Thursday, October 19, 2023

R.I.P. Keith Giffen

As I've said before, I don't like to do a lot of obituaries here on the blog because if I got started on that, I'd never stop. Someone worth remembering seems to die pretty much every day; musicians, writers, artists, entertainers. All the people that make up a life of the mind. Once in a while, though, I hear news that makes me think I maybe should at least mark the date. 

It's not remotely predictable which celebrity death is going to trigger a sense of loss, either. Obviously, almost none of us knows any of these people personally but knowing the work sometimes makes it feel that way. Other times, it's just the name is so familiar, it feels weird to hear they're gone.

I had that momentary frisson this week, when I heard Keith Giffen had died. He's not the biggest name but there was a time when almost everyone I knew would have known who he was and what he did. Not that they'd all have liked it. He was a controversial figure in his prime.

Keith Giffen drew, wrote and did some mysterious thing that seemed to be both and neither, that made him responsible for several of my favorite comics of all time. If I had to pick a single comic-book run to take with me into space, where it would be the only thing I'd have to read for the rest of forever, I might go with Giffen's forty or so issues of The Legion of Super-Heroes, published at the cusp of the 'nineties.

Known as "5 Years Later" it wasn't so much a reboot of the longstanding teen title as a complete rewrite. It was the classic audience divider. People either loved it or utterly loathed it. As a quondam nihilist and lifelong Legion fan, I thought it was the best version of the title I'd ever seen. I still do. It still is.

It would be fatuous to go into expositionary detail about the plot or the characterization or the setting and how every expectation was confounded. If you aren't a fan you won't care and if you are you'll already know. The point is, Giffen tore up everything and started over and still kept everything and carried on, which is a hard trick to carry.

He didn't do it alone. Comics is a collaborative medium. Most of the dialog was handled by husband and wife team Tom and Mary Bierbaum, who did an exemplary job of it. Keith Giffen handled the plotting and initially did the pencils, later moving to layouts. I guess if it'd been a TV series, he'd have been the Showrunner.

5YL was Keith's second stint with my favorite super-hero team. He'd penciled The Great Darkness saga for Paul Levitz in the early 'eighties, another high-water mark for the title, He also worked frequently with another of my favorite comic-book professionals, writer Robert Loren Fleming, co-creator of what I always used to say was my favorite comic, Thriller, and he penciled another of my all-time favorites, the Defenders, one of the first series I collected on my return to the fold, having briefly dropped the medium when I was "too old for comics" in my mid-teens.

I didn't just like Giffen's ideas; I loved the way he drew and I especially loved his layouts. He was an exponent of the nine-panel grid, a rigid format that turned a lot of readers off but that I found exhilarating and weirdly stimulating. I just had to look at the shape of those frames to feel the chaotic energy dammed up behind the restraining frames. It felt electric.

One of the things that continues to surprise me about modern life is the way people who used to be utterly unknown to all but a small cadre of obsessives now merit mentions on the national news and lengthy obituaries in the quality press when they die. At the time Keith Giffen was doing his best work, I don't believe there would have been a single newspaper, television or radio program in the UK that would have marked the passing of a comic artist of his stature with so much as a single word.

That said, Keith never attained the stature of an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison even within the industry. He was a comic fan's favorite more than any kind of breakthrough artist and even among comics fans he was always something of an acquired taste. The dark and disturbing direction in which he took the LSH was atypical of his work in general, which tended more to the comedic than many super-hero fans found comfortable.

He was responsible for bringing Ambush Bug into the world, an act for which there are many who'll likely never forgive him. He gave us Lobo (Ditto.) and Rocket Racoon, thanks to the movies now the best-known of his amoral, anarchic, anti-heroes. 

He also turned the Justice League of America into a sitcom, something he'd previously helped do to Marvel's Defenders when he penciled that excellent series from Steve Gerber's idiosyncratic and irreverent scripts. Strangely, for an artist with such a gift for visual discipline and intensity, he probably leaves us with a reputation as a humorist above all else.

Most of what I've been talking about happened quite a while ago although Keith was still working in comics until fairly recently. I need to catch up with the comics he wrote and drew in the first decade of the new millennium. I bet they're great. Everything of his I've ever read was at the very least good. Most of it was excellent.

Not everything we once loved stands up to re-examination but Keith's work does. I re-read the whole of 5YL only a couple of years ago. It was even better than I remembered. 

I think I might read it again. And those Justice Leagues, too, if I can find them.

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