Wednesday, April 04, 2007

BOOK REVIEW! TALES TO ASTONISH by Ronin Ro (Bloomsbury, 2004)

Ah gee, I really love it when my fans send me interesting records and books and other sundries outta the blue, just because me iz me which seems just about as good an excuse for them to do so as any! I guess that's what I get for being such a magnetic personality here in the blog world, and frankly given my own humble surroundings and general lack of big long green I can only hope that more people get the bright idea to send me nice little goodies that I can either enjoy during the lonely evening hours or perhaps even sell for hopefully some beaucoup bucks down the line!

Anyway the fan in question for today's name is Brad Kohler (you already know who he is!) and the book he sent down Sharon way's TALES TO ASTONISH, and although Mr. Kohler was cheap enough to wait until the book was remaindered before he would buy me a copy I sure do appreciate this tome for our times and not only because it's free (which is about as good a reason as any!). TALES TO ASTONISH (also the name of one of the classic early-sixties Marvel monster/fantasy comics later to become a vehicle for their visionary superhero romps, hence the title coppage) purports to be a history of the comic book industry all the way from its humble beginnings until the here and now, but in actuality it's more or less the only biography of the great Jack Kirby that I think any of us'll come across in awhile, other'n in a variety of hard-to-get fanzines that pop up on the auction block once in a blue moon. For the Kirby fans amongst us we muct be grateful for such small favors. And yeah, there are a whole slew of comic book histories out there that also dig into the behind-the-scenes dirt, but despite all of the faults and downright errors (I spotted more'n a few of the obligatory ones that usually seem to slip into these reads perhaps on purpose just so's thousands of eager beaver kids can write in making themselves feel superior in the process) I actually kinda like TALES TO ASTONISH despite the occasional gaffes this book, for all its nicey-nice good intentions, exudes.

Naturally you could expect these faults to creep up on you here and there when you certainly aren't looking, but then again what else would you expect from a writer (cookie-cutter modern gooch with two "gangsta" rap books to his name) who seems to ooze all of the same current-affairs sense of gulcheral nada like a hunka cheese in the sun dripping sweat? True, I can excuse the occasional factual errors as well as the typically cringe-inducing social points which, like most current feely-good mush passing for honest criticism, seems drawn straight outta the ether (the Senator McCarthy reference was extremely nauseating showing that people really have to stray from the truth to besmirch their favorite dead whipping boy even more!), but at times the gush just seems to overtake the book into the usual realms of Irving Wallace blanditude. And author "Ro" has the unmitigated nerve to call SUBMARINER creator and longtime Marvel mainstay Bill Everett a hack! But then again I'd probably read about Jack Kirby and the birth of comic books even if a complete one-dimensional zilchoid like "Ro" (obviously an alias, as Captain America once said) did write it anyways, so just forget the fact that this book was scribed by some "professional" who contributes to the likes of ROLLING STONE and SPIN (thus keeping some real wild gonzo guy a la Meltzer unemployed thus depriving an entire generation as to what rock & roll writing is really about!) and who knows, maybe you'll enjoy TALES TO ASTONISH a wee bit too!

Like I did. In fact I read this mother (keeping a seventies-frame-'o-mind that I often associate with my serious comic book reading days) through twice and I only got the thing Saturday! But TALES TO ASTONISH is nerve-shooting enough even when "Ro" digs up dubious exact quotes from situations that happened over sixtysome years ago (but hey, what Beatle bio didn't do exactly that?) and seems to draw all of these strange convoluted conclusions you never would have in a million years because, at least the guy detailed a great history of the infighting and backstabbing that went on in the comic biz ever since the early days when SUPERMAN helped boost the industry into orbit. If anything TALES TO ASTONISH is tip top reading if only to find out about who the real jerks and heroes in the comic book world are, though even after a few read-throughs it's hard to discern even that. And what's probably best about this book (at least in some strange fashion) is that you know that more'n a few people out there probably have even stronger feelings against "Ro" than I do because other'n for two Kirby sketches that adorn the dustjacket there are NO illustrations to be found anywhere in this read! None, nada, nyet, and you pretty much get the impression that Marvel and DC denied the use of any of their archival Kirby artwork because of the gritty detail that is dug up and presented for us long-gone fans (much of it having to do with Kirby's attempts to recover his artwork in the eighties despite Marvel's best efforts to keep it for themselves), but sheesh, you'd'a thunk that maybe some early public domain Kirby comic coulda be stuck in here somewhere...

