The Song Ends… But The Beauty Of It Must Never Fade

(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:


or 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…

God Only Knows

Before Watchmen

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.

Alan Moore stabs a knife into a Watchmen smiley-face cake. Dave Gibbons looks on.

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.

Diversion ends

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.

Part of a draing by Kevin Maguire of the Justice League

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?

Cooke does Morrison and Quitely


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.

page from Before Watchmen where Cooke homages Miller and Mazzuchelli

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.

Credit from Before Watchmen, with a created by credit for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

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?

Cooke sums up his own comic

Boycott The Avengers Opening Weekend

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.

Eschatology & Escapology 3: They Call Me Mister Miracle

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

“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”
Hermes Trismegistus

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.”
Marc Singer

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.”
Grant Morrison

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…”
Andrew Hickey

And Flex Mentallo is being reissued in 2011.

Darkseid!! (Authority Post 1)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF

Darkseid! from Ambush Bug 2

Darkseid! from Ambush Bug 2

Nearly a month ago, now, pillock asked me to write a post about Darkseid. This has been more difficult than I at first thought it would.

Duncan, in the comments there, mentioned my earlier piece, Darkseid Is (and we could also add my post from last month on the Fourth World characters) but that doesn’t quite fit Pillock’s brief – he wanted us to talk specifically about Jack Kirby’s Darkseid.

(This was partly in response to someone on Geoff Klock’s blog making the claim that the TV cartoon version of Darkseid is better than Kirby’s, and Klock reacting to this as if it were a defensible position in some way. I suspect the reason I was chosen to write this is that this made me start posting on Twitter with a #geoffklocksays hashtag, rather cruelly saying things like “Oasis are better than the Beatles” and “Steve Martin is the definitive Inspector Clouseau”)

And both those posts were about my idea of Darkseid, which actually comes from two sources – Kirby and Grant Morrison. And trying to do the Kirby-only post has led to what looks like being a second series of interlinked posts like the Hyperposts from a month or so ago…

Because the problem for me is that even though I love Kirby’s Darkseid, I came to the character in the late 1980s, This is post-Star Wars.

Star Wars was, of course, hugely influenced by Kirby – in fact everything in it that isn’t from Flash Gordon, Dune or the Lensmen books is from a Kirby comic. In particular, Darth Vader is a bad Darkseid rip-off dressed up as Doctor Doom.

Which meant that when Star Wars became The Biggest Thing In History and singlehandedly destroyed both the medium of cinema and the genre of science fiction forever, and DC Comics decided they wanted some of that – well, they had their very own Darth Vader, didn’t they?

Actually, they had two, because Jim Starlin created Mongul for that very purpose – even giving him his own Death Star, Warworld – but everyone knew that Starlin really wanted to be doing the real Darkseid, not his own copy of a copy.

So very soon we had a ton of bad space opera, by second-rate talents like Starlin or John Byrne, fitting Kirby’s characters – which had been conceived as a self-contained thing, with little connection to the DC Universe (other than the Superman tie-ins forced on Kirby by editorial), and were part of a personal artistic vision – into a massive ‘continuity’ (and we all know what I think about those).

These ‘respectful’ travesties – created by people who thought that it was actually paying tribute to possibly the greatest imaginative artist of all time to create weak, watered-down copies of his most personal work, rather than ever having a single original idea themselves – were, of course, hugely popular, for much the same reasons that the Rolling Stones were more popular than Howlin’ Wolf. Darkseid became absolutely ubiquitous for a time, to the point where his ‘surprise’ appearances were parodied by Keith Giffen, having the splash panel at the end of every issue of the first Ambush Bug miniseries being a ‘surprise reveal’ of Darkseid.

So my first exposure to the character of Darkseid came through London Editions’ UK newsstand Superman title (which reprinted the US comics, starting with Byrne’s run, at magazine size, and usually had either JLI or Green Lantern as backups). But Darkseid, even when being beaten by Byrne’s superyuppie, or being ridiculed in the Giffen/DeMatteis League, still had some of the power of the original creation – to the point where, years before I ever saw any of Jack Kirby’s actual work, I knew he was a comic creator I admired because he’d created Darkseid and Etrigan and Kamandi and a handful of other characters who still had power in inferior creators’ hands.

(The JLI creators weren’t ‘inferior’ in a pejorative sense – they’re better than 95% of mainstream comic people – but everyone’s inferior to Kirby when it comes to superhero comics).

So my view of Kirby’s work is – pretty much necessarily – through the lens of these later creators. I can’t judge HIS Darkseid – the only REAL Darkseid – except in the light of later bastardisations. I think that Morrison’s take on Darkseid is the only one since Kirby himself to actually bear any relation to the character Kirby created – that everything Morrison makes explicit was already implicitly there, and that he’s the only comic creator (with the possible exception of Rick Veitch) who really GETS Kirby’s work, but to go back to an earlier analogy, if Kirby is Howlin’ Wolf, and Byrne is the Rolling Stones, then Morrison is Captain Beefheart. I can see a clear line between Wolf and Beefheart – the roots of the latter clearly visible in the former – but does that make Beefheart covering ‘Evil’ any more ‘authentic’ than the Rolling Stones doing Little Red Rooster?

I’d argue yes, but I’d have great difficulty expressing why that should be.

More on Wednesday.

Degrees Of Freedom – Mister Miracle, Darkseid, and Morrison Doing Kirby (or Why Kirby Matters) (Hyperpost 8)

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

Cover of Mr Miracle (volume 1) 3 - The Paranoid Pill

Cover of Mr Miracle (volume 1) 3 - The Paranoid Pill

Some of you might have noticed that I occasionally talk about a comic writer called Grant Morrison – I may have mentioned him once or twice on here.

The reason I talk about Morrison so much is that, more than any other writer I know of, he manages to deal with a whole ton of issues that I’m interested in (the nature of consciousness and creation, trying to live freely in an unfree world, levels of reality, and basically see every other post I’ve made on this blog…) and unlike someone like Robert Anton Wilson (a very similar writer in terms of themes) he makes these themes integral parts of his fiction, rather than just having characters state those views.

But Morrison definitely has antecedents in the comics world. Most obvious is Alan Moore – and entire books could be written on the complicated influence Moore has had over Morrison’s work even while Morrison tries to distance himself from that influence – but equally important is Jack Kirby,

If you’re not a comics person, you probably don’t know the name Jack Kirby, but you definitely know his work. He created or co-created The Fantastic Four, Etrigan the Demon, Captain America, Darkseid, Doctor Doom, The Challengers Of The Unknown, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Devil Dinosaur, The X-Men, Thor, the Silver Surfer and hundreds of other characters. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kirby was one of the twenty or so most influential creative artists of the twentieth century (off the top of my head the others would be The Beatles, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, James Joyce, Siegel & Shuster, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Will Eisner, Stravinsky, Picasso, Borges… he’s up there with those in terms of all-pervading cultural influence).

Kirby was primarily a visual artist, who did his best-known work in collaboration with writers (early on with Joe Simon, later with Stan Lee), but while he often didn’t write the dialogue for his stories, he was a great *concept* creator (and for most of his work with Lee in particular, he did at least half the job that one would normally think of as writing). But his best work, and the one that influences Morrison most, is his early-1970s Fourth World group of series.

The Fourth World stories were four separate comic series – New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen, which between them told the (sadly never-finished due to cancellations) story of a Manichean conflict between two sets of gods – the good gods of New Genesis against the evil ones of Apokolips – and in particular the story of the conflict between Darkseid, evil ruler of Apokolips, and his two sons – his biological son Orion, brought up on New Genesis, and his adopted son Scott “Mister Miracle” Free, who was born on New Genesis. (George Lucas pinched much of the relationship between Orion and Darkseid for Star Wars – Darth Vader is Darkseid wearing Doctor Doom’s mask, but nowhere near as scary as either).

Trying to read stuff into Kirby’s work is a complicated proposition – Kirby was simultaneously almost primitivist in his work and deeply thoughtful about it. He often slaps the reader around the face with obvious metaphors and characters named things like Verman Vundabar (a militaristic man with a monocle) or Lashina (she likes whips…) as if subtext was something that he’d heard about, but decided was for other people.

On the other hand, he created these works at a fever pitch – three pages or more a day, many days, and put chunks of his own life into the stories (Mister Miracle’s wife, Big Barda, being based on Kirby’s own wife). And his works have a power and weight behind them that nothing else from that time does. And Kirby was far more aware of the potential to do multi-layered symbolic stories than one might thing – two of his other projects of around this time were a graphic novel adaptation of 2001 and an (unpublished) Prisoner comic series.

