I have Jerry Robinson -- creator of Robin and, according to some accounts, creator of The Joker -- to thank for a healthy chunk of my comics education. In the 70s, the library at my junior high school had a copy of the original edition of THE COMICS, Robinson's 1974 history of newspaper strips. Les Daniels' COMIX: A HISTORY OF COMIC BOOKS IN AMERICA (1971) was on the same shelf, and I enjoyed that book as well, but I learned considerably more from Robinson's survey. I have always enjoyed newspaper strips every bit as much as comic books, dating back to my youthful infatuation with PEANUTS, and THE COMICS played a major role in getting me up to speed on some of the classic creations -- many of which, thankfully, are now being reprinted in full.
Joe Simon is, of course, best known for his partnership with Jack Kirby, which led to such immortal creations as CAPTAIN AMERICA and, basically, the invention of the entire romance-comics industry. Simon seemed to have a healthy appreciation of the "comic" side of comics that was relatively rare in an industry pioneer. As early as the 1950s, with FIGHTING AMERICAN, he and Kirby were semi-lampooning Captain America in an exaggerated Cold War context, but that was practically normal compared to what would follow. Simon's "Harvey Thriller" line of superhero books, and such funhouse-mirror reflections of youth culture as BROTHER POWER, THE GEEK and PREZ, were gloriously off-the-wall notions that also turned out to be aesthetic failures. As a pioneer, however, Simon could shrug off the embarrassment.
If George Orwell had a proper successor, it was probably Christopher Hitchens -- who, fittingly, counted Orwell among his inspirations. In an era of "sock puppet" partisans, it was extremely refreshing to listen to Hitchens, as I often did when he was a guest on The Michael Medved Show. He had the ability to be polemical without being off-putting and without denigrating his adversaries. Above all, he was intellectually honest enough not to permit his leftism to trump his love of liberty. Read Pete Fernbaugh's blog for a very fine tribute.
As well-known and "plugged into" contemporary events as Hitchens was, Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who spearheaded opposition to the Communist regime and later became president of a new Czech democracy, will unquestionably go down as a far more significant world-historical figure. It strikes me that Havel, had he been born in this country or in Western Europe, is exactly the type of pacifistic creative type who would have defended the regime that crushed the '68 Czech uprising -- albeit from afar, where direct consequences were lacking. But the up-close experience of tyranny has a way of clearing the mind of illusions. Just ask any Cuban-American -- or, for that matter, my Dad.