Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Tales to Astonish:" A Book on Comics Review!

Tales to Astonish
Writer: Ronin Ro
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA

Okay, let's travel through space and time to the swingin' 60s, where we find Stan and Jack shoving a scientist, his test pilot buddy, the scientist's girlfriend and her kid brother into a poorly-designed rocket in order to beat those Reds into outer space...

Tales to Astonish is like one of those John Lennon versus Paul McCartney-type Beatles biographies. Two disparate personalities coming together, create amazing pop culture relics, get pissed at each other, part company, leave behind controversy. Some people are Stan "the Man" Lee supporters, others are Jack "the King" Kirby followers. You can probably make various assumptions about a person's personality depending on which side he or she takes and how vehemently they argue about it.

Or you could not be so reductionist, dealing in arbitrary dichotomies. Why be either-or?

Ronin Ro gives us a light but readable overview of about 50 years of comic book creativity. That's approximately how long Jack Kirby's career lasted. From his birth and hardknock upbringing as Jacob Kurtzberg to his Horatio Algeristic self-transformation into the dynamic art-hero Jack Kirby, with a brief jaunt to Europe to face off against Hitler's "supermen" and those bone-dry 50s years... to the amazing, fantastic, incredible Marvel years when he and Stan Lee created a universe and changed American pop culture forever and the final, inevitable decline, Ronin hits the major storypoints. The rise and fall paradigm we've seen in various media over the years.

Stanley Leiber begins in almost as dire circumstances, becomes Stan Lee, floats in and out of Kirby's life before the two partner after the accidental death of Joe Maneely (incredibly talented, Stan's favorite artist and go-to guy in the 50s, all but forgotten today) to produce a run of monster comics starring characters like Fin Fang Foom and others celebrated for their silly names. And then comes a little idea about four adventurers and their fateful first flight...

If you've ever read just about any interview with Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, and especially if you're a reader of the various TwoMorrows publications like Jack Kirby Collector, Alter Ego, Comic Book Artist or its successor Back Issue!, know all this stuff. Even if you haven't, you probably have a rough idea of the Marvel story. For many of us, Ronin Ro isn't introducing anything new. In fact, his section on Jack's wartime service seems to draw exclusively on a single issue of Kirby Collector with no addititves. Not a lick of in-depth, self-generated reporting, no dates or facts vetted. He doesn't even mention Kirby's unit... if I remember correctly. That in itself is pretty disappointing.

Ro interviewed as many living participants as he could, and it's a role call of the elite: John Romita, Sr., Joe Sinnott, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko and more. Even Will Eisner. They're pretty forthcoming, and some of Romita's contributions bite and hard. All those pro's and witnesses must have given him material for a book twice this size and detailed. For the rest, he relies on familiar old quotes. Honestly, I'd already read most of this stuff, and recently. Tales actually picks up steam and starts including more specifics (dates, events, exact moments) as Kirby's career enters its twilight phase; perhaps these fairly recent events were more ingrained in the participants' minds.

The overall story itself remains by turns fun and tragic, but even with all the big name contributions, reading it is like watching a TV re-run of some old I Love Lucy; saw it, enjoyed it, prefer newer stuff. By covering Stan's side of things and including accounts of Kirby's muddled testimony from the Sky Masters lawsuit, the dispute over Spider-Man and his infamously contentious Comics Journal interview, Ro avoids outright Kirby hagiography (by the mere gutter-width between a couple of comic book panels), but contributes nothing more than collecting all this material into a fast-paced, easily digested narrative.

Still, reading this is like getting Marvel History 101, or maybe the slower-paced Marvel History 085. You still need to take 090, then pass a test to actually get course credit. If you don't have the stomach for hitting the source material, Tales to Astonish will at least give you a breezy read, and if you're not an outright Kirby geek (like me!), you'll learn a bit about the once-and-future King of Comics... plus you'll get to see how mainstream publishers royally screwed their artists back in the day before royalties and artwork return.

Oh... and Jim Shooter probably shouldn't read this at all. If anyone comes across as a villain in Ro's book, it's Shooter. Deserved or not? You be the judge!

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