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“I went to Pratt a week. I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted patient people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done. I did the best drawing I could, and it was very adequate — it had viability, it had flexibility. The people in the art class kind of sympathized with me, and yet they couldn’t abandon their own outlook toward art.”—Jack Kirby1
What Kirby is describing of his early experience here is a clear example of divergent thinking, one of the hallmarks of the creative genius personality (but more on that in a bit). Brent Staples, in an article titled “Jack Kirby, a Comic Book Genius, Is Finally Remembered” published in The New York Times on August 26, 2007 wrote “Mr. Kirby did a lot more than just draw. As the critic Gary Groth so ably put it in The Comics Journal Library, “He barreled like a freight train through the first 50 years of comic books like he owned the place.” He mastered and transformed all the genres, including romance, Westerns, science fiction and supernatural comics, before he landed at Marvel.
He created a new grammar of storytelling and a cinematic style of motion. Once-wooden characters cascaded from one frame to another — or even from page to page — threatening to fall right out of the book into the reader’s lap. The force of punches thrown was visibly and explosively evident. Even at rest, a Kirby character pulsed with tension and energy in a way that makes movie versions of the same characters seem static by comparison.
For the record I believe ‘genius’ is one of the most overused and therefore devalued words in the English language. Just Google “The Genius of…” and add any name that comes to mind and you’ll see what I mean. Kim Kardashian? The Situation? (life & style; and comedy; respectively). Perhaps this has the makings of a new parlor game.
While most agree that Albert Einstein fits the general conception of genius, when it comes to the creative arts there is no clear delineation. In the end it comes down to the definition of the word, which itself isn’t clear. One would think anyone with an IQ of over 160 would qualify for something other than Mensa membership, but that isn’t necessarily so. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition doesn’t even mention a specific IQ score.
Definition of GENIUS
- a plural genii : an attendant spirit of a person or place
b plural usually genii : a person who influences another for good or bad
- a strong leaning or inclination : penchant
- a : a peculiar, distinctive, or identifying character or spirit
b : the associations and traditions of a place
c : a personification or embodiment especially of a quality or condition
- plural usually genii : spirit, jinni
- plural usually geniuses
a : a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude <had a genius for getting along with boys — Mary Ross>
b : extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity
c : a person endowed with transcendent mental superiority; especially : a person with a very high IQ.
And from the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:
“Genius: Person of extraordinary intellectual power. The genius displays originality, creativity, and the ability to think and work in areas not previously explored. Though geniuses have usually left their unique mark in a particular field, studies have shown that the general intelligence of geniuses is also exceptionally high. Genius appears to be a function of both hereditary and environmental factors. See also gifted child.”
Our contemporary concept of genius comes mainly from the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his The Critique of Judgment (1790) during the Age of Enlightenment. Genius, Kant wrote, is “the exemplary originality of the natural endowments of an individual in the free employment of his cognitive faculties.”2
Still, the problem is, even the definition of “creative” is hard to quantify. It is that very individuality that helps us define genius, for it can thereafter be imitated.
“Before creativity, the psychoanalyst must lay down his arms.”— Sigmund Freud
During the mid- 20th century, psychologists began studying creativity for the first time.3 And not surprisingly, this research yielded little concrete evidence of a strict definition of what it means to be creative or how creative personalities are formed. To be a creative person you had either a strict or liberal upbringing, did well or poorly in school, had lots of friends or none.
However, some major personality traits were established for what defines a creative type.4 The key idea in the psychologist’s conception of creativity has been divergent thinking. By standard measures intelligent people are thought of as convergers, people who given a puzzle can figure it out. In contrast, creative people come up with many different associations, some of which are idiosyncratic and possibly unique.5
A representative study conducted by the Berkeley Institute of Personality Assessment did yield some conclusions: “Creative architects” as distinguished from their less creative peers, exhibited a greater incidence of such personality traits as independence, self-confidence, unconventionality, alertness, ready access to unconscious processes, ambition, and commitment to work.
This willingness to experiment arises from a temperament that’s seeks arousal, from sheer pleasure in working with the medium, from a confidence in one’s own emerging powers, and from the relationship between the ease in own artistic medium and difficulties with standard scholastic practices. If one cannot succeed where they are supposed to, one may combat personal frustrations by blazing a trail in one’s area of strength.
Another study6 has shown that creative solutions to problems occur more often when individuals engage in an activity for its sheer pleasure than when they do so for possible external rewards. Indeed, knowledge that one will be judged on some criterion of “creativity” or “originality” tends to narrow the scope of what one can produce (leading to end products that are conventional). In contrast, the absence of an evaluation seemed to liberate creativity. In other words, you can excel where you have the freedom to.7
It has also been suggested that the most highly esteemed creators not only are more productive in general, but that they produce more “bad” works that have been long ignored as well as more “good” works that are esteemed by posterity.8
The quality of the early years is crucial. If, in early life, children have the opportunity to discover much about their world and to do so in a comfortable, exploring way, they will accumulate invaluable capital of creativity on which they can draw in later life. If, on the other hand, children are restrained from such discovering activities, pushed in only one direction, or burdened with the view that there is only one direction, or one correct answer or correct answers that must be meted out only by those in authority, then the chances that they will ever become creative adults are significantly reduced.
For every one child who decomposes music there are dozens who simply play as they are taught. Young musical performers, for example, often reveal their gift for composing by a constant effort to “rewrite a piece.” Often this adventurousness is interpreted as insubordination. There are individuals who overcome the intervention of authority to go on to become creative in spite of restrictions.
“Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something.”
However, if one combines the definition of creative as a “divergent” thinking, someone who comes up with “idiosyncratic” solutions and combine that with the definition of genius, “a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude” and “displays originality, creativity, and the ability to think and work in areas not previously explored” I think one has a conclusion as to what comprises a “creative genius.”
According to The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979):
“Genius: The highest level of manifestation of man’s creative forces. The term “genius” is used both to indicate a man’s creative ability and to evaluate the results of his activities. Assuming an innate capability to productive endeavors in some field, genius, as opposed to talent, not only represents the highest degree of giftedness but also is connected with the creation of qualitatively new works and with the discovery of previously unknown creative methods. The activities of genius are achieved in a definite historical context of life in human society, on which genius draws for its creativity.”
I think key here is the notion that creative genius us beyond mere talent, or hard work. They go on to say, “Historical concepts of the nature of genius and its evaluation are related to a general understanding of the creative process. The ancients (Plato and, later, Neoplatonists) viewed genius as a type of irrational, “divine inspiration.” With the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci, G. Vasari, J. Scaliger) came the cult of genius as creative individuality, which reached its apogee in the romantic period, as exemplified by the preromantic Sturm und Drang in Germany, romanticism, and the theories, evolved from romanticism and characterized by the opposition of genius and the masses, of T. Carlyle and F. Nietzsche. The concept of genius in the contemporary meaning of the word developed in the 18th century. It became a fundamental aesthetic concept in A. Shaftesbury’s system: genius creates in a like manner to the forces of nature; its creations are original, in contrast to imitative artists. I. Kant also emphasized the originality and naturalness of creative genius: genius is the “natural endowment of the soul …. through which nature gives order to art” (Soch., vol. 5, Moscow, 1966, p. 323). F. Schiller described the nature of genius through the concept of naïveté as the instinctive following of artless nature and the ability to grasp the world spontaneously.”
Therefore, if one were to define genius as someone who diverged from a known path and transformed his or her field of expertise in the 20th century, my list would include, in no particular order:
- Pablo Picasso (art)
- Martha Graham (dance)
- Louis Armstrong (jazz)
- Lucien Bernhard (graphic design)
- Woody Guthrie (folk music)
- Orson Welles (film)
- James Joyce (writing)
- Bob Dylan (popular song)
- Albert Einstein (science)
- Jack Kirby (comics)
If a chart would be created of what came before and after, each would qualify. While we have no way of knowing how Jack Kirby would have scored on an IQ test, it doesn’t really matter. The fact is he transformed his field from the moment he entered it, and unlike many other accepted geniuses, continued to do so for the next 35 years. Consider that Einstein’s breakthroughs occurred when he was still in his 20s.
What I am submitting is that Kirby was a creative genius, one that changed the way comic storytelling was approached going forward.
The closest comparison I can draw is that of Louis Armstrong. While Armstrong did not create jazz, he was there as it emerged. Whilst he recorded in tandem with others throughout his career (King Oliver, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Teagarden, et al) his singularity always shown, and he managed to influence jazz and popular music for every decade from the ’20s till the ’60s.
Likewise Kirby influenced comics from the moment he hit the ground running and continued to do so for the next four decades. Beginning in early 1941 with Captain America, less than three short years after Superman landed on earth from Krypton, Cap wasn’t the first patriotic costumed hero (that honor belonged to The Shield), nor the first to rely less on superpowers than physical prowess (that would be Batman). Rather it was the dynamism of his advanced storytelling and page design that changed the way comic book stories were told. To continue the Louis Armstrong analogy, Captain America was Kirby’s “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven.”
As Gerard Jones describes in Men of Tomorrow, “What Kirby brought to comics was an opera of line and mass. The stories didn’t matter, so much drama did his anger bring to the figures bursting out of the panels, the bodies hurtling through space as fists and feet drove into them, the faces contort in passion, the camera angles swinging wildly and the panels stretched and bent by the needs of action. His hero’s anatomy made no sense. Kirby had never been able to afford life-drawing lessons; he was making it up. But Captain America came to such life and moved so forcefully through a time and space that existed only because Kirby said they did that he became more real than the carefully drawn heroes of the art school graduates. Kirby celebrated the body, the male body, male sweat and muscles, not with the fetishism of bodybuilding but with savage joy. And countless boys at the brink of puberty loved him for it. Within two issues Captain America was selling a million copies a month. Suddenly every young artist was drawing action like Jack Kirby.”9
However, Kirby’s growing confidence went far beyond his drawing abilities, and in fact the stories did matter. His main interest was in telling stories, and he frequently wrote and plotted the tales he drew. Ever the divergent thinker, even when given a script, according to former assistant and biographer Mark Evanier, Kirby (and partner Joe Simon) would make paper airplanes out of them. “They tried for a while to control us, but we knew how to do comics. Finally they let us do whatever we wanted,” recalled Kirby.10
Soon after Kirby and Simon introduced the kid gang to comics, early in 1942, with The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion, brought over from such popular films such as “Dead End” and Kirby’s own rough and tumble experience growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, leading the way for Charles Biro and others to follow. The kid gang would cross genres at Kirby’s hand in the early 50s with the Western Boys’ Ranch. Western comics are a comic category Kirby did not create, along with the Crime comic (that credit goes to Biro), still his influence was felt on such titles as Bulls Eye, Black Rider, Gunsmoke Western, Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid and Justice Traps the Guilty, Headline and Police Trap, respectively. Indeed, Kirby often cited his favorite story as “Mother Delilah,” in issue number 3 of Boys’ Ranch. Remarkably it manages to cross no less than three genres, the Western and kid gang with the raw emotion and pathos of a Romance comic.
According to Simon and Kirby Studio historian Harry Mendryk, Kirby’s greatest output between 1947 and 1959 was in Romance comics, another genre the team created.
In his Eisner winning 2011 book, Hand of Fire: The Comic Art of Jack Kirby, Charles Hatfield states that Romance comics “…shaped the celebrated superhero narratives that followed, with their emphasis on love, loss and anguish. Kirby never abandoned a genre, but rather reworked earlier genre conventions in new forms, splicing and adapting.”11
This dramatic breakthrough would become an intrinsic ingredient at Marvel in the early ’60s. According to Hatfield, “It was under Kirby, though, that Marvel decisively latched onto the idea of unresolved, never-ending conflict between superpowered opposites, and revealingly, Kirby’s subsequent work often explores this kind of dualistic premise in distilled or exaggerated form. This sort of mirroring obviously appealed to him, as both a storyteller and a designer of characters.
The X-Men series, launched in 1963, is the keystone example. It introduced the germ of the idea that was to emerge full blown in may of Kirby’s later creations: that of superhuman heroes and villains springing from a common origin, vying with each other like rival gods in some epically dysfunctional family. Humankind, of course, was caught in the middle.”12 As Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon noted, “I don’t think it’s any accident that… the entire Marvel universe and the entire DC universe are all pinned or rooted on Kirby’s concepts.”
It was not Kirby who introduced mythological or cosmic elements to comics, rather it was the grand scale and sweep of these elements that resonated throughout the industry, beginning at Marvel and exploding the following decade in his Fourth World magnum opus.
Once at DC, on titles such as The New Gods, The Forever People, Mr. Miracle, The Demon, The Losers and others, Kirby brought a synchronicity to the art and storytelling that few in the industry have achieved, while still working in a highly commercial venue. Artist James Romberger observes, “I do tend to value Kirby’s picture-making skills the highest on the genius scale, I guess….that he is able to do those huge spreads with multiple figures in deep space, all with astounding weight and presence and even more, of tremendous impact, of movement within that space. No other cartoonist has this level of skill and vision. Then I rate his writing and art in tandem from the best of his 4th World books at his peak and there simply is no parallel for how deep and humane and resonant these works are…”
One example of divergent thinking is Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth. Reportedly suggested by publisher Carmine Infantino as a Planet of the Apes knockoff, Kirby riffed on the theme in such inventive ways as to render the source immaterial, as far a field as Charlie Parker’s bebop “Ornithology” is from the jazz standard “How High the Moon,” over which it is written. Kamandi lasted over 40 issues, Kirby’s second longest running title. He returned to Marvel in the mid-seventies and to earlier characters such as Captain America and Black Panther but also explored grander schemes once again in The Eternals and 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film, used as a launching pad for an exploration of the human spirit and follies throughout history and into the future.
