Jack Kirby: Hand of Fire Roundtable (Part 2)

To read the first installment of this roundtable, click here.



Well, I finished the Hatfield book so I wanted to circle back to one of Jeet's earlier questions and then pose another one.

Jeet asks:

4. A superhero cartoonist or a master genre mixer? Perhaps the most conservative aspect of Hatfield’s account is his placing of Kirby within the framework of superhero comics. We’re given only a cursory account of the Simon and Kirby era (when his major genre was, surprisingly, romance comics but also included boys adventure, westerns, war comics, science fiction, horror and many others). The bulk of Hatfield’s book is taken up with Kirby’s work for Marvel in the 1960s and DC in the 1970s, when he re-invented and re-invigorated the superhero genre. Again, this approach seems like common sense but I’m wondering seeing Kirby through the prism of the superhero genre doesn’t diminish his originality as a genre mixer. Here’s another way of seeing Kirby: during the long apprenticeship of the Simon and Kirby years, he mastered the rules for the many genres he worked in and then in the 1960s he confidently started to splice these genres together to create a new meta-genre that was nominally superhero comics but actually had a much wider scope. Thus the Fantastic Four can be seen as a mixture of Challengers of the Unknown style exploration stories, Sky Masters-style science fiction, monster comics (the Thing),  romance and soap opera (the Reed-Sue-Submariner love triangle), space opera (Galactus and the Silver Surfer), a repurposing of older superhero and science fiction ideas (the stretching man in the tradition of Plastic Man, the human Torch, a character who can turn invisible), and many other genres. Hatfield touches on Kirby as a genre-mixer on page 22 arguing that the superhero comic in Kirby’s hand was a "mega-genre" but I’m wondering if more can’t be said about this. To put it another way, Hatfield describes the Fourth World books as "the climax of [Kirby’s] career in superheroes" (p. 143) but, thought these comics have superheroes in them, I’m not sure if they are superheroes or some new genre, a mutant cosmic fantasy.

Well, CH does a good job of explaining what Kirby did to transform the superhero comic by radically broadening its scope via his expansion-based ideas. He holds onto the superhero category, which makes sense since that was the genre which Kirby was exploding. We could call it SF or something else, but really no genre really can lay claim to the Fourth World work or the '80s work. It's just too deeply itself. So, Jeet, I think it occupies its own space, but I'm not sure where, aside from inventing another category to slot it into, we can go. CH is coming to the Fourth World work after calling FF a more or less SF book, which works for me, and his close readings of the Fourth World material don't seem to be hindered by superhero expectations, so... maybe it's OK.

Anyhow, Hatfield's most interesting and impassioned idea about Kirby comes midway through the book (p. 145) when he discusses the "technological sublime", which in Kirby's case meant a quasi-romantic awareness of, and awe at, the ineffable. This feeling then bolsters Kirby's explorations into "soft" SF futurism, lead by narrative drawing (as opposed to prose exposition) (p. 153). It's a very good bit and one that Hatfield embroiders on for the remainder of the book. By the end, Kirby emerges as a frustrated visionary -- stymied by his medium, but continually trying to ask the big questions.

But the unfortunate thing about focusing so much on the superhero stuff is that CH only gets to touch on something really important: Kirby's earthiness. On page 151, CH qualified Kirby's Futurism: "Kirby, though his imaginings often carried the whiff of something touchingly Old World, Mittleeuropean and folkloric, was an avid forecaster of the future." That "though" seems like a mistake. Kirby's roots are in that Old World as experienced by Depression-era boy. Those tales, which even us suburban Jewish boys grow up with, are pretty well ingrained. This goes towards the previously mentioned "Gothic" nature of Kirby's imagination, but also helps account, I think, for a lot of the (sometimes goofy) humanity of the work, not to mention the constant attention paid to villagers, hills,  barons, kingdoms, etc. It's all the stuff you get as a lower-class European Jew.

