Practitioners 57: Robert Kirkman

It’s back!! Practitioners, our article featuring the people who made the comics industry is updated occasionally between issues of Moon. Practitioners Reloaded present the previous 1 – 53 (Simon BisleyChris Bachalo) for those who want to read more.

Born November 30th 1978 in Richmond, Kentucky, Robert Kirkman would be the only non-founding member of the third largest comic book company in the US and the creator of a black and white Zombie-fest that would be hailed as the ultimate in ‘independent’ comic books. The Walking Dead picked up on the global enthusiasm for Zombie stories and made it accessible in a way that saw it developed into a mainstream TV series.

Kirkman’s sense of identifying attention grabbing ideas is complemented by his capacity to carefully and enjoyably develop them, walking the line between enjoyment and engagement for the reader.

Kirkman’s first comic book work was the 2000 superhero parody Battle Pope, co-created with artist Tony Moore, and self published under their Funk-o-Tron label. This, perhaps, is the nature of indy publishing. A well presented, deliberately fringe creation never intended to find a place in the mainstream, that engages readers in a way the mainstream can’t and creates a viable alternative. The perfect synthesis between high (and funny) concept and professional execution (something now only too visible in British indy titles such as Lou Scannon, Stiffs and ahem… Moon).

Kirkman Battle Pope 03 - page 03-04

Later, while pitching a new series, Science Dog, Kirkman and artist Cory Walker, were hired to do a Super Patriot (of Savage Dragon fame) mini series for Image Comics. Not content simply on that, Kirkman developed the 2002 Image Series Tech Jacket, which ran for six issues, with E.J. Su. In 2003, Kirkman and Walker created Invincible for Image’s new superhero line. Again, the story lines were acutely mirroring the work being produced on Marvel’s Ultimate line. Invincible, following the adolescent son of a superhero, who develops his own powers and attempts to start his own superhero career. Kirkman’s genius is an extension of Stan Lee’s some 50 years previous. It hinges on the normalisation of the super, bringing it down to the earth without an overly revealing bump.

Kirkman Invincable

Invincible was one of the titles that made the US comic industry a 3 company, rather than a 2 company one. In 2005, Paramount Pictures announced it had bought the rights to produce an Invincible feature film, and hired Kirkman to write the screenplay. Still nowhere to be seen, most likely the success of Walking Dead has put this particular project on the back seat for the time being.

Walking Dead Kirkman

In 2003, Kirkman began his most well-known and mainstream title, The Walking Dead. It represented an unusual change in the already popular gamut of zombie material that has dominated popular culture for the last ten years. Whereas all previous appearances of the Undead had been one-offs (aside from occasional cameos in George A. Romero’s increasingly marginal series of zombie films) this was an ongoing series, with an ongoing cast and an ongoing threat. The expected result of any Zombie film is that all parties will be decimated by the final reel, the relevance of the plot being the journey those characters took in the face of an unending threat, but Kirkman’s series would cause the threat to be unending. There is no indication as to how the series might end as there is no intention for it to, only that, by Kirkman’s own volition, any character is fair game and can be killed at any time. Even the central character, County Sheriff Rick Grimes, has been given a mortality extending only as far as the reader’s interest. It’s ongoing nature has allowed ideas to be developed in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The depiction of a ‘herd’, a force of nature generated by a world populated by Zombies, in which wandering Undead intersect their ongoing paths, the rudimentary stimulus of the physical world causing them to travel in large groups, like a tide being forced through a river. Add this to the effect of a gun shot or explosion to draw the undead from a wide area and the actions of civilians in future Zombie stories will have been changed by this series.

The format also allowed the events taking place to breathe in a way that other Zombie stories couldn’t allow. Whereas convenient environments are found near-fully formed in films such as Dawn of the Dead, with access to food, water, protection, power – in Kirkman’s world, every viable haven is deficient, solutions having to be found in order to make it safe or sustainable. There is interest in this angle and Kirkman’s new format gives this subject room to be investigated. The flaw in the format however, becomes increasingly clear the longer the series runs. Kirkman has applied the rules of the Undead pretty strictly, although augmented. Those being the discovery of a world in which the Undead have taken over, the discovery of the hopelessness of the situation, the loss of society and resources, the loss of family and friends, the discovery of an enclosed haven, the failure of humanity to maintain it, the realisation that humans are the deadliest species. The difficulty with this is that the same plot has effectively been repeated several times, the inevitable breakdown of the walls around the main characters through their own actions becoming obvious and the threat of the Undead increasingly diminished as the characters and societies have to be more established in order to have survived this long. The title has slowly become a doctrine of post apocalyptic politics as the human race gains a grip on a dead world. Whether this was Kirkman’s intention is uncertain but the title remains engaging, even beyond it’s original remit and has always been written by Kirkman.

Kirkman Walking Dead Headless Dead

This, accompanied with a number of other projects in the same period, hired by Marvel Comics to reintroduce it’s ’90s series, Sleepwalker, sadly cancelled before being published and the contents of issue 1 included in Epic Anthology No.1 in 2004. As the Avengers became increasingly ‘Disassembled’, in Marvel’s dismantling and reboot of the central title, Kirkman was given control of Captain America (vol 4), Marvel Knight’s 2099 one-shots event, Jubilee #1–6 and Fantastic Four: Foes #1–6, a two-year run on Ultimate X-Men and the entire Marvel Team-Up vol. 3 and the Irredeemable Ant-Man miniseries.

At Image, Kirkman and artist Jason Howard created the ongoing series The Astounding Wolf-Man, launching it on May 5, 2007, as part of Free Comic Book Day. Kirkman edited the monthly series Brit, based on the character he created for the series of one-shots, illustrated by Moore and Cliff Rathburn. It ran 12 issues.

Kirkman announced in 2007 that he and artist Rob Liefeld would team on a revival of Killraven for Marvel Comics. Kirkman that year also said he and Todd McFarlane would collaborate on Haunt for Image Comics.

In late July 2008, Kirkman was made a partner at Image Comics, thereby ending his freelance association with Marvel. Nonetheless, later in 2009, he and Walker produced the five-issue miniseries The Destroyer vol. 4 for Marvel’s MAX imprint. It’s unsurprising that Kirkman wanted to continue his association with Marvel, given that he named his son Peter Parker Kirkman, after one of Marvel’s most central heroes.

Walking Dead TV

In 2010, in a fanfare to the success of Walking Dead as a comic book series, AMC began it’s production of the still-ongoing Walking Dead TV Series which has become a mainstay of Sunday night viewing and has brought the original story of Rick Grimes, Lori and his son to a new and much wider audience. This has revealed the capacity for even relatively new books and concepts to find their place in wider media in an industry dominated by titles developed in some case, for more than half a century.

A surprising number of artists have failed to remain working alongside Kirkman, Cory Walker being replaced by Ryan Ottley on Invincible and Tony Moore replaced by Charlie Adlard after 6 issues of Walking Dead. While there is an innate tolerance in modern comic books on precise deadlines (mostly driven by Image and Dark Horse’s independent beginnings) this stands out with Kirkman’s almost solitary retention on the Walking Dead TV series senior team, with some extremely noteworthy walk outs (Frank Darabont the most noteworthy perhaps). These things are always subject to more politics than is publicly visible and are no doubt subject to a great many different pressures, however Kirkman is often the last man standing. This durability and sustainability perhaps the reason he has found himself in such a senior position in Image itself. However, this is open to a great deal of rumour and conjecture and is inevitable when someone such as Kirkman has risen alongside such long standing names of comic, film and TV.

Regardless of what the future holds for Robert Kirkman, he is made an indelible mark on the face of modern comics. He has moved the focus away from super hero comics, even challenging longer established characters and titles in wider fields. He has taken his place among comic book legends to run the third largest comic book company in the world, while still maintaining his own titles. Kirkman should be an inspirational figure to those in independent comics below him and an example of what careful and considered ideas, well developed can achieve.

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Practitioners 50: Stan Lee (Part 1)

As Norse Gods, American super soldiers and billionaire playboy philanthropist technocrats in multi-billion dollar battle suits launch into battle across cinema screens throughout the world to a hail of cheers and applause from fans of adventure of all ages does anyone wonder who decided to put these characters together? As the Silver Surfer CGI expands the limits of modern special effects technology on the silver screen while being pursued by a man on fire across the skyline of Manhattan does anyone notice the slightly built, silver haired gentleman in glasses being turned away from Sue and Reed Richard’s wedding? It’s the man who created the flaming figure and put him in Manhattan, who created the platform upon which the Silver Surfer sails, the Hulk smashes, Ghost Rider seeks vengeance and Spider-man spins his web. Let’s not beat around the bush. No Stan Lee, no Avengers, Spider-man, X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk. No Marvel comics. So no bringing Nick Fury, Namor and Captain America back from the dead. No Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil, Jack Flag. No Wolverine, Elektra, War Machine, Mary Jane. Definitely no Aunt May or J.Jonah Jameson.

Lee is a world class media operator before media operators were known to exist. Given opportunities many others had in the boom of comic books, Lee created something substantial, meaningful and powerful. He created a framework that would prove to be the single most well known and profitable set of franchises in history, revolutionise the way people read comics and bring a wry smile to many a fanboys face. He’s Stan Lee. There is no one like him. And this is his story…

Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in a tiny apartment at the corner of West 98th Street and West End Avenue, New York City on December 28, 1922. His father worked a dress cutter, working only sporadically after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Lee had one other sibling, his brother , Harry Lieber, 9 years Lee’s junior and described the one-bedroom apartment he and the rest of his family had lived in at 1720 University Avenue as “a third-floor apartment facing out back”, with him and his brother sharing a bedroom and his parents using a foldout couch.

Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, part of the swashbuckling capers that a young boy who would grow up to be Stan Lee was inspired by

As a child, Lee has recently revealed that he was fascinated and influenced by books and movies, in particular those of legendary swashbuckler, Errol Flynn. Attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Lee found entertainment and inspiration in his voracious reading habit. His penchant for writing was present early on, as a youth he worked such part time jobs as writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Turberculosis Centre (where presumably he gained his chatty patter, while trying to alleviate the heavy language associated with such writing you can only imagine that writing anything lighter was a distinct joy), delivering sandwiches for the Jack May pharmacy to offices in Rockefeller Center, working as a trouser boy for a trouser manufacturer; ushering at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway; and selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. Graduating high school early at 16 and a half in 1939, Lee joined the arguably awkwardly titled WPA Federal Theatre Project.

At a young age, as other Practitioners such as Jack Kirby were roughing in the streets and studying to become artists, Lee had immersed himself in New York. He had mucked in and fronted life out on the island of Manhattan. He hadn’t leapt straight for his dream job with both hands but done something immeasurably more valuable perhaps as a writer. He’d experienced the corners and seen the offices and lives of the average joe of Manhattan. This is something that would undoubtedly inform his work later in his career. This, perhaps, is where Lee’s fascination with the struggle of the average guy formed. In the shadows of the heaven fingering ramparts of giant cathedrals to man’s development and upper limits, there was still the guy making his way from one building to the next bringing sandwiches. New York is perhaps greatest of all cities for this, elevating it’s environment to represent grandeur and greatness while presenting daily struggle and difficulty to the great majority of it’s inhabitants that fuel it. It’s not that no other major city such as London, Paris or Tokyo represented this with both squalor and riches, but nowhere else have they both been so obvious and pronounced and yet so mixed and reliant on the other or for so long than in New York. Without the lingering class systems of London and Tokyo or the leveled society of federal and social in Paris, a dress cutter’s son, educated in the Bronx can wander into the marble lined halls of the Rockefeller center. It blended the exceptional with the every day. New York allowed the average person to witness Marvels.

Sometimes it’s not what you know but who you know and Stan Lee’s first step into comic books was with Timely Comics, thanks to his uncle, Robbie Solomon. Now an assistant on Timely Comics’ division of Pulp magazine and comic book publisher Martin Goodman’s company. Lee’s cousin Jean was Goodman’s wife, which would put Lee in good stead by the time he was hired by the great, Capatain- America-creating Joe Simon. But it wasn’t an unstoppable climb to stardom for Stan Lee.

Captain America # 3 (Stan Lee's first writing assignment)

His duties were prosaic at first and much like that which he had had to do in previous work. “In those days [the artists] dipped the pen in ink, [so] I had to make sure the inkwells were filled”, Lee recalled in 2009. “I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them”. Marshaling his childhood ambition to be a writer, young Stanley Lieber made his comic-book debut with the text filler “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941), using the pseudonym “Stan Lee”, which years later he would adopt as his legal name. Lee later explained in his autobiography and numerous other sources that he had intended to save his given name for more literary work, something that never really surfaced. Lee began immediately to have a lasting effect on the characters that still continue today, with this initial story also introducing Captain America’s trademark ricocheting shield-toss, which immediately became one of the character’s signatures.

He graduated from writing filler to actual comics with a backup feature, “‘Headline’ Hunter, Foreign Correspondent”, two issues later. Lee’s first superhero co-creation was the Destroyer, in Mystic Comics #6 (Aug 1941). The Destroyer was a field journalist, Keen Marlow, captured behind enemy lines and experimented upon with a super hero serum similar to that used on Captain America. The Destroyer was Lee’s most popular character prior to the Fantastic Four and enjoyed a MAX imprint (Volume 4) through Lee’s company Marvel very recently. Other characters he created during this period fans and historians call the Golden Age of comics include Jack Frost, (an amnesiac character made entirely of ice who woke in the icy wastes of the antarctic and is reminiscent of latter day Ice man Bobby Drake) debuting in USA Comics #1 (Aug. 1941), and Father Time (an interesting character used as back up material for Captain America 6-12, involving a hooded figure with a scythe who turns time against crooks), debuting in Captain America Comics #6 (Aug. 1941).

When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left late in 1941, following a dispute with Goodman, the 30-year-old publisher made a decision that frankly, would alter the face of comics. He installed Stan Lee, just under 19 years old, as interim editor. Unsurprisingly, given Lee’s capacity for operating seamlessly between mover and shaker in later years, Lee showed an ability for business that led him to remain as the comic-book division’s editor-in-chief, as well as art director for much of that time.

But many of Lee’s friends and colleagues of similar age had been called to war and in early 1942, Lee had his call to join the United States Army. He would serve stateside in the Signal Corps, the section of the army that provides communications, writing manuals, training films, slogans and occasionally cartooning. In true Stan Lee style, while Jack Kirby walked into enemy territory to draw maps, Lee’s military classification, he says, was ‘playwright’ adding that only 9 men in the U.S. Army were given that title. Vincent Fago, editor of Timely’s animation comics section, which put out humour and funny animal comics, filled in until Lee got back from his World War II military service in 1945. Danger of bad back from sitting in a chair too long seemingly averted, Lee returned and now lived in the the rented top floor of a Brownstone in the East 90s in Manhattan, much like a certain young man and his doting auntie managed to almost 50 years later….