A few days ago Jeet Heer posted a historical-speculative essay over at Comics Comics titled āThe Mid-Life Crises of The Great Commercial Cartoonistsā 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 ācommon to commercial comic book artists of [Wally Woodās]ās era.ā His examples of this pattern were Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, and Will Eisner. Heer refines his premise thusly: āAll 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.ā
After I read Heerās piece, something was tugging at me, and I realized Iād touched on a similar theme in a piece Iād 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 compatriotsā efforts. Iām 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 Heerās use of the term mid-life crisis does a disservice to his observations because of its glib pop-psychology connotations, and because ācrisesā is exactly the wrong word to describe these artistsā 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 theyād acquired the status āand craft chopsā 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 ā 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 whoād gotten more āambitiousā in mid-life, a less definable classification. Or is it? Both our ācategoriesā 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 āambitiousā? Is repeatedly sledge-hammering home Ayn Randās 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 Heerās 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 āmade them want to do more artistically ambitious work,ā which is true in some but by no means all such instances.Ā But, even in those cases where itās true, a good if unfortunate rule of thumb āletās call it Grothās Lawā 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 āliteraryā 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 heād 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 OāNeil-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.
Iām not sure Alex Toth belongs on the list; he doesnāt 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 Warrenās B&W magazines in the mid-’70s (when he was in his mid-40s), one of the few comics he actually owned and didnāt draw for a corporate sponsor, but itās arguable whether this was better or worse than strips he did in the ’50s such as āWar on the Streetsā (1954).
Sam Glanzman, a veteran DC artist, wrote and drew A Sailorās 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 āreliable but uninspired throughout so much of his careerā to have written something as quietly honest as this.
Most mainstream artistsā 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? Iād 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 āhe began his career as a cartoonist in 1979ā 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 heād never write superhero comics again and made a point of moving his comics writing into a purposefully literary direction ā 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 Campbellās pitch-perfect visuals, but their success hinges less on how they function as comics as how impressed one is by Mooreās 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. Itās hard to assess the quality of this long saga (I havenāt read it in many years), but thereās 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 ā69, 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 sideĀ 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 didnāt shield them from the strict and narrow editorial requirements of the industry (which is why Krigstein left and Kane kept trying to break out). Heerās 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 ā 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, itās five.
Continue reading: PART TWO