Thursday, 29 August 2019


Yesterday, JACK KIRBY, had he yet been alive, would've been 102.  Cue various blog writers waxing eloquent and lyrical about what a great guy he was, what a fantastic artist/writer/ideas man he was, how prescient he was about graphic novels, collected editions, the fate of comicbooks, etc.  And, of course, how he healed the sick, walked on water, foretold the future, and performed many signs and wonders. Oh, my mistake regarding the previous sentence, but it's a natural false impression that some may get, given the over-the-top deification of the man in some comicbook circles.

I didn't know Mr. Kirby, but I'm quite prepared to believe that he was a very nice man, and as far as comicbooks are concerned, he certainly was (when at the top of his game) a fantastic artist and ideas man.  Writer?  H'mm, well he certainly wasn't the wordsmith that STAN LEE was, and even at its best, his scripting lacked the grace and the charm - to say nothing of natural-sounding dialogue - of his MARVEL collaborator, but he could certainly hang a story together.  Okay, some of his plots you could fly a 747 through, but he did a good job of producing ephemeral comics to amuse kids and teenagers for 20 minutes or so, and for a time he did it better than most.

However, let's look at things in context.  Jack was reputedly a voracious reader of books and magazines, fictional and factual, historical and scientific, and got many of his ideas from them.  He didn't originate the concept of DNA and cloning, or indeed time-travel, or any other concept that ever appeared in his strips.  He regurgitated what he had read, often simplifying the ingredients to their most basic level for the purpose of filling a comicbook for what was assumed to be unsophisticated readers. Remember, we're talking about comics, which, at the time Jack was prominent in them, were never regarded as being anything more than an inexpensive way of amusing kids and teens.  I wonder what Jack's reaction would've been, had the writers he'd been 'inspired' by demanded credit and compensation from him?

Jack was a great visual storyteller, but his art was also filled with inconsistencies and flaws.  Characters cast shadows that bore no resemblance to reality, sported two left (or right) hands and feet, or were sized totally out of proportion to one another.  As for his abstract and idiosyncratic depiction of musculature, well, it's perhaps as well that he never decided to be a physician or surgeon, given his seemingly elastic 'grasp' of human anatomy.  But did all that matter?  In a sense, no - not if you read one of his comics in the same way that it had been written or drawn, which was at speed, without paying too much attention to detail.  Just jump aboard and enjoy the ride while it lasts, then jump aboard the next one.

Now, I never met Jack, but like I said, I'm prepared to accept that he was a decent guy in the main - but, just like the rest of us, he wasn't perfect.  He didn't always credit JOE SIMON for his contributions during their partnership when recounting a list of his (Jack's) achievements in later years, something you think he'd have gone to great pains to do, given his perception of how he himself was denied credit for his own work.  He became bitter and angry (fueled, it has to be said, by some of those around him) at not receiving what he considered proper financial compensation for his many creations or co-creations, and unwisely (as well as inaccurately) accused Stan Lee of never having created or written anything in his life.

However, as I've pointed out a few times before, Jack knew how things operated at the time, and knew and accepted that the copyright of any feature belonged to the publishers.  That was only natural (as well as sensible), because why should a publisher shell out many thousands of dollars to launch a comicbook, only for the writer or artist to take it elsewhere if it became successful?  They'd have spent thousands and then have nothing to show for it.  There's nothing to indicate that Jack or Joe treated their contributors any differently to the established norms of the time when the ran their own company, MAINLINE COMICS.

Jack sold his creations to keep himself in a job, by which he earned a good living to support his family.  The fact that his work later appreciated in value didn't really entitle him to cry 'foul' after the fact.  Otherwise that Aston Martin D.B.5 I sold for £200,000 a few years ago and which is now worth 5 million - well, I'm entitled to a slice of that, so I am.  (No, of course I didn't - I'm just illustrating the point.)  British cartoonist LEO BAXENDALE likewise felt cheated (with no real basis in my view), but it's interesting (and relevant) to consider the opinion of another UK cartoonist, the late TERRY BAVE.

I once asked Terry if he'd ever felt cheated, and tempted to seek reimbursement for all the characters and strips he'd created (with his wife SHIELA) over the years that IPC were still reprinting, and his response was "Nah!  Kept me in a job, it did.  Who needs the grief of all that palaver?"  (Despite the quotes to indicate speech, that's a paraphrase of what Terry said as best as I can remember it, but it carries the full essence of his sentiment.)  Terry enjoyed his career in comics, enjoyed the creative process, regarded himself blessed to have worked in the industry for so long, and didn't feel cheated, or deprived, or bitter about anything. Why?  Because he knew the deal going in and accepted it - and didn't whinge about it later.

I note that some blog writers are claiming that Jack has been vindicated by time, seeing as how some of his later work, regarded as failures when it was first published, is now being reprinted in hardcover volumes.  This proves, they say, what they knew all along, that it was just the rubes who were too dim to realise what masterpieces Jack was producing.  Well, no (simply).  What it proves is that once 'cult status' has been built up around a figure by dedicated fans over the years since he died, then an interest has been generated in his work, not that the work was necessarily or automatically deserving of unqualified success back in the day.  It also proves that, given the growing industry in collected editions of material that has already been paid for, there is a market to be exploited and an appetite to be developed that will need fed.  I have a lot of Jack's original comics, as well as many and various editions of reprints of the same material.  I find that it doesn't read any better or worse now than it did at the time I first read it, decades ago.

So Jack was a nice guy, who may have believed (or held hopes of) how the comicbook industry would develop in the future, but I'm sceptical that Jack knew  - he couldn't 'know'.  But just for argument's sake, even if he did (and remember, he'd have been aware of what other countries were doing in the field of comics publishing, so there was a template), it wasn't necessarily because he thought that his comics were intrinsically deserving of such treatment (deluxe collected editions, blockbuster movies, etc.), merely, perhaps, that he was cynically aware of just how 'big business' eventually gets around to mining and exploiting absolutely everything down to the very last molecule. In short, if there's money to be made from something, they'll find every which way to make it.  Jack certainly knew that.

Jack was a fine man by all accounts, and a great comicbook creator, but let's dial down the more 'godlike' attributes that some fans and former associates are prone to ascribe to him, eh?  However, that'll probably never happen while there are people and publishers with a vested interest in promoting (and sometimes exaggerating to the point of deifying) his achievements in order to sell books by or about him.

Let me tell you what I know.  This post well receive a lot of visits, that's for sure.   However, whether or not it'll generate a lot of comments depends on you.           


Terranova47 said...

Well said. Jack Kirby was a very prolific artist and his style meshed well with the Marvel characters that were being published when Stan Lee was in control.

As regards owning the rights he knew he was being paid for illustrating other peoples stories, when it came to owning the artwork itself, that battle was started by a British artist working for Marvel, Barry Smith, many years after Kirby could have tried.

Kirby also illustrated and made posters of Marvel characters that he signed and sold at conventions, he was allowed to do this as he was well regarded at Marvel then, back in the 70's.

Some of the later Kirby works where he wrote and drew were of various quality in their writing. As you said it's the fan demand that has led the copyright owners to reprint for profit, it's not because the work is so good it deserves to be reprinted.

It was Stan Lee that promoted the characters and his cameos in recent movies will be missed, somewhat like Hitchcock. Kirby would not have done that as he wasn't the ham Lee was.

Kid said...

He also knew he was being paid to illustrate his own stories (when he wrote his own) and that the copyright didn't reside with him, T47, but I believe he was later stirred up by others, and then developed a sense of grievance that he was hard done to. As I've said before, if you sell your property (whether it be physical or intellectual) at a price you accept at the time, then there's no point moaning about it later if it increases in value. You're just not entitled to a slice.

Terranova47 said...

As a graphic designer I once designed a series of slides to be shown to a bunch of Security Analysts projecting the growth of an American company called AIRCO that was partially owned by British Oxygen.

When the folks at British Oxygen saw the positive reaction to the information shown they promptly recommended that they increase their stake in AIRCO to a controlling interest, which happened.

Sadly I didn't get a share of that action.

Kid said...

It's the same for most people as you know, T47. As one example, I bet the 'ordinary' workers at Sainsbury's don't get a cut of the profits, though it's their day-to-day labour that contributes to the company's success. Why comicbook artists should expect to be treated any differently (unless they negotiate a good deal for themselves 'going in'), I'm not quite sure.

Phil S said...

OH boy. Well here we go. Kirby "wrote" many of the Marvel stories in that he plotted them. He also wrote " dialogue" which was replaced by actual English by Stan. We can see Jack's actual dialogue in his DC books. They spoke English but not as spoken by humans. Part of Jack's resentment was Stan taking the credit and the money for writing the books.

