Marvel Comics of the mid-60s had several innovative competitive advantages over their competition. A small company, they ran a tight and unified creative ship, which allowed for competition and crossover between titles and gave everything they did a distinctive identity. This identity flowed partly out of plotting and writing that focussed obsessively on the heroes’ emotional lives – Marvel characters were dogged by tragedy and hard luck, and would brood on it between their epic fights. And the fights themselves were just as crucial to the Marvel magic – its house art style was forged by the remarkable Jack Kirby, whose action sequences boomed with unmatchable vigour.
Kirby’s main technique was foreshortening – dramatic distortions of perspective that made limbs and figures seem to be blasting off and out of the page. It created a visual language that matched the melodrama of comics dialogue – flying bodies and punches given unreal emphases to match the urgent splatter of bold-type words in the speech bubbles. Read back over this description and parallels between Marvel and Motown – that other great 60s small business success – are there to be forced. But when I hear “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – and especially Levi Stubbs’ vocal performance – Jack Kirby’s newsprint epics are what springs to mind.
Stubbs’ own stabbing emphases – “When you FEEL that you cant go ON” – sound comicbook to me but they actually come from Dylan (when I read someone, maybe Frank Kogan, point this out it was one of the great “well DUH” rock critic revelations). But Dylan’s songs are mostly more languid, his phrasing a calculated sneer designed to imbalance you, lead you in, or both. Stubbs sings this like he’s in the teeth of a storm, reaching out one desperate foreshortened arm for his lover to catch hold of.
His urgency is enough to convince me, every time I’m not listening to it, that the song is faster and harder than it is: I remember the brisk, nervy bass figures and forget the gentle backing vox; I fix on the shouts and growls that accompany Stubbs and imagine an instrumental attack to match. Like a dimly remembered comic-book battle, “Reach Out” grows in my mind, becomes huger and more momentous.
This is what Stubbs wants – this kind of Good Samaritan pop is always partly a hustle. Reach out to me, I can help, I can fix you, I’m the only one – “I know what you’re thinking! You’re a loner! No love of your own!”. (Recent bestseller The Game calls this “negging”, apparently.) The girl has to reach now, quickly, before the song finishes – this is, Levi’s frenzy suggests, her last chance. For this one Kirbyfied cliffhanger moment everything in the world is at stake – until next week, next month, next song when the action can start all over again.