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May 14, 2012


These Comics-Makers Created The Avengers

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The apparently very enjoyable multiplex smash hit Marvel's The Avengers pushed its worldwide box office total over $1 Billion this weekend -- hitting a rare stratosphere for film entertainment and certainly providing a new high point for Marvel's remarkable self-transformation since the dark days of self-distribution and contentious bankruptcy some 15 years ago.

The characters and basic character set-ups/situations being enjoyed in the Avengers by millions of people were created by a group of comics-makers over the last 50 years. I'd like to recognize those creators and provide a thumbnail appreciation of each one. I think they had a lot to do with a billion-dollar success story.

This is in no way to diminish any of the very talented people involved with the film, nor any of the hard-working comics people who have done additional development work on the characters or the Avengers concept or even those supporting that property in meaningful fashion along the way. I think other art forms understand that praise for a director doesn't mean hatred for the PR staff, or that spending a few times singling out the virtues of the playwright is no shot at the chorus. In a world where so much depends on appealing characters and narrative hooks, I thought it might be a nice thing to appreciate a few comics creators that contributed to the fantasy property of the moment. -- Tom Spurgeon

*****

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Stan Lee Co-Created The Avengers, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Loki, The Black Widow, Hawkeye, SHIELD, The Cosmic Cube, Pepper Potts, Jarvis and the original version of Nick Fury upon which this subsequent version is roughly based.

One of the most widely recognized comics-makers in history for his tireless promotion of Marvel Comics and his own contributions to the line, Stan Lee (1922-) was a key figure in the resurgence of superhero comics in the 1960s. He wrote a lot of the comics that drove the Marvel Silver Age heyday of which this movie is an expression, contributed to the creation of dozens of characters, provided an atmosphere that was for some artists and writers a viable alternative to juggernaut publishing house DC at a time when the industry desperately needed another one, communicated to many of the artists what Jack Kirby was doing well and what they should do to maintain that default house style, worked minor miracles within some tricky production restrictions, and interacted with the fans in a way that recalled and perhaps improved upon the friendly EC approach of the 1950s, providing Marvel with a passionate, core fanbase on which today's wider, more casually involved audience has been built.

While the quality of Lee's writing for the Marvel line is constantly being appraised and re-appraised by a lot of comics' best thinkers, I think his arch approach to the material within the stories allowed for older fans to stay engaged with the material by letting them in -- just a bit -- on the joke. While some folks regret Lee's standing vis-a-vis other contributors to the art form, I would suggest that just because Lee did better than artist or writer X, Y, and Z doesn't mean he's received the praise he's due, or that he should have had to sue for much of the material recognition in the first place.

Lee still works for Marvel as a kind of promotional free agent/creator emeritus and has a variety of projects going under his own name. He has come very close to fashioning a career for himself just being Stan Lee -- lest we forget, that's a creation, too.

*****

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Jack Kirby Co-Created The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, SHIELD, Loki, The Cosmic Cube, Jarvis and the original version of Nick Fury upon which this subsequent version is roughly based.

Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was the mighty, surging lifeblood of North American mainstream comic books, a fount of creativity for over four decades of staggering page production and one of its finest artists. He created or co-created several of comics' most powerful storytelling tools, entire schools of story, including but not limited to: a way of depicting action on the page that revolutionized the early superhero comic, romance comics, an approach to superheroes that allowed for borrowings of tone that gave those comics greater depth, thematically ambitious superhero adventure comics that many feel have yet to be matched on anything approaching a consistent basis, and hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful, awesome images inspiring all by themselves. Entire books about Jack Kirby somehow fail to encompass everything worth knowing about the man, one of the key creative forces of the 20th Century.

Kirby's late-period assertion of his contributions to comics -- despite not always being the most articulate or graceful advocate for his varied accomplishments -- is also underrated, this time as a key event in comics publishing history and our understanding of what creators do and why. The Avengers on film and Marvel's billions of dollars in revenue might be different or even dimnished without a lot of these creators' contributions, but take Jack Kirby out of the equation and none of it comes close to happening.

There is an organization dedicated to funding a museum in Jack Kirby's honor here.

*****

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Don Heck Co-Created Iron Man, The Black Widow, Hawkeye and Pepper Potts

One of the underrated veteran comic book artists that helped transform what might have been a few remarkable series into a line-wide, publishing juggernaut, Don Heck (1929-1995) had a long and distinguished career that wasn't always served by the industry's settling into a superhero-centric model. He was perhaps the most poorly served of his peers in that Jack Kirby's work became the agreed-upon starting point for that particular flowering of '60s pop culture. Still, Heck's work was always clear and solid and possessed of storytelling basics that don't come easy to anyone.

