Get, Read: The Oven, by James Romberger

Jack Kirby is in danger of becoming a mythological character. On the one hand, he is now a “Disney Legend,” his name and career story coopted to bolster the continuing mythification of Marvel. Hype for recent and forthcoming film blockbusters has brought Kirby to, almost literally, Disney’s Main Street:

Walt Disney Presents marquee

Jack Kirby, Disney Legend

On the other, scholars and creators have recently made Kirby into a literary character, on the stage and on the page: protagonist of both fantastical homages and more grounded historical fictions. Examples of the former can be found in, say, DC’s 2017 spate of one-shot “Specials” celebrating Kirby’s centenary (notably, the Sandman special dated Oct. 2017) or Tom King and company’s tragic homage in the pages of the otherwise-boring Kamandi Challenge (Nov. 2017). These are fantasies: dreams of Kirby freed from the rigors of historiography. For the latter, the more grounded historical fictions, take for example the biographical play King Kirby by Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente (2014), premiered Off-Off Broadway at The Brick in 2014, or another biographical play, The King and Me, by Dutch writer Ger Apeldoorn (2015), performed in the UK, the Netherlands, the US, and most recently in conjunction with the exhibition Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super-héros in Cherbourg France.

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But consider too the comics informed by the details of Kirby’s life: Tom Scioli and Jean Depelley’s collaboration on “Private Kirby Adventures,” based on Kirby’s experience as a combat infantryman, or Scioli’s graphic biography in progress. Such projects undertake serious research into Kirby’s life, and constitute sequels, of a sort, to Kirby’s own classic autobiographical comic, “Street Code.” James Romberger’s just-released “The Oven” could be added to this list. It’s a subtle piece whose version of Kirby, while admittedly fictive, is sensitively and convincingly drawn. It’s also a beautiful comic.

Opening splash of James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

“The Oven,” opening panel

In “The Oven,” an elderly Kirby goes from his drawing board to the hospital, and a CAT scan, even as his mind turns back to the war-ravaged fields of France, circa 1944, and his own near-fatal encounter, as a foot soldier, with a troop of Nazis—a haunting moment in a brick and tile factory in the town of Corny, on the banks of the Moselle River. Romberger’s panels shift from black to gray as the older Kirby, near seventy, shifts from the present of the hospital back to his indelible memories of war, when he was in his late twenties. Young Kirby and a fellow soldier get holed up in factory kilns—ovens for baking ceramics—each one a squat octagon, a little cell. The kilns’ warmth draws the soldiers in; they are cozy:

A page from James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

Kirby, elder and younger: entrapment in “The Oven”

But then Germans troops enter the factory, and the two GIs have to hide inside the kilns, quiet, desperate. This scene runs parallel to the older Kirby’s immersion in the cell of a CT scanner, as he undergoes a test for cancer. Both, as Kirby’s dialogue suggests, are “tight spots,” pivotal and implicitly life-threatening moments. Romberger, however, takes a discreet, understated approach—there are no histrionics here—and ends on a near-silent page in which Kirby returns to his drawing board, while awaiting a doctor’s call (with test results). I found this last page quietly moving.

The conclusion of James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

Back to the drawing board…

“The Oven,” a 20-page short, appears in the first issue of Romberger’s projected anthology series For Real, which aims to focus on fact-based comics stories and essays (a typically quixotic and unconventional project for its publisher, the terrific Uncivilized Books). Alongside “The Oven” runs a roughly 10-page essay by Romberger, “The Real Thing,” which makes the case that Kirby’s wartime experience was life-changing and central to his art. Romberger breaks new ground in this now-familiar territory, stressing the “intimate acknowledgement of trauma and suffering” that suffuses Kirby’s work, and contrasting Kirby to other comics creators—notably the great Alex Toth, whose war comics, Romberger notes, have a sanitized glamour and little of Kirby’s lived-in, haunted quality. There are anecdotes and insights here that Kirby scholars will want to plumb.

Page detail from James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

I love the matter-of-factness here.

