Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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My life with Jack Kirby

Monday, August 28th, 2017

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In my life, I have known about a dozen MacArthur “genius” grantees — generally, very noteworthy writers and performers whose names you would know. But I think that for range of vision, for sheer scope of work and for lasting influence, Jack Kirby, who was largely unrecognized as a genius during his life, tops them all.

I was very lucky to meet him, as well. Which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I have to pay tribute to his genius.

To credit Jack Kirby as the (co-) creator of the entire foundation of the Marvel universe — and the resultant Marvel Cinematic Universe — is to lavish him with faint praise.

Jack Kirby created entire categories, and subcategories, of American popular culture, inculcating multi-billion-dollar enterprises along the way, while bringing new thrust to his special undertaking:  the dynamic depiction of story.

Yes, Jack Kirby created, or co-created:

  • Captain America
  • The Fantastic Four
  • Thor (Marvel Comics’ version)
  • Iron Man
  • The Hulk
  • The Fly
  • Spider-Man
  • Boy Commandoes
  • The Newsboy Legion
  • Groot
  • The Inhumans
  • Black Panther
  • Doctor Doom
  • The X-Men
  • Darkseid
  • Kamandi
  • Ego the Living Planet
  • the Silver Surfer
  • Mr. Miracle
  • the Forever People
  • Ronan the Accuser
  • the Watcher
  • The Kree
  • The Skrulls
  • The Supreme Intelligence
  • The Challengers of the Unknown
  • The Eternals
  • The Celestials
  • The Avengers
  • and the list goes on and on

(And just for the record, and although I’m somewhat sad to bring this up, what did the far more glorified Stan Lee create without his primary creative partner, Jack Kirby? Just about nothing. Meanwhile, Kirby created noteworthy characters long before his partnership with Stan Lee, during his partnership with Stan Lee, and long after his partnership with Stan Lee. The only constant factor in this incredible 60-year outpouring of creativity was:  Jack Kirby.)

But Kirby also created:

  • Entire new mythological universes, as with “Thor,” and his “Fourth World” series
  • Kid-gang comics (“Boy Commandoes,” “The Newsboy Legion”)
  • the entire genre of Romance comics
  • whole strata of the DC and Marvel Universes (both the upcoming Justice League and Avengers movies directly spin out of Kirby underpinnings)

Kirby also created new methods of illustrative storytelling.

He created Kirby krackle. Here’s an example of a layout without it, and with it.

Kirby Krackle

Once you know what it looks like, you’ll spot Kirby krackle everywhere. It brings energy to the panel.

Kirby also brought forced perspective to the page. Note how Captain America seems to be leaping out at us:

Kirby forced perspective

Kirby’s work hummed with action and virility. Compared to Kirby’s, most other comics artists’ work of the time just stood there.

(For a list of even more of Jack Kirby’s innovations, click here.)

When I was a boy, I was awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. It is hard to remain awestruck about anything in one’s fifties, but I am still awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. That’s why it’s all the more memorable to me that, at age 11, I got to meet Jack Kirby.

At age 11, I was someone who very much did not want to be living where he was:  out in the woods, far away from the thrum of Manhattan. In Manhattan, it seemed, one could run into Doctor Strange or the Human Torch or Daredevil out on the street, because in Marvel Comics these heroes were on every street corner — recognizable street corners. Over in the pallid land of DC Comics, things happened in “Smallville” or “Gotham City” or “Metropolis” or “Coast City” — places that didn’t exist on any map. But with Marvel, it looked like you could go to the Upper West Side and walk right past Avengers Mansion. That, plus the interconnectedness of their comics, lent Marvel its verisimilitude, its uncanny shimmer that made everything seem so possible.

What I especially loved about Marvel was Kirby’s primary triumph (with Stan Lee, who provided dialogue), “Fantastic Four.” The Fantastic Four were not superheroes. Superheroes confront arch-villains, evildoers and ne’er-do-wells. The Fantastic Four were primarily science explorers (modeled after Kirby’s previous creation, The Challengers of the Unknown); as such, they explored outer space, inner space, alternate dimensions, the past, the future, and the limits of human cognition, meeting different races and different beliefs all along the way and expressing the very best of the human race in a meeting of the minds. Sometimes they did battle on behalf of their (our) beliefs — but frequently they found common cause with strange and outwardly alien people of all types.

