Jack Kirby: "Nobody was in the mood to joke unless you hit a guy with a baseball bat."

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The notorious 1990 Comics Journal interview with Jack Kirby is now online in its entirety, and you can see what made it notorious. The 71-year-old Kirby was not shy about asserting his place in the creation of comics’ best known characters and at the expense of his collaborators.

KIRBY: Yeah, sometimes he did. Stan was a very rigid type. At least, he is to me. That’s how I sized him up. He’s a very rigid type, and he gets what he wants when the advantage is his. He’s the kind of a guy who will play the advantages. When the advantage isn’t his at all, he’ll lose. He’ll lose with any creative guy. And I could never see Stan Lee as being creative. The only thing he ever knew was he’d say this word “Excelsior!”


While this might seem a bit heavy, you have to remember where Kirby was coming from: For nearly 50 years, he’d been a never ending fountain of concepts and characters that power the comics industry to this day, but he never got the remuneration or credit that he saw other people getting, and his original art had been stolen — to be sold on the open market. It would have angered anyone.

As I look around at the way that comics are part of pop culture now, and comics creators are regularly seen on cable TV and at movie premieres, I invariably think, “I wish Jack had made it this far.” Kirby died in 1994, long before comics were anything more than a renegade medium, still treated with suspicion. Kirby would not have been the least bit surprised at the respect now afforded his chosen medium — he believed in it already and would have basked in the spotlight of adoration that — one likes to think — would have inevitably been cast on him.

Think of what he’d have to say about the THOR movie, for instance. Here’s Kirby’s comments in the 1990 interview:

GROTH: Some of the Asgardian landscapes, it seems like you must have taken great joy in…
KIRBY: I did. I took a great joy with inventing new kinds of mechanisms. I invented new kinds of machines. I’ve been a student of science fiction for a long, long time, and I can tell you that I’m very well-versed in science fact and science fiction. I’m 71 years old, and so I’ve seen all this new conception. I used to read the first science fiction books, and I began to learn about the universe myself and take it seriously. I know the names of the stars. I know how near or far the heavenly bodies are from our own planet. I know our own place in the universe. I can feel the vastness of it inside myself. I began to realize with each passing fact what a wonderful and awesome place the universe is, and that helped me in comics because I was looking for the awesome. I found it in Thor. I found it in Galactus.

Comments

  1. “what a wonderful and awesome place the universe is, and that helped me in comics because I was looking for the awesome. I found it in Thor. I found it in Galactus.”

    When he says ‘awesome’, it sounds the way it is meant.

  2. “what a wonderful and awesome place the universe is, and that helped me in comics because I was looking for the awesome. I found it in Thor. I found it in Galactus.”

    When he says ‘awesome’, it sounds the way it is meant.

  3. Kirby and his art. Awesome and wonderful.

  4. Kirby and his art. Awesome and wonderful.

  5. Johnathan Black says:

    I don’t have anything against Jack Kirby, in fact I respect him for some of the work he did. But I have never understood the level of adoration surrounding him or the persistent sentiment that he was short changed. Could someone please concisely explain:
    (1) why he’s considered so great and
    (2) why he is so often presented as the victim?

    He seemed to have been in demand so I would think that he would have had a better bargaining position than most when negotiating his terms of service. If Marvel did not offer him something he was satisfied with there were other publishers he could go to. Again, here he would have to negotiate agreeable terms. If a publisher was not abiding by the agreed upon terms then he should have pursued the matter aggressively and/or stop working for the publisher.

    These issues are obviously not unique to comic book publishing. I’m thinking that he should have figured out how to handle things in his first few years working as a professional. Whenever I come across stories about Kirby being taken advantage of I get the picture of some talented kid that didn’t know any better and just wanted to work in comics. But Jack was an adult who had worked in the business longer than Stan (if I’m recalling correctly.)

    What am I not seeing?

  6. Johnathan Black says:

    I don’t have anything against Jack Kirby, in fact I respect him for some of the work he did. But I have never understood the level of adoration surrounding him or the persistent sentiment that he was short changed. Could someone please concisely explain:
    (1) why he’s considered so great and
    (2) why he is so often presented as the victim?

