Jack Kirby Makes an Auteur Detour

(The text below is based on a version of this article which appears in The International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 14, No.1 Spring 2012. That version of the article was in turn based on several articles which originally appeared here at the Comic Book Collectors Club. If you can keep this continuity straight, you’re doing better than us–Editor)

The Comic 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.

Comic book fans agree that Jack Kirby was a great comic book artist and storyteller. His accomplishments will not be diminished here. Kirby, with Stan Lee or Joe Simon, produced some of the most acclaimed comics ever and he produced many of my favorites.

Recently, some Kirby Advocates are trying to redefine and even remove the writing and editing credits of Stan Lee and marginalize his work, without providing any direct evidence for doing so. Stan was a Marvel employee for 70 years and still carries the title of producer on Marvel’s movies. Although Kirby’s wife did receive a pension when he died, the Kirby Estate wants to share more in Marvel’s success. Some Kirby advocates are upset that Lee is still getting the lion’s share of attention and publicity from the movies and Kirby, perhaps because he is no longer with us, rarely gets mentioned. Currently, those advocates are promoting the view that Kirby was the “auteur,” the actual and sole creator of the core characters and comics of Marvel Comics. “Auteur” has never been a mechanism for parsing out credit; it’s a method of describing an individual style or vision that permeates and characterizes a body of work. Simply put, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created their comics together. Ironically, Kirby had left Marvel to get creative control at DC, not because he already had it at Marvel.

So why does this so-called theory crop up now? The Kirby estate recently failed in their legal efforts to have Jack Kirby declared the creator and the original copyright holder of the most of the Marvel characters. Now, to put pressure on Disney, many Kirby advocates are trying to move this issue into the court of public opinion. Also, the advocates of this concept like the publicity they are getting. They are, as they constantly accuse others, riding on Kirby’s fame to construct their own careers.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “auteur” as: A film director whose personal influence and artistic control over his or her films are so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision.

Auteur comes from the French word meaning “authorship,” the sole writer of a book or composer of a symphony, where one person could do everything. In 1954, Francois Truffaut used it to describe the director of an independent, low budget film, where he was instrumental in writing the script, casting the actors, and hiring everyone involved. Of course, even in a small budget film, one man could not do everything, so the term auteur was stretched a bit here. The word entered the realm of popular usage when, in 1959, the magazine Sight & Sound referred to both Truffaut and Claude Chabrol as “‘films d’auteurs’.”

Marvel’s formative years were early sixties when the Marvel Method was introduced. Back then, Stan Lee did a majority of the plotting. We have evidence of this in his giving the plots to his brother, Larry, to script. Larry recently told me that he did full scripts, including the first Thor story, and did not work with the Marvel Method. Some written plot outlines have survived. Even Kirby’s early interviews have him stating how much input Stan had in plotting the stories. But those interviews are often ignored by the “Kirby did everything” campaigners. It is true that as time went on, Kirby became more involved with the plotting but there is no evidence to prove he did it all by himself.

To compare a comic book artist to a director is a false analogy. Often, when people try to make such analogies, they jump to incredible conclusions. A comic book artist rarely has the opportunity to create a separate, unique and personal vision. Rather, he creates another installment in a series. He has much less creative freedom than a movie director. Certainly that was the case with Kirby at Marvel.

Hypocritically, the “Kirby as auteur” theory takes credit away from other creators, something many advocates claimed to have happened to Jack Kirby. Spider-Man, Marvel’s most successful creation, was brought to life by Lee and Steve Ditko. It is not the version that Jack Kirby created and was rejected by Stan Lee because it was too close to the “Fly” which Simon and Kirby developed for Archie Comics a few years earlier. The advocates claim, somehow, that Kirby’s unused work is responsible for this character. By that same logic, we should give Derek Jeter an assist for striking out just before Alex Rodriguez hits a home run. You see A-Rod got to study the pitcher during Jeter’s at bat. The original X-Men were created by Kirby and Lee but only came into their own years after Kirby left it, when the title had been restocked with completely new characters. Rather than supporting the concept that all creators should now receive recognition for the actual work they did, here they say only Kirby—not Ditko, not John Buscema, was the sole author of projects from Marvel.

