My Misspent Youth — Black Panther by Jack Kirby

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Well before there was a comic book industry press eager to cover every instance of a noted creator signing up to work with one publisher or another, there was only person whose place on the payroll was notable enough to be an event in and of itself. And he was the King.

Artist Jack Kirby effectively co-created the Marvel Universe, and it’s reasonable to infer that the loftiest, boldest inventions came straight out of his pencil. When, fed up with his treatment, he left Marvel to join the distinguished competition, it was an event touted with breathless excitement in full-page ads. And when Kirby had his House of Ideas homecoming, it was similarly cause for fevered promotional celebration.

Reflecting his rampant, restless creativity, Kirby largely devoted himself to crazy new concepts, even if he had to shoehorn them into titles based on licensed material. There were exceptions, including a return to Captain America, a character he’d helped create over thirty years earlier. Because of my abiding affection for the Fantastic Four — and Kirby’s legendary, transformative original run with the characters — nothing from the King’s nineteen-seventies Marvel stretch so quickly stirs up for joy for me than his tenure on Black Panther, a series he launched with a first issue cover dated January 1977.

Black Panther 001-004

Kirby was the co-creator on Fantastic Four #52, published in 1966, which introduced Black Panther and much of the lore around the character, including the African nation of Wakanda. According to his son, it was Kirby’s idea to introduce some notable diversity into the Marvel Universe, though, as with all things in the fruitful, fraught partnership between Kirby and writer Stan Lee, differing memories abound.

“I recall during the winter or early spring he asked me what I would think of a black superhero in the comics. Of course he was very much for it, as we all were at the time,” Neal Kirby recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “My father was a very social liberal person. He would have been the Bernie Sanders of his day. He very much believed in social justice and equality, so he honestly thought it was time. Why shouldn’t African Americans have their own superhero?”

Some ten years later, Kirby was both writer and artist on a series starring Black Panther, largely ignoring the history of the character that had built up in the interim, opting instead to plunge him into bold, colorful stories that bent reality in a way only possible in the comics and allowed for plenty of patented Kirby Krackle.

Black Panther 002-010

Marvel Comics in the nineteen-seventies were inclined toward wild flights of fancy, but no one could go wilder than Kirby. His opening storyline involving frog statues imbued with metaphysical powers that could send or beckon figures hurtling through time. This, naturally, led to Black Panther being pressed into battle from a strange being from millions of years in the future. And there was more and more, the universe of Kirby’s ideas truly so boundless even he sometimes couldn’t describe what he concocted.

Black Panther 002-012

As Kirby’s son Neal noted, the great comic book creator had strong political beliefs, but those usually didn’t intrude in an overt way to the stories he created. Social issues were given no more than glancing attention. Instead, Kirby honored a character like Black Panther by simply giving him the same platform he’d give any other figure. Although I doubt he would have used this precise language, he knew that representation mattered. He was a hero. And he was super.

Black Panther 003-010

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“I began to understand home when Riv and I slept next to each other and Riv told me stories in the dark. Once, River told me about the ocean. He said: We got so much water where I’m from. It come down from the north in rivers. Pool in bayous. Rush out to the ocean, and that stretch to the ends of the earth that you can see. It changes color, he said, like a little lizard. Sometimes stormy blue, sometimes cool gray. In the early mornings, silver. You could look at that and know there’s a God, he said to me as the other gunmen coughed and tossed. Maybe one day, when you and me get out of here, you could come down and see it, Riv said.”

—Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, 2017

 

“THOU HAVE DARED TO DISOBEY MINE ORDERS IMPERIAL! I HAVE FORBAD THY VISIT TO EARTH … AND YET … THERE, BEFORE MINE EYES, THOU DO STAND ON THE PLANET OF THE MORTALS! IF WITH MORTALS THOU WOULDST DWELL … AS POWERLESS AS THEY SHALT THOU BE! I HAVE SPOKEN! SO BE IT!

—Stan Lee, THOR, Vol. 1, No. 148, “Let There Be…Chaos!,” 1968

My Misspent Youth — The Amazing Spider-Man by Roger Stern and John Romita, Jr.

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I believe Spider-Man was supposed to be my generation’s gateway into superhero comics. When I transitioned from ravenous consumption of the childish fare published by Harvey Comics — particularly the boy plutocrat Richie Rich — into highly mature tales of physically-alarming beings who squeezed into spandex outfits to fight crime, I larger steered clear of Marvel’s famed wall-crawler, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me. This was the character who regularly appeared on Electric Company — and starred in a corresponding kid-friendly comic series — so he should have been the likeliest character to ensnare my attention. I bought loads of Marvel comics, but I resisted Spider-Man’s titles.

But I also learned my Marvel Comics history quickly and with studious devotion. As new comics hit the spinner rack, I knew a major event when I saw it. So when Amazing Spider-Man #238 arrived, bearing a cover dominated by a new villainous character who evoked the stylings of Ol’ Web-Head most fearsome — and long-departed — foe, I knew I had to get it. This, I was certain, was going to be big.

