In this, the 100th year of JACK KIRBY's birth, the man has been getting a great deal of attention recently - and deservedly so. When Jack was good, he was excellent, and when he was great, he was sensational. However, reading online articles about what a creative genius Jack was, and how he was a prophetic visionary who influenced just about every aspect of popular culture - well, it leaves me feeling a little uneasy at times. I just can't help thinking that some of it goes a little too far. Admire the man if you want, recognise and respect his creative contributions throughout his cosmic career in comics, but remember that he was merely a 'king' and not a god. There's no need to 'deify' him, and some of the retrospective re-evaluations of Jack's work tend to paint a portrait that doesn't always faithfully resemble its subject. It removes the warts, refines the pores, and adds a few extra inches (if not feet) in stature; it turns plaster into marble, and polishes over cracks to give the impression that a solid bronze bust is a priceless gold statue. I'm speaking multi-metaphorically of course, but you get the idea.
If, for the sake of discussion, we leave out Stan for a moment, and imagine that Jack had created, scripted and drawn all the Marvel characters he worked on - by himself - what would the difference have been? I'd suggest that there's a strong likelihood that most of those characters wouldn't be around today. Sure, the art would've looked just as dynamic, just as imposing, just as pleasing-to-the-eye as it had always done, but that alone was never enough to ensure the success or longevity of a Kirby comic. BOYS' RANCH, FIGHTING AMERICAN, The STRANGE WORLD Of YOUR DREAMS, and most of Jack's '70s DC and Marvel mags testify to that. What separated '60s Marvel books from their competitors was the characterisation, the dialogue, the humour, the irreverence, the continuity - most of which came from Stan in the early years (with notable contributions from LARRY LIEBER, and later, ROY THOMAS).
It should also be remembered that, if not for Stan promoting his collaborators and singing their praises, 'King' Kirby would likely never have been crowned, and his name might be even more obscure today among the general public than some claim it to be. (Sure, Jack had already enjoyed name-recognition with previous collaborator JOE SIMON, but the new wave of readers in the 1960s would have been largely unaware of his various past accomplishments.) Likewise, Stan would probably never have had the opportunity to show what he was capable of without Jack to inspire him to rise to the challenge. They needed each other to bring out the best in both of them. Strawberries are nice, and cream is nice, but together they're sublime. 'Twas the same with Stan and Jack.
Then why, you might ask, did Stan make more money out of Marvel than Jack did? Well, Stan was a salaried employee of publisher MARTIN GOODMAN's company, whereas Jack was a freelancer - a position he preferred, it should be noted. And though, in the latter stages of their collaboration, it appears that Jack was mainly the 'ideas' man, when you get down to it (to a certain extent), ideas are ten a penny. It's not so much having ideas that counts, but what you do with them, and Stan often seems to have known what to do with them better than Jack did. Jack had so many ideas (especially over at DC), that he often couldn't discern which ones were 'keepers' and which ones weren't. In an ideal world, Jack would have been better compensated for his Marvel work, but he took the 'king's shilling' (no pun intended) in order to make a living, and though he later came to consider himself underpaid, he did very well for himself by the standards of the day. He certainly made far more than the average wage of the time (though he also put in more than the average hours). I once read somewhere exactly what Jack earned, translated into what it would equate to today, and believe me, it wasn't insignificant.
And now we come to MARK EVANIER. In the main, Mark Evanier strikes me as the kind of guy who, if he says it's Christmas, you hang up your stocking and decorate the tree, but I sometimes think he was too close to Jack to be entirely objective about him. He adores Jack, loves Jack, sees him as almost like a father figure (and the words 'almost like' may well be redundant there), and, out of all diehard Kirby fans, may well be the one who has been fairest to Stan Lee. (In print at least; he tends to play to the anti-Stan fans a bit at his Kirby panel discussions.) Mark has said (and I don't doubt his veracity for a second) that Jack predicted back in the '60s that his characters would one day be the subjects of big-budget movies, and that he also knew his comics would eventually be reprinted in expensive collected editions in the future. Well, that future is now upon us, but does it prove that Jack was a prescient prophet, or that he merely recognised the inevitability of 'big business' (like GODCORPS) mining everything around it in order to make a buck, regardless of any inherent worth - or lack of it?
Remember, modern movie-makers saw more potential in HOWARD The DUCK as a big-screen outing before they ever detected any in the characters Jack created or co-created. And don't forget that the very first CAPTAIN AMERICA movie from 1990 was a great big steaming pile of poo. The financial potential of a comicbook character is often realised not by any inherent worth in the original material, but by how well it is executed on screen by the creative-types behind the movie; it stands or falls on their vision (and ability to deliver), often moreso than that of the character's creator. It would be theoretically possible to take a really lame character, seemingly devoid of any obvious promise, and make a successful movie franchise out of it - if those behind it had the imagination, the budget - and, of course, the required talent.
But, hey - I'm not trying to 'do down' Jack Kirby - certainly not in his centenary year. No, I'm merely trying to keep a sense of perspective about him. Never met the man, never saw him, never spoke with him, so I'm not as 'close' to him as those who knew, or worked, or lived with him are. (Though his name and artwork were a constant presence during my comics-buying youth.) However, one usually has a better sense of perspective about something the farther away from it one is - simply because it can then be seen in a wider context. Sometimes that applies to people as well.
Happy 100th Birthday, Jack. Wherever you are, you can rest assured that you did us and yourself proud. You and Stan created something of lasting value in your Marvel characters, and, to my mind at least, you each deserve equal credit for them. They would never have been what they are without both of you.