The Avengers: Age of Ultron has opened, heralding the start of yet another superhero summer at the multiplex. Rick McGinnis writes about the age of the comic-book movie here, and I've expressed my disquiet about the damage to heroism that comes when you prefix it with "super-". But they're all that's keeping the big studios in business these days, and the new Avengers movie is likely to be one of the biggest-grossing of all time.
Captain America, the Mighty Thor, Iron-Man... They're bringing in billions these days, for everyone but the fellows who drew them month-in month-out way back when. A successful novelist - the ones who are ostentatiously boycott PEN's Charlie Hebdo award, for example - gets big advances and lives very comfortably, even though in the objective sense very few people buy his books or read his work. Go on, try it. Stop random pedestrians on the sidewalk and see how many you have to get through before you can find one who can name a Michael Ondaatje or Francine Prose character.
Okay, now stop pedestrians and ask them if they know the song "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town". And, if you object that that's not the same as knowing an Ondaatje character, okay, ask them for a line from the song: "He's making a list and checking it twice/Gonna find out who's naughty or nice" is among the best-known phrases in the English language, certainly more famous than any line in any contemporary novel. Who wrote them? Haven Gillespie, putting lyrics to the music of J. Fred Coots. Who are Coots and Gillespie? Who cares? They'll never be household names, even though they wrote a household song. But they (or these days their estates) get royalties. Every time a radio station plays "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", every time a singer puts it on an album, every time it's used in a movie, Coots and Gillespie get a check. You can be an entirely obscure person and live high off the hog of songwriting royalties. I think we like it like that. Unlike a great novel, a great song seems artless: it's beyond authordom, expressing something so universal that it's "our song" for everybody, and so it's nobody's song in particular.
Let's go back to the sidewalk, and ask pedestrians if they know Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers... If they're pretty much anyone under, say, 55 to 60, they'll say sure. If they're over 60, maybe the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer don't ring any bells, but they'll have heard of Captain America. Who created â€” or co-created â€” all of the above? A fellow by the name of Jack Kirby. In his heyday he never got the media profiles a Salman Rushdie or Michael Ondaatje does, and he never enjoyed the consolations of Haven Gillespie's royalty cheques. He lived modestly in Irvine, California, and sat on "an old, straightback kitchen chair parked in front of the crummiest old drawing table you ever saw" creating characters who sold a zillion comic books, were spun off onto Saturday morning cartoons and prime-time live action shows and eventually blockbuster feature films. He ought to have died the wealthiest guy in Irvine. Instead, his widow had to beseech Marvel Comics for a modest pension sufficient to cover her mortgage, groceries and medical bills.
That's just the way it was in the comic business. The superheroes had superpowers, super costumes, super cars, super spaceships, super secret headquarters, super biceps, super chest muscles, super thighs and super calves, but they were created by guys on highly non-super pay scales. It had been that way ever since the Thirties when Jack Kirby was still Jake Kurtzberg and for the princely sum of 15 bucks a week was sitting in a cubicle cranking out page after page for Victor Fox, self-proclaimed "King of the Comics." One day, to fill up a panel, young Jake wrote across it in huge letters "WOW!"
"I don't get it," said Fox.
"It's part of the story," said Jake. And so it became. They were contract artists, and paid on the most parsimonious scale, Artist A being no better or worse than Artist B and either of them easily replaced by Artists C to Z, who'd be happy to take the gig for half the pay. Or so Victor Fox thought.