And we now can see Stan's record for creating characters after his silver age era. Stripperella was one of them. Jack may have repeated himself with the Eternals and Silver Star but clearly he had a knack for creating . I would argue Stan didn't - but Stan certainly was a better editor and just as obviously Jack needed and editor like Stan to translate his work into readable comics.

As for Jack being a reinterpreter of other work-of course to some extent . Very few comic characters came out of thin air with no previous influences. Even taking that into account, Jack had the imagination to do so several times as well as put ideas on page of which Seem totally new, such as the Inhumans . Most creators are lucky to have one good idea.

You can find Jack on YouTube talking about Captain America A fan asked him about how he felt Cap was being portrayed by Marvel now and he said of course Marvel owns Cap and can do anything they want with him. Jack often said my job is to sell comics . That meant if he had to the stories and art, he would because his job was to sell. and I speculate that it rankled him Stan got paid as the writer.

Kid said...

Stan freely said from early on, PS, that Jack was as much the writer on their strips as he (Lee) was, acknowledging Kirby's plotting contributions right from the start. However, Stan credited himself as writer because he wrote the dialogue and captions (thereby adding the characterisation), and tying everything together. That's why he was paid as the writer. And certainly in the early days, he talked the plots over with Jack (and Steve) before they started on a strip, so he had a fair bit of input into the plots, at least at the start.

Also, although not stated as such, Jack and Steve WERE paid for their plotting contributions (maybe not enough in their view) by way of increased page rates every so often. Stan had arranged a page rise for Steve before he quit Marvel, but he (Steve) left without never knowing about it. I doubt that Martin Goodman would have sanctioned payments to both Stan AND Jack (or Steve) for writing any one issue, so it had to be done in a 'sleight-of-hand' way, and that way was by higher than normal page rates for the art.

I think what rankled Jack was all the attention Stan got that he (Jack) felt himself more entitled to, because it's human nature in any collaboration for each individual involved to believe that whatever he brought to the table was the defining factor in something's success.

Also, Stan didn't really have to create or write after being made publisher, nor did he likely have the time. I have to be honest and say that I was never much impressed by anything that Jack (or Steve) created after leaving Marvel (nor after he returned to it), so I think that's a powerful indication on Stan's involvement being a prominent factor in the success of Jack's earlier Marvel work.

Yes, Jack continued to create - mainly because he HAD to in order to provide work for himself, but let's be honest here, most of what he later created was pretty duff. And the failure (relative in some cases, outright in others) of it to catch on with mainstream readers tends to confirm that, I'd say.

Hackney Steve said...

Ditko and Kirby wrote dialogue about as well as Stan could draw (I'm assuming he couldn't rather than just didn't have the time). Those creators (and we) were extremely fortunate that for that brief golden period, they all ended up working together in that new method (artists plotting) that produced comics gold, and also had the unintended effect of inspiring people to follow them into the industry. Of course, those people hung onto every word their heroes said, and egged them on to feel aggrieved and go to court for their due. Forget the moral questions, those paychecks with the conditions printed on the back were either legal or not. I sat watching Thor and when the Destroyer turned up I was only sorry that Jack wasn't here to see it, but not if he'd be clawing the cinema seat in anger at feeling exploited.

I've read far too many Simon & Kirby 'horror' stories and, although I appreciate that they were doing that stuff before anyone else, I'd honestly prefer a random copy of House of Mystery. As for the later stuff, marts in the '80's couldn't give away copies of Shade the Changing Man, Captain Victory, Kirby's Black Panther & 2001, etc, etc, even in the 10p all has a certain patina now because people in magazines tell you it's all great and they had produced work that TRULY is great in the past, but bloody hell, that later stuff is hard to read let alone enjoy!

I've only seen your post this morning, buy by coincidence I was reading Kirby's Machine Man #1 in one of those hardcover partworks last night, and you find yourself stopping and rereading the dialogue balloons to make sure you hadn't misread them, they're that unnatural sounding.

Kirby & Ditko ARE comicbook greats without any doubt, but only because of the right collaborators. Who, in all honesty, can't say their heart sunk when finding a Ditko inventory story in a regular title in the '80's? And Kirby's 'Super Powers' at DC?

I still buy their less celebrated later work because of how odd or 'outsider' it is and, sadly, compared to most modern comics it's still perversely entertaining - but it's seldom good comics, let alone great!

Kid said...

I think that after Frank Miller's 7 issue 'Born Again' run, the next ish was drawn by Ditko, and it looked pretty terrible. Strangely though, I enjoyed his Machine Man stories (I forget who the writer was) more than Kirby's.