Don Heck drew beautiful women, a vastly underrated aspect of those 1960s Marvel comics including those featuring Avengers characters. The memory that many of us have that read those comics when we were kids (originals or re-runs) are of these close-ups of one female character or another, wistfully pining in a way that cut so well into the bombastic violence that one could find for pages on end on either side of those quiet moments.

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Larry Lieber Co-Created Iron Man, Thor and Loki

Stan Lee's brother and in many way his most eloquent and impassioned supporter, writer and artist Larry Lieber (1931-) grasped at what his brother and Jack Kirby and some of the other comics veterans were trying to do with the new Marvel superheroes and stepped into the scripting roles sent his way with enough skill to free those creators up for higher profile gigs. Without astute writers and artists like Lieber, the line of comic books would have been truncated pretty early on, isolated into a few random success stories. In fact, singular achievement in the wider context of uninspired nonsense on each side is pretty much what mainstream American comic books more typically offer, which is what makes what Marvel achieved so very different.

Lieber currently pencils the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip, a gig he's had for years. He won a Finger Award in 2008, an honor given to under-appreciated comic book writers.

*****

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Brian Michael Bendis Co-Created Agent Maria Hill And The Version Of Nick Fury Upon Which The Film Character Is Based

Cartoonist turned almost exclusive writer Brian Michael Bendis (1967-) is one of the half-dozen or so contemporary comics creators with a respectable claim for artistic contributions to Marvel's latest round of success -- via his slow-burning, years-long plot threads, his appropriation and use of stageplay-by-way-of-screen dialogue, and his ability to try out new ways of doing comics that contrast sharply with his successful, past work -- and undeniable commercial value in terms of getting those books over with fans. His career is a wonderful story. Bendis was once described to me not just as the person at one of the convention's small press table hoping to catch someone's eye, but the guy who was left running the comic shop while everyone else moved to that slightly next higher rung on the comics career ladder. The distance traveled impresses, and reminds us of the value of comics' relatively open market.

Bendis is leaving the various Avengers titles this year; both his absence from those books and his next major projects are among the biggest publishing news stories for that arena of comics in 2012.

There is an official site for Brian Bendis here. He maintains a twitter presence here.

*****

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Mark Millar Co-Created The Ultimates, A Version Of The Avengers That Had A Lot Of Influence On The Film Version

Mark Millar (1969-) is in that heavyweight contemporary creator class with Brian Michael Bendis. He owns a greater understanding than anyone out there -- including Stan Lee -- of how to manipulate PR cycles and produce work that is amenable to exploitation by Hollywood film studios. There's always a bit of theater around Millar. When he recently announced he was doing creator-owned work for the next several years, you could see not only those books coming down the pike but the shape of an eventual licensed-character comeback on the far horizon. Millar's work writing the Ultimates version of the Avengers seems to me and many foks familiar with those comics all over this latest film.

There is an official site for Mark Millar here.

*****

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Bryan Hitch Co-Created The Ultimates, A Version Of The Avengers That Had A Lot Of Influence On The Film Version

Bryan Hitch (1970-) hasn't yet enjoyed that massive success -- or even moderate, but solely-due-to-him success, like Tom Cruise hitting with Cocktail after Top Gun -- that puts his contributions to the Ultimates version of the Avengers concept in career-defining terms. And yet those books were clearly a career maker, the frontrunner for the superhero comic book of the decade 2000-2009 and a vastly influential effort to that entire way of doing comic books. The new Avengers movie is maybe the first since the largely disappointing attempt at a Watchmen film to really underline how appealing a certain set of comic books were -- in this case those drawn by Bryan Hitch -- just in terms of their basic visual approach. If Jack Kirby and his peers created the core models of what we're seeing on the screen, you could say that Bryan Hitch "dressed" them. If that's a tribute to a surface approach, surfaces are important with projects like this one.

Hitch is currently working on the independent series America's Got Powers with the entertainer and occasional comics writer Jonathan Ross. Such is comics' unique place in the entertainment firmament that you can make the case for each creator overshadowing the other.

Bryan Hitch maintains a twitter presence here.

*****

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Joe Simon Co-Created Captain America

Before Jack Kirby became known for his 1960s collaborations with Stan Lee and as much as he's since become known for all the solo work he did before and particularly after, the King Of Comics inarguably enjoyed a career's worth of accomplishment in partnership with the writer, artist and editor Joe Simon (1915-2011). Their signature creation together was the most popular of the World War 2 patriotic superheroes (if you don't count Superman as a patriotic superhero, and most don't); their work on kids comics prefigured super-teams likes the one currently cleaning up at the box office.

