Here’s a link to Scott Edelman’s gracious reply to my comments on his “Shame on You Captain America” article, titled “Revisiting Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel Comics.” I’m going to post the whole thing here, but I also encourage you to check out Scott’s weblog.
Revisiting Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel Comics
Posted by: Scott Edelman
Posted date: May 27, 2012
Over at the Kirby Museum, Robert Steibel has something to say about a post I wrote a year back which explained how, when I was working for Marvel in the ’70s, I disliked the work Jack Kirby was doing upon his return there, and how I dislike that work still. By work, I don’t mean the energetic as always images Kirby was drawing, but the text he supplied once he was responsible for both words and pictures, without Stan Lee to complement him. As I wrote in that post, “The art could still be the stuff of dreams at times, but the words that came out of his characters’ mouths seemed more like a nightmare.”
When it comes to the Stan vs. Jack wars, I am a partisan of neither. Once the duo disbanded, I don’t think either of them ever worked separately at the level they did when together. They needed each other. So I wasn’t slamming Kirby to elevate Lee, merely making an observation that when the King tried to do it all, it was far from satisfactory.
But let’s leave for another time the debate as to who’s right about the quality of Kirby’s prose. (Though it looks like that time won’t be too far off, as Steibel’s post, after all, was the first of two, and his second will deal with exactly that issue.) What I’d like to address here, and what it seems as if Steibel is most interested in having me address, is my behavior when I was on staff at Marvel in the ’70s, whether there was a conspiracy of some kind to cause Kirby to be fired, and if we were trying to get the scripting duties of his books for ourselves.
Clearly they were all ambitious kids who wanted to take Jack’s place. They wanted to write comics and pointing out what they considered flaws in Jack’s work was a step in that direction. Push Jack aside and move in.
No, no, a million times no.
But to be more specific …
I can’t speak for the motivations of everyone in the Bullpen at the time, but as for me, I was a grumbler, not a conspirator. I was not badmouthing the books I proofread—and that was part of my job, to sit with the original art and a blue pencil and mark up typos and costume errors so they could be corrected before the pages were sent to the printer—in the hopes that I’d get a shot at providing the script for a Kirby-drawn book. I wasn’t angling for an assignment. I was genuinely horrified by the clunky captions Kirby was providing and the wooden dialogue he was putting into the mouths of his characters. I also recognized that it had probably always been that way, that Lee had been able to add a veneer of verisimilitude over Kirby’s images which had pulled it all together in the past, that could have done the same in the ’70s if the relationship between the two men hadn’t imploded.
So I never tried to usurp Kirby’s role as the scripter of the books he drew, and I never tried to get him fired. It was a coup for Marvel to have gotten Kirby back, and I’d certainly never have tried to undo that. As far as I know, none of the other assistant editors attempted to unseat the King either.
(A side note that came to mind after I typed the words “assistant editor”—Steibel refers to those of us who worked in the Bullpen as “interns,” which is a term generally applied to students who might work without pay for companies for brief periods of time to earn high school or college credit. Some reading his essay might take that term to mean Kirby’s books were being proofed by unpaid volunteers who had no business doing so. I asked Steibel why he used that term, because I felt it brought with it certain connotations which weren’t true, and he said he hadn’t meant us to imply any such thing—it’s just that he wasn’t aware of our true titles, which in my case was Assistant Editor, and for others, Assistant or Associate Editor. [And I believe him.] So don’t worry—no interns were responsible for overseeing Kirby’s books. But back to what you came here for … )
In an exchange of emails that preceded me writing this post, Steibel indicated that he understood there was an organized campaign among Marvel staffers to seed the letter columns with anti-Kirby sentiment and to foment unrest within comics fandom so that there’d be a call for Kirby to give up scripting his own books. Let me say that this isn’t something Steibel dreamed up, because a quick online search leads me to this:
Back at Marvel, Kirby found—just as Siegel had at DC—that his status as one of the company’s founding fathers cut little ice with the young editors now managing his work. Kirby was both writing and drawing Captain America‘s book, as well as creating new titles like The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur and Machine Man. Marvel had turned Kirby’s lay-outs and storytelling techniques into a house style, which it expected all subsequent artists to follow, but he received little respect from the new generation of staff there. To them, Kirby’s own pages now looked quaint and old-fashioned.
“Staffers seeded the letters columns of Kirby’s books with negative comments—some of which were fake—in a seeming attempt to spite him,” Raphael and Spurgeon say in their 2003 Lee biography. “They referred to him as ‘Jack the Hack’. Some editors scrawled derisive comments on copies of Kirby’s pages and pasted them on their office doors. [...] On more than a few occasions, Kirby was aggravated by the ingratitude of the company he had helped build. Stan had to step in to smooth things over.”
I know Steibel is hoping for a big reveal, some inside scoop from my years in the Bullpen as to what we really did, but honestly, I have no memory of any of this. If such a thing was going on, I was oblivious to it. But I have to wonder whether some Kirby supporters are so certain in their cause that they are invested in the idea comics fandom could not possibly have grown dissatisfied with what Kirby was doing without Marvel staffers surreptitiously egging them on. Isn’t it possible that fandom soured on Kirby’s prose on its own, with no need for a whispering campaign to urge them to do so?
In any case, rather than trying to climb the Marvel ladder on Kirby’s back, I was just … sad. I found it hard to believe that anyone could read Kirby’s Marvel output of the ’70s and not be sad. There were amazing ideas, and visuals that would blow the top of your head off, but the words that sewed it all together were to my mind so unnatural that they diminished the entire product.
Steibel writes that:
“It must have been heartbreaking when these kind of comments got back to Jack and his wife.”
It certainly wasn’t my intention to break the Kirbys’ hearts. What I said I said to those around me in the Bullpen, and not to Kirby. But to have lived through the Lee/Kirby runs ofFantastic Four and Thor and then read Kirby’s non-Lee Captain America or Black Panther… well, perhaps you could have done so without weeping for what had been lost, but I could not. And I certainly couldn’t hold my tongue about it while working in an office surrounded by the only people in the world I knew who would understand my heartache.
One last thing:
Steibel feels I should have been more penitent in my post last year for the way I treated Kirby. While I am embarrassed by the lack of respect I showed—the fact that I wrote that “we acted like ungrateful punks” and “what he was doing at Marvel in the ’70s made us wince, and we didn’t have the tact or maturity to say it appropriately” hopefully conveyed some of that—it doesn’t change the fact that my reaction to the work was sincere and is the same as it ever was. My more mature response today would be to react instead by thinking something like—
This guy invented my childhood dreams. So what if he’s not now what he once was? Who is? He deserves to do whatever the Hell he wants to do, and as payment for giving birth to us all, we should be happy to let him continue doing it for as long as he wants to do it.
The thing is, though … I still would have found his books unreadable. I just wouldn’t have bitched about them as much. I’d have cut him a break.
Not a post to satisfy the Kirby partisans out there (I’m talking to you, Claude Lalumière), but I’m hoping it’ll help you all understand a little better why I feel the way I do about Kirby’s legacy.