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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

WORD WARS

Once again I find myself pulled into a protracted online argument that will probably go absolutely nowhere, though it makes good fodder for TAA.

The subject: "Jack Kirby as Writer."

In the 1980s Kirby claimed to be the primary author of all of his Silver-Age Marvel collaborations with writer/editor Stan Lee, who allegedly rewrote certain Kirby story-concepts so that they no longer reflected Kirby's original intent. I have no doubt that many key concepts and tropes of the Marvelverse originated with the King, but his claim to truly "writing" the stories remains dubious. Surviving Kirby art from the period often shows notes about possible captions or dialogue, but such notes hardly constitute a fully formed script, and it's impossible to know whether or not Stan Lee contributed anything to the concepts during their collaborative plotting-sessions.

Now, on the aforementioned listserve, the idea's now going around that Kirby had a long and venerable history both drawing and scripting the comic books he produced during his long Golden Age partnership with Joe Simon.

Joe Simon went on record in THE COMIC BOOK MAKERS as claiming that he "never let Jack write" or words to that effect. I have tended to believe that, largely because the text-writing of the Simon/Kirby books shares so little in common with the 1970s-1980s works on which Kirby was credited as sole writer-- and I say that knowing that in comics as in most collaborative endeavors, one has to beware of any creator who sings, "I did it ALL my way," whether it's Joe Simon, Jack Kirby or Stan Lee.

While the captions and dialogue of the Simon/Kirby years generally depict fairly simple plotlines ranging from superhero battles to tortured romance, the text always (in my experience) displays a forthright clarity common to the other more gifted writers of the period, such as Bill Finger and Jack Cole. Since one of the online allegations is that Jack Kirby wrote all the "lead features" on which he and Simon collaborated, here's a sample from the caption introducing a SANDMAN adventure in ADVENTURE COMICS #78:

"Weirder than your wildest dreams are the sensational feats of Magno the Mystic-- and fully as baffling are the audacious crimes that take place whenever he enacts his miracles before wondering witnesses! But nothing is too fantastic for those fearless avengers of the night, The Sandman and Sandy, and once more they race along a dark and dangerous road of nightmare adventure to solve the strange riddle of-- The Miracle Maker!"

This randomly-chosen sample is pretty much of a piece with most of the purple-prose of pulp magazines and comic books, where everything is usually written in First Person Breathless. Now I'll compare it with a Jack Kirby "solo" caption from the 1970s, when he was first unalloyedly credited as the scripter. Here's an introductory caption from NEW GODS #2:

“On Earth, the home of mortal man, Orion the Hunter moves among strange allies and fearful enemies! Man is only dimly aware of the forces maneuvering, lunging for alignment on his world — for somewhere in man himself is the key to victory for the warring factions of the New Gods.”

Comparing the two side to side, I do detect in both passages a very similar cadence. The prose of this particular NEW GODS passage is a shade less purple, in spite of aspiring (as did the NEW GODS series generally) for greater poeticism than did the Simon/Kirby SANDMAN. So from *this* comparison alone, it seems possible that the two scripters might be the same man.

However, this particular NEW GODS passage does not, aside from the clumsy phrase "lunging for alignment," display the sort of awkward word-choices for which Kirby became famous in the 1970s, which the curious reader can read in the JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR article, "Jack's Wackiest Dialogue," seen in this Googlebooks excerpt.

Thus I still find a disconnect. Why are there so many clumsy word-choices in Kirby in his solo-billed days, and so few in the 1940s, when in theory he should have been a rawer, less practiced writer of copy?

Three possibilities suggest themselves:

(1) One is my earlier position: that in the 1940s Kirby really did work from the scripts of unbilled writers, though at times he may have provided essential ideas over which other scribes "ghostwrote" as Stan Lee did later. I now find this the least likely possibility.

(2) Another possibility is that Kirby provided full scripts for his Golden Age stories, just as he did his solo-billed works of the post-Marvel years. This Golden Age work *may* have possessed many of the same awkward word-choices seen in his solo-billed work later, but none of them were ever allowed to see print because they were "ghost-corrected" by other hands.

(3) The third is that in the Golden Age Kirby did possess a somewhat-purple-yet-efficient style of scripting, and needed no corrections whatever. However, following the sales-success of Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby chose to re-invent himself by attempting to make his older style of script-writing more resonant, more overtly poetic. Because Kirby had not practiced this skill, many of his attempts at poetic speech seem, as a Bookline review correctly said, "feverishly overwrought."

My opponents on the listserve would almost certainly champion Possibility #3, while caviling at any intimation that the King's late style might be less than stellar. I tend to favor Possibility #2, because it's hard for me to believe that any professional writer could so totally lose his basic skills as badly as Kirby seemed to once he struck out on his own. Moreover, his quirky style in the post-Marvel days never varied over the next twentysomething years, which suggests to me that this had been his real style of writing all along, and that fans simply didn't see it until Kirby took full billing for all the work.

I will, of course, look at any hard evidence to the contrary.

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