Preface to Mid-Life Creative Imperatives (Part 1 of 3)

Posted by on February 24th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

A few days ago Jeet Heer posted a historical-speculative essay over at Comics Comics titled “The Mid-Life Crises of The Great Commercial Cartoonists” that caught my attention. His premise is that a move from working within the paternalistic corporate structure of commercial comics to more independent creative work formed a pattern “common to commercial comic book artists of [Wally Wood’s]’s era.” His examples of this pattern were Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, and Will Eisner. Heer refines his premise thusly: “All these cartoonists started off as journeymen artists, had a mid-life crisis which made them try do more artistically ambitious work, but ended up being thwarted either by the limits of their talent or the constraints of marketplace.”

After I read Heer’s piece, something was tugging at me, and I realized I’d touched on a similar theme in a piece I’d written 15 years ago. I was asked to contribute to a book titled Below Critical Radar by the editor, the British comics journalist/historian Roger Sabin. My assignment was, as nearly as I can remember, to focus on the independent fringes of cartooning throughout its history. So, partly, I wrote a brief history of cartoonists attempting to break out of commercial restraints, and partly a jeremiad against the corporate control from which cartoonists had tried to escape. I approached it from a slightly different perspective, which eventually encompassed underground and alternative cartoonists who were, I felt, the beneficiaries and represented the inevitable creative consummation of their earlier compatriots’ efforts. I’m posting my piece over the next two days (which only appeared in the book, now out of print; keep in mind that it was written for a more general audience whose familiarity with comics history could not be taken for granted) because the two overlap in interesting ways and can, I think, be read together profitably and because it gives me an opportunity to expand on the theme Heer re-opened.

I think that Heer’s use of the term mid-life crisis does a disservice to his observations because of its glib pop-psychology connotations, and because “crises” is exactly the wrong word to describe these artists’ respective departures from their previous creative work. More accurately, what they experienced was more like a mid-life creative imperative; they could only have acted with the kind of assurance and compulsion they did after they’d acquired the status —and craft chops— they each had in their profession. A crisis probably had nothing to do with it. (In my own list, none of the artists who started Humbug had yet hit mid-life, by the way: Kurtzman and Davis were both 34, Elder 36, Arnold Roth a relative infant at 28, and only Jaffee, the eldest, at 36).

Heer and I approached this from different angles, his somewhat broader than mine — or so, to me, it seems. I was looking specifically at rebellious artistic spirits (which was more or less my assignment) and he was charting artists who’d gotten more “ambitious” in mid-life, a less definable classification. Or is it? Both our “categories” tend to become murkier the closer one looks at them and tend to blur into each other with a third common factor added to ambition and rebelliousness: the sheer desire on the part of the mid-life cartoonist to achieve greater commercial success on his own (economic and creative independence can go hand in hand irrespective of the fact that one often outweighs the other in practice). And how does one define “ambitious”? Is repeatedly sledge-hammering home Ayn Rand’s simple-mined doctrines really more ambitious than plotting and drawing the early Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, or is it an even deader creative dead-end? Is The Wizard King or Aniu-Man more ambitious than adapting Ray Bradbury short stories? Surely there was inner need involved in both instances, but how much of this creative ambition resulted in better work?

There are more artists who worked in the traditional commercial mode that conform to various aspects of Heer’s and my parameters, some more apposite than others, including Joe Kubert, Neal Adams, and Alex Toth, all three of the same generation (Adams is 15 years younger than Kubert). These three (and others) tend to prove only that none of thee artists working outside of traditional publishing norms can be pigeon-holed: Each journeyman artist who published outside of his commercial comics context did so in his own unique circumstances and for his own unique reasons and the resulting work varied in ambition, level, and quality.

Heer emphasizes mainstream artists underwent a mid-life crisis that “made them want to do more artistically ambitious work,” which is true in some but by no means all such instances.  But, even in those cases where it’s true, a good if unfortunate rule of thumb —let’s call it Groth’s Law— is that most mainstream artists whose ambition was serious or literary came a cropper. This was most conspicuously the case with Will Eisner, who, after the beautifully realized Spirit strips of the ’40s, turned serious in the ’70s and produced one dreary “literary” graphic novel after another up until his very last and quite possibly worst one, the stultifyingly didactic and tendentious The Plot.

