Jack Kirby and Me!

The Comics Journal, 1975: Would you ever do a book all by yourself?

KIRBY: Not necessarily, no. I don’t feel that I should do everything myself.

TCJ: I mean just once — do the pencils, inks, story, everything?

KIRBY: Yeah, sure, you know, everybody has that feeling, that “boy, if they could let me by myself: ” Nobody does anything by themselves; nobody ever does. When a guy comes out and makes a statement “I did this,” you can be sure 50 people helped him. It’s true. The only time you do something by yourself is when you’re in trouble.

Challengers of the Unknown Splash 8

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain

When I came back to comic books, after a long absence, (why did I leave?–see below) I was shocked to discover that virtual armed camps had been sent up amongst people who considered themselves Kirby supporters.

In fact, I was declared UnKirby.

I felt I was one of Kirby’s biggest fans. I had collected virtually all of his original comics from the 1960s and 1970s. Scared to touch the originals, I have the reprints of them and reprints of the reprints. I have tried, the best I could, to get Kirby reprints from the 1940s and 1950s. My book is dedicated to him, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee and is a “love letter” to the Marvel Age of Comics.

So I was taken back, in 2002, when I meet a few intense people. I then heard for the first time that some Kirby individuals hated Stan Lee. One said he helped get Stan Lee fired from Marvel. Another said that Stan Lee should give up half his pension and give it to the Kirby family. “Why?” I asked. This is their quote: “For what he (Stan) did to Kirby.”

A few years later, I joined a comic list on Yahoo. I had posted that Steve Ditko help define the Hulk for me by adding the anger management issues, which made the Hulk the iconic figure he is today. And, I said, Ditko also improved on the mystic super hero, with Dr. Strange being a step up from the failed Dr. Droom. I was declared UnKirby. And I got hell.

I discovered that some Kirby individuals judged you on a scale from 1 to 10. Unfortunately, you were either a 1 or a 10, there was no 2-9, nothing was in the middle. And if you liked Kirby, you could not like Lee. If you like Lee even a little bit, you were a “1.”

And while Kirby deserved credit for everything he did, well, since he did everything, Stan had to be diminished and Heck, Ayers, Lieber and Ditko had to be ignored. So, for liking what Ditko did, and appreciating Heck and Ayers, I was UnKirby.

All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

Of course, all hell broke loose when it came to The New Gods. I felt that Kirby needed a collaborator and a writer. When Kirby emulated the style and the era of Joe Simon, where characters just talked about the plot and the action, Kirby was successful. In fact, when he did The Losers in the 1970s, I thought that was some of his best work. However, in the Fourth World, I felt Kirby tried to emulate the modern style, initiated by Stan Lee, where characterizations and relationships dominated the writing. Then, I found his dialogue awkward and stilted (© Yancy Street Productions). I was then, and till this day, attacked personally for this opinion, going way beyond being declared UnKirby. Simon and Lee kept Kirby focused; he seemed to wander on his own. (As an example, see those first Black Panther comics he did. Although he was the only one to get the BP right.)

Norris Burroughs, a blogger on at the Kirby Museum, feels that Kirby will be considered a great writer in a few hundred years. Well, I can’t stay up that late. But Norris disagrees with me all the time, and it is never personal, although sometimes exhausting. That’s fine and we have remained friends. I have often responded to bloggers who discuss the issues and aren’t impolite, although many have strongly disagreed with me.

When the Kirby estate lost their lawsuit, which attempted to claim the copyright to 25 Marvel comics (and the characters they contained), a new movement popped up. They considered Kirby to be the “auteur” the sole creator of the stories and characters at Marvel. That statement, again, negates all the work of so many others, who I respect. I also found it a great irony that that those who are speaking out because they felt Kirby hasn’t gotten enough credit easily removed credit from so many other people. And as you can see by the opening quote, Kirby wouldn’t agree with them either. Eventually Kirby left Marvel because he wanted control, not because he had it. But, again, I was declared UnKirby.

When I wrote about the Kirby lawsuit, I wasn’t taking sides. This was not about fairness, as the judge said, but about the law. I didn’t see any evidence that showed that Kirby ever had the original copyright, the original ownership, to these comics and therefore would not be able to regain them. Again, people dismissed the work of the editor, publisher, and writers stating Kirby did it alone. Again, I was UnKirby.

There are those who want to distribute credit, percentages, of the Marvel Age. One person gave Lee and Kirby a 50/50 split. This is silly. Doesn’t Martin Goodman, who told Lee to return to superheroes get some credit? How about Ditko? Spider-Man was their most popular character. Hey, the most popular X-Men is Wolverine, don’t Thomas and Romita get credit? Or Lieber for his work on Thor and Iron Man? Or Heck? The question is not, “How do you retroactively dispense credit,” but “Why would you have to?”