In the ‘80s his comic tales took a more personal turn, with Captain Victory and “Street Code”, and while his influence over the comics filed began to wane, Silver Star stands as a coda to an illustrious career, a dark inversion, colored by his World War II experience when compared to that other creative genius’ last hurrah, Satchmo’s “What A Wonderful World.”
Kirby left us in 1994. In the 21st century, with the advent of CGI, his creations have exploded onto the silver screen. Moviegoers who most likely would not recognize his name have spent billions worldwide to watch them in wide screen 3D.
Kirby fits all the definitions of “creative genius:” someone who’s “creations are original,” who had “ability to grasp the world spontaneously,” who “represents the highest degree of giftedness but also is connected with the creation of qualitatively new works and with the discovery of previously unknown creative methods,” someone who’s “originality, creativity, and the ability to think and work in areas not previously explored” and finally as someone who left his unique mark in his particular field, and our culture as well.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”—Albert Einstein
Special thanks to Norris Burroughs, Randolph Hoppe, and James Romberger for their help and guidance.
- Comics Journal Interview #134, with Gary Groth, February 1990.
- The Critique of Judgment by Immanuel Kant, page 181.
- J. P. Guilford, Study of Human Intelligence, According to Guilford’s Structure of Intellect (SI) theory, an individual’s performance on intelligence tests can be traced back to the underlying mental abilities or factors of intelligence. SI theory comprises up to 150 different intellectual abilities organized along three dimensions—Operations, Content, and Products.
- Carl Jung, Psychological Types , 1921.
- Joy Paul Guilford, Study of Human Intelligence.
- American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology, Considering Creativity, Dean Keith Simonton, University of California, Davis, Volume 34, No. 10 November 2003.
- Dr. Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School. Her 30 year research has studied how the work environment can influence creativity and motivation has yielded a theory of creativity and innovation.
- Creating Minds: An Anatomy Of Creativity As Seen Through The Lives Of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, And Gandhi by Howard Gardner, Basic Books, 1994.
- Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones, pages 200-201.
- Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier, page 60.
- Hand of Fire by Charles Hatfield, page 22.
- Hand of Fire, page 130.
Alter Ego, Roy Thomas, editor, Bill Shelly and Jim Amash, co-editors, et al, TwoMorrows, Raleigh, NC.
American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology, Considering Creativity, Volume 34, No. 10 November 2003.
Berkeley Institute of Personality Assessment, http://ipsr.berkeley.edu/about.html
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, http://www.britannica.com
Evanier, Mark, Kirby: King of Comics, Abrams, New York, NY, 2008.
Gagne, Michel, Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics, Fantagraphics, Seattle, WA, 2012.
Gardner, Howard, Creating Minds: An Anatomy Of Creativity As Seen Through The Lives Of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, And Gandhi; Basic Books, New York, 1994.
Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Macmillan, Inc., New York, NY, 1979.
Hatfield, Charles, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Jack Kirby Quarterly, Chrissie Harper, editor, Quality Communications, London, UK.
Jones, Gerard, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, Basic Books, New York, 2004.
Jung, Carl, Psychological Types, Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.6, Princeton University Press; Princeton, NJ, 1976
Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Judgment, Germany, 1790
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus, http://www.merriam-webster.com.
Mendryk, Harry, Simon and Kirby (blog), http://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/simonandkirby
Theakston Greg, Comic Strip Kirby; The Complete Jack Kirby, volume 1–5; Jack Kirby Reader, volume 1–2, Pure Imagination, New York.
The Comics Journal, Gary Groth, editor, Kim Thompson, Eric Reynolds, co-editors, et al, Seattle, WA.
The Jack Kirby Collector, John Morrow, editor, TwoMorrows, Raleigh, NC.
Thorpe, Scott, How to Think Like Einstein: Simple Ways to Break the Rules and Discover Your Hidden Genius; Sourcebooks, Inc, Naperville, IL, 2000.
Wyman, Ray, The Art of Jack Kirby, The Blue Rose Press, Orange, CA 1994.
Steven Brower is an award-winning former Creative Director for Print, a former art director at The New York Times and The Nation, co-author and designer of Woody Guthrie Artworks (Rizzoli, 2005), author of Satchmo: The Wonderful Art and World of Louis Armstrong (Abrams, 2009), and author of two books on Kirby associate Mort Meskin for Fantagraphics. He is on the faculty of Marywood University in Scranton, PA, and The School of Visual Arts in New York City. What an appropriate entry on what would have been Kirby’s 95th birthday! Thanks, Steven. — Rand.
Inspired by Patrick Ford’s comment on today’s “A Failure To Communicate” entry from Mike Gartland, here are three pages with Kirby’s story layouts and notes side-by-side with the printed version. From “If This Be Treason!” (Tales Of Suspense 70, October 1965, Marvel Comics) – Rand
“Story by Stan Lee
Layouts by Jack Kirby
Lettering by S. Rosen
Reintroducing the match-
less artistry of one of
the giants of the great
golden age of comics…
Art by George Tuska”
A Failure To Communicate – Part Six
Thanks to Mike Gartland and John Morrow, The Kirby Effect is offering Mike’s “A Failure To Communicate” series from The Jack Kirby Collector. Captions on the illustrations are written by John Morrow. – Rand
Part Six was first published in TwoMorrows’ August 2000 Jack Kirby Collector 29.
“Less is More.” Never thought about it, really; just another catchy phrase used by advertising people to try and convince you to buy something—that you were getting something special. What could it mean? Well, I guess it could mean something like concentrated fabric softener, or if a seller was trying to convince a buyer that their “new reduced-size” product was just as good as the previous size (except the price remained the same, or was increased, of course). But it wasn’t until I began to research the layout work that Jack Kirby did for Marvel in the Sixties that I realized what it also could mean.
Personnel-wise, Marvel was in a state of flux by the mid-Sixties. Due to the tremendous increase in popularity of the new Marvel line, Stan Lee was in constant search for creative people to help lessen the load; he was also seeking inroads to release new titles while under distribution restrictions. By 1965 books that originally showcased one super-hero found themselves sharing with another; or were dropped totally in favor of a new series. Storylines began to change to a multi-issue, serialistic format. New artists were introduced; some stayed, others didn’t, or stayed but in a different capacity, such as inking, coloring, or production. The artists who were to pencil these books had to be indoctrinated to the “Marvel method” of story production. Due to the pressing deadlines, and foreseeing that some might have problems conforming in so limited a time, Lee decided that the best course to take would be for someone to work with these artists who could help them learn to work “Marvel method.” Well, who better than the one who unknowingly created it, Jack Kirby?
To digress for a moment, it is my opinion that the “Marvel method” was not so much a creation as it was an advantageous development. Lee states in a 1977 interview that it came about in the Sixties, but in a more recent interview with Roy Thomas in Alter Ego, Roy convinces Lee that it must have occurred earlier, during the pre-hero monster era. This makes more sense as it coincides with the return of Kirby to Marvel on a regular basis. In my opinion, once Lee realized that Kirby needed little or no prompting to get a good saleable story out of him, he gave Jack the leeway (no pun intended) to develop characters and concepts that an otherwise full script would have restrained. When Lee also realized that he could adapt that type of collaboration with others, and get better stories from them (and free himself from writing scripts), the “Marvel method” was born.
Chronologically, the precursor of Jack doing layouts might have been as early as 1963. Up until that time, most of the new super-hero line was pure Kirby/Lee, but by the cover date of March 1963, there is only one book, Fantastic Four, with Kirby art produced. On that month, all the other titles drawn by Kirby up until then are handed over to the other resident artists. The Hulk went to Ditko, Strange Tales went to Ayers (which made sense since he was probably even more experienced at drawing Torch stories than Kirby). Journey Into Mystery tried out with Al Hartley (but settled better with Joe Sinnott), and Don Heck jumped in with both feet, premiering his super-hero drawing abilities with Ant-Man in Astonish and a new feature called Iron Man in Suspense (actually, Iron Man was to premiere earlier, but that’s another story). This was the first attempt to have others continue the Kirby/Lee technique, but many of the stories showed the lack of something (or someone). Of course while this was going on, Jack was not idle; he was behind the scenes drawing and developing, in conjunction with Stan, what would become The Avengers, The X-Men, Sgt. Fury, FF Annual #1 and Strange Tales Annual #2. Up front he continued to draw the monthly FF adventures, a Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, or Torch story here and there, and the cover art for almost the complete line.
When Sgt. Fury, The Avengers, and The X-Men premiere, the process begins to repeat itself. Kirby draws approximately the first year of stories and then another artist comes in to continue; but unlike the earlier non-Kirby period, Jack doesn’t leave entirely. We now finally come to 1965; there are more titles to draw than ever before, and unlike two years previous, Stan cannot resort to his resident artists to fill in because they already have their hands full drawing books. Enter the freelancers; some were old friends of Stan from the Timely/Atlas days, some were from competitor companies, some were talented newcomers; but none were experienced at drawing stories “Marvel method.” It is during this time and for this reason that Jack is persuaded to do layouts to help these “new” artists.
Jack is first credited with layouts in Avengers #14 (cover-dated March 1965), but of course this should not infer that Jack didn’t influence plots or artwork for other artists prior to this. There is an excellent article in the Jack Kirby Quarterly by Nigel Kitching which covers Kirby contributing art “help” on stories where his name doesn’t appear, like Avengers #9-13. On copies of the original art to Avengers #14 there is evidence of Jack’s border notes similar to the type we covered on the Journey into Mystery #111 article in TJKC #26, but this particular issue seemed to have many hands in it; Lee, Ivey, Heck, Stone, et. al. Jack also lays out the stories to Avengers #15 and #16, by which time his border notes become much more expansive and descriptive. These three issues appear to be Jack’s “dry run” at leaving pencil and story layouts for other artists to follow.
By May/June 1965 Jack has finished with layouts on The Avengers and with penciling on The X-Men (issue #11 was his last as artist), but he has picked up “The Hulk” in Tales to Astonish (#68). Up until that time, Steve Ditko was drawing and co-plotting the stories. Mark Evanier related to me that it was Ditko who originally pitched the idea of giving The Hulk a series to Lee; perhaps it was Lee who suggested putting The Hulk in the Goblin story in Spider-Man #14 (cover-dated July 1964) that alerted Ditko that the character was being shuffled around looking for a home. Ditko therefore made the suggestion which led to The Hulk series beginning in Astonish #60 (cover-dated October 1964, after Lee and Dick Ayers indoctrinated Astonish readers to The Hulk in Astonish #59). After leaving the Hulk series, the very next month in Spider-Man, Ditko begins receiving a (long-delayed) co-plotting credit (he doesn’t receive co-plotting credit on “Dr. Strange” until two months later); coincidence? Ditko’s problems with Marvel were growing—but back to Jack.
Between June and August 1965, Jack co-plots and draws the Hulk stories for Astonish #68-70 and begins doing layouts—similar to the Avengers stories—for The X-Men; he also adds plot and pencils to help Stan launch the new “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series in Strange Tales. With The X-Men, Jack leaves layouts and border notes for Alex Toth, in what may have been his “try-out” issue. This is not to say that Toth was new to the field; he was an accomplished draftsman long before this, but working “Marvel method” may not have been his cup of tea. He leaves after only one issue, a shame really. By the way, this particular issue (X-Men #12) is of interest not only for the obvious introduction of The Juggernaut; on the originals Kirby layed-out, The Juggernaut was originally intended to look different, with a flat helmet (à la the Atlas Black Knight), a waist apron similar to Galactus’, and spikes on the breastplate. Obviously someone thought him a little too lethal (or ridiculous) looking and asked for changes. Also it is my opinion that in keeping with the ‘Origin of Professor X’ storyline, Jack intended for Cain Marko (The Juggernaut) to be the cause of Professor X becoming crippled. Although I’ve yet to verify this through the original art, the powerful images on pages 12 and 13 seem to confirm this, and the fact that Jack probably came up with the name Cain Marko (“the mark of Cain”) would fit into the brother vs. brother plot. Stan almost always used alliterative names on characters he was writing. Stan of course would have had to change the “Marko cripples Professor X” plot since he knew he had previously established this in an earlier issue of X-Men (#9) using the villain Lucifer. In reviewing the border notes to the originals from X-Men #9 it is apparent that the crippling of Xavier at Lucifer’s hands was not part of the original plot; there are no border notes by Jack pertaining to the incident, and the notes in the borders by Lee pertaining to it are written over erased Kirby notes. Also there is evidence of Wite-Out correction on word balloons in which the incident is added. So it would seem as though Lee added the crippling plot after the story was handed in, which is why Jack probably didn’t know about it, or remember it if Lee informed him of it; which makes me wonder how much collaboration Kirby and Lee were doing on The X-Men to begin with. (And for those who want to point out that Xavier appears later on walking with Marko in the Korean flashback, you’ll notice by examining the art that there is no evidence that the other soldier was meant to be Xavier in the first place.) Enough with the tangents, back to the story.
It is on the books cover-dated September 1965 that Jack is firmly established as layout artist. Jack begins in tandem plotting and leaving pencil layouts for Strange Tales, Astonish, X-Men, and Suspense (Jack was co-plotting and drawing the Captain America series in Suspense up until that point). He is also co-plotting and doing pencils for Thor and FF, plus cover art for the line. On examples of original art, Jack’s border notes begin to become almost paragraph-length, leaving detailed descriptions and brief dialogue for the resident artist. Jack (and maybe even Stan) wasn’t sure who would be drawing what story at any given month, so these notes were not directed at any of the artists’ abilities. Seasoned veterans to Marvel, like Ayers and Heck, probably only referred to them for the plot or occasional panel dynamics. It was the “new guys” coming in that all of these layouts were for.
With each title Jack was laying out, Stan tried introducing one of the “new” guys as artist. That was, after all, part of the whole idea behind bringing Jack in on this project. Plots were worked out between Kirby and Lee, Jack would then flesh out the story with varying degrees of pencil work, accompanying the pencils with border directions. The artist would follow this lead, in Stan’s hope that he would add his own technique and flair to the finished art. Lee would then add dialogue and captions and make any last-minute editorial changes. This time period in Marvel marks the beginning of the artistic second wave; we’ll take them one at a time.
After Alex Toth left X-Men, Werner Roth, an old friend of Stan’s from the Atlas days (1950-57) came back under the pseudonym Jay Gavin. Moonlighting from his romance work at DC, Roth adapted readily and within six months was working “Marvel method” with Roy Thomas as the regular artist on the title and stayed with it for almost two years. Kirby is credited with layouts on issues #12-17, although it is possible that he stayed on in one capacity or another until Roy came on in issue #20. From the onset, Jack was more devoted to this title than the others he helped launch at the same time and didn’t seem to leave it creatively until another writer came on. Two of the X-Men’s most memorable foes, The Juggernaut and The Sentinels, were created by Jack during this period.
As stated previously, Jack came in on “The Hulk” in Tales To Astonish #68; after drawing the first three chapters he begins doing layouts for Mickey Demeo. Demeo is one of the more recognized pseudonyms in Marvel mythos; the artist’s real name is even more recognized throughout all of comicdom: Mike Esposito. Esposito is one-half of the legendary team of Andru & Esposito, as recognized and loved as Simon & Kirby to many. As with many from DC at that time, Mike took a false name (the Demeo was his then-wife’s maiden name). According to Esposito, Jack’s layouts looked like rough sketches and you had to pull them together as best you could. Sometimes the Kirby layout pencils were defined enough that Mike could draw over them in ink (as opposed to penciling over the layout, then inking it). This may help to explain why, in so many of the stories in the various titles layed-out by Jack, the Kirby look comes through even over another artist’s work. Jack almost always did more defined pencils on the splash and would occasionally pencil a panel here or there. Esposito stays on to pencil a few issues, alternating with Bob Powell, but then opts to ink rather than pencil. In the interim, Gil Kane sneaks in for his first try at “Marvel method,” penciling one story under the pen-name of Scott Edwards. John Romita also comes in for one issue, then “The Hulk” settles down with Bill Everett until issue #84 when he and Jack leave the series. Jack actually was credited with layouts up until issue #83, but #84 credits many Marvel hands so it’s possible he was in on it. Jack stayed with this title for 17 issues; there was only one other title in which he would stay on longer as layout artist. It happened to be the new kid on the block.
Anyone from my generation knows about the James Bond series of the Sixties and the plethora of spin-offs that it gave birth to. Stan, ever commercial, ever topical, naturally jumped onto this bandwagon. He and Jack came up with “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”; this series showcased all of the crazy high-tech gadgetry and far-out scientific concepts that made the secret agent genre popular and Jack was already known for. Stan also resolved the problem of bringing Sgt. Fury into the current Marvel timeline by making him the secret agent in the series (Jack and Stan lightly touched on a present-day Fury in the pages of FF #21, as an operative of the C.I.A., but this brought him back in ernest as a regular Marvel character). Jack penciled the first story in Strange Tales #135 (Aug. ’65), but as with the Hulk series in Astonish, he stops doing full pencils and begins doing layouts with the issue cover-dated Sept. ’65. And with this new title would come another “new” artist.
John Severin was hardly “new” to the medium, well known for his work with EC, Harvey Kurtzman, Mad, and especially Cracked magazine; his association with Marvel dated, like Roth, from the Fifties when he did mostly westerns for Stan. Although his work showed promise, like Esposito, he didn’t stay long as penciler. After three issues Severin was gone; he ironically goes back in time with Fury, ending up inking Dick Ayers’ pencils on the Sgt. Fury book. After Severin leaves, the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” book becomes a virtual revolving door of interim pencilers; it appeared that whoever was free for an assignment or wanted to try out was given a shot. Sinnott, Giacoia, Esposito, Purcell, and even Ogden Whitney of Skyman/ACG fame pitched in for an installment. The dependable Don Heck did a few issues; and John Buscema came back to Marvel in the pages of a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” book. Buscema was also one of Stan’s “friends of the Fifties” group; Buscema likes to relate the story of how, when given the Kirby layouts to the story, he erased them all and drew the book his way. John’s words from The Art of John Buscema: “It was ‘Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, and I didn’t pencil it. Jack Kirby broke it down. That’s how much confidence Stan had in me. He had Jack Kirby break it down, and I penciled it over, and repenciled the whole thing. I erased every panel and redrew it, because I couldn’t draw like Kirby… and it came out pathetic.” As has been noted on other occasions, Stan never wanted his other artists to draw like Kirby, but to learn his abilities at dynamic storytelling, which is probably why with the border notes/directions, Jack was requested to do the pencil layouts. After Buscema, with issue #151, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” finally settles down with an artist who not only stays with it, and is a newcomer, but happens to be perfect for the book.
Jim Steranko cut his comic art teeth at Harvey, but found fame at Marvel. Like Kirby, his art had a cinematic technique, and more importantly, he executed the “pop art/psychedelic”” style into his then-current work, blending perfectly with the secret agent “camp” look; unlike Kirby, his style was sleek and polished, which also contributed to a better look for this particular series. Steranko would become the definitive artist for “Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D,” and even though his total work for Marvel would end up being less than thirty issues, it was a testament to his talent that it would be enough to ensure his fame. What is also of interest is that, within three months of his first story, by Strange Tales #154, Steranko begins being credited as writer of the series, making him the first regular artist/writer at Marvel. As with X-Men, it appears that Kirby stays with this title until a new regular writer takes over, and as with X-Men, Stan relinquishes the “writing” credit and only edits the book thereafter. Jack does layouts on “Nick Fury” for 18 months, longer than any other series in which he is credited as layout artist; and seeing as how there seemed to be no regular artist on the series until the arrival of Steranko, it is to Jack’s credit that he was able to maintain story quality throughout.
Since Jack only did layouts on two issues of Daredevil, some would say why even bring it up? There’s an interesting story behind it; Daredevil was, up until that time, in the creative hands of Wally Wood, who made the character more dynamic, visually stunning, and marketable than he ever was previously. Wood was, however, slated to begin work on the new “Sub- Mariner” series debuting in Astonish #70, which is probably why the character last appeared in Daredevil (#7). The Daredevil book was being handled by Wood associate Bob Powell, who was preserving the Wood “look.” In the interim, however, Wood had a huge disagreement with Lee and refused to do any more stories (note: although Daredevil #10 is cover-dated Oct. ’65—two months after Astonish #70—since it was a bi-monthly, it was possible that it was drawn around the same time). By the cover date of Dec. ’65, Wood was gone, and Powell with him. Stan was initially going to bring in Dick Ayers to take over the book, but really didn’t want to take Dick away from his other drawing assignments; as Dick was preparing some pages for the Daredevil book (of which he still has a few), enter John Romita. Romita had just returned to Marvel, having known Stan from the “Timely” days; previous to his return he was grinding out romance work for DC. Stan immediately gave John the Daredevil assignment, but unlike Ayers, John was not used to working Marvel method, so… enter Jack Kirby. Jack layed-out issues #12-13, and by #14 Romita was well on his way, staying on the title until issue #19 when he leaves in order to take over the artistic seat in Spider-Man.
With the “Captain America” series in Tales of Suspense, Jack follows the same program. He was the resident co-plotter and artist from its inception in issue #59 (cover-dated Nov. ’64), until issue #69 when he begins doing layouts. Issue #69 is cover-dated Sept. ’65, just as was Astonish #71 and Strange Tales #136; was this more than just coincidence? (And just as with the Hulk story in Astonish #59, Stan introduces Suspense readers to Cap in a pre-series story in Suspense #58, drawn by Heck, with Kirby art corrections interspersed.) The “new” artist for this series was the indomitable George Tuska. Tuska was well known throughout the industry, drawing every genre imaginable for every known comic book publisher; always on the move, he rarely stayed with any one company exclusively. After issue #69, which was handled by Ayers, Tuska comes in as artist and does his usual yeomanly work for five issues, then he’s on the move again, leaving Marvel for Tower. After another fill-in by dependable Dick Ayers, the series brings in John Romita for two issues, then goes back to Jack doing full pencils by issue #78. Jack stays with the series, co-plotting and penciling until issue #86, then leaves for five issues (Suspense #86 is cover-dated Feb. ’67, the same time he left Strange Tales at #153). Why he left is unclear, but by Feb. ’67, Jack was definitely done with doing layouts.
For two years Jack did layout work for Marvel; for completists, the breakdown went something like this:
- March 1965-May 1965: Avengers #14, #15, & #16
- July 1965-March 1966: X-Men #12-17
- September 1965-May 1966: Tales of Suspense (Captain America) #69-77
- September 1965-September 1966: Tales to Astonish (Hulk) #71-83
- September 1965-February 1967: Strange Tales (Nick Fury) #136-153
- January 1966-February 1966: Daredevil #12 & #13
And these represent only credited layouts; it’s very possible that Jack had story input on one or two issues after he left, until the writer following him either picked up his thread or established his own. With only two exceptions—Avengers #16 and Suspense #77—Jack leaves all of his last layed-out stories open for the writer and artist following to conclude. Even the two exceptions are hardly that, since Avengers #16 leaves the plot thread of the search for The Hulk which is in the following issue (and which also vaguely ties in with the Hulk story in Astonish #69 using Kirby paste-ups), and the Suspense (Cap) storyline is continued by Kirby himself with issue #78. If the aforementioned stories give the appearance of my giving credit to Kirby as writer, it is only in the non-conventional sense, as it is my opinion that the plots and stories at this point were coming from Jack. These layed-out stories coincide with the same period of time when Jack was developing the interwoven plotlines in FF and Thor, along with the introduction of new characters and concepts there. Jack begins doing layouts in ernest at about the same time as the continuing stories of FF #38-up and Thor #116-up are running. The border notes on all of Jack’s stories become more involved and detailed at this point, indicating that he is leaving more direction and being left more on his own than in the earlier years. Stan was there, to be sure, with plot input, editorial corrections, dialogue, and captions. Stan was credited as “writer,” but at this point he was leaving no written synopsis, plot, or script for Jack to follow. Most of the time there were story conferences, and Stan likes to relate how he would only have to give “the germ of an idea” to his collaborator and send him off; with Kirby he once mentioned that even this wasn’t necessary. “Sometimes Jack would tell me what the next story would be,” he once opined. He also referred to Jack as a “conceptualizer,” which, by definition, implies the act of forming notions, ideas, or concepts; and even the ones not originated by Jack were being passed through him for input if time permitted. With this in view it is my opinion that, although they probably worked more closely in the earlier years, with the expansion of the line occupying more of Lee’s time and the previously mentioned changes in how the stories were being done, the majority of the plots and stories on the books Kirby was involved in were probably coming from Jack. In discussing this topic with several of the artists working on the layout books, more than one mentioned that Jack’s border notes were being left for the writer of the dialogue, not the artist. Stan, in an unpublished interview, stated that he couldn’t understand how Jack could say that he (Jack) was doing the writing; well, there are many examples of Jack’s border notes being used by Lee for both dialogue and descriptive purposes (and of course, there are examples of Lee disregarding said notes, sometimes to much better effect). So if co-plotting, dialogue, and captions make Stan the “writer,” I’d have to add that, since Jack co-plotted, broke down, drew (or layed-out), and left writing directions, that made him the “storyteller”; something Jack liked to refer to himself as anyway.
As time went on, Jack was becoming more and more dissatisfied with doing layouts for Marvel. It was mentioned in earlier articles how during this ’65-’67 period, Jack noticed that Stan was getting the lion’s share of the publicity and recognition for all of the characters and concepts that they originally developed together. Others, such as Ditko and Wood, also voiced their dislike of the fact that now, thanks to the “Marvel method,” the artist may have more creative freedom with the stories (to the extent of sometimes doing them virtually solo), but they weren’t receiving any sort of writing credit. The artist would do 75% of the work, but only be paid the standard page rate for penciling; Lee, on the other hand, would be paid for writing, editing, and dialoguing a story Already fleshed out and drawn. This is not to say that Lee didn’t earn his pay, but the “Marvel method” proved that the stories were at the least co-written where people like Kirby, Ditko, and Wood were concerned; but credit arguments concerning Stan are hardly a new topic.
