By Chloe Maveal
You can’t really talk about comics without talking about Jack Kirby, so Saturday afternoon’s “A History of Jack Kirby” panel at San Diego Comic-Con International seemed completely appropriate despite several panels of the show harboring a focus on the king.
The panel was headed up by 1980s DC and Marvel artist Mark Badger alongside 1970s underground artist Bruce Simon, as well as Steve Sherman — assistant to Kirby himself in the ’70s.
While it took a while for the three gents to figure out how to make the powerpoint work smoothly, they all seemed to be really excited at the chance to talk about the history behind 102 years of Kirby’s brilliance.
The brief overview of Kirby’s early life was what caught me the most as Sherman seemed to have a real inside scoop on the dynamics of both Kirby’s family and his origins as an artist.
“He was born in 1917 on the lower east side of Manhattan and he lived in this housing complex that used to have these dark lead-painted walls; so Jack started as a little kid drawing on the walls of his family’s apartment building. He was always drawing and his mother didn’t know how to make him stop,” said Sherman, laughing warmly.
But apparently it didn’t stop there. After Kirby was married to Roz, she made the effort to keep all of the scraps of paper he had drawn on as a child that Kirby’s mother had saved.
“He would protest so much!” said Sherman. “She’d bring them out to show us and he’d hand wave them away saying ‘Don’t look at that! They’re no good! Put them back!’ But they were all perfectly rendered, perfectly actualized drawings done in pen. They were perfect even from back when he was 13 or 14 years of age.”
From there the panelists jumped ahead in Kirby’s timeline by recounting his time with the movie animation company Fleischer Studios, where he was utilized as an “in-betweener” (an artist who fills in action sequences between major movement frames) drawing Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons.
“Back then they basically hired anyone who had any slight artistic inkling to be in the art department. It didn’t take long before he knew that he didn’t want to be doing that at all. So then…well, Jack when on to create a few comic books,” remarked Sherman slyly with the audience laughing at the understatement.
Badger then projected a photo from Captain America #1 up on the screen.
During the period when Kirby began writing Captain America, the U.S. was still on neutral terms with Germany. Needless to say, Kirby’s latest comic didn’t go over so well in that regard.
“They got a lot of threats at the Timely Comics offices. The German supporters would have entire rallies…and they weren’t small ones,” said Simon. “They would get phone calls saying that they were going to show up and…erm…”take care” of the people writing the comic. But Jack would answer the call and say ‘Sounds good. I’ll meet you downstairs.’ No one ever showed up.”
Of course, shortly thereafter, Kirby became an infantryman in World War II. But before being shipped off, Kirby arranged so that he and partner Joe Simon were able to make plenty of comics pages before they got shipped out. Though after returning from war, Kirby’s artwork was affected in the best possible way.
“If you look at the pages he did while he was in the military, it’s the designs that we know as being the quintessential Kirby. Even years later you can look at pages from Mister Miracle and there are small details like resonating shockwaves throughout panels and coming up from the foreground creating space. He did it all the same way that he did all of this comics that involved actual warfare,” said Simon.
“Yeah,” said Sherman. “But all of the other comics guys stayed stateside. They were doing magazines and writing things for the military…so if you asked Jack why he shipped off to fight instead of staying behind like the other guys he’d just tell you it’s because he was stupid.”
Moving past the WWII era of Kirby’s life, the panel then began to discuss one of the more famous feuds: who created Black Panther? Obviously everyone in this audience gave a resounding “boo!” when it was suggested that anyone other than Kirby was responsible. The panelists almost seemed touched that the audience was so willing to give Kirby his recognition.
“What’s so funny is that Black Panther was a secondary character brought into the Fantastic Four. It knocks me out to this day that he’s become so prolific. Everyone in the world knows who Black Panther is now. I saw a man in a beautiful Black Panther cosplay taking pictures with kids just yesterday and gosh,” said Simon, seeming to get a bit choked up. “I really wish Jack was around to see that.”
“He was actually designed with a half mask like Batman originally,” said Sherman. “The studio pushed back so hard on that though. They pushed back and forced him to have a full face mask because they said that if people could see that the character was actually a black man then they worried the book wouldn’t sell in certain parts of the country. Jack stayed mad about that for a long time.”
Moving on, Sherman decided to give the audience some background on Kirby’s life outside of the pages, explaining that he worked the majority of the afternoon but always made the effort to stop and enjoy time with his children and his wife Roz. In the evening however, that’s when the real magic happened: “He’d turn the TV on and put it on mute and he’s turn the radio on and turn it all the way up and he’s just….go. He’d just churn out 3-5 pages of Fantastic Four like it was nothing.”
Kirby’s career was not all Marvel-centric, however. In fact, only about 1/5 of his career was spent at Marvel for a variety of reasons.
“Marvel being Marvel, they alienated Jack. So he shrugged it off and went off to work with DC Comics where they wanted him to take over Superman. Instead he threw them a curveball and took over Jimmy Olsen. He took a boring, stodgy old comic and turned it into something fun and funny. Nobody else would have deigned something as complicated as what Kirby decided to do with Jimmy Olsen.”
With the shift of focus into Kirby’s time with DC Comics, there was no way the panel was not going to focus on the infamous Fourth World. New Gods and Mister Miracle being some of Kirby’s most prolific and well-loved work, the idea of his struggle to even have them published is rage-inducing as a fan now. (Maybe that’s just me but I sincerely hope not.)
“He had so many ideas and so many concepts. He was writing and editing himself and the only drawback to the books that he created was that he tried to make it all happen so quickly,” said Sherman. “He wasn’t able to fully develop the world the way he wanted to. There were so many character that he would introduce for a page or two but then you never saw them again because he wanted to bring them back but he just couldn’t. He was stuck with the 20 cent, 32 page bad coloring jobs when all he wanted was a massive story with a genuine art form.”
New Gods was cancelled after less than a two year run and the concepts became unrealized; but much like every other project that he touched, Kirby was excited to go to bat for the fans that had stuck around and the characters that he loved.
“You could ask him about any character no matter how minor they were and he would be so happy to just sit down with you and tell you their entire backstory,” concluded Sherman. “But that was true of all of his characters. Every single one. He just wanted to create and make his stories real for people.”
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the legacy of Kirby will continue to live on. I mean, come on— it’s Jack Kirby! But the tradition of holding these panels with those most near and dear to the King himself creates a whole new kind of history to the man behind the comics that keeps not only his stories alive, but his name as well.