Where Fourth Art Thou? Part One

Part One: Lo, There Shall Be An Ending

[Embarking on this year-long adventure (fingers crossed!), perhaps it’s proper to set the right context and explain, as best I understand, just what is Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and from whence it came. And just like the full-color funny papers of yore once made each Sunday a special day of the week for the lovers of four-color adventure, yours truly is planning a special Fourth World-related essay every Sunday as an added bonus…JBC]

By 1970, Jack Kirby was truly the King of American comic book artists. In the early 1940s, with longtime partner Joe Simon (notably an artist, writer, and editor), Jack had struck gold for Timely Comics with the creation of Captain America, an immediate sensation with kids, and the strip was renowned for its kinetic violence, explosive action and no-holds-barred anti-Nazi sentiment. Unable to get a deal more to their liking at Timely (where they also created the kid gang sub-genre of super-hero comics), Simon & Kirby, a byline increasingly recognized by a growing legion of fans, moved over to top-shelf DC Comics, where they produced innumerable comics (significantly “The Newsboy Legion Starring The Guardian”). After World War II, the team would create the singularly most successful genre in the business, romance comics, but by the mid-’50s, Joe and Jack would break up the most successful creative team in the form’s history when the comics industry bottomed-out. Now solo, Jack rejoined Timely, re-christened Marvel Comics, and with the imprint’s editor and main writer Stan Lee (and important work by Steve Ditko), the duo (arguably to become the second most successful pairing) would go on to create what is today called the Marvel Universe, including the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and a resurrected Captain America, among many, many other characters. Super-hero comics would experience a renaissance during Stan the Man and King Kirby’s reign over the “Marvel Age.”

It is now part of Kirbyhead lore that Jack, after having created some of the most exciting and resonant super-hero adventures in comics, was becoming increasing dissatisfied with his standing at Marvel by the late ’60s. Though it is said he received one of the highest page rates at the House of Ideas, Jack was still just work-for-hire, on one hand creating the very cast and canvas that was attracting an ever-growing readership, on the other, not sharing in ownership of the profit engine. It’s important to note, too, the artist/writer (the King plotted most of the stories he drew, with Stan scribing the captions and dialogue from Jack’s margin notes — later dubbed “the Marvel Style” of comics production) was becoming frustrated with the creative end of things, as well.

First, there’s the Silver Surfer, whom Jack offhandedly created as the herald of Galactus in Fantastic Four. An immediate sensation, Jack envisioned the character as a sort of “Fallen Angel,” a Lucifer losing favor with God (Galactus) and exiled to Hell (Earth?), with the surfboard-riding space traveler perhaps more a threat to, rather than protector of, our green and blue orb. But Stan saw the former Norrin Rad as a “Wandering Jew,” endlessly travailing our planet alone, seeking answers to cosmic questions — another young person in the search of self in an age of new discovery. (Whose concept is the more commercial? Probably Stan’s, but Jack’s certainly had enormous potential for some complex and stimulating storylines.)

Thus, when Stan kept the news from Jack that Marvel was developing a new title — giant-size for 25¢, at that! — and assigned Silver Surfer art chores to the more artistically slick John Buscema (who had picked up and adapted the Kirby approach to bombastic action under orders from Marvel’s editor), and Jack saw the finished result, it must have been crushing. The origin story in SS #1 depicted the character as a love-lorn and self-pitying lost soul, seeking contact with earth folks and yet always running off (“Shane! Come back, Shane!”).

(For a taste of what might have been, refer to Silver Surfer #18, cover dated Sept. 1970, where Jack’s plot had the former Galactus herald on the advent of an anti-human rampage, a devil on a flying long board (if you will) raging at the world, “Let mankind beware! From this time forth — the Surfer will be the deadliest one of all!” Alas, though the last-page blurb trumpeted, “Next: The savagely sensational new Silver Surfer!” the promised revamping was not to be, as this would be the final issue in the character’s initial run.)