Aside from credits, one topic which Stan strongly supported was a better pay rate for the people working with him. This is where many have come to realize that Martin Goodman was more involved with the new Marvel than had been previously mentioned. One of the main reasons that so many of the artists and inkers that came to Marvel in the mid-Sixties didn’t stay long was because of the terrible pay rates. Although Marvel was becoming financially successful after decades of stagnation, Goodman would not put more money into the comic book division of his holdings; only after the cajoling and sometimes begging of Lee would Goodman relent. He also was eternally pessimistic concerning concepts, often telling Stan to cancel books before the first sales figures would come in (as he did with Hulk and Spider-Man); if not for Stan, they would never have gotten off the ground and their popularity realized. Goodman was also ambivalent about talent. It didn’t bother him if an artist quit; to him they were replaceable commodities. Stan knew where the talent was and must have become increasingly discouraged to not have the financial backing to lure them away. Artists who would come to Marvel during this layout period were offered as much as 30 dollars a page, provided that they penciled and inked it; some were offered less. Joe Sinnott relates the story of how, when he inked the historic FF #5, he was paid seven dollars a page for inks; had he been paid more he may have stayed on and the history of comic art might have been changed. Marvel was notorious for having among the lowest rates in the business, and Goodman tried his best to keep them that way (good business savvy, but terrible on morale).
Jack, of course, received a better rate as a penciler, but never as much as he was promised or felt he deserved. The layout work he did just added insult to injury, as Jack was only paid 25% of his usual page rate; near the end it may have been moved up to around a third, but he still felt it was terrible pay. He felt that he was receiving one fourth of the money for what he considered the important three fourths of the penciler’s job. And as with FF and Thor during this period, it also increased the number of comics per month where Jack was contributing story ideas and plots to comics that were published with sole writer credit going to Lee. Jack announced several times that he didn’t want to do layouts any longer, but was persuaded to do a few more, to help out artists who were new to the “Marvel method” of doing comics; and then a few more and a few more until he finally issued an ultimatum that he would not do any more. This is probably why, although the layout work begins at virtually the same time, it doesn’t end abruptly, but rather peters out. Within eight months of the last story Jack lays out, he comes to the conclusion that he’s given enough ideas to “The House of Ideas,” and because of a failure to communicate, rides out the wave until something better comes along—but the secession of creativity is anti-climactic, as it becomes apparent over the years that what he’s left them is enough to sustain them for decades; and he is yet to receive his proper recognition in the company by the company… shame!
(We’d like to thank Dick Ayers, Mike Esposito, Mark Evanier, Richard Howell, John Romita, Joe Sinnott, Clem So, Chic Stone, and George Tuska for supplying information pertinent to the writing of this article.)
A two week run on the “Davy Crockett, Frontiersman” daily strip was recently discovered in a French digest.
by Jean Depelley, with Bernard Joubert
First, Strange comic magazine, which I hope readers are familiar with as Strange has published many Kirby-related subjects and rarities, was gathering a French Kirby checklist. This checklist isn’t as huge as the American one, but it is quite big nonetheless! So, with publisher Reed Man and a couple of contributors (including Jean-Michel Ferragatti, François Soulodre and Dominik Vallet), we had been searching for Kirby art in the enormous number of comic magazines that had come out in France since the end of World War Two. Quite a task! But we expected that even if we made interesting finds, none would surprise the American Kirby followers.
The second event leading to the discovery was the release of the documentary film, “Marvel 14: Superheroes Vs. Censorship”, which Philippe Roure and I directed, explaining why Marvel comics were banned by Communists and Catholics in France in the early 1970s.The film features Kirby by analysing Marvel’s successful style. Philippe and I were attending L’Etrange Festival, a famous movie festival where the film had been scheduled to be screened. The producers of the festival also invited the people interviewed for the documentary, so our friend Bernard Joubert, a noted comics historian and editor, was present at the show.
After the screening (which went over well with the audience, thanks!), Bernard, Reed and I had a moment to chat, and, naturally, we discussed Kirby and the checklist. Bernard told us he remembered an obscure Kirby Western that came out in the late 1960s. As we weren’t familiar with it, two days later Bernard sent me the exact references of the French digest “Zoom” #15 (October 1968, published by Jeunesse et Vacances), and its content. The Kirby piece in it was a Davy Crockett story. Naturally, I associated it with the comic book series published in Harvey’s Western Tales #31 and #32 (October 1955 and March 1956). But Joubert was not convinced: “No, I really think it was a daily strip. It reads like one… Kirby just took over someone else’s strip for a while… There is a copyright to a syndicate and some dated credit boxes.”
Next Bernard emailed me some scans of the aforementioned story and wrote: “Here are the 14 pages of Kirby art as well as pages before and after Jack’s run. They are all copyright Columbia Features Inc. You’ll notice the change of artists in the middle of the story and the dated credit boxes which clearly identify it as a daily strip. It seems unlikely the French publisher put a comic book story right in the middle of a continuing strip. This is certainly the US “Davy Crockett, Frontiersman” daily strip by McArdle.”
Finding a copy of Zoom #15 was no easy task. However, after reading it and comparing it with the Harvey Western Tales stories, I had to admit Bernard was right, of course. After a new search, here are the conclusions on this new entry to be added to the American checklist:
“Davy Crockett, Frontiersman” by Jim McArdle was syndicated by Columbia Features Inc., with writing by France “Ed” Herron. “Davy Crockett, Frontiersman” started as a daily strip in early 1955, right in the middle of the Davy Crockett craze. In fact, it premiered the same time as Harvey’s Western Tales. Presumably it was cancelled in 1959, even though it is said to have been available from Columbia up to 1972.
Ed Herron and Kirby were friends since their 1939 tenure at Fox. Herron, who Kirby credited as a co-creator of the Red Skull, was writing for National (DC) as well as the “Crockett” strip in 1957. Kirby started working at National again right after the 1957 Atlas Implosion. Perhaps Herron and Kirby reacquainted themselves at National around then, which fostered Kirby getting the “Davy Crockett” strip assignment.
Kirby was a trained artist in the genre, having already produced several westerns (“Wilton of the West”, “Lone Rider”, “Western Love”, “Boys’ Ranch”, “Bullseye”), not to mention his recent work on “Davy Crockett” in Harvey’s Western Tales comic book. Jack had also already worked for syndicates (Lincoln, Associated Features Syndicate, Fox) and knew how to handle daily strips.
To sum up, starting in January 1957, Jack Kirby “ghosted” the “Davy Crockett, Frontiersman” daily strip for less than three weeks. He started on a single strip on Thursday, 10 January—probably as a try-out—and went back to it for a 18 day tenure, from Monday, 14 January up to Saturday, 2 February. No evidence points to Kirby working on the larger Sunday strips. He inked the whole run, except the last three strips, which seem to be delineated by Roz. The strips Kirby worked on were not signed by Kirby, nor Herron, nor McArdle.
When Jack left the assignment early February, the art was taken over by Jim Christiansen on the Monday, 4 February strip, who eventually signed it with Herron. A few months later, Herron and Christiansen dropped the Davy Crockett strip for another Columbia Features Inc. property: the detective Nero Wolfe, whose daily strips and Sunday pages they produced between fall 1957 – early 1958. Kirby and Herron would later work together on The Challengers Of the Unknown for National.
So here are some previously unknown Kirby pieces from the late Fifties. Even though it has been terribly mistreated by touch ups for the French magazine, it is still pure Kirby, inked by himself. Now it is up to American collectors to track down unaltered strips, so that we can rediscover them in all their glory!
Editor’s note: The above is a re-worked translation of the article Jean posted on bdzoom.com this past March. I first became aware of this Kirby Davy Crockett work through collector and scholar Tom Morehouse almost a year ago (August 2011), when I scanned the Crockett pages and the cover of Tom’s copy of Marvelman 230 (L Miller, 1958) for future reference. Tom and I thought, as Jean originally did, that it was unpublished work for Harvey’s Western Tales.
In July, there was further discussion of this work by a number of people on Comics.org’s GCD-Chat discussion group, where it was pointed out that in 2002 Matthew Gore discovered and posted Kirby Davy Crockett work from Marvelman 231. Rodrigo Baeza posted about it on his blog in July.
Jean and Bernard really cracked the case by sourcing it back to the daily “Davy Crockett, Frontiersman” strip syndicated by Columbia Features. As Jean ends his article above, let’s hope that unaltered US strips can be found.
Thanks to ICS’ Peter Coogan, Craig Fischer sat on The Auteur Theory of Comics panel in San Diego last month. Craig is an Associate Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, USA. – Rand Hoppe
I’m late to appreciate Kamandi. In the 1970s, when I was a kid buying comics on spinner racks in drug stores and supermarkets, I sampled a couple of issues and wasn’t impressed. I was a Planet of the Apes fan, and I felt (not without reason) that Kamandi ripped off Apes’ premise; also, the issues I read, inked by D. Bruce Berry, looked less electric and kinetic than the Kirby art in Marvel’s Greatest Comics. So I let Kamandi drift onto my list of unread funnybooks.
This summer, however, at Heroes Con in Charlotte, I bought a bargain-basement copy of the first volume of DC’s Kamandi Archives, which reprints the first ten issues. This time, I like Kamandi much better, particularly “Flower!”, originally presented in Kamandi 6 (June 1973), a story which strikes me as both touching and innovative. To explain why “Flower!” is so exceptional, I need to define a concept from literary and film studies–focalization–and apply the concept to Kirby’s narrative techniques in “Flower!”
Focalization is the term used by narratologists—those scholars who study how stories work—to identify how stories are often filtered through a character who chooses what facts and details to emphasize and omit. As Manfred Jahn defines the term:
Focalization is the submission of (potentially limitless) narrative information to a perspectival filter. Contrary to the standard courtroom injunction to tell “the whole truth,” no-one can in fact tell all. Practical reasons require speakers and writers to restrict information to the “right amount”—not too little, not too much, and if possible only what’s relevant. (The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, 94)
Of course, “relevant” is an ambiguous term here. Relevant narrative information can refer to scenes that advance a character towards a goal, or to details that enrich a feeling that an author wants to convey to his/her audience. Focalization reminds us that storytelling is by definition incomplete, slanted, subjective: the Beowulf poet sings the praises of the Grendel-killer, but when John Gardner focalizes the same story through Grendel’s own perspective, the changes are profound.
When discussing visual media like comics and film, we should not equate focalization with the first-person point of view, with actual vision through a character’s eyes. In the film The Son (Le fils, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2003), our anchor of focalization is Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), a carpentry teacher at a reform school who mentors Francis (Morgan Marinne), a delinquent who (it is gradually revealed) murdered Olivier’s infant son. The Dardennes avoid Olivier’s literal point-of-view, opting instead for a prowling hand-held camera that struggles to keep up with Olivier as he instructs his students and watches Francis carefully, uncertain if he should take revenge. Here’s a shot from The Son:
This shot is a third-person portrait of Olivier as he stares at Francis, but we still feel Olivier’s anger and confusion. On a basic level, Olivier is in virtually every shot of The Son, a continual presence that elicits our attention. Narratively, Olivier is the agent through which we gradually figure out the story; we find out about the dead child through Olivier’s actions and conversations. Focalization is about the flow of story information through the perceptions of a particular character, but that doesn’t mean that readers and spectators have to be imbedded in that character’s literal vision.
What surprises me about focalization is how easily and quickly our interest can slide from one character to another. Another example from the movies: the shower scene and its aftermath in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). During Mother Bates’ attack, we feel the terror of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), but after Marion’s death, our focus switches to Norman (Anthony Perkins), the milquetoast charged with cleaning up his mama’s mess. We watch as Norman slowly and carefully mops the floor, wraps Marion’s body in the shower curtain, and deposits the bundle in the trunk of Marion’s car. He then drives the car into a nearby swamp, and when the car briefly refuses to sink, I (and other spectators) have a strange reaction: I feel for Norman, I worry that he won’t be able to hide the murder evidence. Hitchcock successfully swings Psycho’s focalization from Marion to Norman, prompting our sympathy for (spoiler alert, 50 years after the fact!) a homicidal psychopath.
How does focalization work in comics—and, more specifically, in Kirby’s comics? How does Kirby use character presence and action to establish focalization, and does he shift among characters like Hitchcock does? In order to answer these questions, however tentatively, I’ll now look closely at “Flower!” If you have a copy of that story, get it and read along with me.
“Flower!” begins with a six-page “Chapter One.” The story opens with Kamandi and Flower driving a “dune-wagon” across a desert landscape, until (in a typically kinetic Kirby splash on pages two and three) a squad of masked figures on motorcycles erupts in their path. The ensuing collision and confusion of vehicles prompts Kamandi to fire a rifle and shoot out one of the cyclists’ tires, after which another of the masked riders throws a “toss-truncheon” at Kamandi, knocking him unconscious. The final page of Chapter One reveals that the motorcyclists are tigers, zookeepers charged with protecting animals from poachers while guarding a wildlife sanctuary.
In this first chapter, Kirby shows an effortless ability to shift our focus away from one group of characters to another. On the first page, Kamandi and Flower are clearly center stage, presented as they are in tableau-style medium close-up, and the tiger-cyclists have yet to appear in-panel (though both Kamandi and Flower hear the roar of their motors). On the next page, however, the riders suddenly explode into our attention. Kirby draws them bounding through the air, one rider in a particularly extreme close-up at the bottom of page three. In this composition, Kamandi and Flower are presented as more distant figures—we now see them from above, and we’re further away from them—as they swerve their vehicle to avoid hitting the cyclists.
Throughout the rest of Chapter One, Kirby continues this process, minimizing his focalization on Kamandi and Flower while maximizing his (and our) attention on the cycle-tigers. Kirby does this partially through word balloons. As readers, we naturally gravitate to word balloons, and the tails of the balloons literally point us to the figures “speaking” in a specific panel. On page four of “Flower!”, there is a panel that returns us to a close-up on Kamandi and Flower, and Kamandi yells while firing his gun:
This is the last time Kamandi speaks in Chapter One. The last three pages of the chapter are a tiger gab-fest, with the zookeepers talking about Kamandi’s cleverness as an “animal” and their plans to take Kamandi and Flower to the wildlife preserve. All these word balloons are arrows pointing us to the tigers both as characters and as visual presences on the page. By the end of page five, we’ve shifted our interest to the tigers so decisively that we’ve almost forgotten about Kamandi, even when his dune-wagon crashes into rocks.
