Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On History: Check Your Assumptions

As you probably know, I'm a big Jack Kirby fan. But the man was just so darned prolific for six decades that I am nowhere near done reading everything he worked on. The latest books I've read are the two Super Powers mini-series he worked on in the mid-1980s. (For anyone my age or older: yes, I'm sorry, but the '80s qualify as history now. That was thirty years ago.)

One of the interesting things about the Super Powers books -- particularly the second series which is all his art -- is that Jack is working with a huge cast of characters that were fundamentally not his. He was working with Superman, who readers had seen him work on in brief stints before, but also Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, Hawkman, Flash, Red Tornado, Firestorm, Green Arrow, Joker, Penguin, Lex Luthor and Brainiac. And while Jack imbues the story with his typical storytelling oomph, the characters themselves don't feel quite comfortable. I think because they're fundamentally not his style of character design.

If you look at a Jack Kirby designed character, they tend to have a certain style about their design. Even if they don't have the weird squiggly line elements or some of the other hallmark-Kirbyisms, they still fit within his ouvre. But Superman and Batman? Not so much. Jack would never have designed characters that look like that; they're just not his style.

(As I think on it, though, the original Batman design with the purple gloves and the really low ears from Detective Comics #27 might fit within the Kirby aesthetic. Hmmm...)

But because all these characters aren't designed in a way that matches Jack's own design sensibility, they feel a little stiff. A little off. They're just not a good fit for Jack, just as Spider-Man never seemed like a good fit.

That said, some characters worked better than others. I was struck, actually, by how well Jack's Martian Manhunter looked. Of the entire Justice League, his costume design is probably the closest to something Jack might have come up with, and I really think that shows in his artwork. Manhunter just feels better in the story.

Which is further enforced by the fact that Manhunter plays a more significant role in the series than many of the other heroes. The whole story starts off from Manhunter's perspective, and even though the Leaguers split up to tackle different simultaneous threats, Manhunter is able to jump back and forth between them... apparently faster than either Flash or Superman.

In reading this, my thought process went something as follows: "Huh, it says Jack only drew these and didn't write them like the first series. But Manhunter plays a pretty big role here, and he's clearly the character that Jack is most comfortable with. I bet these were done in the old Marvel method, where Jack started with a loose outline and 'wrote' the story while drawing it, allowing Paul Kupperberg to just step in and script the final dialogue."

Makes sense, right? That's how Jack worked through much of his career, and he had just written the previous Super Powers mini. So I jumped to the interwebs to see if I can find somebody who's already confirmed my suspicions. And one of the first links I stumble across is from Kupperberg's own site!

"Well, great! I can get an answer directly from the source!"

But as I'm scanning through this post, I come across this passage...
Jack stated that he had been the writer of everything he ever drew. Stan was the dialogue man, but the stories came from Jack. Everything... including, apparently, my fully-scripted Super Powers miniseries, which he followed to the letter.
(Kupperberg's emphasis.)

Kupperberg goes on to wonder how someone could take such a broad, sweeping statement as fact. Particularly when he had clear evidence to the contrary. He had a full script for Super Powers that Jack drew. For at least that one series, Jack's input was strictly in conveying the visuals that Kupperberg had written out.

It's a minor piece to Kupperberg's overall point in that post, but he's quite clear how he and Jack worked on that story together. Kupperberg wrote the script; Jack drew what was in the script. But that means my guess that Jack chose to focus on Martian Manhunter because he was more comfortable drawing that particular character design? Complete bunk. The focus on Manhunter was Kupperberg's decision.

It's noteworthy here not because it lends to any great resolution to the Lee/Kirby debate or whatever. It's noteworthy because a logical-sounding series of deductions made in the absence of direct and complete evidence was proven as invalid. For as much as Jack spent his later professional years working on creator-owned comics and doing all the writing and drawing himself, there's at least one outlier incident where he sat down and just banged out a series that someone else wrote. "You want Martian Manhunter on page one? You got Martian Manhunter on page one!"

The moral of the story is: when you're digging through comics history and trying to fit all the puzzle pieces together, they don't always fit in the way that would make the most sense!

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