“The Oven” is a speculative biographical fantasy. Romberger is frank about fictionalizing Kirby’s experiences; he calls his story a mix of “approximation” and “guesstimation,” and begs indulgence for “the liberties I have taken.” Yet “The Oven” is also a respectful and soulful effort, persuasive in the unassuming way it depicts Kirby and his wife Roz. Geographical and biographical details are suggested rather that ostentatiously insisted upon; in effect, Romberger hides the depth of his research, or rather, does not ask to be hailed for it. “The Oven” goes by disarmingly quickly, belying the depth of knowledge and care surely required to make it.

Graphically, rather than aiming for spectacle in the familiar late-Kirby mode, Romberger’s drawing harks back to the plainspokenness of much of Toth’s work. Romberger’s naturalism, brushwork, and lettering all recall Toth, and the spartan four-tier grid that he favors here reminds me of the restrained three-tier, six-panel pages that were common in Toth’s Dell comics around the late 1950s. Shorn of the vivid colors that partner Marguerite Van Cook often brings to Romberger’s work (see their superb collaborations on Seven Miles a Second and The Late Child), “The Oven” is spare, unadorned work, with loose and rugged figures, muted body English, and minimal yet effective evocations of “tight” spaces. The freedom of the rendering remind me of other artists who have learned from Toth (Tony Salmons, say). But the tamped-down storytelling and hushed suspense are distinctly Romberger’s. The pages look as if they were drawn directly from the mind.

For Real #1 is a fascinating comic book, and highly recommended. “The Oven,” in particular, is excellent: a believable homage that links together Kirby’s well-known war experience and his less well-known fight with cancer near the end of his life. I’d call it a biographical dream—deeply affecting, and highly recommended. Look for it in better comic shops on Nov. 6.

Kirby Day 2019

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Kirby at work, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sept. 1972. Photo by and (c) David Folkman.

Today, August 28, I call Kirby Day. This would have been the 102nd birthday of Jack Kirby (b. Jacob Kurtzberg, 1917-1994), as inventive and influential a comics creator as the field has ever seen, and one of the under-appreciated architects of what is now 21st century popular culture, both in the US and around the world. On this day, this unofficial holiday, why not donate to The Hero Initiative in support of veteran comics creators in need? Giving back on Kirby’s birthday is a grand tradition that deserves continuing.

Hero Initiative masthead

And, if you’re in or near New York City — not, like me, on the wrong coast — then why not join the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center this evening on the Lower East Side, Kirby’s point of origin, for their celebratory walking tour and mixer? That sounds wonderful. It’s a free, non-ticketed event (the precise starting point and other info can be found on the Museum’s site at the above link). Kirby belongs to the world, but his roots in NYC deserve to be recognized and retraced. (How about a commemorative plaque at Kirby’s Essex Street birthplace, hmm?)

KIRBY, HYPE & HISTORY

Kirby’s name has now been coopted and rebranded as a “Disney legend,” and is at last gaining traction in entertainment media coverage, with film adaptations of his late-period auteurist works The New Gods and The Eternals looming (from Warner/DC and Marvel Studios respectively). However, his larger career story, beyond what can be harnessed to hype new adaptations, still seems unknown even to many fans of the Marvel Universe — a pop-culture franchise impossible to imagine without Kirby’s foundational work. Happily, the now-touring exhibition Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes (reviewed here on 23 April 2018) casts Kirby as, essentially, cofounder of that universe, and conversations around films like Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Eternals have made Kirby and his designs a frequent talking point. I have to admit, I had never expected to see this.

But to me the heart of the story remains (of course) Kirby’s own art and storytelling, and his own improbable record of unstinting creativity against long odds, in an industry that often treated creators like dirt. Thrilling to the latest news of pending screen adaptations ought to be balanced, I think, by a critical awareness that comics, as comics, do not necessarily gain from these things, and that a history of comics that is hostage to the current exploitation of corporate IP is not really history, but hype. Anyone who has published scholarship on comics creators like Kirby is probably familiar with  the odd sensation of seeing scholarly opportunities open up  precisely because of that hype — but I believe we should be wary of pop-culture presentism that repackages, but also occludes, the very history of the things we are researching. Sure, bring on the adaptations, the marketing campaigns, the DVD/Blu-ray extras and all that (I’ll be paying attention to the Eternals and New Gods films), but it’s the conversation around Kirby’s comic art as such that most interests me.

