Jack Kirby: Lee’s TV DP? Part 1

Thanks to several comics fans for passing along a link to these recent posts about Jack Kirby by Barry Pearl.

Jack Kirby Takes an Auteur Detour
By Barry Pearl, on March 15th, 2012


Kirby the Auteur Part II
By Barry Pearl, on March 18th, 2012


I don’t know Barry personally, but I did chat with him a few times online. He put together a CD about Marvel comics years ago and he was kind enough to send me a copy of it which I thought was very nice of him. Barry seemed like a goodhearted person to me, and he is very knowledgeable about Marvel comics, so I certainly hope no one thinks I’m slamming Pearl on a personal level with the comments I’m about to make. I’m simply addressing some online public comments about Jack Kirby.

I mention this because sadly, many comics fans/historians take internet debate way to personally. To me, comics scholarship is never going to get out of the high school phase unless comics fans and comics historians can learn to discuss this material objectively, without resorting to name- calling and personal feuds. So my comments below are directed at Barry Pearl’s analysis of the history, not Barry as a person.

One more note: there’s a couple comics fans out there who get very upset when I use their last names when discussing their comments — they think when I use their last name I’m being disrespectful. To me, when you discuss the writings of William Shakespare for example, you don’t say, “William wrote: ‘to be or not to be,'” you write, “Shakespeare wrote, ‘to be or not to be.'” So since I’m trying to discuss Barry’s comments in what I think is a non-personal way, I’m just going to say “Pearl wrote” when I address his quotes. In my opinion this is just a professional way of addressing a comics historian’s quotes. This is how comics scholarship is going to have to evolve if it’s going to grow and flourish. We need to move past personal squabbles and flame wars and focus on trying to address the actual content of the arguments, not the character of the person who wrote them.

I want to address Pearl’s argument that Jack Kirby was not the autuer of his 1960s Marvel stories. Pearl is addressing Arlen Schumer’s recent lecture which I posted a segment of earlier today so you can have some context. Here is how Pearl starts his argument.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “auteur” as:
A film director whose personal influence and artistic control over his or her films are so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision.

Obviously we can pick apart the word “auteur” and give the term itself all sorts of interpretations — and when we place a term within a new context that also changes the meaning of the term or the reader’s perception of the term — so I think we need to understand that we all tend to define terms differently. For example, I recently saw the last X-Men movie on cable. Stan Lee was listed in the credits as a “Producer” of that 2011 motion picture. Does anyone out there think Stan Lee produced X-Men First Class in the same way someone like David O. Selznick produced Gone with the Wind? 

If Barry Pearl wants to take the literal dictionary definition of a film autuer and say that Jack Kirby was not the autuer of his 1960s comics, that’s fine. But I think that Arlen Schumer is giving the term a new definition within the field of comics, and Schumer is arguing that in the comics medium, Jack Kirby was the auteur of his 1960s comics. Schumer used the film autuer as a springboard to discuss what he considers a comics auteur.

I’ve used the same term in the past to describe Kirby as well because the term literally means “author” in French. Film theorists don’t own the term “auteur,” and I see nothing wrong with Schumer using the term for the purposes of comics scholarship. So I think Pearl trying to apply the literal definition of a film auteur to comics, and then judging Schumer’s argument based on his interpretation of that definition really sort of destroys Pearl’s argument before it even gets started. I think a comics autuer and a film auteur are two totally different topics that would require a completely different method of analysis.

Here are a couple of Pearl’s comments from his first post that I wanted to discuss: Pearl wrote:”To compare a comic book artist to a director, is a huge fallacy.” Pearl goes on to make this analogy: “The comic book penciler is more analogous to TV’s director of photography.”

I think that analogy is fair for some comics artists. If a comic book artist is working from a full script, which I would consider to be a 20- page type-written story where every detail is provided by the author (the scenes, each individual shot, the characters in the shot, possibly the angle of the shot, the dialogue, the motivation of the characters, and any other important story elements), then sure, I could agree with Pearl’s contention that a comics artist is the equivalent of a television DP. But I’m surprised that based on his incredible knowledge of 1960s Marvel Comics history, Barry Pearl would say this is a fair way to describe Jack Kirby’s role in the Kirby/Lee 1960s Marvel collaboration. Jack was nothing more than a TV show DP?

Jack was far more than Stan Lee’s TV Director of Photography. Jack designed all the costumes of all the major characters (aside from a few exceptions like Ditko’s redesign of Jack’s original Spider-man costume). Jack created the dynamics of the so-called “Marvel Universe” — Lee had Jack teach the artists how to use Kirby dynamics. Jack gave artists like Romita and Heck layouts so they could learn the basics of Kirby Dynamics. Kirby even took Stan Lee’s brother Larry aside and gave Larry pointers. Larry’s style is so similar to Jack’s I’ve seen 1970s Larry Lieber Marvel artwork sold at auction listed as “illustrated by Jack Kirby.” Jack was the one who gave the New York City of the “Marvel Universe” it’s own unique heartbeat. Jack created alternate universes like the Negative Zone where Marvel writers and artists still play to this day.

And that’s just the beginning. I could go on and on and on. In every single story Jack worked on for Stan Lee in the 1960s, Jack introduced new characters, and Jack did a significant amount of the problem-solving in terms of fleshing out the story and bringing the characters to life. Jack’s 1960s stories were a visual roller coaster that had readers on the edge of their seats waiting to see what Jack would come up with next.

Remember, Stan Lee described the Kirby/Lee 1960s division of labor by
saying this:

Stan Lee: “Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others. Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, ‘Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom’… or I may not even say that. He may tell me… he just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing.”

Imagine a filmmaker being selected to write and direct the next Fantastic Four movie. Imagine the filmmaker  saying to his director of photography, “Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom,” and that’s all the DP has to go on! Now the DP has to make an entire film based on that sentence! And remember Lee said, “or I may not even say that. He (Jack Kirby) may tell me… he (Jack Kirby) just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing.”

So I think that Barry Pearl making a film/television analogy and comparing an artist like Jack Kirby in the 1960s to a TV DP is simply not an accurate depiction of the true working relationship, and quite frankly I’m stunned that someone with Barry’s knowledge of that era would make such a statement. It’s not fair to Jack and I think these types of analogies do not paint an accurate picture of the real working relationship between Kirby and Lee. The Kirby/Lee collaboration was very unique — Jack drew about 60 pages of story and art every month (plus covers) uncredited as a writer, and uncompensated as one of the writers of that material. All Arlen Schumer is doing is trying to set that record straight, and I see nothing wrong with using the term “auteur” as one way of making the argument that Jack’s pivotal contributions to all the 60s Marvel stories he worked on were important and deserve to be noted.

I don’t want this post to go on too long, so I’ll make a few more comments tomorrow.