Saturday, March 28, 2020

Bob Dylan's Apocalyptic Carousel


It's a moment when billions on the planet are locked inside their homes, fearful of a virus that condemns only a portion of those who fall ill to die without their families, choking for breath in their own fluids. Nations fall silent. Global commerce is slowed to a trickle. For not the first time in history, the structures of government, business, entertainment and religion, insulated for so long in their own technology and assumptions about the world, lie helpless before a silent, microscopic killer. The citizens of the world are reminded once again that they are mortal, that they can be held prisoner by forces that seem impersonal and uncaring to their individual stories. Whatever their plans were weeks ago, the only reality now for billions is the steady accumulation of time, of living day to day, hoping that this moment will pass and they will still be alive. It's a moment that calls to mind prophecy, fable, stories going back before recorded time.

And into the middle of that comes the longest song in Bob Dylan's nearly 60-year catalog. At midnight Friday, Dylan released "Murder Most Foul," a rolling, kaliedoscopic meditation which begins with the 1963 Kennedy Assassination and veers off into the collective unconsciousness; it is a work at home in Dylan's oeuvre, timely and timeless, playful and tragic. It also illustrates the weird alchemy that recorded music has with moments in time. "Murder Most Foul" would seem to have nothing to do with the moment it bursts into, yet, because of Dylan's place in the history of popular music, and the character of his work, it seems to have everything to do with the moment.


Bear with me while I restate a few details to set up a point. Bob Dylan began recording in 1961, obviously, during the Kennedy Administration. He came clothed in the garb of a folk singer, but Dylan did not just record murder ballads, old spirituals, songs of war and romance, handed down. Dylan wrote his own fresh material, but what  he called "finger pointing songs," their details borrowed from newspaper accounts, and anthems of the time with their images pulled from Scripture. It was after the Kennedy Assassination that Dylan began drifting away from the traditional platform and migrated to electric rock and roll. The long, playful, abstract tracks on his early albums morphed into long, free-association meandering parables, where jokes sit side-by-side with bits of philosophy, apocalyptic humor and seeming pseudo-poetic nonsense. "Murder Most Foul," at first listen, would seem to call back to that beginning, and tempt one to see it as a summation of Dylan's career and the sixties era that he, among others, represents in the public consciousness.

Through that prism, "Murder Most Foul" would seem to be at home with those early murder ballads. But what one hears isn't that. A murder ballad usually adheres to almost reportorial recounting of the basic facts of whatever story is being recounted. Think, for example, of Dylan's version of the classic "Stack-o-Lee"

Hawlin Alley on a dark and drizzly night,
Billy Lyons and Stack-a-Lee had one terrible fight.
All about that John B. Stetson hat.


Though it is unnecessary, as the facts are more or less engrained in the American imagination, it might be worthwhile to look at the lead story on the front page of The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1963, dictated by a weeping Tom Wicker from Dallas:

 DALLAS, Nov. 22 - President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today. He died of a bullet wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy's, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy's death. Mr. Johnson is 55 years old. Mr. Kennedy was 46. 
Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, described as a onetime defector to the Soviet Union, active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was arrested by the Dallas police. Tonight he was accused of the killing. Oswald, 24 years old, was also accused of slaying a policeman who had approached him on the street. Oswald was subdued after a scuffle with a second police officer in a nearby theater.

"Murder Most Foul" begins with the scene setting, "It was a dark day in Dallas, November '63," and then meanders back and forth in time, Dylan scatting in and out of the moment, at least through the end of the first stanza (?), ruminating on the moment of the killing with observations (Greatest magic trick ever under the sun, Perfectly executed, skillfully done) and the thoughts of a faceless "we" either responsible for the crime, or responsible for the quick disposal of fate (We've already got someone here to take your place).
 By the second stanza, though, we're onto the Beatles, who released their second British album on Nov. 22 but wouldn't burst into the American scene until three months later. Then a few verses later Woodstock and Altamont, another six years down the road. Another few verses and we veer back, with mentions of the Grassy Knoll and "Don't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President" - the last words JFK probably heard in his life, uttered by Nellie Connally in the Lincoln limousine just before the first shot was fired. 

