UPDATE: Jack Kirby biographer Mark Evanier, has responded to this post with a thorough history of Jack Kirby saying comics will break your heart many times. However, he does have one caveat with the narrative expressed in this post:
I should also point out that Jack’s advice fluctuated. There were times he was happier in the field than he was at other times. When he did say things like that it came from a frustration not with the form of comics, which he loved, but with the working conditions, bad compensation and loss of control of one’s work he encountered. He probably said it much less (if at all) in the last years of his life when he could see creators sometimes holding onto copyrights and making real good money in comics.
And I doubt he was ever as dour as the above drawing (by New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks) made him out to be. He usually said such things with a feisty, defiant manner. Jack was a pretty feisty, defiant guy.
That’s it, it’s the defiance of the Kirby I met that has always made me wonder about this quote.
Re the previous post, Faith Erin Hicks used a classic comics quote this is attributed to Jack “King” Kirby; with that source in mind the message “Comic will break your heart,” coming from the man who invented the comics, is indeed a sobering reminder that with great love comes great heartbreak.
Not to sound like a name dropping douchebag, but I knew Kirby a little and I was quite curious about the origin of the statement, as it’s a bit more dour than I might have expected. The quote was popularized by New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks, who used it as the epigraph of his comic about comics, Hicksville, in which there’s a magical island where everyone loves comics and cartoonists are the greatest celebrities.
When Hicksville came out in the early 90s , the idea of comics being respected and cartoonists feted was as much a pipedream as winning the lottery – on Mars. But here in 2017, it’s a bit closer to reality.
Still, the Kirby who stripped down to his shorts, pipe clenched between his teeth, and kept on drawing doesn’t seem to have time or energy for regrets, as much as a front as that activity may seem. So what’s the deal?
On Horrocks’ blog, he gives the origin story for the quote:
In the 1980s, Romberger met Kirby at a convention in New York. Kirby kindly looked at Romberger’s work and then gave him a piece of advice: “Kid, you’re one of the best. But put your work in galleries. Don’t do comics. Comics will break your heart.”
Romberger followed Kirby’s advice for years, mostly exhibiting in galleries, while drawing comics for alternative and literary magazines – and occasionally for commercial publishers – on the side. When the first edition of Seven Miles a Second was published by Vertigo in 1996, Romberger mentioned in his artist’s bio that he’d once been told by Jack Kirby “comics will break your heart.” As soon as I read that, I knew I would have to use it in Hicksville. I’m grateful to Romberger for later sharing the full story with me and I urge you all to buy his & Wojnarowicz’s extraordinary book.
As you can see from the context, it was perhaps not the idea of working in comics itself that Kirby was warning against, but the idea of a fine artist like Romberger (whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art) trying to break into a sweat shop like comics, where such talents weren’t needed. This doesn’t really change the meaning of the quote, but the slant is a tiny bit different. James Romberger is still around so maybe we’ll get the full story from him in another post.
NOW, the quote is also attributed to Charles Schulz. I couldn’t find the citation for it, but GoodReads has it as
This was also quoted by Chris Ware in an issue of Acme Novelty Library like so.
This, on the other hand, this sounds like the most Charles Schulz-like quote possible. It was Schulz’s endless exploration of failure, loss and heartbreak that made Peanuts the literary classic it is. I know I’ve written about this before, but I interviewed Schulz once, over the phone, and when he mentioned the inspiration for Snoopy, he got a sad note in his voice and told me how much he missed the dog – who had died 50 years before. The man didn’t let go, it seems.
Will comics break your heart? Oh yes. But so will anything else worth dreaming and achieving. It’s in the space between risk and reality that the magic can happen. Jack Kirby warning us that “Comics will break your heart” is an essential station of the myth, because comics’ greatest visionary warning us of the danger implies that he himself had a broken heart. It is quite likely that he did, but I’m also pretty sure that Jack Kirby lived to draw and create. It was a price he had to pay.
Was the payoff worth it? I’ve leave that for you to decide.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.