A Lesson from Kirby's Fantastic Four

By | Friday, May 22, 2020 Leave a Comment
Last night, I sat down in front of my computer with some warmed up leftovers for dinner. I pulled up YouTube and figured I'd zone out on something while I ate. There was nothing I hadn't already seen in my subscriptions, so I went back to the home page to see what recommendations came up and there was an episode of Are You Being Served? If you're not familiar with it, it was a British sitcom that ran between 1972 and 1985 and centered around the clothing section of a department store. I did something unusual for me and watched it.

I'd actually seen the episode before. In fact, I've seen every episode before. My ex-wife loved the security of sitting down every evening to watch the local PBS station's airing of Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances, and Fawlty Towers. Every night. For years. She liked the safety of knowing exactly what would happen for that hour and a half every night. I saw every episode so often that I could tell you the entire story from the opening shot of any given episode. No exaggeration; just by seeing where all the actors were standing and what the initial camera angle was, I knew which episode it was. Our divorce was a little over ten years ago now, and until last night, I hadn't watched a single second of it again.

It's not that I felt like watching it was "our thing" and I didn't want to dredge up old memories or anything like that, though. I didn't watch it because I'd seen them all. Repeatedly. That was an hour and a half of my time every night for years that was virtually wasted. I wasn't getting anything new out of seeing them again. However funny the jokes may have seemed when I first saw them, they had long ago lost all their humor from the incessant repetition. I'm not a big fan of television in the first place and if I'm going to watch something, I'd rather it be something new. Even if it winds up being something that's bad or that I dislike, I can at least speak to it from personal experience if it ever comes up.

So watching an episode of Are You Being Served? last night was unusual in that I deliberately went back to something I've seen countless times before. I did have two goals in mind with this re-watch, though. First, I wanted to see if there were any residual pangs of emotion leftover from the divorce. There weren't, probably in part because of my second goal: to see if I still remembered the episodes as clearly as I did a decade ago. I was pleased to discover that I recalled only some very broad plot directions, and only then after a solid 10-15 minutes into the episode. I found I was focused enough on trying to see what I could remember that there were literally no thoughts hearkening back to my previous marriage.

What does this all have to do with comics?

Fantastic Four #49
This actually stems from a lesson I learned from Jack Kirby. Specifically a lesson I learned from his work on Fantastic Four, although it can be seen exhibited throughout his career. The lesson is, in essence: keep going forward and try to do something new. One thing that's almost universally acknowledged about Jack is that he was a fount of creativity; new ideas seemed to keep pouring out of him all the time. That certainly led to any number of exciting and amazing comics, but think for a moment about what creativity, at its root, is. Creativity is coming up with something new. Putting together ideas that no one else has. And that no one includes yourself. If you come up with an incredible idea, but then keep regurgitating it over and over, you're not lauded for your creativity. You're branded as a hack or a sell-out or something. You're not doing something new, you're not moving forward. You're just rehashing the same idea, and going in circles.

If you read Jack's Fantastic Four, one of the things you come away with is that he kept throwing out new idea after new idea after new idea. Readers of the time never knew what was going to come next. They were still trying to wrap their heads around an entire race of superheroes with a king whose voice was so powerful that it could literally shatter mountains, and then Jack throws a giant alien that eats planets at them!

Jack basically did that for his entire life. When he left a comic, he was basically done with it. He went on to do something else and didn't look back. He said everything he wanted to say with Fantastic Four and Thor, and then threw out his Fourth World saga. Those books got cancelled so he threw out OMAC, The Demon, and Kamandi. Even on the odd occasion when he was paid to revisit a character (notably Captain America, Sandman, and Manhunter) his second attempt was so radically different as to sometimes literally be an entirely different character! Jack was always trying to experiment and move forward.

Granted, not every one of his experiments was a success! But he kept pushing for something new so often that he landed on winners more often than just about any other comic creator before or since.

By contrast, the people who did that one thing really cool and kept trying to replicate it for the rest of their lives? Those people stalled. You don't hear much about them because they never went anywhere. They kept repeating the same thing over and over, basically wasting their time.

Much like they'd been watching reruns of the same sitcom over and over and over again.

There's a lot I try to take from Jack Kirby's example, and one of the things is to keep trying to push forward. Trying to avoid repeating yourself. You might find some measure of safety in that, but you're also not going to find yourself going anywhere.
Newer Post Older Post Home