could ape MacNelly's drawing style, but said nothing in their cartoons. The Herblock Era guys died off, the distinctive cartoonists of the following  generation either retired or also died off (MacNally passed away in 2000) and soon all that was left were wimpy Clones, all drawing basically the same cartoon. Oh, there were a handful of guys doing good, distinctive worth, say Kal at the Baltimore Sun or Joel Pett in Lexington or Tom Toles, who took Herblock's chair at The Washington Post, and a few others, but 90 percent  were indistinguishable from each other. This reached a sad pinnacle the day after 9-11, when dozens of the Clones drew the same damn cartoon- the Statue of Liberty weeping into her hands as the Towers burned behind her. Never before in the history of political cartooning had this happened on such a scale. It's a stupid cartoon idea anyways, and not an original one. Mauldin's Pulitzer prize winning cartoon after JFK's assassination showed  the statue of Lincoln in his memorial, with his face buried in his hands. Plagiarism? Maybe. Unoriginal? Definitely.  That the same lame cartoon was repeated dozens of times was a sad indictment of what corporate groupthink had done to a once-important genre.

After 1985, great political cartoons were mostly found in free weeklies, which carried the groundbreaking and no-holds-barred work of people like  Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling and Matt Groening, to name a few, guys who were making smart and distinctive cartoons that, in my opinion, rank among the best ever created. These cartoonists, however, were never included in BEC. The book became a joke, a lame collection of dinosaur cartoons.

Today there are only about 40 full-time political cartoonists left in newspapers, down from a high of 275. It's a dead genre. The MacNally Clones, who are still in their forties or fifties, have mostly been laid off and are either posting online at a bad-cartoon clearing house like Cagle Cartoons, or freelancing for some rag for a pittance. Being sacked hasn't set any of these guys free. They're still pathetically copying MacNally, and the dude has been dead for 15 years! The cartoonists who have managed to hang onto their positions will probably get the boot in a year or two, if newspapers continue their slide, which they will. The few that are lucky enough to keep their jobs until they retire, won't be replaced. Thank God I bailed when I did. I can't imagine where I'd be now if I stuck with it .

Few people read political cartoons anymore, magazines and newspapers seldom reprint them, no one gives a shit. The genre is dead in this country. It doesn't have to be. I don't blame the Clones for this demise. I blame the dopes who hired them, the Corporate Flunkies who emasculated a storied art form because provocative content just wasn't worth the bother.

Now in other countries, political cartoons are alive and flourishing. And my free weekly brethren are still at it, even though free weeklies are also sinking fast into the tar pit. Tom Tomorrow and Ruben Bolling and Matt Bors, etc., have morphed into web cartoonists. Their work is better than ever.

Legendary newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken said, “Give me a good cartoonist and I can throw out half the editorial staff.” The corporate douchebags who are riding newspapers into oblivion, like Slim Pickens whooping astraddle the a-bomb in Dr. Strangelove, did Mencken one better. They threw out the cartoonists and half the staff!

Can't say I'm sorry to see Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year go.  It perpetuated the norm and highlighted the bland, and trained both cartoonists and editors alike that this was what political cartoons were supposed to be, right up until the point that no one gave a shit anymore.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Eisner Awards send a message!

The Eisner Awards have been passed out at Comicon, and the result... is epic. A foundational shift!

Marvel and DC and superhero corporate product in general were virtually shut out of the Eisners! Has this ever happened before? Awards instead went to an impressive array of brilliant work outside of the tiresome, long-underwear sock-em-ups. 

The only Eisners for the superhero publishers? IDW won "Best Archival Collection" for the Steranko Artist's Edition. Rightly so. Those things are gorgeous. Wouldn't mind owning that one myself. And Darwyn Cooke won "Best Cover Artist" for his month of variant covers on the DC line. That category was a given. Where else but mainstream comics do you have such a thing as a cover artist.... or variant covers? The rest of us just draw our own covers! That's not a dig at Cooke, whose art is brilliant. But c'mon.... variant covers? Jesus, still flogging that dead horse, DC? Vertigo's Sandman picked up a prize for best artist, but that's not a superhero book. Disney-Marvel didn't win squat!

Every other Eisner went to indy creators, or books outside the superhero genre. 

This, friends, is a total repudiation of the the hyper-marketed, corporate product that Marvel and DC are foisting off on their shrinking readership, and a long-overdue smackdown of the mainstream schlock that has dominated comix in this country, not in sales, at least not in recent years, but dominated the conversation and the definition of what comix "is."  This is a sweeping victory for comix! And that it comes at Comicon, the epicenter of blaring, mass-market, Hollywood tie-ins, particularly those of Warner Bros. and Disney, is extra sweet. 

Hey, I grew up with superhero comics. From age 10 to 18, I cleared the rack every week. Kirby and Ditko and Adams and Steranko were my inspiration. I loved superhero comics. I was consumed by them. I still have several thousand of my favorite books, neatly tucked on a shelf a few feet from where I'm typing. From time to time, when I'm in need of inspiration, I read some of them. But by the time I got to college, I was done. The Bronze Age was groaning to a disappointing end and the superhero genre was devouring itself with a tiresome cycle of repetition and duplication and declining quality. When I started making my own comix, right around that time, I became a creator and stopped being a reader. But I was one once, so these aren't just the ravings of a snooty indy dork. OK, OK, maybe they are, but a snooty dork who has devoted  his life to comix, and has spent much of that life trying to convince the American public that this is a legitimate artform, as worthy as the printed word or film or any other storytelling art form, and one that is SO much more than a musclebound idiot prancing around rooftops in a ridiculous leotard.

Are there good superhero comics? Sure. Not many, frankly. It's been a steep, bumpy road down from Kirby and Lee. That genre was completely spent with Watchmen in 1986. That should have been the wrap up, the great post-modern epic that turned the genre inside out. Instead, the Big Two have been stuck in three decades of pathetic Watchmen imitations, with superheroes growing darker and darker, ever more cynical and ultra-violent, and, of course, rampantly misogynist. Look, if you're a total superhero devotee– well, you're probably not reading my blog– but, in any case, more power to you. Really. The more people reading comix, ANY comix, the better, as far as I'm concerned, even if, I freely admit, and I was once one of you, I don't get it.  My beef is the delusion that superhero comics keep the industry afloat. They keep the comic book shops afloat, but those shops were built to cater to that fanbase. Judging by how many are closing, that business model ain't working anymore. People who seldom set foot in the shops are reading comix in big numbers. The kind of comix that just cleaned up at the Eisners.

Now, when I periodically bring this up in social media discussions, someone always responds defensively, "But if you don't read superhero comics, how do you know they suck?" Well, I've never seen an episode of The Khardasians or Duck Dynasty either, but I can GUARANTEE those shows are total shit! Besides, I don't read many indy comics either. I love comix, but I'm not a fan anymore. That's a sacrifice I had to make to become a creator. I know, I know, it's weird, but it works for me, and so far it's worked pretty well.  I do, however, periodically flip through books, both indy and mainstream, and I hear the buzz. I know what's out there and what's good and what's not. 

This slate of Eisner winners is how it should be moving forward. Disney and Warner Bros. can have their billion-dollar movie franchises, their tv shows and video game spinoffs, but they shouldn't get awards for their comic book tie-ins (and who are we kidding here, that's all the comic book line is to these corporate giants), any more than the superhero films themselves should win Oscars or awards at Cannes or Sundance. Those are reserved for daring, innovative work of high quality (the occasional Oscar fuck up aside). So it should be with the Eisners.

I hope this year's result doesn't conjure up one of those moronic organized backlash campaigns, like the Sad Puppies debacle that has all but ruined the Hugo Awards. If the Eisner folks aren't making plans to head that off, they damn well should be. 

I'd also love to see the award ceremony moved from Comicon,  which has little to do with comix anymore. But that probably isn't happening. Here's a wrap-up from CNET, which barely mentions comix at all, except in relation to the movie franchises, and offers nary a word about the Eisners.

But for now, let's celebrate. It's a victory for the art form! Congrats to all the winners!