Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics

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In Give Our Regards to the Atom-smashers!, some of our most intriguing and creative contemporary writers weigh in on the world of comics: the ones they love versus the ones they hate, the comics they devoured as kids and still can't live without, and the comics that have influenced them in their work and their lives.

Here is Jonathan Lethem on childhood friendships, comic books, and the genius of artist Jack Kirby . . . Glen David Gold on the obsessive nature of collecting . . ....

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Overview

In Give Our Regards to the Atom-smashers!, some of our most intriguing and creative contemporary writers weigh in on the world of comics: the ones they love versus the ones they hate, the comics they devoured as kids and still can't live without, and the comics that have influenced them in their work and their lives.

Here is Jonathan Lethem on childhood friendships, comic books, and the genius of artist Jack Kirby . . . Glen David Gold on the obsessive nature of collecting . . . Myla Goldberg writing about the disturbed visions of Chris Ware and Renee French . . . Steve Erickson riffing on the perverse patriotism of American Flagg. Here, too, are Luc Sante on Tintin, Aimee Bender on Yummy Fur, Greil Marcus on Uncle Sam, Lydia Millet on Little Nemo in Slumberland, and many others. Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! is a quirky, thrilling, and compulsively readable celebration of the unique alchemy of words and drawings that forms the language of comic books. It is a book that will delight the seasoned comics reader and invite everyone else into a whole new world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As we always knew, 1950s scaremongers were wrong: not only does overindulgence in comic books not dissuade young readers from prose, but some very famous writers grew up addicted to comics. Howe has lined up a remarkable bunch of essayists, including Luc Sante, Greil Marcus, Jonathan Lethem and Brad Meltzer, to write about their favorite funny books. Many revisit the comics of their youth with amused distance-the Marvel vs. DC rivalry, the wonders of Jack Kirby's cosmology and Steve Ditko's crabbed mysticism. A few analyze specific series: Steve Erickson takes on Howard Chaykin's boundary-pushing '80s title American Flagg, and Gary Giddins traces how Classics Illustrated celebrated a part of the literary canon that was dying. Some of the most striking contributions, though, are very personal pieces by self-consciously comics-obsessed writers: Glen David Gold recounting his tormented attempts to buy original comics art from a dealer who'd have nothing to do with him; Sante explaining the power of the "clear-line" style of Tintin cartoonist Herg on his boyhood self; and Meltzer (who's now a comics writer and novelist) discussing his near-sexual fascination with a mid-'80s New Teen Titans story line. The book includes some of today's most elegant writing on comics, a worthy companion to Lupoff and Thompson's All in Color for a Dime (1997), the previous standard in the field. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375422560
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/29/2004
  • Pages: 228
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Please note: The following is an excerpt from one essay in this collection.

The Return of the King, or, Identifying With Your Parents
by Jonathan Lethem


In the mid-seventies 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.

I would never have been able to name that difference in 1975, however, let alone account for how it felt. The difference I understood was this: Luke had an older brother, Peter, whom both Luke and I idealized in absentia. Peter had left behind a collection of sixties Marvel comic books, in sacrosanct box files. These included a nearly complete run of Fantastic Four, the famous 102 issues drawn by Jack Kirby and scripted by Stan Lee, a defining artifact (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 he read and reread old ones. Luke’s favorite 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 wascurious 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 seventies—Ghost Rider, Luke Cage, Warlock, Iron Fist. His favorite 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 together, in an impoverished neighborhood, while Luke went to St. Ann’s School, safe in moneyed Brooklyn Heights. It was this, I’m certain, that tipped my allegiance to Karl in those years. Karl and I, in our schooldays, had been 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, mind you, or advertisements in other media, only sensational reports on the Bullpen Bulletin pages of Marvel comics themselves, the CNN of our little befogged minds at the time. Kirby was the famed creator or cocreator 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 (as captives within the Marvel hype machine, Karl and I had bought into a view that nothing really existed before 1962) Kirby was also the creator of Captain America—his career reached into what was for us the prehistory of comics. 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 (John Byrne foremost among them), together with a baroque and nearly opaque 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-seventies return. He’d been in exile at DC, Marvel’s older, more august and square rival. In the sixties, DC, despite its stewardship of Batman and Superman, had lost much ground to Marvel—due to Kirby and Lee’s great creations, of course. Then, after Kirby’s relationship with Stan Lee had become aggrieved, DC plucked him away and handed him, for a while, full creative control of an epic series of Kirby-created titles called “The New Gods.” In doing so, they’d gotten more, and other, than they’d bargained for—the New Gods comics were massively ambitious, and massively arcane. Though acclaimed by some as masterworks, they never found much traction with the readership. The reason for their commercial failure is pretty specific. The comics were hard to relate to. While Kirby’s most “cosmic” creations at Marvel—Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, etc.—were always bound to human-scale stories by their relationships to prosaic earthly characters—i.e., for the most part, the homely and squabbling Fantastic Four themselves—at DC he created a pantheon of gods but didn’t bother with the humans. Similarly, at Marvel his all-powerful monster-strongman types—Hulk, Thing, and, in another sense, Thor, all had fragile human identities to protect or mourn. At DC, Kirby seemed to have flown off into his own cosmic realms of superheroes and supervillains without any important human counterparts or identities. The feet of his work never touched the ground. The results were impressive, and quite boring.

What he unveiled on his return to Marvel was more of the very same, in two new venues: The Eternals, which introduced another dualistic pantheon of battling gods, and 2001, ostensibly based on Kubrick’s film. Each of these series indulged, from the concepts at their foundation, Kirby’s most abstracted work in his most high-flown cosmic register. Each introduced dozens of colorful but remote characters, and each abandoned or distended traditional storytelling to such a degree that the audience—I mean me and Karl—was mostly baffled.

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Studying Jack Kirby now, I’m bewildered that one man can encompass such contradictory things. By contradictory I don’t mean his diversity of accomplishments in so many different eras of comics history—his creation, with Joe Simon, of the patriotic anti-Nazi type of superhero in Captain America; his creation, also with Simon, of the basic mold for the “romance” comic; his dominance in the “movie-monster” style of comics that preceded the explosion of inventions at Marvel; that selfsame explosion, which includes at least a share in the invention of both the star supervillain (Doctor Doom) and the ambivalent antiheroic type (whether craggily pathetic à la the Hulk or handsomely tormented à la Silver Surfer and Black Bolt); the psychedelic majesty (however thwarted) of the New Gods work at DC. Those aren’t contradictory, only boggling in the sense that the accomplishments of a Picasso or a Dylan or a Shakespeare are boggling. By contradictory I mean the fact that in that DC work and then especially in the return to Marvel, Jack Kirby, the greatest innovator in the history of comics, gradually turned into a kind of autistic primitivist genius, disdained as incompetent by much of the audience, but revered by a cult of aficionados somewhat in the manner of an “outsider artist.” As his work spun off into abstraction, his human bodies more and more machinelike, 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 Wolfli, or John Ford had ended up as John Cassavetes. Or if Robert Crumb turned into his obsessive mad-genius brother, Charles Crumb. Or if Chuck Berry evolved into Sun Ra.

Speaking of Chuck Berry, there’s something about my childhood that I’ve never been able to explain, but I want to attempt to now. I suffered a kind of nerdish fever for authenticity and origins of all kinds, one which led me into some very strange cultural places. The notion of “influence” compelled me, at irrational depths of my being. Any time I heard mention 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 the example suggests. So I was always moving backward through time, and though I was born in 1964 and came to cultural consciousness some time around 1970 or ’71, I particularly adored the culture of the fifties and early sixties: Ernie Kovacs, The Twilight Zone, the British Invasion, Lenny Bruce, the beat writers, film noir, etc. I tended to identify with my parents’ taste in things, and with the tastes of my parents’ friends, more than with the supposed cultural tokens of my own generation. It was with Luke, in fact, that I went to see a Ralph Bakshi film called Heavy Traffic, which contains an unforgettable animated sequence that accompanies and illustrates with crude (and rude) drawings the Chuck Berry song “Maybellene.” Thanks to the 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 the 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, of course, that we seventies kids were doomed to glance backward, out of our impoverished world of Paul McCartney and Wings, to the era of the Beatles—but I was the only twelve-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 Sgt. Pepper—my mother on the side of “I Am the Walrus,” me on the side of “Drive My Car.”

I identified with my parents in other, murkier and more emotional ways, of course. Not that those are separable from the cultural stuff. Put simply, I was in fearful denial of my own childish neediness. I wished to be an adult in order to be forever spared sympathy or condescension, which reminded me too starkly of my helplessness.

At the moment in my childhood I’m describing now, bodies were beginning to change, and the exact degree and nature of their changes provided psychological opportunities, and thwarted others. Karl at thirteen grew tall, handsome, and dangerously effective at cutting an adult profile. Luke and I each stayed, for the moment, small and childlike.

Karl identified, as I’ve said, with Marvel’s existential loners: The Vision, Warlock, Ghost Rider, etc. By becoming tall and rebellious—he’d begun to write graffiti, smoke pot, fail in school, all 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, of course. That cost didn’t impress Karl, not at that moment anyway.

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

But Marvel was complicit in my muddled yearning backward—ours, I should say: mine, Luke’s, even Karl’s. By the time of Kirby’s return, the internal discourse around Marvel’s greatness was explicitly nostalgic. Any counterargument, 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 sixties. 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 sixties characters. The odor of grandeur, not to mention sanctimony, that clung to any discussion of the Silver Age boom was impossible to clear from one’s nostrils, after reading the Origins books. There wasn’t any way to imagine that the first issues of Iron Fist or Deathlok the Demolisher would ever be collected in equally biblical compendia. 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—you guessed it—the Kirby-Lee run of Fantastic Four. This was somewhat akin to Paul McCartney and Wings playing Beatles songs on Wings Over America. We seventies kids couldn’t have been issued a clearer message: we’d missed the party.

Speaking of the Beatles (i.e. famous sixties culture breakups and their seventies legacies), I ought to give at least a moment to the whole question of the Lee/Kirby authorship controversy. In a nutshell, in the Origins books, Lee notoriously undersold the contributions of his artist collaborators—that is to say, mostly Kirby, but also Steve Ditko, the penciller of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Later, in a dispute over the ownership of Kirby’s actual drawn pages, 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 Lee/Kirby partnership famous: the Fantastic Four and all their sublime villains and supporting cast; Hulk; Thor; Silver Surfer; etc. (He even once threw in Spider-Man for good measure.) Lee and Kirby were a kind of McCartney–Lennon partnership, in several senses: Kirby, like Lennon, the raw visionary, with Lee, like McCartney, providing sweetness and polish, as well as a sense that the audience’s fondness for “hooks”—in the form of soap-operatic situations involving romance and family drama, young human characters with un-God-like flaws, gently humorous asides, etc.—shouldn’t be undernourished. And, after the breakup, it was Kirby, like Lennon, who the audience tended to want to credit as the greater genius, and Lee, like McCartney, who took on an aura of the shallow and crafty businessman.

Copyright© 2004 by edited by Sean Howe
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Table of Contents

Introduction
Jonathan Lethem : the return of the king, or, identifying with your parents 2
Luc Sante : the clear line 24
Geoff Dyer : comics in a man's life 34
Aimee Bender : flat and glad 44
Christopher Sorrentino : the Ger Sheker 52
Steve Erickson : American Flagg 70
Gary Giddins : seduced by Classics Illustrated 78
Brad Meltzer : how I spent my summer vacation with The Judas contract 96
John Wray : this world, that world, and the invisible hinge : the words & pictures of Jim Woodring 108
Geoffrey O'Brien : Nick Fury's dream 118
Glen David Gold : Oui, je regrette presque tout 134
Lydia Millet : slumberland 154
Tom Piazza : Kltpzyxm! 166
Chris Offutt : NoMan was my man 178
Greil Marcus : the man on the street 188
Myla Goldberg : the exquisite strangeness and estrangement of Renee French and Chris Ware 196
Andrew Hultkrans : Steve Kitko's hands 208
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