Saturday, June 30, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (1)

Racism (1) – Having a deep, irrational, visceral dislike of people of a particular race.

Racism (2) – Behaving in a way, or holding a belief, that is to the disadvantage of a particular race.


"Mr Smith must be a racist, because he does not employ any Ruritanians in his kitchen."

(Racism (1) He does not give jobs to Ruritanians because he hates them.)

"No, Mr Smith is not a racist. In fact, his daughter is married to a Ruritanian, and he employs several Ruritanian waiters and backroom staff. He does not hire Ruritanian kitchen staff because he thinks that Ruritanians cannot cook."

(Racism (2): His behaviour unfairly disadvantages Ruritanians in at least one particular respect.)


Racism (1) is usually conscious. Daily Express readers hate Muslims because they are Muslims, and know that they do. 

Racism (2) might very well be unconscious and unexamined.

"As a matter of fact, Mr Smith never hires Ruritanian chefs. When this was pointed out to him, he was surprised, because he honestly thought he was just hiring the best person for the job. He’s going to try to be more fair next time he hires kitchen staff.”

Bad thinking habits can be very difficult to break out of. In fact, Mr Smith contracted food poisoning after a eating a plate of Ruritanian ghoulash in 1983 which left him with a sense that Ruritanians and nice food don’t go together. 

Racism (2) may therefore be more harmful and insidious than racism (1).


Some people claim that all instances of Racism (2) actually arise from Racism (1): Mr Smith’s belief that Ruritanians can’t cook really comes from a deep ideological belief that Ruritanians are sub-human fiends who will be put on the first train back to Ruritania when he’s running the country. He’s got the bee in his bonnet about their cooking ability because he thinks that’s all he can get away with right now. 

But while that might be true in a particular instance, it seems  pretty unlikely that all erroneous beliefs and prejudices come from blind hatred. It’s actually more likely that Racism (1) grows out of Racism (2) — a sincere and superficially reasonable resentment against the chef who inadvertently poisoned you turns into a a general resentment against anyone who looks or sounds a bit like him. Which is, of course, a good reason to jump on dodgy assumptions like “No Ruritanian can cook” and “Every American is a gun touting fundamentalist” whenever you hear them.

It is at least theoretically possible — imaginable in some possible world — that Ruritanians really do make bad cooks, in the same way that Klingons really do make bad ship’s councellors and Betazoids really do make bad security officers. 

If the facts supported Mr Smith’s beliefs about Ruritanian chefs, would we say:

a: His beliefs are racist but true,

b: Since his beliefs are true, they are not racist

c: Bring me a new set of facts

Am I free to say “I don’t actually need to listen to any records; I know in advance that white men can sing the blues just as well as black men becasue the alternative would be racist.”?


It is clearly much worse to hate everyone from Ruritania than to think that no-one from Ruritania can cook. But it’s much easier to write a fair law insisting that you give everyone a fair chance of working in your kitchen than it is to write a fair law preventing anyone from sitting at home hating Ruritanians.


We could choose to use English in such a way that everyone who believed in 1900 that women should not be allowed to vote, or should not be allowed to vote yet,  and indeed everyone who failed to support the women’s suffrage movement with sufficiently wholehearted enthusiasm was “sexist”, since they clearly held a belief that was to the disadvantage of 50% of the population. 

We could also chose to use English in such a way that we only applied the word “sexist” to those to opposed (or failed to sufficiently wholeheartedly support) the women’s suffrage movement because of an a priori belief in the general inferiority of women, or because of a misogynistic opposition of the whole idea of female people. 

That would be a question about language; not about voting or about women.


“Some people opposed giving adult women the right to vote in elections because they were sexists; other for a variety of different reasons” does not mean “I personally don’t think women should be allowed to vote” but I fear that, whatever we do, some people will take it that way.


If I were an anarchist, I might say that voting is completly meaningless, so it doesn’t make any difference who is allowed to vote and who is not allowed to vote. Would I be free to say that it was not “sexist” (or “racist”) to refuse to bestow a completely meaningless privelage on one section of the population? Would we say that society was “sexist” because it debarred men from riding on pink unicorns? If a woman is debarred from some activity or privelage which is meaningless in itself — say, the right to drink in a particular bar, granted that there are other equally good bars where she can drink, and other equally good bars where both men and women can drink — can this be defined as “sexist”? 

If so, then sexism would have to be defined as “behaving in a way that differentiates between genders in any respect whatsoever”. This is problematic because many people think that the genders are, in fact, different in some respects. It might also get us into weird situations where we had to say that, say, a carnival which celebrated Ruritanian dress, Ruritanian music and (very importantly) Ruritanian cooking was “racist but good”. 

