At times he was a silly king, but the king nevertheless.

(I swear to you I had most of this written well before listening to the latest Big Monkey Podcast. There just must be something in the air at the moment. Oh, well.)

So I'm reading a book right now called Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! : Writers on Comics, and it kicks off with a great essay by Jonathan Lethem about Jack Kirby's exit from and return to Marvel in the 70s, and how it kinda-sorta parallels stuff going on his own Brooklyn childhood at the time. In between the flashbacks and the occasional nod to Omega the Unknown, Lethem lays this truth on us: as genius as Kirby was, that 70s material? Not so good, really, even in the eyes of the King himself. And though it's not the sort of thing I think about a lot, I have to admit, Lethem and Kirby are right. Very few would ever seriously argue that Devil Dinosaur or the-just-barely-related-to-the-movie 2001 stand among the Greatest Comic Books Ever.

And yet, I love those books. Lethem loves those books. A good chunk of fandom online and off loves them, too. And there's that great story about some Kirby tribute book being put together after his death, and the character that artists all wanted to draw the most wasn't Captain America or Doctor Doom, but Devil Freakin' Dinosaur. So clearly, something about those comics speaks to us, despite any level of quality they may or may not possess.

And here's the thing, too: I don't think it's any sort of ironic sense of appreciation for most people. Not all of us flock to them like some folks do to Ed Wood movies or Shaggs records. While there is a certain amount of schadenfreude involved in reading about, say, the Black Panther's pursuit of King Solomon's frog, I don't think we're enjoying it specifically because it's bad. Rather, these stories possess a certain charm in spite of the badness. That outlandish, often downright goofy quality about these stories is a large part of their appeal. Some days I want Citizen Kane or Grand Illusion, sure, but other days, I just want to see Godzilla stomping on a building or Steve Martin singing a song about a buying a Thermos. It's all about the mood.

And of course, there's the art. Kirby's 70s output may lack the polish and structure of his 60s zenith - I've heard some folks call his later work a bit lazy - but much like his writing, I think he really let himself loose with this, and while it may not be as formally "good," it's very energetic. Wild gestures, wilder facial expressions, and just the most fantastical backdrops you could imagine, all of it literally dripping with that patented Kirby Krackle effect. Love it.

(Of course, please bear in mind that I'm already going to be predisposed to enjoying watching a dinosaur kick the living bejeezus out of other creatures no matter who is drawing it, but still.)

But as enjoyable as all this is, there's no denying that the product of the King's second Marvel run (and that of his DC run, for that matter) proves the innate superiority of the earlier Marvel work (and I include the Atlas monster stuff in this). Because as much as Stan Lee needed a Jack Kirby (and a Steve Ditko, and a John Romita, etc.) to provide him mad ideas to lift work with, Kirby needed a Stan Lee to turn those mad ideas into something a little easier to digest. I mean, the names alone prove this point. Most evil guy around? He's called Darkseid. That teleportation tunnel that makes a loud booming sound whenever it's used? Boom Tube. Chubby bald dude in a sash who sits around contemplating beatifically? He's Mr. Buda.

The King was many things, and none of them were subtle. But again, I'd be lying if I said that wasn't part of the appeal.

1 comment:

De said...

I remember trying to describe a Forever People story to my wife. She could not believe that somebody could ever write something like that without drugs being involved. To me, that's always been the appeal of Jack - the fertile imagination that seemed to come so easily to him.