We’re honored to be able to publish Stan Taylor’s Kirby biography here in the state he sent it to us, with only the slightest bit of editing. – Rand Hoppe
ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH
Sometime in the early 1970’s a friend gave Jack a nicely bound artbook with a black blank cover as a gift, for doodling or practice. Since Jack did neither of these he used the book for a different purpose. As a present to Roz, he carefully drew most every comic creation he had had a hand in. The book took on a life of its own. Variously called Roz’s Black Book, or Kirby’s Wonderbook, the creation was a valuable treasure shown only to those close to Roz, Greg Theakston had the luck to see the book in the later 70’s and expressed to Roz that someone should publish it. Over the years several publishers approached to do just that, only to be refused by Roz because she didn’t want to be separated from the book. At some point in the 80’s Greg talked to Roz and after a stern promise not to let any harm come to the book, she allowed Greg to publish it. Greg named it the Heroes and Villains book. Greg lovingly reproduced these pages in a manner fitting the love and graphite Jack put into them. The results were substantial. Greg had to reprint the book several times in order to meet the sales. The book is a cherished part of any Kirby collection.
Just as Jack made the decision to leave DC, a relative of Steve Sherman’s arranged for jack to meet ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. Paul and his new group Wings had just released a new album which contained a song called Magneto vs. Titanium Man, inspired by Jack’s comic book work. Gary (Steve’s brother) called Capitol Records headquarters in Los Angeles and spoke to the A&R man assigned to McCartney. He told the rep that Jack had done a drawing to honor Paul for the song and wondered if Paul would like to meet Jack. The AR man was well aware of who Jack Kirby was and after talking to Paul’s road people called back and told Gary that Paul would love to meet up with Jack at the Forum pre-show. Gary called the Kirby’s and told Lisa to show Jack the album and have her dad do up a sketch to give Paul. It had to be done quick as the show was in a couple hours and Jack was more than an hour away.
Just another day
When Gary arrived Jack showed him the sketch, Gary recalls it was great. It was a large size drawing of Magneto holding Paul and Linda while members of the band floated in the air. All of this done during Gary’s trip over to pick them up—not more than 45 minutes.
Gary piled them into the Kirby car and headed to the Forum, Kirby contently smoking a big ole stogie. Kirby seemed more interested in the chocolate cake promised him for the aggravation. When they arrived they went to the rear entrance where security introduced them to the lovely Linda McCartney who thanked them and gave then a tour.
Then around the corner came Paul. Gary recalled; “Ello Jack, nice to meet you.” Jack gave Paul and Linda the drawing which they thought was “smashing.” Paul thanked Jack for keeping him from going bonkers while they were recording the album in Jamaica. It seems that there was very little to do there, and they needed to keep their kids entertained. Luckily, there was a store that sold comics, so Paul would go and pick up all the latest. One night the song “Magneto and Titanium Man” popped into his head. The thing about Jack was that within a few minutes you felt as if you were best friends, so Paul too was soon laughing it up with Jack as if he had known him for years.
Lisa had her camera and snapped pictures of all involved. Paul comp’ed them some tickets and sent them out front sitting nestled between Ryan O’Neal and Michael Douglas. During the show Paul stopped and asked everyone to give it up for Jack Kirby. Jack stood up and waved just as Wings broke into Magneto vs. Titanium Man. After the gala event, as they were driving back to Thousand Oaks. Jack told Gary just how much he appreciated the evening and to show his appreciation he suggested stopping at Bob’s Big Boy for some more chocolate cake.
It should be noted that the intervening years at Marvel had been tempestuous as personnel came and went, the only new series to really succeed was a tie-in character of the barbarian Conan – a pulp character by Robert E. Howard. They were succeeding by quantity, not quality. If one Spidey title had worked, why not try two, or three. Spin-offs and reprints seemed to be the winning hand; new stuff came and went. Stan Lee had jumped around; sometimes as editor, sometimes president, and sometimes freelance contributor. The company though always kept Stan as figurehead—the smiling face that created the comics. They went so far as to place the heading “Stan Lee Presents” above all the comic titles—even when Stan had no part in them. Stan got away from the comics and started writing and editing regular books about the beginning of the Marvel revolution. Books like Origins of Marvel Comics were big hits yet the titles credited only Stan Lee. Any mention of Jack Kirby was purely as minor as noting who the illustrator was. Jack noted these slights. Roy Thomas says the reason was purely political. Kirby was now a competitor and you don’t highlight competitors. To Kirby, the truth was the truth. Despite his legend as a comic genius, when Stan had the reins of Marvel the company almost went belly up—Stan could not repeat his sales increases once Jack Kirby left.
Despite its roots as an honorary society, the Academy of Comic Book Arts, under its early president, artist Neal Adams, became an advocacy organization for creators’ rights. The comic-book industry at that time did not return artists’ physical artwork after shooting the requisite film for printing, and in some cases destroyed the artwork to prevent unauthorized reprints. The industry also did not then offer royalties or residuals, common in such creative fields as book publishing, film and television, and the recording industry. Once the ACBA — riding a wave begun by the mid-’70s independent startup Atlas/Seaboard Comics, which instituted royalties and the return of artwork in order to attract creators — helped see those immediate goals achieved, it then gradually disbanded
In 1975, the 1974 ACBA awarded its annual recognition called the Shazam Awards.
- Best Continuing Feature: Conan the Barbarian (Marvel)
- Best Individual Story: “Götterdämmerung”, Detective Comics #443 (DC)
- Best Individual Short Story (Dramatic): “Cathedral Perilous” (Manhunter) by Archie Goodwin & Walt Simonson, Detective Comics #441 (DC)
- Best Writer (Dramatic Division): Archie Goodwin
- Best Penciller (Dramatic Division): John Buscema
- Best Inker (Dramatic Division): Dick Giordano
- Best Humor Story: “Kaspar the Dead Baby” Crazy #8 (Marvel)
- Best Writer (Humor Division): Steve Skeates
- Best Penciller (Humor Division): Marie Severin
- Best Inker (Humor Division): Ralph Reese
- Best Letterer: John Costanza
- Best Colorist: Tatjana Wood
- Outstanding New Talent: Craig Russell
- Superior Achievement by an Individual: Roy Thomas
- Hall of Fame: Jack Kirby
But this didn’t mean Jack was done.
Jack ran into Roy at a convention and during the discussion Jack explains he is not all that happy at DC. Roy, taking the hint says that Marvel would love for him to return. Stan was delighted and after agreeing to terms very similar to Kirby’s DC contract such as self editing, writing and art control, Kirby agreed. Despite some initial blowback from other Marvel employees, Stan told Roy Thomas that he was bringing Jack back. “I think that’s great” Roy exclaimed, “I got one piece of advice. Don’t let him write” Stan understood but explained that part of the contract was that Kirby was the writer. Roy still liked the idea. Things were so bad at Marvel that the idea of Kirby returning must have seen like a gift from God. At a comic convention in New York, Stan made the joyful announcement to the fans that Jolly Jack was once again returning to the House of Ideas. The crowd erupted in excitement. Kirby promised that his new concepts would “electrocute the mind”. Stan just shook his head in amazement. Marie Severin – never a shrinking violet remarks about Kirby’s return to Marvel. “I came up to the office and I saw Jack, and Stan put a page in front of my face and said, “You did not see any of this!” And I said, “Okay, I did not see any of this” and I went out in the hall and yelled, “Kirby’s back!”
During the changeover, Kirby also found some outside advertising work. In response to the rise of G.I. Joe, Caption Action and other military style action figures, Mattel had manufactured the Big Jim action figure since the early 1970s. In 1975 they decided to expand and reformat the figure into a sort of Mission Impossible/merc team name P.A.C.K. Jack designed the packaging for a part of this line of action figures. Jack did not create the characters, but Big Jim and his crew of soldiers of fortune got the Kirby treatment on their boxes and comic book ads. John Buscema provided a comic insert. Ironically, Mark Evanier tells a poignant tale about how one day, he took Jack and Roz shopping, and while Roz was in the store, Mark suggested that he and Jack go into a nearby Toys R Us toy store.
Jack’s manner became stiff and shaky and he told Mark he can’t go in there, to which Mark replied that it would be ok, Roz will be a while. Still Kirby refused and Mark could see real fear in Jack’s eyes, so he changed the subject. Later when he got Roz alone he asked her about the incident, and Roz explained that when Jack would go into a Toys R Us type shop he would get physically ill from seeing so many toys based on his creations for sale, using his art, and ironically while Kirby received nothing back for all the money he was making the companies. Here he was making good money on just such advertising for characters he hadn’t created.
Everpresent Kirby characters for Marvel items c.1975
Jack’s Back!! So read the cover of FOOM #11. FOOM was Marvel’s in-house magazine. The cover featured Jack Kirby bursting thru the cover drawn by John Byrne in a Kirby style bombastic pose. Thus Marvel reintroduced Kirby to their public. It offered an error-filled history and a Kirby interview where he talks about being back at Marvel. The cover might be more symbolic than one realizes. Since Kirby left for DC, Marvel had been promoting several artists as the hot new thing, and John Byrne led the list. In fact the comic industry had entered a period that might be called the “Cult of Personality” phase where the artists, rather than the characters were presented as the selling point to the buying public. With hindsight perhaps it was Kirby’s time at DC that began the cult of personality cult. With Kirby returning, the rightful claimant to the hot artist title had returned. As noticed, Kirby had just been awarded a place in the Comic Book Arts Hall of Fame; an award that Kirby vowed not to be a signal for an end of a career, but a continuation.
In the interview Kirby explains that his first job is reintroducing Captain America. “The story I’m running now is slanted towards the Bicentennial. In fact, it’s a long running novel with many chapters in it. Each chapter is a separate but connected story. Of course, the climax of the story is going to occur on the Bicentennial in 1976. It’s going to be Captain America as he should be. Captain America winning because he has the character to win and to triumph over evil.” What Kirby describes is what we now call a mini-series, a format that would become popular a decade later. What wasn’t mentioned was the meetings with Stan where they decided just what Kirby would do. Jack refused the FF and Thor—he didn’t want to regurgitate, he wanted to create. A compromise was reached where Jack would do Captain America plus some new series. Jack refused to continue Cap, he rather start from scratch, so the ongoing story was ended mid-stream.
Steranko failing as Kirby – Byrne doing his Kirby-est
Kirby also notes that he has also started the adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey; a large format retelling of the epic Kubrick film from 1968. Plus he mentions a secret project about “gods who walk among us”. Once again, it seems Kirby had his plate full and he felt energized.
What the buying public first saw was something different. Of the titles cover dated Nov. 1975, Kirby supplied the covers for a whopping ten Marvel titles; from Fantastic Four to Conan GS #1. The following month had a couple more. None of these featured any Kirby interior art, but it was a great way to let the buyers know who the rightful king was and who Marvel thought represented the type art that sold comic books, despite having Marie Severin provide layouts and providing working sketches of characters unknown to Jack. For the next several years Kirby covers would be used to help sell non-Kirby series; this so resembled how Kirby used to draw the covers for almost all of the early Marvel titles. The reprint titles became even more oppressive a factor on the news stands that it must have looked like Kirby did twenty books a month. That same month DC published 4 Kirby inventory titles. These had all interiors done by Jack, but no covers. A very strange month.
Big and better
With the release of Captain America #193 dated Jan. 1976, customers finally saw new Kirby stories and this was unique; “Madbomb, Screamer in the Brain” was an eight part dense tale of mind control and conspiracy from within our own government. It also featured probably Kirby’s oddest cameo since Don Rickles, when Henry Kissinger paid a call on the red, white and blue Avenger, and his new pal, The Falcon. The Falcon was not a Kirby creation, but a small time black, flying character that had partnered up with Cap while Kirby was away. The black and white tension was used effectively by Jack during a scene where both men become overwhelmed by a mind altering ray and their worst tendencies took over. Henry Kissinger’s dialogue was a take off on comedian Henny Youngman. Jack always saved his best art for Captain America. Once again, Jack’s name was proudly featured on the cover.
But all was not well, While Kirby was gone, a whole new editorial crew had emerged at Marvel, and their memories weren’t as tied into Kirby’s time at Marvel. Scott Edelman was just such a person; he had been promoted to assistant editor. In an interview Scott admitted; “I know there are plenty of people who loved the work Kirby did on his return to Marvel in the ’70s, but I wasn’t one of them. I can remember sitting in the Bullpen and proofing the original art for Jack’s first issue back on Captain America, and just feeling … sad. I still feel that nothing Kirby did alone could compare with the work he did Stan Lee—in my opinion, they needed each other—but looking back on how I expressed myself then, I know I came off like an ungrateful brat. And I don’t like that. After all Kirby did for us, we should have been happy to be able to read whatever he was willing to give us, whether it was up to the old days or not.” Kirby might have lost some, but Stan Lee had totally lost his mojo. He had not created anything or written anything memorable in years. The only memorable Lee story was a novelty effort where Spider-Man took on the drug trade. The story was nothing much, but the fight with the code ramped up the interest. With Stan shuffled off to the background, there was no one there who could have improved Jack’s stories.
Jack’s new series may not have been the same Stan Lee style adventure, but it had a vision and an energy no other Marvel editor had. No one else had a yearlong plan for their books. The dialogue wasn’t Lee’s glibness, but the plot was as dense and active as ever found with Kirby’s pacing on the Captain America saga among his best ever. Kirby even made the Falcon an interesting partner.
When asked about working on a non-Kirby character like the Falcon, Kirby explained: “I feel the Falcon is a very valid super-hero. He’s a strong type, and a team operation is just as effective as a single, if it’s really good, and that’s what I’m trying to make it.”
One of Marvel’s reprint books was a series titled Marvel Treasury Editions. These were reprints, but in a larger, more explosive size and format. Kirby supplied several covers for these issues, and he really liked the large size pages. It allowed him to make the backgrounds more emphatic, something that was lost when the page size was reduced in the late ‘60s. He also did two full books in this size and they may have been the best things he did during this new stint. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a comic book adaptation of Kubrick’s sci-fi film, and no artist but Kirby could have captured the majesty and the power of Kubrick’s visuals.. Kirby also colored parts of the book and the work is breath taking. Each page is a stand- alone masterpiece of innovation and design.
Kubrik’s masterpiece – Kirby always did his best for Captain America
For the country’s bicentennial, Kirby created a huge allegorical tale of Cap as seen thru American history. In Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles, Cap is given the ability to go back in time and see how he would have influenced the course of US history. We see him during the Revolutionary War, frolicking with Ben Franklin and inspiring Betsy Ross to create a red, white, and blue flag with stars. We see him just before the Civil War assisting a slave fleeing for freedom, and in a WW1 aerial dogfight, and most poignantly during the Great Depression helping out a scrappy young news boy being strong armed by gangsters, a youngster who promises to be a big-shot comic artist one day, and make the gangsters pay for their cruelty. Cap also returns to his darkest day, the day Bucky died during WW2. All this time travel is similar to James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Buda, the little guy who sent Cap thru time and space is trying to shake the depression from Cap over the bad things he sees in the US and make him realize all the great moments, and the role he has played in making the US great. It ends with Kirby’s most heartfelt patriotic sentiment. Cap tells a group of young teens, “I’m looking for something bigger than any super-villain—and I think I’ve found it here among you young people. It isn’t an object exactly, it’s a terrific feeling that we can become strong enough and smart enough to beat the overwhelming problems which every American has to live with.’ The young kids respond “Yeah, We can be anything we want to! And Cap/Kirby says; “That’s America! A place of stubborn confidence—where both young and old can hope and dream, and wade though disappointment, despair, and the crunch of events—with the chance of making life meaningful.” What a great valentine for America from one of its true heroes; a boy born of nothing who through grit and pluck became its greatest storyteller.
The next big news was the release of Kirby’s “gods who walk among us” series. Originally titled “The Return of the Gods”, but because of the closeness to a new DC title, it was changed to “The Eternals” Coincidentally, the DC title was called “The Return of the New Gods” which brought Kirby’s New Gods concepts back into DC’s universe. It should also be noted that the other Fourth World characters didn’t disappear; they all showed up in the showcase title Brave and the Bold with long time DC characters.
True to his source
The Eternals was a sprawling cosmic tale of a collection of Celestial beings who have returned to Earth. It seems that these beings have visited Earth several times in the long past and have done experiments on the bestial inhabitants that evolved into three separate races, who have unknowingly cohabitated the Earth. The first race was mankind, who settled on the land and cultivated and prospered. The second race was the Eternals, a group of near gods who were gifted with super powers and virtual immortality. Their homes were the mountain tops. The third race was the Deviants, a group of demons and monstrous beasts who resided in the depths of the seas. In the far past these three races did intermingle, and from those times stories of godlike creatures who inhabited the heavens, and devilish creatures who inhabited the inner Earth were told. After some battles among the races they separated and left each other alone. But with the return of the Celestials, it has become necessary for the three races to work together, for the role of the Celestials was to judge mankind and if found wanting, to destroy it. This tale was part Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods , part 2001 A Space Odyssey, part Jewish mythology, and part Aztek and Roman/Greco mythology, and mostly Jack’s manic imagination. It was as far out as any story ever told, An old problem soon arose. Jack’s story couldn’t easily fit into Marvel’s universe, so the editor asked for some cross-over characters to interact in his tale. Kirby managed to squeeze in a few references to SHIELD without actually having Nick Fury appear, but eventually he relented and threw in a story about a remote controlled robotic Hulk that misfires and runs amok, and the hero Ikaris has to subdue it.
Kirby bristled but took it like a man and gave them what they wanted. Not unlike the New Gods, the Eternals problems were Kirby made. It was too sprawling and no easy way for newcomers to work their way in. Its dark operatic tone did not fit into Marvel’s happy friendly milieu. After 19 issues, and an Annual, the series ended. But as always, the characters had become a part of the Marvel Universe, and still show up in different ways. No other Marvel series had such a scope.
Another pop-sci-fi favorite fell into Jack’s lap when Stan Lee turned a proposed series based on the cult favorite TV show The Prisoner in Jack’s direction. The Prisoner was a short lived British spy genre show starring Patrick McGoohan as a spy, whose retirement is interrupted when he is shunted off to a sinister remote Island run by a faceless corporate entity that restricts his movement and access to the outside world- literally a scenic prison. Originally scheduled to be produced by writer Steve Englehart and artist Gil Kane, the rejected project was handed off to Kirby. Perhaps due to Kirby’s familiarity and appeal to paranoid, dystopian concepts, and man against corporation struggles. Amazingly, Jack was given the job of writing the script as well as illustrating the tale. Jack produced just one issue’s worth of art, and it contains the first half of the original origin story from the TV show titled “The Arrival”. Mike Royer inked and lettered just five pages when the project came to a halt. The few pages ever published show a very restrained, almost claustrophobic Kirby—heavy in text and lacking his usual bombast and explosiveness. Though true to the source material, it appears that the cerebral nature of the show might have been too much of a restriction to Kirby’s natural inclinations—but it would have been interesting if Kirby was allowed to take the concepts in his own direction.
Kirby trying to be faithful
Ever since the late 1960’s, Marvel’s financial position had been heading South. It remained the industry leader, but its value had dropped dangerously. Jim Galton, the CEO actually talked about bankruptcy. Roy Thomas had been hired to help relieve Stan’s burden. For the first couple years, he played a small role. His position at times was one of derision. Jack’s caricature of Roy as Funky Flashman’s toady was not that far off. Roy had been tasked with the lowest, most meaningless titles. But lightning struck one day when he was told to get Marvel a license for a sword and sorcery title. His first instinct was that the one he wanted would be too expensive, but surprisingly, the Estate of Robert Howard was practically begging for someone to publish new Conan stories. Despite little urging from the powers that be, Roy found his cheap art source and created the only real success Marvel would have for the next 5 years. The success of Conan did not make Marvel suddenly profitable, but it helped stem the hemorrhaging. But by 1976, even Conan could no longer stop the flow; nothing Marvel put out was helping. Very little came from merchandising and licensing of their products.
With this success, Marvel expanded into the licensing market and other properties from outside were added. Thongor and Kull became a part of Marvel’s Universe. In 1976 Stan Lee had a meeting with film-producer George Lucas, about creating a comic book based on a new movie called Star Wars. Stan was of the opinion that a new “space opera” was not really salable, and passed. George Lucas and his partner in the Supersnipe Comic Shop Ed Summer went to Roy Thomas – the golden boy since Conan – and made the same proposal. At this dinner George Lucas was relaying his story for Star Wars in which Roy Thomas noticed it sounded a lot like Jack Kirby’s New Gods. What Roy took away from this part of the dinner was that George Lucas was hugely indebted to Jack Kirby for Star Wars. Roy’s feelings were more positive and after further negotiations, Roy was able to obtain the licensing free. Just the opposite where Goodman once gave the movies free rights to Captain America, now the movies gave a comic publisher free rights hoping for good public feedback. All Lucas asked for was that the books hit the stands before the movie so that it could help the build-up.
With the go ahead, Roy again ignored the more expensive and perhaps, more logical penciller, and went to a lower tier artist who had done sword and sorcery work for Roy. Howard Chaykin was hired for the first edition.
Guest starring Dr. Doom?????
Jim Shooter-soon to be editor-in-chief explained the results;
“The first two issues of our six (?) issue adaptation came out in advance of the movie. Driven by the advance marketing for the movie, sales were very good. Then about the time the third issue shipped, the movie was released. Sales made the jump to hyperspace.
Star Wars the movie stayed in theaters forever, it seemed. Not since the Beatles had I seen a cultural phenomenon of such power. The comics sold and sold and sold. We reprinted the adaptation in every possible format. They all sold and sold and sold.
In the most conservative terms, it is inarguable that the success of the Star Wars comics was a significant factor in Marvel’s survival through a couple of very difficult years, 1977 and 1978.”
Once again, Roy Thomas – the almost forgotten gofer had become the hero; as Jim Shooter says, “Roy Thomas saved Marvel” And it came from outside. The success of Star Wars finally helped lift all boats. Jim Galton says that Star Wars comics made him rich—and after some begrudging, he offered Roy Thomas a $500 bonus. Nice guy!
Nestled deep in the beautiful Tuscan treeswept landscape is a miraculous walled town of Lucca, Italy. Its claim to fame is that the famed musician Puccini was born in this sleepy little Renaissance town. Oddest of all, it has become the center of the comic book fan industry as every Oct. it is transformed into a costumed Mecca of comic fans. Since 1966, since the con was moved to Lucca, it has become the center of European fandom. In 1976, Lucca decided that Jack Kirby should be the honoree of the convention. The group running it sent Jack and Roz tickets to show up. Jack was wined and dined and treated like royalty. The main event was held in an old Renaissance opera house that intimidated Jack and Roz. Most seemed to be a whirl of activities and wrestling with translators. Jack recalls; KIRBY: “Well, actually, there were two awards. There was a plaque which was presented to me by the mayor of Lucca, and it has the image of the opera house on it. It is a substantial award, in weight anyhow. I believe it is an etching of the opera house of Lucca which, of course, I am always going to remember because it was so colorful. The other award was a gold-plated statuette of the Yellow Kid, mounted on Italian marble. And, it has an inscription on the statuette itself which is in the dialogue of the Yellow Kid, which in turn, I believe, is supposed to be the first comic strip ever done.” Shel Dorf asked him about the Italian people; Do they have good restaurants? KIRBY: “Their restaurants are terrific. They have terrific restaurants, they have terrific food, and they have terrific personnel who serve you. It is a pleasure eating in any Italian dining place. I hope that many more Americans go there, and enjoy themselves as much as I did.”
Lucca is for comic lovers
Kirby was certainly enjoying his new found celebrity in his later years. Years later, a dream came true when Jack and Roz accompanied a group from their Temple to The Holy Land. One can only imagine what Kirby drew and slipped into the Wailing Wall.
Roy Thomas wanted Kirby back on a company product and they chose the Black Panther. Kirby’s African chief had gone through several incarnations, straight super hero, an Avenger, and lately a social force taking on the Klan and racism. What I have often wondered was, why not ask Jack Kirby to do the Star Wars book when Roy personally thought the premise was ripped from Jack Kirby, plus he wanted Jack to do a company property. Jack was the best at “space opera”. Why give him a decade old 2001 adaptation but not give him a new book? I think Marvel missed the boat here. Despite the dropping of the Prisoner project, Roy did talk Jack into renewing the Black Panther. When Kirby took it over, he took the Panther on an even stranger route. The Panther was now an archeological treasure hunter, and his prize was a Biblical artifact of immense power. His search would take him on many an adventure and even bring him into conflict with an alien life force of great power, plus an undersized companion and a new femme fatale. His search was also thwarted by other searchers, who also wanted the mystical relic. This storyline effectively took the Panther out of the current Marvel Universe and once again seemed to isolate the other Marvel bullpenners. But in mid-1977, something else caught their attention and kept them busy.
In May 1977, the film Star Wars hit the screen. No film had ever influenced pop culture so immediately before or since this film. It was a phenomenon. Space Opera on film would never be the same. The special effects were leap years ahead of any space film before it. The scope of the story, and the mixture of genres was comparable to only one thing; Kirby’s New Gods trilogy. His villain looked like Dr. Doom. The interfamily dispute, the father son dynamic, The “source/force” similarity. That the evil presence was actually called the dark side, as compared to Darkseid. Even the grouping of characters was similar to Kirby’s time tested template. The heroic pilot, the hot headed kid, the burly brawny sidekick, and the elderly mystical mentor, could all be found in Kirby’s road tested template. The movie justified Kirby’s belief that people could accept a sprawling, action packed, space opera that worked on many different levels. The special effects ability had finally reached the point to match what comics had been doing for decades. The ability to add mass, detail and scale took out the campy look most sci-fi movies had been saddled with.
Kirby returns to the black Avenger with a twist
After several years dormancy, Marvel products once again started appearing in movie and TV productions. Late 1977 would find a Lee/Kirby creation back on TV; The Incredible Hulk was given the full live action treatment in a pair of made-for-TV movies. The show starred Bill Bixby as David Bruce Banner, and body builder Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. The movies were well received and in March 1978 became a weekly TV series. The series eschewed the sci-fi super-hero genre and centered on a “Fugitive-like” serial concerning research scientist Dr. Banner. Wanted for crimes, he escapes and travels around the country where he meets different people in moments of crisis and peril. Dr. Banner transforms into the Hulk in moments of extreme rage and the rampaging brute takes care of all villains and people of bad intent. Banner is hounded by a newspaper reporter in a Javert-like obsessive search to prove his eyewitness account of a brutish monster was true. The comparison was intentional, producer and writer Kenneth Johnson’s first instinct was to turn down the series, but then, while reading the Victor Hugo novel, Les Misérables, he became inspired and began working to develop the Hulk comic into a TV show. This aversion of comic book clichés and their accoutrements allowed the series to be taken seriously while still amazing the kids with the awesome transformation into the gruesome green monster. Though actually getting little screen time, Ferrigno’s mute monster played up the misunderstood lovable monster first seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
At the same time Nicholas Hammond portrayed Peter Parker in a TV version of Spider-man.
