Practitioners 50: Stan Lee (Part 1)

As Norse Gods, American super soldiers and billionaire playboy philanthropist technocrats in multi-billion dollar battle suits launch into battle across cinema screens throughout the world to a hail of cheers and applause from fans of adventure of all ages does anyone wonder who decided to put these characters together? As the Silver Surfer CGI expands the limits of modern special effects technology on the silver screen while being pursued by a man on fire across the skyline of Manhattan does anyone notice the slightly built, silver haired gentleman in glasses being turned away from Sue and Reed Richard’s wedding? It’s the man who created the flaming figure and put him in Manhattan, who created the platform upon which the Silver Surfer sails, the Hulk smashes, Ghost Rider seeks vengeance and Spider-man spins his web. Let’s not beat around the bush. No Stan Lee, no Avengers, Spider-man, X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk. No Marvel comics. So no bringing Nick Fury, Namor and Captain America back from the dead. No Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil, Jack Flag. No Wolverine, Elektra, War Machine, Mary Jane. Definitely no Aunt May or J.Jonah Jameson.

Lee is a world class media operator before media operators were known to exist. Given opportunities many others had in the boom of comic books, Lee created something substantial, meaningful and powerful. He created a framework that would prove to be the single most well known and profitable set of franchises in history, revolutionise the way people read comics and bring a wry smile to many a fanboys face. He’s Stan Lee. There is no one like him. And this is his story…

Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in a tiny apartment at the corner of West 98th Street and West End Avenue, New York City on December 28, 1922. His father worked a dress cutter, working only sporadically after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Lee had one other sibling, his brother , Harry Lieber, 9 years Lee’s junior and described the one-bedroom apartment he and the rest of his family had lived in at 1720 University Avenue as “a third-floor apartment facing out back”, with him and his brother sharing a bedroom and his parents using a foldout couch.

Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, part of the swashbuckling capers that a young boy who would grow up to be Stan Lee was inspired by

As a child, Lee has recently revealed that he was fascinated and influenced by books and movies, in particular those of legendary swashbuckler, Errol Flynn. Attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Lee found entertainment and inspiration in his voracious reading habit. His penchant for writing was present early on, as a youth he worked such part time jobs as writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Turberculosis Centre (where presumably he gained his chatty patter, while trying to alleviate the heavy language associated with such writing you can only imagine that writing anything lighter was a distinct joy), delivering sandwiches for the Jack May pharmacy to offices in Rockefeller Center, working as a trouser boy for a trouser manufacturer; ushering at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway; and selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. Graduating high school early at 16 and a half in 1939, Lee joined the arguably awkwardly titled WPA Federal Theatre Project.

At a young age, as other Practitioners such as Jack Kirby were roughing in the streets and studying to become artists, Lee had immersed himself in New York. He had mucked in and fronted life out on the island of Manhattan. He hadn’t leapt straight for his dream job with both hands but done something immeasurably more valuable perhaps as a writer. He’d experienced the corners and seen the offices and lives of the average joe of Manhattan. This is something that would undoubtedly inform his work later in his career. This, perhaps, is where Lee’s fascination with the struggle of the average guy formed. In the shadows of the heaven fingering ramparts of giant cathedrals to man’s development and upper limits, there was still the guy making his way from one building to the next bringing sandwiches. New York is perhaps greatest of all cities for this, elevating it’s environment to represent grandeur and greatness while presenting daily struggle and difficulty to the great majority of it’s inhabitants that fuel it. It’s not that no other major city such as London, Paris or Tokyo represented this with both squalor and riches, but nowhere else have they both been so obvious and pronounced and yet so mixed and reliant on the other or for so long than in New York. Without the lingering class systems of London and Tokyo or the leveled society of federal and social in Paris, a dress cutter’s son, educated in the Bronx can wander into the marble lined halls of the Rockefeller center. It blended the exceptional with the every day. New York allowed the average person to witness Marvels.

Sometimes it’s not what you know but who you know and Stan Lee’s first step into comic books was with Timely Comics, thanks to his uncle, Robbie Solomon. Now an assistant on Timely Comics’ division of Pulp magazine and comic book publisher Martin Goodman’s company. Lee’s cousin Jean was Goodman’s wife, which would put Lee in good stead by the time he was hired by the great, Capatain- America-creating Joe Simon. But it wasn’t an unstoppable climb to stardom for Stan Lee.

Captain America # 3 (Stan Lee's first writing assignment)

His duties were prosaic at first and much like that which he had had to do in previous work. “In those days [the artists] dipped the pen in ink, [so] I had to make sure the inkwells were filled”, Lee recalled in 2009. “I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them”. Marshaling his childhood ambition to be a writer, young Stanley Lieber made his comic-book debut with the text filler “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941), using the pseudonym “Stan Lee”, which years later he would adopt as his legal name. Lee later explained in his autobiography and numerous other sources that he had intended to save his given name for more literary work, something that never really surfaced. Lee began immediately to have a lasting effect on the characters that still continue today, with this initial story also introducing Captain America’s trademark ricocheting shield-toss, which immediately became one of the character’s signatures.

He graduated from writing filler to actual comics with a backup feature, “‘Headline’ Hunter, Foreign Correspondent”, two issues later. Lee’s first superhero co-creation was the Destroyer, in Mystic Comics #6 (Aug 1941). The Destroyer was a field journalist, Keen Marlow, captured behind enemy lines and experimented upon with a super hero serum similar to that used on Captain America. The Destroyer was Lee’s most popular character prior to the Fantastic Four and enjoyed a MAX imprint (Volume 4) through Lee’s company Marvel very recently. Other characters he created during this period fans and historians call the Golden Age of comics include Jack Frost, (an amnesiac character made entirely of ice who woke in the icy wastes of the antarctic and is reminiscent of latter day Ice man Bobby Drake) debuting in USA Comics #1 (Aug. 1941), and Father Time (an interesting character used as back up material for Captain America 6-12, involving a hooded figure with a scythe who turns time against crooks), debuting in Captain America Comics #6 (Aug. 1941).

When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left late in 1941, following a dispute with Goodman, the 30-year-old publisher made a decision that frankly, would alter the face of comics. He installed Stan Lee, just under 19 years old, as interim editor. Unsurprisingly, given Lee’s capacity for operating seamlessly between mover and shaker in later years, Lee showed an ability for business that led him to remain as the comic-book division’s editor-in-chief, as well as art director for much of that time.

But many of Lee’s friends and colleagues of similar age had been called to war and in early 1942, Lee had his call to join the United States Army. He would serve stateside in the Signal Corps, the section of the army that provides communications, writing manuals, training films, slogans and occasionally cartooning. In true Stan Lee style, while Jack Kirby walked into enemy territory to draw maps, Lee’s military classification, he says, was ‘playwright’ adding that only 9 men in the U.S. Army were given that title. Vincent Fago, editor of Timely’s animation comics section, which put out humour and funny animal comics, filled in until Lee got back from his World War II military service in 1945. Danger of bad back from sitting in a chair too long seemingly averted, Lee returned and now lived in the the rented top floor of a Brownstone in the East 90s in Manhattan, much like a certain young man and his doting auntie managed to almost 50 years later….

Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part 1)

Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, in New York City. His parents, Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg, were Austrian Jewish immigrants, and his father earned a living as a garment factory worker. Growing up on Suffolk Street, Kirby was often involved in street fights with other kids, later saying that “fighting became second nature. I began to like it.”

