Friday, 31 December 2010

Ringing In The New Year With Seventies Marvel

In which the blogger briefly interrupts our look at Mr Bendis's "The Avengers" to ponder the New Year in the company of the Marvel superheroes of a rather different world;


I don't recall ever having had an enjoyable New Year's Eve before I met the Splendid Wife. Even then, it took me a good while to realise that I could leave my well-honed angst behind for a few hours at the end of each December and, rather shockingly, simply enjoy myself.

It's not that I now approach the end of the year with any excessive measure of optimism, but I don't assume that catastrophe will inevitably follow disaster anymore. After thirteen years of consistently undisastrous New Years, I feel pretty confident that folks will gather pleasantly around a bonfire, spirits will be imbibed, laughter will be heard, the peels of Big Ben conveyed through the crackling analogue speakers of someone's far-off car stereo, and the world will generally continue to turn as it generally always does.

Now I can look at the likes of these representations of an incredibly depressed Fantastic Four, by the unexpected and quite enchanting artistic team of Ramona Fradon and Joe Sinnot in collaboration with scripter Gerry Conway, and feel sorry for the characters and wish them better fortune, rather than thinking how they're expressing my own particular lack of the season's greetings and goodwill. (FF 133, 1973) At least at this moment in my life, for fate is something that I refuse to believe in and which I'm reluctant to tempt, I'm far more likely to be associating with the celebrating citizenry than the poor disconsolate superheroes.

Yet it might be said that the Marvel Comics of the early to mid Seventies were often peculiarly mournful. Over the years since Stan, Steve and Jack had reinvented the superhero genre in the early Sixties, comic books had evolved to a state where it often seemed as if the only break in the constant misery of a crimefighter's existence was the regular appearance of absolute despair to break up all that ongoing unhappiness. At the time, being a rather gloomy young man, I took the presence of so much woe in my beloved comics to reflect what I thought was the undeniable unhappiness of a world characterised by homework, incompetent struggles to talk to girls, and a family kind enough to buy me a record player and yet unfair enough to object to my playing it at excessive volume in the small hours of the morning.

"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" asks the narrator of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity", and it's a question that might be asked of those wonderful and yet often utterly forlorn superhero books of the long-lost Seventies. Was it possible that these stories of super-powered characters in skin-tight costumes fighting criminals local and inter-galactic weren't actually realistic, that they weren't always entirely literal, accurate and productive guides as to how to live a worthwhile life?


In so many ways, there's just no time for this New Year's lark any more, beyond a brief pause to trigger the vague sense of belonging that accompanies a group of friends and neighbours joining hands and trying to remember those words to "Auld Lang Syne" which aren't "Auld Lang Syne". For there really does come a time when every day's a new year's day, because every day seems rather more perilously closer to being the last one of all. Eventually, there's just not the time to worry about change and opportunity over the coming 365 days, because the demands of the next 24 hours are immediate and precious enough. This is not a bad thing, and it's certainly not a matter for self-pity. Quite the opposite, in fact. Days matter so much now that they're too rare and valuable to wish away thinking about which worthy resolution to carry into January 1st, and perhaps even for an hour or two beyond that. Change is, as the Byrds once sang, now. Write that book, finish that novel, try to write one decent sentence on the blog, help the Splendid Wife with her birthday party arrangements, loose weight, study more of the work of Dudley D Watkins, save money, deep breath, go!

There's no trusting to the future of course, the knowledge of which is, again, no bad thing. Today's all there is, so make the very best of it, is a truism which was undoubtedly delivered time and time again in Seventies Marvel comics, but I never noticed it for the tragically lovelorn heroes struggling to get a break from a cruel and ungrateful world. And Carpe Diem is as obvious a point as it is of profound importance, of course, but it so easily escapes the impressionable and regrettably stupid young mind trying to focus on the really important matters of who would make a more splendid girlfriend - Jean Grey or Gwen Stacey? - or who's stronger, Thor or the Hulk?

Yet one careful look at Kyle Richmond's trusting and indeed rather guileless face as it shone out from the splash page from 1975's Giant Size Defenders # 4 might have encouraged me to consider just a trace element of the matter of fate's transitory and often cruel progression. Now I study Nighthawk's brief moment of celebrity happiness and I want to grab him by the shoulder and ask him why he expects any such bountiful good fortune to last, especially in the Marvel Universe? For as one of Marvel's most irredeemable losers celebrates his own fine luck, terrible things are lurking just one more page and seven panels away, though, as is too often the way with these things, it'll be Kyle Richmond's lovely and endearingly-caring partner Trish Starr who'll be maimed by the experience and Nighthawk who'll be left to try to nobly learn from her suffering.

Still, perhaps there's evidence in "Too Cold A Night For Dying" that a new year can bring with it quite unexpected riches in the form of the exquisite art by Don Heck and Vince Colletta, surely the two least-well thought-of artists at Marvel Comics during that period. And yet, despite expectations, their work here is often exceptionally fine, complimenting as it does an untypically melodramatic and yet characteristically individual tale by Steve Gerber. From the sterling clarity of their splash page's composition, to the shiversome evocation of a freezing winter's night in New York City, to the daft, I can't-believe-I'm-so-lucky smile on Kyle's face, to the detail of the reporter's macs and sideburns, it's a piece of art that I'd be more than proud to own. Staring at that splash page was one of the first moments that I can recall realising that I knew nothing about comic book art, and that my prejudices were exactly that: I'd expected a train-wreck when I'd bought the book and seen who'd produced the artwork, but how wrong was I? I still barely do know anything about art, of course, but I've managed to retain the knowledge that a team of Don Keck and Vince Colletta could catch the spirit of romance and tragedy and the chill of mid-winter like few others before or since in the superhero genre.