Kirby does not equal Marvel, or DC, and even his work for DC and Marvel ought to be framed in terms other than those of corporate mythology!

KIRBY STUDIES NEWS:

Man, I wish I had been able to go to France this summer. It’s been a feast of comic art exhibitions in France these last few months, and not one but two shows about Kirby have taken place in the Normandy region, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy and subsequent liberation of France. In France, Kirby’s name seems indelibly linked with his part in the liberation as well as his Marvel work, so this seems to have been perfect timing. One of these exhibitions closed just this past weekend, and the other (sigh) closes on September 29. I so wanted to give my passport another workout this summer, but, alas, could not.

I owe most of what I know about these exhibitions to social media posts and, especially, a review essay by comics scholar Jean-Paul Gabilliet (Of Comics and Men) for the International Journal of Comic Art. This thoughtful and detailed essay, by one of the leading historians of the American comic book, is happily available online, pending its publication in a future issue of IJOCA; I recommend it highly:

http://ijoca.blogspot.com/2019/08/about-four-comic-art-exhibits-in-france.html

One of the exhibitions, co-curated by French Kirby biographer Jean Depelley, focused squarely on Kirby’s wartime experience. Titled La guerre de Jack Kirby, l’inventeur des super-héros modernes [The war of Jack Kirby, the inventor of modern superheroes], it reportedly consisted of reproductions of comic book art and photographs, with emphasis on Kirby’s time as a combat infantryman in Nazi-occupied France. This fairly small exhibition ran from June 4 through August 24 at Les 7 lieux, a media library and cultural center in the city of Bayeux (famed in not only military history but also, of course, the history of sequential art).

At the same time, roughly 60 miles away, a very large exhibition titled Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super-héros ran (and is still running, through Sept. 29, having been extended) at Le Musée Thomas Henry, a fine-arts museum in Cherbourg, the famed Normandy port city. Co-curated by Musée curator Louise Hallet and comic art dealer Bernard Mahé, this exhibition is part of the Biennale du 9e art, a biennial event that centers on a big exhibition focused on a major creator. La galaxie reportedly includes more than 200 pieces of original comic art, about three-fourths of which are by Kirby, the other one-fourth being works by, as Gabilliet says, Kirby’s precursors (e.g. Hal Foster; Alex Raymond) and followers (e.g. Steranko; John Buscema). This sounds frankly like an overwhelming feast for the eye and the mind. Dig a couple of borrowed photos:

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Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super héros at Le Musée Thomas Henry. Photo: actua.fr, 28 July 2019.

Curator Louise Hallet (and Darkseid) at Le Musée Thomas Henry

Curator Louise Hallet and Darkseid, Le Musée Thomas Henry. Photo: Ouest-France, 22 May 2019.

La galaxie appears to have been one of the very largest Kirby exhibitions ever, comparable in scope to The House that Jack Built (co-curated by Paul Gravett and Dan Nadel for Lucerne’s Fumetto festival in 2010). Gabilliet writes thoughtfully of the exhibition’s pleasures and limitations, in terms that reminded me of the challenges I faced when curating Comic Book Apocalypse for the CSUN Art Galleries (2015). But, ah, just to see the complete “Even Gods Must Die” (New Gods, 1984 series, #6), on view at La galaxie — man, what I wouldn’t have done for that experience. I dearly regret missing these shows, just as I regret missing Mostri, uomini, dei [Monsters, Men, Gods], the Kirby exhibition at Bologna’s BilBOLBul comics festival last fall.

Right now, Gabilliet’s conclusion is ringing in my head:

[C]omic art exhibiting seems increasingly open to a plurality of conceptual and aesthetic possibilities that by far transcend the arguably increasingly humdrum pattern of “career retrospectives,” notwithstanding the genuine satisfaction one is perfectly free to experience while beholding wall-to-wall displays of original comic art drawn by a given creator. While many museums and galleries still regard comic art as “easily accessible” art that will likely attract paying visitors—a legitimate expectation by all means, unfortunately—the full museographic potential of comic art is yet to be tapped. The more imaginative curators will prove, the more alive we will all become to the versatility of our favorite art form.

