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Comic Nerd Wars

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The title to this post is misleading – this is more like nerd v half-a-nerd.  On this morning’s show when the host confronted resident movie critic Sonny Bunch with my criticism of his lack of knowledge of Jack Kirby and comic art, Bunch was dismissive of Kirby as simply “old.”  My initial response to that is that Sergei Eisenstein is old too, but if you want to understand modern film you better understand the contributions of Eisenstein.  Being a fan and understanding a medium are too different things.  Todd McFarlane, mentioned by Bunch as who he admired, may have been one of the dominate artists of the 80’s and 90’s and he certainly changed the business, but I have yet to see university/museum exhibitions devoted to his originals.  The only modern artist to have achieved that status is Alex Ross, unmentioned by Bunch, who doesn’t really do story telling but is rather renown for his hyper realistic stills of characters and character groupings.  Ross is a cover artist.

The second thing that has to be established is that while comics and comic book movies are the very definition of “pop art,” and therefore all about the contemporary, that which is now rests quite solidly on that which came before.  Learning to tell stories visually, particularly in stills, has evolved throughout the history of the medium, as have the tools and processes.  Part of what fans appreciate about a McFarlane represents a change in the tools of the trade more than any original art itself.  The 80’s and 90’s saw a revolution in the technology of making comics.  Books were no longer produced by the decades old blue pencil, ink, letter, color process but were instead produced on computers.  Books were no longer distributed on newsprint printed on 4-color web presses but instead produced on digital printers that permitted glossy paper and images that ran off the edge of the page.  Panels could take arbitrary shapes, if they were used at all, splash pages were no longer limited in number and to the staple pages.  But how to use these tools and the techniques used to develop the tools rest on the foundation that came before them.  McFarlane and his generation could not have exploited the new tools in the fashion they did without the foundation established by Kirby and the lesser known Will Eisner of how to tell a story graphically.

Finally, as background, one must also understand the the entire Marvel Universe that now dominates the motion picture business rests very much on Jack Kirby’s shoulders, as much or more as it does on Stan Lee’s and Steve Ditko’s.  Comics exploded during WWII and almost died after only to reemerge in the early ’60’s.  That reemergence, the so-called “Silver Age,” was born very much of Jack Kirby’s pencil.  The first breakthrough book, the one that launched the Silver Age, was the “Fantastic Four” as drawn by Jack Kirby.  The iconic rocky skin of Ben Grimm, “The Thing,” is pure Kirby.  Moreover, despite his writer credit on the books, Stan Lee was an idea guy, not a writer.  Stan conceptualized the characters and plot lines, but in those days it was up to the artist, in this case Jack Kirby, to actually make the book and give the characters substance.  Stan Lee never wrote a script, Kirby (or Ditko) scripted as they drew.

Now on to my beef with Bunch.

One of the little magic touches of the current spate of superhero movies is their constant touch points with the past.  They contain shots that match classic comic panels of old, along with lines and looks that touch a cord.  Thus they manage to appeal to new audiences while satisfying the old hardcore fans like myself.  Thus when I saw Thor: Ragnorok, which is in many ways one giant visual homage to Jack Kirby, my heart sang.  They went so far as to have actual Kirby art work serve as wall paper in one scene in the movie.  It must be remembered that Kirby was the original and definitive Thor artist.  My comic collection spans the 1960’s to today and numbers more than 8000 books along with countless merchandise, paraphernalia and collectibles.  In all that only two comic books are archivally framed and hang in my office -both of them Kirby Thor’s.  So yeah, I love Kirby, I adore Kirby’s Thor, and I am to some extent old (60.)

But my objection to Bunch has little to do with the fact that he prefers McFarlane to Kirby.  That is a matter of taste and everyone is entitled to their taste.  But rather my objections center on this from his review of the film:

…it’s all wrapped up in an art-designed world that looks like someone traced the sets from Jack Kirby’s cosmic backgrounds. Bright primary colors dominate, divided by stark lines that serve no real purpose other than looking pretty neat. It’s more “New Gods” than “Thor,” to my mind, but King Kirby was a bit before my time, so I may be mixing things up.

“More ‘New Gods’ than ‘Thor,'” is simply a statement of ignorance.  For the uninformed, as comics exploded Jack Kirby began to resent Stan Lee hogging all the credit and the restrictions Lee put on the story telling, so Kirby left Marvel.  He landed at DC and “New Gods’ was part of DC’s enticement to get him there – a series in which he had free reign.  In many ways “New Gods” is the  Asgard that Kirby wanted to do both visually and story wise.  “New Gods” are after “Thor,’  If something looks like “New Gods,” then almost by definition it looks like “Thor.”

Bunch tries to cover his ignorance with an appeal to age, as he did in this morning’s segment on the show.  Really?  If you want to send a rocket to the moon do you dismiss a lack of knowledge about Newton because he was before your time?  I am sure you can, but your rocket is going to have little chance of making it to the moon.  The bottom line is this, Kirby’s work is extraordinarily well documented.  Fifteen minutes and Google and Bunch could have had a rudimentary understanding of the relationship of Jack Kirby to “Thor” and the “New Gods” and those titles to each other.  But no, he chose to be dismissive.

Next time Sonny, do your homework.

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