Captain Braveheart

Over a few recent days I’ve been listening to an interview with Jack Kirby, done in L.A. in 1990, posted on YouTube by the Jack Kirby Museum. He’s 72, and he rambles and loses track of the questions, and you get the feeling the show hosts don’t quite know what to do with him. But he’s fun to listen to, on the whole. A theme he seems to like returning to is the idea that storytelling runs in his family. I can’t help thinking that he was probably always the rambly, discursive, storytelling type of conversationalist. Maybe the guy we’re hearing on tape is someone really not far removed from the guy who started out in Superman and Batman knockoffs during the Depression, fifty-odd years earlier.

Kirby’s a compelling subject in great part, of course, for the not so simple reason that while he’s of Siegel and Shuster’s generation — only a couple years younger than they — and did significant work in the ’30s and ’40s, the period of Superman’s dominance in the odd new American genre, his fame in the field finally depends on work associated with — indeed key to establishing — a later generation’s superhero stories and imagery, a flowering that came when one imagines a contemporary observer could have made a reasonable guess that superhero comics wouldn’t be around at all for very much longer. He’s not just a highly influential comics artist, in this respect. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that his career, more than anyone else’s, amounts to the backbone of the superhero book’s contribution to American culture.

So for me, it’s impossible not to listen to him as though expecting some key or keys to the secret of the whole thing’s strange durability. I don’t say that such a key’s actually there to be found. If there is, anyhow, it’d surely be a mistake to take any one of his wandering pronouncements in this interview as the object itself. For one thing, he kind of can’t help mixing things around and contradicting himself.

One very interesting case for interpretive hesitation comes about 40 min. in, as he’s answering (loosely) a couple of questions about Captain America, the utterly Superman-era, wartime figure Kirby created with Joe Simon. Asked how Cap should be understood at the end of the century, he says matter-of-factly that there is no more need for this figure. The world of conflict Cap belonged to is past, and nationalistic sentiments cultivated by people all over the world when he was young just aren’t relevant today, with the fall of the wall and so on. Yet as he elaborates, nothing’s so striking as the way his language directly recalls mid-century dualisms. We’re all becoming Americans, he says with wonderful bluntness — even the Chinese, late tragedy at Tiananmen notwithstanding.

It’s probably important, in trying to make sense of the tensions in Kirby’s attempt to place his stories retrospectively in the American twentieth century, to highlight another recurring, not always explicit, theme in his conversation, a captivation with human possibility — not to say belief in human goodness or greatness, exactly. You hear it in what he says to describe himself as much as in what he says to explain the world and the stories he sees in it. In this too he contradicts himself, unsurprisingly, but some fundamental steady confidence in how he sees people is hard to miss there. Certainly it’s an optimistic view of people. But it isn’t grandly or naively optimistic, nor does there seem to be any Disneyish California smarm infecting it. If it’s tainted with anything, it’s self-satisfaction, fairly harmless — not in things achieved but in opportunity taken advantage of, with a little luck.

I won’t try to get any further with Kirby here, but I will turn briefly to Mignola. Only appropriate, since Kirby’s supposed to be important to Mignola’s sense of style — though whether to his drawing only or also to his approach to story, I’m not enough in ‘the literature’ to say. At any rate, it strikes me that Hellboy, if he’s a superhero recognizably in Kirby’s gods-&-monsters line, is anything but an emblem of this human-potential sensibility I’m suggesting is basic somehow to Kirby’s outlook. Hellboy doesn’t stand to prove what a man (in superhuman shape) can be against odds. His nature’s rather to push through the world, a display of will, of doggedness, not necessarily of humanity. The difference might be tricky to articulate. In any case, I’m not sure I have an idea what it says about Mignola and his outlook. But I’ll come back to the thought here at some point, I hope.

Jack Kirby interview, “Hour 25”, 1990

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