In 1996, at age 70, Kubert wrote and drew Fax From Sarajevo, an autobiographical/journalistic account of the Serb bombardment of Sarajevo in 1992 as seen through the eyes of the faxes Kubert received from a friend who lived through it. This was a significant departure from the kinds of comics stories he’d drawn for mainstream comics publishers from the age of 14, but it also tends to support my thesis: Undeniably a work of great intensity and personal passion, the idiom of bombastic realism that served him so well on hundreds of Sgt. Rock stories worked against his seriousness of purpose.

Adams, who has been a consistent firebrand from the late ’70s to this day when it came to creator rights, started a company, Continuity Comics, in 1984, and published an entire line of full-color comics. With a couple dubious exceptions, these were just as lame-brained as the mainstream comics Adams had worked on at Marvel and DC, suggesting that Adams was more interested in an economic revolution than an aesthetic one. (Ms. Mystic was, for example, was even more ham-fisted than the Denny O’Neil-scripted Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories Adams had drawn.) On the other hand, Adams is also evidently interested in using comics to serve more serious and personal purposes: He has been working on a 200-page graphic novel for many years postulating his arguments in favor of a growing-Earth theory, in opposition to most physicists. Ambitious, yes; a mid-life breakthrough? Probably; an aesthetic revelation? Dubious.

I’m not sure Alex Toth belongs on the list; he doesn’t appear to have had any recognizable mid-life artistic epiphany. He has been utterly creatively consistent from his 20s to his death. True, he abominated editors and publishers at least as much as Wally Wood, and wrote and drew Bravo for Adventure for Jim Warren’s B&W magazines in the mid-’70s (when he was in his mid-40s), one of the few comics he actually owned and didn’t draw for a corporate sponsor, but it’s arguable whether this was better or worse than strips he did in the ’50s such as “War on the Streets” (1954).

Sam Glanzman, a veteran DC artist, wrote and drew A Sailor’s Story in 1987, an unexpectedly thoughtful and touching autobiographical story of the young Glanzman aboard ship during WWII. Unexpected simply because no one expected this journeyman artist —reliable but uninspired throughout so much of his career— to have written something as quietly honest as this.

Most mainstream artists’ more ambitious work in mid life has been more ambitious by degree rather than in kind (Gil Kane, Wally Wood).

Has any commercial mainstream cartoonist from the Golden and Silver Age generations emerged from the abyss of Marvel, DC, et al., and produced an indisputable work of art? I’d have to say no, but that at least three artists have come close and are worth considering.

Alan Moore is the baby of this last group and may not quite qualify —he began his career as a cartoonist in 1979— but he still strikes me as belonging to the tail end of a generation of comics creators just prior to the following wave. After an enormously successful run at DC Comics (Swamp Thing, Watchmen, V for Vendetta), he very publicly announced his estrangement from mainstream comics and, if I remember correctly, stated that he’d never write superhero comics again and made a point of moving his comics writing into a purposefully literary direction — hence, Big Numbers, From Hell, and Lost Girls. As impressive and, yes, ambitious as these works are, one gets the impression that Moore can be a little too literary for his own good. From Hell is probably the most successful of these, thanks in large part to Eddie Campbell’s pitch-perfect visuals, but their success hinges less on how they function as comics as how impressed one is by Moore’s ability to superimpose literary technique over a comics scaffolding.

Jack Katz is the one mainstream artist who escaped from the clutches of the commercial companies with an almost religious sense of aesthetic mission. He started off drawing Bulletman for MLJ in the ’40s, worked for Marvel, DC, and several other lesser publishers until, in 1974 (age 47), he went off on his own and created The First Kingdom, a gigantic, sprawling epic SF-fantasy that he finished in 1986 after writing and drawing 24 independently published issues. It’s hard to assess the quality of this long saga (I haven’t read it in many years), but there’s no denying his unwavering commitment to it.

And finally the mainstream artist who may have made the most successful transition from commercial comics to independent work is Barry Windsor-Smith. He started working at Marvel in ’69, and, famously, drew Conan from issue #1 a year later. His career has been characterized by a restlessness that led to a number of blind alleys (most markedly detours at Valiant Comics and Malibu Comics in the ’90s), but he came back, in 1995, with Storyteller, an omnibus title featuring three features that played on his previous genre work with an engaging and redemptive wit, humor ingenuity, and playfulness that was largely absent in his earlier work. It was a modest, but real, advance, and as startling as if Gil Kane had gone on to create a screwball comedy. His next work, a period thriller titled Monster, may prove that an artist of that generation can indeed break the idiomatic shackles of commercial comics and successfully create a work of art.

