Kirby From The Archives Part Two
♦2017 is the centenary of the birth of comics legend Jack Kirby and we are celebrating this milestone throughout the year. Today we are proud to represent the second part of this massive interview that our friends over at The Comics Journal did with Kirby back in 1989, conducted by Gary Groth…
GROTH: When you and Joe Simon worked together in your studio was it just the two of you or did you employ other people?
KIRBY: We had a letterer.
GROTH: Would the companies give your studio scripts, which you would then illustrate?
KIRBY: I never took their scripts. DC would send me scripts, I’d throw them out the window.
GROTH: Why was that?
KIRBY: I don’t like anything that’s contrived. I conceive, they contrive. OK?
GROTH: [Laughter.] That’s good.
KIRBY: That’s why my book sold. Captain America was real. When Captain America got into a fight with a dozen guys he could lick those guys, and anybody who read the book can see how he did it.
GROTH: You only had a letterer working with you in the studio?
KIRBY: Yes, I had a letterer.
GROTH: Why didn’t you hire five more artists and crank up production?
KIRBY: I didn’t think that way. We had artists who inked for us and who lettered for us, but I worked on the stories myself.
GROTH: The business part of Simon and Kirby had been Simon?
KIRBY: Yes, Joe was the business side.
GROTH: Were you a legal partnership?
KIRBY: Yes, we were a legitimate partnership.
GROTH: Speaking about the period before World War II when you were working in comics, did you pal around with other artists? What was the social environment like?
KIRBY: We palled around. I knew Mort Meskin very well. All the artists knew each other. I was social with Joe [Simon] of course. We were very close.
GROTH: Were you all obsessed with comics?
KIRBY: Yes, we were obsessed with comics. I remember when I met Roz we went out with Joe and his girlfriend. We were taking them to Times Square and, the crazy thing about it was that there was trouble in the air, and yet the young people didn’t give a damn. If you saw Brighton Beach Memoirs you may have seen the houses. They were two story houses. I saw Roz, and I scared away about five guys.
GROTH: Was that around 1940 when you met?
ROZ KIRBY: When I met Jack, he asked me if I wanted to go to his room and see his etchings, and I did, but imagine my surprise when he really did show me etchings! [Laughter.]
KIRBY: Let’s face it, I was rather naive.
GROTH: In romance and business. [Laughter.]
KIRBY: No, I wasn’t naive in romance. [Laughter.] My character never changed. She had about five boyfriends, and one was a piano player, and I stood behind him and said, “It would be terrible if the piano lid closed on your fingers. That would be painful wouldn’t it?” I said, “You belong in Hollywood out West, you play too well.” And he took the hint.
GROTH: You were in Brooklyn at this time?
GROTH: When did you move from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn?
KIRBY: I was beginning to make money, Brooklyn was great. Brighton Beach was great.
GROTH: Was the Simon and Kirby studio in Manhattan?
KIRBY: Yes, it was in Tudor City.
GROTH: Up to this point what was your social life like?
KIRBY: We’d go to theaters. We’d see movies. We saw Sammy Kay.
GROTH: Were you a real fan of big band music?
KIRBY: No, not really. But I felt that was the thing to do. I took her horseback riding — a thing I’d never done in my life. I wanted to prove to her that I had a lot of class. I was very sincere. I wanted Rosaline, and I was going to do anything to make her my permanent babe. I brought riding boots and went horseback riding, and I almost fell off a horse.
ROZ KIRBY: He got these horses that were slow…
KIRBY: We got some very bad horses. [Laughter.] I never went riding again. I was terrible at it.
GROTH: Did you go dancing?
KIRBY: Yeah, we danced pretty well. We were average.
ROZ KIRBY: Then he was drafted.
GROTH: Had you been out of the New York area before the war?
KIRBY: I was down in Georgia for basic training. I met real Southerners. I met Texans.
GROTH: That must have been exciting.
KIRBY: It was exciting for me.
GROTH: You were drafted in ’43—
KIRBY: I came home in ’44. I was drafted in the late autumn of ’43. I trained in Georgia and there was one pig walking in the middle of the road.
GROTH: You were in the Army. right?
KIRBY: I was in the combat infantry. I went to Liverpool first. Then they shipped us to Southampton, which is the port of embarkation for Normandy. I got to Normandy 10 days after the invasion. All the guys on that landing were still laying there.
GROTH: Did you arrive on one of those landing crafts?
KIRBY: Yes. I arrived on an LST. When I got there, they were laying in heaps.
GROTH: What beach did you land on?
GROTH: Did you think you’d be drafted?
KIRBY: I figured I would, but I didn’t know when. I was a married man. That’s why I didn’t get drafted earlier. The crazy part about it was I got drafted at 480 Lexington Ave — that’s where DC was.
GROTH: [Laughter.] I guess you could say that you were drafted twice. How did you take Army life?
KIRBY: I didn’t like Army life. I didn’t like taking orders. I didn’t like discipline. I didn’t like being yelled at. You’d get 10 years for punching a sergeant so I couldn’t punch a sergeant.
GROTH: But you thought about it.
KIRBY: No, I kept my temper. By the time I saw the Germans, I can tell ya’, boy, I was fairly happy. I let it all loose.
GROTH: You came back to the U.S. before the war ended?
KIRBY: I came home from the hospital. I had trench foot— I slept out in the snow for six months and if you sleep out in the snow that long… It was cold mud, cold snow, cold wind… It was cold. So my legs became like elephant legs and there were guys in the ambulance whose legs turned black. My legs were a deep purple. The guys in the ambulance whose legs turned black, they fell off. I had purple legs? I wondered how they were going to cure purple legs! I was sore as hell. I was miserable, I was miserable. I was the most dangerous guy alive I think. And Murray Boltinoff walks into my hospital room with Mort Weisinger — they were editors from DC. I was in Paris at that time. My legs were a real nice blue. I said, “What are you guys doing here?” They said, “Come on outside Jackie, you’ll see Paris” — they didn’t know what was wrong with me. They were having a great time in Paris. “You ought to see the broads here, they’re great!” And I looked at these guys and called them every name in the book. They were so scared they got out of my room. I’m talking back to editors — and I’m an artist!
GROTH: Was this in England or France?
KIRBY: This was in England. We were all headed home. I got to a tug, a hospital tug, that rocked back and forth across the entire ocean. I was so sea sick…it took us nine days— the Queen Mary took them in two or three. They brought me the best meals I ever saw. Those hospital people treated us wonderfully. They brought me meals I hadn’t seen for it seemed like years and I couldn’t eat them. There was another frustration.
GROTH: You just showed me a pencil story you drew in the early ’80s that was the only strictly autobiographical story I have ever known you to do. Why did you draw that and why had you never done an autobiographical story before?
KIRBY: This is an experiment for me to test my storytelling abilities. At that time I told what I knew. To be frank with you, I’ve never told a lie to anybody. And what I’ve drawn was always the truth. It might be a very, very fantastic situation. This might be a repeat of what I might have told you before, but I never lie. The situation, even as far out as I can make it, will always have that…
GROTH: Core of truth?
KIRBY: Yes. It will have the sound of truth or the sight of truth. And the characters will always act according to what they are and what they would really do in real life.
ROZ KIRBY: He wants to know why you never did a story about yourself until 1984.
KIRBY: I don’t think anybody would have believed it. So many things have happened to me that they’d say it all couldn’t have happened to one person. Who would think that I would be walking through French towns or meeting with the SS or French farmers? Who ever thought that I’d be going up to the Bronx? Who ever thought that I’d be going to Brooklyn — I went to Brooklyn and met Roz. That’s where I met my wife. Let me say this: most of the guys who lived on the East Side stayed there. It became part of them. But for some reason that I can’t understand, I hated the East Side, I hated being poor.
