Tag: comic books

Eternal night in Equestria


To momentarily continue the topic of Kirby, a handful of links.Stephen Bissette’s proposed a boycott of Marvel Comics and their films based on the continuing legal stoushes between Marvel and the Kirby heirs. James Sturm from Slate.com also decided to boycott Marvel Comics over Kirby’s treatment and you can read the article here. (I am, for interests of full disclosure, not boycotting the film myself, although it may be a little while before I see it due to newly found responsibilities of fatherhood!)

Strange but true: Kirby’s artwork – together with the CIA and Roger Zelazny – helped save Americans from Tehran in 1979, just prior to the Iranian hostage crisis that brought down the Carter administration. Wired ran an article on it some years back.

ComicsAlliance.com recently ran a feature on Kirby’s ‘next issue’ teasers that he designed for those early issues of Captain America that influenced a generation or more of professionals and fans alike. It’s great stuff, undiluted by pretension or knowingness.

Finally, ComicsAlliance also semi-regularly provides mashups of Great Comics That Never Happened. They are always wonderful ‘what if’ scenarios, such as what if Jack Kirby had written and designed My Little Pony?

Long live the King

So, last post suggested that I was going to lead into more writing tips. Those are coming, but first a recap of some things that have been whistling around my head and indeed the internet of late.

For those that don’t know, there’s a single man whose gift for storytelling sits at the heart of a dozen or more movies that have, between them, earned millions upon millions of dollars. Many of the biggest hits for multiple studios over the past decade – Captain America. Thor. The Hulk. Iron Man. The Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four – are all there because of a single individual’s imagination. That man is – was – Jack ‘The King’ Kirby.

The King

The comic book industry, as it currently stands (and has stood for some time), is essentially a branch of larger multimedia empires. The two largest players in the English-language market are owned by Warner Brothers and Disney. Comic book companies are idea factories, churning out relatively few works that sufficiently pay for themselves, but rather acting as the proving ground for concepts that will eventually become cinematic and video-game blockbusters. Everyone knows who Batman is: millions play him as a character in the latest X-Box game,  millions more will see Christopher Nolan’s movies, and Schumacher’s and Burton’s before him. But, very few buy comic books with Batman’s name on the cover.Like the vast majority of comic book creators, Kirby was a freelancer, working for hire at what is now Marvel Comics (during those early days it was known variously as Timely, then Atlas Comics*) and later DC – home of Batman and Superman. Kirby towered over his peers in energy, raw talent and output. All of the characters I mentioned in that first paragraph – and more – were created by him. His drawings seem simplistic now in comparison to modern draftsmanship, but they are incredibly powerful. The figures tumble over each other and burst with crackling energy. They are the basis for our modern mythologies.

Jake Kurtzberg, as The King was born, was raised on the tough streets of a New York. Jack learned to use his fists early and often. He’d fight anyone – whether it was the Sicilian gangs that clashed with the Jews, or the mobsters who came around to hustle money from the garment shop where he worked. He was small, tough and determined. The energy in his person was there, in all its glory, on the page. His linework, to quote Gerard Jones’ excellent Men of Tomorrow, was “an opera of line and mass. The stories didn’t matter, so much drama did his anger bring to the figures bursting out of panels, the bodies hurtling through space as fists and feet drove into them, the faces contorted in passion, the camera angles swinging wildly and the panels stretched and bent by the needs of the action.”

As unconventional, distinctive and genre-defining as Kirby’s art was, he didn’t put words in these characters’ mouths. In the majority of cases, that fell to Kirby’s brother-in-arms Stanley Lieber – better known as Stan Lee. Lee was, unlike Kirby, staff. An ingenue like Jack, he managed to score a job as editor whilst simultaneously scripting dozens of comics. Because Lee was so busy, his plots became looser and looser. Panel breakdowns became page summaries, then a handful of sentences to guide the direction of the ploy. Effectively, Kirby started crafting his own stories with Lee coming in and putting words in balloons to try to corral some narrative to the artist’s fever-pitch sagas.

Lee ended up with a million-dollar-a-year stipend from Marvel. Kirby worked for years, but eventually ended up on the scrapheap. He never was down-and-out like Superman‘s creators – Siegel and Schuster spent their wilderness years only a paycheque away from the breadline – but he certainly never saw the riches he deserved. He fought for years with the company that he put on the map – a fight that has been continued by his family, after Jack’s death in the 1990s – but his seminal work has been deemed ‘work for hire’ and thus not requiring of royalties.

Kirby has been, from the perspective of the broader public, whitewashed from the record. The recent release of The Avengers movie has stirred up a lot of angst around the shoddy – and even downright criminal – treatment of some of the comic book industry’s finest creators. It is, as this article points out, not Kirby’s Avengers, but rather Marvel’s Avengers. As if, as it says, a company had crafted those characters or stories from whole cloth.

Lee, I must make pains to emphasise, wasn’t to blame. He has always been generous in attributing creative input – whether from Kirby, John Romita, or Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man (which is, by the by, Lee’s only non-Kirby affiliated hit to speak of). Lee was a good businessman though, and learned from a very early age how to benefit from being the public face of an expanding company. Kirby was too much of a firebrand to follow Lee’s path, and suffered for it later in life.

The industry is built on freelancers, and is the poorer for it. With the exception of a couple of second-tier companies, the default in the American comic book industry is still work-for-hire, albeit at least more clearly marked as such than the wild days of the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, back when Kirby and others were creating their hits. Just because it’s more defined doesn’t make the situation any better though. I think of Bill Mantlo, a man who created many of the comics that shaped my childhood. He’s now in a near-vegetative state after a hit-and-run in the early 1990s, effectively left to fend for himself because the industry doesn’t provide decent healthcare and his insurer has paid all the bills it wants to. That’s a story reflecting the parlous state of American health care as much as the American comic book industry, but it still hits hard knowing that the man behind the first comic book I bought with my own money – which I talked about here – has been left to slowly die.

The bitter legacy of Kirby’s treatment may be a dark, twisted hole at the heart of the American comic book industry, but there are some rays of light in all this. Here, Jack’s son shares some private memories on what it was like to grow up with such a man. Recently, a creator named Chris Roberson vowed that, as soon as his most current series with the publisher wrapped up, he’d never work for DC Comics again. They repaid him the favour by sacking him – giving him what he wanted, as they put it, if a little early (some of the fallout is discussed here) – but I still think of it as a good-news story as, essentially, it’s showing that some players within the system are willing to make public stands to bring attention to the industry’s issues.

That’s it for this week. For further reading, I recommend Daniel Best’s website. If you trot through the archives you’ll find depositions from the most recent round of legal stoushes on Kirby’s work and the industry’s heady days in the 1960s. Excerpts of these depositions can also be found at BleedingCool.com, including those from luminaries of the day including John Romita, Roy Thomas, Larry Lieber (Stan’s brother) and Stan Lee himself.

(*) – in Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow, Jones claimed that publisher Martin Goodman would, to manipulate tax laws, publish under eighty or more different names, often at the same time. ‘Marvel’ is simply the last, and longest-lasting, name attached to Goodman’s rough empire.

Ghosts, and revelations

It’s the classic question: “where do you get your ideas from?”. My brother asked me the question the other day, when we were talking about my still-in-progress novel. That’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? Still in progress. It assumes so much, such as that – one day – the document will be complete, the bow drawn finally around the sprawling story. When does still in progress become incomplete, then unfinished, abandoned? There have been literally months since I wrote a word of Ghosts of the Revolution. But, I still feel good about it. It has strong bones. Sometime soon, once I get a little more free time (hahahaha!), I’ll write some more. I have another legacy to work on for the time being, all 4.62kg of her.

Back to the question. To quote the great Alan Moore, there’s always someone who asks such a thing…
“where do you get your ideas from?’ And you know what we do? We sneer. … The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we are scared that someone will find out.’

I have a bit of an answer. Not much, but a little. I’ll take Ghosts… as an example because, well, it’s the biggest, most ambitious work that I’ve attempted (if not quite there yet). First off, I simply started by writing down things that interest me. Loose ideas, circling, germinating. The list includes both images and concepts, and had (amongst many others) the following ingredients;

Harbin. It’s in northern China, just another city. But a hundred years ago, it was occupied by Russians, building a rail-line in the bandit-infested Manchurian badlands to short-cut their way to the Pacific. A dozen years later, and the city is a hold-out of pro-Tsarist refugees, the ‘Whites’ who lost the Civil War against the ascendant communists. A decade after that, and the city is surrounded by Japanese forces, who are busy crafting a fake Manchurian empire to justify their expansionism. The city is an onion, layers peeling back.

