12.06.2016

Watchmen at 30, pt. 11: Look on My Works, Ye Mighty...


WATCHMEN AT THIRTY,
pt. 11


"Needing nothing, I burned with the 
paradoxical urge to do everything."

Issue 11 opens up with what might be the very first reference to William S. Burroughs in a mainstream comic book.


Okay, so a) I have no idea that is true, b) googling isn't much help, and c) whether it was actually the first reference to WSB nor not it went totally over my head at the time. He only got on my radar when Cronenberg's Naked Lunch was at the Avon for what seemed like months when I was a senior in high school.

The cut-up method described by Burroughs (and Brion Gysin) is the philosophical precursor to mash-up culture, something Moore explored in some depth in the years after Watchmen. Something else he mentions (via Ozymandias) that he explores in other work is this bit about JFK:


As we saw in pt. 10, Rorschach and Nite Owl have traveled to Antractica to stop Ozymandias from executing his master plan. They only find out what said plan is, though, 35 minutes after it's too late to stop it. ("I'm not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?") And what is his plan? That one's less simple: it involves teleporting a huge alien-looking monster, cloned from a "human sensitive", constructed by a hand-picked group of engineers, parapsychologists, artists, and writers, into New York City, where imperfections of teleportation technology will cause it to explode and spread a wave of psychic fear and devastation, thus uniting the people, finally, beyond their personal and national psychodramas.

Some (such as Grant Morrison, whose review in Supergods we'll look at next time) dismiss this part of Watchmen as blatant absurdity. Here's the Tor re-read's take:  

"I see it as the most intelligent character in a comic book universe taking a very comic booky approach to solving the world's problems. Of course he retreats to a science fiction cliché in the end. For all of Watchmen's nods towards realism, it's not realistic at all, is it? It takes its characters seriously and develops a complex narrative schema around them, but Watchmen is a superhero comic to the end, with costumed vigilantes and matter-manipulating superhumans and devious villains who declare their maniacal intentions in the climax."
 
Agreed. That all of this takes place in Adrian's "Fortress of Solitude" drives the point home, as does the whole "faked alien invasion to unite humanity" thing. I think it's entirely in keeping with the deconstructive and meta-spirit of Watchmen, myself. 

It has some overtones of 9/11 conspiracy theory that were of course not applicable in 1986. I only point it out to shrug at this, that's all. The people of the Watchmen-world, conditioned as they are to an actual Doctor Manhattan and a Rockefeller Military Research Institute and all the rest, are uniquely positioned to believe the impossible. It's too bad we'll never see a sequel from the original creators, exploring that world. Would the people see through the ruse? Everyone is out of the loop, here, power structure-wise; would no one else put any of it together? Would Nixon and Kissinger truly lock arms with the USSR against the threat of an imaginary alien invasion? Would it all go according to Adrian's simulations or would it just be another thwarted supervillain plot after a year-long multi-parter?


MOORE TRANSITIONS and VISUAL IRONY

The first of the ones I made note of occurs when Adrian is telling Dan and Rorschach about his experiments with teleportation.


Well-played. I often think of Alan Moore's days working at the tannery and the gravedigger's humor it engendered in him. We're all reaping the benefits of this unfortunate stint of employment.

Alexander the Great's solution to the Gordian Knot plays no small role in his origin story, and it's recalled with no fanfare in the background of this panel:


Considering it's the violence between this couple that works to bring together the various strangers we've seen around the newsstand, directly before the Big Finish, it's another cruel moment of irony.

As is this last-page-obliteration recall (l) of the image from the cover (r).

"I want to be straight... I want to be dead" (said by Josephine before the break-up turns violent) juxtaposed against the Black Freighter story, too:


The longing for oblivion is strong in a world so perpetually koyanisqaatsi.


OZYMANDIAS ORIGIN STORY


Again from Tor:

"This is Adrian Veidt’s spotlight issue. The smartest man in the world. A self-proclaimed, self-made modern Alexander the Great. And Moore and Gibbons hammer that point home here, with half a dozen explicit references to the ancient Macedonian."

I like the Citizen Kane effect of having flashback-Adrian always in shadow or turned away in-frame.
I love this subtle landing of the butterfly on his servants' face. Uh-oh.

COLOR COMPARISONS

Once again, John Higgins does an exemplary job subtly remastering and remixing his colors from the original issues. Here are just a few examples.