Jack was of several minds concerning the show. Once again Marvel produced an outside product without crediting Jack for his part in the creation, and Jack received no moneys from the leasing of the product. But Jack really liked the finished product. He loved Bill Bixby and thought the producers treated the creation respectfully and avoided the campiness of most TV super-hero shows such as Batman and Wonder Woman. In the second season, Jack even weaseled his way into a small cameo role as a police artist who had to draw a sketch from a crime victim’s description.
Kirby gets a cameo
In 1979, CBS produced two Captain America made for TV movies. Played by pretty boy Reb Brown in a silly costume hoping to get a series; they were so bad the idea died soon. The new Cap was the son of the original Cap. It was sort of Evel Knievel in a pair of blue pj’s. As usual; no credit for Jack and Joe.
On Jan. 1, 1978, the Copyright Law of 1978 took effect. This was the first make over of copyright laws since 1909. The reasoning behind coming up with a total new law was threefold; first because of the various new technologies that came to be after 1909. Many of the laws simply didn’t address the realities of duplication techniques that now existed. Second was to bring US copyright law into compliance with that of other countries because we were expected to become a signatory to the Berne Agreement, which controlled most of Europe. Third was to address the many loopholes and carve outs that had arisen due to 70 years of litigation and corporate strong-arming. This third area was what concerned the comic industry so much. There were two immediate concerns. First was that under the new law, original art was now clearly owned by the original artists. The company only paid for reproduction rights. So now as soon as the companies made their stats, the original art was shipped back to the artists. Second, the companies had always claimed that the artists were commissioned under what was called “work for hire” status. Their art and creations were owned exclusively by the companies and the artists had no rights to them.
The new law did not end the onerous “work for hire” status but decreed that work for hire must be agreed to in writing by both sides for it to be legal. So the artists who had worked for decades without any contracts now had to sign specific contracts for their services. What the law didn’t do was clarify how all those pieces created prior to the new contracts would be viewed for copyright purposes. Another change was that the tenure of copyright ownership was lengthened from 56 years to life of artist plus 50
And a clause that would really rattle the industry, though its effects wouldn’t be felt until the ‘90s, was that after 56 years of a company owning the copyrights, the law mandated that the rights reverted back to the creator. Not only would the rights revert to the artist, but the artist could not legally sign away that right. The idea is simple. Originally when an artist created a work, he would own the copyrights for 56 years. The artist had the right to assign those rights (lease) for a period of no more than 28 years. The reasoning was that 28 years was long enough for the leasee to exploit the property but then the copyright reverted back to the original creator to take advantage of any increase of value that the property had accrued in the 28 year period. So the artist now had a second bite of the apple and was able to sell the rights again, either to the same leasee, if the artist was happy with them, or, to a second company to exploit the copyright anew. This second bite of the apple was effectively removed when publishers, using their stronger negotiating position of power forced the artists to sign away not only the first but also the second 28 year term before they would publish the work. The Supreme Court ruled in a very important case that it was legal for the publishers to force the artist to sign both terms away at first publication because the law never specifically refused the artists from doing so. The new law removed this possibility by allowing for an automatic return of copyright after the initial copyright term (now 35 years) and for those caught in between, for the mandated return after the completed second term of copyright, not to exceed 56 years. The law also made clear that any contract that tried to circumnavigate the termination clause was unenforceable. So any artist forced to sign away his copyrights beyond the second 28 years found that that forced contract was invalid. Most of these changes were phased in over time, but it strengthened a movement already growing among the artists. That they had some power to demand changes in the way the comic industry worked; such as money for reprints, and artists owning the copyrights of their characters, and return of their entire stash of original art, plus proper credit for the work. The pendulum has started to swing from complete control by the company to a shared reward for successful properties. All those reasons that caused people like Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby and Wally Wood to leave Marvel, were now being addressed in favor of the artists. The industry was being forced to enter the Twentieth Century.
After the publication of the oversized 2001, it was decided that Kirby should continue his cosmic explorations, but from a familiar source. In the ongoing monthly series 2001 A Space Odyssey, Kirby expanded on his own concepts as well as some from Kubrick’s film. Where are we going? Somewhere in the dawn of time we began — somehow, in these perilous times we keep moving on — and sometime in the future, something will happen to change us! This was Kirby’s introduction for the series, not an easy premise to live up to.
From 2001, Kirby did it just for fun – just another page an inkers nightmare
But Steve Sherman says that space travel and aliens just came naturally to Jack. “I remember one evening just sitting with him, and I’d just read the book Rendezvous With Rama. I’m sitting talking to Jack about flying saucers and things like that, and Jack always claimed he could see UFOs from his picture window in Thousand Oaks, and you’d believe it. And in the space of about 45 minutes, Jack’d come up with 13 different stories about flying saucers and people meeting them; an entire series. Complete stories, telling me about the characters, the beginning, the middle, the end, the whole thing. It was just amazing.”
