Since I was a child, Jack Kirby stood out as THE preeminent American cartoonist and I still and always will count him as one of my favorite artists. He remains the master of inventive technorganic design and deep space multifigure compositions in which all elements display unparalleled weight and thrust. I consider his work to be misunderstood and underappreciated, though; his actual prose and masterful story construction are maligned and the general way that he is portrayed as a wildly imaginative but extremely fast draftsman who effortlessly cranked out reams of pages belies the vast amounts of time and thought that he invested in refining his skills. Such an image of a drawing machine also suits the purposes of the corporations that profit so hugely to this day from his efforts, and the abuses of his “collaborators” who took advantage of his generosity and lack of business acumen to profit themselves. With his primary focus being on providing for his family, he never had the opportunity to slow down and truly explore his potential, to write and draw even a single work at a reasonable pace and show us all what he was capable of. So, for years I wanted badly to meet Jack, to tell him what he meant to me.
I’ve been disturbed to hear doubts expressed publicly about my Kirby quote (“Comics will break your heart”) that I first used in my bio in the original Vertigo edition of 7 Miles a Second. Cartoonist Dylan Horrocks saw it there and then used it for an epigraph for his graphic novel Hicksville. It has been circulating around the comics world ever since. Indeed, it was said to me by Kirby. I see that Mark Evanier has just claimed on his blog that Jack said it “many times and he said it long before he said it to James Romberger”, but excuse me Mark, no one else but me repeated it. Now, I am unsure what to think about it being appropriated by Faith Erin Hicks as the title for her upcoming prose novel—I’m not necessarily thrilled, but the quote seems to have a life of its own – but I was definitely appalled to see it cited in the current issue of DC’s Mister Miracle, given that DC did so much to break Jack’s heart by destroying his 4th World titles just when he was hitting a career peak of quality and invention.
I have seen claims that Jack’s comment was informed by my position as a straddler of the fine art and comics worlds, but the fact is, I met Jack in 1982 at a NYC con, several years before I showed in any galleries and had my large pastel drawings placed in the Metropolitan and other museums (though not MOMA as was reported here). At the time I met Jack, I was fresh from my only semester at SVA. I first met cartoonist Seth Tobocman at that con and showed him a piece I was working on, which he was very impressed with, an eight page color story called “Jesus in Hell”. Below is the spread:
I guess Seth saw some compositional similarities in my approach with that of Kirby; he mentioned that Jack was at the con. When he saw my awestruck reaction, he brought me over to Jack and Roz, who had packed up and were in the process of leaving the con. Seth told Jack he really should look at my work and so Jack asked Roz to wait a minute as I laid my strip out on the hallway floor. At that point, Jack said to me, not sadly but with a sort of forthright aspect of giving me sound advice: “Kid, you’re one of the best. But don’t do comics–comics will break your heart. Be a fine artist instead.“
I then told him how much I loved his work and since I was overwhelmed and my mind went a little blank, I fumblingly mentioned the last comic of his that I had seen: “Jack, I really liked your big treasury edition of 2001.“ He looked mystified at this odd choice, so I continued, “It was big!” He nodded. “It was big, wasn’t it?” And that was it; Roz indicated to him that they had to get going and so he shook my and Seth’s hands and they took off.
That same day at the same con, Seth also took me to show that piece to Art Spiegelman. Art brought me back to the Raw offices immediately thereafter, where he confabbed with Francoise Mouly about publishing it in Raw. They determined that they could not print it because it was in color and they couldn’t afford to make the separations. Seth ended up running it in halftoned B&W in the 5th issue of his political comics zine World War 3 Illustrated.
But that is beside the point, because while perhaps Jack saw that I had a fine arty approach, and perhaps he also said similar things to other young artists, it meant a hell of a lot to me and his advice struck home. Moreover, I believe that what he was saying related very strongly to the fact that Marvel and DC had exploited his work and that Marvel in particular had paid and credited Stan Lee for writing comics that Jack did the lion’s share of the writing on, by any meaningful standards. But perhaps even more to the point, in Kirby’s solo efforts for Marvel and DC, he was interrupted, cut off from completing his best titles at his greatest peaks of inspiration. Both the 4th World and his Eternals books were at high points of moving, carefully crafted drama when morons stopped what he was doing. Comics did break Jack’s fucking heart and any mitigation or denial of that fact is a disservice to him and his art.
However, Evanier is correct in his observation about Horrocks’ defeated-looking sketch of Jack saying the quote. Jack said it to me as a warning, but he was mightily pissed off, not beaten–he was, as Evanier says, “feisty and defiant”–and at that time, he was out of comics, working for the animation company Ruby Spears, getting treated with respect and paid very well.
I consider Jack’s advice in two different ways; in the first place, I used it in my bio for 7 Miles a Second precisely because that tragic book about the life of my friend David Wojnarowicz and his death from AIDS is a heartbreaker in its own right; I was actualizing Jack’s words as if they were an instruction!
On the other hand, I did follow Kirby’s advice for many years. Up until the mid-1990s, I concentrated my efforts in fine art and did comics only for my own pleasure; I drew some pieces now and then for World War 3, made installments of my collaborative sci-fi strip Ground Zero with Marguerite Van Cook in diverse downtown publications and it took me almost ten years to bring 7 Miles a Second to print. But later, when I did finally work in comics as my primary medium, particularly for DC/Vertigo and Fantagraphics, I unfortunately determined that Jack had been right!
The main problems I see in comics have to do with skewed credit and bad promotion. For instance, in the later 2000s I did two hardcover graphic novels in a row for Vertigo. On one, The Bronx Kill, the editors decided after I’d drawn a 150 page book to have another artist do the cover–and then, for the entire Vertigo Crime line they cover-credited the writers twice as large as the artists (the trend Vertigo began of overcrediting writers in comics at the expense of artists has gotten much worse across the board in comics publishing since then) and they left the name of the artists off the spines entirely, which is significant because the spine is what is visible in the graphic novel shelving in many bookstores. After a rather bitter battle, which I won only partially and apparently only because I cited contractual obligations, they added the artists’ names on the spines of the Vertigo Crime books. If you look, artists aren’t on the earlier books’ spines, but they are on The Bronx Kill and the following books.
Meanwhile, as I was burning that bridge, I was already working on my next book for Vertigo, Aaron and Ahmed. There were no credit issues, perhaps because the Guggenheim fellow writer Jay Cantor had provided for my rights as well as his in the contract, but as the book went to press, our editor was sent off in the first wave of DC’s migration to California–so, despite some strong reviews, with no one in the office to shepherd the book, it was not promoted at all. In fact, I was instructed by DC’s promo department not to promote either The Bronx Kill or Aaron and Ahmed myself, that they would handle it–but they set up NOT ONE signing, con appearance or other promotional event for either book–and within a year, DC had cancelled a proposed softcover edition of Aaron and Ahmed and remaindered the hardcovers.
These problems are not limited to the mainstream; for instance, more recently when Fantagraphics released Marguerite Van Cook’s and my The Late Child and Other Animals, the book was beautifully produced, widely acclaimed by critics and it was even nominated for an Ignatz award, but I was profoundly discouraged that no promotional effort was expended to capitalize on that response. At this point, I work slowly and steadily on self-generated comics projects, but I will release them only after determining what publisher will follow through on what is supposed to be their end of the deal.
So, Jack was right. Comics CAN break your heart. But there is recourse for those of us who are driven to do comics. Don’t let someone else take credit for your work. Get an agent, or at the very least, make sure your contracts protect your rights–for example, collaborative artists must make sure that our contracts stipulate that we get equal cover credit with the writers, equal co-authorship and equal co-ownership of our work—and a degree of reasonable and verified promotion. These are the problems of comics that Jack fell victim to, that he warned me and all of us about.
James Romberger is the Eisner-nominated cartoonist of Post York and co-author of 7 Miles a Second, The Late Child and Other Animals and Aaron and Ahmed. His latest book Steranko: The Self-Created Man is available from https://groundzerobooks.com. His pastel drawings are in many private and public collections including those of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard Business School. He has written about comics, film and art for Publisher’s Weekly, Comics Journal, The Beat, LAAB, Study Group Magazine and Hooded Utilitarian. He teaches art at Parsons and Marywood University.