I'm not wanting to sound at all like the patron Scrooge of New Years. I'm not meaning to intimate that good things never happen, that all hopes will be dashed, and that grand emotions and longterm ambitions are a waste of time. Of course not. There's more to life than stoicism, admirable discipline that it is, and pessimism is a corrosive business at the best of times. And it's with something of a pleasurable palpitation of an adolescent heartbeat that I note how the panels posted above and below from The Amazing Spider-Man #143, by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, can still make me feel as if anything were possible, as if tomorrow might see world peace achieved and lottery tickets redeemable for very large amounts of life-transforming cash indeed.

Ah, was there any adolescent British boy who read Marvel Comics in the Seventies and didn't ache to be in some way Peter Parker, with his down-at-heel pad in NYC, with his life which always, for all of its tragedy, seemed downright exciting and profoundly romantic? And I've never read a superhero book which dealt with the unexpected blossoming of love in as restrained and touching a fashion as here, where Mr Conway and Mr Andru utterly convinced me that if I could just get to JFK airport in a snowstorm, a beautiful woman might discover that she loved me. It's a book that I'm determined to return to and discuss in a little greater detail at some time in the future, for I'm convinced that the Conway/Andru team produced the very finest run on Spider-Man after that of the Lee/Ditko years. But for the moment, and in the spirit of the day, I will say that the awkwardness of Peter and Mary-Jane here as their relationship tips from friendship into something far more challenging is captured with a skill that's so restrained and to an effect that's so touching that it never fails to make me feel as if in some way a part of my own life is being described on the page. After all, we've all been caught in that breathless moment when things are said in a unplanned and irrevocable fashion, when impossible success suddenly appears and it seems as if it were obvious to anyone but a fool that this was where a fortunate life was always headed.

And there's that New York snow again, and JFK International Airport in the evening light, and the sense of unexpected romance rooted in the most recognisably mundane of circumstances. It's still all so moving for me that I think I'll choose to believe, for awhile, that Peter and Mary-Jane's romance still hangs in the balance as it's shown here, with Mr Parker staring down on a world of possibilities while MJ wanders through an empty airport dwarfed not just by the concrete architecture and the night-time, but by her awareness of what might be happening to her and May Parker's son.

May all our New Year Eves find us similarly pulling away from whatever was the worst of the past, and facing the prospect of the very good things which might yet happen to us, though, of course, unlike Peter Parker in ASM # 143, may we all avoid the immediate comeuppance of a French supervillain dropping a house on our head.

For just awhile, anyway.

A splendid New Year's Eve is wished to one and all, and my fondest wish is for anybody who stumbles upon these words to have the privilege of "sticking together!" tonight.


Thursday, 30 December 2010

Making Sense of Brian Michael Bendis's "Avengers" (Part 5, & yet Part 1 too!):-"I Have No Idea What Is Going On Here Or What You People Want From Me."

continued from yesterday;


It's easy to stereotype Brian Michael Bendis's work on the "Avengers", or, at least it is until the slightest effort is made to engage with the almost seven years of scripts that he's provided for the franchise. For even a passing familiarity with that mass of work provides evidence of not so much a single Brian Michael Bendis as a whole series of them, each connected by a clear family resemblance, but each to a greater or lesser degree quite distinct from the other. One Mr Bendis is something of a traditionalist, producing time-travelling epics with John Romita Jr which quite deliberately riff off of obscure Seventies Marvel titles, while another Mr Bendis seems closer to an angst-obsessed Chris Claremont preoccupied by alternate-realities and doomed relationships. On the one hand, there's the Brian Michael Bendis who can in part be associated with decompressed storytelling, and on the other, there's a writer whose work often flatly contradicts such a judgement, producing pages and pages of text-heavy storytelling as well as notably intense superhero punch-ups.

But there is one approach to storytelling that's remarkably rare in Mr Bendis's scripts for the various Avengers titles, and that's the paternalistic one used by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the earliest days of the property. That's not to say that Mr Bendis is ever contemptuous of such a traditional approach. But it does seem that his work on "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" starts from the premise that his readers have at the very least read a fair good number of the more than 40 years of Avengers stories approached in the paternalistic manner, and that given such familiarity with the form, his playing with the formula will inevitably pay greater dividends than his merely replicating it. It surely can't be, as some folks would have it, that Mr Bendis simply doesn't want to write

more traditionally Lee/Kirby-esque stories. For all that he's obviously fascinated by narrative traditions from far beyond those of comic-books, and for all that he enjoys hybridising them with those of the superhero tale, Mr Bendis must surely be credited with recognising that forty and more years of conventional storytelling had helped paint the Avengers into something of a cosy and overly-familiar corner. In that, his determination to shake up the form as well as the content of "The Avengers" has far more in common with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's mission on the Marvel books of the early Sixties than is often recognised.

Change was necessary, and change was as stimulating for all the creators involved as it was for their audience. With three different Avengers comics currently selling almost a quarter of a million titles between them every month, it might be thought that Mr Bendis's experimentation and achievement would be granted a touch more critical attention and respect than sometimes seems to be the case.


The sheer degree of radicalism in Mr Bendis's approach can be seen in the page scanned above from "New Avengers" # 11. If any single side of his work could serve as an example of everything that the paternalistic approach isn't, then this would surely be it. It's a set of panels produced in collaboration with artist David Finch in which nothing that's obviously visually enticing occurs beyond the passing subtleties of Steve Rogers everyday body language, and in which the dialogue is as prosaic and undramatic as might be imagined. The panel angle is static, the background is banal and unchanging, and the viewer is denied even the virtue of seeing the responses on the face of whoever it is that Captain America is talking to.

It is, at first glance, a page apparently designed to not attract the reader's attention. Because of that, it's certainly easy to imagine how Stan Lee might have responded to receiving such a submission in 1963, for the audience of children and precocious adolescents who were buying the Marvel Comics of the period could have no interest in anything so seemingly dull. It's almost motionless, the language is largely disconnected from any broad emotional terms, and making sense of what's being said relies on a deep knowledge of MU continuity - Fisk, Murdock, Harada - and of non-comics genre terms such as "intel" too.

Yet it's absolutely telling that this peculiar scene is followed by three pages of wordless ninja-fighting, an incredibly kinetic, brutal and bloody sequence which, although quite unlike anything ever presented by Lee and Kirby, is still recognisable as an eye-catching and thrilling spectacle. In that, it's pure comicbook-action eyecandy. We'll chat about the fight-scene itself in the new year, but for the moment, it's worth noting that Mr Bendis has obviously not abandoned the responsibility to entertain so much as reformulated the ways in which entertainment might be generated. Unlike the paternalistic approach to storytelling, where constant action, eye-catching invention and perfect clarity are the guiding principles, Mr Bendis is presenting his readers with a far more opaque and challenging approach to grabbing and holding the audience's attention.

It's obviously not an approach which would, or ever could, appeal to the young boys who served as the audience for the first issues of The Avengers, but, of course, young boys rarely read comic books such as The Avengers anymore, and the challenges faced by today's writers and artists are in so many ways quite different from those facing Mr Lee and his staff in the early Sixties.


It seems to me that Brian Michael Bendis's approach to The Avengers begins with a judgement that the manner in which a modern-day superhero comic is told is at least as important as what the content of the story is. By that I don't mean that story is an unimportant matter for Mr Bendis, for that's obviously not so. But he does seem to proceed from a profoundly post-modern starting point, namely that his readers are massively familiar with both the narratives of the superhero tale and those of adventure stories from a host of competing genres and mediums too. To retell in The Avengers the familiar, fifty-year old superhero traditions seems to Mr Bendis, we might presume, a quite futile and indeed alienating business, for his audience as indeed for himself.

For in a very real sense, Mr Bendis isn't choosing to ignore the many components of the paternalistic approach as he is deliberately innovating within it. He's not so much ignoring tradition as he is relying on it to inform his development of it, just as be-bop often relied upon the deep structure of classic songs to inspire and ground its experimentation. Mr Bendis is reliant upon his readers being skilled and knowledgeable experts where the traditions of the superhero comic book is concerned, so that his audience can interpret where his playful redrafting of the form diverts from tradition, and where it does not. This reliance upon

the audience to collaborate in the storytelling process, rather than to sit back and function as passive consumers, can be seen in the four panel scene starring Cap and the back of Ronin's head which we touched upon above. The very fact of the page's stillness draws attention to the importance of the details of the scene, and that constant and unrevealing back of a mysterious head raises questions which foreshadow and inform events that will weave in and out of coming issues. And once the enigma of the unnamed subject of Captain America's briefing becomes more pressing, Steve Roger's relatively undramatic words will become important sources of data to solve the question of who the unnamed character is.

Or; the very stillness of the scene accentuates the need for the reader to focus on it, and sets up questions and partial-answers which will inform the pages to come.

More so, it's a sequence which will inevitably appeal to any reader who has, or who wants, a keen knowledge of Marvel's continuity. All those references to people and events in the Marvel Universe are there to snare the curiosity of an audience trained to want to draw connections between the different areas of their comic book knowledge.

And, finally, that excessive stillness and quiet also has a quite deliberate structural purpose. While Lee and Kirby were dedicated to maintaining two speeds - fast and very fast - throughout their tales, Mr Bendis knows that carefully rejigging the traditionally obvious progression of events in the superhero tale intensifies the reader's involvement in what otherwise would be a predictable narrative. Playing with the sequence of chronology in his tales as he does here, shifting time and place, from the past in NYC, on this page, to the present day in Tokyo, on the next, throws the reader and forces them to more actively make sense of what they're experiencing. And by unexpectedly juxtaposing the incredibly static with the disorientating action-packed, as occurs when the stillness of the interview suddenly shifts to a dust-up in Japan, surprise and enigma are introduced into "Ronin Part 1". It's a process that his readers can of course cope with, because they have a mental map of how a standard-issue, traditional superhero tale would normally progress, but it's a different enough experience to create a measure of unfamiliarity and even mild shock. In effect, Mr Bendis is playing games with his audience's expectations, giving them the promise of what they know they want to entice them in, while presenting enough of a deliberately fractured reading experience to make the familiar seem fresher than it otherwise might. It's a playfulness which draws in a knowledgeable audience and forces them to engage with a tale which in its own basic terms is absolutely conventional, and which could easily be told in a straight-forward and paternalistic, and yawningly quite predictable, fashion.


