(Thanks to Andrew Rilstone for reminding me of the Jack Kirby quote that’s titled this).
February 6 is the anniversary of the deaths of two of my favourite creative artists. The first, Jack Kirby, lived a relatively long life, but not long enough — he revolutionised an art-form several times over, and created or co-created more great comic characters than any five other people. Darkseid, Captain America, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Etrigan the Demon, The Fantastic Four, The Challengers Of The Unknown, The New Gods, The X-Men, Mister Miracle, OMAC, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Silver Surfer, The Eternals, Thor… to create even *one* of these would have been enough to make Kirby one of the greats. To come up with all of them is truly spectacular.
And that’s not even counting the fact that he, along with Joe Simon, made sure there was a comics industry at all in the 1950s by inventing the romance comics genre, without which the industry would have collapsed.
But all that pales next to two things — firstly, that all his work, throughout his life, from Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw through to the fight to stop Darkseid from having the anti-life equation, is about the fight between freedom and fascism, and he always comes down on the side of liberty. I’ve written more about that here, and here, and here, and in great chunks of a couple of my books.
The second, and possibly most important, is that he was just *such a bloody good artist*. Just look at this:
And four years to the day after Kirby died, so did Carl Wilson.
Carl Wilson wasn’t the creative giant that Kirby was — he wrote a handful of very good songs, and was a far better record producer than people give him credit for, but he didn’t have that fizzing energy, the outpouring of ideas, that Kirby did.
What he was, though, was one of the great interpreters of popular song of all time, with an almost Sinatra-esque ability to sell a song, along with a voice that I would kill for.
He was only 17 when he played the lead guitar on Fun Fun Fun, only 19 when he sang lead on God Only Knows and Good Vibrations. His vocals on Surf’s Up, or the entire Wild Honey album, or All This Is That, are as good as any vocal ever recorded. He was also by all accounts the most stable person in the Beach Boys, the mediating presence that managed to hold the band together for thirty-six years. They split up very shortly after his death at the ridiculously young age of fifty-one.
At times during the last fifteen or so of those years he could get lazy, as he was asked to sing material that was utterly beneath his vast talent, and he couldn’t quite hide his contempt for some of it. But when he had something worth singing, he was as good as ever.
Below is an MP3 from what I think is the last recording of him — a partial audience recording of a concert from August 2, 1997. Three weeks after this show, he had to give up touring, and six months later he was dead. At the time of this show he was so ill from the lung and brain cancer that killed him that he had to remain seated throughout the show, and take oxygen between songs. But when he sang this song, he always managed to stand up, to give the song the respect it deserved. Just listen to this…
Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.
In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.
How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?
Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012
Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC
Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.
It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.
(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)
What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.
Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal
But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.
Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.
But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Diversion – Dave Gibbons
Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.
This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.
Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.
But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.
Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.
What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…
“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)
Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.
But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”
And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.
Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.
DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.
And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.
So it can be done.
So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?
There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.
Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.
Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.
Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.
But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?
The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.
So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.
(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)
Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.
But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.
Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.
The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.
Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.
These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.
Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.
But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”
And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.
Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.
If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.
But as for this?
My friend Plok has posted asking all comics bloggers (of which I am technically still one) to post asking their readership not to go and see The Avengers on its opening weekend, in protest at Marvel’s treatment of Jack Kirby and his heirs.
I admit that this is not the world’s biggest and most important problem – in a world where ATOS are finding terminally ill people fit for work, where a war with Iran may be started just to help a presidential re-election campaign, and where John Stamos will be joining the Beach Boys for their reunion performance at the Grammys, a little matter like the treatment of someone who’s been dead for nearly twenty years and was, by the end of his life, paid a fairly good wage for his work (if nothing compared to what his work earned for others) is nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Likewise, a boycott of only the opening weekend isn’t all that scary, and I doubt I will persuade a single person to do it anyway (I wasn’t going to go and see it at opening weekend anyway, and quite possibly wasn’t going to see it at all).
But Marvel are, to this day, still screwing artists. Disney, their parent corporation, is built on an even more grotesque act of corporate appropriation of a creator’s work (Ub Iwerks, the creator of Mickey Mouse, got an even worse deal than Kirby did). And Jack Kirby *was* the primary creative force behind the Avengers.
It is impossible to live a truly moral life in this world. The computer I am typing this on was probably made by slave labour (though I try to ameliorate even things like that – I have never bought a new computer in my life, only taken ones that were otherwise destined to be thrown away). Every comic I buy from Marvel, or DC, or Rebellion, or lots of other companies, is built on corporate exploitation of artists and writers whose work I love. Merely by interacting with the society we have now, we all become so morally compromised that one has to hope there is no afterlife, or we would all be truly damned.
In a situation like that, a token gesture is sometimes all you can do – not because it will make the slightest bit of difference to the result, but because protesting against injustice is the right thing to do. And if nothing else, this one will make Plok feel a bit better.
So here’s my token gesture – asking you to make your token gesture too.
“You heard it direct from the mouth of science itself, nothing but nothing can escape the deadly gravitational pull of a black hole!”
Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle 1, by Grant Morrison and Pasqual Ferry
In 2008, DC Comics published a crossover series by Grant Morrison and others, Final Crisis, a gigantic tale featuring all their superheroes. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.