In a sense, the song is a cousin to "Tempest," Dylan's almost 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic, released in 2012. But that song was a more traditional folk ballad, which told the story of the ship and the passengers fighting for survival, with a few images from the James Cameron movie tucked in beside. But we see, on closer inspection, "Murder Most Foul" is not really a song about the Kennedy Assassination as an actual event. It might be more accurately described as a song about the Kennedy Assassination as a cultural event, with all of its funhouse of bizarre characters, conspiracy theories, memorable phrases, macabre imagery and pathos - tragedy as an moment of entertainment, sitting side-by-side with the movies, pop, soul and country music. What can one say about a lyric such as, "I'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline" - an absurd, ridiculous phrase, so typical of Dylan's humor, that mixes Oswald's statement to reporters in the Dallas Police Headquarters with the doomed siren of country music.

It has become a lazy, shorthand explanation to say that the killing of John F. Kennedy was "the moment America lost its innocence." Some say the Sixties "began" with the killing, with all of the chaos and tragedy and societal change spiraling out of Oswald's Mannlicher Carcano rifle. Even Bobby Kennedy, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, was heard saying to one of his aides that he believed Oswald had unleashed something awful in the country. But a year before, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world stood under the very real possibility of global nuclear annihilation for almost two weeks. Two months before Dallas, the U.S. was horrified at the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Whatever innocence is mourned in retrospect did not disappear in the spray on Zapruder's film. 


Instead, almost 60 years in the past, the assassination is merely the tee upon which Dylan places his imagination, vaulting the president's motorcade into the ether so it can dwell in a kind of folk afterlife where Stack-a-Lee is always at Billy Lyon's throat, where Frankie and Johnny are poised for combat, where John Henry still swings his hammer and Tom Dooley waits for the noose. The song's final stanza has Dylan calling out from his own remembered list of great songs and memorable films, old movie stars and personalities, Houdini taking a place with Jelly Roll Morton, all toward a restatement of the title. 

"Murder Most Foul" is what the ghost of Hamlet's father, the slain Danish monarch, calls his own death in urging his son to avenge him. "Adieu, adieu, remember me," he says, before leaving his son to his dread purpose. In the film "JFK," the character of Jim Garrison likens Kennedy's killing to the murder of King Hamlet, that the country longs for a slain father figure. "Do not forget your dying king," he urges the jury, charged with wading into a conspiracy. By evoking Shakespeare, Dylan wraps his tale(?) in the words of the Bard. But it is his own, utterly unique vision, cranky and creaky and cryptic, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as viewed through a peep-hole in a tent at the county fair, when the viewer has just taken a puff from an exotic cigarette. Where Jacqueline Kennedy is the bearded lady, Oswald runs the target shooting booth, and Jack Ruby is the guy dickering with you over how big a stuffed animal you can ride home with. 

Home. At the moment, we are all trapped in our homes. Instead of the daily trickle of news, earthquakes, celebrity divorces, mass shootings, sexual scandals, we are witness to daily numbers, escalating exponentially, and the collective witness of mass spectacle. Celebrities and public officials urging people to stay indoors, to staunch the spread of COVID-19, give a phrase that calls back to war - "We're all in this together," even though we are all apart as never before. But in a strange way, that is what makes "Murder Most Foul" appropriate to the moment. Most people alive today did not live through the Kennedy Assassination, but they have experienced it in much the same way as the globe did in 1963 - through media. Most people who contract COVID-19 won't need hospitalization, or a ventilator. But those who don't get sick will long remember the television shots of corpses being loaded onto trucks, Twitter photos of exhausted doctors and nurses, and the long hours and shared terrors with friends and loved ones in their homes, waiting for it all to be over. 

I previously wrote about Bob Dylan here.
I wrote about the 50th anniversary of CBS's coverage of the Kennedy Assassination here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here. 
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here. 
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


Friday, January 17, 2020

The Hamlet Project: Richard Burton (1964)



Richard Burton’s Hamlet stands out amongst the “Hamlet” films as it is a filmed play – it was created during Burton’s 1964 run on Broadway, directed by John Gielgud. As such, it’s unique since it allows the audience to see the work as Shakespeare intended, on a stage, and with a great actor in command.

The film ran for a week in theaters and made an astonishing $6 million in that limited time. It survives because Burton kept a copy for himself when others were destroyed. It is not a conventional film, though it has different camera angles, close-ups, full stage views, but preserves the immediacy and intimacy of the stage. As the film opens, one can hear the crowd chatting before the curtain rises at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. Some of them may be talking about Martin Luther King Jr. or President Johnson. The Beatles are in the midst of their first U.S. tour. And Burton is at the height of his fame, age 39, still basking in the aftermath of his affair with Elizabeth Taylor during the making of “Cleopatra.”Gielgud said Burton struggled not so much with the role as the suffocating nature of his fame as part of "Liz and Dick."

The play ran for 137 performances, and could have gone much longer except that Burton tired of it. The staging was reportedly the result of a bargain between Burton and Peter O’Toole, conceived during the filming of “Becket.” Burton appeared as the prince under the direction of Gielgud, but the play was staged in modern dress because of Burton's distaste for tights. The idea was to depict a “rehearsal” of the play, though the actors reportedly went through several variations before arriving at their “costumes.” Burton plays Hamlet in casual black. Gielgud “appears” as the ghost of King Hamlet, though only in a shadow projected against the wall, with a recording of his voice. There is very little staging, few props, a theater largely of the mind. 

It was the last time Burton tackled the role. He had previously played it to great acclaim in the UK, even for Winston Churchill at the Old Vic. Burton later said he could hear the old man's rumble from the seats, reciting the words with him syllable for syllable. "And I could not shake him off … in ‘To be or not to be’ he was with me to the death.” That was the same run where Gielgud supposedly came to Burton's dressing room to take him to dinner, but there were so many visitors that he begged off. "Shall I go ahead," Gielgud asked, "or wait until you're better - I mean, ready?" It was a story Burton loved to recount, a measure of respect for the actor. Unfortuntely, his turn as the ghost is our only filmed performance of Gielgud in the play. 

The film can only preserve so much. Cast member Alfred Drake, who played Claudius, said that Burton had a theory that Hamlet “could be played a hundred ways, and he tested every one of them. Within one scene, you might get Heathcliff, Sir Toby Belch, and Peck’s Bad Boy.” Knowing this, we must be aware that we are only getting this particular performance recorded. Yet Burton, showing what he could do on a stage, is playing to wake up the people in the cheap seats.

Acting on the stage is obviously different than film. To begin with, there's the presentation of the whole body. The stage actor has to be conscious of the face that the audience can take in the sight of their entire body - because of this, their body language becomes part of the performance in a way that does not always happen in film. The film of Burton's "Hamlet" makes this clear in several ways.

At the appearance of the ghost, he hunches over in fear. As the ghost describes his murder, Burton’s Hamlet clutches his ear as if to take out his father’s poison. He crosses himself repeating the ghost’s parting words, “Adieu, adieu.” At the moment he realizes what he must do – “Oh, cursed spite!” – his voice breaks in recognition of his inadequacy. Still, his presence in the play has some of the same problems as Olivier's – he is too old to convincingly play a student, his face too world-weary and weathered. When his knowing anger appears at the coming of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it’s hard to imagine him pausing in carrying out his father’s revenge.

Burton’s greatest gift as an actor was his incomparable voice, and he uses it to great effect throughout the play. "My whole concentration was on trying to remember the prose which is much more difficult than remembering the verse," he said. "I could recall the monologues with no trouble." 

But his performance threatens at times to overwhelm the rest of the cast. When Robert Milli’s Horatio says the ghost “harrows me with fear and wonder,” he hardly seems convincing. While Burton luxuriates in the rhythms of the language, some of the cast seem uneasy with the verses. Their movements, in the early going, seem stiff and reserved. Of course, the point of the play is not “realism,” but performance. It’s heightened reality, manic reality, “a fiction, in a dream of passion.” Gielgud later said his only help for Burton was to "show him how the more relaxed scenes were played so he wouldn't have to tear himself to shreds in scenes..."


The difference in cast members becomes more evident with the entrance of Polonius, played wonderfully by the scene-stealing Hume Cronyn. He ambles about the stage in business suit, leaning on his cane, flicking down his reading glasses, and spouting nostrums with self-satisfaction. His scenes questioning the would-be madman Hamlet (How say you by that?) ring all the comedy out of the lines. Cronyn isn’t treating Shakespeare as a holy text – he’s an actor embodying a role, not singing a song.

But there are times when Burton is. As Hamlet degenerates into his feigned madness, he struts and frets about the stage, slurs his words, holds his pauses, dances about in his own pleasure, and blows through the soliloquies occasionally at a speed that does not speak of reflection. This was particularly true of his “To be or not to be,” which seemed to come and go with hardly a ripple. Some of this is normal for a play, as an actor has to pace himself and hit the right moments, conserving energy. Perhaps this night, there were different areas where he wanted to hit the high notes.

I was particularly annoyed early in the play with Claudius, played by Alfred Drake. His presence seemed barely there to me, and his performance hardly rose at all to meet Burton through the first part of the play. But this was clearly his strategy, because he came to absolute life in his confession scene, and the character emerged in all three dimensions in a few seconds. Suddenly he wasn’t reciting Shakespeare with a cliched gravity but was a genuinely guilty, grieving man, confronted with the result of his crime. One can quibble with this direction though. Anyone with a knowledge of “Hamlet” knows what Claudius is up to from his first appearance. He’s of course, hiding in plain sight. Playing him as a man hiding his crime within the ceremony of office is one way to put a fresh face on the part. But I still felt Drake played it a little too nondescript in the beginning. His performance going forward until the end, though, redeemed some of the colorlessness of the early acts.

 And Burton kept finding ways to bring out the humanity in Hamlet as the play continued. His tearful scene with Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) showed the prince’s love for his mother with only a hint of the Freudian patina that mars so many mid-20th century productions. He puckishly kisses Claudius on the cheek as he leaves for England. And for me, his best scene was “How all occasions,” as his performance brought out all the shading and implications of the speech as a companion piece with “To be or not to be.” His Hamlet is now resolved, and ready to meet his fate. 

This reminds me of what Peter Ackroyd wrote of "Hamlet," that it is not necessarily a play where Hamlet declares who he is, but rather, who he is becoming. Burton's later speeches occasionally show flashes that Hamlet has emotionally moved from where he was at the play's beginning.

There was one interesting bit of staging in the final scene. Claudius retreats to the throne as Hamlet rushes at him with the poisoned cup. Claudius gasps and dies with his body sprawled on the throne. Hamlet, in his last lines, casts Claudius’ remains to the floor, points at his enemy, laughs in victory, and dies on his feet, slumping into Horatio’s arms. Horatio then places Hamlet's body on the throne, at last, just as Fortinbras enters to seize the kingdom, the unhappy rule of the turbulent prince ending before it could even begin.

And because of the film, we see an exhausted Burton, spent from his three-hour performance, noticeably heaving for breath on the throne when he’s supposed to be dead. The camera proves a more pitiless observer than the bored patron dragged to the theater by his wife for an evening on the town. 


Previously: Toshiro Mifune

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


Friday, December 28, 2018

The grinning ghosts of "They Shall Not Grow Old"


What stays with me after watching "They Shall Not Grow Old" - Peter Jackson's World War I documentary - are the smiles on the faces of the soldiers as they look into cameras.

Plenty has been written about Jackson's film, which takes the old Imperial War Museum silent footage of the Western Front trenches, with all their cracks, jumps and jerky movements, and transforms them into clear, smooth, color images in 3-D that appear living and vital. The film, in limited release, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.


I think we often forget that the men who fought in the trenches did not know that another World War would follow scarcely 20 years after the close of the first. Unlike the Second, which was extensively recorded on film and occasionally in color, World War I doesn't leave us with film of blitzkriegs and Stuka dive bombers, Pearl Harbor or the devastation of Hiroshima. What we know of it resembles impressions of the wars of antiquity. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Schlieffen Plan, Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, Gallipoli, the Russian Revolution - all of these monstrous events play out largely in books and our imagination. And they survive there, through the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the prose of Erich Maria Remarque, among others.

Jackson's film begins rather ordinarily. The pre-war and military training footage is clear but in black and white and at the regular frame speeds we expect of that time. It is the kind of film you would expect in a museum. We are clearly watching the past, distant, even cold, in spite of hearing the voices of World War veterans remembering these times, recorded when the men were in their 60s and 70s. When the scene shifts to the battlefield, though, the images suddenly grow sharper, gain color, and the depth of 3D. And we are suddenly transported.

What "They Shall Not Grow Old" gives us are faces - the faces of ordinary British and German soldiers sacrificed on the fields of Belgium and France. At various times in Jackson's film, he zeroes in on the faces of soldiers recorded for the cameras. There are various scenes of soldiers, in the off hours, at work, at play, horsing around for the camera. They seem fascinated by it. The camera pans over men on a march, in a trench, at a table, in a huddle, or hunched against a wall before an offensive, and their eyes all gravitate to the lens. For some, their faces appear in a locked fascination. For others, they seem determined to model courage, or appear as an individual. Others are instantly taken with the desire to perform. One man's eyes bulge before an engagement. Another wounded man's hands shake violently. One man maintains a stone face while playing a bottle as a guitar. Computer refinements makes the faces appear as contemporary and alive as if the footage was shot hours before. We have to be reminded that many of these faces did not survive the end of the day's filming.

In our time of Snapchat, the photobomb, the selfie and the surreptitious filming that surrounds us, we have to be reminded of a time when a person might go their whole lives without seeing a bulky motion picture camera. They might not even know how such a thing might appear. But the film informs and deforms the past. We don't know these men's names. The voices we hear are not young men, but old. They are survivors, so there is a disconnect between the immediacy of the image and the reality of what is being seen. The voices have traveled a long way from the desperation of the trenches, when tens of thousands of men perished over yards of ground. They survive, at the moment they recount their stories, sometimes by the barest of luck and the inscrutable will of God. They have had many meals since their time on the front. Consider the words of Remarque's narrator in "All Quiet on the Western Front:"

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”

We are looking into the faces and hearing the memories of recognizably ordinary men. As in any war, they are called upon to do extraordinary things, mixed up with the maddeningly pedestrian, the absurd, the ghastly. The film reminds us of their daily routine of bland and appalling food, the muck of the trench, the fetid and festering surroundings, verminous pests run wild, rats grown obese on bloated corpses sinking into mud, accompanied by the din of machine guns and the thrum of distant artillery. But these men are mostly poor, judging by their appalling teeth, unevenly educated, bred to toil, nurtured in the idea of Imperial rightness and might, determined to see through their fates because they've been called by King and Country. Or at least, that's what the voices tell us.

 But I kept looking into those faces, looking out over a century, out into the auditorium where we munched on popcorn and checked our iPhones. The faces, restored to color, revived by the manipulation of the image. Was I being deceived into seeing something sweet and sentimental about the past? "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" asked Owen in "Anthem for Doomed Youth." 

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
     Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs. - 

Many millions more have perished since the guns fell silent in November 1918. Humanity is much larger, more connected and disconnected. I sometimes sense the indifferent arrogance of the pre-war, post-Victorian West in the world now, and I shudder. One sometimes hears that education and the inculcation of human rights consciousness has made the world more humane. Just a momentary study of the sweep of history does little to inspire confidence that this is true. Hang around a while, says a darker, inner voice. Give our truer natures time, and we will again be busy.


But "They Shall Never Grow Old" succeeds by reminding us that there is more to the story than the carnage we associate with the trench. These were not cattle, though circumstances and a relentless accumulation of horror made they feel so. The faces of the soldiers we see are not actors trying to illuminate a time through gesture and expression, but the actual human beings who were chosen to enact an ancient rite that we seem unable to grow out of it, a ritual where even the best of our instincts survives alongside the worst of our sins. Those enduring, ghostly faces awaken, to our astonished eyes, and reach back with their doomed, determined eyes.

What would they think of us? What would they think of the civilization they fought for? I don't ask this question as an indictment. Instead, I ask it as one asks oneself, after the parents are long dead. "What would they think of what I've become? What do I owe them? What does all of this mean?"


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Stan Lee RIP

The death of Stan Lee on Monday has no doubt inspired much reflection from those who grew up on his many tales to astonish. The Marvel Age of Comics created, before a string of billion-dollar grossing movies, many volumes of half-baked analysis. I have no wish to add to that. What follows are a few lines of tribute to Stan the Man's contributions to storytelling. 

It is something of a mystery as to why, after more than 10 years of trying, almost every corner of the Marvel Universe has made the trip to the big screen successfully, except the one title that started the whole thing – The Fantastic Four. The quartet gave birth to two mostly unsatisfying outings (giving us the first appearance of Chris Evans in colorful tights) and another attempt that largely arrived stillborn (despite the presence of Michael B. Jordan). Evidently, playing the Human Torch is a kind of training wheels for bigger things. 

But the Fantastic Four provided the Big Bang for the Marvel Age. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, for more than 100 issues, created the architecture for much of what we see in the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and beyond. The coming Captain Marvel film will feature the Skrulls, the alien race who bedeviled the FF in its first year of existence. The four made the first trip to Wakanda to meet Black Panther. It was Johnny Storm who rediscovered Captain America (though this was later a hoax, it was an effective trial balloon that led to the character’s resurrection with the Avengers.) Doctor Doom, a disfigured figure of nobility and intellect wrapped in armor and robes, can be seen as the prototype for Darth Vader.

The FF met the Inhumans, traveled to the Negative Zone, and hobnobbed with all the various characters of Marvel’s other magazines. Month after month, through the sixties, the Fantastic Four was the laboratory for Marvel's demolition and recreation of how comic books were conceived, produced and celebrated in popular culture. 

But long before Thanos – there was Galactus.

Perhaps the ultimate FF adventure – and an example of Stan Lee’s abilities as a storyteller – is the 1966 three-issue arc of Fantastic Four 48-50: The Galactus Trilogy.

This story has been told elsewhere. Lee and Kirby created their stories through a routine: a consultation/brainstorming about the plotline of a particular issue, Kirby drawing the pages and Lee later filling in the dialogue. For the 50th issue of Fantastic Four, the two wanted something besides the usual rogue of the month. The idea was to create a demigod who would be beyond the calculus of good and evil, something different than a costumed goon bent on world domination. Kirby later said he drew his inspiration from the Bible. What came was Galactus, a giant being who roamed the cosmos in search of planets from which he could consume the energy needed to sustain his life. His quest is neverending, and he leaves husks of planets behind in his wake. The fate of every life on earth hangs in the balance.(I've often wondered where in the Bible that inspiration came from. Daniel's vision of "The Ancient of Days?" The Angel of Death? One look at Galactus' world destruction machines and you might be reminded of Ezekiel's vision of the wheels.)

To accentuate the adventure, Kirby created a nearly naked shining figure on a surfboard, whom Lee dubbed the Silver Surfer. The Surfer, Kirby explained, because he was the herald of Galactus, was himself a being of immense cosmic power who sought out the planets his master would destroy.

Reading the three issues more than 50 years later, we are reminded of how much the medium has shifted since. Lee and Kirby had been part of comic books since virtually the beginning of the industry, and had seen it morph from a subversive child entertainment into the childish material of the 1950s. The panic that comics contributed to social ills - which inspired the Comics Code Authority - mandated neutered stories and spawned banal plotlines. Heroes fought villains in convoluted storylines where little was at stake, lives were only obliquely threatened, and those threats were easily dispatched. War comics. Romance comics. Monster comics. Western comics. The plots were interchangeable, sometimes engaging, but mostly forgettable. The medium would have died if Lois Lane never strayed from her monthly mission to prove Clark Kent's secret identity, or Xom, the space creature, succeeded in devouring the Earth. "We knew we were writing for kids," Lee remembered. "Or so we thought." To achieve an end run around this, the Marvel storylines focused, not on the external conflicts, but the internal ones that power brings to our heroes.

Most early Marvel superheroes owe their abilities to radiation in one form or another, given that the Marvel Universe came into being during the Cold War. Atomic power served the same kind of storytelling function that magic had for centuries. Space, because of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, was a fertile playground for the imagination. We assumed it was where we were going to spend the future. 

On the page, Lee abided by the rules of the comic book genre. No one ever speaks in the comics. They shout! They declaim! The exclamation points give the prose its power, as does Lee’s penchant for alliteration. Our superheroes may speak in pedestrian rhythms, but the cosmic figures talk with Shakespearean intonations.

