The Myth of the Jolly King

In a recent article in TIME magazine, author Graeme McMillan noted, “At his peak, Kirby created popular culture as we know it today. So many of the ideas and characters that fill today have been shaped in some basic, important way by Kirby’s work… Decades earlier than they happened, Jack Kirby drew the 21st century.” 1

While articles such as this bring to light to the general audience the outstanding accomplishments of Jack Kirby, there continues to be a plethora of misinformation regarding his achievements. Here are a few of the myths that get repeated again and again.

1. Stan Lee made Jack Kirby famous by listing “Jolly Jack” in the credits in the 1960s.

Like so many generations before and since, my own aging baby boomers believe the world begins and ends with them. The reality is Kirby was one half of the best-paid, best-known team in comic books beginning the 1940s. And they consistently received a splash page credit throughout the 40s and 50s. According to comic book historian Jon B. Cooke, “The “Simon & Kirby” brand was the most recognizable art credit amongst avid readers during the 1940s, perhaps second only to “Walt Disney,” and certainly rivaled the Superman Stamp of “Siegel & Shuster.” 2

Fortunately for us, publishers such as Titan, Fantagraphics and Yoe Books are correcting this misconception by reprinting the earlier Simon and Kirby Studio work.

2. Kirby was primarily a penciller.

In fact Kirby was a storyteller who wrote his own scripts from the beginning of his career. As noted by writer and cartoonist Michael Neno, “The proof is in the pudding. All anyone who’s familiar with Jack’s ’70s work has to do is read a lot of the comics Jack drew in the ’40s and ’50s. Those attributes of his ’70s writing were always a part of his writing, though a bit more latent. Just as Jack’s stylistic artistic tics and methods became more pronounced as the decades went on, so with Jack’s writing. He didn’t lose a writing ability, but his writing style did change over a long span of time. From his “Your Health Comes First” newspaper strip in 1938 (using home remedies and tips Jack had learned from his mother) to the potently emotional and hard-edged “Captain Victory” in 1981, Jack wrote, to one extent or another, most of what crossed his desk and much of the dialogue in his Simon and Kirby days is his dialogue.”

Indeed, witnesses to those early days concur. Simon and Kirby writers Kim Aamodt and Walter Geier, in respective interviews with Jim Amash in Alter Ego both stated as much.

Aamodt: “I really sweated out plots, unlike Jack Kirby. Jack just ignited and came out with ideas, and Joe’d just kind of nod his head in agreement. Jack’s face looked so energized when he was plotting that it seemed as if sparks were flying off him. Joe was on the ground, and Jack was on cloud nine. Jack was more of the artist type; he had great instincts.”

Geier: “Jack Kirby was great about that; he always came up with the plots. Jack had a fertile mind. …Jack was the idea man. Joe didn’t talk much. He could come up with decent plots, but it was usually very sketchy stuff. A lot of times Joe would say, “Awww…you figure out the ending.” Jack would give me the ending, because he was good at figuring out stories. It was not hard to work with Jack. They were Jack’s plots. I just supplied the dialogue.” 3

Likewise Gil Kane so noted, in an interview with Gary Groth in The Comics Journal.

Kane: “Simon was business-like. He did all the handling, all the talking, he did all the standing. Jack was always sitting and working. Jack would take the scripts and he’d either write them or re-write them. Jack was simply a workhorse who never sweated. It just came to him. Simon was a nice guy who was much more realistically attuned to the world.

Joe was involved in the creative process and he was the one who made all the deals. He didn’t writeit was Jack who wrote. Jack would either write a script or get one and adjust it as he saw.” 4

This tradition continued at Marvel in the 1960s. According to Archie artist and Marvel colorist Stan Goldberg, “Jack would sit there at lunch, and tell us these great ideas about what he was going to do next. It was like the ideas were bursting from every pore of his body. It was very interesting because he was a fountain of ideas.” 5

Kirby biographer and former assistant Mark Evanier further elaborates, “He didn’t care if people said “ooh, what neat pictures!” That held no joy for him. He wanted them to say “What a great story!” 6

3. Lee and Kirby were the Lennon and McCartney of comics.

While this analogy is used ad nauseam, nothing could be further from the truth. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were teenage friends and band mates who grew up together in Liverpool. Over they years they collaborated on hundreds of songs, sitting side by side, as is typical of songwriting teams.

Jack Kirby was a freelancer who worked at home during the Marvel years. The recent court ruling notwithstanding (which hopefully will be overturned), Kirby was an independent contractor. The myth of the Marvel Bullpen, propagated by Lee in his “Stan’s Soapbox” on the letters page, simply did not exist. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Lee worked on his own in the Marvel offices, and was later joined by Sol Brodsky as production manager. All other artists, writers, inkers, letterers worked freelance elsewhere, until later that decade. Kirby never joined them.

According to Kirby himself, “There were no scripts. I created the characters and wrote the stories in my own home and merely brought them into the office each month.” 7

As evidenced by the research of comics historian Mike Gartland in his ingoing series “A Failure to Communicate” in The Jack Kirby Collector (Twomorrows Publishing) and here on the Kirby Museum site, the work Kirby and Lee did was often at odds with one another, a far cry from Lennon/McCartney.

