Thursday, May 03, 2012

In Review: Michael Chabon and the Art of the Conn

Richly imagined, in its own little constrained world, the surrogate dopplegangers of Stanley Leiber and Jacob Katzenburg reach the end of their lifes and try to reconcile or try to avoid reconciliation when little is left of the world that they had started. How does it end? Badly, as you would expect, and messy, in all the ways that you would also expect.

Finally had the chance to sit down and really read through Citizen Conn by Michael Chabon from the February 6 & 13 issue of the New Yorker and it was an interesting read, but ultimately and puzzling one. I'm not surprised by Chabon working comic book territory again, after all, he loves the stuff down to his DNA as much as I do, as much as i expect the readers of my blog to, and so, instead of being upset with him mining comic book iconography and mythology (as I am with Lichtenstein), I appreciate his take on our favorite guilty pleasure medium. He can write, really write, and its a joy to read his sentences as opposed to so many other writers.

So for him to turn to the ugly soap opera ridden uncertainty that is the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby is certainly interesting, and certainly his take on the story is the right one: rather than assigning who did what in the never-to-be-visited past (there is nothing more subject to the Roshamon effect than the origins of the Marvel Comics Group), he visits the later days of these creative giants. Days when the pages no longer fly off the board and the typewriter is still and the effects of money, time, lawyers and long ago signed backs of Work For Hire checks have long since had their way.

But, tellingly, the Kirby of the story has no Roz to take care of him. He is a prototypical loner, who toiled at his drawing board for too many years and never had the support of a wife or children, and so it is the Kirby surrogate, Morton Feather, moving into an assisted living facility while struggling with bone cancer, who has no dilution of focus. The Stan Lee of the story, Artie Conn, may be married, but we see none of that, we only see his attempts to reconnect with Feather so many years after the Fantastic Four, Thor, The Hulk, and, of course, The Avengers.

It focuses the anger that Feather feels towards Conn that neither has a spouse who walks on stage during the story to take the focus. The female rabbi who narrates wisely has a husband who stands in for us, the average fan, and we get the chance to see how ineffectual our love and devotion to those long yellow paged stories is. It puts us in our place almost instantly and takes us out of the narrative to the benefit of the story.

No, the focus, the rabbi would have us believe, is in the betrayal that was felt in the late '60's when promises were reneged on and Lee signed up to a life of solid wealth and Feather... oh, hell with it, Kirby forced to move to DC and a life of decaying freelance assignments and meager checks. After all, the rabbi's husband, and, by proxy, us, have our joy in opening those books and discovering those stories and becoming enmeshed in the world as Lee and Kirby unfolded, month after month, but, lets face it. We're nothing compared to the men who took the time to create and live in those universes first. While we merely rented an apartment there, no matter how vested we THINK we, they built the whole damn subdivision from an empty lot. Chabon's case, as i see it, is that the money and the lawyering and Stan's taking credit was secondary to the betrayal of the partnership with which those two created.

Those of us with interest in those sorts of things have read plenty of contradictory interviews regarding who did what. And its clear that it will never be settled because, for too many years, their working method was too streamlined, too overlapping, too damn quick given the deadlines to not just keep filling the pages and stay on a roll. Like your favorite band, there is no way to know who came up with that one riff that played perfectly off of the rhythm; both the bassist and guitarist will remember it as something that they came up with, when, in reality, there was a synergy that allowed the creativity to spin off into far more interesting directions even through disagreement.

And that's something that gets brought up all too often in the painful details of Stan and Jack's splintering. That there would have been a number years when the business started taking off again and the books got better and Stan and Jack were creating so much that the pages and the issues just flew by. And while it was exhausting it was probably also exhilarating with both men doing what they loved to do and seeing it all start to come together. They were in their moment and that moment would be about 6 brilliant years of sleepless nights and feverish working days and ink stained hands.

Chabon sums it up in the penultimate paragraph, when Lee's doppleganger gets to exclaim, "You know what? that wouldn't surprise me a bit. he always took everything so seriously." in reference to the idea that the partnership was the defining moment for Kirby, while Lee, more easy going in temperment, simply moved on. Kirby's desire to create was likened to a force of nature within him, so of course he'd take it all so damn seriously. And when you add in the money, oh all that money we know about, then it changes things. The story's solution is a simple solution, and one that we know works well in comic book logic: sadly, real life is so often messier and far more complicated.

No comments: