Long Live the King

Jack Kirby, the legendary artist, writer, and so-called “King of Comics,” would have turned ninety-six this week. Though he built one of the most vaunted bodies of work in the industry, there are still plenty of folks outside of comics fandom who have at best only a passing idea of who he was or why he is so revered — even if they’ve paid out of their own pockets many times for the movies, toys, books and countless other forms of paraphernalia that have been adapted from his many, many creations.

Thankfully, there are lots of points of entry for those curious about the man and his work. Here are just a few off the top of my head.

Over at The A.V. Club yesterday they ran a very helpful beginners’ guide to Kirby’s career, which is relatively brief but still comprehensive. This is a good place to start, as is the Web site for The Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center, which is currently virtual-only but has ambitions to “manifest itself in the physical realm.”

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Mark Evanier’s beautiful, oversized hardcover monograph “Kirby: King of Comics” from a Barnes & Noble bargain bin. It’s a brisk, engaging read and a visual delight. Kirby drew in a style designed to deliver a maximum of drama within each of the many panels on a page. He could get a whollop out of just a few square inches, but in this book’s huge reproductions, his work is practically explosive. It’s a beautiful way to pore over the artist’s very particular way with scale, composition, line, depth, and human anatomy.

Finally, for those curious about Kirby’s somewhat tortured role in the evolution of the American comic book industry, I highly recommend Sean Howe’s “Marvel: the Untold Story,” an account of the business and editorial side of the company that was the platform for Kirby’s greatest run of work. It’s essentially the secret origin for this huge strain of pop culture, tracing the emergence of comics from seedy, early-20th Century publishing, through their initial golden age in the late 1930s and 1940s, their rebirth in the late 1950s and 1960s, and on to the industry’s lurching growth through the ensuing decades.

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Goodbye to Two Greats

The world has been mourning Roger Ebert, who passed away last week, and I join them. I learned a lot about watching movies from the man, but as I observed from afar as he struggled valiantly with disease I learned a lot more about what it means to fully become a person. His film criticism was always commendable, but the way he used it to undergird a life of great curiosity and thoughtfulness was remarkable. He’ll be greatly missed.

I won’t try to write any more than this about Ebert, since so much has already been written about him just in the past two days. Not as much will probably be written about the passing of longtime comics great Carmine Infantino, though, but that doesn’t take anything away from his own remarkable life.

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Some Comics Links for Your Reading Pleasure

Here’s a quick round-up of comics-related links that have come across my desk recently. First, Comic-Con International opens today in San Diego, where there will be a a reunion of the “Firefly” cast on Friday. I think you could say that will be the highest concentration of pure geekdom this year.

In honor of the convention, this week’s issue of The Onion is a special comics edition. A sampling of my favorite headlines: “Economically Healthy Daily Planet Now Most Unrealistic Part of Superman Universe,” “Comics Not Just for Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story” and (I can’t find a link for this one) “Captain Actual America Overweight, Hopelessly in Debt.”

Over at The A.V. Club (the less satirical sibling to The Onion), there’s an excellent interview with writer and 20-year comics veteran Mark Waid. It offers great insight into how one of the super-hero genre’s best writers thinks about the form in the 21st Century, including thoughts on how comics will evolve in the digital age. Perhaps the best quote is:

“The problem with comics, and I’ve said this before, is that we have over the past 50 years very, very successfully taken what used to be a mass medium and successfully turned it into a niche market.”

Finally, a few weeks ago New York Times senior film critics A.O. Scott and Manhola Dargis published this dialogue on the cinematic and cultural impact of the modern super-hero movie. I tweeted that “the whole exchange is depressing in every way,” but it’s still worth reading if you’re interested in critically appraising this genre that has come to dominate so much of popular culture.

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Super-Heroes Are Faking It

Every super-hero movie requires a significant suspension of disbelief, but in 1978 when director Richard Donner brought “Superman” to the silver screen he infused the movie with considerable believability by imagining the Man of Steel’s Metropolis as a thinly-veiled version of late-twentieth century New York City. When the character defied gravity and soared over his adopted city, what laid below him was that uniquely beautiful, earthbound constellation of lights that is the Manhattan skyline — even including, during one sequence, the Statue of Liberty. In his secret identity of Clark Kent he clumsily made his way through the unmistakable congestion of midtown Manhattan to report to work at the real-life headquarters of The Daily News, which stood in for the fictional Daily Planet. Arch-nemesis Lex Luthor’s underground lair was an abandoned wing of the iconic Grand Central Terminal. Superman apprehended a burglar scaling the famous Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street. And so on.

Of course it’s not necessary to film absurdist fantasies — and super-hero movies are nothing if not that — in real locations, but imparting some sense of reality in these films can add so much, as they did for Donner. It’s fine to watch a super-human character negotiating an unreal world, but it’s more thrilling, more engaging, more entertaining to watch a super-human character negotiating a world that looks something like the world we know — the real world.

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Secret Lives of Comic Book Panels

I’m so thankful for the day that someone had the idea to combine blogging and comics. For instance, for the past several months I’ve been really enjoying 4CP, a tumblelog-style site that examines vintage comic books — or parts of them — with a curatorial eye. Each post is a detail from a decades-old comic book panel, shown in a kind of extreme focus that reveals the beauty of the ink lines, the textures of the paper and of course the distinctive color halftone screens that are the hallmark of cheap four-color printing.

The images are cropped with great artfulness, and manage to find moments of quiet and restfulness within a style of artwork that has always been about frantic motion, kinetic energy and physical action. Some of the pieces look downright still, as if they were somehow captured from the hidden moments that occur between panels. Even better: clicking on the images reveals high-resolution versions of many of them, where you get an even closer look at the fine details of the substrate and the effect becomes even more immersive.

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Funny Pages

Last gasps for a dying medium: as the printed newspaper’s future looks increasingly precarious, some noble — but not necessarily game-changing — attempts are being made to revisit its former glory. This summer two different projects have ambitions to resurrect the long suffering funny pages, i.e., newspaper comic strips printed in a broadsheet (or broadsheet-esque) format. Even as newspapers seem to be continually shrinking, whether in page count or in the actual dimension of their pages, these comics are making efforts to look big.

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Watchmen in Greater Detail

WatchmenI’m completely unqualified to objectively judge director Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of “Watchmen” because, between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, I formed a lasting and surely prejudicing bond with the original Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic books. While most of my schoolmates were preoccupied with less insular pursuits, I paid good teenage cash for each issue of the mini-series as it was published, rapturously devouring each chapter and patiently, faithfully enduring the long publishing delays that beset the series between chapters.

In spite of all the growing up I’ve done since, all the revelations and disillusions that I’ve been through, I’ve never lost an ounce of admiration or affection for the “Watchmen” story or its characters. For twenty-plus years, I’ve considered it one of the most thrilling, satisfying experiences I’ve had with popular art; it’s still among the best things I’ve ever read.

This then predisposed me to an approving regard for the movie before even taking my seat in the theater last night; as long as what followed was minimally half-good, competent and moderately intelligent, I was sure to be pleased. As it turns out, I enjoyed it not just a little but ecstatically, too. I found it utterly engrossing if glaringly imperfect, and surprisingly smart if heavily grandiose.

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The Award for Best Super-hero Movie Goes to…

In keeping with a personal tradition, I’ll once again be sparing myself hours of excruciating boredom by not watching tonight’s 81st Academy Awards on television. If you know me, then you know that I’m an unabashed enthusiast for the movies. But I do everything that I can to keep the Oscars at a distance. I don’t just avoid watching them, though. I also try to avoid paying attention to them as best I can.

Still, it’s been hard not to notice that Christopher Nolan’s epic popcorn blockbuster “The Dark Knight” was somewhat flagrantly stiff-armed in this year’s nominating process. True, the movie received eight nominations — including best art direction and cinematography, and an almost surefire nod to Heath Ledger for best supporting actor — but it was also snubbed for best picture and best director. Here’s a movie that not only broke box office records and earned plaudits from audiences all over the globe, but it was also praised by no shortage of serious critics as a significant elevation of the admittedly limited super-hero genre. In every way that matters for popular entertainment, it was one of the most important — and best — films of 2008. To fail to acknowledge “The Dark Knight” or its director accordingly is, to me, just more evidence that the Academy Awards is a credible measure of nothing other than timid fickleness.

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Scenes from a Franchise

BatmanWhether or not Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” turns out to be any good when it’s released later this month, I want to just enjoy for a little while longer the situation that we’re in right now. That is, we live in a world in which the most recent Batman movie, Nolan’s three-year old “Batman Begins,” was actually a very good film. For my money, it’s about as rich a super-hero movie as any Hollywood has produced, but I’ll even settle for just a pretty good movie based on what came before it.

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The Adventures of Tintin in the 21st Century

X-FLR6If you really want to see graphic communication — the artful combination of images and words put in service to narrative — at its most powerful, then have a look at this picture of my nephew reading a copy of “Explorers on the Moon,” the seventeenth in master draughtsman and storyteller Hergé’s long line of Tintin comic albums, which he acquired last week during our trip to visit my dad, his grandfather, in Paris.

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