It’s hard to say the following is one of my favorite columns. Other people have told me it was their favorite MOTO, but for me it’s still too close to too many emotions. Certainly I’ve never otherwise been so despondent or bitter when writing a column, and I’d like to say time has changed things, but it hasn’t. The work-for-hire ethic is more ensconced than ever in comics publishing (though Marvel’s reputed forthcoming creator-owned line offers some hope), ensuring that new generations of comics talent wallow in frustration and dream of better possibilities they may never live to see.
It’s Monday. Gil Kane died this morning.
I’m not exaggerating when I say Gil was comics to me. I only worked with him in the past few years, and our output together was scant: three published out of four finished issues of EDGE for Malibu/Bravura (we were never able to find a publisher for the fourth issue, once Malibu pulled the plug on the line); an issue of I-BOTS for TeknoComix (Gil also provided some terrific covers for the book); the two issues of LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE that start on sale in March; and a Superman graphic novel Gil was half-finished with when treatment for his cancer curtailed his ability to work. But there wasn’t a month in the time he knew me that we didn’t discuss projects which, unfortunately, will now never be done.
I say in the time he knew me, because I had known him for much longer, from the very beginning of my days as a comics reader. When I was seven years old, years before the portable television was even heard of, I caught some childhood disease and was forced to spend a week in bed. What books I had – by then I was already reading like there was no tomorrow – I finished. I must have liked westerns on TV then, though I don’t specifically remember that, because my dad decided to amuse me with ALL-STAR WESTERN #119, which turned out to be the final issue of that book. While not the first comic I’d seen – I vaguely recall being given an issue of Dell Comics’ LONE RANGER by a barber in return for sitting still during a horrid buzzcut – it was the first comic I pored over, the first one that really caught my attention. I liked the stories okay, but what I really liked was the clean, quasi-realistic art. The lines looked sharp. The lead feature was DC’s premier western hero, Johnny Thunder. With art by Gil Kane.
But I don’t think I knew that. Given that the artist on the second feature was his other mainstay, Carmine Infantino, I suspect Julie Schwarz edited the book, and Julie had a habit of identifying the talent long before it was de rigueur in the business, so I may have read Gil’s name, but if it did it didn’t sink in. Then. What did sink in was his art style. It was months before I saw it again, on GREEN LANTERN #9, featuring an amazing collection of grotesqueries – crystals with tentacles, bird-faced creatures, human sized insects – and these were the heroes: that issue introduced the Green Lanterns Of The Universe. This was all so weird to me, so new, so different from anything I was aware of that in a heartbeat Green Lantern was my favorite character and I had a favorite artist. ALL-STAR WESTERN #119, to all intents and purposes, introduced me to comics; GREEN LANTERN #9 truly hooked me on them. Past that point, I was a goner. I found Gil’s art wherever I could: on The Atom, Star Hawkins in STRANGE ADVENTURES, even Dell Comics’ BRAIN BOY (and I never looked at Dell Comics). There was something about his work that opened doors in my head that nothing else did, but I didn’t understand that until Green Lantern ceased to be my favorite character as soon as Gil left it.
Gil’s work was the underpinning of all my tastes in comics. He ruined me for other artists. I quickly grew so used to the fine linework and mellow, open coloring of Julie Schwartz-edited comics, and mainly Gil’s, that when I saw my first Marvel comic, FANTASTIC FOUR #10, I was repelled by the thick black lines around everything, and refused to have anything to do with Marvel for years. I couldn’t stand the cartoonier style of the Batman comics, nor the lumpine staidness of the Superman comics. What I wanted, though I didn’t know enough at the time to articulate it, was lots more comics by Gil Kane. But there was a progressive attitude inherent in Gil’s style that gave also me a taste for the idiosyncratic in comics art, for the kind of artist who creates his own style and makes the medium his own. I’ve liked the work of a lot of artists over the years, but I’ve never had another favorite.