Virgina Woolf would, I think, have argued that while there is nothing wrong with having women-only bars in principal, in practice, the women-only bars will inevitably end up having better beer and better bar snacks than the men’s only bars, so and actual concrete disadvantage will have crept in. This may very well be true.

These are points about language, not about bar snacks, unicorns, carnivals or To The Lighthouse. 


Someone who was wrong on the internet asked whether there was any good reason for the Archdruid and his various predecessors' and successors to be opposed to the proposed redefinition of “marriage”.

“No” replied someone else “Its pure homophobia”.

This seems to be on exactly the same level as when the Prime Minister said (in all seriousness) that the cause of crime was "criminals".

I don't think that the Person Who Was Wrong was asking “Are the various druids' remarks examples of homophobia (2)”: they clearly are, because they clearly differentiate between homosexuals and heterosexuals to the former’s disadvantage, (granted you believe that being able to marry is an advantage, a question that we can leave in the air for the time being.)

No-one could possibly think that it was worth saying  “The Druids are homophobic because they are homophobic" any more than they would think it worth saying "Mr Smith thinks that Ruritanians can’t cook because he thinks that Ruritanians can’t cook".

So the person who says “The Druids disapprove of gay marraige because they are homophobic” must think that they are offering an explanation. They must be saying “The Druids disapprove of gay marriage because they are homophobic in sense 1”: they disaprove of it because of their deep, visceral, gut-level hatred of homosexuals.

Well, maybe they do. And maybe they don't. That is the question. 

“Do the Druids disapprove of gay marriage because they hate gays, or for some other reason?”

I do not know the answer to this question, because I have not examined their souls sufficiently closely.

And niether, I contend, have you.

Friday, June 29, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

"I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or catholics."
Woody Allen

The Enemy described a married couple as "one flesh". He did not say "a happily married couple" or "a couple who married because they were in love", but you can make the humans ignore that. You can also make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes "one flesh". You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of "being in love" what were in fact plain decriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that whenever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally endured or eternally enjoyed.
C.S Lewis -- The Screwtape Letters

A great many people think that if you are a Christian yourself, you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I know I would be very angry if the Mohammedans [sic] tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.
C.S Lewis -- Mere Christianity

But now look at pages pp 26, 30 and 31 [of Mere Christianity]. There you will observe that you are really committed (with the Christian church as a whole) to the view that Christian marriage -- monogamous, permenant, rigidly "faithful" -- is in fact the truth about sexual behaviour for all humanity: this is the only road of of total health (including sex in its proper place) for all men and women...Do I not then say truly that your bringing in of Mohammedans [sic] on p 34 is a most stinking red herring? I do not think that you can possibly support your 'policy' [of a two-tier marriage system] by this argument, for by it you are giving away the very foundation of Christian marriage. The foundation is that this is "the correct way of running the human machine". Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps) getting an extra mileage out of a few selected machines.
Letter from J.R.R Tolkien to C.S. Lewis (not posted).

I say we shall have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all save one shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery - go!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Songs of the Old Communist

Leon Rosselson
Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, London
16 June


When I arrived at the little upstairs room in the Exmouth Arms, Leon Rosselson was already sitting in the front row reading the Guardian, which is what you would have imagined him doing before a concert. The compère introduced him as the greatest living English political songwriter; an assessement with which it would be very hard to argue. Like a lot of people, I knew his songs long before I had heard of him. I just kept noticing that my favourite performers -- Martin Simpson, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan and Chumbawamba had all covered Leon Rosselson songs. (Come to think of it, they all covered the same Leon Rosselson song....

If you'd only heard Billy Bragg belting out "in 1649 to St Georges Hill...." you might be taken aback by the little man with the squeaky voice (I almost wrote “nerdy”) chatting away about 1970s environmental protests and an arts project he was involved in which used an old London bus as a performance space. He steers clear of the famous, well-covered songs: no Stand Up For Judas, no Palaces of Gold...the man sitting behind me shouts out for The World Turned Upside Down but he doesn't sing that, either. (I think it was the man sitting behind me who took the above footage on his phone: thank you, man sitting behind me.) He does sing "raise a loving cup to Abiezer / he's a dancing, drunken, roaring, ranter" as an encore, though. Winstanley's Diggers broke away from Abiezer Coppe's Ranters: I expect you knew that. 

Several of the songs have that kind of anthemic, sing-a-long chorus. He spends some time teaching us ("Pete Seeger style") the words and tune of a newish, English take on the big rock candy mountains ("I'm going where the suits all shine my shoes...") But what he does best are patter songs and story songs and thesis songs. He's almost like Jake Thackray with the sex and catholicism replaced with left wing politics. (The ghost of George Brassens -- Jake's hero too -- appears to him in one song to tell him to carry on writing regardless of what everyone thinks.)  Over and over again, he tells us about little men confused by a world in which everything is commoditized. There's the old tale about the man who finds that a motorway is going to be built through his back garden, and the newer one about the man who achieves celebrity by committing suicide on live TV; and the familiar story of poor Barney, forced to work in the factory when all he really wants is to make junk sculptures in his garden (suggested by a Marxist book about the condition of workers in communist Hungary, apparently.) Production lines keep turning up as symbol for everything which is wrong with capitalism:

It was press, turn, screw, lift,
early shift and late shift,
every day the same routine
Turning little piggies into plastic packet sausages
to sell in the heliport canteen

Some of the political points may be a little bit obvious: his response to teh riotz is to say that the rioters are only doing the kind of thing that made England what it is today –

Francis Drake, now there's a looter 
Plundering the Spanish main...
Was rewarded with a knighthood
Looters deserve nothing less

But more often, he takes us off into complex slabs of poetical political theory that you really have to concentrate on: 

What do you feel said the land to the farmer?
"Sweat on my brow" the farmer replied
"Sun on my skin" said the spring time lover
"Ball at my feet" the young boy cried
And the man whose eyes were made to measure
Said “Proud to invest in a high-yield area
Concrete and glass and stake in the future...”

The club isn't amplified and the language and argument require close attention; which makes for a pretty demanding evening. But it's clear that everyone in the room respects and reveres him as a song writer; the phrase "hanging on his every word" just about covers it. 

It's a clichĂ© to say that Rosselson's songs are better when other people sing them. People say the same thing, equally unfairly, about Dylan. It's perfectly true that Billy Bragg on the one hand and Martin Simpson on the other have taken his songs and turned them into their own, wonderful things. But it's in the lessor known story-songs that his real genius lies, and I don't think anyone else can do them better.  In a funny way (considering what an unassuming performer he is) the evening is carried by the force of his personality. A little man who can't always get his guitar to stay in tune and who sometimes stumbles over his own lyrics, speaking for little men who are having motorways built through their gardens.

As before, the club itself was the star of the evening, with a stream of talented performers getting up to take floor spots. Resident singers Bob Wakely and Ellie Hill  did cheerful renditions of Clyde Water (drowned lovers), Sheath and Knife (brother-sister incest) and an, er, homage to the Carthy / Swarbs Sovay. Tom Paley did an American song about – I'm not sure what it was about. There was a skunk involved, and everybody said “whack diddle eye day” a great deal. It dripped authenticity. Someone whose name I didn't get did a killingly camp version of an old music hall song taking the mickey out of Scottish people. But the highlight was the fellow who sang a song of his own in praise of the National Health Service. I don't know if the roof was raised for the song itself or for the sentiments behind it, but raised it most certainly was. It's a very brave man who sings protest songs in front of Leon Rosselson.


A few of my favourite of Mr Rosselson's songs, for people who do not have a theological objection to Spotify.

Friday, June 08, 2012

"I learned that I was right and everyone else was wrong when I was nine. Buck Rogers arrived on the scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and I was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I bust into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone and life simply wasn't worth living. The next thought that came to me was: these are not my friends, the ones who made me tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; these are my enemies. I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since."

Ray Bradbury

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Parish Notices

If you are one of the 16 people who likes to read me wittering on about folk music then could you please click on the word "folk music" on the side bar and you might find I had nearly typed up my last three months worth of notes. Will try to stay more up to date from now on.

In other news, some of my books are now available on epub (that's "Nook" , mostly, I think) format on the Lulu website, and the ones which aren't will be shortly. There's also a dead tree version of the Star Wars book. 

Jack Kirby was quite good; Paul McCartney was the second best Beatle; we're English, we'd be disappointed if it didn't rain on a Bank Holiday.

Monday, June 04, 2012


Jack did fight for our freedom of speech over in Europe during the Second World War, so I think it would be a sad day if any criticisms of his former editor Stan Lee were deemed “Stan Lee Bashing” and those posts were not allowed at the Kirby Museum and censored because certain individuals threatened not to support the Museum project because they took offense to posts critical of Stan Lee.

Rob, dear heart, no-one is saying that "any criticism" of Stan Lee is to be deemed "Stan Lee bashing". You appeared to be arguing that Stan Lee made no contribution whatsoever to Marvel Comics; that Stan Lee never wrote a single word of good dialogue in his whole life. Some people, including some of Jack's biggest admirers, consider these claims to excessive. Other people consider them to be batshit insane.

This really is a pretty pathetic rhetorical device.

"I think that Mr Politician sleeps with goats and drinks the blood of teddy bears"

"Those, Sir, are outrageous claims, and if you do not withdraw them, I shall sue you for libel and or slander." 

