American Gods

Legendary Comic-Book Artists Alex Ross and Neal Adams Declare Their Patriot Acts

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Alex Ross's Uncle Sam: A surreal journey through the history of empire

Though artistically and financially devastated by the good Dr. Wertham's '50s moral crusade, comic books were experiencing a renaissance by the early '60s. Schumer, an illustrator, lecturer, and comics historian, points out that a handful of artists (including a stronger-than-ever Kirby) turned this bastard medium's limitations into strengths through strong figure drawing (a skill long atrophying in American fine art), innovative compositions, and sophisticated graphics. Schumer captures the era with a tenfold enlargement of a tiny Carmine Infantino panel of the Flash sprinting out of a ranch house, a perfectly proportioned figure in a landscape; Steve Ditko's Spider-Man slaloming between skyscrapers, his body torqued into beautiful arabesques; and Joe Kubert's Sgt. Rock, carved out of deft brushstrokes that convey war-weariness and the burden of keeping his men alive. (This month sees the release of Kubert's Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place, a half-century after he first brought the character to life. Kubert has illustrated Brian Azzarello's compelling story with spare, scabrous depictions of the nihilism of war.)

With dense, informative layouts Schumer shows how these artists helped define the decade. He relates Tom Wolfe's description of LSD proselytizer Ken Kesey sitting "for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange." Kubert evokes the My Lai massacre by having Sgt. Rock confront a soldier who has just murdered unarmed German civilians. By contrasting the noble, duty-bound Rock against the heavily armed soldier's arrogant pose, the artist succinctly portrays the gulf between America's motives in World War II and in Vietnam. Kirby thrusts the Fantastic Four into the "Negative Zone," a universe of coarse black-and-white half-tone collages, where the colorful atomic mutants drift amid asteroids searching for a planet-size intelligence named Ego. "I began to throw my mind out in all different directions," Kirby says in the book. In 1966 he upped the ante with Galactus, whom he called a "true god. . . . Everybody talks about God, but what does he look like? . . . I drew him large and awesome." The humanist spark that drove all of Kirby's work is echoed in Galactus's own dialogue: "I perceive the glint of glory within the race of man! . . . It shall one day lift you beyond the stars or bury you within the ruins of your wars!" Kirby needed such vast themes to keep pace with the art he was splashing across the colorful two-page spreads opening many of his stories: Layered scenes of destruction, creation, and war, they verge on incoherence but are as controlled and improbably gorgeous as Jackson Pollock's allover murals.

illustration: Alex Ross

It's not known if Kirby was a fan of abstract expressionism, but any art form can be judged by who steals from it. If Roy Lichtenstein simply scaled-up and tweaked the compositions of Irv Novick's original panels, Robert Rauschenberg dug deeper and found the vernacular beauty of crummy printing processes: What were his polka-dot bedsheet grounds but homages to the crude benday dots of the Sunday strips he collaged on top? Warhol painted Superman, but it's his grim Marilyn icons and car crashes, with their flailing colors barely constrained by screen-printed black outlines, that owe their shocking beauty to the raw coloring and printing pioneered by the comics. According to writer Mark Evanier, Kirby claimed Lichtenstein once came around looking for a job. He didn't get it, because "Jack seemed to think the guy's work wasn't very good, either then or when he started selling paintings for large sums."

Schumer closes Silver Age with the artist who pushed furthest beyond the limits: Neal Adams. Best known for rescuing Batman from the camp hell of ABC's popular TV series by returning the Dark Knight to his somber, vigilante roots, Adams is, simply put, one of the greatest draftsmen this country has ever produced. "Neal Adams changed everything," says Alex Ross in Mythology. "He defined what realistic, dynamic storytelling in comics would be for all time."

Not that Adams will own up to it. During a recent interview a deep, broad accent comes down the phone line as he recounts the tale of some Frenchmen visiting his studio: "Ahhh yez, America does zree forms of art—your musical comedy, jazz, and comic books." Adams laughs, and says he replied: "It's something you take into the bathroom, and if you take a nice long shit, you can finish a whole comic book."

If not false, his modesty is at least disingenuous; minutes later he speaks of putting his "heart and soul" into Green Lantern comics for $45 a page when he could have been making hundreds doing advertising layouts. In 1970, Adams and writer Denny O'Neil sent Green Lantern (a test pilot made nigh-on invincible through an alien power source) and a hippie Robin Hood named Green Arrow on a journey to discover America. Green Arrow teaches his straitlaced friend that the law is not always on the side of justice, as they bring down a cruel slumlord in one issue and defeat an army of goons protecting a greedy mine owner in the next.

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