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“But Hold Onto Your Watches And Wallets!” COMICS! Sometimes Gil Kane Did ‘Em!

John Kane

Bit pressed for time, I’m afraid. So here’s:
Gil Kane,  Superman and some words about them both. Maybe some of it makes sense, that’d be a turn up for the books! Cheers!

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Doo-doobie-dee-doo (Doo-BE-DOO!)


SUPERMAN SPECIAL #1

“Behold! The Ultimate Man!”
Story & Art by Gil Kane
Lettered by Milt Snappinn
Coloured by Tom Ziuko
Edited by Julius Schwartz
DC Comics, $1.00 (1983)
Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

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I totally missed all Gil Kane’s work on Superman in the ‘80s so my excitement upon hearing the news that these works were to be collected by DC between two covers (available on 26 Dec 2012!!) was both genuine and verging on the unhealthy. There were two factors preventing me from experiencing them at the time; the first being availability on the spinner racks which I pestered with my teenage presence. See, back when phones were stationary and you had to go to them, I was too young to get to Leeds on the bus (this took an hour and a quarter on the 508 bus, but due to a space-time paradox around Armley only 40 minutes on the X84 bus. Or they may have taken different routes. You can take all the magic out of life, you know.) to an actual comic shop dedicated to comics. Consequently I had to make do with what ended up on the market stall. This never included Annuals or Specials (like this one). The other factor was money. It usually is. I did sort of lackadaisically pick up an issue here or there in later years but I knew eventually they’d be collected. And some thirty years later I have been proven right. Patience there, that’s what that is. So as a sort of taster to the amazing delights of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN: GIL KANE here’s some words about Gil Kane and Superman.

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Other than the selfish reasons outlined above I also hope the book will bring Gil Kane back into the ever-evolving comics conversation. I don’t hear his name bandied about so much these days, which is a shame verging on an injustice. Because the big thing about Gil Kane is that his later stuff is totally great. (He died in 2000 so the ‘80s is Later Kane). Throughout his career he usually moaned about his inkers but lacked the confidence to do it himself. By the ‘80s though he was by all accounts pretty pleased at the results he was achieving. And so am I. SUPERMAN SPECIAL #1 is a bit of an anomaly in that Kane gets the writing credit also. Over 43 pages he shows you why his art is what he’ll be remembered for, and why that art is worth remembering and, yes, celebrating.

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Because to be fair, the writing isn’t very good. That does not mean it is unentertaining. In fact, the very broad strokes of significance it uses to disguise the underlying daftness create a kind of insanely joyful read. The story has a loosely three act structure. In the first act Superman fights a big “energy-being” which mindlessly feeds on “whatever matter it can suck into its maw.” This dangerous drainer is dispatched by Superman spinning around very fast indeed. Kane throws some hard science in our face by telling us that this maneuver has generated “counter energy” and “nullified the vacuum.” It also appears to have killed the poor slobby thing. There are several elements introduced here that will be repeated through the remainder of the pages; the danger of the thirst for power, the power of spinning around very fast indeed, gibberish as science and Superman being okay with killing.

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No sooner has Superman returned to earth than he is faced with a maverick politician who has holed up in the White House and is going to press The Button. And, yes, it is a literal Button. I very much enjoyed the bit where the guy says “All that is bad proceeds from weakness” and the fact that although he is nothing like Richard Nixon he is just like Richard Nixon in the same way that Anthony Hopkins is/is not like Richard Nixon in that Oliver Stone film. U-Turn is it? In the final and by far the lengthiest act Superman is faced with a scientist who takes science into his own hands and accelerates his own evolution for the good of the world; he will of course be telling us all what to do from now on. He chucks a load of natural disasters at Superman.

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These take up the bulk of the issue as Superman defeats each in turn (yes, spinning around very fast indeed is again involved), before just dumping Superman in a “twisting vortex” at “the end of the universe”. Superman worries a bit before he remembers that he can spin around very fast indeed and he “explodes outward in a shower of creation-making incandescence!” Also, inadvertently reminding every male reader of their adolescence. Superman gets back to find that the scientist is having another go at his evolutionary ray so, as you would, Superman fetches the “lens of the world’s largest telescope” which he positions between the scientist and the beam and so burns him up like a sadistic child with an ant. Although he looks more like a singed chimp. Luckily Superman tells us what to think of all this baffling nonsense and flies off. If that’s not your idea of a good time I don’t know what is.

