Wednesday, July 14, 2010

OFF THE GRID

I'll be vanishing into an Internet-free  Zone for the next few weeks, which means I won't be posting—or checking comments—here at Creation Point.  But, if you're so inclined, feel free to leave a comment and I'll catch up with all of you when I return.   Have a great couple of weeks.

Monday, July 12, 2010

REMEMBERING PEKAR

Just read in the New York Times that Harvey Pekar has passed away.  I didn't really know Harvey—we met at a convention in the 80's and, as a result, had a brief, spirited correspondence debating the merits of realism versus fantasy in fiction—but his work certainly had an impact on me.  It was then-Marvel editor Denny O'Neil who turned me on to American Splendor, a series that helped explode the (imaginary) limits of what a comic book could or couldn't be.  Pekar's writing was absolutely naked—brutal and hugely funny—in its honesty.  In its wonderfully odd and idiosyncratic way, it was also wise.  Harvey brought an outsider's eye to comic book art, as well:  the American Splendor strips taught me the value of the static image, how something as simple as a single talking head, repeated panel after panel after panel, could gather in emotional power.   I was deep into Moonshadow—and in the first stages of planning Brooklyn Dreams—when I started reading Pekar's stories:  a careful look at both those works will reveal the Pekar influence.

I send heartfelt condolences to Harvey's wife, daughter, family and friends.

Friday, July 9, 2010

OLD FRIENDS

The writers we love—not the ones we merely like, but the ones whose stories set our souls on fire and settle into our very cells—become intimate parts of our lives; dearest of friends who we visit with time and again over the years.  It doesn’t matter how much time passes between visits:  when something draws us to the library shelf, when we pull one of those old, familiar books down, we pick up exactly where we left off.  As it is with our truest friends, our connections to our favorite authors aren’t mired in the past, they’re not about nostalgia:  no, they’re about making all things new.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reuniting with two old, and beloved, literary friends,  J.D. Salinger and Ray Bradbury:  reading Salinger’s Nine Stories for the first time in at least a decade and drinking down Bradbury’s delicious book of essays, Bradbury Speaks, for the second time.
 


As visitors go, Salinger and Bradbury are very different creatures.  When J.D. arrives at the door he’s somewhat reticent, perhaps even a little cold.  No big hugs when he enters, just a quick, efficient handshake.  But as you sit and talk you quickly realize that behind the reticence is a heart as huge as Creation.  With a gentle eagerness and a confidence that’s never in the least bit egotistical, he tells you story after story; aiming the microscope of his mind at every shrug, sigh, cigarette-ash, turn of phrase and vocal inflection of his characters.  Here’s a passage from one of the best of the Nine Stories, “For
Esmé with Love and Squalor”:

She was about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house.  Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children’s voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me.  It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.  The young lady, however, seemed slightly bored with her own singing ability, or perhaps just with the time and place; twice, between verses, I saw her yawn.  It was a ladylike yawn, a close-mouthed yawn, but you couldn’t miss it; her nostril wings gave her away.

What you don’t realize, as you pass the evening with Salinger, is that he keeps magnifying and magnifying the microscope’s lens till you’ve passed through the membrane of the so-called real world and entered the realm of transcendence:  a place where all those details—the endless list of things about ourselves and our fellow humans that irritate, enrapture, shame and delight us—melt and merge into an ocean of compassion and acceptance.

As the visit comes to a close, J.D. offers another handshake, but this one seems to vibrate with that cosmic compassion.  There’s a soft goodbye, a knowing glimmer in the eyes, and then, closing the door quietly behind him, he’s gone.

It’s another story—literally and figuratively—when Bradbury arrives.  The door bursts opens, nearly flying off its hinges, and Ray races into the room, enveloping you in a bear hug—nearly cracking your ribs—spinning you around in circles as he bellows with laughter and perhaps sheds a tear or two, touched, as he is, by this reunion.  No Zen calm for Ray:  he’s a one-man Imagination pantheon, an explosion of gods and goddesses, each one with a unique story to tell.  You get him to sit down for a minute or two, have a sip of wine, but he’s soon up on his feet, dragging you to the window, pointing to the clouds, the moon, the stars...the whole wide universe.  While Salinger gets at the Divine through the tiniest of details, Bradbury wants to wrap his arms around God, yank him down to earth and kiss him full on the mouth.  Here’s a passage from the essay called “Predicting the Past, Remembering the Future”:

My own belief is that the universe exists as a miracle and that we have been born here to witness and celebrate.  We wonder at our purpose for living.  Our purpose is to perceive the fantastic.  Why have a universe if there is no audience?

We are that audience.

We are here to see and touch, describe and move.  Our job, then, is to occupy ourselves with paying back the gift.


People have called Bradbury a science-fiction writer, a fantasist, but I don’t think either label applies.  He’s a preacher, a rhapsodist, an interfaith—no, interdimensional—minister.  I’ve rarely encountered anyone who more eloquently encapsulates the sheer sacred joy of life.  When he’s done, when he’s given his last oratory, spun his last tale, Ray crushes you in another bear-hug then races out the door, leaving you utterly exhausted, inspired—and grateful to be alive.

And how grateful I am to both these literary giants, these treasured, beloved friends.  I will hold fast to them till my last breath.  And, I suspect, long after that.


© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A TRIP WITH AN INFINITE VIEW

One of my recent Father’s Day presents was the second volume of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus and I’ve been having a wonderful time re-reading this brilliant, classic material; so much so that I’ve been thinking about writing a little tribute to Kirby and his extraordinary epic.  Then I remembered that I’d already written it, way back in 1988, for a text piece that ran in the back of the Forever People mini-series I did with artist Paris Cullins.  My FP story was nothing to brag about (not terrible, by any means, but not memorable, either), but I think the essay holds up.  So here it is, with some minor dusting and polishing.  Enjoy!
***
Like most people too in love with their own opinions, I’m fond of sweeping statements, and one of the sweeping statements I often toss out when the subject of comic books comes up is this:  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the two formidable talents who forged the Marvel Age of Comics—and, one might argue, all comics that followed—were the Lennon and McCartney of their medium.  Rock and roll and comic books were two of my greatest passions growing up and the link has always seemed obvious to me.  The Beatles, led by John and Paul, redefined popular music in the sixties, just as Marvel, led by Stan and Jack, redefined comics.  (Not that DC was sitting around doing nothing, mind you...any more than Dylan, the Stones and the Who were; but the Beatles and Marvel, at least in this writer’s opinion, were way ahead of the pack.)  But all that blew apart when the decade turned.
Those of you too young to have been comics fans in 1970—that tumultuous twelve months of Kent State, student strikes and Richard Nixon’s sweaty upper lip—can’t begin to grasp the impact that three words—”Kirby Is Here!”—had when they appeared on the cover of, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.  I was sixteen, a devoted Marvel follower, and still naive enough to believe that Lee and Kirby were as inseparable as, well, Lennon and McCartney.  Of course 1970 was also the year in which the Beatles publicly disintegrated, as well.  “The dream is over,” John Lennon sang—and it certainly was.  Across the board.  Across the country.  The idealism, the optimism, the inspired lunacy of the sixties—which had spread throughout our culture via music, film, novels, and, yes, comics—was beginning to turn sour.  Let’s face it:  if Stan and Jack, if John and Paul, couldn’t keep it together, what possible chance did the rest of us have?  (This sounds incredibly silly now, but, believe me, this was an unbelievably urgent question then.  At least to me.) 
But the energy and enthusiasm of those years was still pushing us forward and, in some ways, the creative energy of the early seventies surpassed the sixties.  Sure, the Beatles were a dead issue, but the music Lennon produced in the years after the split, most notably the brilliant John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, was some of the most powerful, important music rock and roll had ever heard.   (I told you I was fond of sweeping statements.)  And this music was produced as a direct result of Lennon’s boredom with the Beatles, of his pulling away from McCartney’s influence, from the security of success.  He danced out on a limb, the limb held, and the result was Art. 
The same can be said of Kirby.  With Lee, he had taken mainstream comics and turned them inside out, upside down, and left his mark forever.  But, as his later Marvel work too clearly showed, he was bored.  How many times can the Thing turn against his partners?  How often can Loki tiptoe past Odin’s bed and usurp the throne of Asgard?  Pretty often—but too often for a restless limb-dancer like Jack Kirby.  As with Lennon, Kirby’s vision was unique, singular; and, if his collaboration with Lee (as important to Marvel’s success as McCartney was to the Beatles’; neither man should be understimated) brought Kirby to new levels, those levels had now been attained, a plateau had been reached, and it was time to move on.  Without collaboration.  Artists, real artists, tend to burn.  When they’ve burned long enough, the smoke starts pouring through their lips and they’ve got to spit the fire out. 
In 1970, Jack Kirby jumped from Marvel to DC and started spitting fire.  The fire was called The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Jimmy Olsen and Forever People.  Books as important to comics as Lennon’s POB album was to rock.  Books that opened new doors, set new standards, did things that comics had never dared to do before.  New Gods was clearly the most focused, perhaps the best of the bunch; Mister Miracle offered the most flat-out fun; Jimmy Olsen was as wonderfully bizarre, in its way, as those Silver Age stories that featured Jimmy turning into aliens, werewolves and giant turtles.  Forever People—which featured Kirby’s cosmic hippies, the embodiment of youth and naivete, idealism and dreams—was my personal favorite; encapsulating, as it did, Kirby’s (and my own) hope for the future.  True, the dialogue in these stories was sometimes awkward—but dialogue was never Kirby’s forte.  Story-telling was.  Spirit was.  Vision was.  And these stories had them all.  They ran, they rambled, they surprised, they exploded.  (The language often did the same thing:  the dialogue, as noted, may have been clunky, but Kirby’s prose was also so wildly passionate, so utterly idiosyncratic, that it achieved a kind of mad poetic grandeur.)  There seemed no definite beginning, middle, or end; there was just the constant search, the quest for an intangible something that could never be defined.  The characters themselves couldn’t be called three dimensional, in the conventional sense, but they existed in a dimension all their own.   Orion and Lightray, Scott and Barda, Big Bear, Serafin, Desaad and, perhaps the greatest villain in the history of comic books, Darkseid:  these were people that I, as a reader, cared passionately about.  I enjoyed their company—and looked forward to their evolution.  Unfortunately, for reasons that I’ve never heard adequately explained, that evolution was cut short.  With the exception of Mister Miracle (which staggered on for several more issues), all the “Fourth World” titles were axed.
But you can’t kill a dream—and these stories live on, resonating not just through the DC Universe but all of popular culture.  The word genius is one that’s often overused, and cheapened by that overuse, but if the comic book business has ever produced a genius, Jack Kirby was it.  And that genius’s magnum opus was unquestionably the “Fourth World” saga.  If you’ve read it before, I urge you to read it again.  If you haven’t read it, I urge you to put aside your preconceptions, grab the first volume of the Fourth World Omnibus and surrender to one of the 20th Century’s master storytellers. 

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis