Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My Keys to the Kingdom ~~ A "Comical Wednesday" Post ~~ Part One (of Two)

On August 28th, 1917, a child named Jacob Kurtzberg was born in New York City. There is apparently no truth to the rumor that he was born with a pencil in his right hand (and a cigar in his left), but his decision to become an artist certainly wasn't made too long after that!

Entering the field of comic books roughly at the same time as the need for all-new material became apparent, young Kurtzberg toyed with a handful of "pen names" before deciding on "Jack Kirby," and it was under that name (which he later "made legal") that he became the most influential comic book artist ever.

Jack Kirby would have turned 94 years old last Sunday, if he were still with us.

Heh. What am I saying? As long as comic books -- or even characters that were spawned in the comic books -- exist, Kirby will never really leave us.

Jack Kirby has been called "The King of Comics" by many -- although he never called himself that -- and his astounding career spanned more than fifty years. He created, co-created, and/or drew more characters than I could list without writing an article which even I wouldn't have the patience to read, much less write.

The list of only those characters which he created or co-created, according to Wikipedia, stands at 304 as of today... and I'll bet they missed a few! They include Captain America, the X-Men, Kamandi, the Fantastic Four, the Fly, the Challengers of the Unknown, the Red Skull, the mighty Thor, OMAC, Doctor Doom, Etrigan the Demon, the incredible Hulk, Darkseid, Fighting American, Mister Miracle, the "Kid Cowboys" of Boys' Ranch, Sgt. Nick Fury, Captain Victory, the Newsboy Legion, Stuntman, the Boy Commandos, the Silver Surfer, Big Barda, Captain 3-D... and I probably left out one or two of your own Kirby favorites, if you follow comics at all!

 Writer Mark Evanier, who was both friend and assistant to Jack Kirby, has said "If [Kirby] wasn't your favorite artist, the odds were good that he was your favorite artist's favorite artist." I would twist that little quote around a tad to say that if Kirby didn't have a hand in the creation of your favorite character, the odds were good that he drew your favorite character at one time or another. And that includes characters such as Superman, the Shield, Blue Bolt, the original Captain Marvel, and dozens -- if not hundreds -- more! 

So. What should I do to commemorate such a man's birthday in this Comical Wednesday post? (I won't even try to provide an overview of the man's spectacular career.)

I suppose I can do what I so often do, which is give my own slant on Kirby... the man, the artist, and his work... and how "they" all affected me.

As I told in much greater detail here, in 1963 I was still a good year or so away from being able to appreciate the differences between comic book publishers (as well as comic book artists). But when my older sister came home with a copy of Fantastic Four Annual #1, my young eyes -- accustomed to DC Comics titles like Batman, Superman, Action Comics, and Detective Comics -- immediately discerned that something here was different. It was my first exposure to the art of Jack Kirby... although I certainly couldn't have told you that then!

A year or so later, when I started buying Marvel titles like Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Tales to Astonish (featuring Giant-Man and the Wasp), I started catching on that guys named Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck were drawing them... and that some guy named Stan Lee seemed to be writing all of these titles, and more!

And then (for me) came Captain America!

The Avengers was not a title that I read (yet) when Captain America was brought back from comic book limbo in its fourth issue. But only two months later, I got a double shot of Cap when the Avengers guest-starred in Fantastic Four #26 (which was my very first "regular" issue of FF), and a couple of weeks later, when my mother brought home a bunch of new Marvels, including Avengers #5!

As much as I enjoyed some of the DC and Marvel heroes like Superman, Thor, the Flash, and their ilk, as a little boy I tended to identify more with the so-called costumed athletes. That's why I formed such an early infatuation for heroes like Batman and Captain America. Somewhere in the back of my young mind, I felt that by the time I grew up, I too could be a "superhero" in the same way they were. (But boy, was I ticked off when I learned Cap's full origin, which included his being subjected to a "Super Soldier" formula! What a cheat! But I digress.)

And hey, cut me some slack, here, fellow babies. Throughout most of 1964, I was only seven!

