The old gods died
A conversation with Michael Chabon about Jack Kirby, cat photos, etc
There came a time when the man finally gave up and started a newsletter. He sat at his malfunctioning MacBook Air keyboard and pondered the fact that he’d just committed to composing lengthy emails, by himself, with unique content, for no pay, over and over again, or else face the prospect of ridicule from a vicious and demanding public. He blanched as he thought about how blindingly intimate an email can be and feared the creation of an exhibitionist relationship with his readers. He was panicking like a branded mule until a thought occurred to him: Well, at least I don’t have a podcast.
Hello, friends. This is Abraham Riesman, a Brooklyn-based writer for New York and Vulture, as well as a full-time cat father. If you don’t know who I am, you haven’t been missing much, but you can learn more about me on my newly redesigned personal website, abrahamriesman.com. As you may have heard, I’m currently writing a biography of comics maven Stan Lee for Penguin Random House and have thus been slowing my output of articles in the past year. Which means I’ve been all pent up! I have so many things I want to say you you people, but not enough time to put together formal, edited articles or essays! Then, a few days ago, I realized I could find a middle path by putting together an email newsletter, the way people do these days, and present odds and ends that you might find interesting. I actually used to have a day job as a professional email-writer a number of years ago, so who’s better qualified than me?
Anyway, here we are. Every now and then (I know I initially advertised it as every week, but I’m seeing now that that’s unrealistic and probably more than you’d want, anyway), I’ll be in your inbox with various little tidbits, as well as a longer “main course” of an exclusive article, essay, or interview. I’ll lead the emails off with the shorter stuff so you don’t have to scroll too far down to get it after the big thing. I reserve the right to completely change the format, though. You people don’t own me. Okay, let’s get started!
My cats are named Tim and Barbara. Tim is an awkward, enormous tuxedo and Barbara is a glamorously aging tortie/calico mix. I will lead the newsletters off with photos of them, just to get you warmed up.
Barb in repose:
Tim, locking eyes:
Here are some things I’ve enjoyed recently:
The Sorceress at National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYC) — My boo and I went to Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage a few days ago to see a fascinating new production of one of the first Yiddish theatrical works to ever be put on in the United States, Avrom Goldfaden’s 1878 light opera The Sorceress. It’s a complete delight, replete with lovingly arch performances and period-accurate stage technology. As someone who constantly seeks more information about the mists of the Jewish past, I found myself fixated on a number of engrossing questions about customs it was depicting and/or mocking. Plus, the story is set in Botoșani, the city where Stan Lee’s father was born, so it had a direct line to my interests. It’s all in Yiddish, but there are English supertitles, so don’t worry if you’ve lost all touch with your Ashkenazi roots.
The Magnetic Fields’ “With Whom to Dance” — Boo and I also saw the Magnetic Fields at Manhattan’s Symphony Center twice in the past month, and frontman Stephin Merritt opened the second show with a solo rendition of this classic, backed only by the sound of his ukele. Reader, I wept.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive: After the End of the World — A lyrical and horrifying little poetry/novel hybrid about blackness and climate change. No catharsis to be found, just an urgent call to soul-search as things disintegrate.
Rick and Morty, season four — I know it’s considered déclassé in certain circles to be a fan of this show these days, but I’m still constantly awed by the sheer inventiveness and attention to detail that it displays. The chattering classes may disdain it, but for the pessimistic generations coming up behind me, it’ll have the influence that MAD magazine once did.
Me, me, me
Every edition, I’ll provide you with either a link to my latest work, if there was any in the time between the last email and the new one, or a link to something I published in the mists of the past and think still holds up.
This time around, since I’ve been in book-writing celibacy, I present you with a flashback to a feature I published at Vulture almost exactly three years ago: “Future Shock,” a look at the creation and meaning of my favorite movie of all time, Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian masterpiece Children of Men. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently while people have been listing their best films of the 2010s, because, although Children of Men came out in 2006, it feels more of this decade than anything else I’ve seen. The article was a big hit when it came out, partially because it came out well, but more importantly because it came out just before Trump took office and people rightly recognized that all the truths of and solutions to our current predicament can be found in this thrilling picture. Go watch it, then read my piece.
