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THE ATROPHIED TASTES OF THE TWELVE-YEAR OLD FANBOY

What we recognize as modern comic book fandom had its real start in the very early 1950s, in the form of what was called The EC Fan-Addict Club, formed in 1953 or thereabouts.

For the record, I wasn’t around back then–I’m not that fucking old, for fuck’s sake–but I was an EC collector in the early 1960s, in my tweens to teens, and as a curious kid, I wanted a deeper understanding of what those kids, who were my age in 1951, 1952, saw and felt about this work.

And one of the consistent themes of the opinions of that early fandom was a distaste bordering on loathing for the work of Bernard Krigstein. I honestly have no recollection of my own reaction to his work when I was an EC collector, but Krigstein was a rallying point among many of those fans back in the early fifties.

As an adult, and as a comic book professional, I look at the vast majority of Krigstein’s work at EC with awe. Certainly, it differs dramatically from his fellows at the company, in its designed detachment, its cool graphic sensibility, its lack of prettiness that was and remains so big a part of the pandering to the audience by so many comics artists of every generation.

From Krigstein’s ‘Master Race’

Alex Toth, Krigstein’s contemporary and more than equal, with an approach so clearly influenced by industrial design, and Harvey Kurtzman, whose work reflected an interest in as exotic an influence as Lynd Ward, were among the very few examples of comics men of the time who eschewed the melodramatic narrative style created by Will Eisner, which was and had been for over a decade the default of comics storytelling, opting instead for a detachment that had its own form of emotional content, while refusing to pander to sensationalism.

But it was Krigstein who was most profoundly disliked.
I didn’t get it then, and nowadays, I, along with many if not most of my fellow comics professionals, revere Krigstein as a profoundly influential and brilliant figure…but I can look back to my own days as an enthusiast and remember quite clearly my own loves and hates.

All this is brought to mind by a recent thread in the Comic Book Historians Facebook group in regard to the work of Ross Andru–one of those artists enthusiasts regard with mixed feelings, while many if not most professionals acknowledge as a vitally important member of the comics’ pantheon, a serious contributor to the ongoing and evolving language of our curious and peculiar medium.

When I was 18, and looking to “go pro,” as we all put it then, I was hired to work as an assistant by Gil Kane, another one of those artists whose work is frequently dismissed by the audience while being held in serious regard by the professional creative class–at least, those with eyes to see the impact of his work on the depiction of action in comics over the past fifty years–work that carries forth a tradition introduced into comics in its earliest years by the brilliant “Golden Age” artists Lou Fine and Mac Raboy.

It should be noted that as enlightened and beloved a figure as Stan Lee, who personally liked Gil, was somewhat hesitant and unconvinced at the outset that he could deliver work to satisfy Marvel’s needs to spread the Jack Kirby’ness of their then ubiquitous house style–regarding Gil’s work, and I quote Gil here, so calm down before you lose your shit, as “faggy.”

One of the typical notes on Gil’s work came up in this Andru thread, pointing out one of his tropes, a worm’s eye view with prominent nostrils, as a reason to dismiss his work, ignoring Gil’s dynamism of layout, choreography of action, and phenomenal grasp of the superhero action figure in pose and in motion–all things he learned to do the hard way–practice, imitation, and simple sweat equity–since, like me, his early work was utterly dreadful.

On one of those days when I worked for him, already wary of his mercurial nature, he asked me, in a studied, and needless to say, falsely pleasant, nonjudgmental manner, “So, my boy–who do you like in comics?”

Gil Kane, image via

I made the mistake of answering him, and he shredded the names I mentioned, dismissing my favorites from top to bottom with one liners that I’d never quote today, since some of those mentioned are still with us.

Needless to say, I became hostile and defensive, holding my chosen ones to my chest, but something from this monologue stuck…and as a result of this, I began the process of discernment that continues to this day.

As noted above and more often than is perhaps necessary, I wasn’t born with any natural gifts.

Thus it was practice and analysis that were the two factors in the construction of my career–and perhaps it’s that aspect of development that created in me the bridge from enthusiast/hobbyist to professional cartoonist, with eyes to see the qualities and shortcomings of other comics talent, educated eyes that can see beyond favorite and best.

This Facebook thread in regard to Ross Andru is only the most recent example of which I’m aware, in which enthusiasts have revealed, some with self awareness, many with utter cluelessness, how frequently parochial their tastes are, tastes for the most part formed, then atrophied, at twelve.

Now relax–I’m not here to even try to change anyone’s mind, about Ross Andru, or Gil Kane, or Bernard Krigstein, or anyone. Rather, I’d simply like to point out the divide that exists between the tastes and enthusiasms of comics fans and comics professionals.

I’ve been aware of my own growth in tastes and respect, of course. And a big part of that gap is traceable to the victory of the undeclared war between viewpoints on the concept of “Brand.”

It is naturally in the publisher’s best interest to convince the reader that the character is the brand…while those of us who do this for a living know, or should know, that it’s the talent that is the brand.

In my case, I dropped The Fantastic Four when Kirby left, and did the same with Spider-Man when Ditko moved on. None of this is to defame John Buscema or John Romita, both wonderful artists in their own right–but the tone and stature of these two signature books was so firmly established in my mind by Kirby and Ditko that I had no interest in pursuing these comics as a reader.

That said, my first real awareness and acknowledgment of the chasm that exists between enthusiast and professional was brought to mind a decade or so ago, when I heard anecdotal narrative about a Midwestern comic book fan, whose name I may not have known even then, with a column in a mainstream newspaper, who wrote an opinion piece which, at core, found the work of Darwyn Cooke wanting in comparison to the likes of Michael Turner.

Both men are dead, so neither can have their feelings hurt nor can they defend themselves, so I feel we can be honest here. I never met Michael Turner, so I can’t speak for his character. His work, however, was and remains profoundly anodyne, glossy, slick and utterly uninteresting to anyone with anything beyond the most adolescent of tastes.

Darwyn Cooke, on the other hand, was a complex and frequently difficult man, which in no way impacts on how utterly brilliant a cartoonist and designer–a true comics man–he was. There is simply no comparison between the work of these two men–certainly no comparison available to anyone with eyes educated in our medium.

And yet this guy with a keyboard found the unthreatening, frankly irrelevant prettiness of Turner’s work superior to what he regarded as the crude “cartooniness” of Cooke’s.

From Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke.  Published by IDW

Cartoony. Oh, how I hate that word. It’s the sort of descriptor that indicates a belief that Alex Raymond, a perfectly wonderful draftsman, is/was a superior talent to Milton Caniff, whose work actually transformed the very language of comics.

As if being able to draw “realistically–” and I am very purposefully hanging quotation marks around that word–is somehow superior to creating a consistent and convincing visual narrative environment.

And yes, I recall all too well my own boyhood–twelve years old, anyone?–and those deep seated prejudices against talent like Mike Sekowsky, or Don Heck, two examples of artists whose actual gifts were too sophisticated for my adolescent eyes to discern and grasp.

And I’m guessing many if not most of you are too young to remember the negative reaction that Neal Adams’ work brought from those 1960s comics enthusiasts, the main thrust of which boiled down to that Neal wasn’t Murphy Anderson, a hugely popular and conventional talent of the day.

To liberally translate that French phrase, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.”

So, yes, we’re all entitled to our tastes, but not necessarily our opinions, since those opinions that are worthy of attention are those evolved from an informed perspective. There are things I like, and things I don’t–but I have no illusions that my distaste or affection means that these things are bad or good.

We’re just talking the difference between favorite and best here. What I love, in particularly from an emotional perspective, isn’t necessarily good. I’m comfortable with this–and I invite you to join me in this comfort.

That said, there’s a fuckload of things about which I know fuck all–and I don’t express opinions about such things, because, to put it simply, such a point of view isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.

One of the things I do know about is comics, from forty seven years of writing and drawing, preceded by well over a decade of absorption as an enthusiast, certainly from a historical perspective-so I bring a deeply informed understanding to the opinions I express in this regard.

I acknowledge that I stand on the shoulders of giants. My career is the direct result of studying the work of my mentors and others like them for over six decades. Considering my utter lack of academic achievement, this is clearly the only arena of study in which I paid attention.

To put it bluntly, comics were among the very few things I ever gave a shit about, and that love of this medium and craft saved my life. This is not hyperbole–but an incontestable fact.

That said, I would strongly encourage both enthusiasts and professionals alike to seek out and find, beyond likes and dislikes, favorites and bests, an educated perspective in their relationship to comics…to better and more effectively understand the language, and I do mean language, of comics.

Rather than starting and ending one’s critical judgment of our material with a fan’s love for a favorite character, it would behoove anyone with a serious interest in comics to take a hard look at what’s being done and why, how the work is done, and where visual and narrative value are most effectively executed, all to deepen the appreciation of our curious craft.

I promise that this will profoundly enhance your appreciation of comics, and deepen the experience far beyond all our twelve year old tastes, loves and prejudices.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin — a prince.

 

Howard Chaykin is a longtime veteran of the comic book business, serving as an artist and writer for nearly every publisher of comics in the past four decades…and counting. He took the ’90s off to work on mostly unwatchable television, so he missed the money and dreck that was comics in that execrable decade. He is responsible, some might say culpable, for introducing a number of previously unexplored themes to comic books. If you’re not hip to what that’s supposed to mean, there’s always Wikipedia. His newest book, HEY KIDS! COMICS! is now available in comic stores and via digital.

 

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