The other day at work I was waiting to grab myself a coffee when I was standing behind someone with an Iron Man mug. I recognised the design to having being inspired by Steve Ditko’s version of the Iron Man armour. In those seconds I stood there watching my cup fill I wondered just how much income Ditko lost over the decades because he was ripped off by an industry which still sees the creator as a minor part of what is a sausage machine grinding out product and associated merchandising.
Then I got home and the last issue of Howard Chaykin’s Hey Kids! Comics! was sitting there to be read and it ended up being just the scream of primal rage for creators shafted by the industry.
Hey Kids! Comics! draws its title from the innocent blurb American newstands used to lure children into buy in decades past.
Thing is as one gets older you hear more about how the Marvel Bullpen wasn’t making Jack jolly, or how creators would be dumped in the gutter, and that’s where the comic opens as the analogue for Jerry Siegel (who along with co-creator Joe Schuster was royally shafted by National/DC over the rights and profits from Superman) living virtually as a down and out as he joins the crowds at the opening of the Superman (called Powerhouse here) musical.
From this grim, bleak opening Chaykin tells the history of comics through three people, Ted Whitman, Ray Clarke, and Benita Heindel who travel down the decades from the 40s til their deaths in the early years of the 21st century when comics as an industry has transformed into a billion dollar one, but has remained a breeding ground for bastards and con-artists. Though to be fair the amount of actual gangsters in the industry has fallen of late.
Using these analogues, Chaykin tells a lot of those stories you only hear in convention bars, or the occasional critical book on the industry and some of the incidents in these five issues are familiar ones to those of us who know bits of the industry’s history so things like Mort Weisinger’s legendary cruelty through to Stan Lee sitting the the office waiting for Jack Kirby’s work to turn up because his creative role was at best, minimal. This book is not for those who see the industry on a purely surface level or those who canonise the superhero as the pinnacle of the medium.
But Hey Kids! Comics! for all the cynicism, bitterness, hate and bile recounted in these stories has a love for the medium as the core of the book. It just says that people involved in the industry were crooks, racists and bastards but the industry itself is full of people who believe there’s a future for the medium beyond superhero stories. This is a book for those of us who love the medium but want to deal with the awfulness of the history of the industry at the same time so it makes an often harsh read as after all, we want to cling onto our childhood heroes. This comic will see people many see as heroes being portrayed as somewhat less than that (the fact issue five came out not long after Stan Lee’s death adds an extra thrill to it) but these stories are an essential part of the history of the industry. They need to be told because if they don’t the next Steve Ditko is going to see his work made into mugs to help make corporations money while they get fuck all.