In a previous post, I talked about how I went through a phase where I made my own comics, and identified the steps (and missteps) that I recall from that process of creation.   I am a creative person.   I think everyone derives some joy from creation, but some people seem to do it habitually in every area of their life.   A rather shrewd professor (and mentor) of mine once observed that I was the sort of person who always needed to be creating something, and it’s true.

The professor, an entomologist, didn’t say whether he recognized a kindred spirit, but it is certainly true that a lot of people have the idea in their head that scientists, being driven by logic and hard data, are not creative people.   When students, their parents or even other teachers learn that I had many years under my belt as a musician prior to studying science, they often act surprised.  But, to me and many other people in my field, the process of actually doing science is deeply creative.   The problem of “two cultures” identified by C.P. Snow is largely a one-sided problem for the humanities, rather than the scientific community.

Still, there is “science envy” and there is, certainly, academic snobbery.   As I moved into my teen years, I left comic books behind.   I would still read them, avidly, because it’s all reading material is “grist for the mill.”   Hell, I read the ingredients on shampoo labels in the shower: there’s nothing like beginning the day with a few tongue-twisters, like “methylisothiazoalone’ and “sodium dodecyl sulfate.”   But I no longer collected them, for the most part, and part of my (this is embarrassing to recount) “sophisticated” self-image is that around 1975 the only comic I bought religiously was Gerber and Colan’s “Howard the Duck.”   What a rare title that was, a comic that openly mocked pop culture and other comics in a series of spoofs, with narrative touches that hinted at something adult and forbidden.   Perfect, in other words, for the species of adolescent that imagines that satire in and of itself is a superior aesthetic, and feeds their longing to be the superior possessors of a superior understanding.  It’s a miracle that I didn’t accidentally get sucked into “Atlas Shrugged”.

Meanwhile, my middle-school-aged brother still had a powerful jones for Jack Kirby and collected Kirby’s DC titles, especially “Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth.”    What a fanboy!  His big brother, thinking himself very hip, had largely weaned himself of superhero titles, though I do recall buying two Kirby books when he moved back to Marvel.

I think I bought Kirby’s oversized “2001"  book just out of curiosity to see what “The King” would do with Kubrick’s film, and I was of course disappointed with Kirby’s faithful gloss on the film’s visual surface.   I also bought “Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles”, a glorious oversize one-shot that is, I think, Kirby’s last great single comic.   I remember being moved by it, but not so much because Kirby’s ethic penetrated my teen vanity, but because it struck me as instantly nostalgic on a number of levels.

Those were the last Kirby books I ever purchased.   My brother was buying enough for both of us, so I would simply parasitize his collection from time to time, scratching my head as Kirby wandered, Kamandi-style, in issues of “Captain America.”   His one really promising (and cosmic) series, “The Eternals”, failed to find an audience and the less said of unfocused efforts like “Devil Dinosaur” and the vague, pseudophilosophical “2001" series that followed, the better.

I drifted from comics at that point.   I had discovered the creative possibilities of high school journalism, drama and music classes, and continued to take piano lessons and compose music on the sly, some of it pretty good.   While I still retained a large working knowledge on Golden and Silver Age superhero books, and some knowledge of non-superhero titles from the same period, that had less to do with collecting or a genuine interest in the field than with devouring Steranko’s “History of Comics” and related works.     I graduated from high school and went to CSU Fresno.  At one point, my college roommate was helping future pornographer of violence Frank Miller make his reputation with his run on Daredevil, and I amused myself by reading the books, second hand, but they still seemed so childish, so lackluster, compared to the real adult shocks of sex and violence in entertainment available to college freshmen.  In my mind, I had gone beyond such juvenilia, and was engaged in the project of serious academic work with a serious purpose.   Oh, yes, I was as full of myself back then as I am now.  Seriously full of my self.

But, of course, I had begun, once upon a time, with making my own comics, mixing drawing, and pencil sketches with swatches of color and odd shapes.   Here’s the sort of thing I might’ve made back in the early 1970's:

Except this drawing isn’t by me.   It’s by my brother, from several years later, and boy, it’s a doozy.   Look at the wild, swirling quality and tell me he hasn’t already absorbed two things from Kirby: a dozen oddly-shaped ideas in one panel, and almost comically straightforward prose.  Chuck put this together, I think, as a middle-school student when I was trying to decide which colleges to apply to in my senior year. What interests myself and my parents, of course, is the weirdly prophetic declaration of purpose: “I want... to.... be....a .....WRITER!”   It couldn’t be any more over-the-top, more Kirbyesque, if Mike Royer had lettered the last word with splotchy black letters.  

