A friend completing ancient-Near-East PhD work contacted me from the other side of the world a few weeks ago. It led to something I haven’t done in years, an illustration job. She didn’t ask me to do the illustration, actually. She wanted to know if I could help find somebody to do it — which interested me, but not as much, as I thought about it, as the possibility of doing it myself. Either was going to take time, anyhow.
Over a few recent days I’ve been listening to an interview with Jack Kirby, done in L.A. in 1990, posted on YouTube by the Jack Kirby Museum. He’s 72, and he rambles and loses track of the questions, and you get the feeling the show hosts don’t quite know what to do with him. But he’s fun to listen to, on the whole. A theme he seems to like returning to is the idea that storytelling runs in his family. I can’t help thinking that he was probably always the rambly, discursive, storytelling type of conversationalist. Maybe the guy we’re hearing on tape is someone really not far removed from the guy who started out in Superman and Batman knockoffs during the Depression, fifty-odd years earlier.
PBS has a three-part series on the American comic-book superhero running now — from Siegel & Shuster to the recent summer blockbusters. I watched (minus dozing) tonight while doing some bookkeeping. If you get your comics history largely from Wikipedia and YouTube, like me, you’d say it feels sketchy. At times, seems not much more than a long commercial for the Marvel and DC media shops. It may be the work of a Ken Burns alumnus, but it’s some way from doing what Ken Burns does for Americana.
And now, merely for example’s sake, I will, with your permission, read a few lines of a true book with you, carefully; and see what will come out of them. I will take a book perfectly known to you all. No English words are more familiar to us, yet few perhaps have been read with less sincerity. I will take these few following lines of Lycidas: —
Last came, and last did go,
The pilot of the Galilean lake.
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain,
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain,)
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake,
‘How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else, the least
That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw;
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said.’
What’s kept the American comic-book superhero stories going since the creation of Superman, anyway? Why doesn’t it die? Why didn’t it already die but good, like the unlikely faddish twist on pulp it surely was in inception, like so many other lifestyle and entertainment fashions of its day did, a long time ago? There are bound to be some good answers to this, proposed by learned & unlearned persons in books and magazine articles. Someday I might find time to look into it.
I said it’s occurred to me that H.B. is an answer to Superman. Well, but aren’t all the comic-book hero figures who come after Superman answers to Superman, one way or another? Heck, Superman’s been cast as answer to himself often enough by now, maybe.
Then again, these answers to Superman come in different kinds, and there might be something to be said for comparing them. So, where does Mignola’s turn at it belong in the whole range of such ‘answers,’ and so on — we can always talk about that. Or rather, somebody can. That’s a project better left to the real comics geeks.
One of the notable curiosities about the ‘Mignolaverse’ is that it kicks off in 1994, seemingly, as a team hero series of the by then thoroughly worked-over X-Men gifted-children type but, without ever taking that convention very seriously, soon abandons it, splitting Hellboy’s story off from the Bureau’s, or its from his, whereafter they’re maintained as essentially separate series. The B.P.R.D. carries on, of course, in something like the original team vein, with the hero angle considerably diminished and a heavy dose of X-Files to round out what it lacks in the way of X-Men substance. And Hellboy, title and character together, is plunged in what ends up being clearly another direction altogether, borrowing apparently from Gaiman and who knows what other long list of sources.
In the last of an otherwise not especially satisfying short series of articles for National Catholic Reporter, covering his objections to Robert Sirico‘s Catholic-flavored economic libertarianism, Michael Sean Winters arrives at something I found pretty wonderful, an idea that elevates the whole series: ‘the model for Christian creativity is the receptive, dependent, suffering creativity of Jesus, the Son’ — which he attributes to David Schindler. I take with caution Winters’ elaboration, that ‘there is nothing protean, nothing self-made, nothing frugal or thrifty, nothing self-assertive, nothing competitive, nothing greedy or self-interested in the lives of Jesus and His Mother,’ since it is certainly possible in a qualified way to see the Jesus of the gospels as self-assertive and competitive (to the point of combativeness) in his social and political context. (The all-important qualification is that Jesus’ self-assertion comes with, and for a believing reading definitely out of, a messianic self-awareness oriented to revelation and relationship to transcendent authority. It may even be promethean (as I think Winters means), in a sense, but apart from a prejudicial reading, from sources external to the narratives themselves, it can never be taken for mere self-expression or self-satisfaction.)
From the beginning of my off-&-on writing here I’ve wanted to explore my sense — from experience, mainly — that creativity is basically receptive (not to say passive) rather than productive. I’ve never really done so explicitly, though. At best, I guess, I’ve been oblique, on rare occasion — hinting I’d like to re-frame my old interest in ‘design culture’ as belonging to ‘reading.’ For one thing, my theological background just isn’t up to the discussion, and I think getting anywhere with it demands a theology. Finding Winters’ reference here gives me some hope of coming to the theme anew.
I seem not to have much use for this site anymore but to post very occasional HB sketches. If I really were a great Mignola fan, that might be alright, but I don’t think I am. I’m a middling Mignola fan at best, and I have plenty of other stuff to keep my mind occupied. Still, something I feel I ought to be able to do here — though I won’t take time for it now or probably anytime soon — is talk about the appeal this character has for me in spite of Mignola’s apparently shallow conception (as interviews with him generally seem, to my mind anyway, to attest) of him and his little story world.