Continued from last Monday;
To talk of how wonderfully effective Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's work in the paternalistic style was during this period isn't to declare that theirs were the best comics ever created. I'm certainly not meaning to imply that the methods they put to use in the early Sixties are superior to the techniques being most commonly used today. Worryingly, it's often assumed that the very fact of discussing the skills and achievements of yesterday must involve a belittling by comparison of the achievements of today. All too often, storytelling approaches from different epochs which are in truth quite complimentary are held to exist in a state of immutable binary opposition. And any discussion of, for example, the nine-panel, three-tier grid is immediately perceived to be attacking all other options, including the far more sparse page designs often preferred today. It's as if much of the comics community has gotten used to seeing the form in which stories are told on the page in fundamentalist terms. Small panels vs large panels, pin-ups vs old-fashioned continuity. Less words vs more words, thought balloons in every panel vs no thought balloons at all. Illustrated screenplays versus baroque obscurantism. In such a strange critical environment, to say that "The Avengers" # 1 was brilliantly constructed and resulted in a large number of quite particular effects for its readers can be read as an assault on present-day storytelling techniques, but that's not what I mean at all.
Because I don't understand why the choice is between less or more words, or more or less panels, when surely the issue is what works best for a particular effect at a specific moment in an individual story. There are of course times when the existence of a comic book made up of one splash page after another is an exceptionally good idea, as "Promethea" might prove. And there are times when the opposite is true, when a far more traditional approach to tale-spinning ought to be adopted. More importantly, most comic books carry moments when both more established and more contemporary approaches might be put to use in some combination in order to nail down the meaning of what's being shown.
But in believing that there are such a thing as distinct and antagonistic approaches to storytelling, when in reality there's just a common toolbox with a variety of tools in it, lies the threat that lessons learned long ago will not only be ignored, but willfully forgotten. Thought balloons become verboten, writerly narration of any type distrusted, inter-panel continuity seems strangely old-fashioned, and the breadth and depth of what can be achieved collapses into a medium-mutilating, oddly puritanical dogma. As a consequence, practical issues become matters of faith, debate becomes unwittingly polarised, and the medium's past becomes not just distant, but distrusted, and then finally ignored as irrelevant.
But, of course, this Manichean divide between today and yesterday, words and no words, spectacle and continuity, and so on, is an artificial and quietly insane one. The business of telling tales about superheroes is by its very nature a narrow enough endeavour anyway. To narrow its focus yet further by deciding that only certain storytelling options are acceptable is quite clearly counter-productive, and might help explain, amongst a host of other reasons, why comic books sales continue to decline, while the core audience collapses further and further in on itself.
One of the many fascinating aspects of Lee and Kirby's work in this period lies in the fact that it's both revolutionary and conservative, radical and traditional. We know their books detonated with the shock of the new in the consciousness of so many readers of the time, and yet it's amazing how much of what the reader come across today isn't at all unfamiliar when compared with other comics of the period. Kirby's artwork doesn't often, for example, play around with the kind of extreme angles and distortion which can be found in the first year of Eisner's work on The Spirit in 1941. In a great many ways, Mr Kirby's art is far more conventional fare than might often be remembered. And Mr Lee certainly isn't striving for any kind of psychological realism, or a turning-upside down of the conventional morality of the mainstream of the early Sixties. Instead, the two of them, along with their colleague Steve Ditko, were concerned not to reinvent the wheel so much as to make it turn faster, with less friction, and to greater effect. In that, the responsibilities assumed by the paternalistic storyteller are still held to, but greater and greater measures of excitement and immediacy are being pumped into the system at the same time. Over the next fifty years, the possibilities for exhilaration developed in large part by Lee and Kirby and Ditko would become more and more detached from the business of being as inclusive and transparent as possible. The business of spectacle would be to a greater or lesser degree separated out from the business of paternalistic storytelling. But the original revolution itself was a pragmatic business not set on changing everything so much as making it far shinier, and far more beguiling, and considerably more thrilling than the competition.
Because of their paternalistic priorities, Lee and Kirby's work on The Avengers often seem to be serving a quite different narrative purpose to that of much of today's superhero books. Their priority to involve and enthrall meant that every page was designed to attract and hold the young reader's attention, as we've discussed. In doing this, Lee and Kirby's first Avengers work didn't so much build its way up to a closing sequence of climax, catharsis and conclusion so much as breathlessly crash into the last page, and then onto the last panels of each story, and then out of the story altogether without typically pausing for a great deal of reflection. Modern-day readers will inevitably note that the first 8 issues of "The Avengers", for example, all end disturbingly quickly, with something of an air of anti-climax, and with a lack of intensity and meaning that would doom a similar book today. At the end of the very first issue of The Avengers, Loki is disposed of in just six panels. Out of the blue, and without any foreshadowing, a trapdoor is triggered and a radiation-proof chamber revealed by chance to exist just below it. Into the trap conveniently tumbles the strangely unmanned god of evil. Later issues will often end with a similar and unsatisfying brutality. In issue 3, Namor is unexpectedly freed 6 panels from the comic's end by the appearance of water trickling down on him, and in issue 4 he and The Avengers are separated by an wholly unexpected undersea earthquake. None of these dei ex machina matter, of course, because Lee and Kirby's job was to get their readers to that last page as swiftly and as fascinatingly as possible. Having done so, their task was not to satisfy the reader, but to maintain their excitement, to create a sense that the superheroes job was not yet done, even if one task had been temporarily dealt with. After all, a totally gratified reader might never come back. They weren't telling distinct stories so much as weaving a sense that this new Marvel Universe was a place where fantastic things were always happening, and the readers might tragically miss out if they didn't get every single issue!
A sequence of partial satisfaction and pleasurable anticipation cycles throughout these Avengers' tales, and uncertainty and reassurance follow constantly hard on the tail of one another. Of course, the reader isn't to be allowed to be too unsettled or anxious, for that would be irresponsible and unfair. But neither is the audience to be allowed to sleepwalk through a world of content superheroes chasing happy-go-lucky super-villains through a landscape of white-picket fences, strangely empty cities and satisfied middle class citizens.
It's these sequences of one damn thing after another which matters, and not where the string of moments may or may not be heading. The Hulk and Iron Man fight in a Detroit car-factory in "The Avengers" # 1, for example, because it's a novel and thrillingly real-world environment for them to throw rubber tyres at each other in. But there's no suggestion that the factory contributes to any theme, or reflects any wider meaning at all. It's simply a broadly-delineated and highly functional stage that sparks thrills and is raced through for no other reason than it's great fun in itself and that yet another example of spectacle is waiting over the page. And so inventive and insistent are these incidents that it's obvious that the question posed by the text isn't "why?", but "WHAT COMES NEXT?!!"
Blink and you might just miss it, what "it" might be, and whatever "it" might mean, or not.
There were no limited series and no graphic novels requiring the illusion of a resolution. There was just the prospect of a never-ending string of highly enjoyable comics chasing each other out one after the other into the marketplace for as long as the books could stay profitable.
In achieving this breathless sense of rapidity and occasion, Lee and Kirby use a huge variety of narrative techniques. A small number of them have recently been discussed here, and many of them are, of course, quite obviously at play in the comic books of today. My favourite trick which they used to maintain the reader's interest and to intensify the audience's involvement is one present in a clear third of the pages of "The Avengers" # 1, and it's one which I've never noticed in a comic book before, namely that of the mid-tier, last-panel scene-change.
The modern-era creator often regards the basic unit of their storytelling as the page. Radical changes of setting and tone tend to occur at the beginning of a new page, preceded by a side-closing, interest-generating panel beforehand designed to stir up the reader's anticipation. Such a simple attention to the structure of the comic book ensures that the audience is moved to turn the page in order to reveal whatever's coming, and Lee and Kirby of course put such a well-established Comics 101 strategy to good use, as we'd expect of such industry veterans. On page 13 of "The Coming Of The Avengers", for example, Iron Man is shown closing in on a fleeing and bounding Hulk, declaring "There's no place in Earth where I cannot follow you!", while page 19 ends on the Hulk declaring that he's "sick of running" and that it's his "turn to attack". What child, or child-hearted adult, could resist racing from such panels to the next beat of the action?
