My Marvel Years

Jonathan Lethem

In the mid-1970s I had two friends who were into Marvel comics. Karl, whose parents were divorced, and Luke, whose parents were among the most stable I knew. My parents were something between: separated, or separating, sometimes living together and sometimes apart, and each of them with lovers.

Luke had an older brother, Peter, whom both Luke and I idealised in absentia. Peter had left behind a collection of 1960s Marvel comics in sacrosanct box files. These included a nearly complete run of The Fantastic Four, the famous 102 issues drawn by Jack Kirby and scripted by Stan Lee, a defining artefact (I now know) of the Silver Age of comics.

Luke was precocious, worldly, full of a satirical brilliance I didn’t always understand but pretended to, as I pretended to understand his frequent references to ‘Aunt Petunia’ and ‘The Negative Zone’ and ‘The Baxter Building’. He was disdainful of childish pursuits and disdainful of my early curiosity about sex (I didn’t catch the contradiction in this until later). Luke didn’t buy new comics so much as read and reread old ones. Luke’s favourite comic-book artist was Jack Kirby.

Karl was precocious, secretive and rebellious, full of intimations of fireworks and drugs and petty thievery that frightened and thrilled me. He was curious about sex, and unaware of or uninterested in the early history of Marvel superheroes. For him, Marvel began with the hip, outsiderish loner heroes of the 1970s – Ghost Rider, Luke Cage, Warlock, Iron Fist. His favourite comic-book artist was John Byrne.

Karl got in trouble a lot. Luke didn’t.

Though all three of us lived in rough parts of Brooklyn, Karl and I went to a terrifying public school in an impoverished neighbourhood, while Luke went to St Ann’s School, safe in moneyed Brooklyn Heights. Karl and I were forced to adopt a stance of endurance and shame together, a kabuki of cringing postures in response to a world of systematic bullying. That was a situation I could no more have explained to Luke than to my parents. Karl and I never discussed it either, but we knew it was shared.

In 1976 Marvel announced, with what seemed to Karl and me great fanfare, the return of Jack Kirby, the king of comics, as an artist-writer – a full ‘auteur’ – on a series of Marvel titles. The announcement wasn’t a question of press conferences or advertisements in other media, only sensational reports on the ‘Bullpen Bulletins’ pages of Marvel comics themselves, the CNN of our little befogged minds at the time. Kirby was the famed creator or co-creator of a vast collection of classic Marvel characters: the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, the Inhumans. In a shadowy earlier career he had also created Captain America. His career reached into prehistory: the notion that he was about to reclaim his territory was rich and disturbing. In fact, what he would turn out to bring to Marvel was a paradoxical combination: clunkily old-fashioned virtues that had been outmoded, if not surpassed, by subsequent Marvel artists, together with a baroque futuristic sensibility that would leave most readers chilled, largely alienated from what he was trying to do. Later, I’d learn, Kirby’s return created rifts in the ranks of the younger Marvel writers and artists, who resented the creative autonomy he’d been granted and found the results laughable. At the time, all I knew was that Kirby’s return created a rift between myself and Karl.

Kirby hadn’t been inactive in the interlude between his classic 1960s work for Marvel and his mid-1970s return. He’d been in exile at DC, Marvel’s older, more august and squarer rival. In his DC work and the return to Marvel, where he unveiled two new venues, The Eternals and 2001, Kirby gradually turned into an autistic primitivist genius, disdained as incompetent by much of his audience, but revered by a cult of aficionados in the manner of an ‘outsider artist’. As his work spun off into abstraction, his human bodies becoming more and more machine-like, his machines more and more molecular and atomic (when they didn’t resemble vast sculptures of mouse-gnawed cheese), Kirby became great/awful, a kind of disastrous genius uncontainable in the form he himself had innovated. It’s as though Picasso had, after 1950, become Adolf Wölfli, or John Ford had ended up as John Cassavetes. Or if Robert Crumb had turned into his obsessive mad-genius brother, Charles Crumb.

If this
were
drawn by
Kirby in
the 1970s
it would
be a massive
gleaming
hysterically
hyperarticulated
psychedelic
edifice of
mechanistic
prose
adrift
in
space!
And
a
part
of
me
aches
to
reveal
to
you
that
daunting
inhuman
spectacle
in
Kirby’s
honour!