Throughout his youth, Kirby wanted to get out of his neighbourhood. Knowing how to draw he sought out places to learn more about art. Essentially self taught from a very young age, Kirby was by comic strip artists Milton Cariff, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond as well as editorial cartoonists such as C.H. Sykes, ‘Ding’ Darling and Rollin Kirby, the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. In the shadow of the depression, people had found the capacity to improve their circumstances and those who looked were beginning to find them again. It was the American Dream certainly. But it was Kirby’s dream too.

Steve Canyon by Milton Caniff, in a style very close to that developed by Kirby in later years

Kirby claims he was rejected by the Educational Alliance because he drew ‘ to fast with charcoal’. He eventually found an outlet for his skills by drawing cartoons for the newspaper of the Boys Brotherhood Republic, an astonishing sounding ‘miniature city’ on East 3rd Street where kids ran their own government. This no doubt inspired the Newsboy Legion, a hustle of likely kids that have been repeated several times by both Jon Bogdanove in Superman for DC and Grant Morrison in the Seven Soldiers crossover event in 2009.

Kirby enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, one of the leading undergraduate art schools in the United States today, at what he says was the age of 14. He left after a week, dismissing the factory line nature of the teaching at the time. Speaking about that time Kirby said, “I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done.”

According to Kirby’s occasionally unreliable memory, Kirby joined the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate in 1936, working on comic strips and single-panel advice cartoons such as Your Health Comes First!! This he did under the pseudonym Jack Curtiss, the first of a great many name changes throughout his career. Kirby reacted angrily at any suggestion that it was an attempt to cover up his Jewish heritage throughout his career. He began to work for movie animation company Fleischer Studios as an inbetweener (an artist who fills in the action between major-movement frames) on Popeye cartoons. This was something Kirby couldn’t tolerate, seeing at understandably as a menial job. “I went from Lincoln to Fleischer,” he recalled. “From Fleischer I had to get out in a hurry because I couldn’t take that kind of thing,” describing it as “a factory in a sense, like my father’s factory. They were manufacturing pictures.”

Fliescher Popeye Inking Chart, reinforcing Kirby's opinion that his work at Fliescher animation was factory-like.

At the time the comics industry was booming. Today the sales figures of the early 90s are considered impressive if they hit 500,000. In the late 1930s and early 1940s companies could expect sales figures in their millions. This was the industry Kirby stepped into as young man, starting at Eisner & Iger, one of a handful of firms creating comics on demand to publishers. It was here that Kirby remembered as his first comic book work, for Wild Boy Magazine. Wild boy, Jumbo Comics and other Eisner-Iger clients gave Kirby the chance to work on numerous titles something we can only assume he achieved admirably. He used the various strips to test out any number of pseudonyms such as ‘Curt Davis’ for The Diary of Dr Hayward, or as ‘Fred Sande’ for the western crime fighter strip Wilton of the West, he returned to ‘Jack Curtiss’ for the swashbuckling Count of Monte Cristo and for the humour strips Abdul Jones he drew as ‘Ted Grey’ and with Socko the Dog simply as ‘Teddy’. Ultimately though, he settle on the pen name Jack Kirby because it reminded him of actor James Cagney.

In the summer of 1940, Kirby and his family moved to Brooklyn. There, Kirby met Rosalind “Roz” Goldstein, who lived in his family’s apartment building. The pair began dating soon afterward. Kirby proposed to Goldstein on her eighteenth birthday, and the two became engaged. However, there was one other partnership that Kirby would enter into that would change the face of popular comic books forever and provide the world with one of it’s most iconic figures.

Working with comic-book publisher and newspaper syndicator Fox Feature Syndicate, earning a then-reasonable $15 a week salary, Kirby began to investigate the superhero narrative with the comic book Blue Beetle, published January to March 1940, starring a character created by the pseudonymous Charles Nicholas, a house name that Kirby retained for the full three month strip. During this period, Kirby met and began collaborating with cartoonist and Fox editor Joe Simon, who worked freelance as well as his staff work. In 1988, Simon recalled, “I loved Jack’s work and the first time I saw it I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He asked if we could do some freelance work together. I was delighted and I took him over to my little office. We worked from the second issue of Blue Bolt…”

It was then that Kirby and Simon met what-would-be Marvel Comics, then Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics. Joe Simon had concieved the idea of Captain America and made a sketch, writing the name ‘Super American’ at the bottom of the page. Simon felt there were too many ‘Supers’ around but very few Captains. Presenting it to Martin Goodman the go-ahead was given but trying to fill a full comic with primarily one character’s stories, Simon did not believe that his regular creative partner, Kirby, could handle the workload alone. Two young artists from Conneticut had made a strong impression, Al Avison and Al Gabriele having worked together regularly and proven they could adapt to each others styles.

Simon recalled, ‘The two Als were eager to join in on the new Captain America book, but Jack Kirby was visibly upset. ‘You’re still number one, Jack,’ I assured him. ‘It’s just a matter of a quick deadline for the first issue.’

‘I’ll make the deadline,’ Jack promised. ‘I’ll pencil it [all] myself and make the deadline.’ I hadn’t expected this kind of reaction … but I acceded to Kirby’s wishes and, it turned out, was lucky that I did. There might have been two Als, but there was only one Jack Kirby.’

You can imagine the dull thunder of New York outside somewhere as the image of Captain America was formed at the hands of Jack Kirby, the bombs of the War in Europe also audible to him. A full year before Pearl Harbour was attacked both Kirby and Simon were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II and felt war was inevitable: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organised. We wanted to have our say too.”

Aware that he was creating a political figure, Kirby generated an iconic figure, broad shouldered and powerful, incorporating the red, white and blue, the stars and stripes, the eagle wings (however small) and the bright red boots that have survived almost unaltered for 70 years. The first Captain America comic in early 1941 saw him punching Hitler squarely in the jaw at the heart of a Nazi headquarters.

Simon negotiated 15% of profits for both he and Kirby as well as salaried positions as the company’s editor and art director, respectively. The first issue sold out in days, the second print run set at over 1 million copies. This enormous success established this creative team as a formidable creative force in the industry. After the first issue, Simon asked Kirby to join the staff as Art Director.

With the success of Captain America, Simon felt that Goodman wasn’t paying them the promised percentage of profits and so found work for them both at the National Comics (later to be called DC). Kirby and Simon negotiated a deal that would secure them $500 a week, compared to the $75 and $85 they respectively earned at Timely. Keeping the deal secret, fearing that Goodman wouldn’t pay them what was owed if he discovered their approach to National, both Kirby and Simon continued to work on Captain America. Goodman in fact did become aware of their plans and both of them left after Captain America #10. Kirby and Simon were leaving behind the highlight of their partnership, though Captain America wouldn’t return fully for some years yet.

The first few weeks at National were spent trying to devise new characters while the company sought to figure out how to utilise the pair. After a few failed editor-assigned ghosting assignments, National’s Jack Leibowitz simply told them to ‘just do what you want’. The pair then revamped the Sandman figure in Adventure Comics and created the superhero Manhunter. Not the Martian Manhunter, Kirby and Simon created a character that became adapted, represented by numerous alter egos and finally depersonified throughout the decades, Kirby’s original design returned nearly completely unaltered with the Manhunters, creations of the Guardians of the Universe as a forerunner to the Green Lantern Corps, most prominent in the recent Blackest Night saga. The ongoing ‘kid gang’ series Boy Commandos was to be their biggest hit, launched in the same year to become a national feature, selling more than a million copies a month and becoming National’s third best- selling title. They also scored a hit with the homefront kid-gang, the Newsboy Legion in Star Spangled Comics.

Kirby married Roz Goldstein on May 23, 1942. The same year that he married, he changed his name legally from Jacob Kurtzberg to Jack Kirby.

The war had been brought to American shores. Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japan and the US, after several years of tacit support to Britain through supply could no longer remove itself from armed conflict. Jack Kirby was going to war.

Practitioners 47: Alan Moore (Part 1)

Alan Oswald Moore looks and behaves like a Magician and declared himself one in 1994. Often considered to be the village eccentric he is (also) in fact one of the most prolific and revered comic writers in the world and the history of comics books.

Alan Oswald Moore was born 18 November 1953 in England. He is an English writer primarily known for his work in comic books, a medium where he has produced some of the most seminal pieces of comic book literature. Frequently referred to as the best comic book writer in history, Moore blends folklore, myth and legend, science fiction, mysticism, drug use, politics, and fringe culture with a healthy dose of blithe absurdism (and mild perversion) as the basis for a lot of his work. He has occassionally worked under a pseudonym such as Curt Vile, Jill De Ray and Translucia Baboon. It can be said that Moore doesn’t take himself or his work as seriously as most of those who follow it, unless it is despoiled by Hollywood, although even this he acknowledges with shrugging, friendly disinterest.

Abandoning his office job in the late 1970s for the soulless, mentally crippling waste of life that it was to a man like Moore, Moore started writing for British underground and alternative fanzines in the late 1970s, such as Anon. E. Mouse for the local paper Anon and St Pancras Panda, (a parody of Paddington Bear) for Oxford-borne Back Street Bugle. Those however had been unpaid jobs, however he gained paid work, supplying NME with his own artwork and writing Roscoe Moscow under the Pseudonym Curt Vile (a twist on composer Kurt Weill) in a weekly music magazine, Sounds, earning £35 a week. Alongside this, he and his wife Phyllis, along with their new born daughter by claiming unemployment benefit to keep themselves going. In 1979, Moore started producing a weekly strip for the Northants Post, Maxwell the Magic Cat, under the pseudonym Jill De Ray (a pun on the medieval child murderer Gilles de Rais, something he found to be a ‘sardonic joke’, giving you some insight into Moore’s inner workings.)

It was with 2000AD that Moore began to get into his cheerfully lunatic stride, producing Tharg’s Future Shocks prolifically from 1980 – 1984. A formulaic approach had to be used to create and complete a story in the two or three pages available which would have hampered most writers, however Moore grasped this concept and gleefully introduced world after world after world of apparently normal or absurdist characters that were then either exploded, zapped, overrun, sold, shocked, trapped or eaten by the end of the second or third page. A perfect example is a Future Shock in which a erewolf has ‘secretly’ stowed onto a starship intended to travel light years automatically to it’s destination. A dream scenario for any film, comic or TV Sci-fi writer, the possibilities are endless. However, instead of merely playing out the scenario in which the werewolf has to be stopped in the script – Moore introduces another Werewolf. Then another. Until it becomes clear that everyone on board is a werewolf and the ship is on autopilot heading into the sun. Such is the nature of Moore’s mind that he has likely forgotten he even wrote it but he simultaneously created a genre bending idea, incorporating conventions of both horror and science fiction, masterfully making the central character the bad guy and entirely unsympathetic before unceremoniously burning the assembled characters (and the plot line) in a sun in a way that makes you chuckle to yourself. Moore simply never concerned himself with the idea that he would run out of ideas. In his defence he never has. A ferocious reader, he absorbs subject matter as quickly as he generates it, like some intellectual symbiont that looks like Santa on crack, gnawing on the shape of the universe and regurgitating bits of it, now fused and unrecognisable.

So impressed were 2000AD with Moore’s work they offered him his own series, based very, very loosely on E.T. A series to be known as Skizz, illustrated by Jim Baikie. Ever critical of his own work, Moore later opined that in his own opinion ‘ this work owes far too much to Alan Bleasdale.’
Add to that the anarchic D.R. and Quinch, illustrated by Alan Davies, which Moore described as ‘continuing the tradition of Dennis the Menace, but giving a thermonuclear capacity,’ followed two anarchic aliens, loosely based on National Lampoon’s O.C. and Stiggs. Ever the innovator, Moore (with artist Ian Gibson) introduced a deliberately feminist title, based around a female character (a first for 2000AD at that time), The Ballad of Halo Jones. Set in the 50th century, it went out of print before all the progs were completed by Moore.

