Jack Kirby had been told, you see, that DC wanted him to reinvigorate their line, and to point the publisher towards the future. They began by giving him the extant series SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN: as a warm-up, as a way to inject new life into that title, and to fire the warning shot. Emblazoned along the top of the cover was the declamation KIRBY IS HERE! And, yes, there were the big Kirby figures, the unmistakable Kirby object design, and there was even Superman himself, DC’s signature character drawn for the first time in the contemporary Kirby style inextricably associated in the commercial-comics reader’s mind with progressiveness, raw power and imagination.
But…there was something wrong with that head.
Any idiot looking at that cover could tell that that was not a Kirby head. Anyone who’s looked at more than two different drawings by two different people in their life could tell that not only was the head not drawn in the same way as the other heads on the cover, but that the mark they were drawn in was different.
Carmine Infantino and DC had made Jack a great many promises, but had apparently failed to mention something. That he couldn’t do anything. Superman’s head was subject to licensing and merchandising, and DC policy was that the head should remain the same — that there would be no stylistic quirks when it came to the head of the thing that filled the company’s coffers. The Kirby head of Superman, being a Kirby head, was “off-model.” So safe pairs of hands, like the revered smooth-lined inker Murphy Anderson and the veteran Superman artist Al Plastino (who, according to Mark Evanier, wasn’t even allowed to draw the Superman books at that point, his stolid, awkward style considered too tired for the main line), were brought in to redraw Superman’s head, all the way through the book.
Carmine Infantino maintains that Kirby was aware of and approved the redrawing. Mark Evanier maintains that Kirby was mystified and angered by the whole thing. It remains a moment of singular lack of respect, and colossal stupidity. Because, in one sense, DC were right. Comics were changing. They did need to be pointed towards the future. Mainstream publishing did need to get past the strictures of merchandising, and it’s basic common sense that Superman is still recognisable as Superman regardless of who’s drawing him. It wasn’t long afterwards that Batman, under the editorship of people like Archie Goodwin, became open to several different interpretations, and that didn’t exactly kill the t-shirt market.
Why does any of this matter? Comics weren’t just about Superman (the Jewish Superman, in fact, the Jewish strongman whose costume was inspired by circus performers, Jewish like Siegmund Breitbart who was known as “Ironking” and “The Strongest Man In The World”, performance and strength connoting Jewishness since the days of rabbi and circus strongman Simeon ben Lakish in the third century: Superman, whose name comes from Dr (Doc) Clark Savage Jr and Kent Allard aka Lamont Cranston aka The Shadow, created by near-mythical role models and cautionary tales Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster: a very tough fellow, young Moses of Krypton, a framed Kirby Superman on Doug Rushkoff’s wall next to the photo of Kirby posing next to his rocket-prowed Whiz Wagon), even then.
There are things that politicise generations of creators. Creators at the time, and creators in later years who begin to read back into the history of the medium. The commercial comics of today are the product of their history. A history of terrible mistakes, of crimes, lies and fuckery, in large part. But we learn from them. We make new mistakes, sure. But Jack Kirby and everyone else taught us to read those contracts, to find that new ground, to recognise that bullshit, to keep moving and to keep trying to do anything. It can seem silly, now, that people might have been angered by someone redrawing Jack Kirby’s Superman heads. But it speaks to a management notion that artists are interchangeable, artists are flunkies, artists may not speak in their own voice even when servicing corporate assets for a passionate audience, artists are just cogs and wheels and should shut up. It’s things like this that should raise a whole range of questions in the head of the young creator who wants to draw Superman one day. (Not least of which should be: Jack Kirby drew Superman as a turnkey job — it unlocked the way to drawing his own ideas at DC. Because that’s the way you had to do it back then in commercial comics, even if you were Jack fucking Kirby. So why do you want to draw Superman?)
My last.fm account is at http://www.last.fm/user/warrenellis and records what I’m listening to on my WinAmp mp3 player (mostly). In the last three months I have apparently most often listened to:
2 Julianna Barwick
3 Zola Jesus
5 Saturn Finger
5 the tumbled sea
7 Motohiro Nakashima
10 Florence + The Machine
11 Lau Nau
12 James Blackshaw
14 Brian Eno
I don’t even remember the Bachelorette and the Nakashima, and I suspect Blackshaw got multiple listens because a clever friend of mine recommended it and I listened to it over and over again to try and see what he saw in it. I think I liked one song. Why is this a useful service? Well, for one thing, I know to go back and relisten to the Bachelorette and the Nakashima, because I am obviously senile. Also, if you check the link, somewhere on the page you’ll see that some artists have offered some tracks on my list for free listening, and sometimes even free download. And it’s not like I’m trying to make you listen to fucking Merzbow or something.
I can be sent things via Avatar Press at Avatar Press, 515 N. Century Blvd., Rantoul, IL 61866, USA, but I cannot promise a response or a review. You can email me at email@example.com, but I warn you, it’s a dump address, not my regular email address, so it can take me a few days to check it.
DO ANYTHING IS © WARREN ELLIS 2009, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.