As a child, I suffered a nerdish fever for authenticity and origins of all kinds, one which led me into some very strange cultural places. Any time I heard that, say, David Bowie was only really imitating Anthony Newley, I immediately lost interest in David Bowie and went looking for the source, sometimes with the pitiable results that this example suggests. So I was always moving backwards through time, and though I was born in 1964 and came to cultural consciousness some time around 1970, I adored the culture of the 1950s and early 1960s: Ernie Kovacs, The Twilight Zone, the British Invasion, Lenny Bruce, the Beat writers, film noir. I tended to identify with my parents’ taste in things, and with the tastes of my parents’ friends, more than with the cultural tokens of my own generation. With Luke, I went to see a Ralph Bakshi film called Heavy Traffic, in which an unforgettable animated sequence accompanies and illustrates, with crude (and rude) drawings, the Chuck Berry song ‘Maybelline’. Thanks to that film I fell in love with Chuck Berry, and while every kid in freshman year of high school was defining their identity according to whether they liked a) Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd and The Doors or b) The Clash and The Specials and Bad Brains or c) Cheap Trick and The Cars and Blondie, I was looking into z) Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. It’s a commonplace that we 1970s kids were doomed to glance backwards, out of our impoverished world of Paul McCartney and Wings, to the era of the Beatles, but I was the only 12-year-old I’ve ever known who got into an extended argument with his own mother about whether the Beatles were better before or after Sergeant Pepper – my mother on the side of ‘I Am the Walrus’, me on the side of ‘Drive My Car’.

At the moment in my childhood I’m describing, bodies were beginning to change, and the exact degree and nature of their changes created some psychological opportunities and thwarted others. Karl at 13 grew tall, handsome and dangerously good at looking adult; Luke and I were still small and childlike. Karl identified, as I’ve said, with Marvel’s existential loners: the Vision, Warlock, Ghost Rider. By becoming tall and rebellious – he’d begun to write graffiti, smoke pot, fail in school, pursuits I only barely flirted with – he’d eluded childishness by a bodily rejection of it and by rejecting obedience. The cost was exile from continuity with what was attractive in our parents’ worlds. That cost didn’t bother Karl, not at that moment anyway.

So here was how, for a time, I tilted back to Luke: he and I were partners in a strategy of rejecting childishness by identifying with our parents and sneering at rebellion. As paltry new teenagers, we adopted a ‘you can’t fire me, I quit’ position.

Marvel was complicit in my muddled yearning backwards; ours, I should say – mine, Luke’s, even Karl’s. By the time of Kirby’s return, talk of Marvel’s ‘greatness’ was explicitly nostalgic. Any argument, based on a typically American myth of progress, that our contemporary comics might be even more wonderful, was everywhere undermined by a pining for the heyday of the 1960s. This was accomplished most prominently in Stan Lee’s two books: Origins and Son of Origins, which reproduced and burnished the creation myths of the great 1960s characters. Nostalgia was further propagated in Marvel’s reprint titles: Marvel Tales, which offered rewarmed Spider-Man, and the too-aptly-titled Marvel’s Greatest Comics, which put forward the Kirby-Lee run of The Fantastic Four. This was a bit like Paul McCartney and Wings playing Beatles songs on Wings over America. We 1970s kids couldn’t have been issued a clearer message: we’d missed the party.

In the Origins books, Lee notoriously undersold the contributions of his artist collaborators – mostly Kirby, but also Steve Ditko, the penciller of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Later, in a dispute over the ownership of original drawings, Kirby was given extensive chances to play a grouchy old David against Marvel’s corporate Goliath, and the comics world rallied around him. He also made public claim to being the sole author of the great characters that had made the Kirby-Lee partnership famous: the Fantastic Four and all their sublime villains and supporting cast, Hulk, Thor, Silver Surfer (he even once threw in Spider-Man for good measure).

