Monday, February 18, 2013

The New Self-Proclaimed Comic Book Historians

The New Self-Proclaimed Comic Book Historians

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of historian is:
A writer or author of a history; esp. one who produces a work of history in the higher sense, as distinguished from the simple annalist or chronicler of events, or from the mere compiler of a historical narrative.
I have met a lot of SPCBH’s, Self-Proclaimed Comic Book Historians, like the people who gave themselves that title, but are pretenders to the throne. You can give yourself a website with that term in it, or scan a bunch of stories and get it published without any new thoughts or context, and call yourself a CBH.
You are not an historian if:
1.   Point your mouse, click, copy,  and paste. Stealing is not research. You must show us where you got your material and substantiate your claims, with references, footnotes or end notes   Copying makes you a plagiarist not an historian.
2.   You just scan in comics from other people's collections and put your name on the cover of the book. You can be a good designer but that does not make you an authority.
Many people, who post on the web and in some fanzines, give no indication of their background, research and sometimes their own identity. They write as they were witnesses to great or pivotal events in comic books history when they were not.
They make up their own scenarios most often discussing Stan Lee’s relationship with Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Of course  many discuss Don Heck, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando but Lee, Kirby, Ditko and Marvel, gets most of the press. My gosh, some even talk about what went on at DC and Charlton! Throughout their storytelling, they use words such as “presumably”, “maybe” and “possibly” and yet reach concrete conclusions, treating their assumptions as facts they actually know!
I have found that often these people fit a profile:
So many of them to be middle-aged, somewhat, disconnected men, divorced, never married, unemployed or being a self-described “loner.” They never held a position of authority in a business and resent, strangely, those who do. They hate their former or current bosses. They also have no idea financially or practically, how a business must be run. 
It is common for some people who an have an obsession with Kirby to strangely identify with him and place themselves in his situation. They talk as if Kirby is still alive! Now Kirby’s dead but they imagine what he went through, projecting their lives onto him. They place HIM in THEIR situation. Stan Lee becomes THEIR boss and they attack and judge him, and give them the faults they find in their employers.  Or former employers. 
'Often they disavow anything Stan has said, unless it is one sentence from a complete interview, which - out of context - supports their case.' They tend to cite what Jack Kirby said AFTER 1981 and ignore what he said before then, when he was not combative with Marvel. Also, in most cases, they’ll ignore Kirby’s "over the top" comments (like he created Spider-Man) because they know that is not true.  But a true historian has to acknowledge, and deal with, everything he discovers.

                                          You can’t prove a negative!
As an example, SPCBH will take what Kirby did occasionally and make it permanent. For example, Kirby did design characters for some covers that were used in stories that he didn't draw. But the advocates will claim he designed ALL the Marvel characters that were used on his covers.  Or he re-wrote the scripts for ALL the Atlas era Monster stories he drew. They present NO proof that he did these things, but challenge you by saying: Prove that he didn't.” Well, you can’t prove a negative. Even if Kirby did all that, the academic approach is to show proof of that.
Steve Ditko often gets the worst of it because he lets his work speak for itself and wisely doesn't get involved with internet chatter. One “historian” had a ten minute conversation with Mr. Ditko 50 years ago, and contends now to be an expert on him. He told me that “he could tell by the tone in voice” what Ditko meant, even though he didn't ask the specific questions about the event this SPCBH relates.
One of my favorite Ditko stories: 
Stan Lee, John Romita, and Roy Thomas have all said that Lee and Ditko were not talking to each other the last year Ditko worked at Marvel. So that element comes from reliable sources. I received an e-mail asking, “Why did Ditko stop talking to Lee?”  My response was, “Why do you assume that it was Ditko who stopped talking?” It’s because they have already reached conclusions about Ditko without ever meeting him. People just tell the same Ditko rumors over and over again. Eventually, people refer to these supposed events as facts.

An advocate is not an historian.

Advocate:  One who defends, maintains, publicly recommends, or raises his voice in behalf of a proposal or tenet.