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The real value of SUPERMAN SPECIAL is that it acts like a showcase for Gil Kane’s art. Every panel on every page has something Gil-tastic going on inside its borders. Even the borders are worth noting. If there’s a better example of how to use diagonal separations of single panels in order to enhance coherence and pacing, then I’d bet who ever is responsible read this comic. Inside the borders the pictures themselves are pitch perfect examples of perspective and positioning. This is a comic that can get right up into a face so that the beads of sweat are defined individually, and can also pull back so far that Superman can be seen traveling to the “rim of the universe” within a single slim panel. Gil Kane’s got scale down pat, pal.

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He’s also got deadlines and alimony payments so he takes shortcuts aplenty. But these are Gil Kane shortcuts. So, while there’s a certain familiarity to the Kane-Tech (is that a camcorder with a sieve stuck on?) he twists the details and ups the scale to render it alien and unfamiliar. The greatest testament to Kane’s skill is that, in more panels than should be strictly healthy, he renders the contents as little more than texturally suggestive abstractions of what he is telling you you are seeing. Much of the art here may have its origins in expediency but the results are astonishing in their effectiveness. It’s difficult to see how anyone else could make so little mean so much. But then no one else was Gil Kane. Certainly no one else had Gil Kane’s way with textures. There’s an epicurean delight, the kind only comics can provide, to be had in Gil Kane’s textures. His people seem moulded from an extremely friable cheese and they inhabit a world sculpted from some combination of nougat, steel and water like fractured glass; a purely comic book world where power is visible in the form of bizarre swirls and sworls of milky amoebas.

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Like Elvis, Gil Kane had his hits, and Gil Kane’s hits are here. On the cover alone he’s given you a floating head and a tortured soul with legs akimbo, a power amoeba and that glorious smoke like squid ink. Inside there are the Gil-tastic thrusting and flailing figures that thrum with anatomical excellence; grace and goofiness combined in the ever rewarding Gil Kane style. Perhaps he did these things out of habit, perhaps they were shortcuts themselves, but to read a Gil Kane comic without them would be to see Elvis and not have him do Suspicious Minds. Every Gil Kane comic is a performance. Every Gil Kane comic is Elvis in Vegas. There are good nights and bad nights but SUPERMAN SPECIAL is a VERY GOOD! night. The kind of night where Tom Jones is in the audience and Priscilla hasn’t run off with her karate instructor yet. I miss Gil Kane, and not just because when he changed his name from Eli Katz he chose the best surname of all.

So, yeah I’ll be talking about him some more probably. Something to look forward to there, eh?

Okay, probably not, but you can still look forward to COMICS!!!

12 Responses to “ “But Hold Onto Your Watches And Wallets!” COMICS! Sometimes Gil Kane Did ‘Em! ”

  1. Gil Kane is one of my favourite of the silver age artists… and he’s one that got better and better as the years went on. LOVE his work!!

  2. “Although he looks more like a singed chimp”! Bwahahaha! This was excellent stuff as always, Mr Kane but how could it not be with that combination of praise for the Other Mr Kane, masturbation references, hilariously groan-worthy obtuse gags about Ollie Stone’s Nixon biopic, and the winning description of Gil’s unintentionally wrongy-wrong characterisation of a kill-happy Sado-Superman (lets hope no-one from DC gets any ideas from this…)?! By the way I love your phrase “this dangerous drainer” to describe the MODOK wannabe chimp in the chair, I could imagine “The Dangerous Drainer” as a Marvel villain from the ’70s… Of course today they’d have to make that hypothetical villain more “real”, perhaps in Marvel MAX, yep now the drainer’d be a female pornstar called The Ball-Drainer, oops… I’m sooo sorry! Terrible bad taste jokes about bad taste comics aside (tho’ Mr Chaykin could make that work, you betcha) good work, whatever Kane’s art lacks in finesse it makes up for in wacked-out excitement, lessons could be learned from him I think (but not his scripts, at least not goodd onrs). Thanks for he entertainnent and information. By the way surely Killet Kane from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century must be high on yor list of Kaour list of fellow Kanes?! I was too busy noticing Wilma Deering – mmm, Erin- say, this coomments gone in a dubious direction, hasn’t it?! Bye!
    Hal

  3. As always, a great read, John.

    And there’s some wonderfully dead-on insights about Kane’s work–”There’s an epicurean delight, the kind only comics can provide, to be had in Gil Kane’s textures” is just one of those sentences that’s so evocative and accurate, I’ll be trying for weeks to figure out a proper place to drop it into conversation.