I hated to fight all the time just to enjoy my day. Fighting wasn’t the kind of thing that I enjoyed, but I grew to enjoy it because I did it so long. In the Army when we had judo classes, out of the class of 27 just me and another guy graduated. Yes, I grew to enjoy it because I knew I could do it well. I tried to do everything well.
GROTH: One of the things that I was so impressed with in that story was your ability to convey the commonplace. The streets were grubby — you could almost feel the dirt and smell the garbage — more so in that story than in your super-hero work. Did you feel that you could portray a more realistic city in that autobiographical story?
KIRBY: Yes, I could. I would draw that city exactly as it was. I remember it exactly as it was, brick by brick: the garbage in the street and the things floating down to the sewer; the people sitting around a lamp post late at night conversing in their own languages. There would be grandmothers, there would be mothers with ‘kerchiefs on them and shawls and cheap dresses. There might be a few old men, grandfatherly types. Your father was always playing cards somewhere in some building with a group of men his age. But he would never join your mother sitting around with the neighbors. Every father was his own man. He did what he wanted. If your mother went shopping, your father never went with her. He was away working. I think fathers got used to the way of life where they associated with other men who worked in the factories and when they came home that’s the kind of surrounding they felt familiar with.
GROTH: Now when you were drawing superheroes like Captain America and The Fantastic Four, did you feel that you couldn’t put that kind of living detail in the type of stories you were telling? Could you not concentrate on character as you did in that autobiographical story?
KIRBY: There was no time to do it. I had to work fast. I would draw three pages a day, maybe more. I would have to vary the panels, balance the page. I took care of everything on that page — the expressions of the characters, the motivation of the characters — it all ran through my mind. I wrote my own stories. Nobody ever wrote a story for me. I told in every story what was really inside my gut, and it came out that way. My stories began to get noticed because the average reader could associate with them.
GROTH: How did you feel about other people inking your work? Would you have preferred to ink yourself, or did you not care after it was penciled?
KIRBY: No, I didn’t care. The technical side of it never bothered me. In fact, some of the inkers had a variety of styles, and it kind of pleased me to see my work done in various ink styles. The people who worked in comics were terrific guys. I had a good association with them, and I enjoyed comics for that very reason.
GROTH: Let me take up where I left off, around 1945 when you got back from the war. I believe you renewed your partnership with Joe Simon.
KIRBY: I renewed my partnership with Joe Simon, but Joe didn’t want to do comics any more. That period is hazy to me.
GROTH: Well, around 1945 I think you did Boys Ranch. Did you do the romance books with Joe Simon?
KIRBY: Yes. We created the romance field.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you came about creating the boy’s genre, Boy Commandos, Boys Ranch?
KIRBY: Essentially, they were inside me. The gang business never leaves you. It was either a gang or a club. In drawing people by the bunches I would get a variety of people. A lot of the other cartoonists were concentrating on one particular person and making him acceptable to the public whereas I would diversify and do groups.
GROTH: Did someone ask you to do that?
KIRBY: No, nobody ever asked me to do anything. Nobody knew what to do. When comics were brand new, nobody knew what kind of comics to make. So you were mostly on yourown.
GROTH: I think you did Boys Ranch — I forget the publisher you did that for — but did you conceptualize it and then offer it to a publisher?
ROZ KIRBY: Joe did that.
KIRBY: Yeah. Her memory is sometimes better than mine.
GROTH: Did you write Boys Ranch as well?
KIRBY: Yes. I wrote Boys Ranch. I always wrote my strips.
GROTH: How did you collaborate with Joe Simon? What did you do and what did he do?