The funny this is: Gil was always frustrated by that work. He wasn’t ashamed of it. I don’t think Gil ever took on a job where he didn’t try to do his best, however it turned out in his eyes. Most of the work itself he was proud of. But he was frustrated by the limits of the format, the enforced vanilla characterizations and repetitive content, the speed at which he was forced to produce in order to earn a living. The same limitations many of us chafe under today. Gil had a reputation for speed, reportedly matched only by Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert, but it wasn’t his choice. Like most freelancers perpetually indebted, faced with Lilliputian page rates, his only option was to produce and produce and produce. He rarely wanted to turn his pencils over to other inkers, but that was the system. What we today hold up as classics of the Silver Age came out of his ongoing nightmare.
Still, even that work set a style that revolutionized how action was handled in comics. Gil, raised on Alex Raymond and Burne Hogarth, on Robert E. Howard and AE Van Vogt, on John Wayne and Gilbert Roland and Edward G. Robinson, spent his DC years looking for a new expressiveness, a way to make the action in comics as vital and compelling as action was in the movies. Gil once mentioned that in 40s artist Lou Fine’s work, everyone looked like a Greek god, and the same goes for Gil’s figures, when they weren’t Greek monsters instead. Particularly when Gil inked his own work, they looked like they were made of coiled springs, ready to rocket off the page. (His women simply looked pneumatic, some of the few really sexy images in 60s comics.) My best friend, himself an artist, pointed out that Gil’s was the most geometric style in comics, and Gil designed on the principle that curves are static and angles mean action, something a lot of younger artists could stand to learn. His art had its mannerisms, certainly: when I entered the business, “Gil Kane up-the-nose shots” were something of a running gag in comics, and he produced hardly a single action story in the 70s that didn’t feature a full page climactic punch where the puncher was in the background, following through on his swing, while the punchee flew backwards toward the audience in agony, his hands strangely contorted. In fact, in high school I taught myself to mime a Gil Kane hand: fingers and thumb splayed and straightened yet also curling up, above the plane of the hand, while the wrist knuckle protrudes visibly.
Yet it’s safe to say Gil was one of the major three influences, with Neal Adams and Jack Kirby, on action comics of the past three decades. His curse was that, like Adams and Kirby, his viewpoint, technique and style were so strong, so charismatic, that his style was absorbed whole into the unconscious language of comics, employed (one could say pilfered) by artist after artist after artist, until what he did was such a commonplace that many people began looking on his work as common as well. For a time, he was eclipsed in the business to the point that artists in interviews would list “influence” upon “influence” without mentioning his name, while the books they drew were saturated with Gil Kane swipes. With his work on things as diverse as Captain America, The Hulk, Tower Comics’ Raven, Captain Action, Hawk And Dove, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Warlock, Iron Fist, The Flash, Conan and numerous other projects, Gil changed our perception of what action in comics should look like. Today comics are composed of swipes of swipes of swipes of swipes of Gil’s art, so many generations removed that many artists don’t even realize the original source. We’re so saturated in his style, surrounded by it to the point that it’s generally considered a part of the landscape, that he never really got credit for this. Let’s make sure he gets it from now on.
If it were a matter of art, Gil would have left comics long ago. His obsession was storytelling. He wanted to tell stories. He always wanted bigger stories, better stories. He fretted about structure, about character. He voraciously read, especially books on literary criticism, trying to attain the tools he needed to express the ideas he struggled to get out. He hooked up with writers he thought could give him what he wanted: Roy Thomas, John Jakes, Ron Goulart, Archie Goodwin, Howard Chaykin. And ultimately, but only chronologically, me. In addition to better material, he was always hungry for new formats and new venues, any way to take comics to different audiences, and to produce comics that might grab their attention.
The word visionary, like genius, gets tossed around carelessly, particularly when people die. I wouldn’t call Gil a genius. I’m disinclined to call anyone a genius. But Gil was certainly a visionary. And he put his money where his mouth was. He broke away from DC Comics in the late 60s, abandoning Green Lantern and The Atom to found the company Adventure House and self-publish HIS NAME IS… SAVAGE in black and white magazine form, intended for sale not with comics but among men’s adventure magazines like ARGOSY and SAGA. There had been b&w comics magazines on the market before, notably Jim Warren’s CREEPY and EERIE, but Gil’s was the first to use the space – both more pages and the possibility of more panels per page – to tell a single story, a spy adventure soaked in ultraviolence. It was Gil’s movie on paper, Mickey Spillane as James Bond, and with it Gil arguably invented the modern American graphic novel. The Comics Code overtly decided to kill it, first by interfering with the printing and, failing that, by crushing the distribution, so the magazine never had the chance to find an audience.