Unusually, and unbeknownst to may, Moore took on Captain Britain for Marvel UK, taking over from Dave Thorpe but retaining the original artist Alan Davis, who Moore described as ‘an artist whose love for the medium and whose sheer exhultation upon finding himself gainfully employed within it shine from every line, every new costume design, each nuance of expression.’ However he described his time on Captain Britain as ‘ halfway through a storyline that he’s neither inaugurated nor completely understood.’

But it was under Dez Skinn, former editor of both IPC (publishers of 2000AD and Marvel UK), over at Warrior that Moore finally kicked into high gear and started moving towards his massive potential. Moore was working on Marvel Man (later named Miracleman), drawn by Garry Leach and Alan Davies. Moore described it as ‘(taking a) kitsch children’s character and (placing) him within the real world of 1982′ and The Bojeffries Saga, a comedy abouta working class family of Vampires and Werewolves, drawn by Steve Parkhouse. But it was another title, which showcased in 1982 alongside Marvel man in the first edition of Warrior in March 1982.

This was V for Vendetta, a dystopian tale set in London 1997, in an England now run by a fascist regime. The only resistance to this is a masked Guy Fawkes figure who bombs empty iconic government buildings and attempts to foster anarchy in the name of freedom. Moore was influenced by the pessimism that was rife over the conservative government of the time, only creating a future where sexual and ethnic minorities were incarcerated and eliminated. V for Vendetta struck a chord at the time but has lost little popularity through the years – regarded as a seminal work, V for Vendetta is a clear marker in the career of potentially the foremost comics writer of our time. Illustrated by David Lloyd, it’s a lodestone of pent up left wing aggression towards an increasingly reactionary conservative government and like all great literature is loaded with parallel themes inherent in the society of the time. Whether it’s the Crime and Punishment of comic works is another matter, but it remains a poignant and thought provoking piece that will most likely retain it’s popularity well into the future – and certainly for as long as Moore remains a popular writer.

Moore was a phenomenon, his scripts generating the most consistently well rated pieces in 2000AD he grew unhappy with the lack of creators rights in British comics. This would become a consistent problem with future publishers as well, as Moore refused to accept the situation. Talking to Fanzine, Arkensword in 1985 he noted that he had stopped working for all publisher except IPC ‘purely for the reason that IPC so far have avoided lying to me, cheating me or generally treating me like shit.’

He did, however, join other creators in decrying the wholesale relinquishing of all rights, and in 1986 stopped writing for 2000 AD, leaving mooted future volumes of the Halo Jones story unstarted. Moore’s outspoken opinions and principles, particularly on the subject of creator’s rights and ownership, would see him burn bridges with a number of other publishers over the course of his career – but this has rarely done anything but feed Moore’s reputation as an anarchic presence in an industry that, in appearance anyway, runs creatively on anarchy.

During this same period – using the pseudonym Translucia Baboon – became involved in the music scene, founding his own band, The Sinister Ducks, employing a young Kevin O’ Neill to complete the sleeve art. In 1984, Moore and David J released a 12-inch single with a recording of ‘Vicious Cabaret’ a song featured in the soundtrack of the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta, released on the Glass Records label. Moore also wrote ‘Leopard Man at C&A’, which was later set to music by Mick Collins to appear on the Album We Have You Surrounded by Collins’ group the Dirtbombs.

But, musically speaking it wasn’t Leapordman that would occupy his future but a Swap Thing. Alan Oswald Moore was beginning to be noticed on the far side of the Atlantic by Len Wein, DC Comics Editor.

Part 2 on Tuesday 27th December