Category Archives: News

RIP Greg Theakston (1953-2019)

Sad news: Greg Theakston—publisher, artist, former convention organizer (The Detroit Triple Fan Fair), longtime member of Neal Adams’s Continuity Studios, Kirby inker (The Hunger Dogs; Super Powers) and Kirby scholar—has passed away at the age of 65. My condolences to his colleagues and loved ones.

Theakston published, under his Pure Imagination imprint, a great many books of vintage comics and of comics history. For me, especially early on, his books on Kirby were valuable compendiums of comics and lore, anecdote and example. Especially important to me were the two volumes of his biographical  Jack Kirby Treasury (1982; 1991), the several volumes in his Complete Jack Kirby reprint project, and the second edition (2000) of his reprint of Kirby’s classic comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force. While the artwork in Theakston’s comic book reprints was typically drawn from published comics that had been stripped of color through a destructive chemical process nicknamed “Theakstonizing,” and thus did not quite do justice to the comics as originally printed, these collections did the great service of filling in what had been only vague outlines in my mind before. I got a hands-on feeling for Kirby’s early work from these tomes. In addition, Theakston’s two-volume biography of Kirby, Jack Magic (2011), is well worth seeking out, peppered as it is with insights and quoted remarks drawn from his personal acquaintance with Kirby. Along with biographers Mark Evanier, Ronin Ro, the late Stan Taylor, and Ray Wyman, Jr., Theakston sought to make sense of Kirby’s life and career, even as he sought to bring evidence of that career before our eyes via reprints. Beyond Kirby, too, Theakston provided such resources as his Pure Image magazine and various “readers” devoted to generally public-domain material by classic cartoonists like Jack Cole, Lou Fine, and Wally Wood. So, Theakston did a lot, and taught me and other readers a fair amount.

True, I learned to be critical of Theakston’s books. As I see them now, they tend to be haphazardly edited and aesthetically barren; the Pure Imagination “house style” is functional but graceless. Further, the books were high-priced, and aimed strictly at a captive audience of specialists. Most vanished quickly. Theakston moved on, his books seemingly a random scattering rather than any sort of coherent pattern. (His Complete Jack Kirby was anything but.) Moreover, Theakston became a vexing figure in recent years; in 2014, he publicly accused the Jack Kirby Museum of stealing more than 3000 photocopies of Kirby’s art from him (a claim disputed by the Kirby estate itself). That dustup caused some Kirby devotees to turn away from him, shaking their heads. I was one.

I never “got” Theakston artistically. Despite his enthusiasm for Kirby, aesthetically he seemed worlds away from what excited me about Kirby’s art. I gather that Theakston was a prolific magazine and paperback cover illustrator, but the samples of his work I’ve seen strike me as beholden to pulp nostalgia in ways that interest me no longer. He inked Kirby in ways that struck me as more tame than dynamic. What’s more, I have to admit I’m a skeptic when it comes to the brand of retro glam-cheesecake-pinup art that seemed to hold him in thrall and fueled some of his longest-lived publishing efforts (The Bettie Pages; Tease). Theakston’s way with paint seemed to have more to do with that kind of Vargas/Elvgren aesthetic than the rowdy cartooning of Kirby, and, well, I’m no convert. But it would be mean and foolish of me to deny that I benefited from his nostalgia, his enthusiasm, his immersion in vintage comic and pulp art. There was a time when I snagged every Pure Imagination book on Kirby that I could, and I see a bunch of them on my shelves, right here.

My one brief meeting with Greg Theakston (which convention was that at?) led to nothing; he seemed uninterested. But that makes no difference; the important thing to me is that he showed me aspects of Kirby I had never seen before, and helped me get a clearer picture. In particular, his 1982 Kirby Treasury meant a lot to me. So, thanks to Mr. Theakston for being a Kirby studies pioneer. RIP.

 

RIP Stan Lee (1922-2018)

A sad day. Numerous sources have confirmed the passing, this morning, of legendary Marvel Comics writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee (b. Stanley Martin Lieber, 1922-2018). My condolences to his loved ones and friends, and to his colleagues and fans, who were legion.

It appears that TMZ.com and The Hollywood Reporter were among the first to break the news publicly; other sources, for example the Associated PressNew York TimesLos Angeles Times, and CNN, have followed suit.