Broke, he returned to servitude at DC until he could get the mass market paperback series BLACKMARK, Gil’s post-apocalyptic homage to Conan, off the ground, through Bantam Books. Editorial shifts and distribution experiments put an end to that after one book, again without the project having the chance to find an audience. (Meanwhile, Gil’s connections to the Robert E. Howard estate made it possible for Marvel to grab the rights to CONAN, a property that enhanced the company for well over a decade.) He started a line of hardcover graphic novels, Morningstar Press, which issued a beautiful Richard Corben-illustrated (I believe Jan Strnad wrote it, but I’m no longer certain) adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s “Valley Of The Worm,” which Gil and Roy Thomas also later adapted for Marvel. Again, Morningstar Press fell victim to distribution: there wasn’t any. With John Jakes and Burne Hogarth, he tried to launch a combination novel-graphic novel series based on the King Arthur legend, EXCALIBUR. With Ron Goulart, he created the syndicated comic strip STAR HAWKS, innovating a two-tier structure that allowed a concentration of story unheard of in daily newspaper strips, and that succeeded for a couple of years, but as Star Wars interest faded, so did interest in STAR HAWKS, forcing Gil back to mainstream comics again.
When I first entered comics, on several occasions Marvel editors asked me to write stories specifically for Gil to draw, and I leaped at every chance, but all ended up drawn by other artists, with the editors baffled, on questioning, that I ever thought they were for Gil in the first place. I never understood that. Gil puttered around Marvel, taking what work he could find, and did small jobs at DC until taking over the Superman slot in ACTION COMICS until the post-Crisis revamp. By the mid-80s, debt, the need for a change, and the radically shifting comics market that suddenly emphasized hot new talent over mainstays, forced him out of comics to California and into animation as a designer at Ruby-Spears. I don’t think he was ever felt satisfied there, but Gil and satisfaction were largely strangers anyway.
Curiously, when I moved to Los Angeles in late ’84, I ended up living half a block from Gil, in Brentwood. Though we knew people in common – principally Howard Chaykin – I never went over and introduced myself. I was afraid he’d think I was some stalker, or, worse, that I’d just start gushing uncontrollably. It wasn’t until ’92 that we were hooked up by our mutual lawyer, Harris Miller, to put together a project, ultimately EDGE, for what would become the doomed Bravura line at Malibu. Gil was surprised that, surface differences aside, I shared many of his attitudes toward comics. It didn’t surprise me at all; an interview with Gil, done by Roy Thomas for ALTER EGO magazine, was the first semi-philosophical oratory on comics I ever read, and a major influence on my thinking about the medium since.
Before we started to collaborate, though, Gil got cancer, the same kind that ultimately took the life of our friend Archie Goodwin. I watched both go through it with grace and good cheer, and I know it helped both that they had each other to talk to, a private little support group. The treatments, and the treatments to repair the damage caused by the treatments, took a lot out of Gil. There were months at a time when he couldn’t pick up a pencil. At various points, his voice gave out, his legs gave out, his heart gave out. He didn’t really want people to know. I think he was more concerned with creating something that he could proudly leave behind him, but by then the business was in a downturn and paying avenues for new projects, particularly adventurous new projects, shut down fast. The great frustration of working with Gil is that he came up with far more ideas than either of us could possibly keep up with. Almost every time I spoke with him until recent months, he was always excited by some new idea he had just had, chucking the previous one like old scraps. What was heartbreaking was that they were almost all great ideas – and the business was pre-programmed to reject all of them.
Gil never stopped dreaming. Throughout all the ups and downs of his career, he continued to dream of something that was completely his, and successful, of something so good it redeemed the promise of comics. Whatever the state of the form, Gil always had a vision that comics could be something greater: far more sophisticated, exciting and pertinent than anyone was allowing them to be. That he failed to achieve that vision in his lifetime is also our failure. That he tried and tried and tried should shame the rest of us into emulating his effort. It’s safe to say that comics art would be far different – and greatly impoverished – if Gil hadn’t existed. We owe him more than we can even calculate now.
