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BOOKS & IDEAS

They're not just for laughs

With biographies and even museum exhibitions, 20th century cartoonists are suddenly getting their due as artists chronicling modern culture.

October 21, 2007|Ben Schwartz | Special to The Times

However, Kirby came home from a particularly violent tour of duty in Europe. He started up a suburban family on Long Island but suffered weekly nightmares from the war until he died in 1994. After 15 years of struggling in the comics business, with bullying editors demanding kickbacks from him in exchange for work, he landed at Marvel in 1961, a bottom-of-the-barrel publisher. There he co-created outsider heroes like the X-Men, a far cry from his Captain America. He offered angry, depressed monster-heroes like the Thing and the Hulk, who looked like the villains in Superman stories. "Before Jack, a superhero comic was about one thing. It was about beating the bad guy. The world changed when Kennedy was shot," Evanier says. "It was changing before that, but now you had a generation of kids come in, the baby boomers, and just as they were ready for something new in music like the Beatles, they were ready for it in comics." Kirby turned Marvel into a powerhouse, quit for rival DC in 1969 and moved his family to Irvine. There, in the finale to his career, his "Fourth World," he created the first comics epic, a "Lord of the Rings"-size dysfunctional family vision portraying good and evil as too entangled to ever be truly separate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 92 words Type of Material: Correction
Cartoonists: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about recent books and museum exhibitions on classic cartoonists said Jack Kirby created the superhero Captain America. Kirby co-created the character with writer Joe Simon. Also, the article referred to three new biographies of cartoonists that complement complete reprintings of their life works, and implied that Kirby's life work is in "The Complete Dick Tracy." While there is a forthcoming biography of Kirby, there is not a reprinting of his entire life's work. "The Complete Dick Tracy" reprints the life work of cartoonist Chester Gould.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 94 words Type of Material: Correction
Cartoonists: An article in the Oct. 21 Calendar section about recent books and museum exhibitions on classic cartoonists said Jack Kirby created the superhero Captain America. Kirby co-created the character with writer Joe Simon. Also, the article referred to three new biographies of cartoonists that complement complete reprintings of their life works, and implied that Kirby's life work was in "The Complete Dick Tracy." While there is a forthcoming biography of Kirby, there is not a reprinting of his entire life's work. "The Complete Dick Tracy" reprints the life work of cartoonist Chester Gould.

Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" debuted in 1934 and soon introduced a cinematic storytelling technique to the comics page, so early into the sound era that filmmakers like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock told him they cribbed ideas from him for camera set-ups. He found stories in the day's headlines, and American kids reading Terry's adventures saw a kid like themselves smack in the middle of the Japanese invasion of China. "He made characterization a driving mechanism of his stories," Harvey says. "The tragic thing about Caniff, in a way, is that the story of his life is the realization of the American dream. From a small town in southern Ohio, he was the first of his family to go to college and made a huge success of himself with 'Terry and the Pirates.' When World War II came along, he was among the first to put his characters on the battlefield with a hard-nosed, realistic portrayal of men in war."

Then "he took Canyon [star of his second major strip, 'Steve Canyon'] into war in Vietnam much in the same spirit as he had Terry in World War II. But suddenly that kind of patriotism was no longer popular, and he lost newspapers in droves." As for Schulz, his strip was a phenomenally popular touchstone for the nation, and for more than one world if you count the Apollo astronauts landing on the moon in their capsule, Charlie Brown, and their lunar rover, Snoopy.

Michaelis' book has surprised some Peanuts readers (and Schulz family members) with the emotionally distant, not always cuddly genius he describes. Schulz was drafted after Pearl Harbor, went to Europe and saw combat during the last weeks of the war. We can add to that his mother's death from cancer the week he left for the army, his conversion to evangelical Christianity during the war, his division discovering the Dachau concentration camp and a heartbreaking postwar romance with, yes, a red-headed girl. That all happened by age 27, when Schulz's first "Peanuts" strip came out. "I'm being a bit reductive," Michaelis says, "but the 1950s were called the Age of Anxiety. This was a comic strip born in the Cold War, a neurotic age, an age of uncertainty, masked with great abundance and prosperity. For Charlie Brown to say, 'I'm depressed, I don't feel the way I'm supposed to,' is a recognition of Eisenhower's America, what was just beneath the surface of it.

"Schulz wasn't a rebel. He was a true subversive within the system. In the '50s, so many things were supposed to have been solved, by World War II, by American supremacy and military power, but also in medicine, like the Salk vaccine. Schulz reminded people, subversively, that we should really be puzzled by the world. That underneath all this abundance were still these little incidents in life that you couldn't account for. In Charlie Brown's world, the happiest person is the dog, and that by itself is a subversive notion in the American vision of childhood."

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