    For my part, despite my appreciation of Kane, I always shunned this issue and now deeply regret it. It’ll give me something to look for, now.

  4. @Murray: I am very gratified to hear that you too LOVE Gil Kane’s work! Nice one, sir!

    @Hal: I am always glad to hear people have enjoyed my nonsense so, hey, you have made me glad. Thank you very much indeed! The guy does actually look like a singed chimp! Because…it’s complicated, but he does! Honest.

    @Jeff: As ever, far too kind! I will warn you though that this issue is nothing (nothing(!), I say!) compared to the contents of Gil Kane’s ACTION COMICS run. I am reading this stuff at the moment, it’s…really, really super! Have a nice break, Mr. Lester! Relax your fine self.

    Thanks again, everyone!

  5. @JohnK oh I *love* me some Gil Kane! It’s always a treat to find his work in the back issue bins or the Showcases and Essentials. He’s an artist that continued to refine and develop his art as he got on in years. And he’s an artist that is so dependent on his inker. When he’s heavily inked, his artwork loses a little something nut when he inks himself? Wow! Love it! Somewhere in the middle of the second volume of the Sowcase volume devoted to the Atom his work just takes a wild jump into the style I love! My favourite work is probably Sword of the Atom.

  6. John,

    I waited to comment until this fell down the first page because I didn’t want it to look like I’m putting on airs or whatever. I’m currently taking a class from someone trained by Mr. Kane. The class is an art class on how to compose comic panels. (The irony is I’m a terrible artist.)

    This bit you wrote was really interesting because my teacher had the same to say about Mr. Kane’s work.

    “Inside the borders the pictures themselves are pitch perfect examples of perspective and positioning. This is a comic that can get right up into a face so that the beads of sweat are defined individually, and can also pull back so far that Superman can be seen traveling to the “rim of the universe” within a single slim panel. Gil Kane’s got scale down pat, pal.”

    Our teacher hasn’t spoken about texture at all, which is fascinating since you bring it up and provide examples.

    The bit that really intrests me is you noting Kane’s anatomical supremacy and how it allowed him to take shortcuts. Dude, you have no idea how *good* Kane was at anatomy until you see his practice figure drawing exercises. They’re all in pen and they’re just circles and they perfectly shape the body in all these incredible poses.

    We’ve learned about more than just Kane’s work, but it’s so weird you would post this article while I’m in this class. You just don’t hear much about Kane anymore.

    PS – A unexpected side-effect of taking this class is I’m able to see just how full of shit most of the comic bloggers are when it comes to critical analysis. Reading your piece, you’re most definitely not. Like, I appreciate your writing about comics because I’m taking this class on comics.

  7. As ever John, that was a fantastic read!

    I’m a little shocked to see DC is bringing out a collected works of a classic artist on 26/12 – they seem to be missing a trick there. DC – a day late and a dollar short.
    Gil Kane is an artist I run hot and cold on, and I think that’s because Gil Kane himself ran hot and cold several times over the course of his career, to be honest. But Kane when he’s on form, on Superman? I’m in! I’ll even keep an eye out for his textures!

    There’s a Superman Elseworlds out there that’s a Gil Kane/Howard Chaykin joint, ‘Superman: Distant Fires’, just so you know. It’s not amazing, but I remember it being enjoyable enough for an Elseworlds. Kevin Nowlan assists on art, rather heavily. I lost my copy in a move at some point, hence being fuzzy on details.
    (I had ChaykinFest 2012 at my place the other week, reading through Midnight Men, Power & Glory, Solo, Iron Wolf, For Your Eyes Only, and ‘Shakespeare For Americans’ (1 pager) all for the first time. I think that guy might be going places! I’d not heard of CAPTAIN AMERICA THEATRE OF WAR: AMERICA FIRST! until you mentioned it the last column, and it’s the only CA Theatre Of War one-shot not on comixology! I’ll have to remember it for ChaykinFest 2013.)