But in the first issue of The Avengers, Lee and Kirby often add a change of scene or a significant twist to the story's action in the middle of the page too, in last frame of the central row of panels. In doing so, they create an extra enigma of one sort or another to these already highly-charged page. It's an intensifier of effect which breaks each page it's used in into two separate narratives, to a greater or lesser degree, and because it's achieved so formally, the impression of an over-crowded page is skillfully avoided.
Now, I just don't know the degree of to which this design-element was commonly used, either by Lee and Kirby or by the wider community of creators as a whole, and I've been sitting down with my Fantastic Four Omnibus to try to make a start on finding out. But it's certainly a technique used repeatedly in "The Coming Of The Avengers", and whether it was common practise or not, it's very effective in increasing an extra level of interest and momentum to these already incident-rich pages.
We can illustrate this by looking at page 14 again. As we discussed yesterday, the first tier is concerned with Iron Man pursuit of, and defeat by, The Hulk. It's a scene which today might be presented over several pages, to say the least, but here it involves a total of just 5 panels. And for the reasons we chatted about, amongst many others, it's an intriguing and exciting sequence. But it's remarkable how deliberately the scene is then shifted mid-page to Asgard in the middle tier. The two panels of the central row there cleverly mirror each other. In the first, Iron Man kneels as the victim while the dominant, larger Hulk leaps away. In the second, Thor similarly kneels at panel-left, but Odin, the dominant figure before him, is facing him and passive. Their relationship is clearly of supplicant to authority figure, not protagonist to antagonist, and in such a way the shift from Earth to the Heavens is seamless.
And it does seem as if Lee and Kirby were quite deliberately adding an extra level of action and interest to their pages accordingly. We can see similar end-of-row transitions being worked, for example, in page 3, where Rick Jones is introduced, on page 5 where the Teen Brigade are shown believing their pleas for help have been ignored, and on page 15, where Thor is shown suddenly at sea and closing in on a dangerously volcanic island.
What's more, the last panel of the middle tier is also used to present the close of fights which today would climax further down or over the page, such as Thor's defeat of a troll on page 17, or to illustrate the intensification of an existing conflict, such as when Loki suddenly makes "himself radioactive" on page 21.
For it's not just that Lee and Kirby's stories are packed with far more incident and invention than is typical in today's comic books. It's also that they apply specific techniques of story-telling to incorporate these incidents in such a way as readers are shifted from scene to scene in a controlled as well as an exciting fashion. And, perhaps, such is the fecundity of the level of discipline, skill and innovation on their pages, that new techniques suggest themselves regardless of whether Lee and Kirby ever actually developed and used them in the first place. The end-of-middle-tier scene changer might be something I've imagined, or an accident of design that appears to be purposeful. But even if it is, and frankly I doubt it, it's just one of a whole series of possibilities as well as actualities which appear before the reader's eyes because Lee and Kirby knew and attempted so much. And any modern-day attempt to ape such event-heavy Silver-Age tales would require creators who possess the practical knowledge of how to ground their good and excitable intentions structurally. A story can too easily become overwhelmingly saturated with and bogged down by a mass of events if incident isn't anchored formally on the page.
Without the slightest doubt, Lee and Kirby were a quite brilliant creative team composed of two outstanding individual masters of their craft. But a great deal of what they achieved can be understood not just in terms of their genius, but also in terms of hard-won and constantly-refined technical excellence. To not learn from their work because they're considered to be both anachronistic and made-from-whole-cloth genera would be to miss the most wonderful oppurtunities. No-one can ever, ever, match either man in the business of being as brilliant as Jack Kirby or Stan Lee were. Yet we might yet, through close and careful study, learn a mass of skills from their work which could still be put to very good use indeedin the 21st century. It's not that their work was superior in every measure to that of today, or that everything that might be learned about superhero comics is to be found in their books. There's such a very great deal that's been pioneered and developed since! Of course! But it's simply that on occasion it seems as if skills are being lost, as if valuable techniques are being carelessly abandoned and then forgotten. And that seems both a terrible shame and an inevitably counter-productive matter for this business as a whole.
To be continued;
As always, I wish you a splendid time, and would exhort you strongly to "Stick together!"