Second, there’s Doctor Doom, Fantastic Four arch-nemesis, conceived in Jack’s eyes as a pathological narcissist, whose depths of selfishness would have the planet scorched to satiate his vanity. Jack’s concept was to have Victor Von Doom, the FF’s Reed Richards college-era roommate, a brilliant and gorgeous Latverian exchange student, suffer an apparently minor accident during a science experiment gone awry. A chemical explosion was to cause a tiny facial scratch (and deteriorating mental stability perhaps), an infinitesimally small marring of his otherwise perfect cheek. That slightest of imperfections would have Von Doom dilusionally believe he was scarred beyond belief and, loathing the image in the mirror, have him going to such extremes as to meld a red-hot iron mask on his face to permanently cover his flaw, hide his shame. This psychological make-up for the villain was a brilliant take, giving us the root and extent of his madness, telling of a subsequent hatred and envy for all things beautiful. Alas, a more melodramatic, hackneyed backstory was written by Stan the Man, having the future European monarch suffer massive facial damage, a face now worth hiding, instead. (Stan did subscribe to the raison d’etre for the bad doctor’s despising of the super-hero quartet, as Von Doom unfairly blamed young Reed Richards for the fateful disaster.)

Thirdly, and most relevant to this ongoing examination of his Fourth World, Jack had imagined a radical idea: In the pages of The Mighty Thor, completely eradicate the pantheon of Asgardian gods (as prophesied in ancient Norse mythology, on which Jack’s Thunder God & Company’s adventures had sprung), by bringing on Ragnarok, the twilight of the old gods, the end of Asgard, the death of the immortals, the arrival of the Valkyries to take the dead Viking warriors to their final rest in Valhalla… The Kirby innovation, besides exterminating a whole crew of characters that presumably made some shekels for Marvel, was to have new gods arise from the aftermath of the apocalyptic conflict, a new cast of celestial beings, not speaking in faux Shakespearean thee’s and thou’s as did Odin and his ilk, but rather super-beings rooted in modern-day, relevant concepts (the threats to our natural environment, the rise of malevolent technology — Life versus Anti-Life, as such) concerning us little folk. Needless to say, Stan passed on Jack’s reconception, preferring to keep Goldilocks as is, and consistently reviving (but never fulfilling) the teasing threat of Nordic Armageddon over the title’s span.

A review of Jack’s late-’60s work reveals his unwillingness to create new characters and concepts for the Marvel imprint after a cosmically fruitful surge of creativity during the decade’s middle years. Between 1965 and ’67, for instance, Jack would introduce in the pages of Fantastic Four the Inhumans, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the one-issue masterpiece “This Man, This Monster,” the Black Panther, the Kree empire, and “Him,” who would later evolve into Adam Warlock. Thereafter, while still plotting and drawing vibrant and engaging adventures, it seemed Jack was reticent to continue producing original stories and guest-stars for the publisher.

Future investigation would reveal that, far from fermenting new ideas in his awesome (Kirby-sized!) imagination, Jack was privately conceiving of a new line of concepts and characters, musings he began with his End-of-Asgard notion, in titles he would helm as writer and editor, as well as artist. By 1969, while still plotting and penciling for Marvel (and receiving increasingly frustrating creative interference from the editor), Jack was secretly negotiating with DC Comics, the industry leader nervously watching the House of Idea’s ascent in the volatile marketplace of American comics. (By the mid-’70s, Marvel would, indeed, surpass DC as the number one comics publisher.) The artist met with Carmine Infantino, creative head (and soon-to-be publisher) of DC, and the King gave “Rouge Enfant” a full-blown presentation, which the editorial director approved. Contracts were signed, notice was given, and Jack Kirby was poised to start on perhaps the most creatively important chapter of his remarkable career.

5 thoughts on “Where Fourth Art Thou? Part One

  1. patrick ford


    Another interesting post, and I’ll be following along every day.

    In reading comments and articles by Mark Evanier, as well as his book Kirby: King of Comics, I notice Evanier has a slightly different version of events resulting in Kirby leaving Marvel.

    There isn’t any doubt about the frustration Kirby felt in seeing his creations taken away from him.

