Category Archives: Comics

Important Comics

Today's the anniversary of a couple of things.

It would have been Jack Kirby's 96th birthday.

And, more importantly — as the King himself would surely have acknowledged –, it's the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.

I was at a loss for precisely how I was going to tie these two events together in the same post — and then I remembered Congressman John Lewis has a comic book out.

Stephen Colbert interviewed him a couple of weeks back:

Lewis discusses not only his new comic trilogy, March, but a comic that inspired him in 1957: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. An excellent summary by Andrew Aydin at Creative Loafing Atlanta says:

Richard Deats, [the Fellowship of Reconciliation]'s Director of Communications in the 1990s, laid out FOR's motivation and purpose behind the comic in a 1997 letter, saying, "The comic book was originally intended to convey to semiliterate persons the story of nonviolence and its effectiveness as seen in the Montgomery movement. The medium of the highly popular comic book was believed to be the best way to reach masses of exploited African-Americans."

And that's what comic books were: they were a way of reaching the masses. They were literature for the illiterate.

And as with all mass-media means of distributing information to the poor, this upset the elites.

When comics first appeared in American newspapers around the turn of the twentieth century, they were seen as gutter trash. In the decades that followed, they were scapegoated for society's ills, culminating in Senate hearings, the Comics Code Authority, and the devastation of an entire American art form.

In a way, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was exactly what the elites feared: it upset the social structure. It gave teenagers like John Lewis ideas.

It's ironic that the comics medium's greatest foe, Fredric Wertham, was also an ardent progressive in the Civil Rights Movement — if he had never written Seduction of the Innocent, he would instead be best remembered for the doll study used in Brown v Board. Wertham was right, in a way, about comics' potential as a disruptive force, as a powerful tool for influencing young people — but he chose to fear the imagined impact of fictional crime and horror stories, rather than see the true potential of comics as a force for good, for education, for organization, for social justice.

Kirby, of course, saw boundless potential in comics, in a way few people ever have. He used comics to advocate for social change, too, though he preferred fiction and metaphor, and is best remembered as a superhero artist (though his work crossed all genres and invented some). He saw superheroes as modern mythological figures — as New Gods — as aspirational avatars.

In the 1940's, Kirby co-created Captain America, advocating for US intervention in WWII when that was still a controversial position. In the 1970's, his Forever People were technologically-advanced, alien hippies. In the 1960's, The Fantastic Four gave us The Hate-Monger, a supervillain in a Klan hood who turned out to be Adolf Hitler himself. It also gave us this guy:

The Black Panther

That image is courtesy of Brian Cronin's Comic Book Legends Revealed, which notes that the Black Panther didn't look like that in the final published comic — his half-mask was replaced with a full mask, making it less immediately obvious that the Black Panther was, in fact, a black man — indeed, possibly the first black superhero. (Inevitably when you refer to a comic book character as "the first" of anything, that's going to lead to debate — sometimes that debate can miss the point entirely and turn into mere nitpicking over comic book trivia, though other times, as in Who Was the First Black Superhero? by JV Halliburton II, it can explore the richness of comic history and highlight all the important characters who have helped to build and shape it and make it more diverse.)

Today Mark Evanier wrote a lovely remembrance of his friend and mentor, and among many other things he had this to say:

Jack was all about something new, something exciting and something that took whatever he was doing to the next level. [...] Jack was first and foremost interested in producing something that would take comics to some new plateau, creating new opportunities and new possibilities.

Kirby believed in comics. So did Martin Luther King and Alfred Hassler. So does John Lewis.

And so does Jillian Kirby. I've written before about her Kirby4Heroes fundraiser for the Hero Initiative, a charity that helps struggling comic creators. As we celebrate her grandfather's birthday, don't forget about the less fortunate who have helped shape the comics medium over the years and decades.


Kirby4Heroes

Following up on last week's post about Jillian Kirby and her fundraiser for the Hero Initiative on behalf of her late grandfather: there's writeup in Monday's LA Times Hero Complex.