And that’s what I wanted to do:  to get out of the woods, to meet new people and different viewpoints, to exchange ideas, and to advance together.

Maybe it’s naive, but that’s still what I want to do.

So, you see, Jack Kirby shaped my life.

But when I was 11, I was just amazed to see him in person. It was like seeing Leonardo da Vinci or Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ or some other enormously great historical figure in the flesh. How was it even possible?

That July, just a week-and-a-half before my 12th birthday, my father took me to the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention; this was an incredible gift, which I’m still grateful for, 25 years after his death. And there, in some little room, back when comic-book conventions were far far smaller, I stood at the back of a line of maybe 10 people waiting to meet Jack Kirby.

Kirby was seated at the left of two folding tables, drawing sketches and signing autographs and chatting with whoever was next in line. To his left (my right) was his longtime inker on “Fantastic Four,” Joe Sinnott. (Mr. Sinnott, aged 90, is still with us.) Although Kirby by this point had left Marvel for DC, and I had read some of those DC comics, I was still completely enamored with “Fantastic Four” — as was seemingly every person in line ahead of me. One by one, each of them remarked upon “Fantastic Four.”

But I didn’t want to be like them. Who would want to approach the godhead and seem like just another supplicant?

So, when it was finally my turn to approach the great man, I said with as much of a squeak as I could register, in something like a high-pitched mumble filled with nervous anxiety, “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

Now, for the record, Kirby’s work on “The Avengers,” while displaying the same dynamism he brought to pretty much everything, was nowhere near on a par with his work on “Fantastic Four.” And I knew this. I said this only to be different. At age 11, and small in stature and frame and tiny in self-confidence in front of Kirby in particular, it was, in retrospect from 40 years later, a little brave for me to say:  “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To which Jack Kirby replied, “What?”

At age 57, he hadn’t quite heard what my pipsqueak voice had said.

Fully intimidated to be in his presence, I couldn’t even bring myself to look up and see the great man sitting eight inches in front of me. I just trembled and managed to say in a quaking voice, “Oh, never mind” and stood quaking as Kirby signed an autograph for me.

I am not exaggerating this encounter.

And I have never again been so intimidated in my life. Not because of him — he was eminently approachable — but because of what he signified:  everything that was important to me.

Joe Sinnott, God bless him, saw my extreme mortification and called me over and drew for me a full sketch of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and wrote my name and signed it and I cherish it to this day and am still struck by his monumental kindness.

I got to meet Jack Kirby twice after that, many years afterward, after I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started attending the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic-Con International), where he was an adored guest and fixture. He was a very nice man, and, honest to God, a genius. And, it must be said, he was a true entertainer — someone who filled countless hours of my life then and now with enjoyment. I think Kirby viewed himself as a cartoonist, but when you look at the panoply of his work you see that he was much more than that. As much as Homer or J.R.R. Tolkein, or any other noteworthy fantasist, and moreso than most of them, Jack Kirby was a world builder.

And because he was also a progressive and an optimist, he helped build in me an ongoing thirst for a better world.

I’m in his debt.

 

Poor plodding

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I find that I’m not as enthused about W. G. Sebald as his reputation would have it, or, at least, I’m not as enthused about his 1990 novel Vertigo as critical opinion would have it. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading my way through it, slowly to be sure, and trying to pick up why his work is in such critical favor.

Just now I picked it up and couldn’t find my place. Usually I’m good about remembering where I am in a book. I generally don’t use a bookmark because I like to make of this a little memory test for myself: Can I remember where I left off?  Tonight, I found my page:  43. Ah, yes. Our unnamed hero is on some sort of little tour with a friend he’s gotten out of the asylum for the day.

I read for a bit, then started to feel tired, so I put the book down. But before going to sleep, I figured I’d update my Goodreads status. I like the app because I use it to maintain a queue of books I’m going to read, and because by tracking the books I’ve read, or am reading, it helps me hit my annual goal of at least 26 books. I opened the app to enter my progress in reading Vertigo. And there was my last entry, showing where I’d stopped:

Page 46.

Three pages after where I’d just started again.

So I’d reread pages 43-46, and had absolutely no recollection of them.

Either I have Alzheimer’s, or I’m dozing off while reading this thing, or this is pretty dull stuff.

Why do old books smell so great?

Monday, April 10th, 2017

Three words for you: “woody,” “smoky” and “earthy.”

Thanks to Doug Hackney for letting me know about this!

Musical legacy

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

We don’t always recognize the people who’ve made a significant impact on our lives. Sometimes it’s the engineers we can’t name who built the roads and bridges we drive; sometimes it’s the people who created the systems we use; sometimes it’s the person who designed, say, the handy squeezable ketchup or mustard bottle. Sometimes it’s artists, and sometimes it’s the business people behind the artists. Usually, those business people behind the artists get a (deservedly) bad reputation.

Which made it all the sweeter today to read about a tribute to Robert Hurwitz, who just retired as the head of Nonesuch Records.

During his 33 years heading up Nonesuch, Hurwitz helped helm the careers of John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Randy Newman and many others. All of those names, and several others in his professional legacy, can be found in my music collection. It’s nice to see a “suit” get some credit for having taste, and for helping the masses share in that taste. Although I’d never heard of him before, it turns out that for decades Robert Hurwitz has helped to curate my listening.

Thank you, sir. Enjoy your retirement.

No news is bad news

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

The New York Times is ending its coverage of regional theatre, and restaurants and culture in its suburban delivery areas. (Here’s more on that story.) If you’re a theatre in New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island or Connecticut, that’s pretty bad news.

On one of the theatre groups I belong to on Facebook, people were predictably outraged. Sample comments:

“This is shortsighted and totally lacking in regard for the need of the wider community for access to its own cultural scene!!!!!!”

They seem to be denying their motto’All the news that’s fit to print.’ “

“As long as I get my Justin Bieber updates. That’s all that matters.”
 “They’ve seen their future. So I hear they’re starting a Justin Bieber SECTION.”

It was these last two that got my goat. So I posted this:

“This is the point at which I ask, ‘How many of us who are shocked and upset have been PAYING to read the New York Times?’ Some, sure — but the numbers are way down. I remember when the LA Times had 1,000,000+ readers in print; now it’s… 250,000? The advertisers started leaving these papers after the subscribers started leaving. I’m now the ONLY LA Times subscriber on my block. On a similar note: How many people here are willing (and PROUD) to write for The Huffington Post, for free, while its founder made millions from it and while its unpaid parasitic repurposing of newspaper content was helping to eat those newspapers alive? Newspapers have had to PAY to cover those stories (unlike the HuffPo). Without our support, they’ve been forced to make tragic cuts.”

So, yes, I was once again on a familiar tear about The Huffington Post, which enriches a select handful of early investors, including Arianna herself, while asking all the writers to contribute for free, and while taking paid newspaper content, aggregating it, and turning it into clickbait.

Today, though, I realized how even more apt my comparison of that organ to a parasite was. Unchecked, parasites kill the host — and then they themselves die. Newspapers in their present form won’t — can’t — survive. But the need for actually reliable news, the sort that comes from having paid news gatherers go out and develop connections and do research and develop and report stories, will continue. It may even become more valuable, as it becomes more scarce, and that means it will cost more. Maybe that will mean that the HuffPo, with a business model built on unpaid writing and filched reporting, would have to pay for its content. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

A few weeks ago, John Oliver delivered a hilarious but tragic takedown of what’s happening to newspapers. This, I promise you, is well worth your 19 minutes.

 

What time is it?

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

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It’s time for the LA Times, which is part of “Tronc,” to hire a new copy editor. Because that’s not a clock.

Not getting squashed

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

I just finished reading this incomparable piece of writing, by Tad Friend, in The New Yorker, about playing squash competitively while past your prime. I can’t attest to his game, but in his writing, Friend nails every point.

Two late authors

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Two authors died today, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.

Ms. Lee wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that was largely derided in its debut as being unbelievable, because the 6-year-old narrator was too wise for her age. I didn’t care; the book, in its simple goodness and in its arch morality tale, stuck with me, as it did with so many.

More recently, Ms. Lee was reputed to have written — or to have had discovered — another novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” I read several excerpts of that book, which featured several of the characters from “Mockingbird,” but 20 years on, and decided quickly that a full visit to that book would have ruined the previous book for me, so I stayed away. I also suspected that the novel was not so much “discovered” as cobbled together, or raised by witchcraft in some fashion, because of the millions of dollars in sales that would surely follow. (And did.)

So, in full, I read one book by Harper Lee. That was half of her oeuvre, and it was the half that counted.