KIRBY: Joe did a lot of the business. Had I stayed at Joe’s side all the time while Joe operated we’d have never gotten any pages done. We got an office in Tudor City — I worked in the office with a letterer, Howard Ferguson. When Howard passed away there was another letterer to replace him. Joe did a lot of inking, and he worked when he could, but business had to be done with the publisher. Somebody had to be a bridge to the publisher. Joe is an impressive guy, and he felt that this was his function, and that’s how he became good friends with Artie and Martin Goodman. We collaborated well. Joe and I got along very well. It was very, very strange for people so different physically to collaborate so closely. Joe is 6’ 1”, a big guy and quite different than I am. But Joe’s deal was really commercial art. That’s the field he came from. Joe was a college man. He’s got a fine mind. Of course, after we came back after the war Joe gravitated to commercial art. He never went back to comics.
GROTH: Can you explain how you developed the romance genre?
KIRBY: The romance genre was all around us. There was love story pulps, and there was love story sections in the newspapers. There was love stories in the movies. Wherever you went there was love stories! That’s how we got our new material, and it suddenly struck me that that’s what we haven’t done. We haven’t done any romance stories! There it was right in front of our eyes hanging from the newsstand. A love story! A romance story! So Joe and I sat down one night and came up with the title. Young Romance, and Young Romance sold out.
GROTH: Would Joe have gone to a publisher and say, We want to do a romance comic, will you pay us for it? Or would you actually do the comic and then show it to a publisher?
KIRBY: We did it both ways. We did it as it was feasible. We did it as the situation arose. We did it all the ways you mentioned. We’d go up together, sometimes just one of us. Sometimes in order to convince the publisher, I’d draw up the presentation page. I’d draw up three or four pages, and then the publisher would get the idea of the kind of thing we were trying to sell. Then we’d either go up together or Joe would say, “Finish up that page, I’ll go up and talk to them and you meet me there.” I’d meet him there with this finished page and we’d show them what we were trying to accomplish.
GROTH: At this point you were still being paid by the page.
KIRBY: Yeah, we had a page rate. Each comics house had a different page rate. There weren’t many. Marvel wasn’t even in existence — there was Timely, Atlas…
KIRBY: National was there. Jack Liebowitz was still the head of the organization. We talked to him. I knew Jack Liebowitz well, but as a young boy. Jack Liebowitz was a fine old man, and he treated me very, very well. If you were to talk to a young fellow you’d try to be fatherly and friendly and Jack was like that. I have very fond memories of talking to Mr. Liebowitz, as I called him. I’d show him the work that we’re doing and the
kind of thing that we’d been doing. Sometimes we’d go up together and sometimes we’d go up there singly. It was a matter of getting around the field. The field was static in a way at that time. There were very few other mags, maybe one or two. But the field was growing all the time.
GROTH: As you approached the ’50s I believe comics started concentrating on horror.
KIRBY: Yes, we did horror, we did Westerns.
GROTH: Did you ever do horror? I know you did romance…
KIRBY: I did a couple of monster stories.
GROTH: Wasn’t that in the late ’50s? In the late ’40s, I don’t think you ever did horror. You did Westerns and romance…
KIRBY: Yes. We did Westerns and romance and gangster stories.
GROTH: Do you remember why you didn’t get into horror? Was it that you didn’t have an affinity for horror?
KIRBY: No, I didn’t have an affinity for horror. But I knew that commercially it was viable. That’s why we both finally did it.
GROTH: You did monsters which isn’t really quite the same.
KIRBY: No, we didn’t do horror in the sense of haunted houses or people with masks the way you might see them today; something lurking in an anteroom. Our stories were more like peasants sitting around a fire. We had the “Strange World of Your Dreams”. Ours didn’t run to bloody horror. Ours ran to weirdness. We began to interpret dreams. Remember, Joe and I were wholesome characters. We weren’t guys that were bent on the weird and the bizarre. We were the kind of guys who wouldn’t offend our mother, who wouldn’t offend anyone in your family, and certainly not the reader. So we knew that we had to depart from adventure and that there were other ways to go and we came up with the “Strange World of Your Dreams”.