In Marvel’s greatest comics, Lee and Kirby were full collaborators who, like Lennon and McCartney, really were more than the sum of their parts, and who derived their greatness from the push and pull of incompatible visions. Kirby always wanted to drag the Four into the Negative Zone – deeper into psychedelic science fiction and existential alienation – while Lee resolutely pulled them back into the morass of human lives, hormonal alienation, teenage dating problems, pregnancy, and unfulfilled longings to be human and normal and loved and not to have the Baxter Building repossessed by the City of New York. Kirby threw at the Four an endless series of ponderous fallen gods or whole tribes and races of alienated antiheroes with problems no mortal could credibly contemplate. Lee made certain the Four were always answerable to the female priorities of Sue Storm – the Invisible Girl, Reed Richards’s wife and famously ‘the weakest member of the Fantastic Four’. She wanted a home for their boy Franklin, she wanted Reed to stay out of the Negative Zone, and she was willing to quit the Four and quit the marriage to stand up for what she believed.

I seriously doubt whether any 1970s Marvel-loving boy ever had a sexual fantasy about Sue Storm. We had Valkyrie, Red Sonja, the Cat, Ms Marvel, Jean Grey, Mantis and innumerable others available for that. We (I mean, I) especially liked the Cat. Sue Storm was truly invisible. She was a parent, a mom calling you home from where you played in the street, telling you it was time to brush your teeth. Not that she wasn’t a hottie, but Kirby exalted her beauty in family-album style headshots, and glimpses of her, nobly pregnant, in a housedress that covered her clavicle. The writers and artists who took over The Fantastic Four after Kirby and, later, Lee departed the series, seemed impatient with the squareness of Sue and Reed’s domestic situations. Surely, these weren’t the hippest of the Kirby/Lee creations. Nevertheless, if you (I mean, I) accept my premise that the mid-to-late 1960s Fantastic Four were the exemplary specimens, the Revolver and Rubber Soul and White Album of comics, and if you further grant that pulling against the tide of all of Kirby’s inhuman galactacism, that whole army of aliens and gods, was one single character, our squeaky little Sue, then I wonder: Invisible Girl, the most important superhero of the Silver Age of comics?

I’m breaking down here. The royal we and the presumptive you aren’t going to cut it. This is a closed circuit, me and the comics which I read and which read me. Stan Lee’s rhetoric of community was a weird, vibrant lie: every single true believer, every single member of the Make Mine Marvel society or whatever the fuck we were meant to be called, received the comics as a private communion with our own obscure and shameful yearnings, and it was miraculous and pornographic to so much as breathe of it to another boy, let alone be initiated by one more knowing. We and you don’t know a thing about what I felt back then, any more than I know a thing about what you felt.

I’d be kidding if I claimed anyone much cherishes the comics of Kirby’s ‘return to Marvel’ period. Even for souls who take these things all too seriously, those comics have no real place in the history: they define only a clumsy mis-step in a dull era at Marvel, before the brief renaissance signalled by the ascent of the Chris Claremont X-Men. Here, joining the chorus of the indifferent, is Kirby himself, from an interview in Comics Journal which ranged over his whole glorious career:

Interviewer: ‘It always seemed like your last stint at Marvel was a little half-hearted.’

Kirby: ‘Yeah.’

There’s something else I’ve sensed about the Kirby/Lee partnership: Kirby must have been a kind of ambivalent father figure to Lee. He was only five years older, but they were crucial years – crucial in defining two different types of American manhood. Kirby came of age in the 1930s, was toughened by his Depression boyhood and perhaps scarred by his frontline experiences in World War Two. Lee was more like the coddled 1950s striver who lived in the world his parents had fought for and earned. This difference perhaps underlies the extremes of The Fantastic Four: Kirby concerned himself with a clash of dark and light powers, and passionately identified with alien warrior-freaks who, like John Wayne in The Searchers, were sworn to protect the vulnerable civilian (or human) societies they were incapable of living among. His vision was darkly paternal. Lee’s was the voice of the teenage nonconformist, looking for kicks in a boring suburb, diffident at best about the family structures by which he was nevertheless completely defined.

Now, when I consider the steady alienation from humankind of Kirby’s bands of outsiders, I wonder if he might be one of those who could never completely come home again. But he did try to come home in 1976, to Marvel. Karl and I bought the hype, and bought the comics. And Karl didn’t like them, and I did. Or anyway I defended them, pretended to like them. Karl immediately took up a view, one I’ve now learned was typical of a young 1970s Marvel fan: he said Kirby sucked because he didn’t draw the human body right. Karl was embarrassed by the clunkiness, the raw and ragged dynamism, the lack of fingernails or other fine detail. Artists since Kirby had set new standards for anatomical and proportional ‘realism’: superhero comics weren’t supposed to look cartoonish anymore. I, schooled both in the love my father, an expressionist painter, had of exaggeration and fantasy, and in Luke’s scholarly and tendentious devotion to his older brother’s comics, decided I saw what Karl couldn’t.