For this inaugural email, I’m gonna reward you early adopters with a real treat. In 2017, I published a long feature in Vulture about the legendary comic-book writer/artist Jack Kirby, best known for either creating or co-creating nearly all of the core Marvel pantheon — Captain America, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, and many more — as well as a number of now-famous DC Comics characters, such as the Über-villain Darkseid. Kirby died in 1994, but his legend had been firmly established among serious consumers of comics by then, and one such consumer was writer Michael Chabon, who also partially based one of the characters in his Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay on Kirby. For the purposes of the article, I reached out to Chabon and he was kind enough to grant me some time to chat with him about what Kirby means to him. Our 2017 conversation, slightly edited for clarity and flow, is below.
Riesman: I guess to start out, I read somewhere that you have a bunch of Kirby originals. What do you have?
Chabon: The comics?
Oh, artwork. Yes, I have ... I guess I have four. I have two pages from his Captain America run in the '70s, in the mid '70s, right around the Bicentennial. It had to do with the Madbomb.
Yes, “Madbomb.” What a great story.
Yeah, pretty much foretelling everything that's happening right now. Then there's a page from Silver Star.
Wow, deep cut.
Yeah. I was buying the deep stuff even then. Even when I was buying it, which was a while ago now, maybe almost 15, almost 20 years ago, even then most of it was not exactly quite out of my range, but just more than I felt like was reasonable to pay for what after all was a piece of paper with some ink on it. Silver Star, that one's very affordable. That page is so amazing because it's unlettered, unlike the Cap pages I have, and it's kind of a dramatic page and you kind of have to try to figure out what's happening in it, particularly if you're, like most people, not familiar with Silver Star. I hadn't read the original books when I bought the piece. It was just so cool-looking and it was Kirby, so I bought it, and then I made up my whole little narrative of what was happening in these pages. It kind of looks like the Silver Star character is coming into this laboratory and he's telling these two people ] that he's sick and tired of doing this stupid superhero stuff. He like rips his helmet off and he throws it across the room and it hits them, and it goes blam. One panel is just a big “Blam!” There's something really intensely Kirby-ish in the drama of these panels. Then I did finally track down the issues a little while later and read it, and what's happening is completely ... it's just so tame. It's nothing like what I ... I don't remember now what it is, but it was nothing. It was very disappointing. Anyway, and then the piece I love the most, which is not an original comics page per se, it's a print. It was a limited print. I think there were only six or nine of them or something. One you probably have seen an image of, it's Jacob wrestling with the angel.
Yes, of course.
I have one of those that actually did cost me a little bit, and that one is the one I actually have hanging on my wall in my studio where I work at home. It's so magnificent because it's so layered with meaning. It's just the obviously late-period, super over-the-top cosmic Kirby. Every inch of this single panel is just crammed with stuff happening visually, and there's all these Kirby Dots everywhere, and the angel is just a piece of Kirby tech himself, and yet it's also this powerful image from the Old Testament that sort of has always entranced and fascinated me. It's one of the most mysterious passages in the Bible. Then it's Jacob and that's Kirby, that was his [birth] name, so it's a kind of a self-portrait. It makes you start thinking about what was he struggling with, and what did he see of himself in the image of Jacob wrestling with the ... well, usually it's called an angel, a messenger. Anyway, that's my favorite, and I also have little odd bits and pieces. I have one of these funny little photocopies that he made that's floating around that you run across, because he had an early Xerox machine. He was one of the first people to have a Xerox machine in his house, and he would use it to copy his art because he was sending it from California to New York, so he would make copies before he shipped it. I have this cool photocopy, early concept drawing of Orion, and a similar thing of a Reed Richards drawing for the animated TV series.He photocopied it, but then he painted it over in color, so it's color and it's just Reed Richards, but over a photocopy. That's what I've got.
What were some of the first Kirby comics that you read? I assume you weren't necessarily aware that it was Kirby because you were probably at a young age.
Well, actually the opposite is true. I was fully aware that it was Kirby because I started reading Kirby when he moved to DC [Comics]. That was '71 or '72.
Yeah, ’70-’71, yeah.
Yeah, so I was seven or eight years old. At that point I only read DC. I hadn't gotten into Marvel. They were too dark and adult for me. I was much more comfortable in the more black-and-white world of DC where Superman was a good guy and Batman was a good guy and everybody was a good guy — things like that. So I was a confirmed DC reader at that point. All of a sudden, my comics started having these banners in them saying, "Kirby is coming! Kirby is coming!" I had no idea what that meant or who Kirby was, and then all of a sudden it was, "Kirby is here!" And it started on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, which was a title I read regularly anyway. Suddenly I've got this "Kirby is here!" and I open my Jimmy Olsen and what the hell is happening in this comic book? The artwork is crazy-looking. At that point, Kirby had started moving from his sort of middle style ... which I mean, it started to change when he was at Marvel. Toward the very end of his run on Fantastic Four, you can see it, but the lines are so thick, the containment lines are so thick, and the faces are all, like, carved out of stone. Everyone's muscles, also, it looks like these sort of gigantic cyclopean stone figures that are all battling each other. Even Jimmy Olsen, to see Jimmy Olsen looking that way, and he's in this world with these strange, hairy people, the Forever People, and the Newsboy Legion makes this weird ... It was just this crazy salad of stuff. I didn't quite know what to make of it at first, but I was always into mythology from that age forward, and the way that he ... He was clearly building this mythology overtly, by saying, “The old gods died and there arose the new gods.” Just that sentence really captured my imagination, and I just loved that stuff so much. I became a confirmed Kirbyite. To me, the book that just won my heart completely in that period was a little bit later, was when he did Kamandi.
I mean, that one was my ... That, still, I think is one of the greatest reading experiences.
What was so great about Kamandi?
It came out at a time when post-apocalyptic narratives were pervasive in popular culture, everything from The Omega Man to A Boy and His Dog and movies like that, to the seemingly obvious antecedent for Kamandi, which is Planet of the Apes. It had that. It felt very of the moment. It felt very relevant to me in that way, culturally, but also what he did. That title tends to get dismissed and I think still gets dismissed as being derivative of Planet of the Apes, but it immediately went so far beyond anything Planet of the Apes was doing, just by having not just apes but every animal. I think there's a perennial charm and fascination to the idea of talking animals, and it layered into what becomes almost a kind of fairy tale with talking animals, this adventure story. In spite of the fact that Kamandi was the last boy on Earth and he was always trying to get to this mysterious goal and he was always in danger and so on, it was fun. He seemed to be having fun, even if he didn't want to necessarily admit it, or even if Jack Kirby wasn't quite aware of it. There was this rollicking quality. So I think there was a kind of hopefulness in this idea. Like, even after a nuclear holocaust, a kid could still have a good time. There's just something sort of reaffirming about that. Not all the animals are bad. He had lots of allies and friends alongside the racism in the animals that he encounters. I don't know, there was just something. It had this adventure quality and it also had this sort of positive message that I think helped to allay the fears of a kid that was being sort of inundated, in a way, with imagery of nuclear holocaust and the post-apocalyptic wasteland we could all expect to inherit if we survived.
This is such a big question, but if you were to try to describe Kirby's visuals at DC, how would you tell people why it's significant or awe-inducing?
Well, for whatever reason — and I've heard various theories about it, including some having to do with physical reasons like his vision deteriorating — but there is a change in the way he approached drawing figures. Like I said, it produces these images that are ... They don't bother with naturalism, let's put it that way. They're sort of beyond naturalism. If you look at the progression of his art from when he started, when he was collaborating with [Joe] Simon in the '40s and then through the '50s and into the early '60s, and as he was moving from DC to Marvel, it's recognizably Kirby. It stands out when you see it. You can pick his art out from any other art of the period, even before it achieves its most emblematic form, but it's still ... It's trying for naturalism for the most part, and the figures tend to be leaner and backgrounds tend to be depicted pretty naturalistically.
Somehow, when he moves to the '70s, there's a kind of abstraction that starts to appear, and the graphic qualities of the panels or the figures become more and more paramount, so that they almost become like glyphs in some way. They get reduced to their essentials. A lot of his ... I don't know. I mean, it's hard to say, because so much of it also has to do with who's inking him. Some inkers brought out more of it, and some inkers seemed to be fighting against it. Some inkers seem to work to sort of reduce this exaggerated, graphic quality of what he was drawing, and others seemed to be content to let it come out more and to emphasize it more. It's hard to say. Some of what I'm saying is true more when he was being inked by certain inkers rather than others. I don't know what the cause of it is exactly.