Joe Simon passed away last year after a remarkably productive career and a long, late professional afternoon contributing to the history of the art form through a gentle, forthright advocacy for his own contributions to the field. This included legal action, when Simon thought it required.

*****

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Don Rico Co-Created The Black Widow

I don't know much about Don Rico (1912-1985) as a comics writer. I know that he wrote early in comics' World War II era and into the brief flush of massive success the industry enjoyed in the post-War period. He was a Timely guy -- this was a name for Martin Goodman's comics publishing effort before they settled in on Marvel -- and thus a connecting force between the industry that was and the industry that grew from the Marvel surge in the 1960s.

A successful, high-volume prose writer, Rico seems on this list to stand in for all the creators whose careers either briefly intersected or were massively intertwined with comics, just not forever. As is the case with Larry Lieber, the ability of writers like Rico to take plots from Stan Lee or other editorial figures may be one of the key skills in turning a few isolated efforts into a sustained, line-wide effort -- the reason we have movies like this latest Avengers effort as a cross-media, current effort instead of something mining a curiosity of the past.

*****

imageDavid Finch Co-Created Agent Maria Hill

David Finch (DOB unknown-) is a top-of-the-line working comic book artist who emerged from the Top Cow arm of the Image Comics empire to work with Brian Michael Bendis as the primary initial visual interpreter of the writer's successful approach on various Avengers titles. He's the kind of artist over whom the bigger companies fuss and fight, and is currently ensconced at DC Comics as a vital cog in their New 52 initiative, both writing and drawing one of the Batman-focused titles. That Finch makes this list for the creation of the Maria Hill character shows just what a completely random thing comics creation can be -- you can create comics for years via splash page and gatefold drawing and then someone you help bring into being in an offhand moment is the one all your neighbors end up seeing.

There is an official site for David Finch here.

*****

Mike Allred Co-Created The Version Of Nick Fury Upon Which The Film Character Is Based

One of independent comics' most interesting careers has been that enjoyed by Mike Allred (DOB unknown-), known mostly for his own work on the Madman character but also a contributor to a few key mainstream comics runs, perhaps most notably on X-Force concept at its oddest and most out there. I had no idea going in that Allred was the first visual interpreter of the newer version of Nick Fury (and I guess I could be wrong, but the Internet tells me it's a Marvel Team-Up story set in that universe that gets the prize and I believe everything the Internet tells me). That's comics for you -- a maddening array of intersections and chance assignments. (My hunch is that it's Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar that locked the character most firmly into its Samuel L. Jackson incarnation pretty quickly after this initial appearance.)

There is an official site for Michael Allred here. He maintains a twitter presence here.

*****

imageSteve Ditko Did Important Foundational Development Work On Characters The Hulk And Iron Man

The great Steve Ditko (1927-) best known as a co-creator for Marvel's best-known solo character franchise (Spider-Man) and its best player still on the film-franchise bench (Doctor Strange), also did important development work on two of the key characters in the film. I'm putting him on this list to represent all those other creators who contributed to these characters -- who created something -- without being recognized as an official creator or co-creator. Ditko created one element of the hugely crowd-pleasing (in this movie, anyway; not so much his others) Hulk character without which he'd be vastly different -- according to historian Blake Bell, Ditko should receive credit for the madder-he-gets/stronger-he-gets take on the character, which before that was more of a classic Jekyll/Hyde transformer. Ditko was also the primary designer for one of the film's key visual signifiers, and maybe the visual that saved Marvel's film-franchise life, the red/gold armor that Iron Man sports.

Steve Ditko is still creating comics.

*****

(Jim Starlin Created Something, Too)

We can't say what he created without being socked in the eye by adherents to the First Law Of Nerditry, but it's great to have someone like writer/artist Jim Starlin (1949-) on a list like this one as a bridge between the multi-generational mix of talents that contributed to Marvel in the 1960s and the modern creators that are more actively asked to re-interpret that material. It's just as not-great that like many creators on this list he may never receive any sort of compensation for that material in terms of film use and toy licensing.

Starlin was a prolific creator for Marvel in that period where a lot of smart people thought there might not be mainstream comic books five or ten years down the line. More than just about anyone in his generation, Starlin's contributions to the line are mistakably his own and play extremely well in the sandboxes controlled by other creators. Starlin has worked for several comics companies outside of Marvel, and for Marvel's Epic imprint created the Metamorphosis Odyssey/Dreadstar stories, the former of which was an ambitious morality play on Vietnam-era politics and war given cosmic dimension.

Jim Starlin maintains a Facebook presence here.

*****

in part because there's not a value for showing the original creators' work on these characters -- and in part because I suck -- I had to guess with some of the images; please let me know what I got wrong with those images and the article generally

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