GROTH: [Holding comic]: Strange World of Your Dreams — this is published by Prize.
KIRBY: That was our own company.
GROTH: Can you explain how you started your own company — was it mostly Joe Simon? Do you know how early it started? These are as early as ’52.
KIRBY: I think it started with the romance stuff. It was mostly Joe because he was more knowledgeable about lawyers and copyrights and things like that.
GROTH: Where did you get the capital? Did you actually publish them?
KIRBY: Yes, we actually published them. The whole trouble was we were undercapitalized. We published for a little while, but we didn’t get many issues out.
GROTH: Did Joe handle all the business aspects such as distribution?
KIRBY: We both did, and that’s how I began to learn about it. But Joe would handle it a lot more adeptly than I did.
GROTH: Was this Joe’s idea to start the company?
KIRBY: Both of us decided if the other publishers could make money at it, why were we feeding them? And he was right. We had good stuff, and we were innovative, and why not do it for ourselves as well as for the publishers.
GROTH: How long did the company last?
KIRBY: Not too long. A couple of issues.
GROTH: I think you published five titles.
KIRBY: Something like that.
GROTH: Why do you think the company failed?
KIRBY: We were undercapitalized, and we just couldn’t continue. We ran into a lot of bad luck. Wertham gave all comics bad press so it cut your audience down. People were afraid to be seen with a comic less they be labeled as less intellectual than the next fellow who was reading deep books.
GROTH: In this comic Strange World of Your Dreams there’s a story that says “For dramatization analysis by Richard Temple.” Was there really a Richard Temple?
KIRBY: No, there was no Richard Temple. It was a pen name. We had to manufacture an entire company.
GROTH: You apparently hired some people like Mort Meskin, who I see is in here. Did you do the hiring?
KIRBY: We both did. We both did everything. I was in the office I think more than Joe. I did a lot of hiring and a lot of business with the other artists. Mort Meskin was a fine artist, and he helped the circulation of the magazine.
GROTH: Did you enjoy doing that? Because previously you had just been an artist and now you were…
KIRBY: Yes, I did. Life began to broaden a bit. I was growing, and I was learning how to do business.
GROTH: Do you happen to remember why you did a book called The Strange World of Your Dreams?
KIRBY: First of all nobody had that title. You got to remember that in the conventional world that we lived in, raw horror would never have been accepted. We might not have gotten on the newsstands. The newsstand was still selling magazines being put out by Dell, which was a fine company, but they were all conventional. We had to be within that circle just for prestige’s sake. They were all prestigious companies. So to gain that same prestige we printed stories within that same framework. Had we done straight horror at that time it would have been an adolescent move. Let me put it that way.
GROTH: I’m looking at a book called Justice Traps the Guilty, 1945, and it’s published by something called American Boys Comics, out of Buffalo, New York.
ROZ KIRBY: That was part of Joe’s corporation.
GROTH: But this was as early as 1945. Did you and Joe immediately start your publishing company when you got back from the war?
KIRBY: I believe so.
GROTH: Did you have an office at 1790 Broadway?
GROTH: Well, if that’s true it sounds like the company lasted for a while because Your Dreams was published in ’52 at the same address of 1790 Broadway. That’s seven years.
KIRBY: To me it might have seem like a very short time right now. That period to me is very nebulous. You got to remember I’m 71 now, and you’re talking about a young fellow that’s 23. That goes way back.
GROTH: It seems to me that you probably would have published more than five titles. But you don’t remember specifically how you went under?
KIRBY: Things just went bad. They just went bad. You come to a point where you say, we can’t lose any more. Let’s go back to making some money.
GROTH: Did you also publish Young Romance?
GROTH: I didn’t know you published it yourself.
KIRBY: Yes, we did.
GROTH: So you published romance, this weird un-categorizable genre of dreams, and you also published a crime comic.
KIRBY: Gangsters were a big thing then.
GROTH: Did you write a lot of these?
KIRBY: I wrote most of them.