In a story written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Romita, Jr. (and inked, in the first issue, by his namesake pop, who plied his pencils on some of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever published), our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is up to his usual do-gooding, but one the small-time crooks he’s after slips away. The miscreant finds his way into a secret underground lair.

asm green goblin lair

The Green Goblin was Spider-Man’s arch-enemy, having delivered the cruelest emotional turn in the hero’s life many years earlier. The Green Goblin himself perished not long afterward, and the various creators never quite filled the hole left by the character’s absence, despite some misguided attempts. (Back then, characters who perished largely stayed dead, a standard Marvel abandoned with increasingly tiresome frequency later.) Stern’s fine idea was bypass any sort of strained revival and instead start anew with a character who evoked the bygone adversary.

The hood who found the Goblin costumes and weaponry leads a shadowy figure to the stash of goods. Bringing his own panache to the design, this dastardly fellow emerges as the character sensation of 1983.

hobgoblin

With the Hobgoblin, the Spider-Man saga was jolted by the familiar presented as something striking and new. Although it was technically a new character, Stern was able to take advantage of transferable menace before our hero had even set eyes on the crafty criminal.

spiderman in action

In setting up the new foe, Stern even replicated a bit of storytelling lore around the Green Goblin. The earlier villain’s secret identity was hidden from the readers for ages, with little hints parceled out, always implying it was a member of Spider-Man’s supporting cast. By some accounts, the creators themselves weren’t all that sure about the Green Goblin’s alter ego, even squabbling about it so much that the dispute is often cited as the motivation for artist Steve Ditko — Spider-Man’s co-creator — jumping ship from Marvel.

With the Hobgoblin, the strategy was repeated (as were the internal disagreements). The reveal was teased out to a ludicrous degree. And I loved every bit of it. I couldn’t have named it at the time, by the ongoing tale was exactly what I was looking for in my superhero comics. It was twisty and thrilling and rewarded an appreciation for the arcana of Marvel continuity without being overly reliant on a knowledge of it. Individual issues read fine in isolation, but familiarity with the whole span of the story made the material seem richer and little more audacious. It might have taken me a while to get to The Amazing Spider-Man, but its web was all but inescapable when I finally arrived.

 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

 

Great Moments in Literature

“Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well—the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her.”

—E.M Forster, Howards End, 1910

 

“YOU MISJUDGE ME, MY DEAR. THIS IS A QUESTION NOT OF MURDER, BUT OF BUSINESS EFFICIENCY …AND ADVANCEMENT.”

—Roger Stern, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, Vol. 1, No. 236, “Kill or Be Killed!,” 1979

My Misspent Youth — Moon Knight by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I started collecting superhero comics, I adored first issues. There was probably some speculator instinct I picked up by osmosis, since this was the beginning of the era when comic books were occasionally positioned as a potential boon for nerdy investors by an aghast and amused mainstream press. Mostly, though, I loved the idea of being with a character from the very beginning of their existence. The true Marvel heyday of spectacular character debuts coming at a rapid pace was nearly twenty years before I started seriously scrutinizing the offerings propped up in the spinner rack, and I was envious of my ancestors in the pastime of feverishly consuming comics.

Although I didn’t really know it at the time, the boldly announced PREMIERE ISSUE of Moon Knight didn’t actually contain the first appearance of the title character. Moon Knight was introduced roughly five years earlier, tangling with Werewolf by Night. He then romped through some tryout adventures in Marvel Spotlight and the back pages of The Hulk!, a full-size magazine starring Marvel’s resident green goliath. Hoping to grab a more mature audience than the kids who usually read their monthly mags (you might not know it from inspecting the average clientele in a comics shop these days, but there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the periodicals were primarily aimed at and read by individuals too young to get a driver’s license), the magazine tried to deliver slightly racier and artistically-refined content. That motivation undoubtedly helped direct the choice of artist Bill Sienkiewicz to join writer Doug Moench.

The team of Moench and Sienkiewicz obviously made an impression with the fans, allowing Moon Knight to graduate to his own comic series. It was the first issue of that ongoing title that I eagerly grabbed off the stands. Maybe it wasn’t the true debut of Moon Knight, but, in mighty Marvel fashion, it absolutely played that way, presenting the superhero’s origin story.

moon knight 1

The short version is that Marc Spector was a mercenary on assignment in Egypt when a villainous African in the same line of work beats Spector and leaves him for dead. Spector’s heart does stop at one point, but he awakens fully alive in front of a statue of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu. Naturally, that prompts Spector to dress up in a costume and fight crime. Because, you know, comics.

Not content to operate with a single secret identity, Spector takes on a whole portfolio of alter egos.

moon knight 2

The concept behind Moon Knight seemed to be: What if Batman was actually crazy? Moench’s writing played up the idea that the character sometimes struggled with maintaining understanding of the realities of the separate personae he’d cooked up for himself. And then there was the looming Egyptian god statue that held sway over his confidence.

