Shaping The Industry As We Know It Today
♦2017 is the centenary of the birth of two of the most important comic creators of all time, Will Eisner, best known as a champion of creator rights and writer/ artist of such acclaimed graphic novels as A Contract With God, The Dreamer and The Building, and Jack Kirby the man who co-created much of the Marvel universe including Thor, Fantastic Four and who also created many of DC’s most memorable bronze age characters like Darkseid and Mister Miracle. Tripwire’s Senior Editor ANDREW COLMAN took a look at their history and their career in the second of a two part feature…
Duin and Richardson’s Comics Between The Panels averred that the reuniting of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the publisher that was soon to be rebranded as Marvel Comics was the “teaming up of the has been with the never was” – Kirby had fallen out with Lee seventeen years earlier, and although their names would forever be entwined by history and fandom, there was always an enmity, with no photos in existence of the pair together. Lee had hailed Alex Schomburg as the Norman Rockwell of the Golden Age (which, to be fair, he was), but had rarely lavished such praise on Kirby’s work back in 1941. Serendipity had brought them together and the constraints put in place by Atlas’s distribution company (i.e. DC Comics) meant that with only eight titles per month, Lee and Kirby could focus on content rather than volume. Kirby took a year or two to adapt, but with the arrival of Fantastic Four 1 he not only attained a second act to his career, he would also become the most important artist in comic book history. Kirby, Lee, publisher Martin Goodman (one of the great survivors in the business) and the rest of the Marvel Bullpen were all on the same page, and matters rapidly clicked into gear.
Kirby was back to his protean best with Marvel, developing concepts and characters, some new, some updates or reboots of old tropes and revered classics, that for the most part were hugely innovative and iconic, with a style that was radically different from his 1950s ersatz look. This purple patch, lasting for virtually the whole of the 1960s, saw him as the creative architect of a company that would storm into pop culture with a swaggering ferocity – DC, still very much mired in Weisinger-era blandness and silliness, were completely lost in the upstart publisher’s wake. One has to point out that a good proportion of this success must be credited to Stan Lee (despite what Kirby may have claimed in interviews!), who found his niche as a writer providing characterization to Kirby’s tremendous output but also was its advocate, cheerleader and spokesperson, something that did grate on the still freelancing Kirby. Nevertheless the themes of hero as outsider (Spider-Man, X-Men, the Hulk) or the concept of hero as demigod (Thor, Silver Surfer, Him, The High Evolutionary) proved to be huge draws with older readers. This was inspirational for Kirby, who became more emboldened as a storyteller, reaching his artistic apogee between 1965 and 1968 – his widescreen, kinetic art the template for the rest of the bullpen and the look of the publisher as a whole. Even name artists who would go on to have distinguished careers in other genres such as Jim Steranko and Barry Smith began by aping the Marvel House Style that was modelled on Kirby’s work.
Kirby revolutionized a stalling medium and provided its lingua franca for the next decade or more, while generating billions in merchandise and big screen adaptations for corporate interests to this day. According to Kirby himself it was all done without a detailed game plan or remit beyond regenerating a failing company and a genre that (in hindsight) he claimed would reignite in the new decade. Kirby was a machine that was producing high quality work on a regular basis, but by the end of the 1960s his interest in the Marvel stable of characters had faded. He was already earning a very good salary at Marvel, but DC, now under the auspices of artist turned publisher Carmine Infantino, were very much aware that their former employee, now remarkably over 50, was hot property, and were prepared to triple his wages and give him complete creative carte blanche.
Kirby’s return to National, where he edited, wrote and drew his own titles, was basically the last vestige of his golden period. His key work in the early 1970s, the Fourth World saga, which encompassed several books (New Gods, Forever People, Jimmy Olsen) was far less grounded than his 60s work, with an enormous sweep that was cosmic, dream-like and endlessly inventive. In many ways it was quite unlike anything else at the time, and easily as beguiling in its otherness. If Kirby could do anything, it was usually epic, although without Lee to tether his tendency to waywardness, the series often lacked drama and focus. As with his tenure at Marvel, fandom in the early Bronze Age continued to acknowledge his genius without perceiving him to be a virtuoso like many of DC’s new roster of young artists, such as Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones, Alfredo Alcala and Nestor Redondo. The 1970s were also to be a paradigm shift in the medium, with most of these illustrators owing less to Kirby and more to fantasy / horror artists such as Frank Frazetta, Bernie Krigstein and Graham Ingels. Super-heroes still ruled the roost, but dormant genres that had been extinguished by the comics code in the 1950s were returning.
After the Fourth World saga Kirby launched other titles, the most successful of which was the post-apocalyptic series Kamandi. A far more straightforward venture into dystopia than previously, it proved to be his last notable work for DC, although Omac was an explosive, if slight, farewell. There was even one last hurrah with his old colleague Joe Simon on a brief Sandman redo, but it was more than forgettable.
In 1976 Kirby returned to Marvel for the final time, on this occasion with much fan anticipation. Stan Lee, casually ignoring Kirby’s rather grim send-up of him with his Funky Flashman character from four years earlier, was graciously effusive regarding his old adversary, declaiming on the Bulletin page found in all of Marvel’s titles at the time that “The King Is Back!! Nuff Said!!”