Even though the caption describes the accident as “violent,” Kirby’s drawing treats it as an unimportant event—so unimportant that it is mostly obscured by the body of one of the cyclists, who is now in the literal and figurative center of our attention. Our interest on the tigers solidifies on the final page of the chapter, where the action slows down and the riders’ dialogue defines them as likeable and sympathetic. In the space of six pages, Kirby shifts his focalization from Kamandi—the protagonist we should be focusing on, after all, since it’s his comic book—to anonymous cyclists who blossom as characters when their true occupations and natures are revealed.
During the next fourteen pages, the focalization decisively returns to Kamandi and Flower. The tigers deposit Kamandi and Flower in the wildlife preserve and vanish. Kirby’s story alternates between scenes of relative peace (Kamandi and Flower gently wake up in their vehicle, and later inhabit a comfortable house) and eruptive violence, as when Kamandi fights to establish himself as the leader of the “animal” herd, and protects himself and Flower from the pumas’ initial kidnapping (or “poaching”) attempt. Kamandi’s mood in this middle section of the story is cautious optimism. Though he knows that he’s been deposited in a zoo, he also realizes that the zoo provides him with the most security he’s had since he hid in his grandfather’s bunker.
He’s begun to make plans for the future too. He’s thinking about staying in the house “indefinitely,” and earlier he seizes on Flower’s suggestion that he should teach the herd to speak and behave like human beings. (Kamandi’s dialogue on page 14, panel 2: “Man’s road back has to start somewhere! Why not here? I—I’ll give the teaching ‘thing’ a whirl!”) Kamandi is also overjoyed to have Flower in his life. When he meets her in the previous story, “The One-Armed Bandit!” (Kamandi 5, May 1973), Kamandi is astonished that she can talk, and their brief relationship is one full of affection and protection; note the encouraging way Flower strokes Kamandi’s forearm when he’s assuming the leadership of the herd (and mulling over the teaching idea) in the first panel on page 14 of “Flower!”. Before tragedy strikes, Kamandi has a home, a purpose, and potentially a mate.
At the end of “Flower!”, the pumas attack again, and Flower is killed before the tiger-rangers can arrive to arrest the poachers. As the tigers pour into Kamandi’s house, they also pour into the story’s panels, vying for our attention. Meanwhile, Kamandi says nothing as he carries Flower’s body over to the same sofa where, a few minutes before, Flower covered herself with a blanket and whispered “Flower feel warm and safe. Kamandi near—Kamandi brave.” We do, however, see Kamandi in close-up, wordlessly weeping over Flower’s dead body. During the last two pages, Kirby returns somewhat to the storytelling approach of Chapter One, as he chooses to again displace Kamandi as our central focus in favor of the tigers, a choice that gives “Flower!” elegant narrative bookends.
The effect of this second shift in focalization, however, is very different from the first. In Chapter One, we connect with the tigers when we realize that they intend to act kindly towards Kamandi and Flower. The end of “Flower!”, however, exposes a callous speciesism among the tigers, and creates an ironic contrast between Kamandi’s sorrow and the condescending tiger comments that end the story.
This conclusion is devastating. All the optimism of Kamandi’s stay at the zoo drains away. By now, I’ve read virtually all of Kirby’s Kamandis, and the conclusion of “Flower!” most forcefully conveys to me Kamandi’s plight as a disposable animal in the post-Great Disaster world. It’s Kirby’s ability to reintroduce a technique from earlier in the story (the focalization shift) and use it to reveal a new perspective on the characters and events (the tigers’ discrimination) that makes this moment so powerful.
I realize that my argument here is incomplete and a little slippery; for instance, I should’ve defined the difference between focalization and “identification,” and talked about why I mistrust the latter term. (In my home discipline of film studies, identification is freighted with other schools of thought—particularly psychoanalysis—that I consider seriously flawed.) I haven’t discussed the moments in the center section of “Flower!” where the reader is privy to information that Kamandi and Flower don’t know, such as the fact that they’re being secretly watched by both the pumas and tigers. And I should’ve examined more Kamandis to see if ironic focalization shifts as in “Flower!” are common in Kirby’s work. Still, writing this post has led me to value Kamandi more than ever.
Leonard Pitts, Jr., a commentator, journalist, and novelist, interviewed Jack Kirby in 1986 or 1987 for a book titled “Conversations With The Comic Book Creators”. A transcript of the interview was included in the papers that Greg Theakston gifted to the Museum a few years ago. A nationally-syndicated columnist, Pitts was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. Thank you, Leonard, for allowing this interview to be presented on the Kirby Effect. – Rand
PITTS: Let’s start with a little background-the “origin” of Jack Kirby.
KIRBY: I was born on the Lower East Side of New York. It was a restricted area in the sense that it was an ethnic area. And it was at a time when the immigrants were still coming in and they settled in certain parts of New York City, among their own kind.
We had blocks of Italians and blocks of Irish and blocks of Jews. I was born among the blocks of Jews. Strangely enough, our school curriculum was very good and our subject matter was very good. We had fine teachers. And so, despite the fact that we’d be running loose, just doing what we liked, like any other kids– playing stickball or baseball or boxing somewhere– we had a fine schooling. I had Shakespeare in the eighth grade. I had a really good history course.
I can’t say I was great in math (laughter), but in a very strange sense, my schooling was very good–all through junior high and high school and elementary. Later on, I even went to industrial school, because I understood that they had drawing tables there and I wanted to practice drawing.
PITTS: What years are we talking about?
KIRBY: We’re talking about the middle ’30s. I was born in 1917. I’m a first world war baby and I was brought up with two wing airplanes… the Empire State Building wasn’t there yet, the Chrysler building wasn’t there when I was born, and Von Richthofen was the guy they were all talking about… flying aces and pulp magazines.
The strange fact was that, on my block, we hadn’t even gotten to the pulp magazines. I found my first pulp magazine floating down the gutter on a rainy day toward the sewer and I picked it up because it had a strange looking object on it. It turned out to be a rocket ship. It was one of the first Hugo Gernsback Wonder Stories.
I didn’t dare to be seen with it, so I just picked it up and hid it under my arm, took it home and I began reading it and I learned to love science fiction.
PITTS: That was your first exposure to sci-fi?
KIRBY: Yes. I wouldn’t say it was an intellectual explosion. I’m still bad in math. I’m a lousy electrician– I couldn’t fix a plug. But I am interested in the other side of knowledge, the cultural side of knowledge and the truthful side of knowledge. I’m looking for the gaps that I know exist and of course, I’ll never get the answers, like everybody else. So I feel I live with very interesting questions.
PITTS: It’s more fun living with the questions for you, I gather.
KIRBY: Well, the questions are the things that make good stories, in my opinion.
PITTS: Getting back to your early years, it must have been tough, coming up in an already-poor neighborhood during the Depression.
KIRBY: And I also made another mistake.
PITTS: What was that?
KIRBY: Being born short.
PITTS: Why was that a mistake?
KIRBY: On the East Side that was a mistake because, well, the big guys beat up on the little guys. But I made up for it, as much as I could, in meanness. And of course, that’s very stimulating.
I was still being brought up on peasant stories; my mother came from Europe and she’d been a peasant and that was the area where the Frankensteins and the Draculas came from and it was entertainment for the people. Nobody had TV, and that was the way peasants would entertain themselves– by telling these stories.
PITTS: Was that your main form of entertainment?
KIRBY: My main form of entertainment was the early movies, in which I could see a Cagney, or a Edward G. Robinson or the Marx Brothers– all those old films, which I loved. My mother would have to come get me out of the theatre after the seventh performance.
I like entertainment. I’m an innate admirer of good entertainment. I’ll listen to MTV, I’ll listen to Mozart, I’ll listen to anything that has a good element in it. You know as well as I do that any kind of music can be written badly and it can be written wonderfully. I admire a top performer in any field.
I once drove a beat-up-Chevy, which was given to me by a garage man because he was fixing my car. And that beat-up Chevy was the best car I ever drove, because his son loved engines and he was an artist with an engine. There was nothing, absolutely, wrong with that car except a few dents. It was a joy driving that car, because whatever he did to that engine would transmit itself to the wheel and I could feel that, and I enjoyed it. That fella was an artist in his own right, and he didn’t have to play a note on a flute. An artist, to me, is someone– a professional– who does his work well.
PITTS: There was not a lot of money rolling around your neighborhood, so I guess any entertainment you got could not be too expensive.
KIRBY: I can tell you that I fought my old man for a copy of a quarterly Wonder Stories, which I never got, ’cause it cost 50 cents. I later bought that magazine. Maybe 30 years later, I bought that same magazine for 5 dollars. By chance I came across it in a bookstore. That was the issue I’d wanted, and I’d missed it.
ROZ KIRBY: As a youth, you were working, selling papers and all that stuff…
KIRBY: I admired all the Sunday papers. I admired the comics, because the comics were large and they were colored beautifully and they held an attraction for me. Possibly, that may be the reason I gravitated toward them, like a lot of fans gravitate toward comics today. I get letters from brain surgeons and I get letters from guys in drunk tanks; they all admire comics. That runs a large gamut.
ROZ KIRBY: [TO KIRBY] I think he wants to know what you did in those days to make a dollar.
KIRBY: What I did in those days to make a dollar? Nothing. I played handball, until, at the age of 17, it was traditional for your mother to roll you out of bed and tell you to get a job.
ROZ: [TO KIRBY] Didn’t you help your father with the pushcart? You did a lot of those things.
KIRBY: Oh, yes, I delivered papers. I could go through the whole routine. I drew numbers on paper bags so they could be put on pushcarts– “Onions-10¢ a pound” or something like that. I delivered paper and, being the smallest guy there, when they threw the papers off the truck at the news building, all the big guys would step right over me and get their papers first.
PITTS: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned being a smaller guy and implied something about having to be tough. Did you fancy yourself a scrapper?
KIRBY: Yea. I would wait behind a brick wall for three guys to pass and I’d beat the crap out of them and run like hell. I refined the meanness to help my own ego. I think everybody needs a little ego. I felt that I deserved an ego as well as the next guy. That’s why I also gravitated toward the gym. I was a very good boxer. I was a good wrestler. When I was drafted in the Army, out of a class of 27, just me and another fellow graduated from a judo class.
PITTS: Superman came out when you were in your early teens– your adolescence. Were you at all aware of him at the time?
KIRBY: Everybody was. Superman was an immediate hit. From what I understand, these two messenger boys came in from Ohio and they submitted this 10-page script called Superman. In order to fit it in the magazine, they cut it down to six, and they put the magazine out and the magazine sold out. They didn’t know what sold the magazine out, so they put out another issue and included Superman and the magazine sold out. That went on for three issues, until they found out it was Superman that was doing it. Superman was the psychological backbone for a lot of fellows who couldn’t make it– or felt they couldn’t make it.
PITTS: What did you think of it? Did it encourage you to become involved with comics?
KIRBY: Yes, of course. It galvanized me.
My first job was with Max Fleischer, the Fleischer Studios, animating Popeye. I was about 18. And of course, that meant working at a light table. There were rows and rows of tables, and that began to look like my father’s garment factory. I felt, that’s not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to work in that kind of place– although it was a very nice place, the executives were fine people. And. of course, the Fleischer Studios were noted for their wonderful animation and Popeye speaks for himself. Their animation speaks for itself. But it wasn’t my kind of thing.
Then I went to a small syndicate called the Lincoln Features syndicate. They had 700 weekly papers, and I had the opportunity to do editorial cartoons, sports cartoons. I did a thing called “Your Health Comes First”, in which I was a doctor and I gathered information on how to cure your colds and what to do for the vapors. Of course, I didn’t do anything that was critical in any way. I don’t think I was knowledgeable enough. I just stuck to the things I knew, and I got as much information on them as I could.
I did a cartoon on Neville Chamberlain when England and the Allies gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Having been raised in a gangster area, and knowing gangsters as I did, I knew Hitler. And so, I did a cartoon in which I showed Chamberlain patting this big boa constrictor on the head, and there was a bulge in the center of the boa constrictor, which I labeled Czechoslovakia.
I got bawled out for that. My boss said, “You’re only 19 years old. You don’t know much about politics and these things.” And I said, “That’s true. But I do know a lot about gangsters. And I do know a lot about politicians because I’ve seen them in my friend’s restaurant.” I said, “I feel I can do editorial cartoons fairly well.” He said, “Spring is coming up– why don’t you stick to baseball and spring training?” And of course, I did. I didn’t want to have any large contention with my boss and, times being as they were, I did as I was told.
PITTS: Before we talk about the next step in your career, let’s back up a little and talk about your training.
KIRBY: I went to Industrial school. I had to take auto mechanics in the morning and art in the afternoon. This was after I graduated high school. I understood they had drawing desks there and they had art materials. That was fine for me, because that was what I was looking for. It wasn’t an extensive art course, but I’m glad, because it allowed me to do what I thought was right in my own way. I began to evolve my own style, with the smattering of anatomy that I got.
So, in the morning, I had to haul trucks out of the East River with the other fellas. Then in the afternoon, I took an art course– such as it was.
PITTS: So you were already fascinated by art even before you got to school.
KIRBY: Yes I was. I liked art. I liked good illustrations. They got me praise, they got me trouble. I suppose that’s life.
I belonged to the Boy’s Brotherhood Republic. It still exists today. We had our own mayor. A fella called Harry Slonaker, he came from the Midwest, where they had a BBR. And he organized a BBR there. He got us our own building, and we took care of our own gym, we had our own mayor, we had our own judge and prosecuting attorney. If anyone defiled the building, he went on trial. I became the editor in chief.
And of course, naturally, we began to act out our own opinion of ourselves. We copied the people we saw in the movies, so when a fella came down for trial, they came down with eight lawyers and an overcoat hanging over his shoulder like Edward G. Robinson. That was a lot of fun.
Our athletics consisted of playing football without equipment. That’s where we got bruised up, because we would play teams that did have equipment. It was in that kind of atmosphere that I was brought up. I idolized my mother and father. Everybody else did. You’ll find that the gangsters did. Mothers were sacred.
PITTS: You keep mentioning the gangsters. Were they the heroes of a poor neighborhood like yours?
KIRBY: No. They weren’t the heroes. The gangsters were just guys who wanted the $400 suits, and they wanted them now. I didn’t care when I got mine. I didn’t care what I wore. The gangsters– contrary to people’s opinions– were just ordinary guys who died very young getting their $400 suits. They were guys who wanted money fast, and they paid for it.
PITTS: Are we talking about any of the “name” gangsters?
KIRBY: Yes, there were big-name gangsters. Murder, Inc. came out of my area. A lot of other gangs. There were shootings every Friday night in the candy store. I once got locked in a wooden telephone booth. Fifteen guys began to kick the booth and kick the door down; I was a nine year old kid and scared stiff, but they did it for kicks.
Around the East Side , there wasn’t too much to do, and you had to find something to do. These fellows developed rough games and they lived a rough life and they died in a rough manner.
PITTS: What happened for you careerwise after the Fleischer studios?
KIRBY: Comics is strictly an American invention. The first comic, I believe, was an editorial cartoon done by Benjamin Franklin who had a contention with a businessman. If you add two or three panels to an editorial cartoon, you’ll get a comic strip. In 1903, I think, they had the Yellow Kid which was the first American comic strip. If you add pages onto that, you get a comic book.
PITTS: When was it that you created Captain America?
KIRBY: Captain America actually came in late ’39. I originated Captain America with Joe Simon. Joe Simon and I got a studio apartment and we were turning out comics. Joe is a big guy; he was a middle class guy, and I had never seen middle class guys. They all wore great suits and were taller than I was. I gravitated to Joe, who is a wonderful guy and a good friend, and he had a rapport with the publishers. Joe did the business, actually, for us both. I did the stories and the pencils. Joe was just as good at it as I was– he could pencil and ink and write stories, as well. We were both creating things to sell to publishers and Captain America was one of them. We sold Captain America to Atlas, which later became Marvel.
PITTS: Let me just toss out the names of some of your most famous characters and, if you would, just give me an idea of what thought process went into creating them. Let’s start with Cap.
KIRBY: Captain America was myself. Captain America was my own anger coming to the surface and saying, “What if I could fight 25 guys? How would I do it?” And I figured it out and it would become sort of a ballet, in which Captain America would fight 25 guys and I’d work it out so he could lick ‘em all. Of course, in real life, I’d probably get smeared. In real life, it doesn’t work out that way. You can’t keep track of everybody and you don’t know what the next guy ia doing, but over here, I could.
What I did, was an artistic punch-out. That kind of thing was very popular then. I didn’t realize it until I was told about the sales figures.
PITTS: I have heard that you haven’t always been particularly pleased with the way the character has been handled since you created him. I’m thinking specifically of the storyline Steve Englehart did in the ’70s, wherein Steve Rogers was disillusioned by government corruption and gave up his Captain America identity.
KIRBY: Well… I haven’t kept in touch with comics for a long time. I leave Englehart’s version to Englehart. I respect Englehart– Englehart is an individual and I feel every individual should do his own version. Englehart isn’t Jack Kirby. Englehart hasn’t got my background, Englehart hasn’t got my feelings. And so, of course, I’m going to do a different version of Captain America. Englehart will do his own.
I always felt my job was selling magazines, which I did. I put all the ingredients that I thought would sell that magazine, and they sold. Captain America sold 900 thousand a month at one time. Of course, I don’t know what it’s selling today.
Pitts: So, you’re saying you’ve never had any problems with any of the different versions of your characters?
KIRBY: No. I respect the individual. If that’s the way he sees it, he’s got the right to call it, because he’s hired to do it.
Pitts: Let’s talk about the Boy Commandos.
KIRBY: The Commandos were my own friends, my own street gang. Except that at that time, I felt it was timely to make them Europeans because that was what was going on. It was a timely subject. They had commandos at that time. They were small bands against great armies and I respected them. I felt they were a reflection of my own gang. Us against the world. Us against the guys on the next block.
I was the first one to introduce kid gangs in comics, because that’s the way kids are. They’ll hang around in groups and they’ll exclude who they want and they’ll include who they want. It’s the kind of atmosphere I was brought up in and it hadn’t been done in comics. They sold very well. The Newsboy Legion was the same kind of comic strip. They were my own friends. And of course, we all called each other nicknames; we all had nicknames– Spike and Mike, Slink.
PITTS: You weren’t cool without a nickname.
KIRBY: Oh, sure. I was the only one who didn’t; they called me Jackie. But that was the way things were, and I accepted it. I think in a way, it was a good thing. Although different ethnic groups fought each other, we got to know each other. We got to know each other in the classrooms, we got to know each other in the subway.
An Italian woman came over to me and asked directions. And of course, without any knowledge of Italian, I couldn’t tell her. But in a way, I treated her like my own mother. I felt that mothers are wonderful and it didn’t matter what ethnic group they belonged to. I felt if they were the mothers of these boys, there was no reason I couldn’t be friends with them.
PITTS: Let’s skip ahead ·and talk about your time at Marvel in the ’60s. I’d like to get your version of the famous tale of t he creation of the Fantastic Four.
KIRBY: My version is simple: I saved Marvel’s ass. When I came up to Marvel, it was closing that same afternoon, Stan Lee had his head on the desk and was crying. It all looked very dramatic to me, but I needed the job. I was a guy with a wife and three kids and a house, and I wanted to keep it. And so, having no rapport with Martin Goodman, who was the publisher– Stan Lee was his cousin– I told Stan Lee that we could keep the place going. And I told him to try to tell Martin to keep it going, because we could possibly revive it.
It was a bad time. It was a time when major publishers were folding and comics in general suffered bad press. It was a time when the public itself was being anti-comics-ized by people like Frederic Wertham and the movies. It was an unregulated industry. Finally, we did get a board to regulate the industry and put down rules; we formulated an atmosphere of legitimacy, but that had to take time and meanwhile, the comics were folding right and left.
Of course, Marvel had magazines and didn’t need comics, so they were ready to fold. They had other things to rely on. I began with doing monster stories and westerns; I did my best on the Rawhide Kid, and I did my best on the monster stories. This was in ’59. Joe and I had our own publishing company which we dissolved; Joe went to work for one of the Rockefellers and I went back to Marvel. Comics was the only thing I knew, really, and could do well.
They had nothing for me at that time except those particular strips, which were just going on momentum. So, I began to galvanize those strips and they began to sell a little better, but it wasn’t enough to keep the company going. And it suddenly struck me that the thing that hadn’t been done since the days I returned from the service was the superheroes. And so, I came up with Spider-Man. I got it from a strip called the Silver Spider. And I presented Spider-Man to Stan Lee and I presented the Hulk to Stanley. I did a story called “The Hulk”– a small feature, and it was quite different from the Hulk that we know. But I felt that the Hulk had possibilities, and I took this little character from the small feature and I transformed it into the Hulk that we know today.
Of course, I was experimenting with it. I thought the Hulk might be a good-looking Frankenstein. I felt there’s a Frankenstein in all of us; I’ve seen it demonstrated. And I felt that the Hulk had the elem of truth in it, and anything to me with the element of truth is valid and the reader relates to that. And if you dramatize it, the reader will enjoy it.
Sleaziness and reality, you can walk out in the street anywhere and get that. But to get good, dramatized entertainment was very rare. What I did was. take what I know and dramatize it.
PITTS: So, you’re saying the idea for these characters– the F.F., for instance– was yours?
KIRBY: The idea for the F.F. was my idea. My own anger against radiation. Radiation was the big subject at that time, because we still don’t know what radiation can do to people. It can be beneficial, it can be very harmful. In the case of Ben Grimm, Ben Grimm was a college man, he was a World War II flyer. He was everything that was good in America. And radiation made a monster out of him–made an angry monster out of him, because of his own frustration.
If you had to see yourself in the mirror, and the Thing looked back at you, you’d feel frustrated. Let’s say you’d feel alienated from the rest of the species. Of course, radiation had the effect on all of the F.F.– the girl became invisible, Reed became very plastic. And of course, the Human Torch, which was created by Carl Burgos, was thrown in for good measure, to help the entertainment value.
I began to evolve the F.F. I made the Thing a little pimply at first, and I felt that the pimples were a little ugly, so I changed him to a different pattern and that pattern became more popular, so I kept it that way and the Thing has been that way ever since. The element of truth in the Fantastic Four is the radiation– not the characters. And that’s what people relate to, and that’s what we all fight about today.
PITTS: You think people relate more to the radiation aspect than to the characters?
KIRBY: No… Now, they relate to the characters because time has passed and the characters are important.
PITTS: You say you created Spider-Man. How different was your initial concept from the Spider-Man we all know?
KIRBY: My initial concept was practically the same. But the credit for developing Spider-Man goes to Steve Ditko; he wrote it and he drew it and he refined it. Steve Ditko is a thorough professional. And he an intellect. Personality wise, he’s a bit withdrawn, but there are lots of people like that. But Steve Ditko, despite the fact that he doesn’t disco– although he may now; I haven’t seen him for a long time– Steve developed Spider-Man and made a salable item out of it.
There are many others who take credit for it, but Steve Ditko, it was entirely in his hands. I can tell you that Stan Lee had other duties besides writing Spider-Man or developing Spider-Man or even thinking about it.
PITTS: So, you’re saying you had the original idea and presented it to Ditko?
KIRBY: I didn’t present it to Ditko. I presented everything to Stan Lee. I drew up the costume, I gave him the character and I put it in the hands of Marvel. By giving it to Stan Lee, I put it in the hands of Marvel, because Stan Lee had contact with the publisher. I didn’t. Stan Lee gave it to Steve Ditko because I was doing everything else, until Johnny Romita came in to take up some of the slack. There were very few people up at Marvel; Artie Simek did all the lettering and production.
PITTS: Now, Stan has said many times that he conceived Spider-Man and gave it to you and that he turned down the version you came up with because it was too “heroic” and “larger than life”-looking for what he had in mind.
KIRBY: That’s a contradiction and a blatant untruth.
PITTS: What input, then, did Stan Lee have in creating Spider-Man and these other characters?
KIRBY: Stan Lee had never created anything up to that moment. And here was Marvel with characters like the Sub-Mariner, which they never used. Stan Lee didn’t create that; that was created by Bill Everett. Stan Lee didn’t create the Human Torch; that was created by Carl Burgos. It was the artists that were creating everything. Stan Lee– I don’t know if he had other duties… or whatever he did there…
ROZ: Maybe we shouldn’t get into… too much characterization. I mean–
KIRBY: What I’m trying to do is give the atmosphere up at Marvel. I’m not trying to attack Stan Lee. I’m not trying to put any onus on Stan Lee. All I’m saying is; Stan Lee was a busy man with other duties who couldn’t possibly have the time to suddenly create all these ideas that he’s said he created. And I can tell you that he never wrote the stories– although he wouldn’t allow us to write the dialogue in the balloons. He didn’t write my stories.
PITTS: You plotted and he did the dialogue?
KIRBY: You can call it plotted. I call it script. I wrote the script and I drew the story. I mean, there was nothing on the first or second page that Stan Lee ever knew would go there. But I knew what would go there. I knew how to begin the story. I wrote it in my house. Nobody was there around to tell me. I worked strictly in my house; I always did. I worked in a small basement in Long Island.
PITTS: Okay, take me through a typical Lee-Kirby comic. Say, from start to finish, an issue of the F.F.
KIRBY: Okay, I’ll give it to you in very short terms: I told Stan Lee what I wrote and what he was gonna get and Stan Lee accepted it, because Stan Lee knew my reputation. By that time, I had created or helped create so many different other features that Stan Lee had infinite confidence in what I was doing.
Actually, we were pretty good friends. I know Stan Lee better than probably any other person. I know Stan Lee as a person… I never was angry with him in any way. He was never angry with me in any way. We went to the cartoonists’ society together.
Watching Marvel grow was beneficial for both our egos. They wanted to discontinue the Hulk after the third issue and the day they wanted to discontinue it, some college fellas came up from either NYU or Columbia– I forget which college it was– and they had a petition of 200 names and they said the Hulk was the mascot of the dormitory. I didn’t realize up to that moment that we had the college crowd.
PITTS: You’re given credit; both you and Stan, for the first “human” heroes. Where did that concept come from?
KIRBY: What do you mean, the first human heroes?
PITTS: The first heroes that argued amongst themselves, the first heroes where the characterization was more or less believable as opposed to the flawless Superman type.