    He seemed to have been in demand so I would think that he would have had a better bargaining position than most when negotiating his terms of service. If Marvel did not offer him something he was satisfied with there were other publishers he could go to. Again, here he would have to negotiate agreeable terms. If a publisher was not abiding by the agreed upon terms then he should have pursued the matter aggressively and/or stop working for the publisher.

    These issues are obviously not unique to comic book publishing. I’m thinking that he should have figured out how to handle things in his first few years working as a professional. Whenever I come across stories about Kirby being taken advantage of I get the picture of some talented kid that didn’t know any better and just wanted to work in comics. But Jack was an adult who had worked in the business longer than Stan (if I’m recalling correctly.)

    What am I not seeing?

  7. Robert Pope says:

    Kirby got screwed, plain and simple. The post-Goodman owners of Marvel were terrified he’d have some (totally legitimate) claim of ownership to all those characters he-d co-created, so they tried to use the promised return of his originals to strong arm him into signing away all his rights. I re-read that article constantly, it’s fascinating stuff and the only real shame is that Groth is SO biased with his slams at Stan (referring to him as a “bullshit artist”) that it gets in the way of just how badly Jack was treated. Evanier has noted for years that Jack was NOT a very good interview subject, and frequently got facts wrong (often claiming to have created Spider-Man, ect.) Nonetheless, the King was wronged and in many ways nothing has been made right to this day (the litigation between the Kirby family and Disney points to that fact.)

  8. Robert Pope says:

    Kirby got screwed, plain and simple. The post-Goodman owners of Marvel were terrified he’d have some (totally legitimate) claim of ownership to all those characters he-d co-created, so they tried to use the promised return of his originals to strong arm him into signing away all his rights. I re-read that article constantly, it’s fascinating stuff and the only real shame is that Groth is SO biased with his slams at Stan (referring to him as a “bullshit artist”) that it gets in the way of just how badly Jack was treated. Evanier has noted for years that Jack was NOT a very good interview subject, and frequently got facts wrong (often claiming to have created Spider-Man, ect.) Nonetheless, the King was wronged and in many ways nothing has been made right to this day (the litigation between the Kirby family and Disney points to that fact.)

  9. Synsidar says:

    (1) why he’s considered so great and

    Context is important. Kirby was a giant in the comics field as a creator when he worked for Marvel and for years after that, but comparisons to artists and writers in other media and forms should be avoided. His energy and inventiveness were impressive.

    (2) why he is so often presented as the victim?

    Because Stan Lee is perfect as the villain.

    SRS

  10. Synsidar says:

    (1) why he’s considered so great and

    Context is important. Kirby was a giant in the comics field as a creator when he worked for Marvel and for years after that, but comparisons to artists and writers in other media and forms should be avoided. His energy and inventiveness were impressive.

    (2) why he is so often presented as the victim?

    Because Stan Lee is perfect as the villain.

    SRS

  11. Stuart T says:

    I love the Stan cameos, but yes it is heartbreaking to think how much Jack deserves the same or greater recognition, particularly in a movie based almost entirely on JIM 118.

    Johnathan, Evanier’s book explains the depressing business details. Harry Mendryk and Norris Burroughs have great blogs at kirbymuseum.org explaining why Jack is the King. Or could you read Morrison’s Seven Soldiers about how the parasitical creators of today are ravaging and surviving off his imagination.

  12. Stuart T says:

    I love the Stan cameos, but yes it is heartbreaking to think how much Jack deserves the same or greater recognition, particularly in a movie based almost entirely on JIM 118.

    Johnathan, Evanier’s book explains the depressing business details. Harry Mendryk and Norris Burroughs have great blogs at kirbymuseum.org explaining why Jack is the King. Or could you read Morrison’s Seven Soldiers about how the parasitical creators of today are ravaging and surviving off his imagination.

  13. Dave Miller-lad says:

    I think they should composite some video of Jack Kirby into Thor as a cameo. In today’s technology, it wouldn’t be difficult.

  14. Dave Miller-lad says:

    I think they should composite some video of Jack Kirby into Thor as a cameo. In today’s technology, it wouldn’t be difficult.

  15. Al™ says:

    (1) why he’s considered so great and (2) why he is so often presented as the victim?

    1. Endless imagination and a work ethic that exceeds that of any other comic artist in history. Creator of hundreds of visual concepts, if not actual heroes and villains.

    2. Many feel that he was not adequately financially compensated for his work. Yes, he agreed to draw for hire. It appears that he was not a strong negotiator. We can now presume that he should have hired a business agent or a financial person in the 50′s or 60′s to handle that side of things for him.

  16. Al™ says:

    (1) why he’s considered so great and (2) why he is so often presented as the victim?

    1. Endless imagination and a work ethic that exceeds that of any other comic artist in history. Creator of hundreds of visual concepts, if not actual heroes and villains.

    2. Many feel that he was not adequately financially compensated for his work. Yes, he agreed to draw for hire. It appears that he was not a strong negotiator. We can now presume that he should have hired a business agent or a financial person in the 50′s or 60′s to handle that side of things for him.

  17. >> I think they should composite some video of Jack Kirby into Thor as a cameo. In today’s technology, it wouldn’t be difficult.>>

    I think appropriating his likeness and sticking it into a film based on his co-creation that he and his family didn’t get paid anything for would be adding insult to injury. It kind of says, “Sticking your face into this thing is enough; we don’t need to actually let you share in the character’s success.”

  18. >> I think they should composite some video of Jack Kirby into Thor as a cameo. In today’s technology, it wouldn’t be difficult.>>

    I think appropriating his likeness and sticking it into a film based on his co-creation that he and his family didn’t get paid anything for would be adding insult to injury. It kind of says, “Sticking your face into this thing is enough; we don’t need to actually let you share in the character’s success.”

  19. Let’s not forget how much longevity helps. Stan’s still alive. Jack’s been dead for nearly two decades.

    The whole Stan/Jack credit taking kind of reminds me of how the credit taking for Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes characters have shaken out.

    Bob Clampet, Tex Avery, Bob McKimson and Chuck Jones were (IMO) the four main creators responsible for the look, feel and lasting impressions that came out of those classic cartoons. But, because Chuck Jones outlived the other three, and probably spent a little more time on those characters than the other three, there are many out there who have the impression that Jones was solely responsible for the Looney Tunes catalog.

  20. Matthew Southworth says:

    @Jonathan Black: why Kirby’s so great.

    I understand why you’d ask this (and I appreciate your willingness to do so and risk the personal attacks!). . .for a long time I didn’t get it, either. It was sort of like not seeing what was great about the Beatles until I learned that all modern pop music was either a continuation or a comment on their music, an influence that is now so deeply rooted it’s unconscious.

    Kirby produced something like 7,000 pages of artwork (heard that figure somewhere)–7,000! And he created a huge chunk of what the American public understands as “comic books”, meaning Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, etc., and that’s not getting into the thousands of incidental or lesser-known characters.

    So purely from a creative standpoint, the guy was incredibly important.

    I also believe that his synthesis of what was valuable in comic book art was what made comics so successful. Power, power, power! Action, foreshortened arms coming at you out of the page, incredible inscrutable machinery. . .

    . . .although I also think that the contrast of this sort of overblown hypothalamus artwork with Stan Lee’s earthbound soap opera is what made the work interesting. For me, a lot of Kirby’s own writing is uninteresting simply because I can’t relate to anyone in the stories (NEW GODS is an exception).

    In other words, Kirby’s like Les Paul–had the electric guitar not been invented, music would be different. It might even be better! But to look at music now and try to imagine it without the electric guitar, it’s nearly impossible.

  21. Matthew Southworth says:

    Oh, and by the way. . .