"Ah, see what Mr Politician is like! The minute you make the slightest criticism of his economic policy, he threatens to sue you. Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I'm being repressed!"

What did Stan Lee create before and after he worked with Jack? 

After Stan Lee worked with Jack (and Steve) he produced about 60 issues of Spider-Man, the whole run of Silver Surfer, maybe 30 issues of Captain America. Someone can do the sums, but I would imagine that, in total, Stan's Marvel output with other artists is greater (in pages) than his output with Kirby. In my opinion the Romita-Lee Spider-Man and the Buscema-Lee Silver Surfer are inferior to the Ditko-Lee and Kirby-Lee versions. But they are the received versions of the character; the one everyone knows. Despite his credit, there was very little of Ditko's character (apart, obviously, from the costume design) in the three Spider-Man movies.

If the point here is that he didn't create or originate any characters except in collaboration with Kirby or Ditko, then I would tend to agree with you. The one exception is She-Hulk. (Although significant supporting characters and villains are introduced when he is working with other artists: Mephisto, Kingpin, Rhino, Mary-Jane Watson.) But every informed agrees that Stan Lee was not the sole creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor or Doctor Strange. (Many of these characters seem to be the result of a synergy between a number of creative individuals: I don't think anyone has ever claimed that Larry Leiber created Thor, but Larry Leiber clearly didn't have nothing to do with the creation of Thor, either.) It's the claim that his copy-writing made no contribution to the artistic success of those comics which makes us accuse you of Stan bashing.

After leaving the Beatles, Ringo Starr had two US number one singles, a top 10 UK album, a career as an actor and children's TV host, and is reckoned to be the 56th richest individual in the UK. He played the drums on John Lennon / Plastic Ono band, which is odd if Lennon considered him to be such a poor drummer. 

It's very hard to imagine the Beatles without Ringo. Pete Best walking along the canal in Hard Days Night? Pete Best singing Yellow Submarine? Pete Best composing Octopuses Garden? Of course, that Beatles, the imaginary non existent Beatles might have been better than the actually existing Beatles. But it would certainly have been different.

What I’ve always said is this: why doesn’t someone start a Stan Lee daily weblog and talk about something special Stan Lee did every day instead of complaining about Stan Lee’s critics?
I'm up for this. 

I've been wanting to do a detailed critical exegesis of the first 30 issues of Spider-Man for a while. Not "every day", but I would imagine we could a get together a group of people who actually used to enjoy Marvel comics and do something pretty regularly. Sensible people, I mean: not ones who think its clever to say "Jack Kirby never drew a single decent panel in his whole life." 

Anyone else up for this? (Seriously.) 

Are the "words" printed in a comic "book" actually particularly "important"?

The Lee / Kirby wars over on the Kirby Dynamic blog seem to be degenerating into actual madness. It’s only a few weeks since Kirby expert Greg Theakston was arguing that Stan Lee must have created the Fantastic Four single handed because Jack Kirby could never have come up with anything as bad as F.F #1; now Robert Stiebel is arguing:

a: that the text on Kirby’s post 1970 work wasn’t that bad

b: that even if  it was that bad, Kirby was old and embittered and badly treated so it wasn’t surprising that he turned in substandard work

c: but even if Kirby's text was pretty bad, he is such a genius that it would be impolite to say so

d: and anyway it doesn't matter how bad the text was because it's the pictures, not the words, that are important in funnybooks. 

The latest twist is a "challenge" to come up with any examples (any examples at all) of good dialogue by Stan Lee. Sure enough someone contributes a nasty little e-mail saying "Here is an example of Stan Lee's best dialogue." The e-mail, if of course, blank. 

I suppose it's like any religious argument. You start with a difference of opinion and end with a turf-war. You start out saying "It's not fair for Stan Lee to claim that he's sole creator of characters that Kirby had a hand in as well"; then you say "A big hand, a bigger hand than Lee, in fact"; and then "Actually, Kirby was sole creator, all Stan did was add the captions" and finally "And Stan's captions were either irrelevant, or actually bad." Then you just start calling each other names. Someone has to take a step back and say "Hang on -- we're both attacking parodies of the other guys position. Let's calm down and try to work out what we actually agree about, and then we'll be better able to see where we actually differ."

If there is one thing that everybody agrees about the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic, and there isn't, it's that Jack drew the pictures and Stan wrote the words. Nearly everybody agrees that Kirby’s copy-writing skills were just not as good as Lee’s, and that this severely harmed his later solo books like the Fourth World and the Eternals.

I think that it is Possibly Slightly More Complicated Than That.

Here is an example of Stan Lee’s writing, chosen more or less at random and because it supports the argument that I’m going to make. 

Amazing Spider-Man 10  Lee and Ditko (Marvel Comics)

It’s from Spider-Man #10. Deep breath:

“Am I always to be thwarted, embarrassed, frustrated by Spider-Man. I hate that costumed freak more than I have ever hated anyone before. I’ll never be contented while he’s free. All my life I’ve been interested in only one thing — making money. And yet Spider-Man risks his life day after day, with no thought of reward. If a man like him his good…is a hero…what am I? I can never respect myself while he lives. Spider-Man represents everything that I’m not. He’s brave, powerful and unselfish. The truth is I envy him. I, J.Jonah Jameson, millionaire, man of the world, civic leader. I’d give everything I own to be the man that he is. But I can never climb to his level. So all that remains for me is to tear him down because, heaven help me, I’m jealous of him.”

I think we can agree that this is

a: massively overwritten

b: pretty good psychology for a funny book

c: pretty dramatic and well constructed

It was also, I think, pretty daring to put something like this into Spider-Man in the first place. After 20 pages of the hero beating up the villain, we are left alone with the least sympathetic supporting character who is having a desperate moment of insight in the aftermath of the fight. Lee and Ditko really were tying to push the envelope of what funny books were about. We're a long, long way from Krypto the Superdog.

Here is another bit of Stan Lee dialogue.

Ben: So you finally picked a monicker for the kid huh? Well hows about klewin a fella in?

Reed: We decided to call him Franklin, after his grandfather.

Sue: Dad would be so proud, if only he were alive to be here.

Johnny: “Franklin B Richards”…well, its better than match-head or stretcho.

Crystal: Why do you not pick him up Ben? See how he reaches out to you.

Ben: Aww…I ain’t much for kiddin’ around with kids.

Johnny: Something wrong, Ben? You sound kinda disappointed?

Ben: Heck no. What’s ta be wrong? So you finally name the kid. So okay. You want I should hand out medals?

Reed: By the way, Sue. Did you mention what his middle initial stands for?

Sue: How silly of me. It must have slipped my mind. His middle name is, of course, Benjamin.

Ben: Benjamin! That’s me! C’mon, hand him over to his uncle Benjy. Kitcee kitchee coo!

Sue: I thought you didn’t like to kid around with kids, Ben?

Ben: Heck! That wuz before I knowed his name! Nobody ever named nothin after me before! Now all of a sudden I feel like part of a family ‘stead of a freak show.

Fantastic Four 94, Lee and Kirby (Marvel Comics)

Lee has said on several occasions that what he really likes to watch is a big Broadway musical. And this is far more like the lyrics of a song then it is like a movie screenplay. All five characters are discovered together in a single tableau; each of them gets to speak a single line articulating what they are thinking. It would be almost impossible to act it out as a play: they aren't really talking to anyone. They are speaking at the audience. You could imagine it as a chorus in an operetta: 

You have named him?
We have named him!
You have named after his grandfather?
We have named him Franklin because it was my father’s name!
His name is Franklin!
His name is Franklin!
His name is Franklin Ben!

This is equally true of the Spider-Man panels. For all his claims that he brought realism to comics, Lee is using a very unrealistic, theatrical device here. Lee the story-teller is telling us things about Jonah Jameson which Jonah Jameson couldn't possibly know about himself. Journalists are such Bad People. Because they are Bad People, they are freaked out by Good People. So journalists always want to bring Good People down. (Remember Earl Spencer's speech at his sister's funeral?) It isn’t a new or subtle insight: Jameson is basically just a exaggerated representation of a “type”. But this is an era when Lex Luthor hated Superman because Superman caused him to go bald: Lee is at least trying to treat Jameson as if he were a person. But Jameson can't possibly know that Spider-Man is a better man than he is at any conscious level; and anyway, no-one really talks out loud in that way. Stan Lee is a speaking about Jameson, but he is putting the words into Jameson's mouth because that's a vivid way of telling the audience what he wants them to know. Shakespeare did this kind of thing all the time.

But that's true of the F.F sequence as well. The Thing is actually admitting something awful about himself: he refused to hold is best friend’s baby because it was named after his best friends wife’s recently deceased father. If he were really that petty, the last thing he would do would be admit it. And it's pretty mean of him to say out loud that this is the first time he’s ever felt part of the group, considering what the F.F have been through together. It just doesn't make sense as something someone would say. Again, Stan Lee is telling us that the Thing feels left out, and then telling us that he feels included again, but is doing this by putting the words "I feel left out" "I feel included" into the character's mouth. It isn't something a human being would ever say, even a bright orange one.

Note that this is happening only in Lee’s captions, and not in Kirby’s pictures. Kirby draws Ben with the other three members of the team, but Crystal separate from them — they are a family and she is only a temporary fill-in member of the FF. If he'd meant to show that Ben felt left out, he'd have drawn it the other way round. Crystal says that Ben should hold the baby and that the baby is reaching out to him, but that isn't what is happening in the picture. (Sue is holding the baby and not offering him to anyone else; if anything, Franklin is reaching out to his uncle, Johnny.) In panels 2 and 3, Ben’s words come from outside the panel: a very unusual and clumsy device. There is no hint of Ben's jealousy in any of the pictures. They've been overlaid on them by the words. It is clear enough what has happened: Kirby has turned in pencils in which Reed and Sue announce the baby’s name and Ben is pleasantly surprised when he finds out it’s named after him. That would give us a 2 pages in which nothing happens. Lee has superimposed a different story onto the pictures: a tiny little narrative in which Ben sulks and then cheers up. There are two layers of storytelling and the second layer clashes, very slightly, with the first. 

Lee does this all the time. Later in the story Mr Fantastic and the Thing are flying to a mysterious house where Sue and Reed hope to bring up their child in secret. Lee adds a tiny little character moment, in which the two heroes talk with their very distinct verbal mannerisms and personalities:

Reed: For a man who was one of the top fighter pilots of World War II you’re mighty jittery these days.

Ben: Me, I ain’t got a jittery bone in my whole lovable little body. I’m just plain scared.

If you are going to write choric dialogue, this is the kind of sparky prose it has to be. Ben saying “How pleased I am that you named the baby for me” would be unbearable. The big tough monster saying “kitchee, kitcchee coo” makes us smile. (Well, it makes me smile, anyway.)

Lee can be corny and over-write, and as his career progressed he became all-too-fond of giving characters agonised soliloquies, which could go on for pages at a time. But he is rarely boring and always keeps you reading. Ben Grimm's personality comes from the words Stan Lee gives him to say. The idea that the Fantastic Four would be a better comic (or the same comic) if you took Ben out of it and replaced him with a big strong orange guy who said "Bah. You puny humans do not understand me" is simply silly. 

It’s easy to pick out examples of Lee doing what Lee does. Just open any 1960s Marvel Comics and pick a panel at random. But it’s rather harder to find examples of Kirby doing what Kirby is said to do. We all know that Kirby Can’t Write Dialogue, but when I open one of his books at random, this is the kind of thing I find: 

--See, it’s truly Moon Boy. He’s sought us out.

--Perhaps to feed us to his devil beast. Be wary.

--But he comes alone. How can this mean danger?

--The evil spirits have left you, brother. You’ve come back without that lizard.

--No. He’s here. But do not be alarmed…

This from the universally derided Devil Dinosaur. (When Warren Ellis wrote his poisonous “Kirby was shit” obituary he took it for granted that merely saying the words “Devil Dinosaur” closed the argument.) But it doesn't seem nearly bad enough to deserve the approbation that’s been piled on it. It seems to be straightforward exposition. Moon Boy (a caveman) is returning to his tribe; some of them are willing to have him back, others, not so much. It’s his pet tyrannosaur they are worried about. It doesn't make me smile in the way that the good bits of Lee do, but it doesn't make me cringe in the way that Kirby’s terrible writing is supposed to.

Here’s a speech bubble from Black Panther, when T’Challa has just got into a high tech aircraft:

“Don’t crowd me, Mister Little. I don’t know what this thing can do. If I push the wrong button I could possibly blow us and this wagon to kingdom come. However, time is short, here we go.”

It is a little bit stilted, certainly. ("However, time is short": people may write "however" but they rarely say it.) It lacks the humour of Stan’s little scene between Ben and Reed. But it by no means makes me want to tear the comic to shreds in disgust.

The Panther is actually a rather complicated kettle of wombats compared with the other books Kirby wrote on his return to Marvel in the mid-70s. The Eternals and 2001: A Space Odyssey were brand new books, and no-one really cared a great deal about Captain America -- but the Black Panther was a fan favourite, having been written for three years by Don McGreggor. I can see that at the time it was a big deal that Marvel were publishing a comic about a black character with an all-black supporting cast (albeit written by a white guy) but it now looks like a frightful period piece. A lot of people at the time thought that Kirby's functional, unadorned prose suffered by comparison with McGreggor's Proper Writing -- in fact they said, in so many words, that Kirby's Black Panther amounted to a desecration. But in retrospect, if we are looking for examples of bad writing, McGreggor is the person we ought to be hurling the rotten tomatoes at.

“War cannot be contained within boundaries. Nor can it be easily directed. War not only affects its perpetrators and its participants. It ravages all it touches and scars much past that. Innocents die alongside warriors and some warriors are as innocent as the civilians whose fates await the outcome of the conflict. In war there is no use crying "I want nothing to do with your feud" "I do not want to die." Words unfortunately cannot save you in the midst of combat and combat also unfortunately has little respect for age or race or sex or shoe size. War at times is very cosmopolitan.”