A mainstream comic book artist, even one with great storytelling abilities, is usually handed established characters, required to work within standard formulas (there has to be a five-page fight scene, you must use certain characters, Superman’s face always should be on-model) and must work within a great deal of continuity. On TV and in comics, someone oversees the storylines and scripts, and hires the writers. On TV that job might fall to the producer or show runner; in comics, to the editor. Just as in comics, the editor can ask for changes to the submitted pencils. The TV director and the comic book artist have creative input, but neither has the creative control necessary to shape the overall vision. On TV the director turns his work over to the producer, who has the final cut. While a director can make a difference, there may be ten different ones used in a season, and the series has to retain a consistent look. He is a collaborator, but cannot be considered the sole author, or auteur. An auteur would have the authority to make permanent changes in the cast of characters and have his choice of endings. Mainstream comic book artists and TV show directors traditionally must leave characters the way they found them.

Mainstream comic books, like episodic television, are a necessarily collaborative medium, where it’s virtually impossible for an auteur to exist. For example, here’s how Stan Lee described the creation of the Fantastic Four to Leonard Pitts in 1981. “I came up with the idea of the Fantastic Four. I wrote it down. I still have the outline I wrote—the whole idea for the story. And I called Jack and I said, “I’d like you to draw this. Here’s the outline, these are the characters I want,” and so forth. Jack then took it and drew it. Now, Jack did create the characters in the sense that he drew them. I didn’t draw them. I wrote them. He created the way they look. …. Jack is wonderful at story. He’s very imaginative. He’s the most talented guy in the business as far as I’m concerned, as far as imagination goes. He contributed a great deal. We worked as partners…” In fact, starting with Fantastic Four #56, the credits no longer read “Written and Drawn by…” But “Conceived and Created by” or “Produced by” Lee and Kirby. This acknowledges their partnership.

It is absolutely true that the Marvel Method of creating comics changed the traditional structure of writer and artist. Stan Lee described the situation at Virginia Tech in 1977 as he had done very often: “Initially comic books were done just like a play. You would write a script where in a play you would write Act 1, Scene 1, the protagonist enters from stage left and does so and such. With a comic we would write Page 1, Panel 1, the superhero enters from a doorway and leaps through a window or so… I was writing most of the stories…and I found I was having trouble keeping up with the artist. For example… I’d be writing the Fantastic Four story and the artist who does Spider-Man would come in and say, “Hey, Stan, I need a script… I finished the one I was doing.” But there I am doing the Fantastic Four and I can’t stop …so I would say to the artist, “Look, I tell you what. I don’t have time to write your script,” but he needed a script. He couldn’t wait ‘cause we have to – a production schedule, so I’d say, “I’ll tell you what the plot is. You just go home and draw anything and – as long as it follows my plot. Bring the drawings in. By then I’ll have finished this story and I’ll put the dialogue in the captions on your artwork.” Well, I found in that way I was able to keep a lot of artists busy at once.

Steve Dikto wrote in Robin Snyder’s The Comics in 1990: “Stan provided the plot ideas. There would be a discussion to clear up anything, consider options and so forth. I would then do the panel/page breakdowns, pencil the visual story continuity, and, on a separate paper, provide a very rough panel dialogue, merely as a guide for Stan. We would go over the penciled story/art pages and I would explain any deviations, changes, and additions, noting anything to be corrected before or during the inking. Stan would provide the finished dialogue for the characters, ideas, consistency, and continuity. Once lettered, I would ink the pages.”