For those keeping score, Kirby naturally comes off the winner (toughguy cigar-chomping king of the realm) which would figure considering the author's unabashed fandom for the man, Stan Lee as an innovator as well as advantage-taker par-excellence (which is probably one reason for the lack of artwork!), John Goldwater (MLJ/Archie) as a hardnosed jerk (which was the general attitude of most comic fans considering his role in the creation of the Comics Code Authority...old hatreds die hard), former Kirby partner Joe Simon as a shrewd businessman who would eventually leave Kirby with a bad taste in his mouth and Steve Ditko as big a question as his infamous Charlton creation of the same name. You may interpret the proceedings with a slight difference which is your perogative I guess, but at least that's the impression I get from this book which really woulda shattered my perceptions of what I thought was going on behind the scenes back when I first discovered these fifteen-cent thrills (even less in used book shops, garage sales and flea markets!) long long ago!

I mean, back then I thought that the guys who were writing and drawing these books were having a ball working 9-to-5 in offices where they joked around all the time and had fun creating the next issue of THE INCREDIBLE HULK between table-top football games! (If I only knew that world-famous artists like Kirby were spending more'n a few evenings burning the midnight oil in order to meet approaching deadlines without the benefit of health insurance and all of the other fringes I'm sure I would've felt extremely jaded about the whole affair!) Who woulda thunk (esp. for a twelve-year-old) that the biz was just about as cutthroat and as oneupmanship hardassed as those schooldays that one longed to escape from via these very same comic books! Hey, if I only knew that the comics world wasn't that much different from real life maybe I wouldn't have spent all of those hours in the tee-vee room drawing RATS REAGAN and PUTTY CAT strips but ya gotta admit that at least the likes of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby helped keep up the illusion pretty well! And maybe that's the real message behind this book which no hack writer can spoil no matter how pedestrian his suspect talents may be.


Anonymous said...

Ronin's one of the best reporters in the business. He interviewed everyone he could, including people close to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee himself. Ronin also went on a Kirby site to explain he didn't use pictures of the art because he didn't want people looking down on books about comics as "funny books." Sounds like you really loved the book. You'd have to enjoy it to read it twice.

Christopher Stigliano said...

I dunno if anyone who'd call Bill Everett a "hack" and come to all sorts of paranoid conclusions regarding the alledgedly true, sinister intent of Senator Joseph McCarthy going after Jews (!) can be considered the "best" at anything, but maybe I do quibble about such small details! And frankly, if what author "Ro" said about the lack of pictures in his book is true (given the visual nature of his subject matter) then he has even less insight regarding his subject matter than I would have given him credit for! (I figured there was some sort of legal hassle regarding the use of graphics, one thing which has held up for so long former MAD editor Al Feldstein's very own autobiography which I understand is very critical of boss Bill Gaines. [Gaine's daughter saying that none of his EC art can be reprinted unless the nasty remarks regarding her father are expunged] which has undoubtedly led to a nice sticky mess on Feldstein's part!) And I wouldn't say that I particularly "loved" the book (I only read it through twice in order to give the thing a fair shake which is a once more than I usually give such items), but if I got any enjoyment out of the thing it was because of the subject matter at hand which easily transcended the modern-day tinge that permeates not only books such as TALES TO ASTONISH but the entire publishing industry.

From what I understand, there are some way better books dealing with the birth of the comic book industry still available that I wouldn't mind reading and not only for the luxury of comparing them with ASTONISH. (I came across a very interesting review of one of these more-recent titles on Lew Rockwell's libertarian-based website about a year back where not only was it revealed that BATMAN creator Bob Kane and others actually negotiated their contracts with DC through lawyers (one reason the team of Seigel and Schuster got royally screwed by the folks at National), but that noted CRIME DOES NOT PAY/[the original] DAREDEVIL publisher Lev Gleason was actually a card-carrying member of the CPUSA!) From that mere review I'm sure this particular book whose title escapes me at this time reads way better than "Ro"'s at-times didactic and comparatively weak (yet informative as I've written) tome. But as they say the proof's in the pudding and maybe when Brad Kohler finds that one in the remainder pile and scoots it my way will I find out!