Kirby’s Warning: How Comics Will Break Your Heart

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A spread from Jesus in Hell, the story I showed to jack Kirby.

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:

Two pages from “Jesus in Hell”, the story I showed to Kirby.

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.

14 COMMENTS

  1. There is a certain type of Kirby fan who likes to pretend that comics broke Kirby’s spirit. It’s no doubt true that comics broke Kirby’s heart several times. Likely the failure of Mainline, the lawsuit concerning SKY MASTERS, his poor treatment at Marvel during the ’60s, the cancellation of the Fourth World titles, his poor treatment at Marvel in the ’70s. None of that heartbreak was permanent. Kirby had too much heart to be beaten. He was a mercurial personality who could express bitterness and joy in the space of one interview or conversation.
    Both the bitterness and joy were genuine. He wasn’t a rose-tinted glasses person and he was not the truly beaten down bitter person who is hard to take even if you agree with them.
    On the whole it’s obvious that Kirby was a humble but confident, friendly joyful person who when the topic came up could flash very justified anger. He didn’t bottle it up, it didn’t consume him, he could deal with it.

  2. ” 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”
    That quote astonishes me; it’s as if they were deliberately trying to kill those books (if not the entire Vertigo line). Why would any sane PR department not welcome a creator’s involvement?

  3. One suspects that the reason Evanier is so dismissive (and quick to dismiss, to boot) this is because he is threatened by any other individual giving out a Kirby story. His entire position and career is based upon his apparent closeness to Jack; God forbid any other person sharing a Kirby interaction. He’s as important to Jack’s output as Mal Evans was to The Beatles. He was an assistant and Kirby- who was like this with everyone, to a fault- encouraged and tolerated him.

    Evanier’s own output has factual contradictions all over the place. See his story about Roz admonishing him for taking Jack into a toy store- because all of Jack’s artwork was all over the licensed material. I’ve studied extensively to find a serious output of licensed Marvel stuff in the late 70s-80s- and there’s (sadly) no Jack artwork on any of the packaging. Evanier misattributes quotes, forgets to cite that Joe Simon said Stan Lee could not have told Martin Goodman Simon & Kirby left for DC, etc. etc. etc… because the truth is, Evanier needs to be the go-to guy for Jack and Roz Kirby. He needs to be the authority and the final word. He has coasted on this for years. This is fact. What’s the upside of writing a dismissive blog? Mark’s blog does not begin with “Many people have written to ask me-” so why does he need to put his foot in?

  4. James: Loped your anecdote about Jack. I met The King about four years after you did at a Dallas comics show. He and Roz were wonderful. BTW, your story certainly feels and sounds like that Jack I met.

    I’d sure like to read a comprehensive book about Jack that’s not written by any of the usual suspects, including Mark. The guy who wrote the Untold Story of Marvel Comics would be a good one.

  5. I’ve often wondered how Ditko feels about Kirby’s claim that he was the sole creator of all the Marvel characters and wrote all the stories. That would, I assume, include Spider-Man and Dr. Strange …

  6. I won’t go into an extended defense of Stan Lee re: the “shared writing credits” thing, EXCEPT to say–

    It’s my belief that neither Lee nor any other writer at the time would have worked with Kirby, had said writer been obliged to fork over any portion of the writing-fee.

    F’r instance, Len Brown is credited with “writing” the first Dynamo story with Wally Wood. But given how advanced Wood was at that time– does anyone think it likely that Wood simply followed a DC-style “full script” from Brown? I won’t dismiss the slight possibility– but a lot of artists do their own thing no matter what the script says.

  7. I also don’t want to reopen the “who wrote what” debate. It’s interesting, though, that Kirby refused to work with any Marvel writer other than Stan Lee.

    Maybe Jack felt he had more freedom with Stan than he’d have had with, say. Roy Thomas or Steve Engleheart? Or maybe he heard the negative comments that Marvel writers and editors made about his writing at DC.

    (Jack did work with former Marvel writer Steve Gerber on Destroyer Duck in the ’80s.)

  8. I’m sure Jack said it. He said it in many different ways at different times. He would meet wide-eyed fans who wanted to draw comics. Most were under 20. Jack didn’t want to discourage them, but he did want them to realize that comics were a business. That you shouldn’t make it into more than what it is. No one in comics is waiting for you with open arms to create the next Superman. The system will try and crush you. Just be aware, is all he was trying to say.

  9. George, that’s utterly ridiculous. Lee wasn’t a writer: Kirby was doing the writing. Like Wood and Ditko before him, Kirby would have refused to work with Lee if he could; finally he did.

  10. George, Kirby didn’t claim he created all the characters. He claimed he wrote his own stories, which is true. Lee, according to his editorial policy, added the dialogue. Even though Kirby didn’t claim to have created everything, I believe the evidence is there to support the idea that he created many of the early sixties characters. Doctor Strange was eerily similar to a Kirby monster story that Ditko inked, similar enough to say that Ditko was inspired by Kirby’s story. Lee’s creative talents remained dormant until after Kirby’s departure in 1970.

    Kirby brought a character named Spiderman to Lee in the form of concept pages, with plots. Lee commissioned an origin story from Kirby, and gave it to Ditko to ink. Ditko suggested it was close enough to the plot of The Fly (written by Kirby for another company) that it was legally actionable. Lee and Ditko came up with another story, and Ditko drew it. Kirby was commissioned to draw a cover based on Ditko’s interpretation, as well as an FF cross-over story (with cover). Kirby’s covers appeared on Amazing Fantasy 15 and ASM #1. His story appeared in FF Annual #1.

  11. Kirby agreed to the Silver Surfer project because he got a share of the copyright.
    According to Roy Thomas (TJKC #18), Kirby did not refuse to work with other writers. Kirby refused to work Marvel Method with another writer. Kirby was willing to work with Thomas or other writers if Kirby had nothing at all to do with the writing and was given a full script.
    Thomas proposed that he would work Marvel Method with Kirby on the FF. Kirby said he would only agree if he had nothing to do with the plots and Thomas supplied a full script.

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