Come on, Mr McGreggor, don't sit on the fence: come right out and tell us if you are in favour of wars or not? I like the idea that war does have some respect for shoe size; and wonder if anyone has ever written “also unfortunately” with a straight face before. This is a series of captions placed over a two page spread of a battle; I suppose the equivalent of one of those movie scenes where sad music is played over a fight scene, or where the explosion goes off in silence. But T’Challa can’t confront a charging rhino without McGreggor going off on one:

“The panther does not utter any savage oaths. He knows this is a moment of death charging towards him for his flesh and bone will burst and break before this onslaught! The swamp air is a palpable, pungent smell of mold and decay, each twisting vine is a realist etched under his sweeping visions each thunderous hoof shaking the muck in its wake is a signal and he replies to all those sense instantaneously.”

It may be that a school creative writing teacher would give McGreggor higher marks than either Lee or Kirby: the sentences are more complex, the vocabulary more adult, and there are lots of describing words. But as a comic book caption, it is simply appalling. At the point when your eye should be quickly scanning the nine panels in which T’Challa avoids the charging rhino (done in decent cinematic style by Gil Kane) the text holds you in one place. Instead of the illusion of movement, you get something like 500 words of dense text with illustrations. And nothing has been said except “The rhino charges" which the picture had already said perfectly well. You can see why the kinds of people who liked this kind of thing  might have been shocked when it was replaced with :

“Then, with cobra speed, the Black Panther strikes back.”

But I suspect that they were the kind of people who were rather ashamed to be reading comic books in the first place. And Kirby was a comic book creator, not a frustrated novelist. 

At the same time he was filling Black Panther with text that  we are assured — was an embarrassment to even his biggest fans, Kirby was working on The Eternals, which we may have mentioned once or twice before here. The Eternals was clearly the one comic which he did in his return-to-Marvel period which he really cared about. Did he ruin it wit his terrible prose? It is full of this kind of thing: 

Eternals 2, Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics)

Ajak turns to his limit and barks the orders that would bring the gods to earth.

"Prepare to raise the ceremonial pylans beneath the Celestials spacecraft. Even now, the first of the gods descends!"

On the great field outside a huge pylon rises from the ground. A pillar of blazing energy leaps form its top, and within that bright flames the first signs of the celestial are seen. Arishem, leader of the fourth host lands firmly upon the pylon. He will stand upon it for fifty earth yea towering like the surrounding mountains above all life below. And on the last day of the fiftieth year, he will step from the pylon, and on that day earth will live, or die.

Nowadays, an artist would be more likely to draw the pylon coming up from the ground and Arishem landing on it, over a series of panels, possibly taking five pages to show us what Kirby tells us in one. From that point of view, the Eternals certainly seems dense and un-cinematic; but then, its impact depends on that density. Kirby packs an exhilarating range of ideas into each issue; part of the price of that is that he sometimes chooses to tell rather than show. But “and on that day earth will live, or die” does not sound like an embittered man who is not really trying. It’s a line which has stayed with me ever since I first read it; a line which perfectly compliments the picture it accompanies. Each of the first half-dozen issues of Eternals builds up to massive, Wagnerian climax, and the words contribute as much to the effect as the pictures do.

What these lines lack, compared with what Stan Lee would have brought to the table is, I think, illumination, embellishment, decoration. If Kirby is asked to draw a space ship, he doesn't just draw a phallic shaped missile with fins and a port hole, even though that would do the job perfectly well. He draws a two page spread, an abstract piece of "Kirby-tech" drawn for the sheer love of drawing it. Similarly, if Stan Lee is required to show Ben Grimm on the phone to his girlfriend, he can’t limit himself to “I’ll phone Alicia. Wait, she isn’t in.” It grows into “Since you two don’t exactly need a chaperon, I’m cutting out fer a while. Wait’ll Alicia hears that her lumpy lover boy’s back in town…” Because he loves the sound of Ben Grimm's voice, and so do we. So Lee would probably not have been content to say that the alien was landing on a pylon or that he was surrounded by strange energy: he’d have come up with some goofy names for the pylon and the energy, because he liked goofy words and so did we. Lee, just because he is embellishing someone else's story, weaves his own narratives around the pictures. Kirby, just because it’s his own story, simply provides a running commentary to help you on your way. We're listening to a single voice; melody without harmony.

But for some really bad prose, the kind of thing which made Kirby kaptions and industry wide joke, we may have to wind back a few years to the New Gods saga. This is not Kirby past his peak, but Kirby at the height of his powers, drawing the best superhero comic the industry ever produced and introducing one of its definitive villains. The subsequent history of the DC Universe has been a series of commentaries on the New Gods saga.