New comics and a lot of covers for others
The series focused on people and events affected by the monolith throughout time and space. In most issues we see an event from our distant past and through contact with the monolith this event is echoed in the distant future; a one issue time travelogue. In a latter issue, a new recurring character emerged, Mr. Machine, a machine made sentient via the monolith, who was trying to fit into a world that didn’t trust or want him; shades of Eando Binder’s Adam Link. Kirby had done something similar with the character Quasimodo in the FF. Quasi was a machine made into a sentient being by the power of the Silver Surfer. 2001 ended quietly after 10 issues—when the license with the movie ended, but Mr. Machine went on to get his own series; renamed Machine Man due to the closeness of a toy character, and he became a type of reluctant searching super-hero. This series lasted several years, even after Kirby left Marvel again. The concept survives to this day.
None of Kirby’s Marvel series really exploded, and soon there were rumblings from within the company. Some of the young upstarts started referring to Jack as Jack the Hack, or as a has-been who no longer had the magic touch, perhaps even a bit senile. There were rumors of editors salting the letter columns of Kirby’s books with negative letters. But mostly they resented Kirby’s independence; his unwillingness to work with others who wanted to write books for Kirby to illustrate. Kirby had earned this independence and he held unto it fearlessly. But Kirby’s natural optimism was dimming. His art, to many, seemed to be slipping into a parody of his style.
During the Seventies, Marvel’s management had made a complete changeover from those during the Lee/Kirby/Ditko days to a new generation absent any connection to its birth. Kirby suddenly had to work with and respond to unfamiliar people of little or no history. Scott Edelman was a new assistant editor, and he was given the job of proofreading and correcting Jack’s books. Scott remembered; “ I know there are plenty of people who loved the work Kirby did on his return to Marvel in the ’70s, but I wasn’t one of them. I can remember sitting in the Bullpen and proofing the original art for Jack’s first issue back on Captain America, and just feeling … sad. I still feel that nothing Kirby did alone could compare with the work he did Stan Lee—in my opinion, they needed each other—but looking back on how I expressed myself then, I know I came off like an ungrateful brat. And I don’t like that. After all Kirby did for us, we should have been happy to be able to read whatever he was willing to give us, whether it was up to the old days or not.” Other minor management people, like new assistant editor Ralph Macchio seemed to delight in filling Kirby’s letter columns with negative letters.
Jim Shooter, when he became the big guy, looked at this in dismay. “I cannot imagine what the people putting the letter columns together were thinking. Were they trying to be “fair and balanced,” and show that some people were disappointed with what Jack was doing? Was it that they, themselves, were disappointed with what Jack was doing and weighted the lettercols to express their POV? Putting together a negative lettercol is stupid, amateurish and/or malicious.”
“It reached a point where Kirby went to Shooter to complain. Jim recalls; “When I became EIC, again, I didn’t have time to check up on what I assumed was a no-brainer operation that no one would screw up, that is, lettercols, until Jack called me to complain about them. I’ve told that story elsewhere on the blog. It was, as I recall, the only time ever that Jack complained about anything. I felt terrible that we had let him down so badly.”
During the mid-Seventies the companies started to shift from the old newsstand distribution to a new plan called direct market system, which sold comics on a non-returnable basis. During this changeover, the companies used both as the direct sales market was trying to expand to all areas. The companies knew that selling on a non-return basis was much more profitable as it removed the returned books that had to be counted and subtracted from the print run. Yet the older newsstand system hit the whole market and still accounted for a large part of the business. This split dichotomy produced some interesting results. In some newsstand areas individual retailers would bypass the distributors and buy up the books before it reached the retailers. This hoarding caused havoc on the companies as their books weren’t reaching all markets; creating holes in the series runs. In those few cons that sprang up in larger cities, these few dealers had massive amounts of books that the common buyer could never find at the store level, and could only be bought at inflated prices. Another problem was that selling 10,000 issues on the direct market meant much more profit to the company than selling 10,000 issues at the newsstands, since they also might include 10,000 copies returned for credit. Jim Shooter talks about how this might affect specific books and artists. Jim said; “though Jack’s books did not sell well on the newsstands, because, I think, to casual readers they seemed old-fashioned and un-hip, they sold gangbusters in the nascent direct market, as well or better than the X-Men, and far more than all other titles. I remember noticing that a couple of Jack’s books were selling upwards of 30,000 copies — just about enough to break even all direct — at a time when Spider-Man, the Avengers, etc., were selling closer to 10,000 direct. “
A lot of themes for an R.E. Howard salute
In 1978, Jack was commissioned to provide an illustration for a fantasy book called Ariel-The Book of Fantasy. He provided a beautifully whimsical and creepy two–page illo for a Robert E. Howard poem called “Musings”. The drawing was light and airy—filled with fairies and other fey iconography—as well as monsters and mystics –perhaps foretelling some of Kirby’s future animation work. Ariel was a large size art book that focused on fantasy stories. The issue Jack appeared in had an evocative Barry Windsor-Smith cover. I am not sure how Kirby’s participation came about. A review of the magazine by noted Sci-Fi critiquer Tarbandu expounds.
“Ariel: The Book of Fantasy’ (1978) was one of the more unusual experiments in retail fantasy literature and art publishing in the mid-70s. There were four issues (‘volumes’) printed between 1976 and 1978.