    I didn’t “get” Kirby for a long, long time. His work was so ingrained in comics’ cultural DNA that I didn’t see anything other than weird blocky fingers and less-than-beautiful women and insane impossible foreshortening. It all looked like a talented kid did it, but I wanted to see something more refined.

    Then I got it! It WAS like a talented kid did it, and what could be better for superhero comics than that?

  22. Stuart T says:

    He actually drew more than 20,000 pages over his life — that were printed. Not counting covers, of which he drew virtually all of Marvel’s in the early ’60s. And not counting layouts. And not counting pinups. And not counting all the unpublished stuff.

    It’s unimaginable today.

  23. James Van Hise says:

    In the 1960s Martin Goodman made certain promises to Jack, including a pension. When Marvel was sold, none of those promises were passed along to the new owners, who rightly claimed ignorance of Jack’s agreement with Martin Goodman. I think Jack resented Stan ultimately because Stan was in a position to know what Jack deserved and to speak up for him, but Stan did nothing as he was very generously compensated by the new owners of Marvel, more than many realize. Mike Ploog once told me the story of how when he was working for Marvel in the 1970s he asked Stan for a $5.00 a page raise, but Stan said they couldn’t manage it. Then Stan showed Mike a wall with pictures of the Rolls Royce automobiles which Stan owned (he collected them like Jay Leno collects cars today). Mike lost it, exclaiming, “You’re showing me pictures of your Rolls Royce collection and you can’t give me a $5.00 a page raise?” Stan didn’t get angry, he just paused, thought about it and agreed that Mike was right and he got his raise.

  24. Steve says:

    For my money, Kirby was the single most creative person in the history of mainstream comics. He created(or co-created; if you read HIS dialogue & HIS characterizations, its clear he needed some help) more characters than anyone. He created the language of romance & superhero comics. Somehow, as he said, the world he created was totally believable. Have we seen his like since? Possibly Alan Moore. Outside of Alan Moore no one at all.

  25. J North says:

    That comment struck me as being very odd. Off-hand, I can think of very few characters Moore created. Most are just derivations of already existing characters. As for style, I can’t imagine two being further apart that Alan Moore and Jack Kirby.

  26. Johnathan Black says:

    Thanks for all the responses.

  27. J North: Steve was talking about “worlds” created not “characters”.
    Also Alan Moore is a giant Kirby fan (as witnessed in his 1963 series)

  28. Maclaine says:

    Thanks for posting this, Heidi. I think it was reprinted in its entirety a few years ago in a this thing, which I have buried somewhere, but it’s such a seminal interview, I’m glad TCJ is putting it out there for free. Despite all he’d been through, his enthusiasm for comics and his overall humble view of himself is to be admired.

  29. Hail to the King!

  30. I was disgusted by those Comics Journal issues about Kirby’s grievances against Marvel. Yes, he had some real grievances, but the Journal simply printed Kirby’s claims that he created everything at Marvel all by himself. No rebuttal, no attempt to dig out the truth.

    This was not journalism. This was a magazine acting as Jack’s press agent.

  31. Matthew Southworth says:

    @G: as a matter of fact, the Comics Journal did attempt to get Stan Lee’s side of things, and Stan responded that he “didn’t have any interest in being interviewed by the Comics Journal” (I’m paraphrasing; they printed the rejection from him).

    If you assert that the Journal was “acting as Jack’s press agent”, what do you assert was their reason for doing so? Were they being paid by Kirby to act as a press agent? Were they simply starstruck (and if so, why just with Kirby and not with Lee?)? Or did they honestly believe a wrong had been done and that Kirby had not been given a fair hearing?

  32. Goodman says:

    For what it’s worth, when the TCJ republished the Kirby interview in book form they DID note that Jack’s claims that he did all the creating and writing weren’t backed up by… well… anybody else who was there.

  33. Steve says:

    I think focusing on his exaggerations is a mistake. Great artists often have great egos &, in comic book terms, he was a great artist. Kirby really gave us mainstream comics as we know them.

  34. Tom Spurgeon says:

    A few reasons Kirby is great:

    1. Kirby created over 20,000 comics pages, many of which are remarkably attractive, nearly all of which do the job they’re intended to do.

    2. Kirby had a hand in creating dozens of the most memorable and enduring comic-book characters, almost certainly more than any other comic-book creator by a factor of 10 to 1.

    3. Kirby established a dynamic way of making superhero comics art very early on that was widely copied and has remained part of its visual DNA since the early 1940s.

    4. Kirby established the visual look of romance comics, and co-created the genre.

    5. In Boys’ Ranch, Kirby made use of single- and double-page illustrations in a way that’s also become a part of comic book’s essential visual DNA.

    6. At Marvel in the 1960s, Kirby combined many of his already-established approaches into a heady mix of demented action, breathtaking spectacle and compelling, quieter moments that helped get those comics over with a generation of fans and informed hundreds of comics not his own including, directly and at the time, the entire Marvel line, crucially helping midwife into existence of the great sustained expressions of quality, compelling work the art form’s ever seen.

    7. Kirby drew two of the undeniably great, sustained works of that Marvel period, including what many consider a top 10 comics work of all time, Fantastic Four.

    8. Kirby created one of the four or five most ambitious and thematically affecting of all superhero comics works, the spectacular yet melancholy anti-war New Gods saga. There are comics-makers in the Hall of Fame that never had as good an idea as, say, Mister Miracle, the superhero that escapes conflict.

    9. Even in the long afternoon of his career, Kirby was capable of boldly exciting, visually appealing work, even if much of it ran counter to the grim, television-drama seriousness that many fans of that time preferred.

    As to the other…

    Kirby is presented as a victim at times because he was a victim. He wasn’t a victim in the legally unimaginative way that exploiters of all kinds would have you believe is the only definition that counts. He was a victim both for being lied to and in the wider, more significant sense that here was a great man who could have and should have been rewarded and was not, owing to the choices of people who felt nothing amiss in benefiting from his particular brand of genius more than they would allow him to.

    It’s important that we be honest about what happened to Kriby because it’s important to know that it’s not just young and immature artists that are exploited, the very best can be, too. The righteous call for all people to take care of business on their end doesn’t magically transform the actively shitty behavior that drives rampant exploitation into some sort of neutral, natural state for which no one doing it is directly responsible.

    Mostly, though, it’s hoped that people see Kirby as less a victim than as the King of Comics and one of the great, creative founts of 20th Century imagination.

  35. jacob lyon goddard says:

    uh…yeah
    what Tom said

  36. jacob lyon goddard says:

    i’m not really sure what to believe. the simple fact that Lee’s never written a readable comic without those early 60s collaborators is pretty damning evidence that he has never really been any kind of writer.

    but Kirby’s statements about how Stan had zero creative input doesn’t really ring true either. Fantastic Four and Thor and Dr Strange all had the same verbal style and at the very least feel like the dialogue all came from one voice.

    i get the impression that Kirby never read his own comics after they were printed, and didn’t really know that Lee put a polish on his dialogue and caption suggestions.

  37. R. Maheras says:

    Nice summation, Tom!

    For generations, comic book artists have been studying Kirby’s layouts — particularly when it comes to “shot” variations and action sequences.

    If circumstances had been different and he had the opportunity to go to Hollywood, Kirby just might have turned out to be one the best action directors Tinsel Town had ever seen.

    Now that I think about it, over the years I’ll bet Kirby’s work also infuenced a significant number of great film directors — whether they realized it or not.

  38. patrick ford says:

    Taking seriously obvious hyperbole in a spoken interview is one way to obfuscate the clear message.
    Stan Lee said in a 1968 interview introduced as part of the current lawsuit that he’d “spoken at every university on the East Coast, and been invited to speak at practically every university in the Free World.”
    There is anger in the interview, but Kirby’s comments on Stan are punctuated with laughter as well. Exaggeration is conversation is common.
    The substance of what Kirby was saying is that he plotted the stories, and created the characters alone. Based on Spiderman (the Oleck/Simon/Kirby version) and the Challengers similarity to the FF I’m convinced Kirby was not only bring the core ideas to Lee, but plotting the stories in his penciled art which he then sold to Marvel.
    The printed books are what show Lee’s hand, and as John Romita said, “I’d bet my house Jack never read the printed comics, that’s why he could say with a straight face Stan never wrote anything.”
    In other words, as far as Kirby knew Stan never wrote anything which Kirby needed.

  39. I shouldn’t weigh in on this, but I will. It confounds me how people can attack Kirby for basically telling the truth. Everything Jack says in the interview, he told me in 1970 when I first met him. Jack was not the kind of guy who would slam someone for his own benefit or take credit for something he didn’t do. If Stan Lee had written those stories and created those characters, Jack would’ve been the first one to give him credit.
    And that’s all I’m gonna say.

  40. Every day I read the comics news in the hope of seeing “Kirby Heirs Win Character Rights” as a headline. Every day I go away sad.

  41. patrick ford says:

    Steve, Thanks so much for your comment, and you absolutely should weigh in on this topic. Thanks to to a busy guy like Kurt who has spent the better part of a couple of days trying to reason with people both here, and on a couple of other sites where he’s joined long comments streams and I hope opened at least a few eyes.
    There is a lot of anger, and Kirby’s common usage of exaggeration (not just concerning Lee, but in many things he said) in the TCJ interview, but the core of it all is that Kirby wrote his story, and sold it to Marvel. I would suppose Stan gave Kirby minimal direction (“Martin wants a super team”…”Bring back Doctor Doom next issue,” etc.), but I would also think Steve, and Mark Evanier had about as much to do with the Fourth World as Stan did with the Marvel era stories as Kirby wrote and drew them at home. Lee is all over the printed comic books, but it’s common knowledge that Kirby didn’t read the printed books which came out months after he was done with his role in their creation.

  42. Synsidar says:

    Every day I read the comics news in the hope of seeing “Kirby Heirs Win Character Rights” as a headline.

    Remember that the legal battle is less about whether Kirby created or co-created n Marvel characters than it is about whether he did so under a work for hire arrangement.

    SRS

  43. Pantsless Pete says:

    I do think there’s an issue where Kirby’s supporters do oversell his influence. While Kirby drew comics is a way no one else had before, I’d argue that the writing was the real paradigm change Marvel bought to the table.

    I mean, while Stan produced some excerable stuff as he went on, a lot of the stuff Kirby produced post marvel wasn’t particuarly great either.

  44. Everything has to be taken in context. Look what Mr. Kirby was producing in his time against what other artists companies and comics were being made.

    When you do this it gives you a better perspective on his body of work.

    I think that his longevity and his creativity should be honoured just like Eisner, Ditko, Kubert, Infantino, Kane and many others I could mention that we as fans and artists should never be afraid to give too much credit to any and all of these talents.

    “Talent is hard work”

    ArrOOoo!

  45. Tom Spurgeon says:

    The Lee and Kirby before and after Lee + Kirby arguments always seem weird to me.

    On a good day I might be able to argue that Kamandi #10 is better than Lee’s entire output from after Kirby left Marvel until today, but I’m kind of partial to the unpublished Tom Swift material he did with John Romita.

    Lee didn’t do a lot of material, period, after a certain point.

    It might have been interesting to see what Lee would have done if after 1970 or so he thought it was in his best interest to focus for years at a time on a wide array of comics scripting projects.

  46. Jabon wrote: “…Lee’s never written a readable comic without those early 60s collaborators … but Kirby’s statements about how Stan had zero creative input doesn’t really ring true either.”

    I would quote Will Eisner here … in the documentary COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL, Eisner spoke about being a frustrated writer and a frustrated artist. “Suddenly, there emerged this medium that could take you ineptitude in one field, your ineptitude in another, put them together, and come out with an EPTITUDE.”

    I think that sums the Lee/Kirby collaborations perfectly. Both men were talented … but their greatest successes usually occurred together. Their strengths either canceled or complimented each others quirks.

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