Stan Lee in the US Army, c. 1942-45

Stan Lee served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1945. Website DoDLive (www.dodlive.mil) identifies this image as simply a “U.S. Army photo.”

Lee was 95 years old. Anyone who has been following coverage of his life over roughly the past year, since the death of his beloved wife Joan Lee in July 2017, probably knows how tumultuous his final days were, marked by rumors of frailty, vulnerability, and domestic chaos. Recent images of Lee on the convention circuit have sometimes been disconcerting, as the almost mythically peppy, seemingly indefatigable Lee finally began showing signs of age and dependency. Until very recently, Lee played the part of a Pop icon with gusto, getting out in the world, engaging his fans, and burnishing his legend.

Speaking personally, I had somewhat expected Lee’s passing, as the last few months have been filled with nerve-wracking, if sometimes contradictory, reports about his status. Yet I was surprised at how shocked, and saddened, I was to hear of his death today. The news brought tears to my eyes, and I am hard pressed to say why.

I have been critical of Lee, both in my book Hand of Fire and especially since his testimony in the Marvel v. Kirby legal case. I have also been critical of his hagiographers, those who tend to describe Lee as a real-life “superhero.” When I see the usual inaccurate coverage of Lee’s career, creative work, and relationships with other creators who worked under his editorship – and I have seen that sort of glancing, thinly researched coverage this very day – I confess I seethe with frustration. What Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon say at the start of their 2003 book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (which I consider the best single book about Lee) still applies:

Stan Lee is one of the most important figures in American popular culture. He is also one of the least understood. […]

Here is the truth about Stan Lee: he didn’t create Spider-Man or any of Marvel’s most famous characters. He cocreated them. The distinction matters, because in that distinction lies the essence of his considerable accomplishments. (ix)

This seemingly simple yet crucial caveat is still routinely swept aside when reporters reach for superlatives to put Lee’s work into context. Just what is meant by “cocreated” is something I tried to wrestle with, too tentatively perhaps, in Hand of Fire – and that is indeed a question that continues to bear upon Lee’s reputation, one that has implications for the breadth and nature of his accomplishments.

Hand of Fire seeks to split the difference between praising Lee as Marvel’s editorial architect and criticizing him for his untrustworthy, often self-aggrandizing accounts of how Marvel actually worked in its 1960s heyday. Here’s a key passage:

Of course “Stan Lee” has long served various author-functions for fans, not least the conferral of a single tone or attitude on what is, really, a shapeless amassing of decades’ worth of inconsistent, heterogeneous work. But though Lee was Marvel’s impresario and publicist par excellence in the sixties and early seventies, and though at first he contributed to the comics’ content as a scripter, polishing if not steering the work of various narrative artists, he did not solely create any enduring Marvel properties. Nor did he, in fact, serve as scenarist for many of the most celebrated Marvel comics of the mid to late sixties. By the same token, Kirby – though he provided the conceptual material, the character designs, the unmistakable graphic style, the pacing, and, eventually, the plotting and overall direction of the Marvel books with which he was linked – did not solely author any of the seminal Marvels of the period. His work was constrained and subliminally altered at the editorial level, with text that reshaped and at times redirected his plots. Furthermore, Lee’s vitalizing influence saturated Marvel and determined its editorial ethos. Kirby worked harder, but, commercially, Lee made things happen. (94-95)

This passage, which has been quoted and talked about, is one that I’m proud of, for its preciseness, its refusal to take things too simply, and its distance from the angry, intemperate things I would have said had I written Hand of Fire at a younger age. Yet during the Marvel v. Kirby case, and even since, I have not been able to convince myself that an “angry, intemperate” response was wholly uncalled-for. I tried to write the book more or less dispassionately, but since then I’ve often been passionately angry about Lee’s continued prevarications when it comes to the question of who did what at Marvel back in the sixties. It has been easy to blame Lee, or rather, hard not to blame him. He has been, after all, a Grand Old Man of American comic books (as Raphael and Spurgeon put it), a totemic figure, and one with the power to shape the way people view history. I wish he had been more forthcoming.

Some readers have told me that Hand of Fire goes too easy on Lee, or on the official Marvel history, that Lee did not contribute substantially to the comics’ content – or if he did so, then only negatively – and that he emphatically did not “steer” the work of Jack Kirby. I remain unsure of quite how to tell the story, but am convinced that Lee added considerable pizzazz, spirit, and warmth to those comics; his voice mattered. Of course I’m equally convinced of what the above says about Kirby: that Kirby provided the concepts, designs, storytelling, pacing, style, and eventually, though perhaps to some degree even at the outset, the plots of the Marvel comics he drew. The same is emphatically true of the work that the late Steve Ditko did under Lee’s editorship. The record is murky, but we do know that Lee expected Marvel’s artists to plot and to make fine decisions about pacing and storytelling, and we do know that stalwart artists Kirby and Ditko had proven their ability to create comics stories from scratch again and again prior to the Marvel explosion. Obviously, they didn’t need Lee in order to make comics – though they did need Lee to create Marvel Comics. What Lee himself had to say about the working arrangement at Marvel shifted over the years, from (sometimes) frank acknowledgment of the artists’ contributions to (sometimes) insistence that he himself had provided what was most important about the characters. In any case, the “Marvel method” of production has permanently clouded the question of who did what, who inspired what, and to what extent Lee and his artists truly worked together.

Back cover to Stan Lee's "Secrets Behind the Comics" (1947).

The back cover to Stan Lee’s 1947 book, “Secrets Behind the Comics.” As reproduced in “The Secret History of Marvel Comics,” by Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo (2013), page 156.

I’ve worried over these things, and felt these conflicted feelings, for quite a while, and will surely continue to feel them. Anyone paying close attention to Kirby’s career story must think about the gap between the official history (even the history adopted by Marvel in the wake of the Marvel v. Kirby settlement) and what must really have happened among the disparate talents and personalities that made possible the massively multi-authored vast narrative that is Marvel. Anyone who has delved deeply into Kirby’s story must also be have a version of Stan Lee’s story on their mind, even if that version is, like mine, conflicted.

When I was a kid, though, ah, Stan Lee’s name was one to conjure with, and his voice became as familiar as my own. I read more comics than I can count that started with this claim:Stan Lee presents

Lee’s name became part of a reading ritual; he was the figurehead of figureheads, a magic character. And to this day I have a feeling for the idea of “Stan Lee” that no amount of research has been able to quell. I was reminded of that this morning, and the feeling, oddly, hurt. Having spent the last few days pawing through some too-long-neglected boxes of comic books and reliving some of my long-ago days as a fan and collector, I may have been too-perfectly primed to be shocked by the news of his passing. News of his death sent me into a fog.

Words like charlatan and huckster cling to Lee, and comparisons to carnival barkers, or even P.T. Barnum, are never far away when Lee is the topic of talk. I understand why; frankly, those words are deserved. Lee knew this well, but he wasn’t simply a shill. A shill would have had his hour, but then faded, and fast. Lee, though, was something else. He combined the larger-than-life qualities of a Marvel hero with the affability of a beloved neighborhood character and the approachability of an old friend. Sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of his seeming mendacity and conveniently porous memory. I’ve had that version of Lee in my head for nearly thirty years and counting. But sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of being a kid with a comic book in front of him, with a whole great big world spreading out before him, and I feel, still, a certain awe and gratitude at the whole crazy business.

RIP Stan Lee. I cannot imagine my life as a reader and thinker, nor my coming of age as a comics scholar and critic, without him. As editor-impresario, Lee brought the work of Kirby and a gaggle of other disparate artists to market under one colorful banner, and in so doing enriched my life and the whole American comic book field. I don’t know if I can call Lee one of my cultural heroes – I suppose Hand of Fire tells the story of my loss of faith – but at one time he surely was, and I cannot but thank him for that. Working in tandem with other singular talents, Lee helped transform the comic book, and though his greatest period as a writer-editor spanned just a decade – only a fraction of his long career – what he helped bring to the newsstands in those days, the heady days of Kirby and of Ditko, and of the dawning Marvel Universe, was stupendous.

PS. Among the several obituaries I’ve read today, I would recommend  Jonathan Kandell and Andy Webster’s careful one for the New York Times, and Michael Dean’s excellent one at The Comics Journal. (I don’t agree with Dean’s assessment of Lee’s skill as a writer, versus Kirby’s, but it’s a lovely, insightful piece, with a ringing conclusion.)