I mean, he was free. At least, he must have felt initially free of the constraints of working with Stan Lee, whatever those had been, or maybe there was a kind of ... You know, he himself had established a house style at Marvel, when it was called the house style, and new artists who were brought in from the mid-'60s to the late '60s were just basically told in so many words to imitate Jack and draw like Jack, and from Don Heck to Jim Steranko or whatever, you can see that happening. Maybe there is a sense of almost escaping from his own style, as it had become somewhat codified at Marvel, that there was a freedom from that that he was experiencing, or maybe it did have something to do with his hand, with his body, with his hand and arm coordination, his muscular ability, his eye, his vision. Maybe those things changed as he got older, I don't know. It's a really ... I mean, it can be an off-putting style. A lot of people still don't care for it. If you look through the letters columns of DC Comics in that "Kirby is coming" era, that time after he first showed up, especially when Jack would draw more established DC characters, people complained a lot. They didn't like it.
I've always found it fascinating that guys like Don Heck were being told to draw like Kirby, because he's so idiosyncratic. Nobody could draw like Kirby. It's such an odd style. I don't know how anyone would possibly do it.
I mean, it was to a degree — and, especially in Steranko, you can really see it — the style, but it was just his way of making the panels move and his command of action, and his ability to command the transition between panels, the visual storytelling element of it, also. There are more static ways of drawing comics and there are more active ways of drawing comics, of having panels move and creating the illusion of movement among panels and so on, and transitions from one to the next. He has his own way of doing it, and of crowding panels and having one face take up an entire panel, extreme closeups and things that he favored. I think that was probably, I would imagine, part of what was meant when artists were encouraged to imitate him.
Yes, the layouts and the Marvel Method storytelling.
Uh-huh. What he's famous for is people looking like they are coming out of ... Like, if someone's being punched, they're being punched clean out of the panel. It looks like they're flying towards the viewer, that kind of thing.
We're talking about how artists were influenced by him, but how were you influenced by him? You've written in the past that he's had a huge influence on your storytelling. How does that manifest itself?
Well, I think partly in what I encountered just almost immediately when I first encountered him, which was this idea of reinventing mythology for our contemporary world. The idea that our oldest stories could also be our newest stories. I think that was something I just absorbed unconsciously. I think the idea that the contemporary world, including technology, including fabulous technology, could still be described and understood using these really ancient, archetypal characters and narratives. I think that was definitely something that certainly made the contemporary world more interesting to me, narratively, to think of it that way. I think that's one part of it. I think the thing that I still take inspiration from in him is just that seeming inexhaustibility of his imagination. You know, that is just an endless source of inspiration and encouragement to me, and something I guess I aspire to in some way. It makes me see. He was incapable of restraining himself to one idea, and that's been said by many people. It's not an original observation, but like in one issue of Thor from 1967 or '68, or Fantastic Four from that same period, he would pack like seven ideas — for characters, for plot strands — each of which would have contented one artist or one writer, that you could have spun an entire series of one idea out of seven from a single issue that he came up with, in the late '60s when he was really creatively just at his peak. That's inspiring to me, and that's something that ... It set a standard for a kind of richness and a generosity, a kind of overflowing generosity of ideas that was very inspiring to me.
He had a very dark vision of the world, ultimately, and it got darker and darker, especially once he was out of Marvel. Stan Lee, I think ... And I want to make clear I'm never trying to knock Stan Lee at any time I mention him with regard to Jack Kirby, because I think he was an incredibly important part of it. That partnership was a great partnership, and you can see. As much as I love the Fourth World stuff and Kamandi and OMAC and all of that stuff that he did after he left Marvel, you can see the gap. You can see what Lee contributed. Jack was not a great writer, to say the least, and especially when it came to dialogue. I mean, not that Stan Lee was Elmore Leonard, but at least people thought it sounded like people. When Jack's writing dialogue, you get a lot of clunkers and just things where you ... I sort of at this point abstract my eye from the panels and just look at the art, which a lot of times is all you really need. When he was at Marvel and he had Lee ... And I think Lee definitely does have that much more optimistic vision of humankind, and you get a lot of storytelling, classic Marvel storytelling, that's about redemption and self-sacrifice, and even bad guys, even evil characters, being capable of redemption through sort of the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for the sake of another person.