In my defence of Kirby, I was conflating comic art and comic writing. I need to quit conflating them here. That is to say, it’s possible to argue about the moment Kirby’s pencilling began to go south. He was good; he got worse. What’s undebatable is the execrable, insufferable pomposities of Kirby’s dialogue in the Marvel work without Lee. Or the deprivations involved in trying to love his galactically distant and rather depressed storylines. As a writer, he always stank.

I did try to love the storylines. It mattered to me. With Luke’s help I’d understood that Kirby represented our parents’ values, the Chuck Berry values. In Kirby resided the higher morality of the Original Creator, that which I’d sworn to uphold against the shallow killing-the-father imperatives of youth. Luke, it should be said, never cared about Kirby’s return. He was a classicist, and didn’t buy new comics. I was on my own, hung out to dry by The Eternals.

Karl and I were drawing comics in those days. Well, not really comics; we were drawing superheroes – we’d design a character, detail his costume and powers and affect, then speculate on his adventures. I was profligate, quickly generating a large stack of characters, whose names, apart from ‘Poison Ivy’ and ‘The Hurler’, I can no longer recall. Karl drew fewer characters, more carefully, and imparted to them more substantial personalities and histories. One day in Karl’s room, he and I were arguing about Kirby and I formulated a rhetorical question, meant to shock Karl into recognising Kirby’s awesome gifts. Who else, I asked, had ever shown the ability to generate so many characters, so many distinctive costumes, so many different archetypal personas? Karl said: You.

At the time my ego chose to be buoyed by Karl’s remark. But really he’d identified an increasing childishness in Kirby. None of the army of new characters at Marvel was ever going to mean much to anyone. They were only empty costumes, like my own drawings. There was something regressive about Kirby now – he’d become self-referential, the outsider artist decorating the walls of private rooms.

The comics Karl and I actually relished in 1976 and 1977, if we were honest (and Karl was more honest than me), were The Defenders, Omega the Unknown and Howard the Duck, all written by a mad genius called Steve Gerber, and Captain Marvel and Warlock, both written and drawn by another auteur briefly in fashion, Jim Starlin. As far as the art went, Gerber liked to collaborate with plodding but inoffensive pencillers such as Jim Mooney and Sal (‘The Lesser’) Buscema. Those guys moved the story along well enough. Starlin’s were drawn in a slickly hip and mildly psychedelic style, but with the ‘realistic’ musculature that the moment (and Karl) demanded, rather than the Franz Kline kneecaps and biceps of Jack Kirby. Gerber’s tales were wordy, satirical and self-questioning, and stuffed full of homely human characters dealing with day-to-day situations: bag ladies, disc jockeys, superheroines’ jealous husbands, kids who faced bullying at their local public schools. His attitude to the superhero mythos was explicitly deflationary. Starlin was more into wish-fulfilment fantasies of cosmic power, but he was droll and readable, and the scrupulous way he drew his psychedelia was actually (I see now, paging through the stuff) indebted to Steve Ditko’s early version of Doctor Strange. Enough. The point is, Gerber and Starlin were the two creators whose (commercially non-viable) work was pitted in the day to day contest against the return of the king, and they were winning, hands down, even in my muddled and ideological heart.

Karl and I were in intermediate school in Brooklyn together until the summer of 1977. Though our friendship was strained towards the end of that time, both by Karl’s physical maturation and by the increasing distance between his rebellious nonconformity with the adult world and my parent-identifying nonconformity with the teenage world, we continued sporadically to buy and evaluate Marvel comics together until the end of eighth grade.

It was high school which severed our connection, for what would become years. I went off to Music and Art, in Manhattan, a place much populated by dreamy nerds like me and perfectly formulated to indulge my yearning to skip past teenagerhood straight to an adult life; many of my best friends in high school were my teachers. Karl was destined for Stuyvesant High, where he drifted into failure and truancy. Later he’d land at one of our local public high schools, John Jay, where he was forced to continue battling a world of bullying I’d left behind.