One of the advantages of approaching superheroes in such a post-modern way to a willing, conspiratorial audience is that the storytelling forms can be invigorated even as they're messed with. Mr Bendis, for example, injected a substantial dose of the narrative conventions associated with the thriller genre into this run on the Avengers. To do so in a bog-standard superhero narrative would be a potentially interesting experiment. To do so in a story that's already structured around long-running mysteries and unconventional story-telling is as wry a business as it is logical. An audience who're already juggling unexplained and unexpected jumps in time and setting are far more likely to engage with the appeal of double and triple-agents, secret organisations and "intel" missions overseas. This may not be the "pure" form of the superhero team-book narrative, but that's what gives it its energy and, I've no doubt, its commercial allure. In that, form and content are far better matched in "Ronin part one" than first appears to most entrenched lover of the paternalistic form, and what's at hand is in its own way every bit as deliberate and functional as Lee and Kirby's work was in its own day. Attention is grabbed, questions are posed, a measure of intensity is created, and a mass readership engaged.

In performing his post-modern business, Mr Bendis builds upon rather than rejects paternalism, and does so to offer his often-jaded audience the promise of the unfamiliar as well as, rather than instead of, the comfortably well-worn. The super-villains and their world-threatening schemes are still there, the heroes are still vulnerable alone and undefeatable if they stand together in the end. Much of the raw material is exactly, and respectfully, as it always was. Yet without abandoning responsibility for directing his audience's attention, he does abandon the belief that he's solely responsible for how the reader will perceive what's happening on the page. He is in fact a writer who often demands that his readers work harder than they might otherwise do in making sense of what they're reading, and the degree to which he manages to encourage them to do so is one measure of how successful Mr Bendis's work might be regarded as being.

It's not an approach without its own challenges and problems, and we'll discuss some of those soon. But it is a far more innovative, clever and functional design than labels such as "deconstruction" might indicate. As a starting point to writing the adventures of a team of superheroes in the 21st century, it offers endless possibilities, and helps to explain, perhaps, to a greater or lesser degree, why Mr Bendis apparently has so many different styles when his books are regarded over time. In the very best post-modern sense, his knowledge of the basic form allied to his determination to mess purposefully with it means that he can constantly reinvent the form that he's playing with, and thereby produce a significant range of variations on the traditional themes.

And reinventing the form without losing track of its traditions is only, after all, what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did, and regardless of how each might be ranked in importance against each other, change in 2004 was as absolutely necessary for the superhero genre's survival as it was in 1961. In the case of Brian Michael Bendis, the key to re-developing the genre was not simply to deliver more and more of what had gone before. In fact, it appears that Mr Bendis seems from the off to have identified the over-familiarity of the superhero genre as the major obstacle to the commercial success of "The Avengers". The very business of folks dressing in costumes and punching each other with super-strength in teams was no longer of itself particularly fresh or interesting. And if superheroes behaving superheroically in a post-Lee and Kirby fashion has become so by-the-numbers as to seem conservative and dull, then what is there left to focus on? If there's few ways to have one costume fight another without calling up a thousand or more similar battles from the past, then something else needs to be presented as the focus of the superhero comic.

For Mr Bendis, it seems obvious that what interested him most was not the behaviour of superheroes in combat so much as the behaviour of and interaction between superheroes as people. And for him, the evidence of his stories would argue that he's most fascinated with how superheroes get along with each other while facing the challenges of an insane world in a recognisably everyday fashion. He's just not as interested, as Lee and Kirby themselves were, in placing the superhero in front of a backdrop of a mundane everyday existence and showing in imaginative detail how their powers function and develop. Mr Bendis is rather fascinated by what it's like to live as a superhero amongst other superheroes, and by matters such as what having breakfast, lunch and dinner is like when your table-mates are mutants, aliens and super-people.

Where once action was the purpose of the superhero tale, and characterisation its essential seasoning, the Avengers stories of Brian Michael Bendis have tended to operate on quite the opposite principle. And where the rules of paternalistic storytelling once demanded constant excitement and clarity, Mr Bendis is far more concerned to break up the progress of the traditional narrative while encouraging his audience to collaborate with him on making sense of the events and enigmas that he's putting before them.

To be continued in the New Year, taking a look at how Mr Bendis approaches some of his action scenes, and considering some of the problems associated with a more post-modern approach to superhero comics too.

Stick together! And have a splendid day, as well as a Happy New Year! There'll be a little holiday best wishes expressed here tomorrow and then it's on into 2011! Gosh ....


Wednesday, 29 December 2010

"He Sure Looks Real! But He Couldn't be!":- Making Sense Of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's "The Avengers" No 4

continued from last Thursday, and, as always, simply and respectfully for the sake of argument;


It often seems that many of the superhero books of the modern-era are being produced by creators who are quite fiercely, if perhaps unconsciously, determined to make the adventures of their costumed adventurers as prosaic, as utterly everyday, as possible. For a genre that's as magically daft as it is thoroughly entertaining, the contemporary superhero book can seem terribly concerned with codifying what its characters can't do, with imposing well-policed limits on how fantastic its worlds can seem, with showing as tiny a fraction as possible of what fans regard as ridiculous. The likes of Matter-Eating Lad recede even further back into the background of the genre, while the fundamentally ridiculous premise of the superhero itself seems masked by seriousness, by grimness and grime, and by character studies often to the detriment of golly-gee-wow-gosh action!

It's as if there's an unspoken fear of accidentally, of carelessly, revealing the undeniable truth that the superhero is as absurd a concoction as it is an enjoyable one. More disturbing yet to anyone who actually did share such a fear, would surely be any conclusion that linked the superhero's inevitable absurdity to the genre's capacity to entertain. For where would many of today's books be if it were revealed that producing po-faced and mundane superhero tales might be neutering much of the genre's power to appeal to a wider audience?

