Friday, 12 May 2017

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: Heroes of Modernism?

For Samson, modernity in comic books reflects a series of social changes: a state of stability gives way to flux and insecurity; there is a progressive politics; the self-expression of the individual reacts against the conformity of 'mainstream' comic books. 

These could be seen as key features of the Enlightenment. Just saying.

My own enthusiasm for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby encourages me to test Samson's principles against their early 1960s output. There's no question that Lee regarded The Fantastic Four as self-expression within the mainstream format: the origin myth is that he was on the point of giving up on comic books, and his response to the publisher's desire to have a Marvel superhero team to compete with DC's Justice League was to develop the distinctive 'family dynamic' of the FF.

The notion of flux is contained within the very characters' powers: the human body becomes malleable (Mr Fantastic), combustible (The Human Torch) and even occluded (The Invisible Girl). With adventures ranging across the world - the African state of Wakanda, the European Latveria - and beyond  - Galactus is a threat from the cosmos, the Negative Zone an alternative dimension - the stories reveal an expansive imagination.

And progressive politics: well, I've talked about the subversion of African savage tropes in The Black Panther before. 

In these senses, Lee and Kirby are consummate modernists. Although their influence would lead to them becoming icons of the mainstream, the mash-up of characterisation and adventure was a clear step away from the anodyne mono-myth of earlier comics like Batman and Superman.

However, I've written a very long essay on how Lee and Kirby reflect Enlightenment values, using the same examples. While their historical contingency draws parallels with the 'hippy' revolution - which Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely make explicit in Flex Mentallo - the transition from Superman to Spider-Man echoes the eighteenth century's  transition from neo-classicism to le drame. The pattern of modernity is not a singular event, but a reiteration across time and space. 

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