Yet to be tapped. Absolutely. But things are happening. This puts me in mind of, one, Kim Munson’s forthcoming academic anthology, Comic Art in Museums (UP of Mississippi, 2020), in which I believe I will have a couple of pieces; two, the pending Comic-Con Museum in San Diego; and three, the pending Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles (currently advertising for a comic art curator). It would be reasonable to expect major Kirby-themed exhibitions from either or both of those places.

TWO OTHER NEWS ITEMS:

ONE. Speaking of Kirby’s wartime experience, acclaimed artist and Kirby expert James Romberger has a Kirby-themed biographical comic about to drop: For Real #1, promised from Uncivilized Books this November, which will reportedly contain:

“The Oven,” a short comics story that is a fictionalized amalgam of two little-discussed and largely undocumented parts of Kirby’s life: a harrowing encounter with Nazis in World War 2 and his treatment for cancer many years later, a story that touches on themes of PTSD, graphic medicine, courage and empathy; and “The Real Thing,” an accompanying essay by James that clarifies aspects of the story and contextualizes them with the reality of Kirby’s experiences.

For Real cover by Romberger

James Romberger’s anthology series For Real will begin with a comic and an essay about Kirby. In shops Nov. 6, 2019.

This comic book, Romberger says, is “the first issue of what will be a continuing anthology title” that he will edit, to be published by Uncivilized Books.

Romberger will be speaking about this project at the New York Comics & Picture-story Symposium next Tuesday, September 3, at 7pm at Parsons School of Design, University Center, 63 Fifth Avenue, Room UL 105. This event is free and open to the public.

I’m excited about this project, which promises to complement some other recent biographical projects: Tom Scioli’s graphic bio of Kirby (in progress), Scioli and Jean Depelley’s collaboration on “Private Kirby Adventures” (as seen in The Jack Kirby Collector #64, 2014), and Depelley and Marc Azéma’s 2017 documentary film La guerre de Kirby. Romberger is a superb artist, with a great feel for period and place and an abiding interest in Kirby.

TWO. On an academic and theoretical front, Kirby’s work figures in the recently released bilingual (French and English) anthology Abstraction and Comics/Bande dessinée et abstraction, a two-volume slipcased beauty edited by Aarnoud Rommens with the collaboration of Benoît Crucifix, Björn-Olav Dozo, Erwin Dejasse, and Pablo Turnes.

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Abstraction and Comics | Bande dessinée et abstraction. La Cinquième Couche/Presses universitaires de Liège, collection ACME, 201

Abstraction and Comics is a project of the ACME research group at the University of Liège in Belgium, and jointly published by La Cinquième Couche and the University Presses of Liège. It totals nearly 900 pages, and includes essays and comics by more than fifty contributors (among them my esteemed colleagues Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey, Gene Kannenberg, Jr., Martha Kuhlman, Pascal Lefèvre, Gert Meesters, and Barbara Postema). Two essays will be of special interest to Kirby scholars and fans: “Jack Kirby: In-between the Abstract and the Psychedelic,” by Spanish scholar Roberto Bartual (author of Jack Kirby: Una Odisea Psicodélica); and “The Kirby ‘Krackle’: A Graphic Lexicon for Cosmic Superheroes,” by Argentinean scholar Amadeo Gandolfo.

There’s a ton to take in and think about in this pair of books. Recommended emphatically! My own research on collage in comics (including Kirby’s) will draw quite a bit from these pages.

It’s great to see Kirby studies flourishing internationally, and so many exhibitions and projects taking up his work. By Halloween I’ll have another such project to announce.

HAPPY KIRBY DAY! Indeed, #K i r b y I s E t e r n a l.

PS. My thanks to the great Paul Gravett for providing me updated and corrected information about the Cherbourg exhibition!

COMICS/POLITICS at Ryerson this weekend!

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This weekend (Thursday, July 25-Saturday, July 27) Mich and I will be traveling to Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada for COMICS/POLITICS, the 2nd Annual Conference of the Comics Studies Society. Man, I can hardly wait!

