Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
rob + = email

2019 June 14 • Friday

When I was a teenager I used to go to the comic book shop after school pretty much every day. I only regularly read a few titles from Marvel and DC: Spider-Man (Amazing, Spectacular and Web) and The X-Men from Marvel and The Question from DC.

Mostly I was devoted to the titles from First Comics (and a few, like Grendel and Mage, from Comico).

One of the most exciting, and not just because of how much sex was in it but also because of the art, writing, layout and design, was Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!.

One of these days I'll go back and re-read it. I think I have every issue here.

But yesterday's visit to Jim Hanley's Universe—still a fantastic comic book shop despite moving to a much smaller location on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan (very conveniently located near Curry in a Hurry)—resulted in the discovery of a recent Chaykin work, a comic book about the industry itself and the people who mostly suffered in it.

It's called Hey Kids! Comics! and it's fascinating reading.

DC comics is called Yankee Comics here and Marvel is Verve. You'll also see EC Comics, what appears to be The New Yorker and perhaps the New York Times Magazine Sunday supplement.

And of course you'll recognize the doomed creators of Superman and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Other real-life characters appear as composites, Chaykin says, so beyond that I'm not sure how useful it is to try to figure out who's who. (Frederic Wertham appears as himself.)

But the story is persuasive and damning when it comes to the lack of credit—and money—that Jack Kirby received, after doing more than half of the "creating" work for numerous titles that Stan Lee takes credit for being his sole vision.

One example is a four-panel page. The Kirby character of course draws everything, lays out everything, and each of the four panels is a gem of composition and perspective. He was a greater artist than Alfred Hitchcock but in a less respectable medium.

For the first panel the Stan Lee character's sole input is "Alarms going off". The Kirby character makes this into "That's the perimeter alarm, Ross! Is the Zeta Ziggurat under attack?" "There's certainly something wrong, Melinda. An assailant has smashed our laser array! And is now headed... here!".

For the second panel, the Kirby's character only guidance is "I secretly love you Melinda", which is transformed into "My greatest fears have come to pass! Our deadliest enemy is on our doorstep... and only in this moment do I realize how much I love Tracer Girl!".

The third panel has no instructions, just a coffee mug stain but the Kirby character fills it with action and dialogue on his own.

And finally the fourth panel takes "I'll kill you for this!" and gives the reader "Somehow I knew you had returned, Sebastian. But if you've harmed Melinda, you can believe this is your final resurrection!".

It gets worse. A desperate "Kirby" sells this page of original art for ten dollars and decades later it fetches $25,000 at an auction. Asked if he wrote it, "Lee" says of course, "I wrote everything".

The names are changed but all of this really happened and was documented. Presumably all the other horrors in this book happened too. And it is mostly horrors, perhaps the hardest to take being the spectacle of these superheroes becoming a billion-dollar global phenomenon while their creators get nothing for their contribution other than a life of struggle and humiliation.

(Lichtenstein's fine-art success with plagiarizing comic book panels also gets a mention. Oh, I know, "appropriation" is what I'm supposed to say. But fuck that.)

It's occasionally a depressing and enraging read but it's also so well done and so fascinating that it's ultimately uplifting. And I'm glad to be plugged into Mr. Chaykin's work again after many years.