It was not unique for an artist to contribute to the plotline of a story. I spoke about this in 2002 to Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino, the editor and artist for such DC features as the Flash. The two would go out for lunch and sometimes spend the entire afternoon thinking up a plot for the next story. They would come up with a plot that would make a great cover and splash page, which they believed, sold the comic. Then, they would give that idea to the writer to compose a story. So far, nobody has claimed Carmine Infantino the “auteur” of the Flash.

The auteur may make permanent changes in the cast and have his choice of endings. Mainstream comic book artists and TV show directors traditionally must leave characters the way the found them. On TV and in comics, someone is needed to oversee the storylines and scripts, and hires the writers. On TV that job might fall to the producer or show runner; in comics, to the editor. On TV the director turns his work over to the producer, who has the final cut. In comics editors often make changes in the submitted pencils. Kirby did not have final say on his own pencils. Gil Kane said in 1996 speech: “When he (Kirby) brought those (pages) in, Stan would look over them and very often be critical of the material. He would ask him to change some of it. Jack would be totally accommodating and accept the notations for a change, and he’d change it. But when we would go out to lunch, you’d have to almost tie him to the seat—he would just be raging!” And while Kirby advocates usually only focus on Stan Lee for his “interference” with Kirby’s vision, at DC, editors also made significant changes in to Kirby’s Fourth World scripts (Forever People, New Gods, Mr. Miracle, Jimmy Olsen) and even had another penciller come in, erase many of Kirby’s faces—primarily Superman—and redraw them on-model.

At Marvel, then, the penciller was analogous to a TV director, whose principal job is to supervise the photography and place the players. There is no question Kirby contributed to the plot, if not the dialogue, but in partnership with the writer and editor, who had the final say. The inker the job of lighting director as well as make-up, set design and sometimes even costume design. John Romita has said that no penciller ever drew the back of a super-hero costume, leaving that for the inker, whom Kirby did not choose or collaborate with once the pencils were finished. Inkers were important components of a comic, and made a difference in the finished look of a story. The TV producer, not the director, makes the changes and is in charge of the final product, including the scoring. Here the editor was Stan Lee.

At the time Truffaut referred to himself as the, auteur, the single author, he was not working for a movie studio, but was producing and directing small, inexpensive independent movies. There are comic book equivalents. Robert Crumb created independent, “underground” comics free from the control of editors. He wrote, pencilled, inked, even lettered his comics, which, mostly were published in black and white. Crumb even determined the length and the characters to be used. Free from the Comics Code, he still had to work with others to be published and distributed. In mainstream comics, the penciller, Jack Kirby, had no choice in choosing the inker or colorist. And while Truffaut used original characters which he created from scratch, Kirby had to use characters created or co-created by others. The auteur, by definition, has to be in control of the creative total from its beginning all the way to its end: on TV, in the editing room, making cuts and creating scenes and the “final cut”; in comics, choosing the writer, inker, letterer, and colorist and overseeing all of the creative decisions.

However, Kirby never was in a position to set the parameters of, exercise creative control over, or shape the Marvel universe to his vision. What we know as the Marvel universe, where the characters interact within a common setting and are instantly recognizable as “Marvel,” always was the product of Stan Lee, whose creative energies were focused on creating a line of ongoing comic book titles and characters that were different from DC’s and popular with audiences beyond the typical 10-year-old comic book readers. Kirby did an enormous amount of storytelling within Stan’s larger vision, but it clearly was Stan who defined the scope and character of the Marvel universe, regardless of where and how the inspiration for stories or characters may have originated. It was Lee who decided what a “Marvel Comic” looked and “sounded” like—and set the template for how the company would interact with its growing fan base.

In early interviews, even Jack Kirby acknowledged how much input Stan had in terms of plotting stories. But in his 1990 interview with The Comics Journal, Jack Kirby claimed, “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything.” For whatever reason, some Kirby advocates have embraced the later claim, despite Roz later admitting that she and Jack had decided to make questionable claims because they believed Stan Lee had done so as well.