KIRBY: That was my idea. Strictly my idea. I felt that that was the truth. I had done the same thing for DC. I did a thing called Mile-A-Minute Jones where this black American Ranger had met up with this German SS man. They had been in the 1936 Olympics and nobody knew who won their race because it was a draw. In the story, they act like two friends who had met after a period of years when they suddenly realize that they’re on opposite sides and that to complete their mission, one would have to kill the other. And so, they run along this engineer’s tape–and as they chase each other, it becomes the race all over again. And the element of truth is there.
These two men, although they’re enemies, were once friends. Each one is a patriot for their own country (but) they’re still friends in a past-tense. And of course, that’s a contradiction too, and yet here they are with these feelings. The German runs on the wrong aide of the tape and gets blown up. Mile-A-Minute Jones completes his mission and is taken away by airplane but as he looks down and he knows the German is dead down there, lying in the field, he knows he’ll never know who won that race. It’s a dramatic story of mine… I got a lot of response on it, and yet it’s a very real story, because I myself talked to the S.S. men; and they were people.
ROZ: [TO KIRBY] Honey, what he’s trying to point out is the relationships – like the Fantastic Four… they became more humanized, more complex.
KIRBY: Well of course, I did all the stories. I created all the stories.
PITTS: Okay, but where did you get the inspiration to do–
KIRBY: Because I wanted to do a satire of Stan and I getting thrown out of a wedding, so I got Reed and Sue married. I love satire. I did Fighting American and had a wonderful time with it. So I felt, Stan Lee and I were good friends, it would be·fun to have us thrown out of a wedding.
ROZ: [TO KIRBY] But even at the beginning, you had the Fantastic Four, they were always arguing about–
KIRBY: Yeah. The Thing had problems…
PITTS: Johnny was immature, Reed was a stuffed shirt–
KIRBY: Yes. They were people to me. I write from a people’s point of view. I love people because I understand them. I understand an enemy, I understand a friend, I understand grey areas, and I understand black areas. I understand when it’s you or me and I understand when it’s you and me. I’m a fellow who was raised in that kind of atmosphere, and it will reflect in the kinds of stories that I write.
PITTS: Are there any other Marvel flagship characters that you feel you created and didn’t get the credit for?
KIRBY: Yes, I created the Young Allies.
PITTS: No, I’m talking about the Marvel Age heroes… the X-Men, the Avengers…
KIRBY: All of them. All of them came from my basement. The Avengers, Daredevil, the X-Men… all of them. The X-Men, I did the natural thing there. What would you do with mutants who were just plain boys and girls and certainly not dangerous? You school them. You develop their skills. So I gave them a teacher, Professor X.
Of course, it was the natural thing to do, instead of disorienting or alienating people who were different from us, I made the X-Men part of the human race, which they were. Possibly, radiation, if it is beneficial, may create mutants that’ll save us instead of doing us harm. I felt that if we train the mutants our way, they’ll help us– and not only help us, but achieve a measure of growth in their own sense. And so, we could all live together.
PITTS: You obviously feel that you haven’t gotten the credit that’s due you for the contributions you’ve made. How does that fact set with you?
KIRBY: Well, it’s painful. They’ve kept my pages from me. I have people coming up who want pages signed… a little boy’ll come up with a page of mine that I know is stolen art and I haven’t got the heart not to sign it, so I sign it.
ROZ: What’s painful is that he’s never received his due after helping create Marvel.
PITTS: Yes, that’s what I’m trying to get at.
KIRBY: I’m not interested in the ego trip of creating or not creating. I’m interested in selling a magazine. Rock-bottom, I sell magazines. I’m a thorough professional who does his job. In the Army, I remember, Stan Lee was in the photographic division. They gave him a whole movie studio– this is the story he told me. And Stan Lee didn’t produce one picture. I would’ve produced five. It’s the will to create that tells the truth.
ROZ: [TO KIRBY] What he’s trying to bring out is… we are hurt about how Marvel treated you.
KIRBY: Well, yes, I am hurt because up at Marvel, I’m a non-person. They say Stan Lee created everything. And of course, Stan Lee didn’t. And Ditko is hurt; Ditko never got his due. The fellas who did make all the sales for the magazines were never given credit for them. They were abused in one way or another. I can tell you that that’s painful. You live with that. You live with that all your life. I have to live with the fact of all those lies, which are being done for pure hype.
The people at Marvel (now) weren’t there at that period. The new kids weren’t there. The new kids didn’t feel that desperation– never felt any desperation. In a way, they don’t care. Why should they? They have their lives ahead of them. Nobody will get involved or go on crusades. “Truth, justice and the American way” is just a childish slogan to a lot of people. But I can tell you that a lot of guys died for it. Superman created an attitude that helped many Americans in a very bad spot.
PITTS: If you were that unhappy with Marvel, why did you stay there until over 8 years after the creation of the F.F.?
ROZ: During the time with Marvel, the Fantastic Four, he was making a living. He was building a family, making a living. There weren’t too many places to go in comic books.
KIRBY: Right. And there still isn’t too many places to go. And I had gotten too used to liking to work alone. I don’t like to work in an office. I like to work in my house, to be among my own thoughts. The idea is for an editor to let his artist alone, let them be themselves– an artist or a writer– let them alone, let them exchange their own ideas and you’ll come up with something salable.
PITTS: Why did you leave the F.F. and Marvel that first time?
KIRBY: Because I could see things changing and I could see that Stan Lee was going in directions that I couldn’t. I came in one night and there was Stan Lee talking into a recording machine, sitting in the dark there. It was strange to me and I felt that we were going in different directions.
ROZ: [TO KIRBY] Well, you also wanted to go on to new situations. That’s why–
KIRBY: I wanted to do the same thing I had always done– just sell magazines and create my own ideas. The first thing I did when I got to DC was create the comic novel. The first comic novel was mine. That’s the New Gods. I took four magazines to make an entire novel.
They wanted me to work with Superman, but I didn’t want to interfere with the work that was being done by the other men. I felt I could create my own novel. I love the young people, so I did the Forever People. I had a good planet and an evil planet… a parable on our own society.
Darkseid is a man you will never see; Darkseid runs our world. High Father runs our world. These two men run our world; you’ll never see who they are. I put them together in two individuals. A part of our society runs this world and they run it for good or evil. The evil side will harm us, the good side of it will help us. So far, we’ve been skirting in the middle and making out.
PITTS: Okay, you mentioned earlier walking into an office and seeing Stan talking into a recorder one night and I got the impression that was some sort of turning point for you–
KIRBY: Well, I realized I was creating something I didn’t want to create.
PITTS: But, how did–
KIRBY: Did you ever read “What Makes Sammy Run” by Budd Schulberg?
KIRBY: Read “What Makes Sammy Run”. Sammy, in that book, is the kind of a character you wouldn’t want to be responsible for developing. I felt that I was developing a Sammy– which I was, in Stan Lee. I felt it was my time to go.
PITTS: You’re very cryptic, Mr. Kirby.
KIRBY: Well, I feel I can only be responsible to the company in a business sort of way, never in a personal sort of way. And incidentally, they’ve looked on it differently. I can tell you that, besides being a non-person up there, I’ve had adverse personal incidents… which I won’t tell you about. And they’ve hurt me badly.
It’s something you don’t like to live with. If I cut off your arm, you’re going to live with that forever. Even if they put a false arm on you, you’re never going to have a right or left arm. And that’s what they’ve done to me. They’ve cut off one of my limbs. Keeping my pages… spreading lies. Blatant lies.
They just advertised the fact that Stan Lee created Captain America. This was in Variety. And it said, “Based on a character created by Stan Lee”. Stan Lee didn’t create Captain America.
PITTS: That has to be a mistake.
KIRBY: We’ll show you the ad.
PITTS: Somebody goofed somewhere. I mean, that one is already on the record books as a Kirby-Simon creation.
PITTS: Let’s talk about some of the later creations–again, the story behind the story. Let’s begin with the New Gods.
KIRBY: The New Gods went into my feelings about the world around me. There’s an element of truth in that. The fact that Darkseid exchanged sons with High Father– that’s taken from history. Kings in the past have exchanged sons so that they never have wars in the future, lest they harm these children. A father will not harm his son.
PITTS: The Forever People.
KIRBY: The Forever People were the wonderful people of the ’60s, who I loved. If you’ll watch the actions of the Forever People, you’ll see the reflection of the ’60s in their attitudes, in the backgrounds, in their clothes. You’ll see the ’60s. I felt I would leave a record of the ’60s in their adventures.
PITTS: The Eternals.
KIRBY: The Eternals? The Eternals are the gap that we can’t fill. We don’t know what happened back in the Biblical days. We’ve killed a lot of people because of it, but we don’t know what happened back then. Did Jonah blow down Jericho with 40 trumpets? I’d like to see someone do it. I feel that, from time to time, mankind has risen and destroyed itself and left something for the survivors…
PITTS: What do you think of the current state of comics, as opposed to what it was in your heyday?
KIRBY: I really can’t say. I wish the artists well, I wish the publishers well. It’s an industry that’s given me a good life.
PITTS: But, how do you like the books?
KIRBY: The books? They’re different from the kind of books that we did. I find a little less discipline, a little more illustration. They’re filling up the panels so the eye can’t focus on certain characters. If you go in a New Year’s crowd in New York, you won’t be able to focus on anything, except that ball in the tower, because there’ll be so many people there that you wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything.
PITTS: So, are you saying that the quality of the artwork in comics has deteriorated?
KIRBY: A crowd is faceless. If you put a hero among a crowd, he won’t stand out. He’ll become part of the crowd.
PITTS: Do you read many books?
KIRBY: No I don’t. I used to read a lot of books. I read what’s important me. I’ll read a lot of scientific articles– not a lot of comics. I get a lot of comics, and I can look at a comic and tell immediately whether I’ll enjoy it or not. I’ve had 50 years of doing that.
There are elements in the stories now that I have no rapport with. I see dirty language, I see sleazy backgrounds; I see it reflected in the movies– the movies are comics to me. And I don’t see a sleazy world. I see hope. I see a positive world.
PITTS: Do you read your own characters– the current versions?
KIRBY: Yes I do, because I feel my characters are valid, my characters are people, my characters have hope. Hope is the thing that’ll take us through.
PITTS: Okay, when I say your characters, I’m referring to the ones you created at Marvel in the ’60s.
KIRBY: No. I’m not interested in their version. It has nothing to do with me.
PITTS: With every artist you talk to, if you ask them who their biggest influence is, the name Kirby will be at or very near the top of the list. How does it feel to be so revered by a generation of comics artists?
KIRBY: Well… I wouldn’t consider myself in that light. I feel that every professional is the art school for the next guy. In other words, in my early days, I would cannibalize the shading done by Milton Caniff. I would cannibalize the natural stance of Alex Raymond’s figures, because I felt that’s how people stood, that’s how people gestured.
And of course, I feel that maybe a lot of the dynamism in my own work, having been felt by the rest of the artists, they’ll react to it and put elements of that in their own work, feeling that it’ll help it.
PITTS: Are there any of today’s artists that you’re particularly impressed by?
KIRBY: Well, I’m impressed with the character of Frank Miller, who I feel is a very gutsy and intelligent guy. Frankly, I’m biased in that direction because he seems to feel that I’m right in my demands from Marvel. He sympathizes. He feels that in some way maybe I’ve helped him to make a better deal.
PITTS: What do you think of Byrne?
KIRBY: Byrne, I… I feel that any man that tries, any man that comes out with something we like, is a good man. A man doesn’t have to be Leonardo Da Vinci to be sincere. Everybody can draw, in my estimation. If you give a man 50 years, he’ll come up with the Mona Lisa.
PITTS: What makes you so good?
KIRBY: The willingness to compete. I want to be better than five guys. I was that way when I used to box, I was that way in any sport. I want to compete with five other guys. If I beat five other guys, I’d like to see if I can beat six.
PITTS: There’s not a lot of subtlety in your work. I think that’s what many people have gravitated toward. Everything is larger than life. I remember one artist– I forget which one– talking about how he and everybody else has copied the way in which you draw a punch. It’s where the legs are slightly wider apart in the stance, and there’s more body behind the blow– a real power punch. Where does this larger-than-life outlook come from? When I met you, I was expecting to see a man 7 feet tall.
KIRBY: On the contrary, it’ll come from a man who’s 5′ 6″, 5′ 7″ and has to fight a man 7 feet tall. And of course, he knows he’s gonna get creamed, so he dramatizes his own strength and in dramatizing his own strength, he becomes a lot stronger than he really is.
I’ve bent steel. I’ve done things that I wouldn’t ordinarily seem capable of doing. And I’ve proven myself in situations where there’s life and death at stake. And so, I can live with myself knowing that it’s not a matter of guts or anything like that. It’s a matter of willingness to go the length– to transcend yourself.
PITTS: Do you see life itself in larger-than-life terms?
KIRBY: Yes, I do. I feel that man can transcend himself to a point where he can accomplish greater things than he thinks. I see people depressed and I see people who devalue themselves and I feel that’s a terrible, terrible waste. But I love the people who try. But try fairly, try honestly.
PITTS: Which one of your characters is most like you? I’ve got suspicions of my own, but I’d like to hear what you say.
KIRBY: Oh, I feel that they all have some part of my character. I feel that they’re all me in some way– certainly not in individuality, but they all bear elements of what I feel.
PITTS: You don’t think Ben Grimm’s a little more like you?
KIRBY: (laugh) Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way. Ben Grimm has always been conservative with his strength. You’ll find that, actually, he’s the original Rambo. If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.
PITTS: Where do you see this medium headed?
KIRBY: I have some ideas, but I wouldn’t like to express them. I’ll save it for my novel.