The dynamics of the Fantastic Four began with the first issue. Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, is the elastic leader, a brilliant scientist in love with Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, who merely wants to be by his side. Her brother, Johnny Storm, is the Human Torch, a young man as fiery as his superpowers. But the heart and soul of the FF is Ben Grimm, the Thing, a rock-like bruiser and tortured soul, the outsider who gave the series both comic relief and pathos.

For the coming of Galactus, the action begins deep in space and gradually grows closer to the earth. Our heroes are alerted to the planet destroyer’s approach by The Watcher, himself a giant bald, grandiloquent figure pledged to not interfere in the affairs of the human race. But this time, he breaks his vow, knowing that Galactus will destroy the earth if allowed to.

The Watcher: Heed my words, pillager of the planets! This tiny speck of matter upon which we stand contains intelligent life! You must not destroy it!
Galactus: Of what import are brief, nameless lives...to Galactus?..It is not my intention to injure any living being! But...I must replenish my energy! If petty creatures are wiped out when I drain a planet, it is regrettable...but unavoidable!

The story is full of the kind of action, suspense and invention that one came to expect from Lee and Kirby. The Surfer arrives and summons Galactus, but the Thing “clobbers” the Surfer, rocketing him across New York until the being lands unconscious at the apartment of Alicia Masters, Ben Grimm’s blind girlfriend. It is from her that the Surfer realizes the human race is worth saving.

Though Galactus drives most of the story's action, it is the Surfer who imbues it with its gravitas. The Surfer is, as Alicia puts it, a figure of nobility who immediately bewitches her, and us. He combines the mystic pull of space with the spiritual mythology of surfing - riding a wave in search of some zenlike moment of absolute peace, a connection with energy, fate and nature. The fact that he can be made into a defender of the human race gives the final act of the story its punch. For when the Surfer decides to oppose Galactus, he holds off the devourer until Johnny Storm can return from the other side of the universe with the Ultimate Nullifier, a device which can destroy not only Galactus, but vast stretches of the universe. And so, Galactus decides to spare the earth, for now. But in doing so, he exiles the Surfer to the earth, denying him the ability to return to his home, leaving him a permanent outsider on a planet he will never understand, even though he has saved it.

One legacy of the Lee-Kirby is the endless speculation as to who is responsible for what idea, which characters, what storylines. It is the comic book version of the Paul vs. John calculus that infects Beatle scholarship. Kirby, for all of his invention and the power of his images, was never quite as successful without Stan Lee, while Lee created Spiderman, Dr. Strange, Thor and others apart from Kirby. Controversy followed him in those collaborations as well. To celebrate his work is not to rob Steve Ditko, Larry Leiber or even Kirby of their essential roles in the creations.

But Stan Lee largely outlived those controversies, and lived long enough to see those comic stories transition to worldwide celebration in the movies. He made no bones about the somewhat pedestrian origins of his ideas, as did Kirby. Sure, great literature gave some inspiration, but so did old radio shows, the movies, and even other comic books. By the time the Marvel Age rolled around, the two of them had already been at it for almost 20 years and could sometimes no longer remember which schtick came from which quarter.  

But it’s possible now, as a tribute, to look in awe at the ambition of those stories, the wit they used to tell them, and the style that they created. Comic books began as kid entertainments, and now they largely survive as sometimes pretentious, sometimes inspired ways of telling stories. The Marvel stories, no matter how far they ventured out into the unknown, were always about having fun, and Lee never forgot that.

He created the narrative voice that piloted those adventures, giving the reader a fearless, funny, and unforgettable guide. The stories were not one-offs but a continuous narrative, building on itself, much like the television shows we binge-watch today. Panels sometimes contained wisecracking footnotes referencing earlier adventures. The voice veered between knowing and cajoling, a guide who nudged the action along without stopping it, the voice in the mind's theater who only wanted you to enjoy the spectacle as much as possible. And if necessary, to deliver a lesson. When the first appearance of Spiderman closes, Peter Parker walks away in guilt, knowing the robber he could have caught earlier is the same one who murdered his Uncle Ben. It is Lee's narrator who delivers the verdict:

"And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come -- great responsibility!"

It is Lee, as narrator in Fantastic Four 48, who tells us during a transition that shifts us from one distant galaxy to Planet Earth in one panel, that we are able to make the sudden leap “through the magic of our limitless imaginations.” 

It’s a magic he was happy to share. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.