This is America, it’s OK to be an advocate. Some advocates claim to be unbiased historians, yet they pick and choose the pieces of information they submit, leaving behinds important facts that often don’t fit into their equations. They will say they are talking about giving credit and money to all creators, yet they throw Lieber, Heck and Ditko under the bus. Presenting only your own point of view is advocacy, not history. People are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.
A Kirby auteur advocate told me that “Kirby should get half the pension of Stan Lee.”
I said, “He can’t. Kirby is no longer with us, he can’t get a pension.  You mean Marvel should pay the Kirby family half of what Stan gets.
To my surprise he said, “NO! Stan Lee should give half his pension to Jack Kirby.”

futilely, I mentioned that Kirby was dead.
That really becomes a big issue. So many of the Kirby advocate talk as if he is still with us: “Kirby Lives” or “We should treat Kirby right!” No, Kirby is no longer with us. He can’t appear in movies and get a guest shot on Comic Book Men. Should there be a better financial arrangement with his family? Sure! It's sad that this is even an issue.  But these advocates want to be Kirby’s lawyer, agent and mother and retroactively renegotiate contracts Kirby voluntarily made 50 years ago.
My next question was, “Why should this money come from Stan Lee, it should come from Marvel and Disney.
Again, he spoke as if Kirby was still alive and was being cheated by Lee, not Marvel. I explained that Stan worked for Marvel, on a salary, for 60 years and did other things such as Spider-Man, being a publisher and an editor. It made no difference. So when this “historian” gives lectures, and gets a lot of attention, he would always give Kirby 50% of the credit for Marvel, with people not knowing he meant that he should get 50% of Stan’s money and credit for creations such as Spider-Man, Sub-Mariner, Daredevil, and Dr. Strange. The irony of course, is that he is exploiting Kirby to get attention for himself, at the same time that he is accusing others of exploiting Kirby.
When I finished my book, I decided that I should have the perspective of an Historian but I would never use that term. I consider myself a fan, a researcher and a student.
I think it is rare to make really good friends after age 40 but I did with some great comic book researchers and reporters when I became friends with Nick Caputo, Mike Vassallo, Kid Robson and Ken Quattro. They are truly historians. Ken Quattro, who is a great researcher, modestly, refers to himself as the “Comic Detective,” a perfect term for all of us searching for facts. The SPCBHs come to them all the time wanting their comics, scans and research. Nick, Ken, Kid and Mike are perfect examples of the OED definition. I have always considered myself a fan, a student and a researcher.

They are not just simple chroniclers, or mere compilers, they research and produce comic book history on the highest levels. They are the prime sources for a lot of books out there on Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Gene Colan, and other Marvel and Atlas topics. They have written introductions for the Marvel Masterworks series and articles for Alter Ego, Ditkomania, and Robin Snyder’s The Comics! Mike has a book coming out this year dealing with Marvel’s hidden history!  They also have their own blogs where they freely share their views and findings. Often they are ripped off by SPCBH who steal their information and use it as their own, never giving the original source credit.
What Is a Comic Book Historian?
  1. True Historians let the facts lead them to a conclusion, not the other way around, where their conclusions lead them to select certain facts. Often facts can lead to speculation. A true historian labels it as such.
  2. The absence of facts or evidence should not lead to speculation labeled as fact or a conclusion. Things cannot be "supposedly", "possibly" or "presumed" true without Substantiation. As I pointed out, many SPCBH’s have agendas and ask you to prove a negative. That is, rather than their proving their statement is true, you have to prove it is not true.
  3. True comic book historians  have devoted a large amount of time to it. THEY HAVE THE COMICS and THEIR COMICS ARE ORGANIZED FOR REFERENCE! They have the originals, with the letter’s columns, notes and advertising!  Books take them years to research and write, not just a few weeks or months. Historians are specialized; they don’t pretend to be an expert on everything. THEY HAVE ACTUALLY READ THE COMICS!!! So many times I have met “authorities” who haven’t even read the comics they refer to or reprinted...They just use what they can get their hands on, although they often imply that there was an intensive selection process. They also usually don't tell you why a story was selected, because there was no real reason.
  4. Real Historians have also spent a lifetime, not just the last month, collecting newspapers, magazines, fanzines, recordings, etc. They also have libraries full of books about the comics. They have sources and references AND THEY USE THEM. They have developed sources and communicate with them to verifying their facts. They make no overpowering statements, without listing their sources.
  5. True historians know how much they DON’T know and accept that not every question will have an answer. They realize that memory is fallible and that oft-told stories can supplant reality. I have found that most people don’t lie but they often don’t remember the exact details of five decades ago. We are all limited by our own perspectives and people take different things, and remember things from the same event. The editors, writers and artists were producing a huge amount of work in a short time. It’s not lying when someone mis-remembers a small detail that 50 years later is considered important.
  6. There are well informed, good intentioned  people, who were in the comic book field, who like to think that they are a CBH. However, they were really a witness to a select period of      comic book history, but really an historian.
  7. Finally, not all opinions are equally valid. When Nick posts and identifies an artist, or when Mike places a person at Timely on a certain date, or Ken reveals a hidden fact on Lev Gleason, or Mark Evanier relates an quote, I believe them. Others make unsubstantiated claims and even ask for a show of hands.
Ken, Nick, Mike (and on occasionally me) are the people many SPCBHs go to get material, scans, comments and quotes and then they use it like it was their own research. There are a great many reprint books currently available featuring virtually all of their material and they get little credit and no real acknowledgement for it. They are generous to a fault.