PITTS: Okay, let’s put it like this, then: in the best of all possible worlds for Jack Kirby, what would be different?
ROZ: He’d be a better businessman.
KIRBY: I would’ve liked to have been a better businessman when I was younger. And of course, I couldn’t, because it wasn’t part of my atmosphere. I never lived with accountants, I never lived with lawyers, I never sued anybody, I never fought anybody or was in conflict or contention with any other party in a legal way. I feel that it hurts people, it hurts their families.
My family’s hurt. It’s not that I consider myself; I’ve been hurt in the past many times, but I never consider myself. My wife is hurt, I know other members of my family will be hurt, and I feel that’s wrong.
PITTS: It’s quite a stupid question, in light of all you’ve said, but let me ask it anyway: can you see yourself working with Stan Lee ever again?
KIRBY: No. No. It’ll never happen. No more than I would work with the S.S. Stan Lee is what he is. I’m not going to change him, I’m not going to dehumanize him, I’m not going to default him. He has his own dreams and he has his own way of getting them. I have my own dreams but I get them my own way. We’re two different people. I feel that he’s in direct opposition to me.
There’s no way I could reach the S.S.. I tried to reach them. I used to talk with them and say, “Hey, fellas, you don’t believe in all this horseshit.” And they said, “Oh, yes, we do.” They were profound beliefs. They became indoctrinated.
And Stan Lee’s the same way. He’s indoctrinated one way and he’s gonna live that way. He’s gonna benefit from it in some ways and I think he’ll lose in others. But he doesn’t have to believe me. Nobody else’ll believe me if they don’t want to, but that’s my opinion. I can only speak for myself.
PITTS: Are you claiming that ego has run away with him?
KIRBY: Not ego. Oh, there’s ego in it, but he’s running away from some deep pain or hurt and I don’t know what it is. I feel sympathy for him in that respect. I have an idea of what it is, but it’s not my right to analyze Stan Lee.
If be wants to lionize himself or if he wants others to lionize him or if be feels a lack of something, it’s a problem.
PITTS: I’m almost done. Is there anything you’d like to add to what we’ve already discussed?
KIRBY: No. The only thing I can add is that I’ve been telling the truth and I’ll never speak to another person without telling the truth. I’ve been a cruel man in my time, I’ve been a devious man in my time, like everybody else. I’ve told lies in my time. But I’ve seen enough suffering to experiment with the truth.
Since I’ve matured, since the war itself–I’ve always been a feisty guy, but since the war itself, there are people that I didn’t like, but I saw them suffer and it changed me. I promised myself that I would never tell a lie, never hurt another human being, and I would try to make the world as positive as I could.
There’s a lot of guys that might feel (laughter)… My own son feels I’m uncool but my grandson loves me. Being cool or uncool is a generational thing. But as a personal thing, I really love everybody in sight. I’d love to see Stan Lee at peace with himself. I mean, really at peace with himself. Not money-wise, not ambition-wise, not being driven–whatever drives him. But I’d like to see him at peace as a human being.
PITTS: If I asked you for one word to describe Jack Kirby, what would that word be?
KIRBY: Human being.
PITTS: That’s two words.
KIRBY: Human. Okay?
A Failure to Communicate – Interlude
Thanks to Mike Gartland and John Morrow, The Kirby Effect is offering Mike’s “A Failure To Communicate” series from The Jack Kirby Collector. Captions on the illustrations are written by John Morrow. – Rand
Interlude was first published in TwoMorrows’ April 2000 Jack Kirby Collector 28.
While others write about Kirby’s influence in this issue, I’d like to discuss some of the contributions of the one professional who influenced Kirby in a myriad of ways, and quite arguably brought him towards his greatest recognition: Stan Lee.
Well, think about it; although Stan may not have been an influence to Jack in the artistic or storytelling sense, his effect on Kirby’s work at Marvel, for good or bad, is present in virtually every issue of every title Jack worked on. The majority of the effects were obviously good, as reflected in the love we share for their combined work.
Although many throughout fandom speculate that Jack was the concept or “ideas” man behind the “House of Ideas,” it must be noted, however true, that Stan was the one asking for those concepts and ideas, especially during those critical early years. Stan is therefore rightly recognized as the father of the Marvel Universe, being a seminal influence behind not only Jack, but all areas of production. Stan was a creative midwife, periodically provoking Jack to bear down and push. This is not to say that Stan didn’t have ideas of his own, but one of his strengths was knowing how to utilize the creative talents of others. Stan’s input into the creation of Marvel’s earliest and most famous characters should not be disputed.
When Goodman wanted to start up a super-hero line again, he went to Lee and Lee went to Kirby—not anyone else at Marvel— to come up with a book. Many cite the similarities between the FF and Jack’s Challengers and use this hypothesis to say that most of the idea for the FF came from Jack, but Lee’s influence is obvious from the two most colorful characters, the Torch and the Thing. It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that Stan would want a monster-like character, in keeping with the then-popular line of monster-related books that they were putting out. The inclusion of the Torch was definitely Lee’s input; it was all Jack could do to keep Stan from bringing back other Golden Age heroes for that book, and convince him to go with new characters. Stan still showed his love of the old guard by reviving the Sub-Mariner, and giving the “new” Torch his own title as soon as he could.
Bringing back old characters was not to Stan’s detriment; if not for him, we of the Baby Boomers would never have enjoyed the likes of the Torch, Namor, or ironically Cap. Jack, being progressively creative, almost certainly wouldn’t have gone into the past and saved these great characters. Thanks to Stan reviving him, Captain America is more popular and recognized today than he ever would’ve been had he remained buried among the WWII relics. Also thanks to his reprinting of Golden Age stories early on, Stan became the first to re-introduce a new generation to the works of Simon & Kirby, Carl Burgos, and especially Bill Everett.
The Hulk, Thor, and Spider-Man were the next triumvirate that Kirby came to co-develop when Stan asked Jack for ideas. As with the Thing, Stan most likely asked for a character like the Hulk. In earlier pre-hero Marvel stories, every now and then a monster would make a re-appearance, perhaps in response to fans or positive sales. Based on this, Stan may have wanted to try a series with the same monster in the lead; but maybe it came too late. The Hulk was pretty obvious as far as a monster tie-in was concerned, and maybe this was one of the reasons that initially, he didn’t succeed. There were a lot of monster stories already ingested by Marvel readers and, compared to books like FF and Thor, the Hulk was just another monster, not super-hero, book. Thor was discussed previously; Jack’s love of mythology fed this title for years, with Stan’s humanistic take on gods giving it the vitality to keep going.
Ironically it is Spider-Man, Jack’s failed concept, that becomes Stan’s magnum opus and Marvel’s greatest success. Spider-Man, more than any other character, is a testament to the control that Stan had in the development of Marvel’s heroes. Stan may not have developed these characters artistically, but he knew what he wanted, and none of them would exist as they do today if not for his influence and input. And no, I didn’t forget Ant-Man, but he also was discussed in a previous issue; I also didn’t forget that one should never mention the development of Spider-Man without acknowledging the immense input and talent of Steve Ditko. (As an interesting footnote, the rejected Spider-Man origin, where a kid finds an object that gives him his powers, may have been re-vamped and used in the origin for Thor, showing how close in time these two characters were being developed by Jack & Stan.)
You would not have seen FF #12 or Spider-Man #1 as they exist today if not for Stan. Well, so what, you ask? The same could be said for any Marvel issue at that time. What I’m trying to point out here is not only Stan’s influence on the finished product, but the initialization of cross-marketing the characters between titles. This laid down the basis for a definitive point of reference between the characters’ individual plots in their own titles, interwoven occasionally with the other books, backed up with references in current books to previously published “back issue” stories; thus establishing a “timeline” that all of the super-hero books followed. All of this is known today as “continuity.” Stan established it, it tied the Marvel Universe together, it was wonderful, and boy, does the current Marvel ever need it today.
Stan was able to maintain all of this continuity because he not only plotted and wrote some of the various stories, but was editor as well. Unlike DC’s method of several editors to oversee their titles, Stan was the sole editor for anything produced at Marvel. He was able to stay on top of the expanse of titles due to his acceptance of the “Marvel method” of writing, whereby the artist became a collaborator in the development of the story. This method of writing was established when Kirby returned Marvel in the late ’50s, but was cemented in as the recognized standard procedure once the super-hero line became established, and due to the adaptability of the other talented artists at Marvel at that time—namely Ayers, Ditko, and Heck. Thanks to the Marvel method and an assist in scripting from his brother Larry, Stan was free of the tedious and lengthy task of writing full scripts, while at the same time allowing his staff to interject fresh ideas into sometimes timeworn plots.
The Marvel method became a proving ground for artists seeking a new approach to their work. Some could or would not work this way; others adapted readily and are recognized today as the unsung storytellers at Marvel. After Stan’s “fantastic four” of Kirby, Ditko, Ayers, and Heck, artists like Romita, Buscema, Sinnott, Severin, Everett, Colan, Roth, Tuska, and Trimpe became stalwarts to Marvel fans everywhere. Along with editing plots, scripts, and dialogue, Stan edited the art as well. For someone who wasn’t an artist, he became respected by many who were for his acumen on how to render a story for the greatest impact on the reader. A big tip of the hat must be given to Sol Brodsky as well, who handled many of the production and editing assignments when Stan became swamped; truly a man who deserves more recognition than he receives.
This leads to another of Stan’s attributes: Rather than a company of seasoned professionals who dealt with their patrons accordingly, Lee acknowledged that Marvel was a “nuthouse,” filled with zanies doing their darndest to satisfy you, the fan, and enticing you to be a part of it. To this extent he debuted “the Bullpen,” a bunch of flawed humanity that was usually making mistakes, generally having a good time, and always open to suggestion. Stan, in listing credits and establishing a page devoted to the goings-on at the Bullpen, introduced the reader to virtually everyone who worked at Marvel at one time or another. Even the office workers and staff were mentioned in the books; to this day fans seek out Flo Steinberg. Readers might never have known that draftsmen like John Severin, Paul Reinman, Chic Stone, George Roussos, and Joe Sinnott worked at Marvel had Stan not given a credit line to inkers, something never done on a regular basis anywhere; and giving credit to letterers was unheard of, but what Silver Age Marvel fan doesn’t know who Artie Simek or Sam Rosen were? As a matter of fact, some of Stan’s funniest writings were at his letterers’ expense. Stan would generally have the letterer be the butt of an alliterative list of quips, after introducing himself, the artist, and the inker; and what gives the humor an ironic twist is that the letterer would be forced to letter in the quip. It was all in good fun.
Now before you go writing off your letters about these things existing in previous companies like Fawcett, EC, or DC, I’m not saying that Stan was the first to do such things, but to his credit he did them in such a way, and expanded upon them to such an extent, that fans everywhere attribute continuity, letters pages, a bullpen, credits, and crossovers to Marvel.
This is perhaps Stan’s greatest talent: To take something done previously and give it his own twist, thereby enlivening it to appear fresh and innovative. Stan was vitality incarnate; this permeated each and every book. He showed it to you, made you believe in it, and want to share in it. Stan gleaned the best from other publishers and through irreverence and humor, made you think that it could only come from Marvel.
But what, do you ask, was his influence on Kirby? Simply put, Stan was both the ignition and brakes to the creative engine that was Jack Kirby. Stan could both feed ideas to, and take plots from Jack, turn Jack loose and then clean up the excess, saving what was needed for publication. If there was too much good material in one story, Stan would have Jack stretch it out or save it for future use. Kirby’s creativity had to be properly controlled or his plots, concepts, and characters would run roughshod over each other, becoming jumbled, smothered, or forgotten. Jack needed a strong editor, which is why many cite his best work as coming from his relationships with Stan and Joe Simon. Although Jack’s Fourth World storylines are excellent in their conception and design, it would’ve flowed better had he employed such an editor, in my opinion. Stan managed to keep Jack’s stories from becoming disconcerting.
That last word can be used in that context, but that brings me to another of Stan’s talents: A word that you don’t see everyday, or may have to look up; the use of words, the turning of a phrase, the allocation of alliteration; in short, this guy could write. No one before or since has ever dialogued comics like Stan. His use of colorful, melodramatic flowing phrase sent fans by the ton scurrying for their dictionaries and thesauruses; and I’m not only talking about ten-year-olds, but college kids as well. How many of us were indirectly introduced to the great writers of yesteryear because, unknown to us, Stan would paraphrase their works into his stories; remember “Oh Wasp, Where Is Thy Sting?” (Tales To Astonish #69)? What a catchy title; camp, but catchy; but I notice it still sticks in my brain after 30+ years.
But camp was what the Sixties comics were all about, and Stan rode the crest till the end. He kept a keen eye on what was topical and never lost contact with the fans. He found out what was “in” and utilized it to sell the books; remember Marvel “Pop-Art” Productions? Although it was one of Stan’s attempts that didn’t catch on, he was always trying new venues and never stopped. He knew how to sell the product without looking like a corporate employee. Stan was hip, he was in; and this is why he is looked upon today by so many fans with reverence and respect. Stan grew up with us, was one of the first adults that seemed to understand us kids; he treated us with respect, made us feel like we were a part of something cool and happening. He is as much a beloved cultural icon to us as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Mickey Mantle, or Aurora models. The fortunate thing for us though, is that Stan’s still here, still fabricating, still bombastic, still alliterative, still humorous, still controversial, still Stan.
One of the personal blogs that the Kirby Museum features is Kirby Kinetics, where Norris Burroughs offers monthly analyses of Kirby’s art.