Some Kirby Memories
By Barry Alfonso
I’ve noticed that a good many of the posts on this blog deal with Jack Kirby’s work for DC in the early 1970s. Since those were the days when I knew him, I thought I’d offer some of my memories about the King of the Comics.
As part of the original San Diego Comic-Con crew, I began visiting Jack and Roz at their home (first in Irvine, CA, then in Thousand Oaks) in the fall of 1969, Some of us (including me) have talked about those wonderful trips in various articles and blog posts in recent years, so I’ll try not to cover old ground. What I’d like to emphasize here is what Jack gave to us back then, and what, I think, we gave to him.
Last year, my old friend and fellow Comic-Con alumnus Mike Towry sent me CD copies of taped conversations from several of those Kirby visits. Hearing these recordings after nearly 40 years, I was struck by how patient Jack was in answering our questions, which often involved detailed and nitpicky analyses of his work. Jack took our opinions seriously and responded to them with much thought. Often, he would use our inquiries to launch into long flights of commentary about his then-evolving Fourth World comics and the philosophical ideas behind them. I don’t say this lightly, Jack was a very philosophically-inclined guy, obviously someone who had done considerable reading, particularly of world history.
Kirby liked to ponder big topics: life, death, good, evil, loyalty and power. He seemed to view them through the lens of his experiences growing up on the mean streets of New York City back in the 1920s and 30s. His thoughts about Darkseid’s motivations – his ego, arrogance and pride – sounded like he was describing some of the gangster bosses of his youth. Really, the Fourth World stories were projections of Roaring Twenties gangsters wars onto a cosmic scale.
Jack talked about how important status and appearance were in the world of his childhood, how a certain style of coat would mark you as a winner or a chump. You were a tough guy or you were a nothing back then. These experiences might’ve given him a hard-boiled, Nietzschian worldview, but Jack was definitely an idealist. Darkseid and his forces represented the crushing of the individual will by totalitarian force, something he probably related to the Nazis who threatened the Free World back when he was a young man. The kind of mind-numbing religion peddled by Glorious Godfrey in The Forever People was another manifestation of the sort of domination that Kirby abhorred. In his talks with us, Jack emphasized respect for human dignity and a hatred for bullies, whether in the form of a Darkseid or an ordinary street thug. Furthermore, he believed that no group of people (including super-beings) were absolutely in the right and that good and evil co-existed in every society.
Jack’s egalitarian beliefs were shown in how he treated us during those visits. We were more than welcomed – we were respected and listened to. Jack was not merely tolerating some worshipful fans during those high-minded gabfests. He was intensely interested in the younger generation, particularly in its hipper fringes. Hippies and flower children made frequent appearances in his early 70s work for DC, particularly in Jimmy Olsen and The Forever People. He told us that the Forever People were essentially hippie pacifist super-heroes, rather than typical aggressive crime-fighters. (They did have the more assertive Infinity-Man to call upon for help, however.) There were more traditional kid characters in these comics as well, most notably the revived Newsboy Legion in Jimmy Olsen. For me and my friends, the ultimate application of Jack’s interest in Youth Culture was the creation of the San Diego Five-String Mob, who (very briefly) terrorized Superman in Jimmy Olsen Number 144. (As Mike Towry remembers it, several of us actually asked Jack to put us in one of his comics and he agreed to do so. In those days, Kirby was churning out characters at a phenomenal rate.)
I don’t think it’s too much to say that Jack found our obsessive interest in his work inspiring. I believe that he drew a kind of strength from us at a pivotal moment in his career. Among other things, his Fourth World comics were an attempt to speak to a new generation about his personal concerns and to warn his readers about the dangers of tyranny and mental domination. As he constructed the dense mythology behind his stories, he liked to bounce his concepts off of wide-eyed teens and college-aged kids like ourselves. He was a great story-teller.
Oh, one more thing: during one of our visits, Jack said, I’ve got a special beef against clothes. He didn’t mean that he longed to be a nudist. Jack hated drawing people in action who were dressed in ordinary coats, shirts and pants – they looked rumpled and silly when they were fighting. Tights looked so much better when throwing or taking a punch. That’s one of the lessons of the King I remember.