I formed an immediate attachment for the Captain, fueled by the same dynamic artwork which Kirby imbued in all the characters he drew, and rejoiced when C.A. got his own series in the rear of Tales of Suspense, as a back-up to Iron Man's feature.

Kirby's art and Stan Lee's dialogue may both have been more than a bit "over the top" in terms of realism, but who the heck wanted realism? These were comics, after all!

Try to imagine the mid-1960s, a world without comic shops, nor even -- to my knowledge -- any mail-order back-issue dealers! I did everything I could to find as many old Marvels as possible, and ended up relying on the collection my best friend Kevin shared with his older brother, local barber shops, and in one instance, my cousin Curtis.

I lucked out, all told, and in the space of a year or so, I was able to obtain the following "oldies but goodies," among others! (I even acquired a couple of "pre-Marvel" Atlas Comics, which came out before Fantastic Four #1!) Here they are, in absolutely no order. And notice, if you will, that every single one of them had Kirby art (and a Kirby cover!), although not all of them contained only art by Jack!

Uhhh, no. Not the Magneto you X-Men fans are thinking of! He came later!

Well! After that flurry of images, I'm going to give both of us a week-long break from this story. I guess it only goes to prove that a subject such as Jack Kirby can rarely be confined to just one post.

Next week's Comical Wednesday post will detail my young self's further immersion in Marvelmania -- and... Kirbyana? -- and my conversation with The Man himself!

So, Happy Birthday, Jack... even if I am a couple of days late!

Thanks for your time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"There's a Starman Waiting in the Sky" -- A "Comical Wednesday" Post

If I were to try to give a detailed description of every character -- in comic books and elsewhere -- that's used the name "Starman," this would be my longest single post ever.


Therefore, merciful s.o.b. that I am, I'm going to spare you the stories of all the Starmen out there. (But this'll still be a long one!) For instance, I'll only give a fleeting mention of the wonderful Starman film from 1984 starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen... and only because I liked it so much! 

And I'm going to talk about only a very few of the many Starman characters that have been published by DC Comics during the last 70 years. Here are most -- but not all -- of the "extras."

(Well, okay, I am going to mention the Starman in the upper left-hand corner, albeit briefly.)

Today's going to be a look at the three Starmen who bore the surname "Knight," but primarily about the very first DC hero to take up the role... Ted Knight!

No, not this Ted Knight! Cut it out, willya?

I suppose my first exposure to Ted "Starman" Knight was in this 1964 issue of Justice League of America, but I honestly don't recall his making any real impression on me at that time.

Nope, that wasn't until a year later, when DC's team-up title, The Brave and the Bold, paired two members of the JSA (DC's Golden Age, "Earth-2" Justice Society of America, remember?)! 

Personally, I liked the first story better... and I absolutely loved the character of The Mist, a revived baddie from the 1940s! (More on him further down in this post!)

Artwork for these issues was provided by the incomparable Murphy Anderson, by the way. Anderson is best known as an inker, but he's also one hell of a penciller, as well.

Murphy Anderson and the JSA... a match made in Heaven, IMHO!

Anyway, as I've told you before, fellow babies, I've been interested in many of the Golden Age characters whom I missed on their initial go-round ever since I realized they existed. And something about Starman clicked with me! Can't really tell y'all what, exactly. Maybe it was the gorgeous artwork provided during various stages of his career by artists such as Murphy Anderson, Jack Burnley, and Jerry Ordway. (More on Burnley later.)

Or maybe it was the cool "fin" on his helmet...

The original Starman, who first appeared in 1941's Adventure Comics #61, was really Ted Knight -- I'm providing a link to Ted's Wikipedia article, by the way -- a wealthy astronomer and brilliant inventor who'd invented a "gravity rod" (later called a cosmic rod) which could convert starlight into "cosmic energy," enabling him "to fly and to manipulate energy, at times in a manner similar to Green Lantern's power ring." In fact, later continuity "implants" established that Ted had worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.

As did many of the superheroes of that era, Ted Knight played the part of the "bored playboy," and acted as a hypochondriac, to boot!

Starman joined the fabled Justice Society of America in the eighth issue of All-Star Comics, by the way....

And here's another All-Star Comics cover which I couldn't resist including!

Starman was co-created by a handful of DC editors and an absolutely terrific artist known as Jack Burnley (1911-2006).

It wasn't until the early 1970s, when DC started reprinting some of the original Starman tales from his 1940s run in Adventure Comics, that I first encountered the artwork of Jack Burnley.

As it turns out, Burnley also did frequent "ghost" work on characters like Superman and Batman in addition to his work on Starman! In fact -- and I'm quoting from the Wikipedia article I linked to a couple of paragraphs ago -- "Burnley was the first artist, after co-creator Joe Shuster, to draw Superman... The version of Superman he created was noted for its carefully drawn musculature, which set the style of superheroes for years to come."

Burnley's Batman illustrations tended to follow Bob Kane's style more closely... at least, at first!

Jack Burnley's 1940's work can easily stand up to many of the better artists that entered the field many years later. I mean, I've seen a ton of 1930s-1940s comic books (and comic strips), whether in their original form, in reprints, or online, and let's face it: Many of comics' early artists were well-meaning hacks, wage slaves whose stuff was passable at best. For every Jack Burnley, Mac Raboy, Hal Foster, Jack Kirby, Milt Caniff, Lou Fine, Matt Baker, Wallace Wood, Bill Everett, and others of their ilk, there were a dozen or so whose names have been largely (and somewhat justly) forgotten!

But Jack Burnley? His stuff was gorgeous, especially when standing beside the works of some of his Golden Age contemporaries!

Just feast your eyes on some of these classic Adventure Comics Starman covers!

And Jack still had his "chops" as of 1991, as shown in this recreation of the above cover illustration!

Something else I'd (almost) kill to own... *sigh*

In the 1970s, DC was nice enough to reprint the story that introduced my favorite Starman villain, The Mist! (The following splash page, however, is from one of ol' Misty's later appearances!)

Oh, a little aside here: If you wonder just how dedicated Ted (Starman) Knight was to fighting crime, he apparently wore his costume under his pajamas! (Hey, I never said these damned funnybooks always made sense, right?)

Anyway, before I jump forward from the Golden Age to the so-called Bronze Age, here's a strange fact I learned from the Wikipedia entry on Jack Burnley: "Burnley and his wife, former cabaret dancer Delores Ferris, relocated to Charlottesville, Virginia in 1981. Delores died at Heritage Hall in 2003 after surgery following a fall that broke her hip. Burnley died on December 19, 2006 at the Heritage Hall senior facility in Charlottesville, following a fall that broke his hip."

I'm not going to make a sick joke here, but... well... feel free to fill in your own.

During the 1970s and 1980s, several of DC's comics featured the older, "semi-retired" Ted Knight at one time or another. There was a brief revival of All-Star Comics which featured the modern-day exploits of the JSA. And after writer Roy Thomas (who's definitely one of the top three all-time JSA fans) left Marvel Comics for DC in the 1980s, he created not one, but three series (and a mini-series, and a one-shot "last" JSA story, and... never mind) about the JSA and the "Earth Two" characters, one of which -- All-Star Squadron, set in the 1940s -- had plenty of appearances by Ted (Starman) Knight. Due to the relatively limited scope of this post, I have to ignore all of them. Sucks to be me.

Over the years, DC also introduced more than one new Starman character, unrelated to Ted Knight. They met with varying degrees of success.

In 1988, DC decided to try again with a Starman named Will Payton. In issue #26, who should appear but David Knight, son of Ted, now wearing his father's costume (well, a copy, one can assume) and taking his dad's superheroic nom du guerre

And somebody at the DC offices must have liked me, because they also re-introduced The Mist (temporarily calling himself Nimbus) in that two-parter!

David's career as Starman was unremarkable, and short-lived. In what ended up being the last "new" comic title which I followed on a regular basis, the next Starman series -- which ran from 1994 to 2001 -- featured David's younger brother, Jack.

At the very beginning of Starman's first issue, we were shown David (Starman) Knight's unfortunate end. He was cut down without warning while patrolling Opal City.

The new Starman, Jack Knight, was reluctantly cast in the role. He refused to wear a "proper" costume, and instead of his dad's cosmic rod, he carried a prototype "cosmic staff" which the elder Knight had created sometime during the past few years.

Writer James Robinson developed a mind-blowing take on the Knight family's Starman legacy, superheroes in general, DC Comics history in particular, and (almost) more things than I can mention in this or any other post! He also  managed to fit all the DC Starman characters into the series at one point or another, and if that weren't enough, he created a couple more along the way!

The now-elderly Mist showed up in the new series, as did his son Kyle (who happened to be David Knight's killer) and Kyle's sister Nash, who eventually became the "new" Mist. Nash was a major player in the Starman title. In fact, she ended up giving birth to Jack Knight's son!

Regrettably, however, I'm going to give this highly-recommended Starman series short shrift (at least, this time around, but maybe someday...). And that's because I'm still busting my hump to limit the focus of this post to Ted Knight as much as possible. (I know, I know, "And failing miserably," you may be saying!)

Y'see, Ted Knight was also a "major player" in the new Starman title, whether in his current activities, or in occasional flashback stories -- designated as "Times Past" episodes -- which showcased him in his prime.

As writer Robinson started winding down his imaginative Starman series -- which ended with issue #80 -- he decided to tie up dozens of loose ends. Jack Knight actually retired from his life as a costumed hero, in order to raise his infant son. He bequeathed the cosmic staff to Courtney Whitmore, a young lady in the current JSA now known as Stargirl. (And if you think I'm leaving out scads of detail... well, yeah, you're right. I warned you this would happen!)

One by one, DC Comics has been replacing and/or re-vamping their surviving Golden Age characters, an unfortunate necessity once one has acknowledged that these heroes have been around for sixty to seventy years in "real world" time. Regrettably, this meant that Ted Knight, whose character had been wonderfully fleshed out by Robinson during his Starman run, became one of those "loose ends" I mentioned.

At the very end of an important -- and tragic -- multi-part storyline, the original Mist hid a nuclear bomb in Opal City, where Ted and Jack Knight lived. The bomb was set to detonate at the exact moment of The Mist's death. He then took poison to insure and hasten that end!

His daughter Nash, fearing for her own life and that of her baby son, attempted to stop him. He shot her. Her last conscious act before dying was to hand the child to Jack.

Ultimately, it was the aging Ted Knight, not his son Jack, who foiled the plan, by transporting himself, The Mist, and the building which contained the bomb to a point miles above the Earth!

In their very last moments alive, the two old enemies finally... finally... made peace with each other.

The Mist never lived to finish his sentence. And with his death, an era in comics history truly ended, for Ted Knight -- comics' original Starman -- died as well.

(I suppose if Ted Knight had to die, there was no more dignified a way. Not in a comic book, anyway.)

And unlike far too many characters in the "we make up the rules as we go along" field of comic books, I doubt DC will ever bring him back.

Nor should they. The character of Ted Knight, and Robinson's story for that matter, deserve to keep their dignity.

It says a lot for James Robinson's skills as a writer that this cynical Silver Fox was as moved as I was by a story in a freakin' "funnybook." But then again, that's what writers -- in any medium -- are supposed to do to their readers, innit?

Ted Knight, 191?-2000, R.I.P.

*  *  *  *  *

And finally, on a much lighter note -- no pun intended -- the one "Starman" whom you probably thought I'd forgotten!

Y'know, as corny as it may sound, I'll never hear this song without thinking of Ted (Starman) Knight! But you wanna know something? I'm okay with that.

Heh. Maybe I'll do a little star-gazing tonight...

Thanks for your time.

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