I served as Founding President of CSS from 2014 to Spring 2018, and continue to serve happily on the Society’s Executive Board. Brainstorming CSS with colleagues and helping the Society get started has been one of the most rewarding projects of my career — and now I get to go to a CSS conference and present a paper on Jack Kirby. My worlds are colliding. 🙂

This Friday, as part of Panel 7.4, War and Conflict Comics, I’ll be giving my paper, “Kirby’s Visions of War, Early and Late,” an outgrowth of my work at the Université de Lorraine symposium in 2017 and my ongoing interest in Kirby’s kid gang comics. Joining me on that panel will be fellow presenters Kaleb Knoblauch and Shawn Gilmore and moderator Martha Kuhlman—I expect to learn a lot! And ours is but one of many panels, roundtables, plenaries, and other gatherings that altogether will make up a jam-packed conference program. So many scholars, so many exciting perspectives on the art and culture of comics: a panel on indigenous comics with Tara Audibert, Camille Callison, Cole Paul, moderator Amy Dejarlais, and graphic recorder Sam Hester; a conversation with Fiona Smyth, Jillian Tamaki, and Qiana Whitted; a Canadian WW2 comics exhibition opening at the Ryerson Library, with guest speaker Hope Nicholson; a mixer at The Beguiling and Little Island Comics (just hanging out in one of the world’s greatest comics shops, no big deal); tons of papers, talks, and opportunities to interact and learn — yow, this is going to be something, a worthy continuation of the tradition begun last year in Champaign.

Plus, a pre-conference documentary film screening on Wednesday night (Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity, and Stereotypes, dir. Harleen Singh, 2018); a charitable comics drive in partnership with the Canada Comics Open Library; book signings with our plenary artists (and Michael DeForge! and Chester Brown!), thanks to exhibitors Drawn & Quarterly and Bedside Press; and, on Friday, a free and public Artists’ Alley featuring indy creators and publishers! PLUS, on Sunday, after the official close of the conference, a number of us will be making a field trip to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, to see the acclaimed exhibition, THIS IS SERIOUS: Canadian Indie Comics!

See why CSS has become one of my yearly “mountaintop” experiences?

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If you’re curious about CSS or comics studies, and close enough to get to Toronto, remember that our first day, Thursday, July 25, is Community Day, meaning that the morning events are free and open to the public. Plus, there will be single-day passes on Friday and Saturday for non-CSS members. Come check out what we’re doing!

All credit for the great program, its creativity, richness, accessibility, and relevance, goes to this year’s Conference Organizing Committee, helmed by co-chairs Candida Rifkind, who is CSS President, and Andrew O’Malley, and including Blair Davis, Biz Nijdam (representing the CSS Graduate Student Caucus), Nhora Lucia Serrano, Matt Smith, and past President Carol Tilley—a tireless team that has blended the best of the traditional conference model with new public-facing and creative elements. Looking forward to experiencing the results of their hard work!

Listen to Mythology in Newsprint on KUNV

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News: Audio of my Kirby talk “Mythology in Newsprint,” which I gave at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on April 26, is now up for listening online, thanks to KUNV, the Public Radio station at UNLV, and its program UNLV Speaks:

http://kunv.org/april-26-2019/

(Thanks in particular to KUNV’s Kevin Krall and Dave Nourse.)

This talk covers Kirby’s role in the creation of the Marvel Universe, the nature of “Marvel style” comic book production in the 1960s, and the importance of cartooning as narrative drawing (as opposed to illustration). It draws passages from Hand of Fire as well as the introductory essay to the Comic Book Apocalypse exhibit catalog that Ben Saunders and I wrote together. The talk concludes with some thoughts on the self-reflexive, sometimes self-questioning tendency in Kirby’s later work, and in particular a reading of Kamandi #29 (“The Legend,” May 1975), in which Kirby reflects on superheroes as mythic figures.

The talk incorporated scores of images (mostly drawn by Jack Kirby) timed to my comments, and unfortunately those aren’t visible through this radio broadcast — but I hope that the argument is clear and my enthusiasm carries over. At one or two points you can hear me refer to opening remarks by Ben Morse (Visiting Lecturer in Social Media at UNLV, and former Editorial Director of New Media at Marvel), who kindly introduced me. The audio here lasts an hour (though it does not include the post-talk Q&A that the audience and I had together).