He was wrong. Mark Evanier's handsome biography on the greatest of comic-book artists swipes Fox's plastic crown and hands it to the rightful sovereign: Kirby, King Of Comics blares the title from the space where Kirby would have written "WHAM!" or "KA-POW!" â€” the starburst balloon representing the force of the Hulk's fist as it punches through the very book jacket. (Explosive fists were a Kirby trademark.) The book is beautifully produced by Abrams, publishers of lavishly illustrated volumes on the finest of fine arts, which is as it should be. Kirby wasn't just a comic-book artist, he was the signature look of the entire form - until the movies CGI-ed these guys. Before that, for three generations of Americans, when you pictured Captain America pounding through the streets in red-white-and-blue long underwear, or Ice Man riding a roller coaster of ice through the skies, or the guy in the pork-pie hat pointing upwards at the unseen monster about to start rampaging down Main Street, or the coed in the romance comic sitting alone in the booth when the big man on campus wanders in with the new blond, or the Two-Gun Kid or Sgt. Fury and his Howlin' Commandos, when you pictured superheroes or sci-fi, creatures or cuties, war or westerns in comic-book form, you were picturing Jack Kirby. He's the look of an entire industry. At Marvel Comics in the sixties, they gave Spider-Man to Steve Ditko, who, in contrast to Kirby's bodice-busting heroes, drew Peter Parker as an undernourished nebbish who gave the series its distinctive character. But the house rule was simple: the management wanted Kirby to draw like Kirby, Ditko to draw like Ditko, and everybody else to draw like Kirby. For a good couple of decades, everybody else did. He's what Roy Liechtenstein was appropriating when he took Kirby's style and turned it into "pop art," though Liechtenstein made more dough out of "WHAAM!" (now on display at the Tate in London) than Kirby ever made out of "WOW!" (now in a crate of junk under an antimacassar in your mom's attic).
He was a workhorse. The Abrams tribute begins with a gallery of dramatis personae â€” the Thing, the Hulk, the Mighty Thor â€” arranged as rows of disembodied heads with Kirby's own nondescript noggin in the middle. And you notice, when they're all lined up, that Nick Fury, Agent of Shield has the same nose, teeth, mouth and jaw as Captain America, and Orion, and Mister Miracle - and that only the artist himself, the wry little Jewish guy from the Lower East Side tenement, provides any real relief from the production-line physiognomy. But when you stuck those heads on Kirby's bodies, they moved, they leapt, they threw punches, they soared into the skies: they appaeared to be bursting out of the frame long before they took to doing so literally.
For every superhero, there's a supervillain, and the best ones are usually the loyal ally who turns out to be playing a double-game. To Kirby's fans, the bad guy is a kid who showed up in the office of Timely Comics in 1939, the nephew of the company's business manager. He was a gofer and they let him do some copywriting, and, if Kirby was Captain America, the kid was kind of a Bucky, the boy sidekick. By the time Kirby returned to the company in the fifties, the kid was editor-in-chief: Stan Lee.
Stan was Marvel's head writer and presiding genius and, to a couple of generations of readers, Mister Comics. (I met him briefly at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in 2000: yes, he's a Democrat â€” why do you think comic-book heroes gave up truth, justice and the American way to sit around on rooftops like Spidey riddled with self-doubt about whether their awesome powers are a blessing or a curse?) Anyway, Stan looked dapper and tanned, fabulous and ageless, as he always does. He credits Kirby with cooking up the Silver Surfer â€” "As I'm looking through the drawings, I see this nut on a surfboard . . . and I thought 'Jack, this time you've gone too far' " â€” but Lee got the credit for more or less everything else. They were a team: as the Marvel credits put it, "Smilin' Stan Lee and Jolly Jack Kirby." But Jack wasn't that jolly by the late sixties, and Stan's still smilin', still pulling down gazillion-dollar-a-year retainers for "consulting" on this or that.
Who knows who created what? Unless you were there in the room, you can never be sure. That's like songwriting: as Irving Caesar once told me, "George Gershwin and I wrote 'Swanee' in five minutes . . . When everything's happening that fast, who knows who does what to whom when?"
But, to go back to where we came in, in songwriting you get royalties. Stan Lee was Marvel's strategic genius. Jack Kirby was a company employee. And it's a melancholy fact that, after flouncing out and over to Marvel's rival DC, Jolly Jack never again struck quite the gold he'd found with Smilin' Stan.
It is, in that sense, an all too human tale â€” and a very Marvel tale, too. For weren't they the ones who pioneered superheroes like Spider-Man, guys who could see off Dr Octopus and the Green Goblin but had trouble paying the rent? As his wife Roz put it, "Tell Jack that after he finishes saving the universe again, he has to take out the trash in the kitchen."