The great contemporary Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote dozens of non-fiction works and collections of essays, of which I read a few, and seven novels, of which I read four in translation, which I consider to be the essential four:  “The Name of the Rose,” “Foucault’s Pendulum,” “The Island of the Day Before,” and Baudolino.”

“The Name of the Rose” was a masterpiece — a 1983 novel that greatly affected me in its ruminations over the nature of justness and proper religious observance, and also as a reminder of what was the 1300’s had in common with our own time, and what was strictly alien. In the novel, the lead character, a monk serving as a Sherlock Holmes of his time, is the owner of the latest innovation:  an early set of spectacles that enable his fading eyes to read. The entire novel centers around the question of what is proper for an abbey in its obeisance, to wit:  Is it proper to laugh, given that no mention is made in the Bible of Jesus ever having laughed? When your worldview is based entirely upon a literal reading of an ancient text, this is a pressing question, and is made immediately relevant to every literate reader asking himself every day what is right, and what is wrong. That vast passages of “Rose” are in untranslated Latin served only as a further inducement to think a little harder, to research, to parse out the meaning. This was a book that one leaned into intellectually, and, at the same, it was a thriller, with a murderer on the loose. It stands as a great achievement.

“Foucault’s Pendulum” (1989) is even moreso a game, in which Eco debunks the conspiracy theory from “The Holy Blood the Holy Grail” (which I had read previously) that Jesus had sired an heir and that a conspiracy everafter secretly controlled human events. “Holy Blood,” which in its center photo spread hilariously included an image of the authors’ believed current descendant of Jesus, is the book that ultimately  led us to the accursed Dan Brown novels that started with “The Da Vinci Code.” As a novel, the fault in “Foucault’s Pendulum” is a series of extended dream sequences / journal entires that can be completely skipped; my brother Ray had warned me of the time, and I sneered inwardly at the thought of skipping any part of a book, but later I found to my dismay that he’d been entirely right, that the journal entries were irrelevant, and that the novel would have been stronger without them. Nevertheless, all the other areas of the book are extraordinarily compelling, as one is pulled along on the trail of a conspiracy, and led to a very strong conclusion, with Eco again playing his strong cards:  marrying an intellectual pursuit with a classic suspense thriller.

With “The Island of the Day Before,”  my interest in Eco diminished, and my capacity for skipping pages grew. I even found it unable to finish the book. What I remember of it is that it took place on a ship where time seemed fractured — and that I didn’t care a lot, in fact at all, about any of it. It was now 1995, 12 years after “Rose,” and I’d discovered many other authors, most notably Rilke and Tolstoy, far more worthy of my time.

In 2001, having almost sworn off Eco, I put “Baudolino” on my Christmas list — and found myself surprised and delighted by it. Here, again, was the Eco I enjoyed: a wry commentator and occasional satirist drawn to the story of an earlier Christianity, but skeptically. In addition, it afforded the opportunity to learn a lot about the 13th century AD, the Holy Roman Empire of its time, and a great early Germanic leader — things I’m always curious about and don’t know enough about. And the book was a romp — it wasn’t a great achievement along the lines of “The Name of the Rose,” but it was fun to read, pulling you along like iron filings to a magnet.

And then… Eco produced three more novels, and I left him behind. “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” sounded too close in theme to “The Island of Day Before,” centering around a character confused about his whereabouts and his past, and by the time “The Prague Cemetery” (2011) and then “Numero Zero” (2015) came along, I had moved on. Given that I have 79 novels on my bookcase waiting to be read, it’s doubtful I’ll return to Eco.

I’ve had a history with both of these authors, as each of us has with anyone whose art we’ve followed, whether it’s David Bowie or Eugene Ionesco or Darrin Bell. I never expected anything great again from Harper Lee, but I’m glad for what I got (both the novel and the movie version). With Umberto Eco, it only gradually occurred to me that “The Name of the Rose” was a singular achievement, and that I shouldn’t expect it again. How delightful it was, then, to find in 2011, after reading all 11 novels of Julian Barnes, that his most recent, “The Sense of an Ending,” was his very best. All of them, mind you, had been good, with all of them having flashes of greatness, but “The Sense of an Ending” showed a greater sense of wisdom and insight than all its predecessors put together — its lucidity about adulthood remains astonishing, and so the novel remains one of my most recommended. (That, and this one, which I promise you is elegantly written and unexpectedly incredibly moving.) I felt rewarded for having stayed in the game.

