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Citizen Conn fictionalizes Marvel Comics frenemies Lee and Kirby

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Citizen Conn short story review
Michael Chabon’s short story Citizen Conn in the New Yorker. Art by Jashar Awan.

Michael Chabon’s Citizen Conn short story review

A new Michael Chabon story is a riff on the beginning of Marvel Comics. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that it’s a riff on a myth, or ongoing discussion, that is popular in comics fan-dom: that Stan Lee, who has for decades taken lion’s share of the credit for creating multi-million-dollar creations Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Fantastic Four, actually was at most their co-creator, along with pioneering artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

It’s interesting to note that the story – “Citizen Conn”, in the latest New Yorker (Feb 13 & 20) – appears at a time when creators’ rights in general are very much on the minds of comics fans. DC recently announced that later this year the company will launch a series of titles based on the characters created by Alan Moore for the DC series Watchmen (which later became a Zack Snyder movie – about which, the less said the better).

Many fans, at least those who like Moore, are siding with the writer, who has disparaged this – let’s face it – obviously money-grubbing ploy on the part of the publisher. (Danny Djeljosevic at Comics Bulletin has written an excellent defense of Moore, who has also come under criticism by fans since he commented, negatively of course, on DC’s plan.) The idea of creators’ rights in comics has long been a thorny one, with fans (and eventually writers and artists, when no longer have to beg for work), slamming the Big Two (Marvel and DC) for their Draconian work-for-hire policies.

In the case of Lee and Kirby, I’m not sure the debate has ever been settled satisfactorily in the minds of comic book fans; if memory serves, Lee has been a little more forthcoming in recent years about the extent of the collaborations (although the Kirby estate has lost a battle with Marvel, which is now of course owned by Disney – a company with, shall we say, deep pockets).

But Chabon isn’t as interested in who created what, or the legal ramifications, as he is in the ties, dating back to childhood, between his two characters (who are based very, very broadly on Lee and Kirby) – and also the sense of wonder that perhaps only comics, and only at a certain period of life, can confer.

The story is actually told from the point of view of a rabbi, female and a non-comics fan (not that the two necessarily go together), so other non-fans needn’t worry about too much insular references (although I was pleased to see Chabon have a character bring in a copy of my fave magazine about comics, The Comics Journal).

I don’t want to give away anymore than that, except to say if you enjoyed the author’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and/or his Escapist series of comics, “Citizen Conn” is another fascinating chapter in Chabon’s fictional exploration of the medium.

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