Y'know, I'm not even sure that the plotting was always the most important factor in any of their mags' success. (With a few exceptions of course.) I think it was the humour, the characterisation, etc., that Stan added via his scripting. Take that away and all you have is some great looking artwork. And would the stories, had they been scripted by Jack or Steve, have grabbed the readers to the same extent? Kirby's dialogue in his Inhumans series wasn't a patch on what Stan would have done.

And yeah, I find myself having to re-read Kirby's dialogue to get the sense of it. It usually takes me a few pages to get into the rhythm of it, and once I do, Jack's mags are enjoyable on an undemanding, fairly pedestrian level. The only DC series that he worked on that I REALLY enjoyed was Jimmy Olsen. The dialogue was occasionally a bit clunky, but not as much as his other DC mags.

Hackney Steve said...

Well I don't think there's any doubt that Ditko plotted most of that classic Spidey run? Granted, with only Ditko's dialogue the title wouldn't have lasted very long, but the combination of Stan's naturalistic ear for dialogue married with Ditko's ideas made the title something that endured (and I also love the Romita and Kane eras too). As a right-winger, I still love the idea that Steve was pencilling in 'filthy hippies' as dialogue, but Stan was replacing it with 'Good on yer, hippies' (I really hope that's true)! But, even as a right-winger, I derive no enjoyment at all from Mr.A apart from the basic idea. I can admire Steve living by his 'no compromise' Rorschach-esque personal code, but I can't even pretend to enjoy reading those stories.

As for Kirby's plotting, I honestly want to believe that all the best FF concepts came from him. The most famous clichéd one is Stan being surprised when the Surfer turned up in the art boards apparently without it having been discussed before (again, I really hope that's true).

It's an interesting point you make about Kirby's debt to the people he'd been inspired by...most people would never think of that...

I think that Stan, Jack and Steve are, without doubt, the 3 'corners' upon which Marvel comics are built upon, and therefore the fact that all current US comics endure. Yeah, I know all about C.C. Beck, the EC's & Will Eisner, but none of those are responsible for the current movie successes (yeah, Shazam was successful but have you watched it?) that have brought this stuff into the mainstream - but none of those 3 Marvel founding fathers produced much of lasting value on their own. You'll always have someone who's a rabid fan of The Question or the '70s' Sandman (I love the latter), but they wouldn't sustain an industry...

Kid said...

Probably plotted most of it, but Stan was involved more in the early issues than later, as The Terrible Tinkerer story was not ons Steve was happy with (aliens didn't belong in Spider-Man's world in his view), so it was obviously Stan's idea. Steve also didn't like team-ups, so Stan (through an intermediary perhaps, as the two of them weren't speaking) must have still been involved to some extent, otherwise the Torch's appearances would never have happened. As for his 'Randian Rants' (as I call 'em), they leave me cold in both story and art.

Incidentally, Stan never disputed (or was ever shy about volunteering the fact) that The Surfer was a surprise, but the character's later whole back-story came from Stan, so the Surfer that readers know today is at least as much a product of Stan as it is of Jack. In fact, he's now credited as being created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, which surprised me, as I thought the might reverse it for ol' Norrin, but I guess Marvel are going down the Lennon & McCartney route, where, regardless of who did what, it was always L&M.

No, haven't seen the Shazam movie, no real plans to, as it looks a bit frivolous.

Hackney Steve said...

That one where Spidey and the Torch accidently team up against the Beetle is one of my faves!

Kirby's Surfer was probably nothing more than a cool visual when submitted, and to my mind Buscema's version is definitive, but it would never have happened without Jack thinking 'I'll go the extra mile here and give a bit more than I need to', unlike some later cannier writers who would only use existing characters.

If you get a chance to watch Shazam for nothing, then do, if only for the fact that Captain Marvel Jnr and Mary Marvel turn up, but unfortunately they can't be named as such, so are only a couple of several kids that get the powers.

On a slightly related note, I watched the 8 episodes of The Boys recently. I'd no idea about the source comic, but one of the main characters, Homelander, has these laser eye beams, and I was constantly thinking throughout the show how they could do a great Marvelman vs Kid Marvelman now...some of it really does look straight out of those Garry Leach frames!

Kid said...

I kind of hope that they never do a Marvelman/Miracleman movie - it would only give Alan Moore something else to moan about, and he's a miserable enough (though affable) git as it is.

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