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I’ve loved them all

Kirby stayed with Marvel for over a decade, longer than he stayed anywhere else. Yet today, the Kirby supporters want to act as his agent, lawyer, and mother. Some Kirby individuals are even promoting the concept that the Marvel Age doesn’t count, that super-heroes, what made Kirby famous, was not his best work. Yesterday, of course they wanted to give Kirby full credit for it. The Fourth World, to them was superhero-less, it was a new genre. Well, it begins with, “The old gods have died but the new ones will still be running around in their underwear.”

This was the preface to a chapter in my book that I wrote almost 40 years ago and slightly edited a few years ago. It tells how I feel about the King.

In Search of Lost Time(ly):
(Adapted from The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project)

Swan’s Way

“And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”–Marcel Proust

In the 1960s, there were two ways to go for serious comics: DC, whose comics were geared towards young people, with simple stories, characters that didn’t develop, drawn by artists like Curt Swan whose characters and stories were simple, posed and static, showing no motion or emotion and he became the “house style” of the time. Joe Simon would write in his autobiography, “The editors at DC…wanted everything to look ‘their way’. . .They had what we called very tight technique…You could have twenty artists do a character or a series, and it would all look as if it had been drawn by the same artist.”

Curt Swan Superman

Then there was Marvel, whose characters and stories were dynamic and complex, like nothing a young reader ever saw before, inspired, mostly, by the mind and artistry of Jack Kirby.

After reading Kirby, I could no longer go down Swan’s way.

Kirby’s impact on comics was so great that any essay on him must seem incomplete. At his best he was just outstanding, innovative, incredibly inventive and prolific and such an important foundation of not just the Marvel Universe, but for all comics and their different genres. At his “worst,” Jack Kirby was still always one of the best: a great storyteller and a fine artist, who still enchanted his readers, new or old, like a fine wine, you could never appreciate Kirby unless you experience his work firsthand over time.

Kurtzberg’s Way

Kirby created the first comic series that I thought was great and “hooked” me: The Challengers of The Unknown. Kirby had a dynamic way of drawing, putting action, excitement and emotion in each panel, like no one before or since. He’d invent characters, reinvent characters and develop stories and themes always portraying something new. I would always be disappointed when another artist took over a strip that he had started. You see, it was Kirby that showed me that comic books could be art. Kirby gave comics a sense of wonder like no else ever did. Or could.

Jack Kirby: “I think the greatest contribution I made in comics is the fact that I, I helped to build up readership. I think people have accepted me. They accepted my stories because I think they recognize their own values in those stories. I don’t think the average reader believes in fairy tales and I’ve never given anybody fairy tales. Yes; I’ve given fictionalized drama but this, this drama is enacted by real people.” (TVO telecast, 1993)

Kirby’s work also introduced me to the realization of just how important inkers and dialogue writers were. Kirby’s work just grew greater as inkers like Joe Sinnott came aboard. His work seemed to jump off the page. Inkers, like Syd Shores on Captain America, gave the character a distinctive retro 1940s look. On Thor, Vince Colletta helped create a different look, an epic one, but I know now he often left a lot of artwork out. Colletta’s inking added a different atmosphere than Joe Sinnott. And Sinnott’s work on The Fantastic Four has never been equaled. As great a storyteller as he was, Kirby was just not a great dialogue writer. Stan Lee was able to capture what Kirby put on the page and translate that to his character’s dialogue, even better than Kirby could. Kirby put so much down on the page, he needed someone to simplify and explain things so his concepts did not collide and get confusing. Lee’s dialogue also added depth to Kirby’s “Kharacters.”

Have you ever seen the face of a child entering a stadium and seeing a major league baseball field for the first time? It’s a glow you cannot forget. For many, it is a similar experience when they see their first Kirby book. I was not a big fan of Kirby’s Fourth World at DC, or The Eternals, when he returned to Marvel. Nevertheless, for those who were young enough to be seeing Kirby for the first time, these projects were gems that will last in their memories forever. Don’t tell them this wasn’t some of Kirby’s best work. The biggest problem is that the Fourth World was a work in progress. Kirby had set down the foundation for that series. At Marvel he might have been given time the opportunity to develop it. At DC, they just pulled the plug, not giving him the time. At DC also redrew Kirby’s faces, giving them that Swan “house look,” making me wonder why they hired him to begin with, especially for Jimmy Olsen. Many may not have missed Stan Lee as the writer, but given the patience shown at Marvel, maybe he needed Stan Lee as the editor.

