Jack Kirby: Comics Auteur?

John Ford on the set.

I just noticed this announcement on the Kirby Museum site:

“THE AUTEUR THEORY OF COMICS—Comic book historian Arlen Schumer (The Silver Age of Comic Book Art, www.arlenschumer.com) and Randolph Hoppe (Director of The Jack Kirby Museum, www.kirbymuseum.org) present their theory that, just like a film’s director, not its screenwriter, is considered its true author (auteur in French), so should a comic book artist be considered the auteur of any comic book work done in collaboration with a writer (or a script in any verbal form), and is therefore a de facto co-creator and co-author, with the credited writer, of that work. Joining them on the panel discussion that follows will be editor/publisher John Morrow (TwoMorrows Publications), publisher J. David Spurlock (Vanguard Productions), Michael Bonesteel (The School of The Art Institute of Chicago) and others to be announced.”

Sounds interesting. Here’s my take on this: I’ve been saying for years that Jack was the uncredited author (or ghostwriter) of the 1960s Marvel stories he worked on with editor Stan Lee. Granted, Lee might have been involved more in the plotting process early on (1959 – early 1964), but  once Jack starts writing extensive liner-notes in the margins of his artwork (1964 – 1970), I feel Kirby certainly deserves to be recognized as the principal writer, or at least a “co-writer” on those stories. Why wasn’t he? Mainly I think Stan Lee wanted to get the entire writer paycheck, and I also suspect Lee liked the publicity he got having his name listed as the writer for Jack’s truly brilliant 1960s stories.

Many people have argued with me about the authorship of Jack’s 1960s Marvel stories over the years on an old internet chat forum called the Kirby-l. Many comics fans claimed that since Lee wrote the text, Lee was the “writer,” but to me, Jack was more like director John Ford. Ford told you a story so clearly with his visuals that no editor could ruin it. Legend has it that in order to avoid editor interference, sometimes John Ford would hold his hand in front of the camera lens where he wanted a cut, so some meddling editor in Hollywood wouldn’t be able to screw up his vision.

Director John Ford.

Kirby’s 1960s Marvel visual-stories were equally idiot-proof. Tiny edits made almost no difference in his actual story, so what we see in the 1960s Marvel stories is pure Kirby, diluted a little bit by Stan’s minor edits and hipster dialogue.

In terms of a comics artist auteur theory, I have to say that I think Jack’s case is unique in comics. I’ve said many times Jack Kirby is unquestionably the unknown auteur behind just about all of his 1960s Marvel stories (except some of the early monster stories written by Lee and his brother Larry), but… I don’t think most comics artists who work from a full script should be considered an auteur.

I think when a writer hands an artist a complete and detailed script, we are talking about a collaboration where both individuals can be considered co-authors or co-auteurs of the material — the vision of both the writer and artist shines through. I suppose you could make the distinction “visual auteur” and call most comics artists the visual auteur of a book they illustrate, but I think it’s important to separate the way Kirby/Lee worked (“Marvel Method”) from the more collaborative way (full script/then art) conventional comics writers/artists use to divide the labor process.

The working method which Lee called “The Marvel Method” is very, very unconventional. I don’t know if a writer could even legally get away with something like that nowadays, unless an artist legally agreed to be an uncredited ghostwriter. In Stan’s Marvel Method (what I call the “Kirby Marvel Method”) Jack would write and draw an entire book — in many cases with no plot input whatsoever from Lee. The story and all the main characters originated on Jack’s drawing board. Every month, Jack turned in about three 20-page stories with new characters, new costumes, new concepts, and new characterization, including notes in the borders clearly directing to Stan Lee what is taking place in the story. It would take Kirby about 2 weeks to write and draw a story in this fashion. In a few hours, Lee would add captions.

One of the best analogies I can think of is to compare Jack to a film auteur. In my opinion, using film terminology, Jack is the director — Kirby is the auteur of his 1960s Marvel stories and obviously he is the pure auteur of his 70s material where he also added dialogue.

Another interesting thing about Jack — even in the 1970s when he wrote his own text, according to Mark Evanier, Jack would draw the story first, then when it was done, Jack would spend the better part of a day adding text. This is a method Jack perfected in the 1960s working with Lee — the story starts with the visuals. Are their any artists today who pencil a 20 page story, then go back and add text?

I think we must be careful not to suggest that all comics artists are auteurs when discussing Kirby because I think that muddies the waters — Jack’s case is different. The so-called “Marvel Method” is really unprecedented and unique. If you want to apply auteur theory to any comic artist that’s fine — you can discuss how their vision shines through despite script constraints, editorial constraints, production constraints, and technological constraints — but aside from what I call a comics “pure auteur” (a comics artist who writes/draws their own story 100% by themselves), I think you have to say Jack Kirby in the 1960s comes closest to being in the pure comics auteur category than pretty much any collaborative artist that’s ever worked in comics, because it appears to me Jack was the uncredited, principal writer/artist/autuer and visionary behind his 1960s Marvel stories.

Jack Kirby: Comics Auteur