You know, they're famous for the heroes having foibles and weaknesses, but I think it's just as important that the villains have strengths and virtues too, at least sometimes, or they have that capacity. And that kind of vanishes when Kirby moves to DC and he's on his own. I mean, Darkseid is pure evil. He has no virtues. The world seemed like a dark place to Jack Kirby because of how he grew up, in poverty and fighting a lot and having to be a scrapper, and then serving in World War II. By all accounts, the little I've read, it seems like he was ... I mean, I can't make a diagnosis. It would not surprise me if he had some post-traumatic stress consequences, given the little I know about what he saw and did, serving under Patton in World War II. He had this really dark, almost nihilistic vision, and it gets increasingly so as he worked through the '70s. I think I absorbed some of that. Not to say that I have a dark, nihilistic vision of my work, but to encounter something like that so young and to feel the power of it, it makes me take seriously the darkness of the world, let me put it that way.
How did you learn specifics about Kirby's life, and when did you learn them? There weren't a lot of biographies lying around back in the day.
No. No, and there still aren't. I think there's one we've been promised for a long time that's never emerged.
Yeah. His assistant, Mark Evanier, is working on it. He claims it’s close to done.
He was working on it. When I was researching The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, that's when I really plunged into Kirby's biography, and I joined this thing that existed at the time. I don't know if anything like this still exists, but it was called the Kirby List. It was a listserv on newsnet or whatever it was at the time, and it was just a list for Kirby fans. Mark Evanier was a strong presence on that list, as were a number of other of Jack's former collaborators and proteges, like Greg Theakston and people like that. Then there were a lot of fans with knowledge, so I was able to glean a fair amount from that. Then also, you know, he did do a few autobiographical things over the years. He did this thing called ... what's it called? Something “street”?
Street Code, his short autobiographical work about his childhood?
Street Code, yeah. That's it. You get a sense of at least how he wanted you to see his childhood. Once you hear he was a GI and a foot soldier, an infantryman serving under Patton in the Third Army, and then you go back and you look at his war comics, that he did a lot of, and they're awfully dark. You have the sense that at least some of this stuff might be coming from his own experience. We don't have his authority to say yes or no on that. But anyway, I was able to pick up things here and there.
What parts of Kirby's life and work made it into Kavalier & Clay? Obviously, it's not a strict adaptation of any particular person.
No, and in facmt in a way, I think it's really just his physical appearance. I started imagining my characters by looking at these photographs of Simon and Kirby. It's a pretty well-known picture of them, or it turns up a lot, and they're both in shirts and ties. I think Jack is sitting and Simon is standing and there's a drawing table behind them, and they're really young. They look like they can't be more than 19 or 20. Simon is tall and has thick, curly hair and it's kind of piled on top of his head and he's got aquiline features, and Jack is that little fireplug. You know, he does kind of look like John Garfield, which is who he always fancied that he looked like, apparently. You know, just that image of the two of them, that was the sort of physical appearance I settled on right away for Kavalier and Clay, just as the biographical details of Joe Kavalier very loudly modeled on Joe Simon. The same is true with Sam Clay. He's from New York and he's a Jew, and he's a fireplug like Jack was. He's got the squat, kind of thick-set appearance. Other than that, as you said, there wasn't too much to be known at that point about Jack. Even if I had wanted to model my character on Kirby, I wouldn't have had much in the way of resources to do so.
Yeah. Then you did that New Yorker story, "Citizen Conn," years later, which obviously is much closer to being based on Kirby and Stan Lee. Why write that?
