Aaron Noble's blog about comics, collage, and culture

This Harrowing Mechanism: Jack Kirby Circles Back Around

In late 1950 or early 1951 Jack Kirby drew a double page spread for Boy’s Ranch 3. The six Boy’s Ranch DPSs, unlike the ones he would begin doing again at Marvel in the ’60s, and build up to a thunderous visual poetry at DC (and then again Marvel) in the ’70s, were self-contained vignettes, independent of the stories around them. This one, the finest of the six in my view, is called “Social Night in Town”. It depicts a friendly barroom brawl in the fictional western town of Four Massacres, and it features the Boy’s Ranch cast fighting inconspicuously among a load of extras. Mother Delilah, the eponymous false-hearted mother from the most famous Boy’s Ranch tale, also makes an appearance in upper right, which places the brawl chronologically earlier than the events of the story, in which Delilah dies. Disorientingly, the spread follows immediately after the story in the printed comic, making it  a sort of nostalgic pick-me-up after the tragic pitch of “Mother Delilah.” Or perhaps it is a vision of cowboy Valhalla, where Del and the boys will be reunited, and the Last Chance Saloon is always jumping off. [Click images to enlarge]

Twenty-two years later, in Mister Miracle 8, Kirby found an opportunity to draw another free-for-all. This time we are on the planet Apokolips, in the barracks of the Female Furies: a special powers unit of Darkseid’s military. Kirby sums up the situation with great clarity (and dubious grammar): “The Furies, now leaderless and undisciplined, gives free vent to its problem of choosing a new leader”.

Glen David Gold, in his essay for the Masters of American Comics show, wonders whether Kirby may have had an eidetic, or “photographic” memory. He was not known to sketch out thumbnails of his panels in advance as many comic artists do. Observers report that he started drawing in the upper left hand corner of a blank board and continued until he finished in the lower right, as though he had the whole page in his mind from the beginning. What I see in these two drawings is an artist who kept a whole set of solutions –and even thematic associations  –to a spectacularly complicated picture in his mind for twenty years, ready to be reworked into a tour-de-force of narrative drawing when the scene came back around.

Both spreads are composed with diagonals spreading down and out from the top of a vertical just right of center. Classic compositional exits appear in mirrored positions: A window in upper left of “Social Night” and, more richly, the opening to an equipment storage space in upper right of the unit barracks. A classic Simon & Kirby shadow arch closes the top of the older spread, while Kirby’s later free-form shadows do exactly the same thing in Mister Miracle. The one-point perspective of 1950 shifts to a more dynamic two-point space in 1972. The obvious vertical of the pillar in the saloon is replaced by a barely noticeable doorway at the back of the barracks, reinforced by the exercise bar uprights on either side. The fact that this subtler, distributed vertical nonetheless anchors the narrative focal point of the scene testifies to the advanced point of Kirby’s mastery in the early ’70s. He’s achieved all the visual complexity of “Social Night,”and more, and the panel works as comics, advancing the story. Big Barda has returned to resume command of her unit, but no one else in the scene has noticed her yet. The number of figures in the barracks fight is only about half that of the saloon cowboys (and we should remember that Kirby was working on much larger boards in the ’50s), but each one of the Furies is a fully realized character, with her own costume and weapons specialty –a massive upgrade in the level of sustained invention. Most of them, including the main combatants, were never seen again outside this panel. Another advance in dynamics is the range of scale represented, from tiny Barda, entering at the back, to the red-helmeted blonde looming huge in the right foreground. Kirby’s depth of field, persuasive in the ’50s, had become supercharged in the ’70s. It’s as though he figured out how to fit more space into the space. At the same time, Kirby refines his 1950 idea of relegating the stars of the comic to the sidelines of this big, showcase panel. Only Barda, in the doorway, and Bernadeth, at far left, are important in the rest of the story.

There are a number of visual parallels. Each scene has a watchful beer drinker, and they mirror each other perfectly across time, space, and genre. Each of them has another character directly above them, weapon raised in the air. Unexpectedly, it’s not a cowboy but a warrior of Apokolips that wields a lasso– an item seemingly left out of the Last Chance Saloon brawl, finally restored to the fray.

Both pictures also feature an agile character swinging around a pole. Both poles come with a knife right below the gymnast, and a prostrate figure right behind the knife.

When the Boy’s Ranch run was reprinted in 1991, another twenty years on, Kirby wrote a forward. He evoked the hard frontier towns, like Four Massacres, at the mercantile edge of the westward expansion. “Individuals and interesting personalities developed in this harrowing mechanism,” he writes, “and shaped themselves into the only forms they felt were appropriate for one’s safety– weapons.” Harrowing Mechanism: also a perfect description of the orphanage of Granny Goodness on Apokolips, where Scott Free (AKA Mister Miracle) and Big Barda were raised and brutally shaped into soldiers. Granny, with her deranged neediness, her toxic child-rearing on an industrial scale, is Mother Delilah on bad acid. The narrative doesn’t allow for Granny’s presence in the brawl panel –in fact Barda is about to lead an assault on Granny’s private torture theater –but her spirit is there. As Barda herself claims in this same issue, on the verge of throttling the old harridan, “Why I’m the purest, most superior product you ever turned out!”

This brings me to my last comparison. Entering at the back of each drawing, tiny but carefully framed with Kirby’s jagged, energetic lines, we find essentially the same character: a hot-tempered, beautiful orphan with game-changing combat abilities. Angel, the long-haired blond gunfighter leaping the bar in “Social Night in Town” is the most proficient and unpredictable gunman of the Boy’s Ranch cast, just as Big Barda is the most powerful and hair-trigger member of Mister Miracle’s troupe. It is Angel who is seduced and betrayed by Mother Delilah in Boy’s Ranch 3. To avenge a sexual humiliation at the hands of Angel’s guardian, she pretends to mother him, then hacks off his hair and makes him a laughing-stock. In Mister Miracle, the sexual energies of the dark mother are focused on the boy, Scott Free, and it is Barda, the gunslinger, who acts as guardian. Scott, like all the male recruits of Granny Goodness (her “soldier boys”), has his head shaved, but, unlike the rest, he secretly grows his hair back under the regulation hood.

Stepping calmly into the fray, certain of their ability to either end the fighting or to drastically enhance the carnage, Angel and Barda are siblings in Kirby’s vast panoply. Yonder stands your orphan, with his gun.


Quetzalcoatl Step-by-Step

I was invited to do a mural on Clarion Alley in San Francisco for the 20th anniversary of the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), which I co-founded back in late 1991. I proposed a collaboration with an old master of Mission Muralismo, Ray Patlán, on the topic of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent of Meso-American mythology. Ray asked me to start, so I sent him this:

Most of the pieces are not meant to be one thing specifically but to suggest images related to birds, serpents, conquistadors, mexican revolutionaries, etc., to make a cubist portrait of the feathered serpent myth, from pre-conquest times to the Mexican revolution. That’s more interpretation than I usually indulge, but I wanted to approach Ray’s practice at least halfway.

On October 7th, 2012 I drove from LA  to San Francisco with a pickup full of paint and ladders. CAMP is a shoestring operation so I planned to be as self-sufficient as possible. I met with Ray in his classroom at Laney College in Oakland. He had put together a few sketches in which significant myth elements (like the hummingbird) were subtly combined with my drawing. His additions were artful, but I felt that it tended to dissipate the impact of my design without making a strong representation of Ray’s artistic personality either. We weren’t quite sure where to go until I noticed a copy of an old drawing of Coatlique, the freaky Aztec mother goddess, in the pile of Ray’s drawings, an idea he had not developed. On impulse I sandwiched the two designs and held them up to the light. Bingo. They meshed like siblings.

I was ready to go celebrate but Ray said “OK, lets go over and prime the wall.” This is a lesson in muralism that I should have learned long ago. The job is huge: get started immediately. Or as another good painter, John Fadeff, would say: “Get some paint on the wall.”

We primed the wall, a hallowed Clarion spot which was originally occupied by Scott Williams and more recently by CUBA, both legendary Mission district street artists. Then we used chalkline to grid the wall and put up both designs in sketch form. This took a day and a half, and then Ray started painting:

My design is in grey, Ray’s in yellow. Blue tape indicates overlap areas in which Ray will either not paint or paint grey instead of brown.

Usually we ate breakfast in Oakland and drove in to San Francisco around 10:30, after rush hour traffic subsided a bit. Working with Ray was an education. I heard stories about his early days in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, running with a gang called the Latin Counts, painting an antiwar mural in Vietnam while serving in the US Army, early struggles and turf wars of the mural movement in Chicago, and later in the Bay Area. Romance, controversy, and gossip.

When my basic color was finished, and Ray’s Coatlique figure was almost completely finished, it was time for the dripping- a technique of pouring streams of color glaze in semi-random combinations over the whole image. I’ve been using it in my work lately, and Ray consented to let me try it over his as well, though he arranged to be gone on the day I did it. It’s a bit nervewrackingly unpredictable, and when its done it sort of looks like the whole mural is running down the wall.

A Chinese guy in a windbreaker watched me pouring paint over the mural for some time with an appalled expression. Finally he came up to me and said “What is WRONG with you?!?”

With background and black line started the mural begins to take its final shape

Now I have two days left to execute all the black line drawing that makes my work look the way it looks. Ray comes back on the last day to put some final touches on his part– he doesn’t seem too upset about the dripping. In fact he’s been much more relaxed than me throughout the process. We decide to call the mural “Renacimiento” –Rebirth.

Patlán and Noble discuss final points. Photo by Jim Prigoff

Not quite finished on the last day before the epic block party celebrating twenty years of murals on Clarion, I show up at dawn on the day of, and manage to complete the black and slap a coat of varnish on before the music starts.

The finished mural. Calligraphy by Jet Martinez

For larger images, details, and other murals by me, go here.

Loki/Moriarty: Epic trickster shit in two recent revisions

By coincidence I had just read Vol 2 of  The Ultimates, Marvel’s George W. Bush-era reboot of The Avengers, a couple days before I watched the 6th episode of Sherlock, the new BBC updating of Sherlock Holmes. *** SPOILERS AHEAD **** They feature an identical narrative trope that strikes me as requiring exquisite writers’ craft to carry off: a great hero is disgraced in the public eye by his counterpart/ nemesis: an evil genius who inverts perceived reality so convincingly that the reader and even the hero himself begin to doubt the original narrative. The story is rewritten before our eyes, as a magician flips a line of red cards over to black.

Andrew Scott as Moriarty; Loki by Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary

The Reichenbach Fall, based loosely on Arthur Conan Doyle’s death-of-Sherlock story The Final Problem, has Moriarty performing uncanny acts of creation: kidnapping and brainwashing children, falsification of documents, seduction of the press, the invention of a second persona (a children’s TV actor, no less)—all in order to persuade the world that Holmes is a fraud who invents the cases he pretends to solve. Moriarty claims the author’s mantle explicitly, telling Holmes he is writing a fairy tale for the tabloid swilling masses, and strewing fairy tale tchotchkes along the path of Holmes’ narrative.

The totalizing perversity of Moriarty’s plan is unveiled when Holmes and Watson burst into the journalist’s apartment, and find Moriarty, shockingly, just THERE, exposed and helpless. But Moriarty is not Moriarty. In a scene played beautifully by Andrew Scott, Moriarty, the ill-used children’s actor, cringes away from Holmes and we see, along with Holmes, how perfectly this new version of reality fits all the facts we know.

Thor the superhero is, like his Norse inspiration, God of Thunder and Son of Odin. His half-brother is Loki: God of Mischief, deceiver, perpetual pain in Thor’s ass.  In the scientific fantasy present of The Ultimates, in which extraordinary abilities are created through chemistry and prosthetics, this theological basis for superpowers has the odd but distinct effect of seeming implausible. Author Mark Millar exploits this to great advantage by casting doubt on Thor’s divinity throughout both volumes of his and artist Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates (Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie is sort of the Disney version of this comic book). [note: I wrote this before Disney actually bought Marvel. In the old days, “Disney” used to be shorthand for “sunny, sentimental, sanitized, simplified”]

Early in volume 2, this question takes center stage. Thor, youth-cult messiah and public opponent of the neocon agenda, receives a visit from Volstagg of Asgard, a comic foil in the original Kirby-Lee comics. Millar & Hitch give him a little more gravity in a wonderful paradigm-disrupting meal scene. Volstagg has a message from Odin: “…your brother has escaped from the Room Without Doors” –better get Sherlock on that!– “and swears vengeance for your last encounter.” Thor pooh-poohs the threat. After all, he always beats Loki –but Volstagg insists that this time is different. “Can’t you feel him moving the scenery around us? Reality is being rewritten even as we speak”. Indeed, by the end of the meal no one else can see Volstagg and Thor is told that his raving is disturbing the other diners.

From The Ultimates 2, Vol. 1; copyright Marvel Entertainment

In short order Loki, disguised as a scientist, has persuaded Nick Fury and all the other Ultimates/Avengers that Thor is just a delusional Norwegian hippie who has stolen some spectacularly advanced weapons technology. Thor is stripped of allies and soon brought low in a concerted attack, which begins with Captain America burning off his long hair with a flamethrower like a militarized Mitt Romney. Loki’s narrative will predominate for most of the book, causing one hero after another to fall at the hands of their own comrades. More here than in Sherlock, the entranced reader is uncertain at every turn. We are like a college sophomore suddenly exposed to Noam Chomsky. Should we fight to believe in the reality we’ve inherited, or switch allegiance to reality’s negative?