GROTH: Now, Jack, did you write the story, “I Was a Come-On Girl for Broken Bones, Inc.”?
KIRBY: Yes, I did. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Since you worked for yourself you didn’t have to give the art to a publisher. Do you have any idea what happened to all the original art?
KIRBY: God, I don’t know.
ROZ KIRBY: We had a lot of the romance pages and Joe had some romance. And I gave pages back to someone to return back to the authors.
GROTH: I understand you actually originated a book called My Date.
KIRBY: Yes. My Date was the open door to the romance books. It was then that it hit us. After we published My Date it suddenly occurred to me that we were missing the big thing. Romance was making all the money. My Date was more of a teenage book — young people dating girls, dropping girls, gaining girls.
GROTH: You did that for Hillman.
GROTH: Who was Hillman?
KIRBY: Hillman was another publishing outfit, and if I remember correctly we did quite a few things for them.
ROZ KIRBY: Something about an alligator?
KIRBY: Something the alligator, about a real alligator. It was a funny alligator. I forget what the heck his name was. It was a satirical cartoon about Charlie Chaplin as an alligator.
GROTH: You did that for Hillman?
KIRBY: I think that was for Hillman.
GROTH: What was Crestwood Publishing?
ROZ KIRBY: Crestwood was a publishing house that Joe and I worked for. Remember comics were beginning to make a lot of money, and there were new publishing houses being born, and a lot of them faded away like Victor Fox.
GROTH: Were there better or worse companies to work for or were they all pretty much the same?
KIRBY: The idea was to make as much money as you could, and we tried to work for the companies that were paying the most. Of course, Joe and I felt that the way to make the most money was to put out your own books, and we tried that but we didn’t have the capital to sustain them, although we had very good titles and very good stories, but you still had to pay the piper — distributors and what not.
GROTH: I understand you started your own company called Mainline Comics in 1954?
KIRBY: Yes, we did.
GROTH: But you had already started another company prior to that — was that American Boys’ Comics? [Looking at comic.]
KIRBY: Yeah, I did that with Joe.
GROTH: This says “Simon and Kirby, editors and artists’’ and the address is 1790 Broadway. But the cover says Prize Publications —
ROZ KIRBY: A lot of them used different names.
KIRBY: Yeah, that was another company. Most of them faded. They also had tax problems, things like that. They would break their companies in to four or five segments.
GROTH: How did the public backlash against comics in the early ’50s affect you?
KIRBY: It didn’t affect me at all. I was a poor boy making money.
GROTH: What were your feelings about that at the time?
KIRBY: I ignored them. I knew the stuff I was doing was done well and that I could write as well as any other guy. And I did. I knew that Joe was a good businessman.
I was fairly good in business. I was growing up with Joe. Remember Joe was older and Joe knew a lot more tricks than I did. So I began to learn the tricks of the business.
GROTH: Were you worried that the comic book industry might collapse because of all this? Was that a concern?
KIRBY: Yes, it was a concern. In fact, it was a concern to all the publishers. Remember that comic books didn’t enjoy the same prestige as, say, Collier’s magazine or the Saturday Evening Post. In the ’50s if you went to a newsstand and bought a Saturday Evening Post they’d say, “There goes a good American.” If you bought a comic book — “That guy, he shoots pool.” Of course, Dr. Wertham didn’t help any. We got very bad press. Comic books weren’t considered, well, it’s like trash TV is today. Trash TV will probably reach a point where it’s very acceptable.
ROZ KIRBY: That’s when you went over to Classic Comics.
KIRBY: Yeah. Joe and I split up. I did Classic Comics, and they didn’t like the way I folded Cleopatra’s skin. It was run by perfectionists, and I was not the guy to work for perfectionists, so I left soon after. I couldn’t be that fussy or that perfect with my figures or my costumes. I felt that the story was very, very important, and all of it had to mesh to make any sales.
And here’s Part One of this interview