Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Quick Appreciation of Stan Lee....

So I'd been feeling burned out with comic books lately for several reasons (which will be the subject of a later post). Luckily, I decided to dig out those black & white phone book-style reprints of  Kirby's Thor & New Gods that Marvel and DC put out about ten years ago. I've always been a big Kirby fan and I even enjoy his late period stuff, which is certainly flawed, but has a wonderful energy.

Still, you can never go wrong reading/looking at Kirby's Marvel work in the mid-'60s and the first flowering of his Fourth World stories. He's not stretched quite as thin as he was in the early '60s when he worked on every Marvel book (it seems like) and he's not burned out or saddled with corporate remits the way he was after DC canceled the Fourth World books. There's a real sense that he's challenging himself in every issue to do something new with character designs or layouts or fight scenes. And on Thor, Vince Colletta's much-maligned inking is very beautiful. Even if he did erase or ignore the detail of Kirby's pencils, Colletta's thin brush strokes give Kirby's pencils a newspaper adventure strip feel (like Prince Valiant).

Kirby's always worth checking out, but New Gods and his run on Thor as it transitioned from Journey Into Mystery into Thor are amazing.

But one thing I noticed, reading the two back-to-back, is the differences between Kirby's work with Stan Lee and Kirby's solo work. Both periods have plenty of fans and supporters, and I enjoy both.

The thing that emerges from his work with Stan Lee on Thor is how the characterization is more subtle and grounded. Kirby's bombast and melodrama have their charms (and Stan Lee certainly wrote his share of melodrama), but he's not one for nuance. While Orion, upon rereading New Gods, certainly is quite complex (the irony that New Genesis relies on the rage and fierceness Orion inherited from Darkseid to defend themselves from Darkseid is acknowledged quite well), outside of Terrible Turpin, none of the human characters really register. They keep getting crowded out by all the superhumans.

Whereas in Thor, even the walk-ons end up making an impression. There's a sequence where Thor takes a cab to escape a crowd and ends up having a really frank heart-to-heart with the driver. It's a very nice moment, but the capper is, after Thor leaves, the driver's next fare asks him if that's really Thor.

The driver, who from the previous exchange we've seen is a humble, friendly guy. But he can't help but half-brag/half-joke that Thor takes his cab all the time, that they're old pals. And then, he ruefully adds, Thor forgot to pay his fare. 

Lee and Kirby together, through the dialogue and art, get across the complexity of this exchange very well. The cab driver comes across as a complex person, and it really illuminates Thor's character as well. Thor has "the common touch", unlike many of his fellow immortals, but even he can lose sight of the details.

What's really impressive about Thor is how funny it can be. Lee has a good touch for leavening the bombast, when it threatens to get too overwhelming. Volstagg's presence keeps Asgard from feeling too cold or inhuman, for example.

I know the attribution of what Kirby and Lee brought to their collaborations is always very tenuous. It's tempting to ascribe to Kirby a lot of what made their collaboration great, both because of Lee's boosterism at the expense of his collaborators and Lee's lack of creative success post-Kirby & Ditko. I think most people, given the choice, would put rather Mister A or Captain Victory on their resume than Ravage 2099 or Stripperella.

But Lee did bring something to Kirby's work. At the very least, he pushed Kirby out of his comfort zone as a co-writer, forcing him to deal with characters and emotions that Kirby preferred to avoid in his solo work.