  8. “The greatest testament to Kane’s skill is that, in more panels than should be strictly healthy, he renders the contents as little more than texturally suggestive abstractions of what he is telling you you are seeing.”

    I find this to be endlessly amazing as it has two simultaneous callbacks for me:

    1) To the piece you did on some WWII comics where you remarked, “Now I’ve read a lot of war comics so I’ve probably seen more bullet riddled German soldiers fall out of trees than is strictly healthy…”

    Sue me, “strictly healthy” is comedy gold.

    and 2) In the comments section a young, wet behind the ears upstart was heard to remark, “It’s the sliding level of what to focus on and what to let a reader shorthand…They’re making CONSCIOUS choices about what to emphasize and how to best tell a story visually without getting bogged down in the minutiae.”

    That’s a thread that runs throughout comics for me and thank you for representing it in your distinct style!

  9. @Murray: You do, don’t you, you do love you some Gil Kane, I can tell. Oh yes, SoTA is just dazzling (Also: EDGE (aka in TPB – THE LAST HEROES)). Sword of The Atom! Hoo-Ha!

    @Chris Hero: You don’t have to wait to comment! I thought only the British and the Russians liked queuing. Hey, that sounds like a great course to be doing, and being taught by someone who touched the hem of Gil Kane’s robe must be even better! Gil Kane practiced every day and also liked to watch his stories on TV, that’s all I know about Gil Kane’s craft off the top of my head. He talked about it a lot though. You should check out his interviews, he was awesome at talking about comics and also, really great at doing them. The two don’t often go together. He taught HVC a lot of stuff, particularly about making time to watch your stories on TV. Is it HVC? Are you being taught by HVC?

    I am glad I sound like I am making sense (I worry about that, what with the whole not knowing what I’m doing thing). And yet, I am sorry to inform you that, no, I am bullshitting. I should probably do a course like you. Then I might know what I’m on about instead of staring at pieces of foxed paper for ungodly lengths of time in order to figure out why I like what’s on them, only to come up with startling insights like, hey, it looks like cheese! Yeah, his anatomy studies are awesome aren’t they. I would like very much to see that Gil Kane book IDW are doing of his original Spider-Man art. If anyone does see it (because I won’t. Because: money.) let me know how it is! You are a real live comic book liker and no mistake. Kudos!

    @Ben Lipman: Ah, but, see on 26/12 all the old people like me who are strapped for cash all year round will have received money for Christmas (and socks)! And this year that money is going on this Gil Kane book! DC aren’t so daft after all! I should point out the stories aren’t exactly great, but, man, that art! Did I mention the textures? I think your Gil Kane hotty/coldness may have to do with the inkers he had? Maybe. I liked S:DF even though the story makes no sense. Chaykinfest2012 sound like tons’o’fun! I’ve never read Shakespeare For Americans (Miller! Simonson! Chaykin! Heavy Metal, yes?). Someone should collect them.

    @J_Smitty: Yeah, “more than strictly healthy” amuses me because it’s kind of meaningless/pointless. I do use it on purpose but that does remind me about unwanted repetitiveness. I see I have “epicurean” in two consecutive posts. That’s because they weren’t written consecutively but still…need to watch that. It reminds me of STARMAN and how James Robinson would learn a new word and put it in a character’s mouth, and you’d go “Oh, yeah, that’s an interesting choice but I see how it’s right for that character.” And then another character would use it. And then another. And you’d realise he just had this word stuck in his head for a bit and it had sweet FA to do with character. You always make good points about comics so I am glad I am making similar ones, I must be on the right track.

    I thank you all, very much!

  10. I had no idea Shakespeare For Americans was more than a one pager – it just seemed like an odd old gag, poking at popular genres as a sight commentary/laugh, but really as an excuse to get Walt Simonson to draw those genres.
    It’s in Heavy Metal, which I read my first (back) issues of this month as part of ChakinFest (which sprung out of Maggin Madness), but the one I read has Chaykin/Simonson, not Miller.

  11. @Ben Lipman: There was also stuff from Peter Kuper apparently; I think they just pitched in as and when. I don’t think there were enough strips for a collection. I found this (I hope it’s okay to just link to it):

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dlanod/sets/72157594254008705/

    Cheers, sir!

  12. Cool! Thanks for that.
    The first one is the strip I’ve read, but the rest of those were new to me, and good fun.

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