Practitioners 52: Osamu Tezuka

Kyoto station is a monolithic, grand and impressive structure, latticed with metal and steel pillars in a gun grey cathedral to industrialism and travel. It is impressive to say the least. Outside, however is a small camera stall looking out over the main entrance. On top of it is an icon as famous, if not potentially more famous and certainly more recognisable across Japan than the enormous building behind him. His name is Astroboy, and in terms of fame and influence he matches up to any celluloid mouse. Built from the premise of cheerful, less gritty story telling – Astroboy’s creator is considered the instigator of the ‘Golden Age of Manga’. The name of the man who brought hope to Japan after the Second World War through a new age in Manga is Osamu Tezuka.

Born Tezuka Osamu on November 3, 1928 Tezuka was a Japanese cartoonist, manga artist, animator, producer, activist and – at one time – medical doctor, though he never practiced medicine. Born in Osaka prefecture, he is best known as the creator of Astroboy, Kimba the White Lion and Black Jack.

He is often known as the ‘Godfather of Anime’ and enjoys the reputation as the Japanese Walt Disney. Inspired very much by his namesake, Tezuka adapted much of the western idealism of Disney to the Japanese Manga, transferring ideas seamlessly that still now permeate modern Manga. Though his creations have moved far beyond the initial inspirations that spawned them.

Starting to draw comics in his second year of elementary school, he found a bug named ‘Osamushi’ in his fifth year. Fascinated by the similarity to his own name he adopted it as a pen name. He came to realise that he could use Manga as a way to convince people to care for the world. After World War II and the devastation that Japan itself had suffered during the conflict, Tezuka created his first piece of work – at the age of 17 – Diary of Machan and Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island). These works launched the Golden Age of Manga. Their popularity and style offering people a new – and popular – way of reading Manga.

As a young boy Tezuka was very ill, his arms swelling up. The following treatment led him to want to become a doctor. He continued to draw as he studied medicine at Osaka University and obtained his medical degree. He arrived at a cross roads – familiar to almost all creatives when they try to decide which path to follow. Ahead of him a potentially lucrative career as a doctor, for which he was now almost fully qualified, or alternatively the life of a comic artist, not considered a particularly rewarding job. He turned to his mother for advice who replied “You should work doing the thing you like most of all.”

Tezuka graduated from Osaka University, having gained his Medical degree but would never practice medicine. He would however use his medical knowledge to enrich his sci-fi manga, such as Black Jack.

His creations include Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu in Japan, literally translated to “Iron-armed Atom”), Black Jack, Princess Knight, Phoenix (Hi no Tori in Japan), Kimba the White Lion, Adolf and Buddha. His “life’s work” was Phoenix — a story of life and death that he began in the 1950s and continued until his death.
In January 1965, Tezuka received a letter from Stanley Kubrick, who had watched Astro Boy and wanted to invite Tezuka to be the art director of his next movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tezuka could not afford to leave his studio for an entire year to live in England, so he refused the invitation. Though he could not work on it, he loved the movie, and would play its soundtrack at maximum volume in his studio to keep him awake during the long nights of work.

Tezuka headed the animation production studio Mushi Production (“Bug Production”), which pioneered TV animation in Japan. The name of the studio derives from one of the kanji (虫 – Japanese reading: mushi, English meaning: bug,insect) used to write his name, bringing that quiet day discovering a bug bearing his name back firmly to his present day. Robust, tenacious and built for purpose ‘Bug’ productions continued to produce innovative and fascinating projects.

Many young manga artists once lived in the apartment where Tezuka lived, Tokiwa-sō. (As the suffix -sō indicates, this was probably a small, inexpensive apartment.) The residents included Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider) ; Fujio Akatsuka (known as the Gag Manga King; also influenced by western work, namely Buster Keaton and MAD magazine); and Abiko Motou and Hiroshi Fujimoto (who worked together under the pen name Fujiko Fujio and created the long-running series Doraemon, the main character of which is officially recognised as a cultural icon of modern Japan – much like Astroboy). All these men opted to live close to the starting point of the great master. Hard to think of an equivalent today for western artists though perhaps the difference is more cultural. Never-the-less the influence of Tezuka was undeniable and clear in order to inspire these men to wish to see the same views and follow so closely in his personal path.

