Lee and Kirby didn’t know it was the sixties

Tom Spurgeon worries at one of his artistic preferences:

for all that the Fantastic Four comics worked in the 1960s, I’m somehow not a big fan of placing the characters in the 1960s. That’s a nice picture and everything, I just don’t get a thrill out of seeing those characters “in their time” the way someone could surmise I might from my affection for the original Lee-Kirby run. What can I say? I’m complicated.

Actually, this makes perfect sense. There’s a huge difference between Lee and Kirby working on Fantastic Fourback in the sixties and somebody coming along forty-fifty years later and doing a pastiche or homage, drawing explicitily on our shared cultural conception of “the sixties”, like Alex Ross did with Marvels. In the latter case the pastichist is working in an aesthetic formula that has been retroactively defined as “sixties” and tries to adhere to this as best they can, working with a limited amount of both visual and storytelling cliches, at all times conscious of the desired impact on their readers. You can see that in the end product too: you get either the Leave it to Beaver/JFK Camelot, the Hippies and Summer of Love or the Vietnam/race riots/RFK version of the sixties.

Lee and Kirby had their own constraints of course, both unconscious and conscious ones (the comics code not being the least of them) but they lacked that creative straightjacket their modern day emulators willingly subject themselves to. They could evolve, while of necessity somebody like Alex Ross or Darwyn Cooke trying to place the Fantastic Four or the Silver Age DC characters in their own time has to remain static, consistent, recognisable.

For the reader, it’s the thrill of the familiar rather than the thrill of the new. Hence always disappointing and empty.

3 thoughts on “Lee and Kirby didn’t know it was the sixties

  1. Looking at Lee/Kirby FF now, it’s striking how similar it was to Irwin Allen type adventure shows of the time. Its more humourless forerunner Challengers of the Unknown certainly shared a lot with them. Theirs was a liberal (but anti-commie) ‘square’ 60s, with far more faith in technology, industry and electoral systems than hippies generally had. Although the visual flights of fancy (which you couldn’t get on TV then) made them appear more ‘psychedelic’ than they actually were in narrative terms.

    As for ‘pastiche 60s’, Mad Men feels like its more about early 60s movies and bestsellers than the social reality of the time. The casting of January Jones in X-Men First Class seems to acknowledge this po-mo link.

  2. Now that’s a comperison I’d would’ve never thought of; works for Thunderbirrds as well, that sort of techno-optimism. The FF did evolve over time though and largely grew out of this as Kirby especially wanted to do more.

  3. Kirby had an interesting relationship to the cold war – far more ambiguous than Lee’s dialogue indicated. Faith in military-industrial American power often veered into outright mistrust, if not horror. He was very anti-McCarthy and conscious of its tyrannical aspects, but anti-Soviet too; but also famously spoke out against the exploitation of himself and others. With his solo stuff in the 70s, he was more ‘far-out’ but also shared that post-60s disillusion with younger types like Denny O’Neil and Englehart. Always retaining aspects of his impoverished childhood too. All in all a very ambivalent, if not conflicted, figure who really does need a serious biography to unravel it all. Surely its due now, with the ‘literary’ attention he has?

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