Monthly Archives: November 2010

Margin Notes


I’d like to change the focus this time and discuss Kirby’s creative process involving collaboration in greater detail. From what we know about the King, he was generally happiest working more or less independently of other writers. However, there are many who believe that Kirby’s best and certainly most commercially successful work was in collaboration with writer Stan Lee. There has been a good amount of ink used discussing just who did what in that process.

In conventional comic production involving a separate writer and artist team, the writer provides the artist with a full script to work from. Lee is famous for having instituted the Marvel Method, wherein an artist would plot a story based on the sketchiest of outlines provided by the writer.  Once the story was drawn the artist would supply the writer with explanatory notes in the page’s margin, whereupon the writer would fill in the final script. Lee believed that his artists were strong plotters and allowing them creative freedom would result in a better story. Certainly, in the case of Jack Kirby, he was correct.

Recently, I saw a film clip of Stan Lee looking at Jack Kirby’s original artwork for Fantastic four #12 for the first time since it had been published. One of the first things that caught Lee’s eye were the margin notes in the panel borders, that he initially assumed belonged to Kirby. Lee started to explain the Marvel Method of writing, wherein he would give Kirby a rough idea of the plot, Kirby would elaborate the plot, pencil the book and deliver to Lee with Kirby’s notes for scripting in the margins. Halfway through his explanation, Lee realizes that the margin notes are his own, written as reminders to him, prior to final scripting.

This exchange raises an interesting question. Just when did the process known as the Marvel Method actually begin and what was the nature of the creative process prior to its inception? Several Comic Book historians allege that in the beginning, Stan Lee provided his artists with full scripts. Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber has stated in interviews that he wrote full scripts for Kirby as well. However, Kirby and several of his co-workers claim that the King seldom followed scripts to the letter, either using them as a jumping off point or discarding them completely.

This would partially explain Stan Lee’s need to write margin notes for himself on Kirby’s artwork. If Kirby commonly changed the direction of the story given him, Lee would require more than his original script as a guide. He would, in effect need to re-script the story after receiving it from Kirby in order to accommodate the artist’s alterations.

Until we are presented with a complete Lee/Kirby or a Lieber/Kirby script and a story to compare it to, we cannot be sure how completely Kirby followed their scripts. What we do have is a fair selection of original art from that period. This page is from Fantastic Four #12, the issue that Lee was perusing on camera.

If we study Lee’s margin notes, we generally see that they say more or less what he will later elaborate in the balloons above: The scribble below saying “50 G’s, Enough to flatten, et cetera” has become two balloons spoken by separate characters.

On this page in Fantastic Four twenty, we still see Lee’s margin notes, so we can assume that the Marvel method has not yet gone into effect. What we do see is something exceedingly interesting. Notice that the third panel is drawn by another artist, which is almost certainly Steve Ditko. This is a case of a last minute change being made in the story prior to printing.

Comic Book historian, Bob Bailey states that Kirby was probably not available to make the change and Ditko was on hand. Therefore, he re-did the panel.

The earliest Fantastic Four page scan that I can find with Kirby’s notes is from F.F. Annual #2, appearing in the summer of 1964. Comic Book historian, Nick Caputo concludes that the Jack Kirby’s margin notes first appear in The Avengers #6, dated July 1964. If one looks at the notes in the upper margin, it is clear that it is Kirby’s lettering. Thus we can probably date the beginning of the Marvel Method to this approximate period.

Nick Caputo also says that artist Dick Ayers claims that he in fact was the first artist to provide notes for Stan Lee early in 1964, as this Giant Man panel from that year suggests.

Caputo: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Stan took over the hero strips three months earlier, providing plot synopsis’ for Dick Ayers and Don Heck for the first time. Before this they were working from full scripts provided by Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart and Larry Lieber.  Stan’s notes are seen in Avengers # 5, so apparently sometime between May and July 1964 dated issues Jack began adding notes, likely at the request of Lee. I’ve seen Bill Everett’s notes on the original art of Daredevil # 1, which appeared three months earlier, so it is highly likely that Heck and Ayers began around the same time or earlier.”

The question still remains. What precisely was the method used for constructing stories prior to the inception of the “Marvel Method’? In most cases one can be fairly certain that full scripts were used. Kirby is another case entirely.

We’ll give Kirby historian and biographer Mark Evanier the last word. It is probably not a great leap of logic to apply this description to other writer’s scripts as well.