And, the truth be told, my brother was his own best seer.   He dreamed the dream, and then he lived it.  While I skipped off to a state university, he went to UC Santa Barbara, spent some time over seas at the University of Sterling (Scotland), tooled around Europe, and eventually entered graduate school.   The whole time, the kid kept reading and collecting comics, voraciously, and he found the perfect partner: his wife, Michelle, who saw (long before any of his own family) that Chuck’s passion for comics was serious business, intellectually-challenging stuff.    She put off a successful professional life as a special education teacher to move with Chuck to UConn, where he eventually earned a doctorate in English literature.

A prophet is not honored in his own country, and no homeland was more uninformed by Chuck’s brilliant metamorphosis than his older brother, who was puzzled: why was Charles Hatfield, younger brother of the worldly-wise Scott Hatfield, son of a published author many times over, continuing to dabble in comics?   Didn’t he realize that, in this country at least, that such things were not taken as serious literature?   Apparently I hadn’t gotten the memo:   not only was the Maus phenomenon underway by the mid-1990's, but an entire literature of autobiographical comics with adult themes and highly personalized approaches had emerged out of the underground comics of the 1970's.   While Chuck and I had cut our teeth on men in tights, people like Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb and a host of others less heralded had started to build traction in the mom-and-pop comic stores.   The stories that were told in these ground-breaking books required a serious, deliberate analysis that treated them as legitimate literature.

At the same time, the mainstream comics line (DC and Marvel) had stumbled upon the marketing-strategy as epic, creating fanboy events with character-mixing and tragedy-weaving crossover titles like “Crisis On Infinite Earths”.   These series, which grew in popularity in the next decade, allowed editorial teams unprecedented freedom to reimagine the continuity of their respective company’s continuity.   At one point, Superman (yes, Superman!) actually died while the editors played with four different successors to the last son of Krypton, until one was revealed as a villain of cosmic proportions.   To say that I hated the whole thing is to observe that prune juice can remedy constipation, which last also probably described my mental state: “Kill Superman!   WTF?!?!   What are you doing to my childhood?!!  Those are my memories you’re messing with as you {F-bomb} the continuity out of the series, you bastards!!”

As a result of these developments, my hostility for the comics industry in the early 1990's reached an all-time high, but ironically this made a certain kind of high level discussion possible between my brother and I:   on the one hand, the older brother dismayed, and the other, younger brother displaying an intimate knowledge of the industry’s dynamic and the market forces that would lead DC and Marvel to kill characters like the Flash or Captain Marvel, and draw out these dramas in increasingly-attenuated and ever-expanding crossovers with multiple books.  

I didn’t like the trends, but for the first time ever I was impressed by my brother’s abilities to seriously analyze the stories that were being told, not so much as a fan boy, but in terms of how the narratives were being shaped by editorial boards out of perceived need.   At roughly the same time, the speculation on vintage comics and first issues of new series bottomed out like tulips in Holland, and many comic book shops funded by speculative comics collectors were shaken out by the industry’s down turn.   This was a world that Chuck knew first-hand, and as he has told me more than once, words like 'nerd' and 'geek' are often stand-ins for the phrase "unappreciated expertise."    Instead of me regaling Chuck with my opinions about what comics were cool or passe', it became my brother who was schooling me on how the comics industry was wandering in a wilderness.   But I still wasn't ready to legitimize what he was doing, and I made several cutting remarks not just about the narratives that displeased me, but about the future of the industry and the value of comics in general.   "When, " I seemed to be saying to my brother, "are you going to get serious with this English degree thing and study some real literature?"

Yeah.   I really was that much of an ass.   You think self-awareness is a bowl of cherries?  Ha.   Well, the story of how I came to a realization of this particular set of shortcomings will have to wait for another blog post.   Next ISSUE!    KIRBY LIVES!

Word Count: 1,723

Total:  6,436



What, you thought I was talking about me?