And everyone agrees that it had terrible dialogue.

Well, the writing of the Fourth World is certainly odd: in fact, everything about the Fourth World is odd. You feel that you are being shouted at the whole time; not just by the characters, but by the plot itself. Exhibit A for people who think that Kirby Could Not Write is issue 4. Four human characters tell each other things they already know for the benefit of the reader:

New Gods 4 Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics)

-- But I am Victor Lanza! An insurance executive! A family man! My wife makes me carry an umbrella in case it rains! And now this!…

-- What about it, Lincoln? I’m Claudia Shane simple but worried secretary. What am I involved in this time?

-- And me, young but cool Harvey Lockman.

Well, yes, that sounds weird. But the difficulty isn't the rather clumsy way in which each character reminds us what is name his: that's the same kind of choral writing that Lee uses all the time. It's not even that they are telling each other things they already know: we didn't mind at all when Reed reminded Ben that he was a fighter pilot. The problem is that they don't actually have anything very interesting to tell us. They say “We are ordinary, and we have been captured by Darkseid, and Orion rescued us”. Which is all they need to say. But it's clunky. It's like we can see the construction lines on the sketch or the strings on the puppet. No-one talks like this: but no-one talks like Ben Grimm talks, either. But Stan Lee manages to hide his workings. While you are reading a page of the F.F or Spider-Man you believe that it is possible to deliver a wise-crack while throwing a punch; or that characters speak their innermost thoughts out loud in empty rooms. In the Kirby scene you are just reading comic-book captions. Nothing happens. Had Lee scripted it, he'd have added some microplot that isn't in the pictures. While singing their little chorus “We are ordinary, we are ordinary; we have been captured; he have been captured” there would have been a tiny little verbal conflict. Maybe the insurance man would say he was about to leave and the young but cool guy would tell him that they owe it to Orion to hear him out. Something like that.

But it is awfully unfair to cite this passage as evidence that Kirby Couldn’t Write, because it comes directly after one of the best sequences Kirby ever produced. Seagrin, a goody, has been killed in a previous episode. Orion gets out his Motherbox (a sort of divine I-Phone) and creates a funeral pyre for him. “Ride the tempest Seagrin! Enter the Cosmic Fire! The Source will take you as a warrior who has given all!” he sings, which is, I think you will agree, just the sort of thing a god of war ought to sing at the funeral of a fallen comrade. But hiding in the alley is Darkseid (a baddie) , who is also in the middle of an aria.

“How these heroes love to flaunt their nobility in the face of death! Yet they know better than most that war is but the cold game of the butcher...”

Which is probably one of the single most memorable pages in the entire history of comic books. Would Stan Lee have given Darksied more elaborate lyrics to sing? Probably. Would it have improved the overall effect of the scene? It is hard to see how. 

So. Where have we got to?

Kirby’s writing is nowhere near as bad as people sometimes say. It’s not as twiddly as Lee’s but the rip-up-the-comic-book-awful passages are suspiciously hard to come by.

Lee and Kirby both thought that comic book writing had an essentially choric function: characters telling the audience what is happening, or how they are feeling. If there was a picture of one man hitting another man, Man A would sing “I am punching him, I am punching him” while Man B sang “I am being punched, I am being punched” and a person off stage said “They are punching each other, they are punching each other.”

Stan Lee took this choral writing and made it progressively elaborate, like the knotwork on a Celtic manuscript, or the doodling in the margins of the minutes of a meeting. If Kirby would have written: 

“I’m gonna punch you!”

“Aargh! You punched me…well now I’m gonna punch you”

Lee would write something more like

"Wait for it sucker. The Union Rulebook for superheroes says you have to let me punch you, and you wouldn’t want to wind those people up.”

“Punch me, will you, you overrated windbag, I who have studied punching with punch masters of Hoggarth; very well, I shall punch you now as you have never been punched before.”

On the whole, and when he was trying, Lee’s dialogue remained snappy and funny enough to keep you reading; the flow of words from bubble to bubble pulled you through the comic. Kirby, though he uses dialogue in the same way as Lee has no interest in embellishing it. The characters say what they need to say to clarify the pictures. Most of the time, the pictures are so good that this is all you need. But when Kirby is telling a story which he is not really that interested in — which seems to have been the case with Captain America and Black Panther — you have functional captions explaining self explanatory pictures. It's then that we miss the Lee commentary; we feel that if Black Panther had had a second layer of narrative it would have felt less flat.

Hardly anyone thinks that Ernie Wise was a comic genius. But do we really have to dedicate whole websites to pretending that he really sucked as a straight man?

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Black Panther are copyright Marvel Comics. The New Gods is copyright DC comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

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