It’s Jack Kirby‘s 94th birthday. Quite a lot of people will be remembering him, but arguably fewer than his long career might suggest. His major involvement in the development of the 1960s Marvel Comics line—a period that resulted in characters that have become multi-million dollar franchises—has still not received full recognition. Marvel’s then-editor Stan Lee took all the creative credit, and continues to do so.
Oddly enough, my regret isn’t really to do with Marvel (in the usual sense). The 1960s were a significant period of artistic growth for Kirby, but as a man whose chief interests were mythology and science fiction—with an increasingly philosophical leaning—a line of comics with a primary superhero slant wasn’t particularly his ideal platform. The development/success of the line did a few (negative) things to Kirby: (1) it forever typecast him as the “King” of superheroes and POW! BAM! action; (2) it cemented perceptions of Kirby as an “artist” more than a creative writer-artist (cartoonist), thanks to Stan’s most creative work—the credits on the books; (3) it put him in a straightjacket for ten years, where his ideas were restrained by mannerisms of a genre he was pulling away from.
Of the latter, a few examples suffice. In the Thor book, which initially was intended to be a rather lame Marvel version of Superman (note the costume colours, the nerdy alter-ego, the female co-worker he loves but who seems to love the hero more, etc), clearly it was Kirby who pushed it towards heavier mythological & SF ideas, but note how following an impressive stream of wonderful, other-wordly fantasy ideas—including Ego the Living Planet and the High Evolutionary (#129-135)—the book quickly thuds back to earth with a comparatively tedious run of standard superhero books… I’ve no doubt Lee asked Kirby to bring it back down a bit, keep it ‘on-formula’, thereby weakening the books and diluting Kirby’s ideas. Likewise, when Kirby had an idea for radically revamping the book—bringing in a wave of ‘New Gods’ and reworking existing characters (including Thor himself, presumably), an idea which would surely have brought it even closer to the mythological core that so interested him—the concept was vetoed. (Imagine Mike Love saying to Brian Wilson: “Don’t fuck with the formula.”)
In Fantastic Four, too, Kirby dragged the title increasingly towards SF, notably in introducing the Inhumans, Galactus and the Silver Surfer (#45-50). He saw the Surfer, herald of the ‘devourer of worlds’, as a pure creation of the godlike Galactus. Lee saw it differently and moved the character to a solo book with artist John Buscema, which revealed him to be an inhabitant of a world Galactus formerly attacked (i.e. basically a human being in a silver suit) who sacrifices himself to save his race—cue much Grade Z angst, mourning the loss of his lover and embarrassing philosophising. Kirby was not happy. In FF #66-67, Kirby did a story about a humanoid creation (“Him”) which he conceived as an examination of scientific ethics—the scientists were so absorbed in their work they didn’t consider the moral questions. Lee disliked the angle and made the scientists into standard villain types, castrating the whole point of the story by removing its deeper themes.
(It’s interesting to note that when Kirby again waded into the area of scientific ‘creation’—artificial life, cloning, etc—in his reluctant work on DC’s Jimmy Olsen title, he did not bother addressing moral questions to any great extent. He still remembered Lee’s editorialising; he gave the company the pap he assumed they wanted. Brilliantly imaginative pap it might have been, but compared to the work he was doing concurrently on his own books—the ‘proper’ Fourth World books, New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle—it was completely shallow and disposable.)
So, today Kirby is not regarded as a writer. Yet Stan Lee, for some obscure reason, is. Stan Lee, who gave the God characters in Thor that painful, embarrassing quasi-16th Century English speak, who had his characters spout melodramatic garbage that would’ve seemed too purple for a cheap daytime soap opera, who balked at anything resembling ‘deep’ content for the stories in favour of the banal and obvious, who seemed most at home writing cheap wisecracks that were, at best, mildly amusing. Yes, Stan Lee, who struggled to come up with ideas and plots of his own and who devised the brilliant ‘Marvel Method’—which involved letting the ‘artists’ do all that work for him.
Kirby pales next to this genius? Perhaps, for those who favour pap, who groove on nostalgia, who prefer a rosey tint and a safe & warm feeling of familiarity. The people who say Kirby’s writing is ‘awkward and stilted’ because it doesn’t read like Stan Lee’s hackneyed scripting. Don’t get me wrong. Kirby was human. As a writer, and as an artist, he screwed-up occasionally. But the best of his writing, alongside the overshadowing quality of his visuals, is remarkable—powerful and unique, unlike anything else.
I don’t see the Marvel period, then, as Kirby’s peak. I see it as chances missed and undermined. The best of the work he did before Marvel, in the ’40s and ’50s—romance stories such as “Different”, “Mother Delilah” from Boys’ Ranch #3—stories he wrote and drew himself—tower above almost anything he did that was polluted by Lee’s dialogue and restraining influence. The seeds of his focus on myth and science fiction, in ’50s DC mystery titles and Harvey’s Alarming Tales, further show a maturing and development that would happen with or without the Marvel years. Unlike Lee, Kirby actually read the old myths, and Shakespeare, and by contrast devoured science journals, as well as being a huge fan of movies and television. He was a sponge, endlessly interested in all kinds of material. He seldom produced superhero concepts per se on his own terms, and increasingly the slam-bam action aspects become less important. Creatively, the Marvel period did nothing for him. Financially, he was screwed. And the credits were largely a fantasy.
For me, Kirby’s peak was 1970-83. Until 1981, he remained stuck within the formula of the Big Two (Marvel and DC), but at least was able to negotiate some leeway that permitted relative freedom—and a wealth of beautiful work came out of it. In 1981, he finally was able to do independent, creator-owned works. Marred by erratic schedules and poor inking & production, Captain Victory and Silver Star nonetheless have much to offer—including some of Kirby’s finest writing and countless unfortgettable images. Sadly, this opportunity came a little late in the day. Kirby’s tired hands were getting shaky and, following more creative frustration and restraint at DC (albeit for good money), he retired from comics in 1985. His hands were shot. He didn’t want to continue without them (for instance, doing just scripting—besides which, his writing then, as now, was not as regarded as it deserved to be).
Kirby is my favourite cartoonist—WRITER-artist. What he achieved was remarkable in itself, but also an indictment of an industry, in terms of how poorly regarded he was as a cartoonist per se, the scandals of the credit & money situations, the thwarted ideas and possibilities. In Europe, Kirby would’ve been cherished and his pure, unique vision would’ve been given a chance to soar… without lesser hands stealing (and mutilating/diluting) his thunder.
Let’s remember Jack Kirby, then—the AUTEUR.