Fifty Years with The King of Comics
♦ Tripwire Contributing Writer PETER MANN talks about his connection with Jack Kirby in the year that the king of comics would have turned 100…
I can’t accurately remember the first comic by Jack Kirby that I bought. I was an only child, and my parents both worked full-time, so in the summer holiday, I was usually parcelled out to various relatives. When I was eight years it was the turn of my relatives on Barry Island. Barry Island (for those of you not familiar with the United Kingdom) Barry Island is not strictly speaking an island, but a peninsula and seaside resort, forming part of the town of Barry in South Wales. My relatives there were very kind to an only child and gave me quite a lot of money (by my standards) to spend as I wished. What I wished was to spend it all on comics. Working out the chronology I can tell that Barry Island newsstands were in some sort of time warp. I Bought sequential issues of the Fantastic Four, beginning with FF 5 (“Meet Dr Doom”). By the time my mother returned to pick me up and take me back home, I had amassed, and carefully packed away in my case, a large collection of Marvel Comics. And my life would never be the same again. Up until this point, my experience of comics had mostly been Superman, Batman, World’s Finest – DC Comics. There was something visceral about Marvel Comics, that DC just didn’t have, and although I read DC (along with Harvey, Tower, and when times were hard, Gold Key) it was now fairly firmly my number two favourite comics publisher.
I doubt if, at the time, I recognised Kirby’s genius, but as time went on I certainly began to. In many ways, my peripatetic childhood is studded with memories of Kirby. Fantastic Four 24 (“The Infant Terrible”) was bought on Accrington market during a visit to another relative, this time in Lancashire. Many, many issues of Strange Tales with Kirby’s borrowing of The Man from UNCLE – Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD bought from the Yankee Mag shop in Paisley, Scotland, while staying with my Grandmother. Years later the same shop turned up in a TV biography of John Byrne – not the Marvel one, but the Scottish playwright and artist, to my great excitement. I spent many happy hours in that shop buying, among other things, Creepy and Eerie from Warren, and the first issues of Steranko’s SHIELD run.
By this time Kirby had made a definite impact upon me. I tried to draw like him and failed abysmally as my wife discovered when inspecting my Penguin Book of Comics which I had bedecked with bad drawings. I had also joined fandom, or at least a nascent form of it, buying British fanzines – Heroes Unlimited from Tony Roche in Ireland, and a plethora of American fanzines. Thus, when Kirby moved to DC Comics we had some forewarning. When Kirby’s Fourth World finally made it to the British shores – at this time there was no direct market, and we spent a lot of time visiting newsagents trying to find three months old issues in sequence – to me it was (and may well still be) just about the best thing to ever happen in comics. I liked then, and still like now, the expression of Kirby’s untrammelled genius, unmoderated by Stan Lee’s cod-Shakespearean prose. I’ve always preferred Bernard Shaw to Shakespeare, although I’ll give you the that the latter is a greater playwright. The heart wants what it wants, and I love the theatricality and direct expression of ideas that reaches its apogee in plays like Heartbreak House, Beyond Methuselah, and Man and Superman. For Kirby fans – those that like the ideas as well as the drawings – the Fourth World is the pure stuff, uncut, and direct from the source. Those that criticise the language and the writing as “unsophisticated” compared to the work he did with Stan Lee at Marvel have a very curious idea of what counts as sophisticated.
The brilliance of Kirby was that you never knew what would happen next. Throughout his career, Kirby confounded “the market” with his combination of populist tropes (the spy genre), mythology, satire, and just all-around weird ideas. This is the man who invented the romance genre in comics. Even the smallest element of his output – Groot for example – has been seized on by other writers and turned into gold. He is the man without whom the Marvel Universe would not exist, and if you think that Stan Lee, whose claim to fame before Kirby had been writing Millie the Model, I is of equal stature, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. I do not believe that Stan Lee deserves the vilification that is often heaped upon his head, but who do you think is more likely to have created that universe – the guy who had shown 30 years of constant creativity, or the guy who sat around the office for the same 30 years? When Stan Lee did get the chance to write his magnum opus – The Silver Surfer – it was god-awful. This is not to dismiss Stan’s contribution: he made Kirby’s ideas more palatable to a general audience. In a way, Stan’s moderating influence is what led to New Gods seeming like an abrupt turn of style for Kirby: in actuality, Jack had always been that direct – look at his pre-Marvel work. When we got unmoderated Jack, with his coruscating brilliance, the world wasn’t ready for it. There is no getting away from the fact that as the 60s progressed Kirby’s work got stranger and stranger. By the 1980s his work was virtually a meta-commentary on what had gone before.