It's got some great photos of Jack and his family, and Jillian tells some stories about him too — I'm partial to the one where he invites a homeless man in for a meal at his nephew's bar mitzvah.

Jillian's goal is to raise $10,000 for the Hero Initiative for Jack's birthday on the 28th. There are some auctions of original art that should help a lot toward that goal — but even a few bucks helps.

Best of luck to Jillian and to the Hero Initiative. It's a great cause, and she seems to be a pretty great lady.


It's Marvel v Kirby, not Kirby v Marvel

I haven't had time to read the full judgement yet in the appellate court's recent decision in Marvel's favor in Marvel v Kirby.

What I have had time to read is multiple otherwise-reliable comics sites getting the basic facts of the case wrong — indeed, the most basic fact of the case, which is who sued whom.

Matt D Wilson's article on the story at ComicsAlliance says,

Kirby’s heirs brought their suit over the characters in 2009, as the push to make huge-grossing movies featuring characters Kirby co-created (like The Avengers, which has made more than $1.5 billion) was really heating up. Marvel and parent company Disney countersued the next year.

(Wilson also incorrectly claims that the rights to the Silver Surfer were part of the dispute — they weren't; the dispute concerns works created between 1958 and 1963, and the Surfer first appeared in 1966 — and then misspells Gary Friedrich's name.)

Heidi McDonald's piece at Comics Beat — a site which is ordinarily one of the best for coverage of comic book copyright disputes, due to lawyer Jeff Trexler's contributions — is titled "Marvel wins appeal in lawsuit brought by Jack Kirby’s heirs", and its first sentence also refers to "a lawsuit bought by Jack Kirby’s heirs". Which is fucking baffling considering that right there on the same page Ms. McDonald has embedded a PDF named marvel-v-kirby.pdf that starts out like this:

11-3333-cv
Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT
August Term, 2012
(Argued: October 24, 2012 Decided: August 8, 2013)
Docket No. 11-3333-cv
-------------------------------------
MARVEL CHARACTERS, INCORPORATED, MARVEL WORLDWIDE,
INCORPORATED, MVL RIGHTS, LLC,
Plaintiffs-Counter-Defendants-Appellees,
WALT DISNEY COMPANY, MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT, INCORPORATED,
Counter-Defendants-Appellees,
- v -
LISA R KIRBY, NEAL L. KIRBY, SUSAN N. KIRBY, BARBARA J.
KIRBY,
Defendants-Counter-Claimaints-Appellants.
-------------------------------------
Before: CABRANES, SACK, and CARNEY, Circuit Judges.

Again, I haven't had time to read the full judgement yet — but Heidi McDonald apparently hasn't had time to read the first line, the list of parties, or the filename.

And look, I really like Heidi McDonald, and I really like Comics Beat. But I think this is terrible. It's one thing for somebody in the comments section to spout the common misconception that the Kirbys sued Marvel — hell, it's pretty much a given! –, but it's another entirely to see it in the headline on a reputable site.

The Kirbys did not sue Marvel in 2009. They filed for termination of copyright transfer. Marvel sued them in 2010; only then did the Kirbys countersue.

I am sure that this is an honest mistake, on McDonald's part, on Wilson's part, probably on the part of some (but certainly not all) the people who repeat the same misinformation in various comments sections across the comics Internet.

But while it may be an honest mistake, it is not a trivial one.

Facts are important. Details are important. The question of who sued whom is important.

The claim that the Kirbys sued Marvel in 2009 is false. That is not a matter of opinion; it is not subject to dispute. The Kirbys did not sue Marvel in 2009 — that is a fact.

Any narrative which maintains that the Kirbys sued first is, likewise, false, and presents an incorrect, misleading picture of the very nature of the suit.

And that even someone like Heidi McDonald, who is sympathetic to the Kirbys, has inadvertently bought into and repeated the false narrative that they sued first says a lot about how pervasive that narrative has become.