Thanks to his prolific output, pioneering techniques and innovative redefinition of genres Tezuka earned himself incredible titles such as ‘the father of Manga’, ‘the god of comics’ and ‘kamisama (Japanese for spirit or natural force) of manga’.

Tezuka is known for his imaginative stories and stylized Japanese adaptations of western literature. He loved reading novels and watching films that came from the West. Tezuka’s early works included manga versions of Disney movies such as Bambi. His work, like that of other manga creators, was sometimes gritty and violent. However, he stayed away from graphic violence in some titles such as Astro Boy.

The distinctive “large eyes” style of Japanese animation was invented by Tezuka, drawing inspirations on cartoons of the time such as Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Bambi and Mickey Mouse. His productivity is awesome in it’s scale – certainly dwarfing almost all modern artists, the Complete Manga Works of Tezuka Osamu (手塚治虫漫画全集, published in Japan) comprises some 400 volumes, over 80,000 pages; even considering this, it is not comprehensive. His complete portfolio includes over 700 manga with more than 150,000 pages. However, the vast majority of his work has never been translated from the original Japanese – which has led to a lack of fame in the west that other creators such as Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima and Katsuhiro Otomo have enjoyed.

Tezuka died of stomach cancer on February 9, 1989, at the age of 60. His death came about one month after the death of Hirohito, the Shōwa Emperor of Japan. In an afterword written by Takayuki Matsutani, president of Mushi Productions, that was published in Viz Media’s English language release of the Hi no Tori manga, it is said that his last words were, “I’m begging you, let me work!”

The city of Takarazuka, Hyōgo, where Tezuka grew up, opened a museum in his memory.
Stamps were issued in his honor in 1997. Also, beginning in 2003 the Japanese toy company Kaiyodo began manufacturing a series of figurines of Tezuka’s creations, including Princess Knight, Unico, the Phoenix, Dororo, Marvelous Melmo, Ambassador Magma and many others. To date three series of the figurines have been released. A separate Astro Boy series of figurines has also been issued, and continuing popularity for fans throughout Japan are annual Tezuka calendars with some of Tezuka’s most famous artwork.

His legacy has continued to be honored among Manga artists and animators and many artists including Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball), and Kazuki Takahashi (Yu-Gi-Oh!) have cited Tezuka an inspiration for their works.

Far reaching influences: Vampires (1966 -67 and 1968 -69) by Osamu Tezuka reveals parallel styles seen in Warner Bros and Disney, and even the later chapters of Jeff Smith's Bone.

Anywhere that the mark of modern manga and anime are found globally started with the stroke of Tezuka’s pen in post-war Japan. His intention was to spread joy. He has also spread images of science fiction worlds unimaginable in the west, although many are violent and malevolent they have moved millions and all carry the ‘wide-eyed’ innocence of Osamu Tezuka. An unknown legend in the west – he is partially responsible for almost half the design and artistic influence visible in modern comics and animation. East and West. Though these things are hard to quantify his intention to ‘spread joy’ through manga is still being achieved. Shelves and shelves of manga on every subject imaginable find their way to millions of Japanese readers every day. And every page carries a little bit of the joy Tezuka hoped for. Just a little ‘bug’ in the corner of every panel.

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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….

Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part Two)

With World War II underway, Editor – In-Chief Liebowitz antcipated that Kirby and his partner Joe Simon would be drafted, so both Kirby and Simon employed writers, inkers, letterers and colourists in a order to create a year’s worth of material. Kirby was drafted into the army on June 7, 1943. After basic training at Camp Stewart, near Atlanta, Georgia, he was assigned to Company F of the 11th Infantry. He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on August 23, 1944. two and a half months after D-Day though the man himself claimed to have arrived 10 days after. Kirby recalled that one lieutenant, upon learning that he had a comic artist under his command, assigned him the position of scout who would push forward the advance into new towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures. This means that Kirby was not just front line but beyond the front line – in potentially enemy heavy territory and completely exposed without heavy armed support. A job most would have expected to keep someone safe and sound had at this point put Kirby in one of the most dangerous positions in the world.

Kirby and his wife corresponded from Europe via V-mail (doubly secure method to communicate with soldiers abroad, known as Victory mail), with Roz sending him ‘a letter a day’ while she worked in a lingeries shop with her mother in Brooklyn. During the winter 1944, Kirby suffered severe frostbite on his lower extremities and was flown to hospital in London from the front line, for recovery. Doctor’s considered amputating Kirby’s legs, but Kirby pulled through and recovered fully from the frostbite. Finally, in January 1945, with the final push into Germany and with the Japanese conflict nearing, unexpectedly, a harrowing end, Kirby was returned to the United States. Assigned to Camp Butner in North Carolina, where he spent the last six months of his service as part of the motor pool. Kirby was honourably discharged as a Private First Class on July 20, 1945 having received a Combat Infantryman Badge and a European/ African / Middle Eastern Theatre ribbon with a bronze battle star.

After returning from the army and after the birth of his first daughter, Susan, born on December 6, 1945, Simon arranged for work and Kirby and himself at Harvey Comics. Throughout the early 195Os, the pair created titles such as the Boy Explorers Comics, the kid-gang Western Boy’s Ranch, the superhero comic, Stuntman and catching a ride on the first bout of 3-D movies, Captain 3-D. They also freelanced for Hillman periodicals(the crime fiction comic Real Clue Crime) and for Crestwood Publications (Justice Traps the Guilty). Simon and Kirby were naturals at identifying the next big things – or the current thing – and putting out books that appealed to the widest audience. They were commercial operators but were capable enough to convert this into exciting, entertaining and gripping story lines and innovative and original characters. That capacity to react and adjust kept them at the top of the game, competitive as it was, with so many publishers vying for a majority of the audience.

But it’s biggest success was with Romance comics, the ‘mature’ interpretation of MacFadden Publications’ Young Romance. Stipulating that they would take no money up front, Kirby and Simon made an agreement with Crestwood General Manager Maurice Rosenfield with the agreement of publishers Teddy Epstein and Mike Bleier agreed. Young Romance #1 (Oct 1947) ‘ became Joe and Jack’s biggest success in years’ selling 92% of it’s print run, encouraging Crestwood to increase the print run by a third by the third issue. Becoming monthly within a few issues, Young Romance spawned a spin-off, Young Love – together selling 2 million copies a month. Following this with Young Brides in Love, Simon and Kirby had struck it once again, this time featuring ‘full length romance stories.’ Publishers such as Timely, Fawcett, Quality and Fox Feature Syndicate followed suit with their own romance titles. In spite of the increased competition, the Simon & Kirby originals continued to sell millions of copies a month, which allowed Kirby to buy a house for his family in Mineola, Long Island New York.

Kirby’s second child, Neal, was born in May 1948. His third child, Barbara, was born in November 1952.
Bitter that Timely Comics’ 1950s iteration, Atlas Comics, had relaunched Captain America in a new series in 1954, Kirby and Simon created Fighting American. Simon recalled, “We thought we’d show them how to do Captain America”. While the comic book initially portrayed the protagonist as anti-Communist, Simon and Kirby turned the series into a superhero satire with the second issue, in the aftermath of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the public backlash against the Red-baiting McCarthy. But the initial formula proved too strong to compete with, Captain America continuing unabated. This still remained a feather in Simon and Kirby’s caps, effectively beaten by the strength of their own character design. Fighting American would prove too unoriginal to survive the ages.

Fighting American sniffs out a Commie - something quickly reversed in response to the anti-communist McCarthy Trials

At the urging of a Crestwood salesman – in a remarkably questionable move against his own firm that should’ve seen him fired – Kirby and Simon launched their own comics company, Mainline Publications – using a distribution deal with Leader News. In late 1953 / early 1954, using work space subletted from their friend Al Harvey of Harvey Publications they set about bringing out four titles; Western Bullseye: Western Scout, the war comic Foxhole; with the added benefit of being written by actual veterans; In Love; since their earlier comics in the same vein were so popular and the crime comic Police Trap. All infinitely cool to a specific audience, three out of four specifically male young men they had it tied up – looking as though they’d covered all the bases. Frankly books like those out now would see figures in a crowded market of superhero books begging for something different but at the time it was the formula that worked. However, it was only to last for little more than a year. Republishing reworked artwork from Crestwood, Crestwood refused to pay them. After a review of Crestwood’s finances, Kirby and Simon’s attorney made it clear that they were owed $130,000 over the past seven years. Crestwood capitualted and paid them $10,000 in addition to their recent delayed payments. Now, at the peak of their popularity as a creative team – the relationship was becoming strained. Simon left the industry for a career in advertising but Kirby never waivered from his original course. The loss of his writing partner was not enough to make him reconsider his role and he moved on with his usual friendly shrug. “He wanted to do other things and I stuck with comics,” Kirby recalled in 1971. “It was fine. There was no reason to continue the partnership and we parted friends.”

At this point in the mid-1950s, Kirby made a temporary return to the former Timely Comics, now known as Atlas Comics, the direct predecessor of Marvel Comics. Inker Frank Giacoia had approached editor-in-chief Stan Lee for work and suggested he could “get Kirby back here to pencil some stuff.” While also freelancing for National Comics, the future DC Comics, Kirby drew 20 stories for Atlas from 1956 to 1957: Beginning with the five-page “Mine Field” in Battleground #14 (Nov.1956), Kirby penciled and in some cases also inked (with his wife, Roz) and wrote stories of the Western hero Black Rider, the Fu Manchu-like Yellow Claw, and more. But in 1957, distribution troubles caused the “Atlas implosion” that resulted in several series being dropped and no new material being assigned for many months. It would be the following year before Kirby returned to the nascent Marvel.

An unusual punishment for a villain in Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown

For DC around this time, Kirby co-created with writers Dick and Dave Wood the non-superpowered adventuring quartet the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #6 (Feb. 1957), while also contributing to such anthologies as House of Mystery. During 30 months freelancing for DC, Kirby drew slightly more than 600 pages, which included 11 six-page Green Arrow stories in World’s Finest Comics and Adventure Comics that, in a rarity, Kirby inked himself. Kirby recast the archer as a science-fiction hero, moving him away from his Batman-formula roots, but in the process alienating Green Arrow co-creator Mort Weisinger.

He also began drawing a newspaper comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force, written by the Wood brothers and initially inked by the unrelated Wally Wood. Kirby left National Comics due largely to a contractual dispute in which editor Jack Schiff, who had been involved in getting Kirby and the Wood brothers the Sky Masters contract, claimed he was due royalties from Kirby’s share of the strip’s profits. Schiff successfully sued Kirby. Some DC editors also had criticized him over art details, such as not drawing “the shoelaces on a cavalryman’s boots” and showing a Native American “mounting his horse from the wrong side.”

Kirby was demonstrating his incredible capacity to churn out enormous bodies of work. The criticism levelled at him was never stylistic, his style proving opiates to the waiting masses. As he drew it they were being snapped up. While there are lessons to be learned from Kirby it is a very different industry now. But the requirement for precision and composition has never moved. While books have become more naturalistic and austere in their approaches in recent years – taking such enormous pride in their production, perhaps at the cost of their accessability – there has always been a basic principle that Kirby understood. Story telling. A child on the streets of New York, Chicago or London was never fussed about a cheek bone out of place or the referencing of an engine being incorrect. Most readers of an age to truly enjoy comics as they were intended at the time wanted images that’d bounce them from panel to the next, ping ponging their eyeballs with clear, effecting and memorably indelible feats of strength, magic and wonder. Kirby was effectively a creative machine at this stage – almost the factory robot he had tried not to be at Fleischer, though, perhaps with the greater autonomy that he would never have had there. The rate at which he was working was phenomenal. Modern artists should take note (myself included) on the level of ficus and drive needed to keep hat going and strike deadlines time after time after time.

Having left DC Comics, Kirby began freelancing with Atlas. Because of the poor pay rates, Kirby would sit for hours daily at his drawing table at home, producing eight to ten pages of work a day. His first published work at Atlas was a cover and complete seven page story ‘I discovered the secret of Flying Saucers’ in Strange Worlds #1 (Dec. 1958). Initially working now with Christopher Rule as his regular inker, and later Dick Ayers, drew continued to work across genres, romance comics to war comics, crime stories to westerns but began to make his mark specifically on a series of Super-natural fantasy and science fiction stories featuring giant, drive-in-movie style monsters such as Groot (who made a shock reappearence in Erik Larsen’s Revenge of the Sinister Six in the early nineties in Spider-man, the Thing from Planet X; Grottu, King of the Insects and most famously Fin Fang Foom, Alien hybrid space dragon adapted into the Iron Man canon and now famous as Marvel’s classic beast of beasts. Rarely seen, Fin Fang Foom was last seen in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s madcap non-continuity-made-continuity escapade Nextwave in 2006. Through the titles such as Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and World of Fantasy, Kirby was now unbeknownst to him generating waves of creativity that he would carry on into the future. The sheer number of characters, scenarios and adventures he was bringing to life were incredible. The standard of these at such a rate would be questionable at best if it not were for one thing…

After freelancing even for Archie Comics, reuniting himself with Joe Simon to help develop the series The Fly and The Double Life of Private Strong (even drawing some issues of Classics Illustrated it was with Marvel Comics, with writer and editor-in-chief Stan Lee that Kirby would get into his stride with Superhero comics. Kirby was about to introduce the world to the most popular and consistently successful set of comic book characters the world had ever seen.

Fantastic Four #1 was only a few weeks away….

Next: The Age of Marvels Begins.

BTB Awards: Best Film

Winner – Senna

ts limited release will mean that Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and death of Ayrton Senna is unlikely to be topping may film of the year polls and at face value that seems sensible. A feature length documentary about the career of a Formula One driver who died nearly 20 years ago doesn’t exactly scream ‘mass appeal’ but nonetheless Senna is easily one of the most remarkable films of the year.
Utilising only archive footage and Voice-over, Kapadia creates a narrative which manages to be stronger and more engaging than most dramas. The decision not to include any talking heads segments means that the film feels more like a story being told first hand than a reflection on past events and the in-car footage (which looks mind blowing on a cinema screen) enhances this even further.
While the insights into the notoriously secretive world of F1 will be a treat for racing fans, the film’s greatest strength is its ability to appeal to people who don’t have the first idea about the sport. More than anything else Senna is a heart stopping, tear inducing story about an utterly unique individual. Whether you spend weekends pouring over lap times or you’re someone who thinks pole position is a thing that strippers do, there is a tonne of things to love about this film and you will be doing yourself a genuine disservice if you don’t seek out the DVD.

Runner up – Drive

For the runner up we go from a real life man in a car who is unable to stop to a fictional man in a car with no choice but to go on. The stylish, neon lit, meticulously shot Drive follows the story of Ryan Gosling’s driver as he makes ends meet on the streets of Hollywood – beautifully captured in various skyline, helicopter and stylistically careful ground shots creating a fantastical, idealistic and visceral stage for the action to take place on. In many ways the cinematography is the story as the central character – known only as Driver – enters into a tentative and touching relationship with his neighbour Irene (a flawlessly American accented Carey Mulligan) and her young son, who’s husband is incarcerated. Lingering silences and long, unbroken takes give the scenes involving these characters an assured intimacy that lingers with the viewer and plays realistically.

This is punctuated by acts of unspeakable violence, some of which admittedly come close to destabilising the careful balance that Director Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be looking for. The film could have played out as successfully as a 15 certificate on first viewing making the violence seem gratuitous and unecessary, however, I suspect that on repeat viewings the brutality and ludicrous violence will permeate more strongly and be powerful reminders of a thoughtful and energised movie and certainly a step up into the big time for both Winding Refn and Gosling.

The involvement of Simpsons regular Albert Brooks as deceptively chipper gang boss Bernie Rose and Ron Perlman has his apparently more savage and sweary partner Nino doesn’t hurt either.

Effectively Tarantino-lite, this is much less cartoonish, stylised and self consciously scripted. It also seems, accidentally or not, to be lifting directly from the GTA game series – with the theme and the look harking back to both Liberty and Vice City. This only adds to the fun in this subtle shocker.

Best remake / prequel – The Thing (2011)

To the arctic circle now for the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, The Thing. More than anything else it’s the choice to set the scene back in 1982 rather than reboot that has placed this film so high in our rankings. Following very much the same line as the original, it centres on the events leading up to the beginning of the first film in which two members of a Norwegian science team our found by an American research group.

The new film manages to mimic perfectly the light touch and claustrophobic lighting and setting, even going so far as to almost directly lifting moments from the original. But this is because the creature is doing what it did in the first place. The joy is in it’s appearance. The plot even deliberately curves at anticipated plot moments to both acknowledge and defy the original.

While it loses some of its appeal as the scale increases towards the end of the film, revealing perhaps a little too much of the origin this film scores highly for introducing a realistic female lead in Mary Elizabeth Winstead and tip toeing the line perfectly between homage and producing an original piece of cinema.

Best foreign language – Troll Hunter (2011)

Made off putting by the idiotic UK Trailer (below) this film by André Øvredal and Håvard S. Johansen (supporting writer) follows a group of hapless students in search of a hunter deemed illegal by fellow bear hunters. Determined to uncover who he is for the sake of an interesting film, they uncover a wide government cover up beyond anything they could anticipate.

Essentially, a Blair Witch Project that pays off the film manages to lull you into simply watching the ‘found footage’ of the students, constantly having to remind yourself that things are going to increase in scale exponentially at some point. And increase they do. However, the film maintains its roots until it’s finale on snowy Nordic tundra, maintaining a calm and careful pace that US blockbusters will never master.

The Norwegian mountains and countryside are really the great treat of the film at times (when there’s no monsters to hunt) as, for instance in one short sequence, sheer mountainsides and a glacial lake are filmed out of a car window as one of the students calls to another taking a whizz as nonchalantly as Sam Mendes filmed a brick wall with a plastic bag floating around in front of it. It becomes clear that what the world finds magnificent, Norwegians can take for granted and that the filmmakers are acutely aware that half their work is done merely filming on location in their beautiful country.

But it’s the monsters themselves that take centre stage. The decisions in the way that each is introduced is masterful, each uniquely different in pacing, reveal and environment. One is viewed finally from a great distance through a window of a shack which serves only to increase its impressiveness. With an enigmatic, monosyllabic central Troll Hunter, grimly wandering into harms way on behalf of the Norwegian government with the hapless batch of determined and stunned students along for the ride, it’s spectacular, engrossing and fun.

A stark change in tone in the middle of the film does threaten to scupper it slightly but the even pacing and anticipation of the unknown final Troll at the heart of the problem keeps things moving to impressive effect. They will try to remake it. I’m sure they’ll fail. Take the Norwegian out of Norway and it’s knackered.

Best Comic Book Movie: X-Men: First Class

In a year in which at least three highly entertaining and thoroughly exciting comic book adaptations were released it was the one not made by Marvel that edged it for us – however marginally. It was the X-Men that clinched the title.