Where would we be if superhero comics were allowed to be as silly as they are engaging, as daft as they are dashing, as off-the-wall as they are grounded in serious-minded continuity, as charming as they are relentlessly aggressive?

Today's codenamed defenders of justice so often operate in a remarkably unremarkable world that they hardly seem to be superheroes at all. They're a class of privileged and able individuals bonded together by fighting, friendship and love. Often, they can seem closer to being another branch of the emergency services, the elites of a local sports club, or even a crowd of vigilantes from the neighbourhood Masons, than they do the sons and daughters of Superman. The superhero comic is so often a soap-opera about a society of superheroes that few characters can stand out as being different, spectacular, silly and yet absolutely engaging.

When pretty much everyone's a superhero, or at the very least the friend or family member of a superhero, no-one's much of a superhero at all.


There's a sense of wonder in the earliest Lee and Kirby Avengers tales which no contemporary superhero comic can match. It's partially, and substantially, the result of the sense of exhilaration that comes with the shock of the new, and it'd be wrong to ever expect that modern-day books could duplicate that. (There's nothing quite so inspiringly rousing as watching skilled craftsman making up a new sub-genre as they go along, as Lee and Kirby were in those years.) But there are other explanations for the joyfulness present in, for example, "The Coming Of The Avengers" which might be useful when considering the current state of the nation where the superhero comic is concerned. One of those is the gleeful fashion in which super-powers were presented, and the enthusiasm by which the business of being super-heroic was portrayed. For there's no sense that superheroes are a dime-a-dozen commodity in "The Coming Of The Avengers", or that the audience should be seeing the superhero's existence as being in many ways one that's just like ours. The superhero's alter-ego lived largely in a version of ordinary reality, but the superhero stood out from that reality in a dramatic and kinetic fashion. And however more grounded in a recognisably everyday environment Marvel's heroes were when compared to the DC stalwarts of the time, they were still figures of wonder. The world that the likes of Thor and Iron Man walked through was more redolent of "our world" than that shown in the books of other companies, but the characters themselves stood out all the stronger against that slightly more grainy background.

And one of the ways in which that effect was achieved, of the remarkable and thrilling superhero in a recognisably typical world, was to constantly show the use of super-powers in inventive and exciting ways. Superpowers were anything but givens, as they so often seem to be today, where so often the superhero's powers seem no more special than any ordinary competency a character might possess. Set against the familiar and mundane backgrounds provided by artists such as Mr Kirby and Mr Ditko, the many ever-different ways in which the protagonist's strange powers were presented during the Marvel revolution seemed all the more compelling and thereby oddly more believable than many of today's more carefully presented and restrained presentations of the same hyper-abilities.

Even in the early Sixties, it wasn't that Marvel's superheroes had in themselves suddenly become more realistic creatures to anyone but a child, thought their civilian existences had. But in presenting these fantasy figures behaving in such extravagantly inventive ways against often-typical backgrounds, it became easier to be carried away by the fantastic, and to ignore its absolute impossibility of what was being shown. In part, those first Marvel superheroes could be believed in not because they were apparently real, but because they were so delightfully unreal in their uniquely energetic ways that the reader willingly became a collaborator with Marvel's creators and wished realism upon the characters.

But rationalise and ground the business of having super-powers and, all-too-often, the ridiculous nature of the superhero becomes counter-intuitively all the more obvious. The wonder is bit-by-bit removed, but what's left will always be a silly old and fantastic superhero. The whole process of disenchantment brings to mind a serious child dressed for a party in their parent's clothes hoping not to be noticed for being different, so that they might fit in better with the serious adults who in truth lack even the spark to want to play along with such obvious and childish deception.


Much of the explanation for why Lee and Kirby's energetic and extravagant storytelling should have been so effective may be found, as we've discussed before, in the paternalistic approach to storytelling, and in the two equal and demanding responsibilities it placed on creators. The first of these was the absolute obligation of clarity, and the second was that of constant entertainment. Place these responsibilities into the context of the nine-panel page and there's a great deal of story that needs to be made both transparent and thrilling. Things must be seen to be happening, and those happenings must be exciting and easy to follow! And in first issue of The Avengers, the very fact of the superhero is constantly being used to enthrall and distract the reader as all the space on those 22 pages gets productively filled up. Yet to the horror if not the contempt of the excessively continuity-minded, the first few years of Marvel's books can often read as if no-one was paying the attention to the detail of the developing shared universe. Those pages needed filling with spectacle and action, and superheroes were a perfect tool for doing so, but now their adventuring can seem distinctly childish, as if that were a very bad thing and an "adult" Hulk somehow not a very childish concept in itself. But to a modern eye, it can seem as if no-one involved in those first few years of Marvel's Sixties was monitoring the vital matter of how everything was going to fit together and feel consistently grown-up when the time for the MU Handbooks to be written arrived.

But, of course, no-one gave two hoots about the fine detail of continuity or the need for superheroes to make their readers feel mature and unashamed. The likes of "The Avengers" were bound by continuity, as we'll soon discuss, but they weren't policed by the commonsense assumptions of generations of continuity cops.

And where later generations might often read their superhero tales for the pleasures of comic book realism, for the depth and immersiveness of the decades-deep continuity before them, the appeal of "The Coming Of The Avengers" lies now as well as then in the raw material of sheer joy and absurd wonder on the page. Comic book continuity undoubtedly had its part to play in the success of The Avengers, and it can be argued that the book was at first almost as much a sales brochure for the Marvel Universe as it was a property in its own right. The type of continuity which informed The Avengers is something we'll discuss later on this week, but for the while, it's worth considering the role that constant and often senseless innovation played in the success of such early Marvel books.


To read the first Avengers tale is, for the reader on the cusp of 2011, to be seemingly faced with a choice between logic and entertainment, as if the two qualities were mutually exclusive. Because no matter how the comicbook fundamentalist tries to square the circle of absurdity in "The Coming Of The Avengers", it's a profoundly stupid story, or it would be if common-sense and realism were in any way Mr Lee and Mr Kirby's primary purpose. But, of course, they're not; entertainment and storytelling clarity are. The only point at which commonsense rears its grim and demanding head is when the creators fall short of disguising its absence. (Why is the Hulk pretending to be a giant robot and what is that conveniently-Loki-sized container of radioactive material doing hidden just where the God Of Evil chooses to stand?) But then, to what degree does the most stern brand of narrative logic matter, given that Thunder Gods and tiny winged woman are hardly commonsensical propositions in the first place? Yes, the superhero comic needs to maintain a consistent internal logic, else anything at all is possible and nothing matters as a result. And yet, to make that internal logic so demanding and so strict all too often causes the magic to disappear amidst all the rules and the seriousness.

For Lee and Kirby, of course, the absurdity of the superhero didn't matter. These were comic books, not meta-commentaries on comic-books produced for and by, shall we say, particularly demanding adults. What mattered to Jack and Stan was using the superhero to create enjoyable and commercially successful stories. And if that could be achieved in a fashion that satisfied more of their own creative urges than the previous years churning out engaging but repetitive monster tales had, then all to the good. Making sense was not, however, an absolute priority if making sense ran against the telling of a cracking story.


Yet, as time has passed, however, the inherent ridiculousness of the superhero has become perceived by many fans and creators as a problem in itself rather than a fundamental source of the genre's strength. Indeed, the loathing for absurdity often seems to be have become internalised to the point of unthinking prejudice, so that, faced with a choice between dull and less-embarrassing and fun and ridiculous, the option of "dull" will unthinkingly and inevitably win out, and even be viewed as laudable. And for such a literal-minded approach to prevail year upon year, the superhero has to constantly bleed out as much of its silliness as possible, as if there were a point at which "x" amount of absurdity might be removed to reveal a perfectly rational genre acceptable to even the most bigoted scoffers at the superhero. And so it often seems that the things that the superhero does become more and more constrained and more and more familiar. The Human Torch is so playfully demented an idea, you might imagine, that no-one would worry too much about constraining what the character can and can't do. And yet Johnny Storm's powers have become more and more straight-forward as the decades have rolled onwards. His capacity to become very very hot may keep peaking in order to keep him impressive as a second-rank heavy hitter, but the daftness of such expressions of his powers as, for example, the production of mass flame duplicates seems to appear with less and less frequency as the years pass.

But to confuse the absurd with the unbelievable is, of course, to confuse the genre with its message, though comic book readers have often been brilliant at doing just that. To think that the superhero comic could be a more enjoyable, more legitimate genre if it could only be less superheroic is as daft as imagining that Pixar movies could be more emotionally moving if only they'd replace all that animation of toys and cars and monsters with serious act-ors.

In truth, the scene showing Hank Pym's ants spreading Hulk-catching "special nylon safety netting" over "the top of the (circus) tent" in "The Coming Of The Avengers" is no more wonderfully daft than anything the Hulk does today. The Hulk - and indeed any and all of the various-hued Hulks of today - is as absurd a figure as Ant-Man's big-top climbing ants ever were. Yet we're capable of reading the scene in "The Coming Of The Avengers" where Ant Man's ants haul a net of nylon up a stories-high big top and laugh because that clearly couldn't ever happen, and those ants certainly couldn't ever slow down the Hulk.

But the Hulk is utterly, utterly impossible too, and yet we notice the silly ants and not the silly Hulk, and then we wonder why superhero books aren't more read, even as we seem to be making them more "believable". The magic is diminished, but "realism" can't ever be achieved, because the Hulk is great, big, wonderful, stupid idea and Ant-Man's great climbing ants are wonderfully daft too. How the one ever became perceived to be the virtuous polar opposite of the other is surely the tale of how the superhero comic reached for mass acceptability and achieved a ever-diminishing hardcore of readers.

And by constraining what today's superheroes can do, a great deal of the fun and the invention of the form are inevitably factored out, just as they would be had "Toy Story" been produced with human performers.


But the paternalistic approach demanded the ingenious and the innovatory, and the creativity of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby so obviously rejoiced in being able to tap into the potential that their new superheroes carried for the utterly spectacular. Logic may be to a significant degree quite irrelevant to The Avengers, but entertainment is all. Why, for example, is Thor punting across the Sea Of Mists two-thirds into "The Coming Of The Avengers"? Couldn't Lee and Kirby have simply replaced the 8 panels showing the Thunder God's travels and travails on a boat with a few larger panels filled with a flying Thor spouting God-speak about coming threats and great responsibilities? That is, after all, what many books today would present their readers. But such could never be as entertaining and enthralling as showing the attack of Tangle Root and Thor demolishing it by using his hammer as a "propeller", followed by the appearance of an exploding island and its deadly "volcanic gas globules! In just five pages in "The Coming Of The Avengers", Thor's hammer is used not just as a weed-smashing propeller, but as a creator of water-spouts, a destroyer of ice-shields, a summoner of "blazing lightning", and a tool for "soaking up the strong glow of magnetic currents that give life to the Trolls below"!