Kirby4Heroes

Last year on Jack Kirby's birthday, I covered Kirby4Heroes, his granddaughter Jillian's fundraiser for the Hero Initiative, a charity for down-on-their-luck comics creators.

Well, this year's Kirby Day is a few weeks off yet, but the young Ms. Kirby has just unveiled the Kirby4Heroes Facebook Page, and has more work coming up.

Readers of this site will know that I don't really do the Facebook thing, but statistically speaking you probably do, so go Like and Share and whatever it is you kids do. And even if you don't have a Facebook account, you can still take a gander at some great family photos on the site — spanning Jack and Roz's entire lives.

And if you've got a few bucks to spare for the Hero Initiative, please do. Remember the sad stories of guys like Robert Washington — it's a tough damn business, and its brightest stars seldom get the recognition or thanks they deserve — and fair wages are rarer still.

Thanks, Jack. And thanks as well to Jillian.


Occupy Comics

While I was partial to the DeMatteis/Cavallaro piece in #1, the piece of the Occupy Comics anthology that everybody seems to be talking about is Alan Moore's (prose) history of the American comics industry. And that's plenty understandable. Moore's Dry British Wit is at its best here, with his faux-fair-and-balanced choice of words (where he repeatedly points out that original DC publisher Harry Donenfeld was merely an alleged mobster).

A lot of this is ground that's been tread many a time before, notably but not exclusively in Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones and The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu (Amazon wishes me to note that those are affiliate links and I get a kickback from them, whereas I wish Amazon to note that Gerard Jones's name is not actually Gerald). But Moore brings his own entertaining little flourishes:

The Comics Code itself, a long standards and practice document, is interesting mainly for the eccentricity of its demands (the living dead and treating divorce humorously are both seen as equally offensive, with this stipulation aimed presumably at titles such as Zombie Alimony Funnies, which I've just invented so please don't write in), and for the curious specificity of language in which those demands are framed. For instance, in the Code's insistence that no comic book should have the words 'Horror' or 'Terror' as a prominent part of its title, it is difficult not to suspect that this is legislation which has been designed expressly to put E.C. publications out of business. The one way in which the Code could have accomplished this more blatantly is if they'd added words like 'Vault' or 'Mad' to the above forbidden list.

It's a good story, and it's well-told. And it leaves me curious as to whether and when Moore will collect it in book form.


Marvel's Statement of Purpose

I'm in the home stretch of Sean Howe's excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and this quote from the beginning of chapter 17, I think, sums up what's wrong with the company in a nutshell:

The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and USA Today all chimed in about Liefeld, Lee, McFarlane, and the other renegade artists who were standing up to big business. In response, Marvel president Terry Stewart made a statement that "the importance of the creative people is still secondary to the (comic book) characters," a stance that hardly discouraged Marvel's new image as a corporate overlord.

(Brackets in original.)

How comes back to this point in chapter 19:

In June 1994, Frank Miller paid tribute to Jack Kirby, delivering a keynote speech at an industry seminar in Baltimore. [...]

Marvel Comics is trying to sell you all on the notion that characters are the only important component of its comics. As if nobody had to create these characters, as if the audience is so brain-dead they can't tell a good job from a bad one. You can almost forgive them this, since their characters aren't leaving in droves like the talent is. For me it's a bit of a relief to finally see the old "work-made-for-hire talent don't matter" mentality put to the test. We've all seen the results, and they don't even seem to be rearranging the deck chairs.

Creators who complained about defections to Image and other companies, he continued, were "like galley slaves complaining that the boat is leaking." The age of company-owned superhero universes — the Jack Kirby age — was over. "It's gone supernova and burned itself out, and begun a slow steady collapse into a black hole. We couldn't feed off the genius of Jack Kirby forever. The King is dead, and he has no successor. We will not see his like again. No single artist can replace him. No art form can be expected to be gifted with more than one talent as brilliant as his. It's a scary time because change is always scary. But all the pieces are in place for a new proud era, a new age of comics. Nothing's standing in our way, nothing too big and awful, nothing except some old bad habits and our own fears, and we won't let that stop us."