I have, in my possession, a copy of a marriage certificate belonging to a man found in Harbin, claiming to be a British national. I have copies of the correspondence backward and forward between embassies, trying to determine who he was, whether he was indeed who he said he was, and how and why he was there. It sounds like the start of a mystery novel.

I’m reading Ellroy, Hammett and Chandler. Noir, pulp. It’s sex and death, molls and gangsters, private eyes and femme fatales. It’s the thirties, the forties, the fifties. I wonder what Marlowe would look like in a foreign country.

I am reading about robotics, and about how much development came in the early twentieth century. And, how automatons had an era of popularity around the turn of the century (and yes, I have seen Hugo before you ask). I wonder how these would operate in a world that was different from ours, just a little.

I’m on the Dieselpunks website, realising how much I love the aesthetic of that day and age. The images of retrofitted technology on that website and others strikes a chord with me far more than, say, the ‘brown goth’ chic of so much steampunk (and yes, I realise that it’s a stereotype, but it’s one I’m confronted with more often than not).

Next, some Mad Max on the television, some My Chemical Romance pumping through the headphones. It’s post-apocalypse, but the soundtrack is spiky teen aggression and supercharged day-glo. I imagine a motorcycle gang on the Russian tundra, leftovers of the Civil War, left parent-less by famine and strife, ready to create their own civilisation from the shattered ruins of what came before. They are Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Children, black-eyed and orphaned.

I am flicking through a Frankenstein comic by Grant Morrison. He describes the concept that water has been found to take on different chemical properties depending on how you label and describe the container it is stored within. What if you labelled the water ‘love’? Or ‘cure’? And then, what about, ‘hate’ or ‘weapon’? Which do you think humans would use more often? (The concept is bogus, apparently, but it’s unbelievably fascinating in that way so much pseudoscience is.)

I have shipping lists, detailing the refugees of a dozen wars. Russians leaving Asia by Chinese ports, bound for Australia and other Commonwealth countries. They list families, individuals, spinsters and widows. Religion: Orthodox, athiest and Old Believer.

I’m watching del Toro’s first Hellboy movie, and I come across the scene where a man is thrown into an quasi-magical explosion. As he hits the edge, his flesh strips away but the body continues to move and react. The skull’s jaw widens, as if to scream.

There’s more than that, unsurprisingly, but I hope this helps in seeing how some ideas start coming together. Essentially, begin with things that interest you, and find new ways to connect them. And, don’t be afraid if most of your jottings end up in the bin. I junked a good three-quarters of what I initially thought I was going to write: or, to put it another way, the story started swiftly outgrowing those concepts I’d begun with. That’s a good thing; it means it’s taking on a life of its own.

Now, a realisation that I made early on was as follows: be prepared to either make yourself an expert, or make shit up. If your story has even a passing resemblance to reality, your instinct should be to research until your eyes bleed. This is also a good thing, to a point. The more you know, the more story ideas will emerge. The fuller and realer your characters will become; the world that they inhabit will have more depth and structure. Think of it like the difference between filming a movie on a cheap set – the buildings only paper-thin – versus filming on location, where the actors and director can get into the trenches and understand the world the characters inhabit. I have pages upon pages bookmarked (both physical tomes and on the internet) detailing wars, street maps, skeletal structures of various animals, cars, clothes, uniforms, biographies, death camps, who was who in various embassies and delegations. The list goes on. But if you’re basing something on reality, there’s always more to know, and someone who will know more than you. The former will drag you down in detail and potentially cause you to lose the spark of whatever tale you wanted to tell, while the latter is a constant bogeyman hanging over your head – in your quest for authenticity, you’ll miss some vital detail and be greeted with howls of condemnation from the reader. So, don’t be afraid to make it up. That’s probablt part of the joy found in writing fantasy or speculative fiction: except in cases where you’re working in a shared (i.e., franchised) universe, things that work however the hell you want them to.

This quickly became an easy decision for me, in that I had already decided to write an alternative history of sorts; the real world, off by a few degrees, changed incrementally at some earlier stage. The background reading I did gave me street names and geography, but I could paint the buildings whatever colour I wanted, and tear down or rebuild anything that didn’t suit my narrative. And if I didn’t know about it in the first place, well, no big loss; the over-informed reader could suspend disbelief on that small point because s/he was already suspending disbelief over a number of other things.

This reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a comic book called S.H.I.E.L.D., which came out a year or two ago and was intended to tell a ‘secret history’ of Marvel Comics’ shared universe. It was a clever enough conceit, weaving in real-life luminaries such as Da Vinci and Isaac Newton into broader conspiracies of a less-than-real world. My enjoyment came tumbling down over the most minor of issues; a double-page spread showed Da Vinci looking over a Renaissance-era Roman cityscape while a giant creature rampaged the Eternal City. And there, smack bang in the mid-ground, was a building that I knew had been built hundreds of years after that era. The frustration I had lingered for pages thereafter. I was frustrated that the artist hadn’t done enough research; it was like he’d taken a picture of the city and drawn over anything he suspected looking too modern, but didn’t notice something that was ‘fake ancient’. My enjoyment of the book faded as the story progressed – more to do with the writing than the artwork – but I can trace my first flicker of disapproval from that image.

I’ll be back next time with some further minor epiphanies on the writing process.But before I go, a quick comment that the thoughts above are not, by any stretch of the imagination, enough to turn you into a best-selling novelist, or even a published author. I’d think that getting a good agent and finishing your book would be the best place to start for that (and not necessarily in that order). These are the baby steps only, as taught by someone only just learning to crawl.


Cohen & Cave

I discovered this rather beautiful piece of art on Kieron Gillen’s tumblr. Mr Gillen is a very gifted author and, while I don’t read nearly enough of his work to honestly consider myself a fan, I do at least feel rather chastened that I haven’t read more, and that’s something, surely? Gillen currently writes a number of leading comic-book titles for Marvel Comics (and have nothing to do with Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, I should hasten to add, but instead have titles like Uncanny X-Men and Journey Into Mystery). His comics blog can be found here.

“… and tell them Carl Sagan sent you!” – Atomic Robo, babies and the Princess Bride Factor

The Baby Of Undisclosed Gender is on their way, with progress marked by my beautiful wife’s expanding belly and the continuing accumulation of Necessary Items. These include but are not limited to: furniture, clothes, nappies, wall decals, stuffed toys, Moses baskets, prams, mobiles, towels, bibs and incredibly tiny socks. Responsible father-to-be that I am, my role in life is likely to expand shortly to the location of hazardous items (whether poisonous, inedible, delicate and dangerously pointy) and moving them to shelves out of reach from undiscerning fingers.

That discerning fatherly eye has turned, inevitably, to the bookshelf. There are two things at play here. First: gadzooks, I must remove those more precious tomes to higher ground rather than letting them get dribbled and drooled upon and/or fall heavily upon my unsuspecting progeny. Second: what sort of content do they have, and would I really think them fit fare for The Babe With No Name when they grow up? Some items clearly have the answer ‘sweet jesus no’, for all the obvious reasons; Preacher, Scalped and my smattering of Chuck Palahniuk novels will disappear to the higher shelves for many years to come, as will anything else with strong adult themes (I’m looking at you, Lost Girls). Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is a fantastic series, and one I’d be encourage pretty much anyone to read, but it’s not the sort of work that leads to balancing your bubba on a knee to read aloud. That’s not a critique of the work or author – Gaiman didn’t target it at the pre-teen market, and would probably be surprised if you suggested it – but rather an appreciation that its mix of genre might not be right for such an audience. Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, The Graveyard Book – yes. Serial killers with fanged mouths for eyes, not so much.

Reason #1 why Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman' can wait until later years...

There are other stories that are a little more age-less though. Let’s call it the Princess Bride Factor; that special mix of action, romance, intrigue and humour that means anyone – young or old, boy or girl – can find something interesting and wonderful to latch onto. Goscinny & Uderzo’s Asterix has that for me; I read it as a kid and can happily read it as an adult, and as such didn’t hesitate to buy a collection of stories for my offspring-to-be. Tintin falls into the same category (and as a side comment I’d be keen to know whether the recent movie manages to capture that essence; I’ll probably find out this weekend, as we have stupidly hot days forecasted and am keen to find somewhere comfortably air-conditioned in which to while away the days).