This talk was part of the UNLV College of Liberal Arts’ University Forum Lecture Series (and ironically happened on the official opening day of Avengers: Endgame). Thanks to Ben and all who had a part in bringing me to UNLV and hosting me so graciously — including the institutional co-sponsors, UNLV’s Departments of English and History, World Literature Seminar, Great Works Academic Certificate Program, and College of Fine Arts. Most of all, I want to thank, again, my friend and fellow Kirby-head, Jarret Keene, poet, scholar, and Assistant Professor in Residence and World Literature Coordinator for the UNLV English Department. Jarret invited me out and made this gig possible — and his own insights about Kirby are provocative and important. Check out his work, and look forward to more of his writing on Kirby in the years ahead. He’ll open your eyes.

Thanks, Jarret!

PS. As I’ve said on this blog before, I met so many good people during that lightning trip to Vegas. My thanks to them all.

Mythology in Newsprint: PS

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The crowd awaits (John Hay and Jenessa Kenway in the foreground).

Last Friday I had an oh-so-brief but fantastic visit to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where I gave my talk “Mythology in Newsprint,” interacted (and talked Kirby!) with some wonderful people, and signed and sold copies of Hand of Fire. The talk happened at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art (which is great—check out the current exhibition, Sorry for the Mess), as part of the UNLV College of Liberal Arts’ University Forum Lecture Series. We drew a full house on a Friday night—not too shabby for a university lecture! (Of course there were jokes about choosing between a lecture and Avengers: Endgame.)

I spoke at length—man, what a patient crowd—about Kirby’s co-authorship of the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, the primacy of narrative drawing in the Marvel production process, how Kirby changed the superhero genre, and finally, how his later work, starting in the 1970s, became increasingly self-reflexive, as Kirby ironically commented on his work, his field, and his fans—a point borne out by a brief reading of Kamandi #29 (1975), “The Legend.”

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The UNLV crowd was gracious, engaged, and delightful. Q&A was robust, the conversation in the lobby afterward was warm and welcoming, and the kind remarks and thought-provoking follow-up I received from so many people were profoundly encouraging. Thank you all!

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Getting started. Looping a couple of splash pages from THE NEW GODS just before the talk was a last-minute choice.

Particular thanks are due, once again, to organizer Jarret Keene, my fellow Kirby scholar and friend and a great writer:

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Jarret (Monster Fashion) Keene, without whom…

It was a delight to spend time with Jarret, after a gap of too many years, and to meet his partner Dr. Jennifer Keene, Interim Dean of Liberal Arts at UNLV, as well as their boys Dylan and Devon. Likewise, it was lovely to meet and talk to Jarret’s colleagues, among them Dr. John Hay (of the English Department, author of Postapocalyptic Fantasies in Antebellum American Literature) and Ben Morse (Visiting Lecturer in Social Media, and former Editorial Director of New Media at Marvel Entertainment), who kindly introduced my talk. Also, I got to meet and talk to creators Ariel Sparx and Edward Tyndall; members of the Barrick Museum team, including Deanne (D.K.) Sole and LeiAnn Huddleston, who helped me out a lot; and members of the UNLV English graduate student community, including Carly Hunter, Jenessa Kenway, and Gary Lindeburg—all of whom are doing mind-expanding research.

Finally, I have to say, it was a thrill to meet artist and author J.H. Williams III, whose conversation is as wide-ranging, joyful, and energetic as his work is brilliant, and the delightful team of Ralph Mathieu and his wife Katherine Keller, of Alternate Reality Comics—a great shop that, thanks to Jarret, I got to visit on Saturday before flying out. I regret that I didn’t get very many pictures of these fine people and spaces, but here’s one:

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Jarret Keene (left) and Ralph Mathieu in the middle of Ralph’s eye-boggling super-shop, Alternate Reality.

What a pleasure. I lead a charmed life. If my wife Michele could have joined me in Vegas, the experience would have been perfect! I look forward to visiting again—and to collaborating with Jarret Keene on other things Kirby-related (regarding which, watch this space for future announcements).

PS. I believe that KUNV (the Public Radio station at UNLV) will post audio of my talk in the coming weeks. I’ll link to that when it happens!