I became selfish. I expected every issue of The Fantastic Four and Thor to be better than the one before it because, for so long, it was. I kept comparing Jack Kirby to Jack Kirby. Sometimes Jack Kirby just did wonderful work but I was disappointed when it wasn’t at the level of the Silver Surfer, Black Panther, Inhumans, Him, Ego, etc. How could it be? How could you keep doing that? The Marvel Age produced 25 comics (or series) based on his characters. I compared his Fourth World not to the beginnings of The Fantastic Four or Thor. But to the best parts in those series, to his best work. This was just not fair.

By 1975, Jack Kirby had outgrown comics. The Fourth World and The Eternals had a fine beginning and interesting middle but Kirby was searching for their end. He was searching for the Graphic Novel. A large book with a beginning, middle and a conclusion, but the comics industry was not there yet. Maybe it’s still not.

Journey's End New

I stopped reading comics when Kirby stopped creating them. I am always saddened, disappointed knowing that this industry could have celebrated him and made it easier for him to have continued in it. Marvel became so successful and was so caught up in its own remembrances of things past that it could not go down Kirby’s way. I was always ready.

My biggest problem with Jack Kirby is that I miss him so much. As Proust taught us, things exist only in the time and space that they were created. We change, but our perspective is that they change. To this day, I cannot let go of the artist I knew. For a long time I tried going back, by re-reading his stories, trying to recapture a wondrous place I once knew. His work was so powerful that there are times when I almost succeeded. This was a marvelous time of discovery when the real world melted and I was absorbed into another universe. I would try to put away the comic that was still in my hands and to turn out the light. But the images of my comic would not separate themselves from me, leaving me no choice on whether or not I would or could part with it.

For me the Marvel Age ends when Jack “The King” Kirby leaves Captain America. With Lee and Ditko also gone, I no longer had the desire to read comic books. This devotion had not begun with The Fantastic Four but with Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown. Kirby was there at my beginning and at my Journey’s End.

“And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense that it was happy, that it was a real state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I decided to attempt to make it reappear.”

Devil Dinosaur Thus Endeth the Chronicle

7 thoughts on “Jack Kirby and Me!”

  1. Hi Barry,

    Very nice article. Great Kirby quote to start things off. Not to mention John Lennon in between (Does that make Stan McCartney?). However… While I would agree that Marvel’s house style (except of course, Ditko) was Kirby, I think it’s a disservice to Curt Swan to imply he was the house style at DC comics in the 1960’s. First off, DC was a much larger operation than Marvel at that time. In fact, DC was distributing Marvel Comics back then. Before FF #1, Marvel was hanging on for dear life. At DC Curt Swan was the preeminent artist on the Superman family of course. But then you had Carmine Infantino on the Flash and later, Batman. Joe Kubert on the war books and Hawkman. Gil Kane on Green Lantern & the Atom. Meanwhile, folks such as Alex Toth, Murphy Anderson, & Russ Heath were sprinkling their stories throughout the mystery, war & romance titles.

    The only common denominator between the previously mentioned artists and Curt Swan was a certain professionalism, a technical proficiency that ran through their work. You may see Swan’s work as stiff and posed. It was, in some instances. It also rose to the very best the medium has ever offered in others. If it seemed DC had more run-of-the-mill artists on some of their books it was because, well… they had more books!

    “There are those who want to distribute credit, percentages, of the Marvel Age. One person gave Lee and Kirby a 50/50 split. This is silly. Doesn’t Martin Goodman, who told Lee to return to superheroes get some credit? How about Ditko? Spider-Man was their most popular character. Hey, the most popular X-Men is Wolverine, don’t Thomas and Romita get credit? Or Lieber for his work on Thor and Iron Man? Or Heck? The question is not, “How do you retroactively dispense credit,” but “Why would you have to?”

    For Wolverine, the credit would go to Len Wein & Romita. I don’t think Roy Thomas had anything to do with him. How do you retroactively dispense credit? Why would you have to? Well, it’s like insulating your house. If it was done properly at the beginning, there wouldn’t be a need to be retroactive, would there? All of those *ugh* “properties” you mentioned happen to have incredibly lucrative films out. Why shouldn’t Don Heck or Larry Lieber get a (granted, smaller) percentage of the profits? They are actually, creators. They helped develop those characters. As it stands now, the person doing the catering for the crew on those films walked away with a bigger windfall than they did. Is that fair?

    PS: I would never label you UNKIRBY.