The Princess Bride Factor is incredibly important for me; I want my child to love stories no matter how they’re presented or what sort of characters are in there. Boys aren’t genetically programmed to despise pink and like blue, any more than girls have any inherent predisposition to Barbie dolls over guns, swords and dragons. What we like or don’t like is learned. The things I read as a child have (mostly) stayed with me through to adulthood, and so that learning starts early.

Which brings me around, rather circuitously, to Atomic Robo. AR is a special sort of story. It is inclusive without pandering to the lowest common denominator. It has that special quality of being equally accessible to a kid or adult. There’s a certain joy to its storytelling that is rare nowadays. It has robots, dinosaurs, strong female characters, ‘adventure science’, gangsters, and lightning battles between Tesla and Edison. It’s not necessarily packed with laughs on every page, but it’s undisputedly FUN.

And, it’s also insanely cheap. If you have a smartphone, iPad or equivalent, go download the Comixology app for free, now. That’s fine, I’m happy to wait here. Okay, done?  You’ve now got access to literally thousands of digital comics for incredibly reasonable prices. Atomic Robo has bargain-basement prices – 99 cents an issue, or less than five bucks per collection (a bundled storyline)– and plenty of freebies too. 2011’s Free Comic Book Day tale, for example, has a gun-wielding dinosaur at a science fair who steals the A-Team’s van. What more could you possibly want out of a comic book than that?

So, Atomic Robo it is then. Not for a pre-school jellybean, but certainly it’s family friendly enough that I’d gladly encourage him/her to read them whilst they’re still in single figures.

If you want to know more about Atomic Robo, the website is here. I’d recommend you also read the creative team’s promise to the reader, and their blog entries where they describe their approach and what kids think of their books. And kudos where it counts, various people / sites that put me onto the book in the first place are: ComicsAlliance, where AR featured in their top books of 2011; the crew at NonCanonical, who produce the finest comic book-related podcasts I know; and All-Star Comics, Melbourne’s newest and best comic book shop (hi Mitch & Troy!).

And finally, if you were wondering where this blog’s title came from…


Scalped is a dirty, gruesome, ugly and violent tale. It is steeped in deception, depravity and squalor. I also recommend it unreservedly as long as you don’t mind a near-complete lack of redemption in your fiction. Seriously, that is a recommendation; it’s just purposefully stuck at the end of the second act, where everything is going horribly and you don’t know how anyone is going to talk or fight their way out of their situation. It has no heroes, just dark, wounded souls stuck neck-deep in moral quicksand. Any glimmer of light at the end of a tunnel is just a train bearing down.

The setting is Prairie Rose Indian Reservation, present day. The Rez is poor, dirt poor, but the newly opened casino promises to generate some much-needed money for the region. Pity that the tribal leaders are corrupt, and the casino is built on dirty money.  The Chief, Red Crow, is a brutal thug, but he’s the closest thing to a figure of authority that the Rez has – he’s a Native American Al Swearengen, for those that are a fan of HBO’s Deadwood.  Red Crow is as much nemesis as ally to the chief protagonist, Dashiell Bad Horse. Recently returned to the Rez, Dash works his way into Red Crow’s inner circle… as well he might, as he’s also an undercover FBI agent working to pin crimes on the Chief to put him away once and for all. Pity the local FBI have a very personal beef with Red Crow and will happily throw Dash in his way, pity that Red Crow had a thing for Dash’s mother back in the day, pity that Dash has feelings for Red Crow’s junkie daughter, pity that the gangsters who backed the casino are sniffing around for signs of weakness. And, pity that Dash’s mother has turned up dead in a ditch.

Scalped is, I should add, a comic book. Pack away any vestiges of the tired ‘capes and underpants on the outside’ tropes that you may be hanging onto. Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera have crafted something special here.

I found the first collection, Indian Country, was tough-going, and if I hadn’t heard increasingly good reviews about it I might have left it there. That would have been a mistake. The second collection, Dead Mothers, takes the plots and characters of the opening story arc and extrapolates them into an increasingly gripping tale. Before long, you’re rooting for the bad guys… then realising that almost all of them are bad guys in their own way. Bad, corrupt, beaten down, prideful, vengeful, weak.

Hang in there, if you can – you will be rewarded.

(next time: I’ll get back to wrapping up that potted history of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds…)