The generation that Jeet Heer and I are referring to in these two pieces was trapped between their own lack of education on the one side  and the cultural context in which they grew up and in which they eventually found employment on the other; exceptions, such as Gil Kane and Bernie Krigstein, were rare, and their greater sophistication didn’t shield them from the strict and narrow editorial requirements of the industry (which is why Krigstein left and Kane kept trying to break out). Heer’s piece reminded me of how many artists of that generation, motivated by entrepreneurial drive, creative restlessness, anger and disgust at their shoddy profession, or some altogether unknowable impetus, went off on their own — creatively or economically.

Tomorrow: My original essay has remained largely untouched since I wrote it, though I updated a handful of references. Please note that I refer to nine multinational corporations dominating world-wide media; now, it’s five.

Continue reading: PART TWO

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23 Responses to “Preface to Mid-Life Creative Imperatives (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Hi Gary,

    Thanks for this very thoughtful essay, which deepens the conversation my posting started.

    As you know, Dan Nadel is also unhappy with the term “mid-life crisis” which he, like you, thinks is too redolent of pop-psychology. My defence is that there is serious use of the term by psychologists like Erik Erikson, for whom the mid-life crisis doesn’t mean abandoning your wife, finding a 20-year old bimbo and buying a sports car. For Erikson the mid-life crisis is the existential problem most humans face when they realize that they are closer to death than to birth, and that they need to do their life work as soon as they can.

    But let’s abandon the phrase because it’s been contaminated by journalism and TV talk shows.

    Maybe a better term is mid-life creative awakening.

    Although he’s much younger than everyone else, I’m tempted to throw David Mazzucchelli into the mix. He did make the leap from commerical work to genuine art. But perhaps because he was younger and was more receptive to art comics (particularly Raw) than other commercial artists, he was able to make the jump, whereas most of the others leaped but fell into the chasm that seperates the commerical comics from art comics.

  2. Jeet Heer1 says:

    And of course I agree that the ambitious, creatively challenging personal work is usually not as good as the commercial journeyman work. The is especially true, as you say, of Eisner.

    For me, the exceptions to this rule are Kirby and Glanzman (whose fine, modest graphic novel was mentioned by both you and Dan Nadel). I don’t know Jack Katz’s work well enough to have an opinion. And late period Ditko is very interesting visually, but I have a hard time reading the stories.

    But, yeah, the tragedy for these guys is that they hated the constraints of commercial comics but did their best work in that straitjacket. Like a criminal that had been in prison for most of his life, they couldn’t handle freedom once they had been released from the big publishers.

  3. Gary Groth says:

    Thanks, Jeet. It was written in haste and I wish I’d had more time to think on it, but it was the best I could do in the time.

    David Mazzuchelli serves, I think, best as an iluminating counter-example. He wasn’t in mainstream comics long enough to get stylistically, culturally, intellectually, or economically trapped— or confined to a visual approach that wasn’t suitable for anything other than the bombastic comic book idiom of its day, as Kane and Kubert were.

    Gil Kane told me once (or maybe it as more like a hundred times) that he felt like Cool Hand Luke; every time he escaped and managed to do a Savage, a Blackmark or a Star Hawks, the hounds eventually caught up to him and dragged him back. He’d always get a god talking to from the likes of a Jim Shooter explaining that what they had there was a failure to communicate, and Kane would bide his time for the next break-out.

    It may all become clear, in fact., if you see commercial comics of that era as a gigantic prison system. Kane, Kubert, Kirby, et al., were clearly felons who were in for life. Once in a while someone like Infantino would get to be an assistant to the warden and someone like Jack Katz might get time off for good behavior. I see Ditko’s forays into Mr. A as getting chosen for the chain gang — you get some fresh air and you might be able to watch a good looking chick wash her car, but, man, is that hard and unfulfilling work! Adams served his time, got an early release, and went on to become a prison reformer with about as much success as all prison reformers. Mazzuchelli and Moore only got busted for misdemeanors, served their time, and got out (though Moore’s recidivism rate is alarming, which may suggest he’s a career criminal after all).

    By the way, In addition to its thematic relevance, Cool Hand Luke may have had a more personal resonance for Gil; he and Paul Newman were neighbors when they both lived in the same apartment building in New York in the ’50s, and Gil got to know him. In fact, Gil named his son Scott after Newman’s son, Scott.

  4. Kristy Valenti says:

    This is completely beside the point, but “He’d always get a god talking to from the likes of a Jim Shooter …” made me laugh.

  5. patford says:

    Only a tangent to the topic, but I noticed pages from “His Name Is Savage” #2 in the Heritage Auction archives. Strangely enough they were drawn by Neal Adams.

  6. Gary Groth says:

    Gil would do these “break-out” projects while he was doing his regular Marvel-DC work; he couldn’t stop doing his Marvel-DC work because he needed the money and these other projects were usually done on spec or close to it, which means he was trying to do twice as much work as he could handle. Consequently, he would drag his friends into helping him. Archie Goodwin scripted Savage and Blackmark; Neal helped on the 2nd Savage and I believe Harvey Kurtzman provided layouts for at least some of Blackmark. (This was often reciprocated: When harvey was contracted to write a history of comics, he discovered it was too much work, so he went over to Gil’s house and literally taped Gil talking for hours, essentially composing a verbal history of comics, and used that as the backbone of the book.) Doing these kinds of projects was a Herculean task for Gil because he was always under the gun financially, living paycheck to paycheck, which didn’t allow him any breathing room. As prolific as he was, he was merely making ends meet.

    Someone could write a pretty fascinating book chronicling how comics artists of this generation lived and how they juggled financial needs with artistic needs (if any). A lot of them got the hell out and went into advertising (Mort Meskin, Lou Fine, etc.) or fine art (Krigstein).

    One thing I forgot to add vis-a-vis the prison analogy: prisoners had one advantage over comic artists: they got free health care.

  7. Nice piece and in the end, it’s all about the money, isn’t it? Artists often do crummy work because that’s what they’re paid to do. Frankly, it usually sells better.

    Re the prison analogy … since I moved from the US to Quebec and its superb, free health-care system, the quality of my freelance work has improved considerably. The reduction of money worries lets me take chances and do more long-term work. Of course, I’m being oppressed by rampant socialism and unable to contribute to Hamid Karzai’s boat payments, but you can’t have it all. Yet.

  8. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Mahendra Singh’s point about health care is very interesting. I don’t think the major Canadian cartoonists — say Seth, or David Collier, or Julie Doucet — would have had the careers they’ve had if they were living in a country without universal health care coverage.

  9. Quite so, Jeet. The right-on Canadian attitude towards social responsibilities means that many artists have a fighting chance to do some worthwhile work without having to drop dead from exhaustion & worry in their formative early years. Also, federal/provincial govt. funding of small press. periodicals & other arts ventures, including library royalties is an enormous boost for artists & writers. Even artist’s agents have access to some govt subsidies and incentives.

    Never underestimate the effect of money on the arts, both production & distribution. It not only shapes careers but also styles & genres. The current comix/illustration fad for 1950s UPA style line art is based mostly on its ease of creation, and hence, cheapness and speed … even the growing prevalence of comix styles in editorial print work is often based on the same cost/time calculation.

    grumble grumble, get off my lawn you goshdarn kids, etc etc

  10. Gary Groth says:

    Would Drawn & Quarterly even exist without government subsidies, universal health care, etc.?

  11. Exactly, which naturally makes one think: what would Fantagraphics/TCJ be like if it enjoyed the same benefits?

    What would the American comix industry be like in general/ Less Marvel, more Fanta?

  12. “Exactly, which naturally makes one think: what would Fantagraphics/TCJ be like if it enjoyed the same benefits?”

    Believe me, we’d love to find out.

  13. patford says:

    Vancouver isn’t so far away.

  14. Russ Maheras says:

    I think Steranko could be added to the mix, despite the fact that during his creative epiphany he went from one commercial medium (comic book art) to another (paperback cover paintings). But the fact is, most of those Shadow paintings he did were labors of love, not just another commercial project done to pay the bills. In fact, I’d classify his paintings as COINO (commercial in name only).

    I’d also argue that Ditko’s artistic epiphany actually had TWO post Spider-Man phases. The first was the incredible black & white work he did for Warren, closely followed his B&W Objectivistic work. The quality and power of Ditko’s COINO Warren work was unlike anything else he produced during the rest of his long career.

    Other creators whose mid- to late-life artistic epiphanies spring to mind include Basil Wolverton, whose Bible illustrations are arguably some of the best work of his career; Everett Raymond Kinstler, who left comics to become one of the most respected portrait artists in the country; Frank Frazetta, who branched off into the ultimate in COINO painting and never looked back; and, of course, Carl Barks, whose Duck painting career didn’t take off until long after he retired from comics.

  15. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “It was written in haste and I wish I’d had more time to think on it, but it was the best I could do in the time.”

    Welcome to blogging!

    This is a little off topic, but…an exception to the pressures your talking about is William Marston. He worked for National in a supposedly work-for-hire situation, but he had a level of creative control that seems to have been more or less indistinguishable from working as an independent (down to hiring his own artist, putting in outrageous bondage material, having veto power over other’s use of his character, etc.)

    This is my hobby horse, obvious…but reading through your post it just struck me again how bizarre Marston’s situation was, and how it seems to have been unduplicatable even for the most successful and high-profile mainstream creators. I guess as the industry became more codified and established certain possibilities got shut down.

  16. Gary Groth says:

    Noah, I think Marston’s situation was unusual but not unique. I believe Bob Kane had a similarly privileged situation for many years and even had a sweetheart deal with DC (National) where he secured partial ownership of Batman (while screwing his fellow creators, Robinson and Finger, of course). Siegel and Shuster had substantial “artistic” autonomy as well and enjoyed a relatively gigantic income for years (at the expense of their fellow artists, natch). Joe Kubert drew Tor unfettered by editorial strictures and secured ownership. I’m sure there are a lot of these aberrations. It’s true that they became farther and fewer between as the industry “matured” and power consolidated and business conventions ossified (almost always to the detriment of “talent”). It’s probably safe to say, sadly, that most artists made a fairly precarious living (unless they were incredibly prolific, like Kirby) and that what we’d now call matters of artistic autonomy or integrity didn’t weigh heavily on them. The Krigsteins of that era were the exception.

    Welcome to blogging indeed. That hurt.

  17. patford says:

    The comic book industry became a much more difficult place to earn a living in the late 50’s.
    Even artists like Kirby were left scrambling to find work. The Kirby/Simon partnership dissolved because DC offered work to Kirby, but not Joe Simon.
    100’s of writers and artists left the industry.
    John Romita described in an interview being paid $45 a page while working for Atlas in the mid 50’s. From that point on the page rate for the artists was cut almost month to month until it was twenty dollars a page.
    When Stan Lee mtried to lure Romita back to Marvel in the early 60’s he was still only able to offer $20 a page. Kirby was forced to produce about 100 pages a month for Marvel in order to support his growing family.
    Frank Frazetta described showing his portfolio to the comic book publishers, and being unable to find work after leaving the employment of Al Capp. Frazetta says that is when he painted the defiant looking self portrait that is well known.
    The book The Ten-Cent Plague deals with many of these financial issues.

  18. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Thanks for the info, Gary and patford. The notes about Kane and Siegel and Shuster is especially interesting. I wonder how much of the additional autonomy had to do with it being a younger industry and how much had to do with the market drying up; more money often means more possibilities in a capitalist system. Certainly I think Marston’s artistic freedom was at least in part predicated on the fact that WW comics were leaping off the racks, so there was a lot of incentive to keep him happy.

  19. patford says:

    Noah, Many of the early comic book publishers had ties to Pulp magazines.
    They already knew it was very desirable (The Shadow, Doc Savage), but not necessary (Tarzan) to own the creations of the artists and writers.
    Sure a pulp magazine publisher would have loved to have owned Tarzan, but Edgar Rice Burroughs was approaching middle age when he sold his first story, and when he was submitted a contract giving all rights to the publisher
    (which was a standard “go fishing” ploy) he crossed out everything except first magazine publication rights. The publisher (even though Burroughs was an unknown) didn’t really bat an eye.
    Comics was different because the creators were almost all poor kids, who were desperate.
    Jack Kirby for example was supporting his mother and unemployed father when he was 19 years old. It was Kirby who as a “kid” transported his mother and father out of maybe the worst slum in Manhattan and brought them to Brighton Beach Brooklyn where he rented an apartment for the family.
    Bob Kane’s family was pretty well off (his father was a printer). Kane’s father hired a lawyer who used the claim that Kane was under-age when he created Batman to dispute DC ownership of the copyright.
    DC was at the same time being challenged for the first time by S&S over rights to Superman, and the assumption is DC worked out their deal with Kane so as to concentrate their resources on the Superman case.

  20. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Noah: if you want to know more about all this, read both Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague and Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow (Marston comes up in both books).

    Hajdu’s book is better documented (he actually gives you the source for all his quotes and facts). Jones’ relies heavily on industry folk-lore and oral traditions, but still has value. I think the basic story Jones tells is true. I just wish he had documented it better.

  21. […] assistant), but he also posted his previously published essay (as well as a preface): Mid-Life Creative Imperatives, detailing the flux in the opposition of commercialization, the struggles of the co-opted artist […]

  22. […] Groth offers his own thoughts and posts an essay he'd written on the topic several years ago. (part one, part two, and part […]