I was just thinking about the feud, if that's the right word for it, between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, or if it wasn't exactly a feud, just the ill feeling, the divorce, if you will, that took place between them. Then just thinking about having heard stories of long-term falling-outs of long-term friendships over the years, and just always being interested in those stories. What does it take to have that happen, to have people who are just so completely wrapped up in each other professionally, personally, and whose work seems to depend so much each on the other? You look at like a Lennon/McCartney situation, or whatever other famous collaborations. Martin and Lewis, you know, where they become famous together. The work they do together is always going to be regarded as their best work, and then there's a falling out and they try to make their separate ways with more or less success. It's not an uncommon pattern and it's a fascinating one, to me. I think I just hear the voice of the narrator of that story and realize that it was a woman, and not just a woman but a rabbi, and somehow that came me the distance. She's not a nerd, she's not a fan. She doesn't know anything. She's never heard of Feather and Conn. She doesn't know anything about them, and so it can all be ... She can stand in for the reader in a way. As soon as I hit on that voice, it all started to fall into place.
Yeah. What do you make of Kirby’s Jewish identity? Obviously it was very important to him. Do you see him as an iconic Jewish type, American Jewish type?
Yeah, I think you can see him that way. He's sort of the tough Jew. He very much exemplifies that archetype, that image. He went to war; he fought. He was kind of the strong, silent type, compared to sort of smooth-talking, suave, polished Stan Lee. They make a perfect contrast with each other. He has that. The stereotype or the archetype is complicated by the fact that he was an artist. He was a real artist. He had the tortured soul and he saw the world in terms of this clash of dark and light, with dark predominating, and he translated that vision into really powerful works of art for a long period of time. It seems like his Jewishness became more open. It's not more important to him, I wouldn't want to say it wasn't always important to him, but he seemed to feel somewhat greater ease with acknowledging it as he got older. It never ... Did it ever ... I mean, beyond that piece of art that I have, Jacob wrestling with the angel, I don't think it really openly crept into his work too much. I mean, yeah, there's a character named Isaiah in New Gods, and there might be little bits and pieces here and there. Metron, he's always reminded me of Metatron, the angel in the kabbalah, but I think there are just little glances of it here and there. It's not overt. He used to draw pictures for fans. I've seen them at conventions. He would draw the Thing with a menorah and a kippah.
Those are total gems.
It wasn't like a full embrace in his work, that I'm aware of.
My last question is a little bit of an odd question, but what do you think Jack Kirby deserves from the world, posthumously? What can we do differently that would honor him?
Well, how much has ever been done for any comic book artist? You know? I mean, Art Spiegelman? Who among comic book artists has been honored in a way that is commensurate? Yeah. In the way that's commensurate, yeah. That's sort of the trouble, because obviously people love Alison Bechdel, but it still gets a little ghettoized as like, "Wow, did you know that there's a good comic book? How crazy is that?" I mean, to me, how do you measure it? In terms of his influence on other artists, it's incalculable. In terms of his influence on other writers, it's similarly incalculable. In terms of his commercial impact, both the DC and Marvel universes are founded on concepts that he devised, or at least they have been. I'm not sure what the DC basis for existence is at this point, but at least at some point, the Fourth World mythology was a founding cornerstone of the DC continuity. Those comics continuities have been translated into movie continuities very successfully in the case of Marvel.
I and every other Marvel fanboy in the world thrilled deep in our souls when at the end of this most recent Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Adam Warlock was teased. Obviously, that means that the Kirby concepts that he devised, like on his run on Fantastic Four and so on, are just going to be playing an ever-increasing role in Marvel and just bringing more money into Marvel and Disney's coffers. In terms of the amount of monies and income that has been generated as the result of his work, it is also incalculable. In terms of prestige, cultural prestige, it still eludes him. Like I say, I can't think of ... What, Charles M. Schulz, maybe? But he seems to have sort of faded. There was a time when Walt Kelly's Pogo had a kind of elevated cultural prestige. Those were both newspaper comics, and that always had a greater ... You know, President Roosevelt used to read the newspaper comics. [New York City mayor Fiorello] La Guardia read newspaper comics over the radio to kids when the newspapers went on strike. There was always something. They always had more cachet from the beginning. There really hasn't ever been a comic-book artist who has reached the level of prominence of the great writers of the 20th century, of the people who are commonly counted the great artists of the 20th century.
If anybody deserves it, it's Jack?
No question in my mind. I think it's just that prejudice is still ... I mean, there are other artists who are deserving of it as well besides Jack, and maybe if he finally was able to get what he deserves, then others would follow, which would be great.