The crowd rose to its feet.

(Ellipsis mine.)

Miller was right in some ways and wrong in others.

The bottom fell out of the market soon after, for both Marvel and Image. Jim Lee is now one of the Editors in Chief at DC; McFarlane and Liefeld have become punchlines (and so, for that matter, has Miller). Post-bankruptcy Marvel has done a pretty damn good job feeding off the genius of Jack Kirby — in films. As for the comics, well, they're selling decently enough but are, at this point, largely the R&D branch for upcoming Disney movies.

Marvel still believes the creative people are secondary (and that's giving them the benefit of the doubt). Marvel is wrong.

Yes, Iron Man is more popular now than he was during Jack Kirby or Don Heck's lifetime. That's not just because Iron Man's a great character — though I happen to think he is –, it's because of Robert Downey Jr, and Jon Favreau, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges.

When you think the characters are primary and the creative people secondary, you get a film like Daredevil. Or, at best, Fantastic Four. Compare the numbers — and you'll forgive me from switching over to DC for this, but they've got a much longer history of film franchises — compare the numbers from Batman and Robin to the numbers from The Dark Knight, or the numbers from Superman Returns to the numbers from Man of Steel, and tell me that the characters are more important than the creative people.

And that, of course, is just looking at it from a mercenary standpoint — because really, that's what Marvel as a company cares about. That's not even getting into quality. My unsurprising opinion is that you're a lot likelier to get a high-quality film or comic when you've got high-quality creative people working on it.

And Marvel's policy of treating its characters as primary and their creators as secondary has resulted in fewer and fewer original characters added to its stable. Sure, lots of creative people still love to play in Marvel's sandbox — and then save their original ideas for creator-owned work.

Take a look at the characters who've starred in films or TV shows over the past couple of decades. Superman and Batman are from the 1930's. Green Arrow and Captain America are from the 1940's. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers are from the 1960's. The X-Men are also from the 1960's, though their most popular character, Wolverine, is from the 1970's. Blade, Ghost Rider, and Swamp Thing are from the 1970's too (and so is Howard the Duck, if you really want to bring that up). The New Teen Titans, Elektra, the Tick, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Mystery Men are from the 1980's. Static, Spawn, Hellboy, and the Men in Black are from the 1990's. The Walking Dead started in 2003, Kick-Ass in 2008.

It's not an exhaustive list (see Nat Gertler for that), but it's an eye-opening one. Marvel and DC have a strong library of characters — from decades ago. Most of the successful new characters, though, are creator-owned.

But hey — Disney's biggest franchises are already from the 1920's to the 1950's (and many of them are based on public-domain material that's a lot older than that). Disney doesn't need to create new product. When the copyrights to the first Mickey Mouse cartoons come close to expiring, Disney can bribe Congress to extend them. If Disney needs to add new material to its portfolio, it can buy a company like Pixar or Marvel.

And as Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and, to a lesser extent, Viacom's purchase of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows, even the most successful creator-owners eventually want to retire and are willing to part with their works.

Star Wars — hm. Maybe I have found an example where the characters are more important than the creator.

Course, that's just because he was ripping off Jack Kirby.


Another Ditko Kickstarter

I discussed the previous Ditko Kickstarter back in April. Well, now Snyder's back with another, reprinting 1992's Laszlo's Hammer.

I'm in. Though I'm still not done with all the goodies I got last time.

I finished Ditko Public Service Package, the reprint that the Kickstarter funded. But I've only just cracked Steve Ditko's 160-Page Package and the first of The Comics newsletters that I got as bonuses.

On the whole, I'm finding 160-Page to be a lot more satisfying than Public Service — its stories are more conventional morality tales, with beginnings, middles, and ends, that recall the 1950's era of science fiction and crime comics. Public Service is a lot stranger and more inscrutable — but it's delightful in its own way too, even as it's sometimes baffling or infuriating.

And there are still a couple more Packages where those came from.

At any rate, go contribute to the Ditko Kickstarter. You'll be glad you did.