The moody, inky art of Sienkiewicz melded perfectly with Moench’s inclination to send Moon Knight into the seedier corners of Marvel’s Manhattan. Moon Knight was a kindred spirit to the original Daredevil run crafted by Frank Miller, which held my imagination tight.

moon knight 3

Where Miller pitted Daredevil against mobsters and ninjas, Moench took Moon Knight into far more bizarre territory. Before long, the cowled crusader was doing battle with all sorts of supernatural forces. It was a bizarre contrast to the more conventional villain-of-the-month fare that shared space in the Marvel publishing line. At times, I could barely wrap my growing brain around the material dished up by Moench and Sienkiewicz. That only made me appreciate it more.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth: JLA by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

For a little while in the nineteen-nineties, I was prepared to follow writer Grant Morrison just about anywhere. When I made that unstated pledge, it never occurred to me that I’d be following him to the Justice League.

I knew of Morrison’s work because of the writing he did on the fringes of the DC Universe. In a way, Morrison set the template for the publisher’s Vertigo imprint, launched in 1993. He took on authorship duties with characters from DC’s history — most notably Doom Patrol and Animal Man — but brought a whole other creative cunning to their adventures, indulging in devious meta shenanigans and otherwise plunging them into dark, warped stories.

In the mid-nineteen-nineties, after following those wondrously weird tendrils of imagination, Morrison received an assignment that initially seemed perplexing. He was given a revived version of DC’s superteam, branded with the hip acronym JLA.

The Justice League of America had been around for ages, though it had long strayed from the model of bringing together the publisher’s biggest heroes, opting instead for unloved also-rans and then flagrant comedy. Morrison was allowed his own version of a back to the basics approach, with the biggest names in the DC comics stable (although the ever-flailing DC editorial approach occasional left him saddled with bad ideas like sparking blue Superman). I didn’t always gel for me, but when Morrison’s sensibility melded with a perfect story concept, it was irresistible, no more so that the when Starro muscled into the panels.

Starro dated back to the very first appearance of the Justice League of America, published in 1960, making it natural that Morrison would want to use the villainous being at one point. The story also made room for a more recent figure.

JLA sandman

Sandman was already considered writer Neil Gaiman’s comics masterpiece, making it fairly audacious that Morrison took the central figure and plopped him down into a big ol’ superhero story. But by employing the cryptic deep thinking, Morrison had a mechanism for engaging in some of the sideways thinking he brought to his mainstream far, such as Green Lantern having his mind blown by the reference to his tool of choice as a “wishing ring.”

Even better, Morrison back then had a particular skill for honoring the tropes of the superhero mythos while simultaneously extrapolating to get at deeper truths that could be easily overlooked because of the familiarity of the rhythms of a comic book adventure. Villains show up, the heroes fight the villains. Morrison took the time to think about the impressions that might be generated by these strange creatures populating the story. For example, wouldn’t a giant outer space starfish that controlled minds be, you know, pretty scary?

JLA starro

The oddness of Howard Porter’s art could make the more conventional moments a little off, but he was well-suited to bringing the freakiness.

Morrison told dense intricate stories, but working on JLA opened up his sense of grandeur. The scope could be titanic. These heroes weren’t going to spend a lot of time stopping bank robbers. Most of them could comfortably cross out of the planet’s atmosphere and cavort among the stars, so Morrison regularly veered into appropriate levels of spectacle.

jla starro in space

Still, no matter how much mischief Morrison got up to, these stories go the way they go. Starro is bested and the heroes recline in the satisfaction of their victory.

Sometimes, Morrison’s ideas got too big for the comics page, and it seemed he was only able to type out about a third of what he had in mind, leaving sprawl and uncertainty on the page. That was present in JLA (I might argue the flaw first manifested here), but it was energizing to see a creator go big with ideas instead of just spectacle, reversing a dire trend of nineties comics. Even when it got a little bogged down, this take on the Justice League was worth the effort.

jla ending

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Julian shooed Sasha into the other bedroom like a peaceable teenage goatherd. Asking if I needed anything before he said good night. I was taken aback—he reminded me of the boys in school who’d become more polite and high functioning on drugs. Dutifully washing the family dinner dishes while they were tripping, mesmerized by the psychedelic magic of soap.”

—Emma Cline, The Girls, 2016

 

“AND THEN THE UGANDANS CUT LOOSE WITH THEIR MORTARS. THERE WAS NOTHING I COULD DO FOR HER. ALL I FOUND WAS A TOOTH. AND TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, MY COPY OF THE RED PONY WAS IN FLAMES. THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT FOR ME HERE. I SET MY COURSE FOR MARIN. THE NIGHT HAD CLEARED, AND THE STARS TWINKLED WETLY, AS IF THEY TOO WEPT FOR THE POOR BRAVE GIRL WHO HAD GOTTEN HER WISH. SOMEWHERE A BELL TOLLED. AND, BROTHER, YOU CAN BET I DIDN’T ASK FOR WHOM!”

—Will Jacobs & Gerard Jones, THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, Vol. 1, No. 1, “Meeting Girls,” 1987