There is now a great deal of reprint books out featuring work by famous artists that is now out of copyright. Their SPCBH authors give no insight into why these stories were chosen. A true historian would never do that, there would always be context. So why were most of those stories chosen? Because The SPCBH could get them, free, from people like us and it’s more random than you may think.

In the world of Academia papers and essays have  procedures to go through before they are printed. This, of course, is also true in journalism.

The work is first submitted to an editor. He will, of course, look through your notes and see your research. Then, often, there is independent fact checking by one or two people.  On the web and in fanzines there is none of this, anything can go up as factual.  Even a bad editor would stop a lot of this.

An Addendum

It is very interesting that people do have such an attachment to the word “historian.”  People can be EXPERTS in the field or they can also be AUTHORITIES.

Expert: “somebody with a great deal of knowledge about, or skill, training, or experience in, a particular field or activity”

Authority: “a source of reliable information on a subject”

Those are distinctions that many can properly use.  Even so, they too must adhere to the academic standards of citing sources and references. I guess, to many, calling themselves an expert is considered a step down, but it might be the most reasonable approach.


  1. Well put and I have to say I agree with it even though I sadly find myself more often a "chronicler" more than an actual "historian." I have done the digging, the interviews, the fact-checking, the phone calls, the libraries...but most often, I've looked up stuff online because it's there and it's easier.

    I appreciate so much the info that you guys get. I'll try to add to it in the future more than taking from it! :)

  2. Steve, you do a great job and love going to your sites. All of us are "chroniclers" because we like this stuff and want to collect and share with others. You also give out important information. Keep doing what you are doing, people love it!

    There are just so many rumors, like "Steve Ditko left Marvel due to a fight over the true identity of the Green Goblin" posted so many times on the web, people take it to be true.We have got to be careful about what we pick up from the web. (an appropriate remark for a Spider-Man reference.)

  3. Thanks for posting this, Barry. I really appreciate this on a number of levels.

    As an amateur comics historian myself (with chapters in the upcoming American Comic Book Chronicles and other historical information on my website - including a long interview with Don McGregor that premieres today), I'm continually frustrated by those who don't take the time to do the research about the issues that they claim to know all about. It's frankly been shocking to me how many people refuse to even do secondary research, let alone contacting creators directly to get the truth about the stories. It's been such a joy to get to talk to people like Steve Englehart and Don McGregor about their work, or to do an oral history of Image Comics directly from the Image Partners as a way of setting the record straight.

    The thing is that those people are so available! And they want to talk! I spent 45 minutes with Englehart at a convention several years ago just listening to him tell stories about his time at Marvel and DC. And yeah, Kirby and Ditko aren't available, for different reasons, but that's no excuse to pull material out of context and just plain not do your homework. We may never know completely for certain why Ditko left Spider-Man, but IMHO it's more fun that way anyway!