When I finally got a chance to work with Gil, it was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had professionally. That he continued to want to work with me was also a great honor. I don’t really want to talk about him personally, not because I have anything ill to say about him but because that part belongs to me. I wish we’d connected on a market upcycle, with the opportunity to do more. Gil was my inspiration and somehow he ended up being my friend, and it’s just sinking in that I lost my friend today, and, as much as I lost, his wonderful wife Elaine, and the whole comics industry, lost much, much more. I hope that when histories of the field are written, Gil places prominently and is remembered not just for what he did but for what he struggled to do, and I hope someone – everyone, really – is willing to carry the torch and achieve it for him, now that he can’t.
There was a story from the ’40s that haunted Gil. I forget its title and author, but Gil and Roy Thomas once adapted it for a Marvel comic. It was about a boy born with wings who could fly like a bird. His wings get clipped, his life gets cluttered with daily concerns and responsibilities, but something in him just longs to fly again. When he finally gets the chance, death overtakes him, like Icarus trying to reach the sun. That was Gil.
I hate eulogies. They always make me think of Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL where Marlene Dietrich, with great hardboiled melancholy, eulogizes the piggish, vulgar and ultimately vindicated cop Hank Quinlan: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?” Whatever people are going to say about Gil, I wish they had said it while he was alive.
Spent most of last week with a sinus condition that left me unable to talk on the phone or concentrate enough to string three words together, so I ended up catching up on a lot of movies. RUSH HOUR 2, while allowing Jackie Chan more chance to be Jackie Chan than RUSH HOUR did, is a throwback to Jackie’s sloppy Hong Kong films where a hunt for a MacGuffin is little more than an excuse to string acrobatic fight scenes together. Chris Tucker turns out to be ridiculously superfluous, reduced to a semi-psychotic excessive blather that I guess is supposed to be funny, and like many Hong Kong films the supposed emotional core is little more than lip service. Plus it’s a real waste of Zhang Zihi. Skip it. Marginally more entertaining is Tim Burton’s PLANET OF THE APES remake, but then again I find Mark Wahlberg very watchable, though his character’s motivation is way too inflexible as presented and there’s never really a moment where any other ending is conceivable. I mean Burton’s ending, not the “shocker” the studio tacked on. Watch it on DVD. If you want to see something in a theater, look for the British thriller SEXY BEAST, though it might be hard to come by. My big TV experience of last week was the Showtime debut of LEAP YEARS, a flabbily-written, clichéd, jawdropping train wreck of a series. Not just awful on a TV level, but so far beyond bad it might become a guilty pleasure if anyone can bring themselves to watch it more than once.
In the meantime, I read THE METABARONS: PATH OF THE WARRIOR, a gift from my old pal Dave Olbrich at Humanoids Publishing. Writer Alexandro Jodorowsky’s technique is interesting enough that it makes me wonder why more American comics don’t employ narrators as a storytelling device. Skillfully done, they’re an excellent way to skip over the connective filler that clogs a lot of comics stories, and get to the point of every scene… plus Jodorowsky uses his narrator (and the “person” the story’s being told to) to illuminate a bit of his story’s landscape. It’s not that this technique is unknown here, but it’s rarely ever put to good use, and carries more heft and personality than the more traditional expository captions. Good job. Buy the book. (A mere $14.95.)
Over at my GRAPHIC VIOLENCE forum on Delphi, we’re having a discussion on Building A Better Comic Book. Drop over and stick your two cents in.
And the Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What was the last comic book you wholeheartedly loved? I don’t mean just liked, I mean that you thought was so good it blew away all your pretenses of ironic distance, you felt compelled to get other people to read it, you walked on tiptoes with your heart in your throat in anticipation of the next issue or volume. Maybe it was when you were a kid, maybe it was last week, but sometime you’ve been there or you wouldn’t be here now.
For those who’re wondering, three or four weeks of reruns, and then the debut of the new column PERMANENT DAMAGE. How will it be different from MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS? You’ll just have to wait.
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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