    Jack Kirby: At Marvel I couldn’t say anything or; it would be taken away from me, and put in another context, and all my connection with it would be lost.
    Tim Skelly: That sounds like a problem.
    Kirby: You get to feel like a ghost. You’re writing commercials for somebody, I didn’t like it much.
    Skelly: Things were bad as far as recognition goes?

    In addition to the major areas of dispute you describe so well could be added the “HIM” and “Origin of Galactus” story lines Kirby intended for Thor.

    Despite the very real creative differences between Stan and Jack, Evanier paints Kirby as being typically pragmatic, and making every effort to remain at Marvel if he could be compensated in a reasonable manner.

    Evanier says that Kirby’s compensation at Marvel in the ’60s, at DC in the ’70s, and again at Marvel in the ’70s was no better than what Marvel and DC paid their other top artists.

    Here is a collection of quotes taken from Mark Evanier’s book, as well as his Q&A site .

    Evanier: Kirby’s page rate just before he left Marvel was the same as Romita’s. Actually, in a way, it was lower because Romita had a staff job that paid him a salary per week so he was paid for the time he spent in story meetings with Stan or doing redraws on his work, whereas Kirby was not.

    I don’t have the precise numbers handy but in 1963, Kirby and Ditko were getting around $25 a page, too. Ditko always worked for Charlton for a little less money than he got elsewhere. They always paid less but they also never asked him for revisions

    ME: For reasons I can’t explain, I’m not at liberty to give you precise dollar amounts here. But on a per-page basis, Jack’s pay at DC wasn’t that much higher than his closing pay at Marvel. He did not leave for a higher page rate.

    He never made specific dollar demands of Marvel because neither he nor his lawyer were ever given the opportunity to negotiate. You can’t present demands to someone who won’t listen to you. But basically what Jack wanted was some sort of long-term financial guarantee of employment, some sort of health plan for him and his family and also for the comics to have a proper “created by” credit. Let me put it this way: If you took the kind of deal that beginners now get at Marvel and DC and you translated it to 1970 dollars and went back in time and offered it to Kirby along with the credit plus some promise that the firm would always find a place for him even if his health failed and he couldn’t draw, he would have never left.

    Jack had a deal he wasn’t wild about at DC. When things there got worse, the only avenue he decided was open to him was to take a slightly-less-bad offer from Marvel. He wasn’t able to find a good deal.

    I’m not sure what concessions you think Marvel gave Jack to lure him back. They don’t seem substantial to me. In fact, I have a copy of his contract here and it pretty much says he gets the same editorial fee that all their freelance editors were getting, the same page writing for writing and pencilling that their top writers and pencillers were getting, etc.

    Jack left Marvel in early ’70 because they handed him a terrible, insulting contract and said, “Sign this or get out.” He did not see a third choice and he could not sign the contract. When he returned in ’75, he received a slightly more mature contract but it was still basically the same deal everyone else got…and again, it was take-it-or-leave-it.

    Evanier also described how Kirby’s final months at Marvel played out. Again most of this is quoted, but I’ve pieced it together, and added some comment of my own.

    MARK EVANIER: Jack went to New York in December of 1969 to try and work out a new deal with Marvel. He didn’t succeed at that but while there, he agreed to write and draw two issues of a proposed Inhumans comic and draw the first issue of a planned Ka-Zar comic. He went home and did them. In late January, he was asked to revise them into ten-pagers and he did whatever was necessary to make that happen. He did Silver Surfer #18 around the middle of February. In between these, of course, he did issues of Thor and Fantastic Four. The last three stories Jack did for Marvel were — in this order — the “Janus” story that ran later in FF, then Thor #179 and then, in early March, FF #102. After he mailed in FF #102, he phoned Stan and told him it would be his last.

    Based on this we can see that Kirby made a concerted effort to work things out by going to New York in Dec. 1969, but was repaid only a couple of weeks later in Jan. 1970 by Perfect Film insisting that if he wished to remain at Marvel it would be only on their terms. According to Evanier, even after receiving an “onerous contract” proposal in early January, Kirby continued working through March, and had his attorney contact Perfect Film in one last attempt to work out a contract.

    EVANIER: Jack absolutely attempted to negotiate after being offered the contract he didn’t like. He sent his lawyer to do that and Marvel refused to talk to his lawyer. Instead, they told Jack the offer was “take it or leave it.”

    It was in June 1970 over three months after Kirby had left Marvel when he signed “under duress” the agreement with Marvel which offered him the same settlement given to Joe Simon.

    As reported in TJKC #24.

    Kirby was unaware Marvel had arranged to pay most of Simon’s settlement to his attorney. The sum was then passed on to Simon confidentially. In this way Marvel was obligated to pay Kirby only a fraction of Simon’s settlement, the portion which had been paid directly to him rather than the larger amount laundered through his attorney. Two years later in 1972 Simon and Kirby met, and Kirby told Simon Marvel had still not paid him.

    A bit later Perfect Film decided to make Marvel a separate corporation.

    Clearly concerned about Kirby’s role in the creation of the companies characters, and the fact Kirby had worked from 1959 through the early ’60s without a contract of any kind, Perfect Film wanted Kirby to waive his rights to reclaim copyright on any characters he created while at Marvel.

    Perfect Film claimed Kirby was paid for signing the waiver. Kirby said he was paid only the money owed him since 1970 for the Captain America settlement (an amount far less than what Simon was paid through his lawyer).

    If Perfect Film was confident Kirby had waived his copyright on the characters in 1972, a person might wonder why in Aug. 1984 they sent Kirby a four page contract full of legal clauses aimed at any claim Kirby might make on copyright. The contract concerned the return of 88 pages of Kirby’s Silver Age original art, and was unlike the contract sent to every other artist. The contract was so restrictive that while waiving all rights to copyright, Kirby according to the terms of the contract was placed in the position of storing the art for Marvel until such time as they chose to reclaim it.

    It’s my opinion that Perfect Film had become concerned about Kirby from the moment they became aware of his role at Marvel.

    Martin Goodman had sold Marvel to Perfect Film with the understanding that Stan Lee (a salaried employee; clearly work for hire) was the sole creator of the characters. Once Perfect Film became aware of Kirby’s role, and found he had worked without even the simplest kind of freelance contract they saw Kirby as a threat. As seen with the recent purchase of Marvel by Disney companies tend to value the creations of creators far more than they do the creators.

    Martin Goodman had shown this trait as early as 1941 when he valued Captain America far more than he did the services of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Having started out in the pulp magazine industry, Goodman knew owning The Shadow was a bonanza for Street and Smith, while All-Story got nothing from having serialized Tarzan because Edgar Rice Burroughs had sold only first publication rights. Goodman failed to pay S&K the percentage of sales he had agreed to, and S&K went to work at DC.

    Bottom line for me is: no matter if Kirby left Marvel primarily for creative freedom, or if he might have soldiered on had he been given the kind of contract he worked so hard to secure, I am personally thrilled to this day that he quit Marvel and created something as truly amazing as the Fourth World.

    Love your column, and looking forward to every future installment.

  2. steibel

    Hi Jon,

    Congratulations on all of your great comics research and publishing success over the years — I’ve enjoyed reading your work a lot.

    Coincidentally, the day before you started your new 4W Weblog I discussed the Mr. Miracle/Steranko connection here on Kirby Dynamics.


    If you need any scans from the 4W books, I think I have most of that material. Or if you’re looking for something else by Kirby LMK and I’ll see if I can track it down.


    Nice work, and best of luck with all of your new projects,

    Rob Steibel

    1. JonBCOOKE Post author

      Thanks very much, Rob! I will be in touch and, natch, thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your generous offer and will keep it in mind…

      1. steibel

        Thanks Jon,

        If you need any Kirby scans just LMK and if I have them I’d be happy to share. It’s no problem and my pleasure.

        I just promoted your weblog here:


        Thanks again for the reply, and thanks for all your great comics scholarship over the years.

        Rob Steibel

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