 

 

Not funny about money

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

Eric Idle being straightforward about how much money he’s made — from Monty Python and everything else. Until very recently, it’s been surprisingly little.

When you read this, bear in mind what he leaves out:  the cuts taken by managers, agents, and the lot.

I know a well-known and highly regarded, somewhat legendary, star of Broadway, dance and choreography, a person who is a two-time Tony winner and who was a key element in major premieres (including by Sondheim). I used to visit him in his very nice home that had once been Gloria Swanson’s. One thing he clarified for me:  All of his money actually came from real estate — flipping houses, including to Jack Nicholson, who simply wanted to knock down the adjacent house (my friend’s) and paid dearly for it.

So part of me isn’t surprised that Eric Idle didn’t make bank until he was 61. At age 72, and having been famous for about 50 years, Idle is reportedly worth $15 million, and most of that is recent. Given his profile, that’s not a lot of money in Los Angeles, and it’s not a lot when  you consider he’s paying tax in three countries (the U.S., England and France).

Calling all copy editors

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

Dear Los Angeles Times, I write about you out of sorrow, not anger. (Far be it from me to kick you while you’re down. I am rooting for you, Los Angeles Times.) But in the spirit of love, I have to ask, Do you still employ copy editors? Is there anyone — even one person — assigned to read the paper before it goes to print?

I’ve read only half of the Arts & Books section so far this morning. I’m going to keep reading, but it’s going to be difficult to forget these two things I’ve found already.

Here’s the second-worst thing I’ve found, in the Ask Amy column, where Amy advises a person not to tell her (or his) boss about future plans to leave the position and move away:

Work toward your goal, and once you have protected for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.

Fine advice, if you can understand it. In this use, “protected” is a transitive verb, meaning it requires an object. Without that object, the verb makes no sense, and we’re left to wonder just what should be protected. Herself? Her own ass? Let’s see what happens if we supply our own potential objects for this verb.

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected humankind for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected Cthulhu for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected Ted Cruz for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

Really, it could be anything.

Granted, this was in the Ask Amy column, but given her response, I wouldn’t Ask Amy anything. She can’t communicate. You might Ask, but her response is a Zen riddle. Perhaps a copy editor should have caught this and inserted the most likely object:  “yourself.” Now it would read, “Work toward your goal, and once you have protected yourself for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.” It’s still clumsy, because, again, Amy’s no writer, but it’s more intelligible. Maybe the best response Amy could have written would have been this one:  “No. Don’t.” Which is awfully direct — but I have to think that anyone who writes to a newspaper column to seek advice on whether or not to tell her boss months in advance that she’s considering moving to the big city, and that therefore said boss should strongly consider hiring the new applicant for the assistant position who would be ideal for taking over her job, well, I think that person needs a stern talking-to. About not being a bonehead.

That was the second-worst thing I found in today’s paper. Here’s the worst-written thing I’ve found. (So far. Bear in mind, I’m only a few pages into today’s edition.)

In a roundup about the 2015 edition of “Best American Comics,” Carolina Miranda writes of one artist:

“Originally born in Ireland, David Sandlin moved to the U.S. as a teenager and now lives in New York, where he teaches at the School of Visual Arts.”

Okay, hands up, who knows what David Sandlin has in common with Jesus. Anyone? That’s right — each of them was born more than once. Jesus was born, died, and then was born again as a grown man coming back from the dead in a cave. David Sandlin was originally born in Ireland, and then I guess he was born somewhere else (it goes unnamed), and then he moved to the U.S. Given his two births, Sandlin must be an interesting character. I was born only once (that I know of), and I don’t remember it at all. I’d like to ask Sandlin about his own experiences.

I wonder if the unfortunate construction of “Originally born in Ireland…” is actually the result of bad editing (as opposed to no editing). Or if it is indeed Carolina Miranda’s mistake. If it’s the latter, it’s the sort of mistake that we all make at one point or another, and I’m sure she winced when she saw it in print. I enjoyed the rest of her piece, and was thrilled to see alternative comics given a two-page spread in the sadly dwindling newspaper — but now the big takeaway is the glaring error.

More of these errors were caught and corrected when newspapers could afford more and better copy editors.

Sometimes I wish I could read the way most people read. But mostly, I wish we had more and better editors.