And indeed he was back, immediately given the reins of the character he’d created thirty-five years earlier. His work on Captain America, along with the handful of other titles he oversaw, betrayed what had already been apparent in the work he had produced in his last eighteen months at DC – that his style had receded into blockiness and formula. It was competent enough, certainly, but had begun to look dated and out of place at Marvel, which had moved on stylistically since he left. After three intense years, he was gone. Jack Kirby would continue to create and draw at various independent publishers that would emerge in the wake of the direct market for most of the 1980s, but from this point on his career was considered to be in decline.
As it turned out, Kirby’s decision to move away from the mainstream into comparable obscurity coincided with Eisner’s return to the form. Having been away from comic strips for over a quarter of a century, he was ready to forge a second and entirely different phase of his career, by writing and illustrating (this time with no assistance) what he termed graphic novels. This was a clever sidestep by Eisner, who had never wanted to be identified as a regular comic artist – the neologism, which had been around for a few years prior to this, suited his needs as it brought gravitas and conferred an independent, auteur status to his work. The first of these books, A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories, received very positive notices, its departure from his earlier work hailed as a refreshing new direction for Eisner but also for sequential narrative. The book concentrated on the impoverished lives of the residents of the Lower East Side in Manhattan in the 30s and 40s, detailing their struggles, hopeless dreams and unfulfillment. Thematically the stories would focus on the immigrant, particularly Jewish, experience in New York, with autobiographical elements. The stories followed the lives of strivers, down and outs and people on the make, as they holidayed in the Catskills and attempted to escape the relentless drudgery of their lives. The tales exuded pathos but were hard-hitting – Eisner was not afraid to shy away from the desperation of his protagonists and the determinism of their fate.
Eisner’s beautifully executed, shadowy woodcuts were all about flawed characters gazing at the stars while accepting the harsh predicament they were entrapped in, very much the inverse of Kirby’s cosmically charged humans and demigods, who were jaded with too much freedom and power. Contract with God would lead to many more graphic novels, including such classics as The Building, Dropsie Avenue, A Life Force, Invisible People, Life on Another Planet, and The Dreamer, based on Eisner’s early years as a struggling artist. From this point onwards Eisner took on an emeritus role in the industry, producing art handbooks, lecturing, and being a staple at comic conventions, now revered as the maven he was. With seemingly dispassionate ease, Eisner had rehabilitated himself as a core proponent of comic storytelling. However it was to prove harder in his later years for Kirby to gain such rehabilitation. Fortunately some major players in the industry would be there to ensure that his vast body of work would not be marginalized.
There are pictures of Jack Kirby at San Diego Comic Con in 1982 alone at his booth, with barely anyone paying him attention. His legacy in the early 80s had been side-lined to a large extent by fan interest in independent and ground-level comics, with new publishers on the block such as Pacific, First, Eclipse and Aardvark-Vanaheim providing a very different take on the form. Irony, gritty realism and sly post-modernism had filtered into the cadences and language of the medium, as the intelligentsia finally began to take notice of this hitherto shunned hybrid that was previously considered neither art nor literature. This was despite Pacific Comics offering him creator-owned deals on new projects such as Silver Star and Captain Victory. Kirby, whose pop art masterpieces throughout the Silver Age and the early 70s were more than deserving of reappraisal, was oddly overlooked by journalists who had showered plaudits on The Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns. The Silver Age market for collectors was stagnant for most of this decade, and never more out of fashion with fans.
Later in the 1980s however, as the issue of creator rights took centre stage, a group of major players led by Neal Adams and above all Frank Miller, reminded the comic world of Kirby’s importance and pre-eminence within the industry, and lobbied for restitution and royalties (as well as the return to him of a proportion of the thousands of pages of artwork left in Marvel’s vaults). Frank Miller, who had credited both Eisner and Kirby as definitive influences in his works, gave a key valedictory speech with Kirby present at the 1992 San Diego Comic Con which was impassioned and direct enough to initiate a sea change in the artist’s twilight years – he was, as Miller resolutely declaimed, a man who had done more than anyone in the business, who had breathed life into the art form and was unquestionably what we all should have been aware of already – the King. And the King, as Miller asserted, was owed a great deal.
Jack Kirby died in 1994 at the age of 76. Frank Miller eulogized that the Kirby Age of comics was over, and as he was one of a kind, there would be no successor – “his like would never be seen again”. The stogie-chewing self-made man with the gruff exterior that belied a heart of gold had left behind a raft of priceless properties familiar to everyone, that continue to be fought over to this day. Will Eisner meanwhile steadily continued to produce consistently good graphic novels and stay in the public eye right up until his passing in 2005, aged 87.
As was stated at the top of this piece, the two artist / creators, born in the same year and from similar backgrounds, walked very separate paths, working for the most part in different arenas throughout their decades-long careers. Both are legendary for similar reasons – they took comic art very seriously and brought as much as anyone to the table. What they shared was the understanding that being a comic artist is a vocation, and certainly in Kirby’s case, a compulsion. Both lived to create something that would leap from the page, and would sometimes exude magic.
As Frank Miller said, they were irreplaceable.