In fact, Jack Kirby said on many occasions that once his completed pencils were handed in, he never looked at the finished product. So what impact could he have had on the script and dialogue? Here is a bit of the discussion from WBAI radio on August 28, 1987.
Jack Kirby: “I can tell you that I wrote a few lines myself above every panel …”
Stan Lee: “They weren’t printed in the books. Jack isn’t wrong by his own rights because Jack, answer me truthfully – Did you ever read one of the stories after it was finished? I don’t think you did. I don’t think you ever read one of my stories. I think you were always busy drawing the next one. You never read the book when it was finished.”

Jack Kirby:” I wasn’t allowed to write…dialog, Stanley…. my own dialog. And that, I think that’s the way people are. It was insignificant (sic). So whatever was written in them was, well, it, it, you know, it was the action I was interested in.”

Stan Lee: “But I don’t think you ever felt that the dialogue was that important.”

The closest a Marvel creator ever got to being the sole author was Jim Steranko’s incredible work on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, where he wrote, and pencilled, inked and submitted color instructions. Steranko even communicated with production manager Sol Brodsky to discover where the ads would go, so he could properly place double page spreads. But, eventually, with the deadline issues facing a monthly series, inkers were brought in. Far from being an auteur, Steranko told me that Sol Brodsky (not Stan Lee) refused his payment for “silent” pages, and those instructions came from Martin Goodman, publisher.

Both the TV director and the comic book artist must leave the project in the hands of others to finish sin order to start the next episode.

Fifty years after the fact, we can’t go back and divide the work into percentages and it’s pointless to try. Stan was the writer, plotter, editor, art director, production manager, cover designer and even word balloon placer. Kirby was an essential contributor, a co-plotter and artist. They were partners, collaborators, neither was the sole author. And Kirby deserves credit for the projects he worked on, not the entire Marvel Universe that was Stan’s job. “”Stan had a sense—which he understood better than Ditko, Kirby, or anybody—of a real universe.”The Marvel Universe,” but it was really his construct, far more than anybody else’s. He had the idea that this was a consistent world where all these people lived, and he was the ultimate puppet master. In addition, he was a great wordsmith…Sure, for some of the things he accomplished he definitely needed Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, but for the big picture, he didn’t.”—Roy Thomas Alter Ego #50.

The Kirby advocates have trouble with the fact that Kirby worked best and had his greatest commercial successes when he worked in a partnership, be it with Stan Lee or Joe Simon. There was no Mainline Age of Comics when Kirby was owner of a company and could have produced stories all on his own. Kirby’s partners kept him focused and on target, and handled the business end, which included promotion and, to a great extent, story and character content.

So to me, this entire “Kirby-as-auteur” theory seems to be little more than an awkward construct, dependent on redefining the term “auteur,” being advanced by a handful of disappointed Kirby advocates in the wake of the Kirby/Toberoff decision. Redefining the word to fit their own purpose is a like finding the right pair of shoes and changing your feet to fit it. When the Kirby advocates received unexpected resistance to their claims, they try tried to say that “auteur” just means director. It does not, it means sole author. The word director means director. This is a devious way of getting people to accept and use that term. So, while there may be similarities, mainstream comics are not like movies–where an auteur can exist–it is more like the medium of television.

Lee and Kirby were partners and collaborators, but ultimately no one who looks at the existing evidence could label either as the sole author—or auteur—of Marvel Comics. In any collaborative media, auteurs need not apply.

In giving Barry his F.F.F (Fearless Face Fronter) award for his book, The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project, 1961-1976, Stan Lee has said : “There’ll never be a better history of the early days of Marvel!”

Barry has also provided articles and reference materials for The Stan Lee Universe, Kirby, King of Comics, The Art of Steve Ditko, Alter Ego, and Ditkomania.

Special thanks go out to Nick Caputo and Mark Luebker.

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