4. Jack Kirby inked very little of his own work.

For years the assumption was that Joe Simon inked Kirby in the 1940’s and 50’s at S&K. Through the rediscovery of that work a different story emerges. Kirby inked much of his own work over those decades, and continued to do so at DC in the mid-50s. This changed in the 1960s due to the extremely high demand for Kirby to supply plots and pencils at Marvel.

In an interview with Amash, S&K artist Jack Katz describes the inking instruction he received from Kirby. “He showed me how to apply all of that to figures and objects. He said, “You have to make it three-dimensional. What you do is, make sure you have black areas behind a line, always a dark behind a line. It could be feathered. If you bring the light in on the right hand side, you have to make sure the opposite side is carefully outlined. If you want to show real drama, you have a light source from the top, so the eyes and mouth are in shadow, If you want to make a real ghoul…and he turned the page over, and drew a face, he showed me how the light from underneath highlights the bone structure. He showed me how to vary textures, he’d say “curtains should look delicate.” He showed me how to do that with a brush.” 8

Special thanks to Patrick Ford, Michael Neno and Rand Hoppe.

FOOTNOTES.

1. Jack Kirby Is The Most Important Artist You Might Not Have Heard Of: The artist who created so many of Marvel’s superheroes cast a big shadow on the world we live in today, By Graeme McMillan. Time Magazine, August 15, 2013.

2. Comic Book Creator #1, spring 2013, Kirby’s Kingdom: The Commerce of Dreams by Jon. B. Cooke.

3. Alter Ego #30, November 2003, interviews by Jim Amash with Kim Aamodt and Walter Geier.

4. The Comics Journal #38, February 1978, interview by Gary Groth.

5. Alter Ego #18, October 2002, interview by Jim Amash.

6. Jack Kirby “The King”, DVD extra on “De Superman à Spider-man – L’Aventure des Super Héros” by Michel Viotte.

7. Handwritten letter by Jack Kirby entered into evidence in the Disney Vs. Kirby Heirs court case, Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-3333.

8. Alter Ego #92, March 2010, interview by Jim Amash.

8 thoughts on “The Myth of the Jolly King

  1. Charles Hatfield

    Good points, Steven! I believe #2 and #3 are particularly important to overturn, because they diminish Kirby’s role as author and distort the nature of the working relationships at Marvel. Helpful details here, well chosen!

    Reply
  2. Jonny R

    This is some well-sourced work, Steven. I’d be wary of painting too rosy a picture of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership though, as it ended pretty acrimoniously. Many of the Lennon-McCartney compositions from the White Album were not written collaboratively, yet because of the deal the men had made ten years earlier as teenagers, they continued to share songwriting credits. Things grew progressively worse, and their songwriting styles grew increasingly divergent, during the Get Back sessions and the recording of Abbey Road, yet the songwriting credit remained intact even after the Beatles split in ’69, in the credits of 1970′s Let It Be.

    In the end, as Paul & John’s friendship came to a nasty end, it does in some minor way mirror the tension between Kirby and Lee.

    Reply
    1. Charles Hatfield

      The problem with the Lennon & McCartney analogy is that the working relationship between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee at no point was ever like that between Lennon and McCartney. The working relationship between Kirby and Lee did not resemble Lennon and McCartney’s in early, rosier days nor in later, acrimonious days; it simply never was comparable. Lee was Kirby’s editor, responsible for buying Kirby’s work, interpreting it, and adapting it to fit what he saw as the company’s needs and identity; he was publisher Martin Goodman’s employee. Kirby was a freelancer paid by Goodman’s company, via a working relationship with Lee. Because Lee put the finishing touches on work drafted by Kirby, and because Lee was in the position to give Kirby more or less work, their relationship never rested on a sense of shared discovery or deep, collegial connection among equals, as did that of the young Lennon and McCartney. Nor was their “breakup” the painful public breakup of two very close friends. Lee and Kirby did not work very closely together, and did not mutually inspire one another to new heights in a spirit of brotherly competition, as did Lennon and McCartney. The whole emotional and financial dynamic was different. Steven is right to point out that the analogy hides more than it reveals!

      Reply
      1. Rob Imes

        Perhaps a better analogy would be that Lee was like Beatles producer George Martin to Kirby’s John Lennon (or Paul McCartney). Of course, even that analogy is weak because Martin was older and more knowledgeable than the Beatles when he became their producer.

        Reply
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  4. Kris Brownlow

    I agree that the Lennon-McCartney analogy is incorrect. If I had to compare Kirby to anyone in rock & roll it would probably be Roy Orbison. Orbison, like Kirby, was a founding father in his medium. Orbison had an unparalleled style and great success in his early career, only to be looked down upon later in the 1970s by the “cognoscenti of cool” . Finally, Orbison was again recognized as a master of his medium in the 1980s and, like Kirby, continues to be recognized as such far beyond his death.

    Reply
  5. Steven Coates

    Well Done Steven,

    Excellent article and a great way to celebrate Jack’s birthday.

    The misconceptions and simplifications of Jack’s contributions to pop culture are rampant and are perpetuated by fans and the media. With internet access, it is so easy to take a deeper look at the history of comic books and a failure to do so, is not acceptable. Thank you for a well constructed, well reasoned and well documented article.

    Steve Coates

    Reply

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