At DC, the Fourth World didn’t work. There are the many arguments why this was, and quite a lot of speculation on whether it actually failed, or the peculiarities of newsstand distribution at the time cause it to fail. I am going to ignore that for the purposes of this piece: we cannot know, and if you’re interested in the issue there’s a lot of stuff available on the Internet regarding this topic. Typically, Jack just carried on: The Losers an ongoing comic written by Robert Kanigher featuring an assemblage of second string DC war characters was taken over by Jack with issue 151, and although fans of the time didn’t appreciate the sudden change of tone between Kanigher and Kirby, since then it has been reappraised as one of the highlights of DC war comics. As Glenn David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) said “Jack Kirby is the only major cartoonist to have killed Nazis. And he didn’t do it from a distance — he killed Nazis using the same hands that later drew Thor, the Aryan God of Thunder, hammering Mangog (old testament villain name, more or less) in the snout. Kirby shot and stabbed Nazis for about six months in 1943 and 1944, and I would argue that experience didn’t just change his life but shaped his work from that moment forward, in that an underlying PTSD worldview took him places he wouldn’t have gone otherwise.“
Kirby’s war experiences, including liberating a concentration camp, definitely informed his later work. Art Spiegelman says “I suppose there’s something about Kirby’s sensibility, the optimism of it, that just puts me off. There’s an unpleasant exuberance, like a teenager chattering so excitedly he keeps spritzing you with his saliva…” But Art Spiegelman has just mistaken vitality for optimism. In “The Last Stand of Terrible Turpin” (New Gods 5) Daniel Turpin, a Metropolis cop, becomes aware of the secret war between gods that is taking place on Earth. When that war intrudes upon ordinary citizens he takes on the rampaging Kalibak, and fights into a standstill, garnering severe injuries in the process. I’ve written before about this, comparing Kirby to Eisner. Eisner is generally thought of as an artist, in a way that Kirby is not, and comparing “Terrible Turpin” to “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” by Eisner illustrates for me why I think this conclusion is entirely wrong. Spoilers ahead. In “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” the hero of the story discovers that he can fly, and wanting to be noticed ascends to the top of a and jumps off. In the elevator with him on the way up is The Spirit, who proceeds to have a knock-down drag-out battle with some criminals. Shnobble succeeds in his aim of flying, but nobody notices, and, shot by the villains, falls to earth unheralded. Shnobble, like Turpin, is an everyman character. But whereas Shnobble’s ambitions are entirely personal, Turpin’s ambitions are the fulfilment of a moral order that informs his life – to protect the citizens of Metropolis. Shnobble is a good story to read while you are young, but as you get older and discover how difficult it is to stick to anything – ambition, ethics, basic human decency – its Turpin’s struggle that resonates more strongly. Shnobble’s storyline seems like an exercise in bathetic sentimentality. Turpin’s story illustrates a struggle that most people will experience.
Turpin’s story also illustrates one of the dilemmas of Kirby’s own life – most of it was spent trying to provide for his family, constantly constrained by commercial needs. Kirby has been criticised for this. In Kirby Five-Oh Glen David Gold recounts a story from the San Diego Comic Con in 2002. “Will Eisner mentioned he was uncomfortable calling Kirby someone with heavy artistic intent. I paraphrase, but Eisner felt Jack was mostly concerned with hitting his page count, telling good stories, and keeping his family fed. Not pursuing some aesthetic ideal – to seek that motive in Kirby’s work was, he suggested, misguided. I happen to be holding the original artwork to the Devil Dinosaur 4 double-splash, which I turned around and showed Eisner – who took a moment and said something uncharacteristic: ‘Okay, I might be wrong.’”
I have great admiration for the work of Will Eisner, but yes, he was wrong. Eisner’s late-career mining of a seam of literature developed by many other authors, most notably Isaac Bashevis Singer, does not erase the fact that Eisner’s career was itself a compromise to commercial needs. In fact, Eisner was a better businessman than Kirby, managing to maintain copyrights on his work. In this context, his criticism of Kirby can be seen as almost criticising Kirby’s commercial acumen rather than any artistic content that might exist.
The reason Kirby has stayed with me throughout my life is that he speaks to something in all of us. His work is a hyperactive celebration of the best in human beings, from a man who had literally seen the worst in human beings. I doubt I could maintain Jack’s positivism in similar circumstances – frankly, I can’t maintain them in my own considerably more comfortable ones. When I think of Jack I think of the incredible outpouring of creativity in the first hundred issues of the Fantastic Four, the bizarre worlds of Silver Star, OMAC, and the New Gods.
I think of “The Pact”, “The Glory Boat”, and “The Last Stand of Terrible Turpin.” I think of the world of Star Wars, which wouldn’t exist without George Lucas “borrowing” the Darkseid/Orion relationship for Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker. And hey, doesn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi look a little bit like Highfather? I think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which would not exist without Kirby, as evidenced by the multi-million-dollar pay-out to his family by Disney. Oh, and who’s that lurking around the corner in Justice League? The “cosmic” elements of both superhero universes, DC, and Marvel are principally still Jack’s.
Jack Kirby was a worker, a soldier, a man who tirelessly supported his family, a powerhouse of ideas, and, in any way that is meaningful to millions of people, one of the premier artists of the 20th century. I’ve been very glad to have him in my life for so long.