Came across this piece I wrote a few years back about one of my all-time favorite comic book artists and thought I'd share it here at Creation Point. Enjoy!
I have warm memories of summers when I was six, seven, eight years old. After dinner I’d take a walk with my father, strolling up Foster Avenue to the local candy store—that’s what we called them in Brooklyn, anyway—where you could buy anything from a vanilla egg cream to a Pensy Pinky, a stick pretzel to a paddle ball. My father would pick up the evening paper and he’d buy me a comic book. (Which, till I was eight, cost one measly dime. That leap to twelve cents, in 1962, was shocking.).
That’s right. A new comic book every night. Is it any wonder that, at a very young age, I became addicted to comics with a fierce desperation that would have made even the most strung-out junkie uneasy? (Perhaps I exaggerate; but that’s the fun of childhood memories, isn’t it? Everything is bigger, more exciting and far more melodramatic— because that’s how kids see the world. Come to think of it, that’s how I still see the world. Which, I guess, is why I make my living writing fantasy and not working for an accounting firm or an insurance company.)
I don’t recall who first introduced me to comics (it might have been pop-cultural osmosis. In those days kids read comic books and that’s all there was to it), but I began reading them as soon as I learned how to read. Westerns, war stories, Casper, Sad Sack, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Superman, Batman, Archie: I had no shame, I devoured them all. (But not romance comics: they were just too, y’know, girly.) With rare exceptions, I had no clue who actually wrote or drew the stories I so loved. Interestingly, the two major exceptions were both named Kane: Bob Kane, whose name—and distinctive, boxed signature—appeared on every Batman story; and Gil Kane who—
Well, I’m not sure how I knew who Gil Kane was. Credits didn’t become a regular part of the comics landscape till Stan Lee popularized them at Marvel and I didn’t discover Marvel till I was in junior high school. I assume Kane’s name was mentioned on the letters pages of the books he contributed to. Whatever the case, I not only knew who Gil Kane was, I thought he was the greatest artist to ever put pencil to paper.
Super-hero comics weren’t as dominant then as they are today, but there were still plenty to be found; and, in those pre-Marvel days, my two favorites were Justice League (all the DC heroes in a single comic book? What pre-pubescent lover of fantasy-adventure could resist that?)—and Green Lantern. There were three reasons I adored GL: 1) the brilliant premise (magic ring + will + imagination = unlimited abilities) 2) John Broome’s universe-spanning stories and 3) Kane’s extraordinary art. Kane was the clincher. As a kid, I was almost as obsessed with drawing as I was with reading comics, and, to my young eyes, you just couldn’t beat Kane’s Green Lantern, soaring through the air, ring hand thrust toward the reader, one leg tucked back behind the knee. I spent many a happy hour with a Green Lantern comic open in front of me, trying, in my clumsy way, to replicate it, line for line. Unlike Jack Kirby—whose genius I wouldn’t discover for a few more years—Kane’s figures weren’t about bulk and mass. They were lithe and fluid. There was Kirbyesque power in those figures, sure—when Kane took on the Hulk strip in the late sixties, he gave Kirby a real run for his money–but the hallmark of Kane’s work was a grace.
When I started my professional career at DC Comics in the late 70’s, I was lucky enough to have Kane illustrate a story I wrote for a short-lived science fiction anthology called Time Warp. The story–“The Saviors”—was nothing special, but the art? Perfection. And, hey, my name was in the credit box with Gil Kane! It didn’t get much better than that.
Actually, it did—because a few years later I found myself teamed with Kane again, on my last four issues of Conan, The Barbarian.
Kane had come on board to replace John Buscema who left—well, because of me. Some months into my run on the book, editor Louise Jones let me know that John had been rumbling and grumbling about Conan’s direction. (I don’t recall any specifics beyond the fact that he had absolutely no patience for Dukenrik and Jonnwalli, the two young wanderers I’d introduced into the series. John felt, very strongly, that kids had no place in a Conan story.) I was still relatively new to the comic book business—Conan was my first, full-length monthly assignment—and the last thing I wanted to do was displease a man whose work I profoundly respected and admired. I called John up, we had a short and, as I recall, somewhat uncomfortable talk—I was completely intimidated—during which he outlined all the elements he thought were essential to a great Conan story. I was grateful for his input and told him I’d fold all those elements into the next issue, which I did. “The Blood Red Eye of Truth” ran in Conan #126. John did his usual brilliant job with it.
And then he quit the book.
I wasn’t happy about it—would you want to be known as The Guy Who Drove John Buscema Off Conan?—but the truth is I couldn’t remain depressed about John’s departure for very long, because, as mentioned, Louise had lined Gil Kane up as his replacement.
The first issue I wrote for Gil was called “The Snow-Haired Woman of the Wastes” and it was my attempt to do a story in the vein of Robert E. Howard's classic “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” I’m not sure if the story holds up after all these years, but the art is another matter. From the opening sequence, as Conan struggles desperately to save the mysterious Xean from a massive white-furred bear, Kane nailed it. There was so much power and clarity, such raw emotion and excitement in the battle that I had no choice but to stand back and shut my big mouth, putting as much text on an entire page as I would have normally stuffed into a single panel. (Looking back, I think the sequence would have worked even better if I’d left the words out entirely.) The rest of the issue was just as amazing. It had been twenty years since I first discovered Gil Kane’s artwork—and the man was better than ever.
I only stayed with Conan for another three issues—I finally realized that, as much as I loved the character, the kinds of stories I wanted to tell were best suited to other venues—but what an honor to have those final issues illustrated by a man whose work illuminated my childhood and brought me such joy. I don’t recall any conversations with Kane—we might have spoken briefly once at the Marvel office, but I can’t swear to it—but seeing those stories come alive on the page, in the way that only Gil Kane could, remains one of the highlights of my career in comics.
©2012 J.M. DeMatteis