By Jeffrey O. Gustafson
As Rand Hoppe, founder and Director of the Jack Kirby Museum told me tonight, “Jack Kirby hated the Lower East Side.” Kirby would tell World War II stories and talk about the creation of his art all day, but when it came to the L.E.S., all he wanted to do was get the hell out. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was a very different place in Kirby’s youth, and the neighborhood has had more than its share of ups and downs in the nigh-Century since the King was born. However, it is not irony, but Kirby-cosmic kismet that as part of the neighborhood’s recent resurgence, her greatest son found a spotlight here. As part of the Kickstarter-funded Made In The Lower East Side’s Storefront Transformer Project, the Jack Kirby Museum has been given a storefront “pop-up” gallery for this week only, dubbed Prototype: Alpha, the opening of which was Monday Night.
A pretty decent crowd of supporters, NYC comic professionals (including The Beat’s own Torsten Adair), and a few curious onlookers braved the chilly autumn evening to attend the opening-night festivities at the gallery tucked into a storefront at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s a tiny space, put together quickly but efficiently by the Kirby Museum’s small band of organizers, specifically Hoppe and Museum secretary and digital guru Tom Kraft. As Kraft told me, everything Hoppe and Kraft and the other museum supporters do is entirely voluntary and largely out-of-pocket, a true labor of love.
To date, the non-profit Kirby Museum, which has been in constant development since 2005, has not had a physical space to exhibit. This temporary “pop-up” space is the Museum’s chance to show what it can do, raise awareness for Kirby and the Museum, and to raise funds to someday find a permanent home. That is still some ways off, though. There are few permanent comic museums in the United States, and the costs of finding and setting up a permanent space are enormous. But if there is any significant American artist who deserves it, Kirby’s the one. And it is evident that Hoppe, Kraft and crew are the ones to someday achieve this.
Funding is not the only hurdle to overcome, of course. The biggest is the availability of original art to display. It’s no secret that one of the great tragedies of Kirby’s career was the scattering and destruction of so many of his original pieces. What remains is in the hands of collectors spread across the world. But the folks at the Kirby Museum, at least in this pop-up exhibition, have come up with a pretty decent compromise. While the amount of physical art in the Museum’s possession is small, their digital holdings are enormous – to date, they have full-color, full-page high definition scans of over three thousand Kirby pages, plus five thousand more scans of copies. For this exhibit, the museum has produced high quality prints of some key pieces in their archive.
If anyone might be disappointed in the concept of looking at a “copy,” they need only look at the quality of work produced in IDW’s extraordinary Artist Editions as an example of the work displayed this week. By going to prints, it allows the Museum to display important pieces at full-size with no loss in visual quality. Looking at the pieces on display this week, including some Fantastic Four pin-ups, about a dozen pages from Silver Age Marvel and a handful of DC material, if you didn’t know they were prints you’d think they were the real thing. And as it is massively unlikely that you will ever be in the same room as original Kirby art, seeing these full-size prints, with the white-out and corrections and Kirby’s extensive marginalia, is still pretty thrilling.
There is just a small handful of pieces on display, but there is also a pretty killer oversized print of trippy Kirby painting, some copies of pencils of the one story he did about his youth, and a small piece connecting Kirby to the Lower East Side, replete with census records and classic photos. The big windows to the street feature a glorious, massive Silver Surfer drawing, enticing you to come in. (My apologies for not having any photos – but I am dead certain that by the time you read this Tuesday morning there will be tons of pictures online from the dozens of people with cameras documenting tonight’s opening. Feel free to link them in the comments!)
Far from being a staid, dry exhibit, the Museum actually encourages hands-on exploration of Kirby’s art. You can get as close as you want to the prints, and even flip some of them between the finished comic image, Kirby’s full page art, and copies of his pencils. There are iPads presented to explore just a small fraction of the Museum’s digital holdings. The potential for interactivity with this technology as we can see right now in museums across the world is immense.
Hoppe, who has very clearly made it his life’s mission to spread the Gospel of Kirby, was very pleased by the success of Monday Night’s inaugural turnout. There will also be a couple of fascinating talks given at the site later this week. A highlight looks to be “Ya’akov Kurtzberg – King of Comics,” a lecture from Arlen Schumer. Schumer is known for his engaging and entertaining lectures, and if his enthusiasm Monday night was any indication, it looks like it will be a lot of fun. Also available are a small selection of Kirby books and t-shirts donated to the Museum for this event by Two Morrows, Fantagraphics, Schumer, and local NYC retailers Forbidden Planet and JHU Comic Books. (Perfunctory conflict notice, I worked for JHU for about six years until last week.)
As kind-of a full-scale mock-up of the possible, the exhibit very effective. But tiny. Very tiny. Even taking your time, which you should do, it will take less than ten minutes to peruse the offerings. But that is all part of this exhibit’s importance. This isn’t the Museum but what the Museum could be. This is a What If in its purest form. What If there was a museum dedicated to one of American art’s most important figures? What If we could celebrate his achievements and his seismic cultural contributions in an accessible, interactive way? What If The King had a Throne? This exhibit isn’t a dream given form, but a dream given the notice it deserves. This is the first baby step in the mountain that will need to be climbed, but an important step nonetheless. And it is a good example of the work being done diligently by the Museum to archive Kirby’s artistic legacy, and to spread the word on Kirby.
The Jack Kirby Museum’s Prototype: Alpha pop-up installation is at 178 Delancey Street in Manhattan through November 10th. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $2. For more on the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center, visit http://kirbymuseum.org/