Tuesday, 29 August 2017

JACK KIRBY AT 100 - AN EVALUATION...



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.

When it came to action, Jack Kirby at his peak was unbeatable.  His pages pulsated with life, and every panel flowed into the next with seamless ease, resulting in almost unparalleled sequential storytelling.  Even when characters just stood around talking for a page, a sense of impending drama simply oozed from every picture.  You'd get long shots, medium shots, close-ups, and views from the balcony.  A page was a stage to Jack and he dressed it accordingly.  Sure, his characters cast shadows that bore no resemblance to either them or reality, and sometimes they had two left hands or feet and the relative sizes of players weren't always proportionally consistent, but, boy - did his pages sing.  Yeah, knees were square, fingers each had around six joints, eyes were often on a different level, and feet were the size of shoe boxes, but every panel made an impact that was nearly off-the-scale.  There's no doubt that Jack was a major force to be reckoned with in comicbook storytelling, and there's no getting away from that fact.

But a Jack Kirby page was a Jack Kirby page, and if his abstract musculature and idiosyncratic anatomy didn't quite appeal to your artistic sensibilities, I can quite understand why.  When measured against the contemporaneous artwork of NEAL ADAMS, JOE KUBERT, CURT SWAN, BERNIE WRIGHTSON, etc., Jack's '70s work had a distinctly cartoonish quality that seemed somewhat out-of-step with those around him.  In my (not so) humble opinion, his CHALLENGERS Of The UNKNOWN pages inked by WALLY WOOD were far superior to anything he ever drew in KAMANDI, because they were more illustrative and less abstract.  Sadly, in time, age and illness took their toll on Jack, and his later projects, like HUNGER DOGS, are best passed over with no more than a cursory glance.  Those who would disagree with my seemingly harsh (though I'd say 'honest') assessment will point out, as evidence to the contrary, that most of Jack's work - even those mags which were regarded at the time as commercial failures (like the FOURTH WORLD series) - are currently available in expensive reprint volumes.  Well, of course they are, but that's no surprise - the work has already been paid for and there's a hungry book market to feed.

And remember, over the years, a cult has been built-up around Jack, not only by those who truly respect him, but also by those who benefit from keeping his name alive and exploiting his legend and legacy.  There's always been money in nostalgia from a publisher's point of view, and, that apart, it's completely understandable that many of today's comic creators, whose childhood was set against the tapestry of Jack's lesser DC work, are constantly reviving those concepts so that they can get to play in Jack's sandbox.  Some people hail the Fourth World series as Jack's masterpiece, and who am I to tarnish the shine of their childhood joys?  However, to me, Jack's DC work was mainly an interesting, mildly entertaining interlude, which pales into insignificance against his '60s MARVEL collaborations with STAN LEE.  I say 'interlude', but, sadly, the truth is that 'act two' of Jack's career at Marvel never really took off, even if it was later shoehorned into Marvel continuity by those loath to jettison anything created by 'King' Kirby.

And now we get to the crux of the matter.  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  You may think that even if some of the accolades currently being heaped on Jack's crown are prone to hyperbole, then so what?  It's merely redressing many years of imbalance where Jack received what was perceived by many to be a detrimentally disproportionate share of the credit and glory for his role in co-creating the Marvel universe.  And there's something in that, to be sure.  Whatever it was that Stan did (which is not to be construed as Stan's contribution being a mystery), he probably wouldn't have got to do it had Jack not been part of the equation.  Likewise, Jack's contribution probably wouldn't have been held in such awe at the time (and today), had it not been for Stan's significant input.  Let's face the facts.  Jack's art had always been what it was:  dynamic, power-packed, well-composed, interesting - just about anything good you care to say about it.  So what marks the difference between the strips he created and wrote by himself, and those he did with Stan Lee?  The answer is staring you in the face - Stan Lee.

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.


******

(Those, if any, who've read this post more than once may have noticed a few amendments between readings, as I've been refining the text where I feel it could be expressed in a more articulate, clearer, and smoother way.  Oh, the power of being your own editor - it's intoxicating.) 

23 comments:

TC said...

For some time, there may have been a tendency to give Stan Lee too much of the credit, and Kirby (and Ditko) too little, for Marvel's success. But, later, there was a sort of backlash, with revisionists portraying Lee as a fraud who stole the credit for others' work. I don't think the latter portrayal is fair, either.

Also, there is a tendency to give Kirby all of the credit for the Golden Age stuff (Captain America, Boy Commandos, Manhunter, Sandman), while ignoring Joe Simon.

Kirby was a great comic book artist, and if his work lacked realism, it made up for it in excitement. And the superhero genre is all about exciting fantasy, not realism, anyway.

Speaking of that, IMHO, Kirby's larger-than-life style (which, in the 1970's, had become a caricature of itself) was best suited to larger-than-life genres: super heroes, science fiction.

I didn't much care for his work on Our Fighting Forces in the Bronze Age. "My" Losers were written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by John Severin. But that's a matter of personal taste. And, conversely, the more realistic artists like Severin and Kubert might not have been able to handle the grandeur and epic scale needed for a subject like Thor, The New Gods, or The Eternals.

Kid said...

Talking of 'The Losers', TC, Kirby's pages on that series should probably have been inked by John Severin. Can you imagine the difference that would've made? And I'd also have liked to see him ink Thor when JK was drawing the mag - that would really have been something to see. Thanks for the interesting comment, always a pleasure.

Rip Jagger said...

You correct that Stan must never be removed from the equation, but that said, his contribution was alas more more meager than the modern imagination remembers. Folks who don't know comics, think Stan did it all and that's plainly wrong. Kirbyites react to that sad fact and sometimes with too much venom. As for the Kirby-Wood team, it is pretty artwork and I do like it, but somehow Wally's precise veneers are not the ideal for Kirby's pencils to my eye, I frankly like someone with a bit more rustic edge like Heck or Giacoia. Wood did what he always did, made the work look like pretty much a Wally Wood page, though Kirby's pencils pushed through. To that extent they did work well together when they did so. I've been reading a bunch of the 50's material of late and I am getting a greater appreciation for this era of Kirby. Chris Rule is a name I'm growing to know much better.

Rip Off

Kid said...

I must confess that I like Don Heck inking Jack's pencils as well, RJ. Their early Iron Man collaborations were great, and I liked the fact that Don gave Iron Man's helmet a chin, whereas Jack pencilled it as a torpedo tube that fitted straight into a 'neck ring' on his chest plate. Although I know what you mean, I'm not sure that 'meager' is a word that can be applied to Stan's contribution, as it clearly had an overwhelming effect on the finished work that was, perhaps, 'disproportionate' to the 'man hours' involved. By that I mean that it was like the 'magic ingredient' in some recipe, which might not be the largest component in the mix, but is what gives the dish its 'special' flavour. Not a perfect analogy, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

Phil S said...

As a big Kirby fan I think Sinnott and Wood were his best inkers. As for Kirby's work, yes I do believe he was the primary creative and moving force behind the Marvel explosion. However. It's clear he needed an editor and someone who spoke English as she is wrote for dialogue. Can there be any doubt if the DC work had Stan doing the words they would have lasted longer? Also Kirby wasn't the only artist at Marvel. I don't think it was a coincidence that Stan was writer/editor on the entire line. Spider-man, Daredevil, Dr. Strange etc. all the non Kirby work was also very solid. Stan knew what made a good story and character.

Kid said...

That'll be 'spoke English as she is written', PS. (See, I could've edited Jack too.) Well, I certainly think Jack was A creative force, but if Stan initiated the Fantastic Four at Martin Goodwin's request (or instruction), then he's the other side of the coin behind the start of the Marvel Universe. I think as time went on, Stan was content to let Jack do his own thing (with little nudges in the direction he preferred Jack to go from time to time), but if Stan had a hand in the finished result and it was his input that made the difference, then he's an equal creative force, but in a slightly different way. I'd have loved to see Stan script the Fourth World series, but if it had been done at Marvel, then Superman and Jimmy Olsen wouldn't have been a part of it. As I consider that to be the best thing he did at DC, that would have been a huge loss.

Barry Pearl said...

Kid, my feelings are really close to yours. It was the collaboration of Lee and Kirby that made me love comics

First, with Challengers Jack Kirby is the reason I started reading comics. And when he left Marvel (1977) I stop reading them. Some feel that Kirby was not the greatest comic book “artist.” Perhaps Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Wally Wood should be considered better illustrators.

Jack Kirby was, simply, one of the world’s greatest STORYTELLERS. That’s right, he told wonderful stories. He had an incredible imagination. While other storytellers used words and typewriters, he used drawing pencils. His pictures told stories that no one else ever thought of. And his bodies had poses no one ever thought of either.

It is unfair to say that he was just a co-creator of the Fantastic Four. That sounds like he created one group of characters or one comic. He co-created Dr. Doom, The Watcher, The Inhumans, Silver Surfer, Galactus, The Black Panther and a few dozen more. And he co-created the tapestry, the stories, in which they existed. In one of my favorite stories, This Man This Monster, he told the unforgettable tale with no great or familiar villain. And that splash page tells a story all in itself, not a word needs to be spoken.

Kirby made his characters his own. Thor, Odin, Loki, and all of Asgard existed long before Lee and Kirby. But, today, I can only think of those characters as Jack Kirby drew them. At Marvel, Kirby was relatively unrestricted in his storytelling. We know he basically plotted them out and Stan put in the dialogue.

Steranko did a great SHIELD, I loved Heck and Buscema on the Avengers and Dick Ayers on Sgt. Fury. But they all were building on the foundation that Kirby co-created. Even the current movies are built of his storytelling.

DC comics would not allow Kirby to redo Superman and other characters in his own image (they often even redrew the faces.) He wasn’t given the time to develop the New Gods, which should have been brought out much slower. I never emotionally connected to the DC characters like I had done at Marvel. And yes, I had a strong emotional connection to those Marvel characters. So I didn’t get upset when Kirby left DC, because I felt the prodigal son was returning home.

Sadly, the home that Kirby wanted to come home to no longer existed.

Kid said...

Well, I'd love to be able to say something equally interesting in response to your comment, Barry, but you've pretty much said everything worthwhile that can be said, so there's no point in me repeating it. One thing that does surprise me though is that even the Silver Surfer these days is credited as 'created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby', which at first took me aback as I thought it should probably read 'Jack Kirby & Stan Lee', given that Jack originated the character. Then I realised that Marvel were following the 'Lennon & McCartney' model, where, regardless of who did what in a song, they were all credited that way. My view sort of leans towards the idea that the published comicbook is the finished 'creation', so therefore whoever the main men are responsible for it, they are, in effect, the creators. Because Stan came up with the back story of the Surfer and because that's how the character is perceived by the public, then that makes Stan co-creator - even though Jack thought of the idea of an alien on a surfboard on his own. I'm sure some people won't agree, but the omelette that was Marvel Comics in the '60s consisted of eggs called Stan and Jack (and let's not forget Steve). We wouldn't have got to enjoy the finished dish if one of those ingredients had been absent.

Barry Pearl said...

Kid,
Credits in comics are confusing and simply nuts. But traditionally the writer gets first credit, probably because before the Marvel Age writers were the first ones to submit the work and their names were first.
In my opinion the following credit would be wrong , but no one would ever agree with me.
“The Fantastic Four” created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
No Kirby person would object to that. But it is truly not accurate. It should be:
“The Fantastic Four” created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The Human Torch created by Carl Burgos.”

Somehow, they forget certain creators.

Comic book characters are not just created they are developed. The Hulk, created by Lee and Kirby, had an unsuccessful run and went just six issues. It was Steve Ditko that gave the Hulk his anger management problems, changed his environment and introduced strong supporting characters. But we’d never get a credit that said:

“The Hulk created by Lee and Kirby and developed by Steve Ditko.”

Kid said...

Very true, Barry. As you say, over the years, many other creators contribute to the appeal of successful characters. Batman, for example (one out of many), would likely have been cancelled if not for the TV show in the '60s, and it was probably Denny O'Neal and Neal Adams (and Irv Novick) that took the mag onto greater success after that. Some of the royalties from merchandise and movies probably goes to Bob Kane's family, but none of the later contributors who kept the mags going get a penny.

Barry Pearl said...

Kid,

Things have changed a bit. Many of the contributors, whose characters or plots are used in the movies and TV shows, do get "royalties." Its not exactly royalties because that implies ownership. They call it rewards and such.

Kid said...

That's good to hear, Barry - whatever they call it, at least it's money. The thing is though, where royalties are paid, most times the original creators (or their estates) benefit from the work others have put in to revive the financial potential of a declining character, even moreso than those responsible for the turnaround in that character's popularity.

baab said...

Even as a kid I understood the meaning of 'The king'.
And I also knew who 'The man' was.

Kid said...

Nah, Baab - you're thinking of 'The King' and 'The Man'. Capitals make a difference.

baab said...

oooooh!
you got me !

Kid said...

I got you, Baab - isn't that the name of a song? No, wait a mo - that's 'babe', not 'Baab'.

Anonymous said...

When Prince Charles becomes king he'd better realize that Kirby and Elvis were the real kings, not a poncey aristocrat !

Kid said...

And let's not forget Emperor Jim Reeves, CJ - he knew how to sing.

Spirit of 64 said...

Its easy to forget that despite 4 brilliant decades, when Kirby left comics in '78 no-one noticed or particularly cared. Although Kirby's 70's work is very much an acquired taste, it still managed to prove inspirational to a new generation of kids and as a result, today Kirby's name and legacy are as strong as ever.
Kid thanks for all your efforts in running the blog. Its always well written and balanced. Luckily for you I managed to delete (and so spared you) a long appreciation about Jack; his issues with Marvel and various publishers; thoughts behind the 'produced by Lee & Kirby' credit line; an appreciation of Lee and how he looked after old pro's; and more comments on Kirby's 70s work. You know how I like to go on about Kirby! Maybe one for another time.

Kid said...

I'd liked to have read that, '64, so feel free to make your comments as long as you want. In fact, why don't you do a guest post for this blog on those very subjects? And thanks for the thanks.

Dave S said...

Kirby was one of the most creative people ever to work in comics, but I personally believe his best work was in collaboration with Stan Lee. Kirby's own writing tends to rely too much on captions over dialogue and lacks the energy and characterisation that Stan contributed.

Having said that, probably my favourite Kitby illustration is the splash page of FF #51, which has no dialogue and very little copy on it at all, just a beautiful, evocative image which has never left my memory since I first read that story.

I think Kirby is undoubtedly one of the men who built the comics industry, but I believe that he was at his best when working in tandem with Smilin' Stan - they created some of the most memorable characters, images and stories in any medium. Maybe the biggest compliment to the stuff they created is that there are still comics, novels, TV shows and films being made all these decades later based on the work Jack and Stan done together.

Dave S said...

Forgot to mention, I'd love to read Spirit of '64s thoughts on Kirby too, sounds really interesting!

Kid said...

Yup, that's pretty much how I feel, DS, though I feel that the colouring of that splash page also adds to the mood of it. It would've been interesting to see how Jack would've scripted the tale, but I doubt it would've been anywhere near as good as Stan's scripting on it.

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