Later creators and fans, if any such distinction has been possible for decades now, have at time despaired with the fecundity of this endless invention. It's as if the idea of a god flying through the air by whirling his hammer around himself, throwing it away and then - yes! - catching it just as it flies away to hoist himself in the air is perfectly believable, but much of the rest of the hammer's armament self-evidently isn't. This relentless reductionism, this paring down of imaginative possibilities to their irreducible core in the search for constancy and continuity and serious-mindedness, leaves us with two key problems. The first is that creators often cease to consider entertainment as their priority. They become custodians rather than entertainers, reproducing whatever today's canon argues is the acceptable minimum, and so the decades-long cycle of ever-diminishing inventiveness continues. The second is that the possibilities offered by the very presence of superpowers become something of an embarrassment, to be ignored as much as possible unless they can be justified in terms of a spurious realism.

And so the same limited repertoire of superheroic tricks gets repeated over and over again, and in very familiar circumstances too. It's a hardening of the imaginative arteries which places more and more responsibility upon character development to provide the illusion of change and development. Superhero books become less and less about the business of being a superhero in action and more and more of a soap about how superheroes relate to each other, until it often seems as if character and superheroic absurdity are mutually incompatible qualities.


And yet the superheroes in "The Coming Of The Avengers" seem in many ways far more substantial figures than they ever have since. By that I don't mean that they're more psychologically convincing, or scientifically valid, or realistic. Instead, I mean that they occupy the space they're granted in the narrative with more verve and conviction, and they seem far less emasculated and far more wonderful. Staring at the Hulk all made-up in his sad-clown face wearing his stripey pants while juggling a horse and an otter and an elephant, all while masquerading as a stray mechanical robot, is a story in itself, a set of pleasures and questions that adds significantly to the business of reading the comic. That it makes no sense, that it's patently impossible, matters little. The Hulk is patently impossible and makes no sense anyway.

But so many of today's comics have little such wonder, and one page of "illustrated screenplay" slips almost imperceptibly into another as if the point of superhero comics were not to entertain and explain, but to hide the silliness of what's happening, to obscure the very existence of those silly and wonderful superheroes in plain, no-long four-colour sight.

In avoiding silliness, we obscure so much of the possibilities for wonder and innovation, and that's dafter than Ant-Man's insect friends ever were.

The very best of today's writers, of course, are not so worthily-minded that they avoid too excessively the matter of being silly. For Morrison, Simone, Slott, Millar, Cornell, Parker and Remender, amongst a number of admirable others, all seem to know, to a greater or lesser degree, that the logical and the absurd can't be removed one from the other without destroying something vital in their work.


It's not that I'm suggesting that the superhero comic returns to producing the kind of breathless stream of often-illogical and almost-always constant action that this period of Lee/Kirby tales produced. But I am arguing that the gradual abandonment of the responsibilities of paternalistic storytelling has often brought with it a straight-jacket of pseudo-rationalism compounded by an abandonment of the absolute responsibility to entertain. And somehow we've arrived at a situation where, for all that things have improved in recent years, the serious just isn't being mixed with the inventively silly nearly enough.

It's an exceptionally old argument that I'm making here, of course, stretching back through Alan Moore's critique of the genre to C.C. Beck's marvellously single-minded assaults on the superhero books of the Silver and Bronze Age. And yet, valid arguments don't become less worth the stating just because they're constantly being ignored. Quite the contrary, I'd imagine.

Hank Pym never felt so much like a substantial and worthwhile superhero as when his inconceivably gifted ants, his "little allies", helped trick Loki into a "lead-lined tank" from which the God of Evil couldn't escape. Decades upon decades of comic-book realism have quite shattered the character's credibility, albeit with recent protracted repair-work beginning to reverse the damage, but here, at the character's most stupid, he's at his most utterly convincing. There's a contradiction there that needs paying attention to.

Yet many of the very best writers of superheroes know that it's not being dumb with their scripts that's the problem, but being dumb without a substantial and controlling measure of craft and intelligence. Too often today, we have no shameless silliness and yet little obvious intelligence either, although we may have a great deal of seriousness, of grit and angst on display instead.

But to remove the gloriously dumb and the restlessly inventive from the superhero is, of course, to remove something fundamental and vital from the essence of the superhero itself.

Next time, a look at what we might call the more "post-modern" storytelling on the Avengers of more recent years, focusing on Brian Michael Bendis and several of his many collaborators. We'll be taking a look at how the decline of the paternalistic tradition has fundamentally changed the nature of the superhero book, for considerable good as well as to worrying ill-effect. I hope I might see you then, buy even if not, of course, I wish you a splendid day and a soul-strengthening "Stick Together"!


Saturday, 25 December 2010

Supergirl, The Patron Super-Heroine Of Bravery & Compassion: Kara Zor-El's Day

I'm not a man of religion, but I do have my own personal rituals that I tend to follow at Christmas beyond the cards and the presents and the meals with both close friends and strangers. "Bad Santa" needs to be watched, for example, and the "Bad Santa" drinking game may be attempted and then abandoned as a young fool's folly completely inappropriate for the more mature reveller. "It's A Wonderful Life" would then need to be enjoyed as something of an antidote, and something of a complimentary piece too.

Where comics are concerned, the various Christmas Spirit tales are always worth indulging in, as is of course so obvious a matter that it hardly bares thinking about. But the one superhero story that I always make sure I read over the holiday season is Alan Brennert, Dick Giordano and Mark Waid's "Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot". It's a tale that appeared just once, in 1989, and to my knowledge, it's never been reprinted, which is a genuine shame, for it's a fine and moving story that was very well-told indeed.

If you've never read the story, a quick net search will turn up its pages. And it's a tale that's well worth reading for itself, regardless of controversy or continuity implants. It's nominally a Deadman story, in which the ghost of Boston Brand despairs that all his attempts to help others go unacknowledged. Christmas, we're shown, is a very bad time to be a lonesome, homeless ghost. As his sadness and isolation overwhelms him, he's approached by what seems to be a young woman who can not only see him in his spirit form, but who clearly knows him, though he can't remember her. It swiftly becomes obvious to the reader, though not to Brand, that this is Kara Zor-El, the slain Supergirl, who like Deadman is walking the Earth to help others wherever she can. Unlike Boston Brand, however, Kara never once existed in this universe. Reality has been re-written so that even her vital and fatal contribution to the defeat of the Anti-Monitor has been expunged from everyone's memory, bar that, we must assume, of the insane Psycho Pirate, as Grant Morrison would later emphasise. Supergirl is a no-person, a shade of a hero from a destroyed existence. In that, "Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot" is a story which deals so exquisitely with the matter of souls caught up in the recasting of comic-book realities that it bears comparison with the far better known "The Nearness Of You", the deeply moving "Astro City" take on the subject by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson, from where the scan below comes;

It's not that Kara shares the details, let alone the facts, of her identity and her lonely situation in so many words to Boston. It's left to the reader to put her words into context, which helps explain something of how powerful this story is. Because those of us who grew up with the original Supergirl are compelled by this story to recognise what a splendid character she was, and what a daft decision it was to remove her from continuity. In comic-book terms, it was, and remains, a tragedy.

The Kara of Mr Brennert's tale is something of a stern figure bearing up to her absolute isolation with immeasurable bravery and determination. She obviously comes from a far more traditional, even patrician, culture than was often recognised in her latter-day appearances, and yet such a reading is perfectly in keeping with her Silver-Age adventures. And by showing what a strong and self-sacrificing woman Kara Zor-El had remained even after her death, even while utterly alone in all of the DCU, her first appearances were cast for me in a somewhat different light. For

it's very easy to see the Supergirl who first appeared in Superman's life as something of a shrinking violet, a quiet, almost mousy girl, happy to hide in the shadows and to serve as her cousin's invisible, unacknowledged, emergency replacement. But what once appeared to be a portrayal of a subservient girl framed very much in the light of traditional gender roles now seems, as Mr Brennert's story casts its own version of her character backwards into Supergirl's past, to be something very different indeed. For this Supergirl was never weak, but she was modest, and she was never content to play a second-class role so much as to fulfil her part in life as her Kryptonian culture trained her to do. There's a dignity in her restraint and a tremendous moral strength in her sense of mission, and these positive ethical qualities are even present in the slight edge of exasperation she displays as she lectures Deadman on his duties to others;

"We don't do it for the glory. We don't do it for the recognition. We do it because it needs to be done. Because if we don't, no-one else will. And we do it even if no-one knows what we've done. Even if no-one knows we exist. Even if no one remembers we ever existed."

The Silver-Age take on Krypton was a clearly patriarchal society, but Kara came from the planet's elite, and I've always imagined that the women of her class had the relative independence and power often shown by Roman women during, for example, the last days of the Republic and the early days of Empire. Kara has the steel and determination of the natural-born minor aristocrat, but none of the snobbery or self-interest. That she should have come from such a tragically sad and alien environment, have suffered to such extremes, and yet remained so very admirable within the terms of her adopted world's common culture too, merely adds to my regard for her. She is obviously made of a far harder stuff than even a Kryptonian's skin under the rays of a red sun.

So, I can say without reservation that my favorite superheroine of all time, and perhaps my favourite superhero of all in the company of the Lee/Ditko Spiderman and Will Eisner's Spirit, is Kara Zor-El, and Christmas is undoubtedly her season. In a world where so many folks are seemingly far more obsessed with receiving than giving, the Supergirl of Mr Brennert and Mr Giordano and Mr Waid does nothing but give to a world which cannot even remember that she ever existed, let alone that she died to save them all.

My heroine.

Have a splendid day, and "Stick together!"


Friday, 24 December 2010

Season's Greetings From TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics

I did want to wish anyone who might drop in to this blog by chance or design an enjoyable holiday. Yet I was completely unsure what kind of "card" I might post here.

Then I noticed the board which I have on the wall in front of me as I write. I've covered it with images which, for one reason or another, inspire me, pictures which, when writer's block or weariness threaten, might encourage me to get some work done! But if holiday cards should contain an image or two which carry some measure of inspiration, then the photograph of my board by the Splendid Wife will, I hope, pass as my season's greetings to you.

Whatever you're celebrating, and whether you're even celebrating at all, is of course no business of mine. But I do wish you the most splendid of times, and I hope that, at a time of the year which can be as trying as it may be enjoyable, you have the good fortune to, as we've discussed before, "Stick together!"


Thursday, 23 December 2010

"Captain! Do YOU See What I See?":- Making Sense Of Jack Kirby & Stan Lee's "The Mighty Avengers" (Part 3)

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!"