And on a related note, ComicsAlliance's Joe McCulloch recently wrote the excellent Steve DItko Doesn’t Stop: A Guide To 18 Secret Comics By Spider-Man's Co-Creator, focusing not on the 1990's work that Snyder has been using Kickstarter to reprint, but on Ditko's most recent work, from 2008 to present.

It's great stuff, new and old. And I can't wait for the next round.


New Simonson Thor and Other Con Announcements

I'm not terribly excited by all the big movie stuff, or really the DC/Marvel comics stuff either, at Comic-Con. But there have been some good announcements about things I do care about. Occasionally-reliable gossip site Bleeding Cool has told tales of new Bone from Jeff Smith, a Stan Sakai adaptation of War of the Worlds set in feudal Japan, and a history of Mad Magazine by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragonés (Evanier himself responded by saying no that last one is not happening and he never said he was doing anything of the sort).

While I hold out hope that they really are going to announce that the '60's Batman TV series is finally coming out on DVD, here's one thing that has been officially confirmed: Walter Simonson is doing a new Thor comic. (But not a new Thor comic. See the importance of italics, kids?)

It's not for Marvel, and it's not Marvel's Thor. It's a creator-owned book called Ragnarök and it features good ol'-fashioned public-domain Norse mythology. Said Simonson: "Scott Dunbier and I first talked about me working on a creator-owned book involving the Norse gods 15 years ago, but as many of my former editors can tell you, I've always regarded deadlines as useful fiction."

I am so there.


Quantum and Woody and Complex Feelings

Quantum and Woody was something I loved when I was a teenager — and then it went away. 13 years later it shows back up, but under less than ideal circumstances. It's not the book I remember, and I don't know if I should be happy it's back or pissed about it being something less than what I expected and hoped for.

Even if you've never read a Quantum and Woody comic before, I'm guessing that the previous paragraph was suitably unsubtle that you realized it was a metaphor for the plot of the comic.

I posted about the status of Quantum and Woody previously. The gist: the original comic was published by Acclaim, and the creators, Christopher Priest and Mark Bright, had a reversion clause in their contract that should have allowed them to buy out the copyrights to the comic after it went out of print. But Acclaim went bankrupt and the rights were sold at auction instead. They were eventually bought by a new company, Valiant (which takes its name from the Valiant Comics that Acclaim bought out in the first place, but is not the same company), which has opted to start a new series written by James Asmus and drawn by Tom Fowler.

Priest has said nothing about the new series, and Bright has said little — but he did say that their relationship with Valiant is "amicable", and that was good enough for me to go ahead and pick up issue #1 of the new series.

It's…well, it's good, but it's not as good as the original.

First of all: it's not very funny.

I mean, I laughed a few times. But the biggest laugh was at a running gag from the old series. Technically it still counts as a joke — they're invoking a running gag, not merely doing a Family Guy-style "Hey, remember that thing from that other thing?" — but it's not Asmus and Fowler's joke, it's Priest and Bright's.

And the whole thing feels a little like that, really. The book doesn't just borrow the premise of the original, it borrows Priest's specific storytelling techniques — it's got chapter titles with white text against a black background, and it jumps around and tells the story out-of-sequence. Yes, that's one of the things the original Q&W was known for — but it wasn't a Q&W thing, it was a Priest thing. He used the same technique in Black Panther and Deadpool. For my tastes, this strays a little too far from the notion of a loving homage to the original series and too close to stealing another guy's bit. It's uncomfortable.

And it's also absurd, given that Valiant chose not to ask Priest and Bright to do the new series themselves, ostensibly because they wanted to do something different, that the new book hews so close to the old one stylistically.

And yet, for all that, page 2 passes up a perfect opportunity to use "noogie". What the F-word? I just don't understand how Asmus can crib so shamelessly from the original series (and Priest's general comics vocabulary) and yet draw the line at noogie, of all places.

…okay, that got a little inside baseball. Point is, the book, at its worst, feels like a cover tune that's uncomfortably close to the original without ever hitting the same notes quite right.