Original.
Remastered. That blue on the right is probably the most dramatic change of all of them.
Original (l) Remastered (r)
Original (l) Remastered (r)
Original (l) Remastered (r)

Before I began this series of posts, I'd seen a few variations of the opinion that Watchmen might be ground-breaking, sure, and it's one of the best things ever, but objectively, it loses steam towards the end. I've come across that a lot out there. I'm finding that to not at all be the case for me personally. More on this next time, though.

One last thing, though: the certainty with which Watchmen and much apocalyptic fiction of the 70s and 80s speak to nuclear annihilation is striking in retrospect. Everyone was so damn convinced the future was nuclear winter. Kind of funny in retrospect, isn't it?

Let's hope it stays that way. (Funny, I mean.)


~

12.02.2016

Let's Rap About Cap, pt. 6: 70s Kirby


KIRBY'S RETURN

All quotes this time around from Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics.

"In 1975, Kirby returned to Marvel. They welcomed him back and let him write/ draw/ edit his own comics, on his own. Some were new (The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur), some were adaptations (2001), and some were old friends revisited (Black Panther, Captain America.) Many readers (and some in the office) were bothered that (Kirby's direction on Panther and Cap) did not coincide with the tidy inter-continuity of the Marvel Universe. Others disliked Jack's writing style or felt his art was getting sloppy. That eye was really starting to bother him by now, making drawing for hours at his desk more painful and skewing his perspectives in odd slants. His inkers would do what they could to compensate, but it was becoming obvious to anyone who looked past the surface excitement: something was wrong."

It was Kirby's second stint at Marvel that formed my first impression of the man. Mainly from Cap Annual #4, which I'd somehow acquired in my travels.

My friends and I were unimpressed.

By the time I got around to fully reading Kirby's return to Cap (CA 193 through 214 plus a handful of annuals and special editions), I was more or less conditioned to just be thankful for having Kirby compositions to admire. To some extent, this is still my approach to Kirby; he's a category of one where any basis for comparison can only be other Kirby.

How does it hold up from that p.o.v.? Better than its reputation at the time, certainly, but perhaps a bit puffed up by later Kirbyphiles. Like me, too, I guess. So be it! The conventional wisdom on Kirby - that his best work was in that '65 to '73 period - is probably correct.

What jumps out most about the art throughout Kirby's return to character are the heavy, heavy inks.

I wonder if that's what explains Frank Miller's heavy-inks and skewed-perspectives of recent years? Not that that has anything to do with Jack.
In a way, it adds a very abstract element to things. I mean, what's with this dude's face? Can shadows even do that? Are these confused tattoos of sideburns and retinal leakage?

Discovering that Kirby's deteriorating vision was throwing off his angles and that his inkers (including Frank Giacoia, Dan Green, and Mike Royer) were doing all they could to cover for him explains a lot.  

The two main storylines of Kirby's return to Cap are collected in the Madbomb and The Swine trades. Both are fun enough for what they are, though I'm not too interested in discussing plot nuances with this post. If you like Kirby, you'll find your way into these things; if not, they probably won't do it for you. The Swine is a fun version of a familiar enough character: the South American despot with the femme fatale family member (Donna Marie - another of one of Kirby's go-tos for unofficial female models Lainie Kazan-types like Big Barda or Medusa) who falls for the hero.

Cap needs one of those thought bubbles where you just see "!!!" here, in response to Donna Marie.
Elsewhere, Sharon Carter turns into Sue Storm, while Leila is modeled on Pam Grier. Not the most original choices, which fueled further fan discontent.

"Something was wrong with the sales, too. Jack wasn't connecting with the current Marvel readership, partly because he wasn't connecting with the current Marvel line. Years after, his seventies work would be regarded more favorably and even reprinted, right along with everything else he ever did, time and again. Some would even say the sales figures weren't as dour as the rumors of the time insisted.

"But that was later. Just then, he'd stopped being Jack Kirby, the guy who created, or co-created, so many successful new comics. With the end of his contract in sight, he was Jack Kirby, the guy who did those wonky, unreadable books that didn't sell so great. 'Jack the Hack,' some called him, implying that he'd stopped caring.

"That hurt - hurt him a lot - because he was working harder than ever, with less and less to show for it except dwindling hope and eyesight. Even his boundless imagination couldn't fathom how things might get any better, especially feeling as much hostility from the Marvel editorial staff as he felt. The one person there he thought respected him was the editor in chief, Archie Goodwin. Then Goodwin told him he'd be stepped down in the future."

It's worth reading through Jim Shooter (the EIC after Archie)'s memory of the period for a different perspective. (And more here. That blog is an inexhaustible treasure.) Evanier, in King of Comics and elsewhere, is sometimes a little too on the anti-Shooter side of things. He seems genuinely bummed at the lack of respect Kirby received during this time while understanding of some of his work not being up to snuff. 

"The pages all smelled like cigar smoke. He wrote the dialogue and captions right on the penciled pages, sort of rough-lettering the book. He used exclamation points in bunches, sometimes a dozen at a time at the end of a sentence!!!!!!!!!!!  He misspelled some things — like everybody else — and occasionally misused a word. He used tons of bold words. He’d slightly over-estimate the size of the balloons, which meant that the inker sometimes had to extend backgrounds around the balloons, but it was insignificant, never a problem. Those were great time. After I read each issue, I would call Jack and go over the corrections I proposed to make, mostly punctuation, spelling, grammar and such. I never messed with his intent, though a few (very few) times I caught a significant mistake and proposed a solution. I was as respectful and deferential as could be, as everyone should be when dealing with a King. Jack was the easiest-to-deal-with creator I ever worked with. He seemed to sincerely appreciate my help and thanked me. Technically, by contract, he was the Editor of his own books. He could have refused any of my suggestions, but he never did." 

So, just a few quick impressions of this run:

1) THE WHOLE SUIT UNDER THE CLOTHES THING.


I mean... this is friggin' chain mail we're talking about here, isn't it? I never understand this. This isn't confined to Kirby, by any means; Buscema, Steranko, and others always drew Cap's suit casually draped over the back of a chair or something. Always cracks me up. I want to stress this isn't a dealbreaker of any kind - I'd actually miss this if it wasn't there. It lends to the pleasant disorientation and unreality of comics. I'm sure the answer involves Reed Richards and unstable molecules.

Either way, snazzy threads, Mr. Rogers. That's one serious suit.

2) AMERICAN NEW WAVE

Just because Jack was a retirement-age WW2 vet doesn't mean his work couldn't share in some of the American New Wave sensibility that perfumed so much of the 70s.

I have zero idea what the hell the Falcon is on about here. But I want to see NIGHTMARE FILE ONE SIXTEEN immediately.

The country's bicentennial happened on Kirby's Cap watch, which also allowed for some New Wave-ian fun. Or, at least my projection of such on these images.

This picture from 40 years ago reminds me of how accurate this little breakdown truly is. Holy Christ Rape indeed.

Oh man, Arnim Zola! I love this visual so much. It's so perfectly comic-booky. I've read that "only Kirby could pull this off," but I was introduced to the character in the DeMatteis/ Zeck days and he worked just fine for me there.

That he's a devout Nazi extends the crazy admirably. Almost adorably - though I doubt anything involving Nazis can actually approach "adorable."

3) AND LO, A HAPPY(ISH) ENDING

"Late in 1978 there came a day where - reprints aside - no new comic with art by Jack Kirby was on sale or soon to come out. Readers of the day didn't seem to notice. And it didn't bother Kirby one bit. He just walked away."

Although this sounds on the face of it to be bittersweet - and maybe it is, at least partially - the reason why Jack was unbothered by this was because he was hired by Hanna-Barbara, who offered him a contract that gave him everything he'd ever asked from Marvel: creator credit, job security, health insurance, and generous retirement benefits. His new colleagues had great affection for him, to boot, and he spent the last few years of his working life enjoying both the well-deserved respect of his peers (as well as the explicit praise and acknowledgement fans-turned-creators in other fields like James Cameron and Michael Chabon) and - outside of his public battle with Marvel over creative ownership, which while not worked out 100% to his satisfaction, was basically a legal inevitability - financial and creative satisfaction. At least more than he'd known (shamefully) in his decades in the comics-making biz.

Kirby never came back to the character he co-created with Joe Simon way back in 1940 after Cap 214. On one hand, that's too bad. On the other, there are three different eras of Kirby's Cap, each quite distinct from the other, and that's something to which no other Cap creator can lay claim.


~
NEXT:
NOMAD!