Hey Kids!! Comics: Jack “King” Kirby Pt. 3: King of the Road

DC Comics (National Periodical Publications) helped to start the Marvel Age of comics.

Superhero comics in the late 50s were mostly a dead publishing venture save Superman and to a lesser extent Batman and Wonder Woman. Thanks to Fredric Wertham and the 1953 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency; EC Comics had been ran out of town on a rail, Superman was cast as Nazi propaganda and Batman was made out to be a creepy child molester.

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A panel from a Justice League of America story, probably by Gardner Fox and definitely the incomparable Mike Sekowsky. This is post-Code but funny anyway.

“… the hollow specter of Dr. Wertham can take it from me that the young readers of Batman saw only a wish-dream fulfillment of freedom and high adventure. It is Wertham whose name belongs in the annals of perversity, not Batman’s”  – Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.

I digress.

DC published Showcase #4 in 1956 and introduced a new version of The Flash. This is the version most people are used to now because of the current The Flash TV show on The CW Network, another version of this same character is also in the 2017 Justice League movie. Then came a revitalized Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman, the introduction of Martian Manhunter, and finally a new superhero team as seen in The Brave and the Bold #28 in 1960; the Justice League of America as envisioned by Gardner Fox.

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If any other person was as instrumental to comics as Kirby it would be Gardner Fox. Now THAT is a team I wished would have been.

The story is apocryphal (as in it probably didn’t happen) but it’s a good one and if a movie were made about Marvel this would be the account given: There was this golf game with Marvel publisher Martin Goodman and DC publisher Jack Liebowitz who was bragging about the success of his new superhero title Justice League of America. Goodman wasn’t a creative guy but a businessman and he had a habit of popular bandwagon hopping; if westerns were selling Marvel would produce westerns, if science fiction was selling then that. When he learned a superhero team book was a blockbuster he summarily ordered the disinterested Stan Lee (a cousin by marriage) to create a superhero team for Marvel Comics to compete (capitalize?) on the JLA.

Stan, in Les Daniels’ book Marvel:Five Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics said, “I went home and wrote a two page outline and sent it to Kirby. We talked about it, and he went home and drew it.”

From Mark Evanier’s book his sublime biography Kirby:King of Comics“There would later be disagreement over the sequence of events that brought forth the new heroes. Lee would say he figured out the story and characters, typed up a plot outline (which still exists). Selected Jack to draw it, and handed him the basics of the first issue. Kirby would say that wasn’t how they ever worked – that even on short, unimportant romance stories, there’d be a plot conference, and then he’d be sent off to pencil pages as he saw fit, with or without a typed plot. He’d say he came up with the characters and even point to how similar the origin was to Challengers of the Unknown.”

Apparently the typed synopsis still exists and Rob Steibel’s Kirby Dynamics blog has explored this topic and his analysis is spot on: The synopsis was probably written AFTER Lee met with Kirby.

Kirby did two kinds of stories very well; Action and Adventure Team stories (Newsboy Legion, Boy Commandos, Cap and Bucky, Fantastic Four) and Big Cosmic Adventure like Thor, Fantastic Four (blending the two), The New Gods, Avengers and The X-Men (two more blends).

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“God” by Jack Kirby, glommed from johnrfultz.com

Kirby had some Big Plans for the Thor characters, Big Epic Stuff. The Tales of Asgard back-up stories in Thor were to have become the ongoing story and would have lead to Ragnarok and then new characters and concepts. Maybe X-Men would have been worked into it with the concepts of the next phase in human evolution? When he went to DC he created (wait for it) The New Gods and the post-apocalyptic Kamandi (a sort of parallel) and then he went back to Marvel and created The Eternals (which introduced The Celestials). Then when had had enough of both of them he got out of comics to work in animation but when he returned it was to do his creator owned work Captain Victory and the Galaxy Rangers at Pacific Comics.

The themes are there; gods, death and rebirth, sorcery and super-science, the power cosmic, and the ultimate human potential. That just isn’t stuff that Stan has done with other artists.

With Steve Ditko Stan did our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and Doctor Strange the Master of the Mystic Arts and those were So Different from all of the other Marvel stuff band Not Very Kirby but it is Very Ditko. I’ll leave that at that.

Stan comes off looking Really Bad and that is not the intention of this. Barry Windsor Smith in the Jack Kirby: Storyteller documentary probably sums it up The Best:

“…And he [Jack Kirby] created the FF, you know? And anybody who thinks otherwise just doesn’t understand Jack Kirby. ‘Cause you think Stan Lee could’ve created the FF? No! Stan was the instigator, and frankly if Jack had written it, it would have been a bust. Stan was a terrific scripter, they were a great combination, Lennon and McCartney, you know? But Jack was the mind behind everything. Jack was the John Lennon; Paul [Stan] was the guy who made it smooth.”

Stan was The Master at dialogue, watch interviews with him and you can tell he is one of these guys who loves to “hold court.” He has a gift of vocabulary or at least knows how to use it for effect, the glib style of the captions in the Marvel books showcases his lighthearted touch. The problems that the characters face (making rent, obtaining medicine, school worries, feeling like an outcast, being rejected, first loves, crushes, the petty fights, the familial bickering), these are all very human and grounded things.  Stanley Leiber became  Stan Lee because he wanted to save his “real” name for writing the Great American Novel, all of these angst-y tropes in Marvel comics drip of that general malaise that one might find in To Kill A Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. See what I did there?

It’s not that Stan wasn’t a part of it, it’s only that Jack didn’t get his due when he was at Marvel, in Good Faith he was co-creating with Stan until suddenly it was All Stan. It was his dedication to his family that kept him going past the point that most people would have walked away. This is about the creativity of Jack “King” Kirby, his treatment over the return and remuneration of his art work has been well documented.

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A Kirby “inbetween” Popeye.

And like Popeye (Kirby incidentally started out as an inbetweener on Popeye cartoons) he took all he stands until he couldn’t stands no more.

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