Standing on the Shoulders of Marvels

Bloggified by Jake on Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Candy Cummings pitched for five different teams in his six year baseball career. He led the league in shutouts in 1872 and 1875 and took the strikeout crown in '72 when he whiffed fourteen batters all season. His success was based largely on his ability to throw a curveball, something no other pitcher at the time could do. Cummings learned as a boy how to make clam shells follow a curving path when he threw them and applied the same principles to the baseball, spinning it as it left his fingertips and making it practically unhittable to batters of his era.

In 1939, he was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame as an pioneer of the game for his invention of the pitch that would be the predecessor to all breaking pitches.

If you were managing game seven of the World Series and could have any pitcher in the history of professional baseball on the mound, who would you want it to be? Whitey Ford? Tom Glavine? Sandy Koufax? Roger Clemens? Bob Gibson?

The obvious choice must be Candy Cummings, right? After all, if he hadn't invented the curveball, the rest of those guys would suck. He must be the best of all time and no one else could be considered superior since they used his own invention to exceed him, thereby negating their accomplishments.

The above argument makes little--if any--sense. Negating the accomplishments of some because they used the accomplishments of others as a leaping off point would discount nearly every one of mankind's highlights. Should every scientist that learned anything by looking through a microscope take a seat behind Hans Janssen since he invented the microscope? In turn, is the value of a microscope diminished by virtue of the fact someone else invented the convex lens?

Of course not. In fact, anyone who thinks George Mikan in his prime would average more than three points a game in today's NBA or believes "I Love Lucy" would last past midseason on today's networks is in denial.

Which brings me to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.

I don't mean to single out any one person, as this is a commonly held feeling among some, but as part of the fifteen comics meme, Sean Kleefeld named Fantastic Four as his #1 comic and put his dream team of Stan and Jack aboard as creators. Let me stress, I'm not saying he's wrong, but just that I can't understand that choice at all (and if Sean's reading, I hope he'll post some kind of counterpoint reply to help me understand).

As I trudge through the first Essential Fantastic Four volume, I am struck by how terrible it all is. I understand it was a different time and it's a kids' book and it was surprisingly different than whatever else was out there, but none of that makes it "good." It has the stupidity of Jimmy Olsen, but with an added bombastic delivery that feels like its all taking itself far too seriously. Ten issues in, I can say there is nothing fun nor whimsical about this comic.

I will give Jack and Stan credit for being innovators without any question, but to say Jack Kirby is a better artist than Brian Hitch or than Stan Lee is a better writer than Peter David gives a little too much credit to nostalgia and not enough to the actual product of any of the men involved.

The fact is Brian Hitch--and most other artists today--are Kirby's superior because of Kirby himself. Kirby made considerable contributions to the art of sequential story telling. By experimenting with perspectives and layouts, he was able to give examples of what worked and what didn't, freeing up future artists from having to learn by conducting the same experiments. Likewise, as other artists took the lessons they learned from Kirby's work and conducted their own experiments, the lessons they learned were passed down, and so on. Each generation was able to build on the previous.

Thus, someone like Hitch or Lee Bermejo or Steve Epting or Mark Bagley represents the culmination of the works of Kirby, Ditko, Kubert, Eisner, Simonson, Perez, and so many others. Each creator has his own style, but a learned artist should easily exceed someone four decades his predecessor.

Unfortunately, there is an instict to cling to the past and point to innovations as summits rather than simply peaks along the escalation. How else do you explain people my age and younger paying good money to go see the Rolling Stones in concert? The idea that this was the pinacle of comic art:... or that every writer's dialogue following that was a step down in quality is laughable at best and insulting at worst.

By all means, give Kirby and Lee the credit they deserve as creators, as innovators, as the foundations upon which Marvel Comics is built, but don't delude yourself into thinking a product either produced today would be anything but a major disappointment. When it comes right down to it, Kirby could never draw a person's head the same proportion twice and Stan's characters were so one dimensional, he once resorted to having Mr. Fantastic break the fourth wall and threaten readers who didn't think Sue Storm contributed anything to the book (which she didn't).

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