A Nostalgia for Comics that Never Existed in Shaky Kane and Krent Able's Kane & Able

What came first- the comics super-heroes or Jack Kirby? It’s easy to say that it has to be Kirby because of course he created so many of the superheroes that we know and love. Half of the movies that we see nowadays are Kirby’s creations. But so much of what Kirby did was based on something else out there; so many myths and legends fed Kirby’s imagination that you can trace a lot of his creations to some kind of archetype. Shaky Kane and Krent Able’s Kane & Able is 72 pages of those same myths and legends reimagined through the visions of Kirby and a Silver Age that wasn’t hobbled by Fredrick Wertham and the Comic Code Authority. A rebellious comic, Kane & Able embraces everything that “serious” comic readers and creators have grown out of and forgotten.

From the opening Shaky Kane pages, you can see that this is going to be an idiosyncratic comic. It’s one of those books where you know when you first set eyes on it whether you’re going to like it or not. Kane’s clean lines create an almost mundane-looking story until you look closely at it and realize that in that mundanity is something rather fantastic. It’s the Fantastic Four as if it was created to be some kind of mumblecore navel-gazing meditation on work and boring life. And then you get to Able’s pages, the maddening adventures possibly imagined by Graham Ingles if he had moved to DC Comics to do their Batman comics in the 1950s. Playing into those influences, this book finds a nostalgia for comics that never really existed, although how cool would it have been if they had.

Art by Shaky Kane

Shaky Kane’s portion of this consists of two very meta short stories where fiction invades reality or maybe it’s us who’s invading their fictions. The first story, “The Astonishing Shield-Bug,” begins in the aftermath of an adventure, with a character from Kane and David Hine’s Bulletproof Coffin returning home, wondering if the artist still burnt the midnight oil. This is almost the most straightforward comic that Kane has ever produced, showing the Shield-Bug returning to an apartment where a guest has slightly overstayed his welcome and is making himself a bit too much at home. That guest looks more like one of Kirby’s Asgardian gods or even Galactus, in a white t-shirt, sitting on the couch, eating potato chips, and watching TV. Won’t this guy ever leave? Those pages are interwoven with a soldier (shades of Jack Kirby’s WWII experience) finding a magic pencil on a battlefield, which leads him decades later to being given that pencil again at a comic con, asked to do drawings of some jungle girl character.

This ties into Kane’s second story where that sketch is found in the floorboards of an old, dilapidated house. You could probably call that house haunted as its labyrinths induce a madness in anyone who walks through its doors. Kane’s stories are a bit inexplicable, more stream-of-consciousness reading experience than a rigidly plotted comic. And looping in Jack Kirby to this fever dream creates Kane’s own ouroboros of thoughts and ideas. So let’s return to the question of what came first, the superheroes or Jack Kirby? The answer may seem obvious but when you look at all of the influences Kirby pulled from throughout his career, there’s almost a possibility that Kirby was pulling these characters from some mythological source of ideas.

“Jack Kirby, our first question is where do your ideas come from?” the hypothetical interviewer asks. Kirby just looks to the sky and said “There.” While Kirby was probably asked that question over and over, he probably had a more canned and less wistful answer than that. But with Kirby as the stand-in for Kane and for the Artist (capital “A”,) Kane is plumbing some personal depths, trying to figure out what comics and their creators mean to him? And by extension, what does he mean to everyone reading his comics? But he’s using a personal iconography where we may recognize some elements of his symbolism but don’t have the experiences that Kane has to be able to link everything together. His two comics in this book are quite dizzying.

Art by Krent Able

On the surface, Krent Able’s work looks more straightforward, performing part deconstruction on comics (imagine Rick Veitch's Bratpack and Maximortal) and also part taking a certain type of comics to their extreme (think Image Comics, circa 1995.) Black Fur is the first story, featuring an action hero black bear and his two baby-doll-like sidekicks fighting a cockroach-themed villain turning normal citizens into a goop monster. Like Kane’s story, this one is quite dizzying but more in its execution than in what it’s doing. The story is one big joke, pushing violence through silly drawings executed in a completely non-jokey manner. You can easily see a non-ironic version of this being published by Image Comics or nearly any other publisher.

Art by Krent Able

Able’s final story which closes this two-man anthology features a skeleton-featured hero and his easily disposable sidekick, who is only there just to be killed and provides angsty motivation for the hero. After Kane’s thin, precise lines, Able’s artwork invokes the classic horror comics from the 1950s, those great old EC comics. His comics reflect what we would have gotten if Will Elder, Graham Ingels, and their EC compatriots created Marvel instead of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. They give a vision of an alternate mainstream, an underground mainstream (if such a thing could even exist.)

Proposing a mainstream created by outlaws, Black Fur and Creepzone feel like jokes where the teller doesn’t understand that they’re telling jokes. There’s an earnestness to Able’s stories that make you long for a comic that has never existed before they set pen to paper. It’s a wonderful trick that Able pulls off, simultaneously homaging and lampooning what comics were and what they could be. Able’s work may not be a narratively acrobatic as Kane’s is but once you realize what Able is doing, you can see that what he’s doing is just as innovatively meta as Kane’s but just operating on a slightly different plane.

Kane & Able is a comic about comics. It’s as simple as that. Comic books are wonderful and this comic is about that wonderfulness. But Kane and Able are also wondering what comics could have been? With a little nudge and poke to throw them even just slightly off of their stable axis, what kind of magic could be found in those four-color pages. Coming at that question from different directions, one more meta and one more genre leaning, the two of them create a longing for a mainstream that’s more outlaw and more out there than what we have today. They provide a roadmap for the aspiring young cartoonist who’s bored with what they see on the comic racks and yet yearn to inject new energy into the comics that they love.

Kane and Able
Written and Drawn by Shaky Kane and Krent Able
Published by Image Comics