Superman’s head by John Lennon: the wit of his line isn’t unlike Flenniken’s, but it’s less trained, a little more hunting after the idea of the shape than the shape itself. This year he’s mostly been drawing himself going down on Yoko Ono. But he also knows how to capture a gesture, a mannerism, the way Yoko tips her hatbrim, the way Yoko looks to the side and smiles, the way Yoko breathes (just as she once sent him a postcard bearing only the word “Breathe”) (listening to the breath of Yoko Ono), the way Yoko sits, the way Yoko is everything. John Lennon’s Superman head, mounted on the alien metal superchassis of Jack Kirby’s Superman body, has John Lennon’s hair and Yoko Ono’s eyes, Yoko’s mouth and John’s beard, a fusion of John and Yoko, Joko, YoJo, a SuperWoMan suitable for DC Comics in the Age Of Aquarius.
(1970, and these things are happening; John Lennon’s getting his art show Bag One shut down for filthymonkeyness, his illustrations confiscated by the police: Paul McCartney, still six years away from inviting Jack Kirby backstage at the LA Forum, receiving a piece of art drawn for him by Kirby, and then dedicating a song to him onstage, has announced the break-up of the Beatles and released his first solo album: Grace Slick’s getting kicked out of the White House by the FBI as a clear and present danger to the President’s safety (they didn’t know she was planning to spike Nixon with acid). (One month after Jack Kirby dies, she’s arrested for pointing a gun at a police officer. It’s all about heads.))
Superman’s head by Emory Douglas: his art and design defined The Black Panther Party, of which he was the Minister Of Culture. Douglas’ work was angry. Angry and determined. He rarely drew people in wild rage. The anger was in the grim set of their faces, their accusing eyes, the body language that said we are poor and we are downtrodden but we are still here and this shit is going to stop now. Emory Douglas learned his trade in a prison print shop, and nobody is going to fuck with the Minister of Culture when he puts a black head on Superman, and a rifle in his newly-black-gloved hands. (Rifles and shotguns were a powerful social totem for the Panthers, as there was some weird Californian law that allowed them to be carried in public so long as they were openly displayed and not aimed at anyone.)
(The Black Panthers were run by Bobby Seale, a clever and impassioned man, and Huey P Newton, who was charismatic and unbalanced. The Black Panther Party is predated by The Black Panther, a Marvel superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although it’s not where the Party took the name from. Which is a shame. Bobby Seale’s SEIZE THE DAY is a fascinating book, if you can get past — hell, even if you just accept — his adoration for Newton, a man today best remembered for pistol-whipping his tailor and, as per Buck Henry, giving venereal diseases to half of Hollywood. The best BLACK PANTHER comic I ever read was “Panther’s Rage,” a sequence written from 1973-1975 by Don McGregor, illustrated chiefly by the excellent Billy Graham, who had previously been probably the first black Art Director in comics.)
Superman’s head by Spain Rodriguez: The actual revolutionary “Superman” figure from comics of the period is Spain Rodriguez’ wonderful TRASHMAN, “trained by the elusive Sixth International as a master of the para-sciences” and able to divine the immediate future from the pattern of cracks in the pavement. His Superman head would, perversely, be his Trashman head, heavily bearded, eyes permanently in shadow. A Superman who knows he’s surrounded by the trinkets and lies of late capitalism, trigger finger itching like Grace Slick, every seam and join of this bizarre Kirby world around him screaming of imminent danger. Rodriguez’s last book was a “graphic biography” of Che Guevara.
The severed robot head on my desk has morphed back into Jack Kirby during all this. His eyes are glowing with occult light. There are vegetal cables all over my office, intertwining with and rooting to all the books and graphic novels on my shelves. Jack Kirby’s mouth is open and the sound of CHUNGA’S REVENGE (1970) is coming out of it. Right now the track “Twenty Small Cigars” is playing. “Wonderful guy,” Jack intones polyphonically over the chiming jazz-fusion.
Jazz-fusion gives me an arse rash, and I desperately wish he’d play something else from 1970. Even the howling primordial weasel-fucking free-jazz noise Ornette Coleman and Yoko Ono concocted on that year’s Plastic Ono Band (and I happen to like a lot of her records) would be preferable. I’d rather be listening to David Bowie’s THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1970), which features a song called “The Supermen,” who are “gloomy browed with superfear, their tragic endless lives/ Could heave nor sigh.” Which seems to me to be an entirely apt description for a corporate asset whose life is breathed into it by so many hundreds of people across two centuries, and will never get a dignified death. And that could be me saying that about Superman, or Dan O’Neill saying that about Mickey Mouse, or Grant Morrison saying that about Dan Dare, and —
“Did you say ‘graphic novel’?” mutters the robot head of Jack Kirby. “Did you say ‘graphic biography’? They’re Visual Novels.”
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