Luke, meanwhile, was still safe in the preserve of private school, where he might be subject to the push and pull of peer pressure, but was better isolated from the starkness of the bankrupt city around us. Our friendship, mine and Luke’s, was restored somewhat during those high school years, though my public school experiences had made me worldly in ways that Luke’s stubborn cognition, and the advantage of his older brother’s influence, couldn’t quite match. As for physical maturation, I now shot ahead, catching up with Karl (though he wasn’t around for me to make the comparison), while Luke still lagged slightly. Now, I think, I was to Luke as Karl had been to me. No rebel, I had nonetheless begun to smoke pot, which Luke still distrusted. No whizz with girls, I was at least comfortable with my puppyish interest, while Luke remained, for the time being, gnarled up.

Between me and Luke, Jack Kirby was still a tacit god, but only on the strength of his canonical 1960s work. Luke and I, righteous in our reverence for origins, didn’t between us acknowledge Kirby’s continued existence. It would have been unseemly, like dwelling on the fact that Chuck Berry had had a 1970s novelty hit called ‘My Ding-a-Ling’. Whether Karl continued to buy comics I couldn’t know. Our argument about Kirby was lost, along with much else, in the denial surrounding the state of our friendship, which had attenuated to an occasional ‘hello’ on the streets of the neighbourhood.

In the last year of high school, before college changed everything, Luke and I still drifted together occasionally. Now it was he and I who drew comics – not innocently wishful superheroes, but what we imagined were stark satires, modelled on Robert Crumb and other heroes of the ‘underground’. Luke had by then begun dating girls, too, and one of our last collaborative productions was a Kirby parody called ‘Girlfriends from the Earth’s Core’. A two-page strip, it reworked the material of a failed double date of a month before, when Luke and I had taken two girls, soon to be our first bitter exes, to a fleabag movie theatre at the Fulton Mall. Luke ‘pencilled’ the pages, and I was the ‘inker’ – I specialised in Kirbyesque polka-dots of energy, which we showed rising from the volcanic bodies of the two primordial girlfriends.

I know them both, Luke and Karl. Luke’s parents are still married, and Luke and his wife live in a New England town. The oldest of their children is called Harpo – more of the reverence for early 20th-century culture that always drew us together. Luke works (as Kirby once did, when he was demoralised by the failed return to Marvel) making animated films. His conversation still features Fantastic Four-derived phrases such as ‘Aunt Petunia’ and ‘Clobberin’ Time’. I see Kirby flashing in his eyes; I know for him it’s more real than it ever was for me.

Me, I’m a fake, my Kirby-love cobbled from Luke’s certainty, Karl’s resistance and Stan Lee’s cheerleading. My version of an older brother was Karl, and Karl wasn’t reverent about Kirby. Kirby was merely on the menu of the possible, alongside Starlin and Gerber, alongside Ghost Rider and Warlock, alongside forgetting about comics and getting into girls or music or drugs instead. Karl never had that kind of crush on his own or other kids’ parents – a crush on the books on their shelves, on the records in their collections.

Karl still lives in the Brooklyn neighbourhood to which I’ve returned and which he never left. He lives down the street, and we’re both only a few blocks from the once treacherous precinct of our shared school. Last week I had him over, and we dug out a box of Marvel comics. These were the same copies we’d cherished together in 1976 and 1977 – for, in an act surely loaded with unexamined rage, I’d bought Karl’s comic collection from him in the middle of our high-school years, when his interest drifted, when our friendship was at its lowest ebb. He wasn’t desperate to contemplate our old comics, but he was willing. While we were browsing the Kirbys of the return era, he corrected my memory in a few specifics. He raised the possibility that the argument about Kirby, which had seemed to me loaded with the direst intimations of the choices we were about to make, the failures of good faith with our childhood selves we were about to suffer, had mostly been conducted in my own head. It happened when I put a stack of Kirby’s 2001’s in his hands.

‘I really got into some of these issues,’ he said. I could see his features animate with recollection as he browsed Kirby’s panels, something impossible to fake even if he had a reason to do so. ‘I remember this comic book really blew my mind.’

‘I though you never liked Kirby,’ I said feebly, still stuck on my thesis. I explained what I thought I remembered.

‘No, I remember when he first came back I was a little slow to get it,’ Karl replied. ‘But you had me convinced pretty quickly. I remember thinking these were really trippy. I’d like to read them again, actually.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘I just never liked the way he drew knees.’