Easily the strongest of the X-Men films, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman along with woefully under acknowledged screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz brought the X-Men back to the 20th Century. Like Captain America, Vaughn and Goldman (the creative team behind Stardust and Kick-ass) the decision was taken to go to the roots of the title, seeing the original X-Men line-up changed to deal with those already revealed. Only, instead of merely laying comic book events over historical ones, Vaughn and Goldman interlace them directly with historical events.

We find an arrogant and slightly unlikable Professor Francis Xavier (played by James McAvoy) in the swinging sixties looking to extend his theory of evolution on to any girl with a discoloured eye or wonky toe. It’s clear that the X-Men are born from Xavier’s arrogance and it fills beautifully an absent detail in the inception of the X-Men. Brought into it is Erik Lenseherr (Michael Fassbender) who is hunting Jew killers and Nazi conspiritors around the world. Thinking that control of his power is fuelled only by anger and fury it makes Lenseherr – soon to become Magneto – a more well rounded character, as a cyclical psychology has formed in which Lensherr has to generate these feelings to tap into his power, only further perpetuating his anger and violent behaviour. All of the characters carry inherent (and human flaws) that make them accessible and offer a tone of inevitable doom to the proceedings.

Well realised set piece after well realised set piece is laced through the plot as the X-Men are pulled into conflict between both the Russian and US Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in a bid to avert Nuclear War. Something that could easily have been a cynical plot device is so neatly realised that it makes sense (and, winningly, illustrates the absurd nature of the Cold War in a language understandable to younger audiences).

So close in fact were the runners up for Best Comic Adaptation that featured below are the trailers for both Thor and Captain America. We thoroughly recommend both and can’t wait for the Avengers movie next year….

Runner-up – Thor

While pipped at the post by First Class, Thor was overwhelmingly the surprise of the year, guided effortlessly to be an entertaining romp by Royal Shakespeare Company founder, Kenneth Branagh, offering up laughs, pathos, energy and a star turn by Chris Hemsworth as the titular character. Tom Hiddleston as his half-brother Loki stood out only slightly among a frankly incredible cast featuring Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba and Stellan Skarsgard (most likely drawn in particular to Branagh’s banner).

Thor tips the balance beautifully between fish-out-of-water comedy, fantasy epic and Superhero movie. Marvel’s incredible run of success to the Avenger’s movie next year seems to be unstoppable and Thor, as a potential tripping point has proven a nice surprise as a watchable, stand alone movie.

Runner-up – Captain America: The First Avenger

After being deemed unfit for Miltary service, Steve Rogers volunteers fora top secret research project that turns him into Captain America. We all know the story, however old school Director Joe Johnston achieved the implausible and made Captain America cool again. Borrowing heavily from Mark Millar’s Ultimates (effectively, in hindsight, a love letter to Hollywood and a considered development of the Avengers brand to become more audience friendly outside of comics) Cap still retains most of his gosh, shucks charm.

The decision to set the entire film in World War 2 is a bold and clever move, giving the audience credit where there may have been none with a more cynical film company. Featuring Hugo Weaving as arch Nemesis, the Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as Cap’s creator Dr. Abraham Erskine, Toby Jones as Dr Arnim Zola and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Philips it has a touch of class as well as being a crowd pleasing actioner. It also has the best villain diversionary tactic gag in comic book history as a Nazi assassin (Richard Armitage) escapes across the docks from the newly created Cap, he grabs a young boy and throws him in the dock. Cap, stopping to help the boy in time honoured fashion is greeted with the sight of the boy paddling away, shouting ‘Go! It’s okay. I can Swim.’ A wry sensibility that runs through the whole film.

Peace Day: Gandhi’s letter to Hitler

What does an iconic peace-loving protester and easily the most hated man in all of human history have to do with each other? They’ve been included in Geekosystem (where I found this piece) and one wrote to the other July 23rd, 1939 asking if it would be possible to avoid starting a little fight now popularly known as the Second World War. Sadly unheeded, this little number may well have been the difference between a conflict consuming millions of lives and Hitler learning to play the sitar and moving to the himalayas to find his inner peace.

One of life’s great opportunities missed. Wonder if he even read it….