    1. I liked Curt Swan’s Superman myself. Kubert and Anderson would be near the top of my list of favorite DC artists from that era, along with Adams–fantastic stylists. I never thought DC was lacking in talented artists. I saw their problem at that time as a lack of strong storylines: no one could fight Superman on equal terms, and while Batman had more potential his villains lacked sufficient menace to be interesting due to the way the character had been rewritten since the 50s. Same was often true of Justice League into the late 70s. Denny O’Neil stated to change this on a few strips in the early 70s, and Roy Thomas also injected a bit more drama when he came over (like when he killed Dr. Fate in All-Star Comics in 1976), but it didn’t fully spread through the company for another decade or so, until the New Teen Titans started to peak.

  2. I agree with a lot of what Barry was saying. However when you look at the creative aspect of comics and the fact that they are a visual medium; Kirby should have gotten something better than a page rate. He breathed life into the characters. You could argue that yes, Lee wrote them. However the Marvel method had Jack drawing out the plot first and Stan putting in the dialogue after the fact. If you look at the margins of Kirby’s original printed pencils, he did a lot of the writing while Stan gave it his own editorial spin. Sure, Stan can say he “wrote” the books. Kirby originated the story,plot costumes and visually placed the story on the page. That’s storytelling too. That’s what makes it so unfair. Without the fantastic visuals, I wouldn’t be running to the newstand (before I could read) to buy them. I wasn’t running to the news stand to read Stan Lee’s writing.

    1. I’ve come to realize that people have different reading styles when it comes to comics. I’m an artist at heart so I love comics for the art, however I’ve been reading since I was 2 years old and I’m a writer today, and I’ve always read the captions and dialogue as a unit with the art (a byproduct of being exposed to comics on Power Records where you read along while you listened). It’s only recently I’ve discovered how many people read comics for the pictures without reading the dialogue, which I find hard to relate to because that’s not how I read comics. For me the art captured my imagination, but it was the writing that drove the stories, especially in strips like Spider-Man where the dialogue was so essential to the characterization. That was Lee and Ditko rather than Kirby of course, but this also entered into comics like FF where characters like the Thing were very dialogue-driven. Another thing to consider is that many stories from the Marvel Age were retellings in a superhero context of stories Lee had previously written in other genres in the 50s–Westerns, romances.

  3. I dont’ think we’d be sitting here having this debate if Stan Lee had any other artist (other than Kirby) drawing Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man or the Avengers. Stan would have been a footnote in comics history if any other artist drew his alleged “co-creations”. The only reason why he has to use the term “co-creator” is because he came under scrutiny by Kirby, Ditko and the fans of Marvel comics.

  4. Once again I find it interesting that the posters are talking about “fairness and credit” and not the contributions of Jack Kirby.

    Jack Kirby, at Marvel was the highest paid artist and he certainly knew what he was doing. Why are you negotiating a contract for him 50 years after the fact? Wasn’t he capable of handling his own affairs?

    I don’t l know what would have happened to Abbott if he had not meet Costello, or Laurel if he had not met Hardy. What makes you think that without Lee, Kirby would have accomplished what he did? He certainly was not very successful at any other place but Marvel. Would Jack Kirby have been the footnote to history? Kirby had no other place to go but Marvel, after being banished from DC for not paying Jack Schiff, his DC editor, commissions on Sky Masters. He had burned his bridges. He could have gone, I guess to Charlton who had the lowest page rates and the least amount of artistic freedom.

    Kirby abruptly left Marvel three times and they always took him back.

    Steve Ditko left Marvel and Spider-Man after issue #38. And sales went up. Kirby leaves Morel in 1970 and sales went up, surpassing DC, where Kirby had migrated to.

    Artists plotting comics was common. I spoke to Julius Swartz and Carmine Infantino. They told me they went to lunch together and plotted out the Flash or Batman stories (and what they would put on the cover) over lunch, but it sometimes took the entire afternoon. Then they gave the detailed plot to the writer. You never hear of Infantino complaining that he did not get plotting credit nor money. As Jack Kirby said in a 1992 interview, “I was there to sell comics.”

    1. “Steve Ditko left Marvel and Spider-Man after issue #38. And sales went up.”–I think this brings out the fact that John Romita deserves more credit in some of these discussions. He set Marvel’s in-house style when Marvel’s sales were peaking. Marvel’s flagship character in its heydey was the Lee-Romita Spider-Man. Kirby and Ditko helped get the ball rolling, but Romita took charge of Marvel’s art direction in the mid-60s, and when Marvel’s sales eclipsed DC’s it was under his artistic leadership and Stan’s editorial direction.

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