Mention his name to anyone in the geek community and you’ll get the same response. He elevated a previously static and mundane form and sent a shockwave of powerful illustrations into the minds of unsuspecting readers. He’s a legend, responsible for the creation of thousands of pages of art and hundreds of classic characters that continue to thrive today. But we all knew that.
Every year since the passing of “Jolly” Jack Kirby, fans gather at Comic Con International to remember the man and hear stories from the people who knew him. The “Jack Kirby Tribute Panel” is hosted by Mark Evanier and showcased a number of Creators that knew and/or were inspired by Kirby. Marking 18 years since his passing, this years’ dais included Colorists and Archie artist extraordinaire Stan Goldberg, Paul Dini, and Charles Hatfield who has written a book called “Hand of Fire,” which I am currently reading. Incidentally, “Hand of Fire” won this year’s Eisner Award for Best Academic/ Educational work. Herb Trimpe was announce but for some reason did not appear.
I was a late Kirby bloomer admittedly. I noticed his work thru reprints of Fantastic Four stories in “Marvel’s Greatest Comics.” They would show up in the .25 cent bins at my local comic shop and I recall getting at least 1 in the “3 Comics for 99 cents” bags from Thrifty. I wasn’t really a huge admirer of his work I’ll admit. But then I bought the “Super Powers” series back in the 80’s and was drawn into what he was doing. Even though he had already slipped into the twilight of his career, there was something beyond the dynamic blotches of black, odd shapes and sharp lines.
By the time I began going to conventions and working for Malibu Comics, I started having a keen interest in the back history of comics. I ate up Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego and the Kirby Collector. Then for me too actually meet a legend like Jack Kirby would come quite unexpectedly.
In 1989 I was working at a local movie theatre. That summer Tim Burton’s Batman had just opened and I was really jazzed to see it. For some reason, I was asking people leaving a showing what they thought of it and one sweet older woman was telling me how wonderful it was. Then she asked me if I read comics. With the answer of “yes,” she took the arm of the man with her and said “This is the man who created “Captain America.” We shook hands and I couldn’t say anything. Jack Kirby gave me a firm pat on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it” in response to what I believe was my expression of total awe.
At that time, I knew he was an icon but I was totally unaware of what was really going on in his life; meaning his conflict with Marvel and the rocky relationship with Stan Lee. As a reader, I saw Stan “the Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby and since we had nothing like the internet, there was nothing but a name in the credit box. In retrospect, I wish I could’ve expressed my support knowing what I know now. I saw him several more times and each time I did, I made sure I got him a free pass to the movies in an insignificant response to everything he had given me on the page. He was always friendly and made you feel like you were old friends. When he passed away in 1994, it impacted me that we not only had lost a huge talent and peerless contributor to Comics but it was the loss of a really great guy that was paramount. I made it a tradition to attending San Diego Comic Con’s Kirby Tribute panels every year since his passing.
At this year’s tribute Mark Evanier began with a commentary on the Kirby /Marvel situation which started when Kirby sued to get thousands of pages of artwork returned. Evanier felt at the time there were folks using the Kirby situation to their own advantages, using their own grips with Marvel and latching on to the incident. There were a few folks that were rallying behind Kirby and had there been anything like the internet, the story would have been more known far and wide, not just through fanzines and such. Evanier tells that he was in an interesting position when he went to talk to Kirby’s attorney at the time and asked what should he do? The Attorney told him to keep a low profile; that he was valuable. At the time, Evanier stated that he was on pretty good terms with both sides of the issue. “I was one of the only people alive who could talk on a personal basis with both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.” He was to stay out of the fight and be a confidant. Evanier explained had some folks at Marvel who would feed him information from the inside and since both have passed away since, he claimed that it was one of the great editors of all time, Mark Gruenwald and Carol Kalish, Vice President of New Product Development.
Evanier goes on to state, in regards to folks talking about the Kirby case on the internet, that if people are talking and they don’t have a first and last name; they are full of shit. If they claim they are an attorney, they are full of shit and lying. There is a ton of misinformation about the case, he says, and one day this will all be chronicled and the final exclamation on the case will be known to all. The audience was told the way we can all help is to not take someone’s “inside information” as the real truth.
Next up was a short discussion about the latest Kirby reprint “The Spirit World” was the topic and Evanier was very pleased to see this come out, even though it was originally considered a huge failure and now it’s this $30 hardcover book. “Jack was right.” stated Evanier.
Turning to the audience there were updates regarding everything Kirby including an announcement by Kirby Collector publisher John Morrow that future issues will no longer be tabloid size but regular Magazine size due to postal problems. They did, however, add color pages!
Charles Hatfield spoke at length about his book “Hands 0f Fire,” which is considered the first scholarly publication about the life, works and impact of Jack Kirby in the world of comics. Early on, Hatfield had become obsessed with Kirby starting with his exposure to Kamandi and discovered that he had always known his work but this had opened up a whole new door. So he spent whatever allowance he got as a 10-year-old, and would blow it on reprints of Kirby comics. Hatfield is a professor at the University of California in Northridge and he said he wanted to write a book about Kirby in the terms understood by the academic community.
It was unfortunate that during the panel Evanier asked me to stop taping the panel; stating rather harshly that permission should have been secured before doing so. It was being taped in part for memory for this article and for my personal reviewing enjoyment. Thusly I can’t completely report on the part of the panel where Stan Goldberg spoke. I recall that Goldberg thought the world of Kirby and his work. During his time at Marvel he pretty much colored all of the early milestone covers of the silver age including Amazing Fantasy #15, Avengers #1, Fantastic Four #1 and hundreds of others. He was there for most of the inaugural appearances of Marvels key characters; many times going un-credited in the comics.
*** “It was always “Stan Lee Presents.” explained Goldberg. “For the longest time, I thought Stan’s last name was Presents.”
*** “I was in Mexico when I heard about Jack Kirby’s passing.” Goldberg says. “Every year we vacation there and I found out an artist I admired lived in this little town. Thru me asking around, he called me up and said to come over. On that visit, he gave me the news that Jack had died. He heard it on one of those radio news reports. I heard about his death from one of my biggest influences in the most remote part of Mexico.”
These quotes (***) were from my recollection of what was said and not a verbatim quote.
Though the panel ended on a sour note, it is always been amazing to hear stories about Kirby and the industry in the early years from those who were there. And not just the complaints but to hear that the names we saw in issues of any silver and golden age comics were people with personal struggles and stories. The Jack Kirby tribute panel is something I look forward to every year and eagerly await next year’s panel.
For more on Jack Kirby, be sure to bookmark kirbymuseum.org.