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Jack Kirby:

Superheroes, Continuities & Crossovers

In the Sixties ‘Silver Age’, self-styled ‘Smilin’ Stan Lee, editor, main writer and salesman for Marvel Comics, used to hype the New York publishers as ‘The House of Ideas’. The majority of those ideas were jointly created by Lee with artist-collaborator Jack Kirby in an unparalleled imaginative outpouring of three or four years, germinating first in 1961 with the Fantastic Four. A second-string outfit at the time, Marvel under Lee and Kirby, joined by the Lee and Steve Ditko co-creations Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, wove a new tight-knit tapestry of superheroes with superproblems which would threaten and then outstrip Superman, Batman and others at more sedate rivals DC Comics. The genre’s duopoly has competed fiercely ever since, both headhunting Kirby’s genius for different periods.

Ideas can truly be golddust, and many of Kirby’s blossomed into licences to print money from lunchboxes to blockbusters, such as this summer’s Iron Man and Hulk. The problem is that none of that income went to co-creator Kirby. Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, the son of a struggling Jewish tailor, Kirby lived by a lifelong philosophy, rooted in his determination to escape tenement poverty, always to work hard to provide for his family. Admirable as this was, it meant that Kirby sold all of his characters outright to Marvel and DC, the only deal on offer then, and so had to keep on producing more. His biographer, former assistant and friend Mark Evanier, relates how it was only in 1978, after some forty years in comics, that Kirby finally enjoyed better wages and got health insurance when he was hired by animation studios, initially to storyboard the Fantastic Four‘s TV cartoons. Latterly, a new regime at DC paid him some royalties and Marvel were pressured into returning a fraction of his original artwork, but this was meagre compensation for properties reaping millions for the publishers to this day. Stan ‘The Man’ Lee may have nicknamed him Jack ‘King’ Kirby, but his crown was made of only pulpy newsprint.

Fantastic Four #14, page 4 (1962)
by Jack Kirby

Lee and Kirby’s revolutionary approach during Marvel’s ascendence was to locate their assorted heroes and villains in the same ‘universe’ so that their every adventure mattered and built cumulatively into a neverending ‘continuity’. DC would adopt a similar strategy. These ‘crossovers’ started as transparent ploys to drive fans to buy more of their titles but when Kirby rejoined DC in 1970, the concept took on a grander vision as he wrote and drew four related books, a prototype graphic novel, telling different aspects of one monumental finite war between New Gods played out on our world. Continuities began simply enough at each company but over time their exponential profusion of characters and stories outgrew single universes to encompass two distinct ‘multiverses’ dizzy with alternate versions, timelines and Earths.

As one of thousands of youngsters entranced by these complex arcana, Roz Kaveney was prompted to re-examine their modern forms more closely when a friend observed that "...these two continuities were the largest narrative constructions in human culture (exceeding, for example, the vast body of myth, legend and story that underlies Latin and Greek literature)...". Kaveney is astute in judging the variable results of fresh instalments, month after month, for forty-plus years in the case of The X-Men, or seventy years of Superman, accruing into these "collective works of art". Her analyses of "thick texts" such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight or Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias reveal the genre’s increasing sophistication in questioning the roles of superheroes as vigilantes, psychopaths, government lackeys or independent women. Kaveney also distinguishes sharply between the "revision of canon" by radical but respectful writers and the callous murders and personality shifts, the cavalier "strip-mining" of continuity, ordered by profit-driven editorial policy.

Hulk #5, page 8
by Jack Kirby

In contrast, Kirby rarely looked back and brought his best to whatever he did, for example elevating a corporate instruction to plagiarise Planet Of The Apes into the refreshing Kamandi, Last Boy On Earth. Today it is noticeable how central Kirby’s contributions to both Marvel and DC, even minor ones, have become to each mythos, and how few significant protagonists anyone else has introduced at these companies since the Eighties. Instead, it seems most writers prefer to play around with the existing "toys", clone meaner, younger or even zombie variations, or helm provocative plots overarching many titles or the whole line. Kaveney finds wit and invention in several of these so-called "events", notably Mark Millar’s Civil War, in which the US government requires superheroes to register, dividing the costumed community in a pointed allegory of the erosion of civil liberties in Bush’s America. Marvel without Kirby may remain a ‘House of Ideas’ of sorts, and DC too, although these days the ideas are less about originating than elaborating their existing pantheons. Pantheons which were only part of Kirby’s exemplary but exploited life of ceaseless creation.


Jack Kirby Quarterly #15
Edited by Chrissie Harper
Published by Quality Communications
Available on eBay

Dez Skinn, publisher of House of Hammer, Warrior and 200 issues of Comics International, has taken his next step in comics publishing, since handing on CI to new hands, and brought out a 15th Anniversary edition of Jack Kirby Quarterly. I’ll admit up front that I had the honour of contributing to this issue myself, a modest appraisal of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s origin tale of Rawhide Kid, comparing the two versions of the same story which intriguingly they produced a year apart. In addition, I’ve known Chrissie Harper since shortly after JKQ debuted. Unlike John Morrow’s long-running Jack Kirby Collector which began in 1994 and hit 50 great issues this year, we British did it first. Chrissie started up JKQ back in September 1993 while Jack was still alive. He saw the magazine, the first devoted to his life and work, and praised it, even signing some copies.

Now, fifteen years on, JKQ is back as a slickly printed, 68-page A4 magazine with colour covers. Chrissie has had the chance to transcribe all her original telephone interviews with Kirby and his widow Roz fully and present them at their best with a well-chosen selection of images and an accompanying timeline. As well as articles on Kirby’s legend and legacy by Fabio Barbieri, Tim Bateman, Nick Caputo, Mark Evanier, Tim Perkins and other Kirbyologists, Chrissie has corralled an impressive line-up of professionals such as William Stout, Marv Wolfman, James Romberger and Kevin Eastman to provide their own insights. There’s also a complete transcript of the Kirby panel which Chrissie and I hosted last April at Comica. As a note for your diary, Chrissie and I will be doing "Live from Kirby Plaza…" again at the 2008 Comica Festival on Sunday November 23rd with Paul Gambaccini and Mike Lake joining us in person and Greg Theakston, Kirby confidante and author of a new biography, Jack Magic, from Pure Imagination, live by transatlantic Skype link.

Stop The Panzers!
by Jack Kirby

There’s plenty here to read and look at on every page. Previously unseen visual treats here include Kirby’s character sheet for an unused Doctor Phibes project, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles penciled pin-up and a stunning World War II combat vista of Panzer tanks, probably drawn from Kirby’s own grim military experiences which he never forgot, blasting across the centre spread and reproduced on the back cover in Kirby’s intense, incendiary pink and orange washes. This magazine is a true labour of love, the care and attention to detail evident on every page, a tightly edited and designed production of real substance.

Most compelling of all here are the warmth, conviction and strong humanity that come across so clearly in Kirby’s conversations and correspondence. A highlight is the text of the first letter Kirby ever wrote back to the teenage Chrissie in 1983, prompted by some of her drawings which her mother had mailed to him. Here is Kirby taking the time to respond personally to a fan in England. It’s a truly positive, inspirational response, the sort of boost that anyone would be thrilled to receive. He wraps it up by saying: "In the final analysis, you ‘count’. Every guy is valuable. And that always makes a hekkuva story. I look forward to reading about yours, one of these days. Your friend, Jack Kirby."

So it’s entirely fitting that JKQ #15 is dedicated to Deirdre Harper, Chrissie’s late Mum, because she played some crucial roles in enabling and encouraging Chrissie to self-publish that first tentative issue. JKQ has come a long way since then and it’s good to have it back. Buy a copy direct via eBay now - why wait for it to eventually get into comic shops? With enough sales, the hope is that JKQ can continue on an annual basis. It’s not only a top-class study of "The King of Comics" which belongs on the bookshelves of anyone seriously interested in the medium, but also a loving tribute both to a genuine genius of American comic books and to a mother who helped make it possible.

Posted: October 3, 2008

This article appeared in the Independent newspaper in May 2008.


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