“As for who plotted the monster stories scripted by Larry Lieber, that’s one of those cases where Stan says one thing and Jack said another. Apparently, Jack would give Stan a lot of plot ideas and then Stan would select what he liked from the verbal pile. Based on talking with Stan, Jack, Larry, Don Heck, Sol Brodsky and Don Rico, I would say that Jack plotted some, Stan plotted some and a lot were Stan polishing a Jack idea. Then the whole thing was handed to Larry, who would write a script. And then Jack would fiddle a lot with the scripts.”

Sounds like a reasonable explanation to me.

1-Fantastic Four #12- Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

2-Ibid, detail

3-Fantastic four #20- Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

4-Ibid, detail

5-Avengers #6 -Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

6-Tales to Astonish #52-Stan Lee, Dick Ayers

The In-Betweener


One of the first Jobs that Jack Kirby had was working as an in-betweener for the Max Fleischer Animation Studios. The nature of the job was to provide the action in-between the animation cells drawn by another artist. As the illusion of movement in films is provided by a sequence of frames per second, Kirby learned an important lesson from the experience with Fleisher’s studio. What if one applied the same concept to sequential art? How much more dynamic would your work be if you followed up an action shot with a series of near continuous motion?

Returning again to Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics, we encounter the concept of closure. This term describes the adjustment that our brain makes when confronted by a series of panels that are designed to tell a story. We see these panels individually at first, but closure allows us to make a connection between them in order to make the story cohesive.

If the panels above contained disconnected images, this would make closure more difficult, as our brains would have to work hard to relate them to one another. As it is, Kirby gives us a near continuous flow of action, as we see Jelko’s gun first shot from his hand, and then repeatedly whisked away by the Rawhide Kid’s bullets.

If one thinks about this, the choice of which panel transition to make is nearly infinite, but it is the choice that sets the pacing of the story. Depending upon the pacing, a story can be told in five pages or fifty. Of course the flow of the narrative alone can make a non sequitur more coherent, but looking at Kirby’s work, one can see how much more effective a story can be when a good deal of intelligence is applied to the choice of sequential images.

One of Kirby’s most amazing action sequences is this Captain America page from Tales of Suspense #85. Cap is fighting a French Savate kickboxing master named Batroc, who gives as good as he gets in this epic duel. Here again is action to action sequencing at its finest as Batroc rushes Cap with rear leg extended backwards towards the viewer, In the next panel we see that same leg kicking fore ward vainly as Cap connects with a smashing right hook and then follows up with a shield bash. Relying on his legs as usual, Batroc counters with a leg sweep, taking Cap down to the mat. Our hero retaliates with a chop to the head and finishes the villain off, demonstrating the superiority of good old American fisticuffs.

The point is that closure enables us to follow the action as if it was continuous, and Kirby’s amazing ability as an in-betweener is seen in his choices. The continuity from panel to panel is certainly not anything close to a complete follow through of the previous shot’s action, but Kirby always presents us with enough information to make the flow of the action dynamic. For instance, panel five has Cap striking in prone position with his right leg pointing fore ward to the right, which flows into his right leg in panel six as he rises to deliver a right cross to Batroc.

As I’ve mentioned previously, it is possible to depict the flow of time in a single panel nearly as well as in a series of frames. In this shot, we see Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner walking imperiously through a crowd. We follow the procession of talking heads from left to right until we come to Namor’s confident figure in the center. What we are actually seeing here is the upper portion of a circular composition whose extreme left rim is the man with the purple hat. What we observe on the far right is the figure in the yellow hat pointing back at Namor and keeping the focus on him. The remainder of the circle is below the panel border.

It may also be instructive to divide this panel in lattices, which as you may or may not remember is a mathematical physics term referring to a regular, periodic configuration of points, particles or objects throughout an area or space. If we can imagine each figure occupying its own rectangular box or slice, we can easily comprehend the depth of field in this singular panel and the division of space/time herein as well. The main point is that the actions in this panel are not simultaneous but occur in the left to right sequence, just as a series of panels do.

In certain cases, a sequential artist like Kirby needs to convey a moment in time that is instantaneous and cataclysmic. In such cases, Kirby often relies on the art form of collage to depict the sudden shock of such an event. Using his flair for composition, the artist constructs a devastating explosion of a Nazi stronghold, by taking various fragments of unrelated photographs.

The composition gives us the impression of a sudden tremendous up thrust of energy, as the twin mushroom clouds scatter debris in all directions.

We tend to see the collage panel as a separate, tumultuous event because of its photo reality, distinct from the preceding panels. Kirby is as surgically precise as any film editor, as he constructs his visual narratives, and that is why he takes pride first and foremost in his storytelling abilities.

Image 1- Rawhide Kid #28 Original art, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee

Image 2- Tales of Suspense #85, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee

Image 3- Fantastic Four #6, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee

Image 4- Sgt. Fury#13 Original art, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee