The Kirby Kultists

I’ve been getting a bunch of feedback on the “Stan Lee Interview” series. 99% positive, but a few of Stan Lee’s hardcore fans — the archetypal “Marvel Zombies” — seem to have been awakened from their slumber and they’re back at their old tricks of accusing anyone who is critical of Stan Lee as being a “Stan Basher.” The new phrase du jour seems to be “Kirby Zealot” since Mark Alexander used that term in his new Wonder Years book, which I recommend you pick up, it’s a beautiful book with a lot of great Kirby artwork. I encourage all of you to support John Morrow’s wonderful comics’ research publications.

So this series of posts about Kirby/Lee is going to go on longer than expected. My apologies to those of you who would prefer to see more of Jack’s art. I’ve posted well over 1000 pieces of Jack’s art here, so I hope a few of you will forgive this little detour, I want to address some comments and questions that are out there.

First of all, several people have asked me: “What is up with this ‘Kirby cultist’ stuff? What does it mean? Where is it from? Who are the Kirby Cult?”

Here’s how the concept came about to the best of my admittedly imperfect recollection:

I started studying Jack’s comics in about 2002. I got online and joined a forum called the Kirby-l which was on Yahoo. The forum had been going on in various incarnations since the 1990s. There were maybe 20 – 40 or so people who participated regularly, Maybe 100 or so “lurkers” who just read the posts. When I joined it was like a bar room brawl. So I jumped in.

Because of that cantankerous and argumentative aspect of the forum the owner of the site closed it down a few years ago.

One of the many conversations we all had was about Jack’s solo dialogue. Obviously on a Kirby forum you had a few people who loved Jack, so not surprisingly they loved Kirby’s dialogue on books like the Fourth World. One member of the forum did not like Jack’s dialogue; he preferred 60’s Lee dialogue on Kirby. The individual said he found Jack’s solo dialogue “stilted and awkward.” He went on to call it, I think, “klunky.”

(Note:  I’m not going to use the guy’s name because this was a private, membership-only forum, but obviously if the individual wants to clarify or comment on what I’m writing I’d be more than happy to post anything he has to say here.)

The debate got heated. At one point the individual started calling some of Jack’s fans “Kirby Kultists.” This further upset some of the members, that term was a little too close to the KKK for some people’s tastes. This just added fuel to the fire. When a couple of other notoriously pro-Stan Lee members of the forum found some of Jack’s fans were offended by the KK concept – not necessarily by the term itself, but by the kind of ignorant and disrespectful tone of it – those pro-Lee individuals seized onto the term as a way to slam Jack’s fans. Interestingly, the individual who coined the term “Kirby Kultist” will not even allow any discussion of the Kirby/Lee authorship debate on a comic book forum he moderates so I think that should give you some idea how personally some people took those debates.

Now, listen — I’m guilty of making up names for Stan’s fans as well. Using the “K” motif, at one point I joked that the people working for Marvel on Jack’s comics were nothing but “PhotoKopiers,” making new copies of Jack’s original stories and characters. A Marvel employee was on that forum, and he claimed my use of the term “PhotoKopier” was offensive to him, so obviously no one is perfect here. We all were sort of arguing and “name-calling” in the spirit of a good old fashioned knock-down drag-out internet brawl. I personally meant nothing personal by calling people at Marvel “PhotoKopiers” — it was a metaphor.

In any case, that was 10 years ago. In that time, I think we’ve established that there is no literal “Kirby Kult,” or Kirby Cult. It’s just a goofy term someone came up with on an obscure yahoo chat list where a few geezers were arguing about comic books. Today, 10 years later, a couple of Stan Lee’s fans have latched onto the concept again in what appears to be a last ditch effort to defend their fearless leader – instead of debating the actual history, they call Jack’s fans names that begin with “Ks.”

I had hoped the concept was dead, because quite frankly I thought it was immature, but I see now when someone criticizes Lee, a few people are going to  inevitably bring back the KK concept. Like zombies that have been stirred to life once more after 10 years of inactivity, the “Kirby Kult Critics” are digging themselves out of their graves for one last hurrah.

I think that’s sad. Back in 2002 when we were all hashing this out in a private forum, I saw the whole “Kirby Kultist” mentality as a sort of friendly way to “pick on” your opponent in an argument. That’s how a lot of people joke around with their friends. But 10 years later and a few people are still clinging to this KK argument? That criticizing Stan Lee makes one a member of a Kirby cult? No offense meant to those people promoting the concept of the KK, but I find that kind of sad. Especially from grown men in their 60s and 70s.

One more quick observation about the Kirby/Lee debate. I’ve spoken to a few hundred people on this subject and I’ve noticed that people tend to fall into 3 very clear categories on this debate.

(1) Pro business conservatives tend to come down on the side of Stan Lee: they feel as the administrator and boss Lee deserves the bulk of the credit for making Marvel successful.

(2) Pro labor liberals tend to come down on the side of Jack Kirby: they feel as the principal author of the stories and the head artist who designed all the costumes of the 60s characters, Kirby deserves the bulk of the credit for making Marvel successful.

(3) Neutrals fall in the middle: they are what I call “the peacemakers,” they say the credit should be split 50/50, and instead of arguing, we should all embrace and celebrate the magic of the 60s Kirby/Lee comics.

Now obviously everyone reading this may not fall into these categories — I’ve met some Republicans who don’t believe Stan Lee, and I’ve met some Liberals who love him — my point is that for the most part, the Kirby/Lee argument isn’t necessarily “Stan Fans” vs “Kirby Fans.” To many people I think the Kirby vs Lee discussion is about more than just who created the characters — it’s a classic business vs labor debate. It’s conservative values vs liberal values: should we protect big business at all costs or should we try and get the workers a fair deal. Obviously both sides have compelling arguments.

So I think we need to be careful not to act like there are good guys fighting bad guys here — that’s a gross simplification — the Kirby/Lee authorship debate is certainly a quest to get at the truth for some of us, but I think it’s also a reflection of the core divisions people all around the world have on virtually any topic, meaning everyone involved in the debate would find something else to argue about if it wasn’t this topic. The Kirby/Lee discussion isn’t a holy crusade by one side to vanquish the other — it’s just another debate taking place online where people who generally tend to disagree anyway form an opinion based on their own philosophy, their own experiences, and their own socioeconomic background, and they express those opinions.

So there is no secret cult out there trying to erase Stan Lee from the annals of history, there are just a couple of us who think Jack did more than just pencil Stan Lee’s stories and it would be great if more people knew about it. For me personally, I think Jack’s life story would make for a great documentary film, so that’s my main motivation for discussing Jack — I hope at some point a solid filmmaker will discover the Jack Kirby story and decide it is a compelling one worth exploring further.