    The thing I really hate the most are the "Kirby Kultists" and the "Satan Lee" crowd, who see everything that Stan every did, has done or will do as in some way slighting the work of Jack Kirby. Stan, in their eyes, is pure unadulterated evil while Jack is the veritable Platonic form of goodness. The facts are much more interesting than that small stereotype.

    But what do I know? As a happily married parent of three who has a position of authority in my job and lots of friends, I'm clearly not the right kind of person to be in the Kult.

  4. Great post, Barry! Your thoughtful analysis gives definition to an avocation that has thus far defied easy explanation.

    As you kindly mentioned, I refer to myself as a "comics detective" rather than a "comics historian". In my case at least, I think this is closer to my description of what I do.

    I'm grounded in facts, hard data. While anecdotal recollections are helpful, I try to base my findings on what I can prove. For that reason, I seek out contemporary accounts whenever possible. Time has a way of altering facts. And the truth. It may not be an intentional alteration, but the result to history is the same. I only resort to speculation when I have a factual basis for doing so. I never approach a subject with an agenda in advance; I let the facts determine what directions my writing will take. I leave my personal opinions at the door. And I always, ALWAYS, acknowledge my sources.

    As long as I follow these personal rules, I feel confident in what I write, as I know that everything can be supported.

    Keep up the good work, Barry!

    Ken Q

  5. Hey, you printed my name - I'm famous at last. Part of the problem is, I think, that when someone sees an article somewhere that says more or less the same thing as half-a-dozen other articles - and none of them with sources - then people assume that the material is pretty much in the public domain, even if it isn't. What they perhaps don't realize is that the first article written has been plundered by the subsequent ones, not written independently based on confirmed facts. It's a toughie.

    1. Kid, this should be printed out and glued to the keyboard of every comics historian and wannabee. This is my other peet peeve (along with the separation of roles between witness and Historian).

  6. Excellent piece, Barry. The only way you could improve it would be to remove all the attacks on Kirby's fans; this tends to distract from the central thrust of the post.

    I particularly thank you for pointing out that an Historian and a witness are two difernent animals.

  7. Talking of witnesses, on the Ditko-and-Lee-weren't-talking story, you should have perhaps placed more emphasis that there are three separate witnesses to this - it's not just Lee's recollection.

    By the way, has anyone else come across Brodsky also testifying tho this, with the addition thta it was Lee who stopped talking to Ditko rather than vice-versa? As you suggest, it's Ditko's cartoon-character persona as some kind of extremist recluse that may have led to this belief (my belief is that he may well be a 'recluse' because he doesn't want anything to do with comics fans, the wisdom of which view is daily demonstrated on the net).

  8. T Guy,

    Boy, if Sol Brodsky were here today what tales he could tell.

    I kind of left off one other piece. I come from the world of Academia where papers and essays have a procedure to go through.

    First your work is submitted to an editor. He will, of course, look through your notes and see your research. Then, often, there is independent fact checking by one or two people. On the web and in fanzines there is none of this, anything can go up as factual. Even a bad editor would stop a lot of this.

  9. Hi Barry Pearl,

    I'm a history student from Brazil, and i'm tending to study the Comics Code Authority and it's influence in the production of comics. What have changed in the histories of the comic characters, what the authors had to change to fit in the CCA. Doing some web research I found your blog, and read the post in the CCA, found it interesting, a good start for my research.
    Now I read this post, it opened my eyes to the lack of historians that study comic books. I have some books, and well, the existence of webpages, like this, demonstrate that the "academic", or a more serious point of view, in comics is taking place in the world nowadays.
    With this in mind I would like to ask you some questions, and if you may answer I will appreciate it. Do you know what's the scenario of the comics study in the academia in history in the US? In Brazil there are few professors to wich I could submit a project of Masters Degree in this area. So I'm lookinf for someone overseas that could have the same interest that i have in this field.

    Thanks in advance,

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