Jack Kirby: Auteur? Part 2

TJKC Cover featuring Marvelmania art penciled and inked by Kirby

I got a couple emails on the “Kirby: Auteur?” post, so I thought I’d add a few things:

Film auteur theory suggests that a film director is the auteur (author) of a movie despite working from a script written by someone else, and despite other variables such as contributions from all members of the production team, budget constraints, technological constraints, and a hundred other obstacles that must be overcome in production. The filmmaker is considered a cinematic auteur if in the final product, the director’s personal vision shines through and transcends the process. The filmmaker uses lighting, music, camera movement, stage design, and focuses on certain themes that become stylistic trademarks of the finished work and make the finished film distinctive.

Film auteur theory comes from the work of several cinema experts who wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma (founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca), most famously François Truffaut. They argued that films should reflect a director’s personal vision. They championed filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, Hitchcock, and Jean Renoir as “absolute auteurs” of their films. Truffaut and the members of the Cahiers encouraged film directors to use the film medium as a writer would use a pen, and through mise en scène (a French term, meaning “placing on stage” — an expression used to describe the design aspects of a theatre or film production), imprint their own personal vision on the final film.

Spielberg is someone we are all familiar with. He usually works from a script written by someone else, he has a massive staff of collaborators including the cinematographer, the editor, the special effects team, musicians, sound editors, actors, etc., but he makes the final film uniquely his own. Although many don’t consider him a cinematic “artist” like a Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, or an Ingmar Bergman because his work is so commercially successful, for the purposes of our discussion, you could easily argue Spielberg is the auteur of his oeuvre.

One thing we have to remember though, is that film is totally different than comics. In a film, a director can work with time, sound, and motion. A comic cannot. There is no movement, or music.

But… I’ve always talked about how much potential comics have because of this. With a comic you have the ability to be what I call a “pure auteur.” You don’t need $100,000,000.00 and a cast and crew — with a pencil and a bottle of India ink you can create an epic 100% alone. You are the unquestionable pure auteur of that work. That’s simply not possible in film because you must work with other collaborators who help shape the final product (unless you do an animated piece alone or some other unconventional project like a YouTube clip).

In comics I think there are two very clear categories of “Auteurs.”

(1) Pure Auteur
(2) Visual Auteur

Will Eisner is probably a good example of a comics Pure Auteur. He did it all himself. His work is 100% his vision.

On the other hand many artists work from a script. For example, in the 70s, if I understand correctly, Roy Thomas started working at Marvel and he did not work “Marvel Method.” He gave the artists like Barry Smith or John Buscema a script. Stylistically, Barry Smith’s version of Conan was different than John Buscema’s Conan. You could argue that Smith and Buscema were the Visual Auteurs of their Conan stories, in the sense that there are unique visual elements that they brought to the finished product, making their versions of Thomas’ script distinct and unique.

I don’t feel Smith and Buscema are “Pure Auteurs” like Will Eisner because Roy Thomas’ script plays such a pivotal role in the process; I would argue that you are looking at a 50/50 collaboration between Thomas/Smith and Thomas/Buscema although certainly you could adjust those numbers somewhat in one direction or the other depending on how important you think each man was to the process.

So I suggest this means men like Smith and Buscema could be called the “Visual Auteur” of their Conan stories if a comics analyst wants to point out specific unique visual elements they brought to the finished piece; but I think many might argue with this suggestion because in comics, the script can be much more important than it can be in a film, where a director may change it significantly during production. The fact that Thomas adapted many Robert E. Howard stories further muddies the waters.

With Kirby, we are talking about a different division of labor than the ones mentioned above. As I mentioned before, Jack would write and draw an entire book alone, in many cases with no plot input whatsoever from Stan Lee. The story and all the main characters originated on Jack’s drawing board. Every month, Jack turned in about three 20-page stories with new characters, new costumes, new concepts, and new characterization, including notes in the borders clearly telling Stan Lee what is taking place in the story. It would take Kirby about 2 weeks to write and draw a single story in this fashion. In a few hours, Lee would add captions.

So the question for me isn’t whether or not Kirby was a comics auteur — you could argue that all comics artists are auteurs to a degree — the question for me is what type of comics auteur is Jack? Is he a Pure Auteur or a Visual Auteur?

My answer is that when Stan Lee opened that package of Kirby art on his desk, and Stan looked at a 20-page story that Jack wrote totally on his own with visuals and margin notes, Jack is the Pure Auteur of that story. It’s a Kirby silent movie written and directed by Jack Kirby, with text in the margins. What a joy it must have been for Lee to see those stories for the first time. Surely Lee had to have been one of Jack’s biggest fans.

But that is a moment in time.

Stan then starts adding dialogue whether via a typewritten script or in blue line on the page. Most of Stan’s dialogue on Jack’s books is self-explanatory. Stan is filling in space Jack left at the top of the page. Sometimes Lee adds something new to the text, but for the most part he follows Jack’s directions in the margins and tries not to interfere with Jack’s visuals. Sometimes Lee asks for a face to be changed or a costume change, and it appears Lee did reject some Kirby pages, but the number is low maybe 100 – 200 out of 10,00 pages produced by Jack in the 1960s.

Mainly Lee stays out of the way — aside from injecting his own brand of humor into the word balloons and plenty of self-promotion in the caption boxes calling attention to himself as the editor “Smilin’ Stan” — but Stan’s contributions are important. I’ve met many people who love Lee’s text. You can’t deny his impact on the final published product.

Finally, after Lee makes minor edits, the book is lettered then inked. I think the inker plays a key role in the process. Compare Colletta-inked FF to Sinnott-inked FF. Night and day in my opinion. Then the book is colored and printed. So is Jack the Pure Auteur of that published FF comic you can hold in your hand?

I think the answer is yes. I think that if you look only at the visuals — the style of the art, the dynamics, the compositions, and ignore the text and the quality of the inks and the colors — you are seeing Jack Kirby as the Pure Auteur of his 1960s stories. In your mind, you can travel back to the moment where Kirby stuffed his story into an envelope and mailed it to NYC, and you can glimpse his personal vision — Jack Kirby: Pure Auteur.

But, there is no denying the published book is much more of a collaboration. You can’t dismiss Lee and the other personnel’s contributions to the finished product, so in that sense, I suggest you have to think of Jack as what I’ll call the “Principal Auteur” of the published book: Jack wasn’t working from a full script like most comics artists in a traditional writer/artist relationship, in reality, Jack Kirby conceived of and wrote the original story with visuals and liner notes. Jack is the principal storyteller. The process of telling the story started with him.

So in my opinion, if you are looking at the published books — I suggest there are three types of auteurs in comics, Kirby being the best example of category # 2 in the 1960s:

(1) Pure Auteur – Artist controls all aspects of storytelling
(2) Principal Auteur – Artist controls all aspects of storytelling, but changes and additions are made later in the process.
(3) Visual Auteur – Artist works from a full script and adds elements to the final product

Basically I’m giving Jack his own category because I don’t know of any other artists who worked the way Jack did. Lee gave all the other Marvel artists much more input when they worked “Marvel Method.”

One final thing: the Kirby/Lee 1960s working method was incredibly unique in my opinion, so I think if the topic is the “1960s Kirby/Lee authorship debate,” we should be careful when championing all comics artists as auteurs if we want to suggest Jack was the auteur of his 1960s comics. I think it’s two different questions. You could argue endlessly about whether all comics artists working from a full script should be considered auteurs, but I think using the term Principal Auteur to describe Jack’s working relationship with Stan Lee in the 1960s is an accurate one.

Kirby self-portrait inked by Mike Royer