As I mentioned when I learned of his passing, the late Stan Taylor and I tried to work out a way for his book, “Looking For The Awesome – Jack Kirby: A Life Among Gods”, to be presented on the Kirby Museum website a few years ago. At the time we weren’t successful, but thanks to his widow Annabelle, I’m now going to serialize it here on the Kirby Effect. It would have been Stan’s 64th birthday today, so I’m pleased to get ball rolling by posting the foreword he wrote at the beginning of 2012 (which I have edited) to get things started. – Rand Hoppe
Happy New Year, y’all!
Thanks to the Kirby Museum for offering me this access. And thanks to you for taking the time to read it.
Jack Kirby was a magician. Not a prestidigitator using sleight of hand or smoke and mirrors; a real magician, a conjurer who produced something of value from nothing. He took blank pieces of paper and created worlds beyond belief; stories of wonder, and pathos, and crime and justice, and humanity.
He didn’t have a wand, a la Harry Potter, he had a simpler more powerful tool; a # 2 graphite pencil, perhaps the most powerful tool ever created. In the hand of a wizard, pencils have righted wrongs, brought down evil, entertained the masses, showed horror and joy and opened doors of the imagination.
People ask me why Jack Kirby? What separated him from every other comic book artist? It’s a hard question. Nothing Kirby did was out of the realm of normal. He didn’t draw anything that any other artist couldn’t reproduce. In fact, I might argue that there were better artists, such as Kubert, Wood, or Frazetta. But they don’t match Kirby. Some claim Kirby was a genius- possessed of some inherent gift that gave him a supra ability that fashioned and guided his work thru the different eras; a sort of X-Men among artists. But in my research, I have found nothing in this man out of the ordinary; truth be told to meet this small man, one was left dumbfounded by just how ordinary he was. When I first met him, in the fall of 1989, I chuckled at just how small and weak his hand was when I shook his hand. I laughed and told him that after 50 years of drawing, I expected his right arm to look like Popeye’s. Kirby laughed and said that “a #2 pencil doesn’t weigh that much.”
But one factor that every Kirby researcher learns is that Kirby did have one super power; the ability to put his seat in a chair and work for 8-10 hours at a stretch, 365 days a year. So why Kirby?, Because no comic artist explored the unknowable and asked those hard questions as much as Kirby. No one exploded the mind and sense of wonder that Kirby’s graphics did. Kirby once described his life as “looking for the awesome” and no one came closer to finding it.
If Thomas Edison was correct-and I think he was- that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, than yes, Jack Kirby was a genius. No one outworked him, whether he was deep into a project that touched his heart or just batting out one of a thousand stories needed to fill some space in a comic book. There were times when Jack Kirby was mad as a hornet at a particular comic company, yet not once did he cut back on production or quality. Other artists would marvel at Kirby’s work ethic. Not one ever said that Kirby had some inherited gene or physical edge, just that he could outwork anyone. It’s hard to know where Kirby got his grit, but it showed up early. A youth spent in the hardscrabble inner city New York ghetto was bound to forge determination and drive. Grow or die; the law of the jungle and the act of evolution. Kirby used his fears and grew from them.
My own fascination with Kirby began in the late 1950’s. I was that grubby little kid collecting empty pop bottles to get the .02 deposit to buy comics; mostly DC’s like Jimmy Olsen, Batman, and Flash. One day I saw a killer comic cover; a huge blue robot fighting a group of humans, and a girl in its hand trying to calm it down. The background was a futuristic cityscape with big black shadows curling thru it. One of the humans was shouting “Ultivac is loose!!” The comic was Showcase #7, the second appearance of the Challengers of the Unknown, and it looked and read like no other comic I had ever seen. It was one lonely story. The action was so gorgeously outrageous, and the robot so terrifying, plus, one of the heroes actually got shot and almost died. The villain was an ex-Nazi- a time still fresh in the human psyche. If pressed, I had probably read a Kirby comic earlier, I have some memory of some comics like Black Magic, or Alarming Tales, but nothing that struck like a thunderclap as the Challs did. I soon found more stories by this artist- fantasy stories in the DC anthology titles. the Fly and the Shield at Archie. More monsters, aliens, and disasters ripped right from my beloved horror movies. The provenance of artist was undeniable. I think the first time I placed a name with the artwork was when I bought an Atlas fantasy comic, but I certainly couldn’t put a name to which one. All I knew was that this artist’s stories were so superior to anyone else. His characters leapt out at the reader, and the special effects were a quantum leap from the usual comic artist. His monsters were menacing and lovable at the same time. His heroes were stalwart and steady. And the stories made sense- not great logic or scientific plausibility, but a sort of cause and effect that Batman and Superman rarely did. I noticed that I was reading Kirby’s stories repeatedly, and rarely ever looking at the Bob Brown, or Gil Kane or Don Heck and Paul Reinman anthology tales sharing the pages.
As a kid, I couldn’t explain just why Kirby’s work appealed to me; in fact, I probably still can’t put it into meaningful and understandable passages what Kirby’s appeal is. It’s not quantifiable, or logical, it is a palpable feeling, purely emotional. It’s magic!
Jump a generation, and I got my first computer. One of the first things I googled (or yahoood) was Jack Kirby. And much to my surprise, there were endless sites spotlighting Jack Kirby. I wasn’t alone as a child in my feelings for Kirby, his appeal I found was world wide.
What I couldn’t find was a satisfactory biography. Everything out there was full of clear misstatements and untruths, false anecdotes and tall tales. I guess it was easier to repeat the same mistakes than to do some actual research and tell the truth. Recently a couple of better bios were published, first Tales to Astonish by Ronin Ro, and then Mark Evanier’s Kirby-King of Comics, I found both to be well done, but ultimately unsatisfactory. Ro’s tome simply repeats the earlier anecdotes of Jack’s life, often repeating word for word mistaken bits from earlier bios. Evanier’s book is great for Jack’s life after 1970 or so, but the early years suffer from a lack of real scholarship. This is understandable since Mark was a part of Kirby’s life from 1970 on.
Another problem is that both books lacked context. Jack Kirby was a man of his time, his actions were often based on or responding to events in the real world, and his career was directed by events in the comic industry not of his making, but unavoidable all the same.
So I was prodded by others tired of my taking shots at the printed bios and decided to write my own tale of Kirby. By nature I am a researcher, I take nothing at face value and dig until I have found what I think is the truth, or at least the kernel of truth. Quotes are of limited use to me as I find them vague, self-serving and often factually incorrect. But in telling Kirby’s story it is impossible not to rely on quotes from his family, friends, and colleagues- simply because Jack was not all that forthcoming and reliable as to his past. He was hardwired for looking forward, not backward. Jack was a storyteller, not a historian. He embellished his tales to the point of their being nothing but a core factual event existing in a cocoon of wonder and bedazzlement. Unweaving a cocoon takes patience, diligence, and often luck. My extensive use of quotes is more to offer a setting, or a proper background; to strike the right mood and set an atmosphere to round out the cold hard facts that I am presenting. Jack had a silly, absent minded quality that is very hard to show except thru excerpts, and anecdotal evidence. It was a most human quality and important to see if you want the real Jack Kirby. So please don’t take my presented quotes as fact, just as part of the veneer of a life.
Another problem with a bio on Kirby is that for the most part, Kirby did not lead an exciting adventurous life. He sat in a chair for 15 hours a day. There is actually very little drama and crisis to draw the reader in. Jack’s life was a simple story of someone working hard and following the rules. Yet there are events that tore at Kirby’s soul and I try not to downplay or overstate them. It’s hard to tell a “warts and all” bio when there are very few warts to be found, but where they were I hopefully looked at them fair and balanced. There are surprisingly few villains in this piece; certainly Stan Lee takes his fair share of hits, but not in a personal way, more as the human face of an industry that never treated its artists in a humane fashion. Stan Lee is not an ogre; Kirby saved that kind of vitriol for just one person- Adolph Hitler. As I said, Kirby was a man of his time. In today’s parlance, Kirby was not a h8ter.