So often, when we look at Kirby’s best work, we find an obvious – metaphor is too kind a word – thing that’s obviously, blatantly, representative of another thing. But underneath that, we find seemingly simplistic goodies-vs-baddies stories carrying a ton of allegorical weight.

Take the conflict between Darkseid and Mister Miracle. Darkseid is a tyrant who is so scared of death – so scared of non-existence, that he has to take control over everything. He wants to remake the universe in his image. As I put it in an earlier post:

Darkseid has looked at the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thought “fuck that”. Or, more likely, “Bother not Darkseid with your ‘entropy’ and your ‘universal laws’ Obeisance to laws, made by man or nature, is the morality of the slave. The morality of Darkseid is conquest. Darkseid is all.”

That was inspired by a line from one of Grant Morrison’s better takes on the Fourth World characters, Rock Of Ages – “I will remake the entire universe in the image of my soul, Desaad… and when at last I turn to look upon the eternal desolation I have wrought… I will see Darkseid, as in a mirror… and know what fear is.”

Darkseid needs to control the universe, to reshape it, to remove choice from everyone else. Which means removing knowledge and options from everyone else. In various stories Morrison has Darkseid producing slaves with their faces covered by hands in echo of the three wise monkeys, or has characters burning books saying (in echo of the apocryphal quote attributed to Caliph Umar) “If it agrees with Darkseid it is redundant, if it disagrees with Darkseid it is heresy”.

Darkseid’s quest for the anti-life equation is all part of this – he’s after a way to get complete control, and control *is* the opposite of life – life grows and evolves by exploiting new niches, by changing, by being uncontrolled. What Darkseid really wants is to do what I described in my response to Millennium – to (HORRIBLE MIXED METAPHOR ALERT!!!) prune away all the branches of the web of time (END OF MIXED METAPHOR), making Darkseid the only one who can make decisions for the entire universe.

Except we know it doesn’t work like that, don’t we?

Scott Free – Mister Miracle – is an escapologist. When weighted against someone who wants to control the entire universe, that says a lot. Escapology is all about escaping from control – about taking a situation which someone else has tried to control utterly, where they’ve tried to restrict all your options, so you can’t move *at all*, and exploiting whatever tiny leeway they’ve given you to get yourself complete freedom. It’s about using the one option you have to get all your options back.

In this light, the fact that Mister Miracle is often *not* using conventional escapology, but is often cheating using technology, is not a downside to the character, it merely makes him a hacker (in this sense ), which is in many ways analogous to escapology – much of ‘hacker culture’ has been about turning tools of repression around to gain increased freedom (for example the GNU GPL, which uses copyright law to ensure that no-one can stop anyone copying GNU software). There is a mathematical connection I won’t go into here between the second law of thermodynamics (which says everything decays), Ashby’s Law (which says you can never completely control a system) and information theory (which is why information-processing devices often wrongly get referred to as cybernetic), so it’s appropriate that he’d use computers like Motherbox to help evade restrictions both literal and metaphorical.

No matter how tight Darkseid’s fist grows, Mister Miracle can slip through it. Anti-life can never beat the Human Factor.

Linkblogging for 17/01/09

I’m still far busier than I expected this week, so I’m still behind on my email correspondence – apologies to those who’ve emailed me recently.

Anyway, in lieu of a longer post, here’s some links:

Debi writes about Thomas Hariot – the most pioneering scientist you’ve never heard of.

Bobsy shows us his pants.

Over on Lib Dem Voice they’re talking about what the ‘liberal attitude to immigration’ should be. Some of the comments there make sense, but some are horribly, nastily racist. Let them know what you think…

People buying tube tickets will soon be automatically giving their consent to be searched by transport police. Well, that’s one more reason for me to avoid That London…

An interesting post about the Einstein/Bohr dialogue about quantum physics.

Cerebus: A Diablog continue their reading of the greatest comic series in history.

Andy Partridge discussing how Jack Kirby influenced one of his songs. (Surprising, because Partridge has always struck me as more of a DC person, and here he’s talking about Ant-Man. Still, it’s another example of XTC and comics, two of my favourite things, overlapping).

Free comic stories by Rick Veitch and Mark Evanier and Tom Yeates and some others.

And pillock has an excellent post on From Hell.