Stan Lee at Stan Lee Day, 2016

Oct. 7, 2016: Lee enjoys “Stan Lee Day” in NYC, at Madison Square Garden (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images, obtained from the Los Angeles Times).

PPS. I just rediscovered this odd, ambivalent poem I wrote about Stan Lee years ago. I think it captures both my gratitude and my ambivalence. ‘Nuff said.

Kirby Panel Transcript Lands This Week!

AE49 Trial Cover.qxd

The newest issue of The Jack Kirby Collector, #67, hits comic shops this week—edited, designed, and published by the great John Morrow, as always. Every issue of TJKC is crammed with good stuff, and this one is no exception; it includes two interviews with Kirby as well as a lovely reminiscence by John himself. It also includes the transcript of the panel discussion at CSU Northridge last September, based on our exhibition Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby and featuring Scott Bukatman, Doug Harvey, Adam McGovern, Andrei Molotiu, Steve Roden, Ben Saunders, and me. This is a far-ranging discussion, taking in perspectives from fandom and academia, from art history, literature, and cultural studies, and from the very personal—our first memories of Kirby—to such dauntingly big questions as “Does comic art belong in galleries?” and “What is Art, anyway?” I’m proud to have been part of this rich, thought-provoking conversation.

Unfortunately, due to my own mistakes, the panel transcript got rushed into print in raw, mis-edited form, and without the approval of my co-panelists. This means that the version included in the print edition of TJKC #67 does not reflect the editorial input of Scott, Doug, Adam, Andrei, Steve, or Ben, and contains several mistaken names, mis-attributed statements, and mis-heard lines. The responsibility for these errors is solely mine, and I apologize to my colleagues for green-lighting this flawed and unapproved transcript. In the mad, breathless rush of the past few months, that is the one thing I really regret.

Fortunately, John Morrow has graciously made it possible for us to include a thoroughly revised and corrected transcript in the digital edition of issue 67, and also to make the whole article available as a free download. To get this download, go to the “FREE stuff!” section of the TwoMorrows website, at:

FREE Jack Kirby Collector #67 Supplement

It will look like this:

JK67Supplement_LRG

To be clear, subscribers to the digital Jack Kirby Collector should automatically see this revised, corrected version of the article in their digital copies of #67. Subscribers to TJKC in print should find a small information card in their mailed copy of #67 directing them to the free download.

This revised digital version of the transcript entirely supersedes the print version, and is the one I hope Kirby fans and scholars will cite going forward.

My thanks to John and to my brilliant co-panelists for their patience, understanding, and revisions. I am very proud of the final result!

The Apocalypse Now Available at Comic Shops!

I’m delighted to report that the exhibition catalog for Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby, co-edited by Ben Saunders and me, and published by IDW in partnership with the CSU Northridge Art Galleries, has at last arrived at comic book shops across the country!

That’s right: the CBA catalog, published last fall, made it to comic shops yesterday, March 16. Kirby fans and scholars, look out for it!

It was a labor of love, and is a trove of Kirby artwork, Kirby lore, interpretation, analysis, and appreciation, as well as a complete documenting of the record-setting Kirby exhibition at CSUN in Fall 2015! For further information, and images, see my posts of January 26, December 5, and October 30, below.

More Kirby news forthcoming!

Apocalypse Delayed, But Have No Fear!

Unfortunately the exhibition catalog for Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby has once again been delayed in its journey to comic shops everywhere. We expected it to be out today, but apparently there has been a glitch. Fear not! The confirmed new release date is Wednesday, March 2. Please ask your local comic shop retailer about it!

For further details, please see my post of January 26 (below). As a reminder, this baby is co-edited by the brilliant Ben Saunders (Do the Gods Wear Capes?) and myself, co-published by IDW and the CSU Northridge Art Galleries, and thoroughly documents our record-setting Kirby exhibition at CSUN last fall! The book contains a raft of personal and analytical essays by a crazy quilty of writers: a veritable who’s who of cool people from the worlds of comics, fine art, fiction, and academia. 

Can you tell that I’m insanely proud of this? 🙂