The story Morrison was *really* telling was going on in the various Batman titles, which intersected only briefly with Final Crisis. It was the story of a man poised between darkness and light, who had had to face death, and a black hole, in order to do what he had to do, and how as a result of this his psyche was shattered, he lost his identity, and was pushed through time to regain both his identity and the universe. Final Crisis, as good as it was, was a sideshow. The death and rebirth of Bruce Wayne was what mattered, as we later discovered.
“As above, so below”
In the mid-1990s, DC Comics published a series by Grant Morrison and others, JLA, a gigantic tale featuring all their most popular superheroes. But the story was bigger than it looked. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.
The story Morrison was *really* telling was going on in The Invisibles, which paralleled JLA (which some have described as using as a Cliff’s Notes version of The Invisibles). Even within The Invisibles though, Morrison was telling two stories. The first was the surface story, the one most people seem to have read for much of the run – an exciting adventure with goodies and baddies – though by “You’re running around shooting people like they’re Nothing. You’re Fucked up, Gideon. You’re not cool, you’re not a hero, you’re just a Murderer” most people had got that King Mob was not necessarily the hero of the story. But then there was the other story, about corruption and redemption. In The Invisibles #12, we’re taken through the life of a henchman shot by King Mob – his whole life, shown out of sequence, the good and the bad, and we’re made to feel sorry for, and care for, this character who could have just seemed like a NPC. And we’re made to feel sorry for him even though he is, by any standards, a truly bad man, just because we get to know him so well in 24 pages that the emphasis is on man, rather than on bad.
We meet his wife, who he abused, in one later issue, five years later. She saves King Mob’s life, because she can’t stand to see someone shot after what happened to her husband. There’s the story you’re being told, and then there’s the important story.
“fractal essentially means ‘self-similar’ — it implies recursion, pattern inside of pattern, ‘symmetry across scale'”
Helmut Bonheim, “The Nature/Culture Dyad and Chaos Theory.” Das Natur/Kultur Paradigma in der englischsprachigen Literatur des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Paul Goetsch). Ed. K. Groß. Tübingen: Narr. 1994, 8-22
In 1985, DC Comics published a miniseries called Crisis On Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. A gigantic tale featuring every character ever to appear in one of their comics except Hal Jordan, But the story was bigger than it looked.But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.
Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing had a story called American Gothic, about a war between Light and Darkness, which ended with them being convinced that they define each other, and God shaking hands with the Darkness. It’s better than it sounds.
“I’m dying, oh fuck, I think I’m dying”
The Invisibles #12 , Grant Morrison and Steve Parkhouse
In 2005, DC Comics published a crossover series called Infinite Crisis, by Geoff Johns and others, featuring all their most popular characters. But the story was bigger than it looked.But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.
The bigger story was Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, a series of seven miniseries (Klarion, Zatanna, Shining Knight, Frankenstein, Mister Miracle, Bulletteer and The Manhattan Guardian) all of which were attempts to make old, unprofitable DC Comics characters commercially viable again. The story was about how humanity’s far future descendants, with no culture or energy of their own, feed off the past. There may be a subtext there.
“What interests me is that while Zatanna chastises Promethea it’s also restaging, you guessed it, Swamp Thing – dragging Moore back to his roots, as it were. Morrison revisits the climactic chapter of “American Gothic”, quoting a line of dialogue, duplicating its setting in Baron Winter’s home, and repeating its fatalities. If there is a criticism of Moore here it’s done by paying homage to his older material while snubbing the new. I’ve always thought Morrison had the most interesting anxiety of influence vis-a-vis Moore of anyone in comics (certainly moreso than that faithful but pale imitator, Neil Gaiman); Zatanna offers plenty more fodder for it.”
In 2005, DC Comics published a crossover series called Seven Soldiers, by Grant Morrison and others – a gigantic tale featuring a bunch of obscure DC Comics characters. But the story was bigger than it looked. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.
The Mister Miracle story never seemed to fit in with the rest of Seven Soldiers, having nothing to do with the main storyline about the Sheeda’s invasion. Instead, it took us through all the possible lives of Shilo Norman, a Jack Kirby character, as he is trapped in the ‘Life Trap’ – a trap worse than the black hole he’s trying to escape from. We get a non-linear view of one man’s life, and all his mistakes, but almost incidentally Morrison is reinventing Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters and putting them to a new use. In some ways this reinvention seems at first glance even cruder than Kirby’s own work – and Kirby was not known for his subtlety, with characters like DeSaad and Lashina. But Kirby had many characters straddling the gap between light and darkness, between Apokolips and New Genesis. Morrison’s not interested in that kind of shade of grey – or if he is, he wants it represented by humans, not by Gods. This Mister Miracle is Shilo Norman, a human being, not Scott Free, a New God.
“I believe THE INVISIBLES to be a work of great emotional depths, but I realise most people tend to concentrate first on the surface glamour of the book, which is fine and pretty much as intended. Go back and read it again, concentrating not on the clothes, but on King Mob’s attempt to get over the loss of his girlfriend and the death of his cats by turning himself into a pop god with a gun. Read it for Edith Manning’s guilt, humour and unstoppable enthusiasm or most importantly, read it for the invisible backstory of Audrey Murray, the book’s central character, and her refusal to let a shitty life turn her into a shitty person.”
On Barbelith’s guide to the Invisibles‘ character list, Audrey Murray is not mentioned.
“In 2009 DC Comics announced that at some point in the next couple of years it would be publishing a crossover series called Multiversity, by Grant Morrison and others – a gigantic tale featuring all DC Comics’ most famous characters. But the story was…”
And Flex Mentallo is being reissued in 2011.