But at its best?

It's got heart, man.

Asmus may not have a good grip on Priest's gift for satire — and couldn't get away with his brand of pointed commentary on race in America even if he did — but what he does get is the relationship between the leads. It's real and it's raw — these are two guys who really do love each other (but they're not a couple) but are so fucking furious at each other over something that happened a long time ago that it takes a near-death experience to even acknowledge it — almost.

Asmus gets that. And it just so happens to be the emotional core of the book. More important than the jokes, and certainly more important than "Hey look you guys we put the goat on the cover!" — it's the heart.

Aside from that, the plot actually hews pretty close to the original, despite an important change in apostrophe placement — now, Eric and Woody are reunited after their father's murder, not fathers'.

That's been the change fans of the old series have been most nervous about — well, the story change that fans of the old series have been most nervous about. But it works.

Ultimately, Eric and Woody's fathers weren't important to the original story; they were the McGuffin that got everything started, but we knew less about them than we knew about Uncle Ben (and only slightly more than we knew about Thomas and Martha Wayne in the original version of Batman's origin). Woody's father is only important because he's what got him to come back to town — it's his mother who we see is mostly responsible for what shaped him as a child, for better or worse.

And all that would seem to be intact — in this version, Eric's father took Woody in as a troubled foster child. And, while the circumstances of Woody's departure from the family are left as a mystery for now, I wouldn't be surprised if they were similar to what happened in the original series: he went to live with his mom, things went south fast, and he wound up living on the streets.

All of which is still entirely possible if Mr. Henderson was his adoptive father. Mr. Van Chelton is completely unnecessary to the story.

Through all this chatter, I guess I've focused on Asmus's writing over Fowler's art. Fowler's art is like Asmus's writing, I suppose — it's solid but it hasn't blown me away, and unfortunately a whole lot of it seems to be just recreations of scenes from the original series (like the opening of Q&W falling out a window while the news media mock them).

Still — it's good. It's not what I'd hoped for, but it's not bad.

It's good enough that I'll pick up #2. And hope that this generates enough interest that maybe someday we'll see something new from Priest and Bright. New Quantum and Woody, the release of the completed-but-unpublished issues of the original series, or something else entirely — it doesn't matter, I'd be happy to see anything by them that I haven't seen before.

Because that's the real point, here — yeah, I like Quantum and Woody. But not nearly as much as I like Christopher Priest and Mark Bright.


Go, Ken, Go! — Part 5: Settlement!

For my previous coverage, check out the Ken Penders tag. In particular, the first post has a relevant disclaimer that (1) I tend to side with creators over publishers generally and (2) I corresponded with Ken Penders in the 1990's and he was a nice guy.

Anyhow, looks like I'm a bit behind on this, but last week brought the biggest news yet: per TSSZ News, Archie and Penders have settled and the suit has been dismissed.

What I predicted in Parts 3 and 4 still holds: we'll learn some of the terms of the settlement in the coming months (we already know Ken is moving forward with The Lara-Su Chronicles so I think we can safely say he has the rights to publish original comics with Lara-Su in them); some will stay confidential. Penders v Sega and EA is still ongoing, though this puts him in a better position as it establishes that he does have standing to sue for infringement, even if it still has to be established that Dark Brotherhood infringes his copyrights.

I think it's also safe to say that Ken would be happy for Archie to continue using his characters and reprinting his stories — so long as they pay him his share for that use. And that if, say, the echidnas stay lost in that warp ring, that's Archie's decision not to pay Penders, not Penders's decision not to let Archie pay him.

But I think there's something much bigger coming.

Penders wasn't the only guy freelancing for Archie's Mamaroneck office in the mid-1990's. And he wasn't the only guy doing it without signing a contract first.

There are potentially dozens of other Sonic alums who have been watching this case and waiting to see if they've got a shot at winning their rights back, too. Scott Shaw has already filed for copyrights on his Sonic work. He won't be the last.

Archie v Penders is over. But this is only the beginning.