‘Ariel’ was a large (12 “x 9 “, 80 – 100 pp), full-color magazine printed on quality paper stock, and featured illustrated fiction and comics from a number of well-known genre authors and artists. Ariel carried a steep cover price ($6.95) for the mid 70’s, which unfortunately placed it out of ready reach for the burgeoning, but young and poor, generation of SF and fantasy fans then starting to make their economic presence felt (albeit if only in a modest way). After four issues had been produced Ballantine decided to pull the plug on the magazine, and there really hasn’t been anything quite like it on the retail shelves since (perhaps a sign that this form of publication just doesn’t strike much of a chord with the US buying public).
Issue three of ‘Ariel’ (edited by Thomas Durwood) featured as its cover an arresting illustration (‘Devil’s Lake’) by the English artist Barry Windsor-Smith, who is the subject of an interview in the magazine. By 1978 Windsor-Smith had long since departed Marvel and ‘Conan’, and was making a living as a studio artist. The interview is an informative one and touches on the artist’s philosophy of the ‘New Romantic’ movement in art and illustration, and his admiration for the artists of the Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite eras.
Among the other entries in volume three is a new Elric story, ‘The Last Enchantment’, by Michael Moorcock, with illustrations by Tim Conrad; a poem by Robert E. Howard, ‘Musings’, with an illustration by Jack ‘King’ Kirby; an admirable comic adaption of Harlan Ellison’s story ‘Along the Scenic Route’ by Al Williamson; and a short story, ‘The Halls of the Frost Giants’, by Alexander Heart, with illustrations (in an Arthur Rackham style) by Michael Hague.
The quality of the reproductions appearing in the magazine is quite good, particularly when one remembers that ‘Ariel’ appeared in the pre-computer-based typesetting and printing era.”
Jack’s drawing was of two natures, like a lot of Kirby’s better work. At once optimistic and whimsical it was also foreboding and scary. Much like Howard’s work, it possesses multiple sides of human nature.
Some wonky figures but a feeling of rapture – Silver Surfer gets a flying f**k with Loni Anderson
In late 1976 a long mentioned project came up; Stan wanted to do a graphic novel with Jack of the Silver Surfer–possibly as a vehicle for a movie project. Graphic novels were new: a long form format telling one big story in a novelized package, including a hard cover and painted sleeve. Instead of monthly serials, a whole story in one thick package. The idea intrigued Jack.
Meticulous research by Greg Theakston gave us the behind the scenes skinny. The rights to the Silver Surfer had been optioned to producer Lee Kramer. The plans called for a huge budgeted production complete with Rock Opera music and staging. The story was the telling of Galactus’ and the Surfer’s contact with the Earth. Since the FF’s options were held by another company, they would be excluded. Without the FF, they needed another strong presence, preferably a female presence that could be played by Kramer’s then girlfriend, Olivia Newton-John, a beautiful singer who was transitioning into films. Kramer was a lifelong fan of the Silver Surfer, and now that he had clout in Hollywood, he wanted to go forward on the product. “Doing the Silver Surfer has always been a dream of mine and now it was going to be realized.” Kramer told a film magazine.
Kramer’s resume’ was checkered, he started out as a farmer, and an antique dealer. He had met Olivia Newton-John five years previously and had become her manager. With her, he had produced several well received TV shows, and a couple of movies like Xanadu. His Silver Surfer was scheduled for release in 1981. Olivia Newton-John proved her bankability with her appearance in Grease, the very successful movie based on the Broadway play.
With this go-ahead, Stan and Jack had a story conference and Jack got right to work. This was good for Jack as he had been falling behind on his contracted amount of pages for Marvel. (though I could not find any gap in the printed books that would cause a loss of pages) According to Greg; ”When Jack turned in the pages, they were accompanied by a fully realized plot on paper. When Lee called for his usual changes, Jack was displeased, but acted like a professional and complied. After all, a lot of money was being gambled.“
Stan Lee didn’t stand silent, Using all of his bluster and hucksterism, Stan told a magazine, “The Silver Surfer is still on the way to being a big movie. Lee Kramer, who’s going to produce it, is at this very moment in Australia and I think he’s renting the whole continent as the setting! He found a scientist in England who is working on something called linear induction. At the moment he has this linear induction worked out so it can make a surfboard go this high above the ground and really travel with a man on it. They promise me by the time the thing is filmed, they’ll get the surfboard that high. They get the camera underneath it, they paint the sky–it’ll look like he’s out in space!” Lee also said he’d be “closely involved” with the making of the movie and that the Surfer “will probably fight Galactus” in the film.”
Kramer’s relationship with Newton-John was precarious, and when it eventually broke up, the money dissolved and the production ended. Newton-John was the selling point; not Lee Kramer. All that was left to show for this effort was Kirby and Lee’s historic book to be published by major publisher Simon and Schuster. It was a success, published in both hardcover and softcover. It has since been reprinted.
At 100 pages, the art had some of Kirby’s old spark, but there were differences between Kirby’s and Stan’s ideas. One seemed to be an attempt to modernize Kirby’s formatting. Sprinkled in among the pages were bad attempts at Neal Adam’s style jagged panels. The results were jarring. Stan Lee provided some of his most pretentious dialogue in order to add grandeur to the tale. Stan wanted to add gravitas to the story. The results were laughable. Kirby compromised as well as did Stan and the finished product was fairly good, not great, but a solid piece of work from these two old war horses. Interesting to note that Kirby’s Golden girl seems more modeled after the buxom, curvaceous Loni Anderson rather than the slim svelte Olivia Newton-John; a much better choice in my mind.