A couple of years ago, Michael Chabon gave a reading at our local library. He was promoting a new novel, Telegraph Avenue, and the auditorium was packed. Given my academic background, I’ve had to attend more than my fair share of such public readings, so believe me when I say that with the exception of Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon is the best reader of his own work that I’ve ever heard.
Yet, as good as the reading was, the most interesting moment of the evening for me occurred during the Q&A session. Asked about his most famous novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—the fictional story of two Golden Age comic book creators—Chabon said that he was thinking of writing a sequel set during the Bronze Age. He then added, jokingly, that he was just waiting for a groundswell of support, demanding the book.
Chabon, of course, holds a special place in the comics community. For many non-comics readers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kavalier & Clay stands alongside Art Spiegelman’s Maus as the most popular gateway to the medium that doesn’t involve TV zombies or blockbuster movies starring either Robert Downey, Jr. or a talking raccoon. And just as the profile of comics in mainstream culture has continued to rise, the literary reputation of Chabon’s novel has only grown.
So the prospect of a future Bronze Age novel is something to savor. But in the meantime, there is a consolation prize. This past week, much to my delight, I stumbled across a short story Chabon published in The New Yorker in 2012 that ought to be on everyone’s reading list. “Citizen Conn” focuses on a female rabbi who has to minister to a dying man named Mort Feather. Feather, it turns out, was once a legendary comic book artist who created a slew of characters in the early ‘60s but was denied both creator credit and adequate compensation. Feather is largely withdrawn, so the rabbi winds up getting much of the story from Feather’s former collaborator, the unfortunately-named writer, Artie Conn.
We learn that together, Conn and Feather created a whole line of popular characters in the ‘60s for “Nova Comics,” transforming the company into one of the leading comics publishers in the country. But when the duo came into conflict with the company, Conn betrayed Feather and took the lion’s share of the credit and financial rewards. They’ve been estranged ever since, though as the story opens, Conn is desperate to make amends.
Obviously, it doesn’t take a degree in English lit to see what Chabon is talking about in “Citizen Conn.”
While he may be more interested in eventually writing about the Bronze Age, with this story, Chabon gives us a sketch of what a Silver Age novel might look like, featuring stand-ins for the two creators whose names are most frequently connected with the rise of Marvel Comics—Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The story itself is a great read. It benefits from Chabon’s trademark prose style with plenty of crackling good sentences, full of that combination of unique detail and universal application. Consider the way his narrator describes entering Feather’s room:
I had already learned to expect very little from the rooms of old people. There were some, most of them women, who transported into the last two hundred square feet of their lives, if not the entire composition, at least a kind of abstract of their abandoned houses and histories, a terse, semi-random, incongruous summary composed of a Persian rug, a tinted studio portrait of a romantic young sailor, a Swarovski bud vase, a parakeet named half-madly for a dead husband, an accordion file jammed with forty years of recipes religiously clipped from the Times. Most people arrived, however, after the inevitable final yard sale, with only a few valises, some liquor boxes filled with rattling pictures in frames, perhaps a favorite recliner.
That’s beautiful, but “Citizen Conn” resonates for more than just its literary style. It highlights some of the professional injustices that have stained the comics industry through the years while keeping the focus on the human element. Both Feather and Conn are complex characters, driven by impulses neither of them seem to fully recognize, and Chabon’s rabbi narrator, who knows nothing of comics, makes for the perfect observer, bringing none of the baggage that would come with someone who was more “in the know.”
The story also delves into the murky, mysterious magic of collaborative art. Collaboration is one of the hardest things for us to assess. Unfortunately, among many comics fans, scholars, and even pros, the legacy of those ‘60s-era Lee/Kirby comics is a zero-sum game. Someone has to be the winner and someone has to be the loser. This has always struck me as pointlessly divisive, and it ultimately distorts the legacy of both creators. Each man produced some great comics without the other, and each produced some forgettable comics without the other.
But we don’t often do a good job talking about collaborative art because the discussion is inherently messy. How does collaboration work? Should it be a 50/50 proposition? Years ago, I saw an interview with Paul McCartney where he tried to describe his working relationship with John Lennon during the Sgt. Pepper era, when each of them was writing independently. In the interview, McCartney remembered struggling with one song—“Getting Better.” He had the basic melody but was stuck on the chorus. As he played the line, “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better) / A little better all the time,” John casually added, “It can’t get more worse.” And just like that, everything came together.
Who made the greater contribution to the song? Paul, who did the bulk of the heavy lifting? Or John, who tossed in the little bit of magic that made it all work?
Talking about collaboration is messy. Film—one of the most collaborative of all arts—posed so many critical complications that in the ‘50s a number of French film critics, including Francois Truffaut, introduced the auteur theory, crediting the director as the true author of the film. As a critical conceit, the theory has been helpful over the years, but when taken as gospel it leads to some rather silly positions—critics who find little merit in a film like Casablanca, for example, because its director, Michael Curtiz, isn’t a real auteur.
Such are the lengths we sometimes go to avoid talking about the messiness of collaboration. But we shouldn’t avoid messiness; we should embrace it. That indescribable, unquantifiable messiness is at the heart of some of our most cherished albums and movies, and it’s certainly at the heart of many of our most loved comic books—including the Lee/Kirby books from the ‘60s.
In the case of “Citizen Conn,” Chabon fictionalizes many elements to create some distance between his characters and their real-life counterparts. For example, both Artie Conn’s sins and his attempts to make amends seem more extreme than Lee’s. But the way in which Feather’s work is exploited by Nova Comics certainly rings true, and it speaks to the very real ways in which our culture’s inability or unwillingness to deal with the messiness of artistic collaboration can often lead to painful, even tragic results.
Artistic collaboration is not a zero-sum game.
 Chabon, Michael. “Citizen Conn.” The New Yorker 13 Feb. 2012.