Which is why I do think its regrettable (but, understandable, as it IS a tangent when you're building an argument based on world building, Futurism, and awe) that CH omitted any real analysis of the Western and Romance comics. Kirby's West is the the West of someone who never so much as visited before drawing those comics, and the West that you see in, for example, the German and Italian visions of it in pulps and films. It's the great expansive place, somewhere beyond the beyond. To me, Boy's Ranch (1950-51) is Kirby's first great act of visual/poetic/moral expansion. The art does what CH discusses -- leading the way through open description and a sense of scale that dwarfs the actors, and a story like Mother Delilah hints at what's to come, with its riffs on parenthood, moral ambiguity and tragedy. I guess what I'm saying is that Kirby's thematic and artistic expansion happened earlier, an in a genre that would very much appeal to a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side -- it was the ultimate America. Alongside that stuff is the Romance work, also looked at only briefly in the book, and which was an enormous part of Kirby's output.

Finally, did anyone else find it odd that the book ends with The Eternals? In his first chapter (I think), CH notes his own ambivalence to the 1980s work -- Captain Victory and Silver Star being the two best books -- but to me those works are key to Kirby's oeuvre. As Glen noted about Silver Star, they look back on Kirby's earlier themes and visually tilt towards the abstract. They kind of remind of me of an exhibition I just saw at Pace of the last two years of Jean Dubuffet's painting career. He'd eliminated figuration and the paintings are just loose grids of line-based color. Beautiful, core works. Not as good as his earlier work, sure, but still very much his own, and an extension of his language. For a book as focused on visual language as CH's, it seems a little strange to leave out his subject's final, frequently beautiful, and certainly innovative works.


[Dan Nadel wrote:] To me, Boy's Ranch (1950-51) is Kirby's first great act of visual/poetic/moral expansion. The art does what CH discusses -- leading the way through open description and a sense of scale that dwarfs the actors, and a story like Mother Delilah hints at what's to come, with its riffs on parenthood, moral ambiguity and tragedy. I guess what I'm saying is that Kirby's thematic and artistic expansion happened earlier, an in a genre that would very much appeal to a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side -- it was the ultimate America.

Very nicely said.  Whenever Kirby got a chance to work with continuing characters (even if no sort of "continuity" was built), it seems like his landscapes broadened.  My limited knowledge of the romance comics is that the stories are surprisingly emotionally complex but the illustrations are (deliberately?) wooden, as if he was working for some reason with a finite number of poses, with characters framed conservatively.  He seemed freer with the western stories.



Haven't seen the purported book we're discussing yet, but here are my reactions to the questions posed:

The quote from Gary Groth raises an interesting point about the ethics of criticism.  The reticence he expresses about wholeheartedly endorsing the work of Jack Kirby to the general public stems from the irreducibly juvenile nature of the straight-faced superhero adventure story.  A reader who appreciates comic art and has no particular aversion to the straight-faced superhero adventure story can't help but appreciate Kirby's work.  Within his particular field he's Beethoven -- always keeping in mind the relative level of artistic achievement of comic books and classical music.  Part of his reticence -- and mine, for that matter -- about endorsing Kirby wholeheartedly to the general public is in knowing that not everyone shares this conditional acceptance of the genre, but another part is simply the fear of appearing childish.  It's less a matter of what he or I think as "What would the Goyim think?"  Thomas M. Disch once wrote an essay called "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" about how the discomfort the childish aspects of the genre cause its more artistically ambitious practitioners.  The embarrassments of comic books are the same thing with gold stars and oak leaf clusters.  The thing is, when you have arrogated to yourself the role of publicly judging the work of artists you have an obligation to honestly acknowledge the quality of an artists work without any thought of how that acknowledgment might be embarrassing to yourself.

The last half of the 20th century saw a popular insurrection against shame as a tool for maintaining social order. It consisted of people refusing to feel shame for anything from sexual proclivities to continuing to read comic books into adulthood.  People of Gary's and my vintage are willing to openly discuss our enthusiasm among those we know will share it but less so among the general population. We were not ashamed of ourselves but could still imagine being shamed by the opinions of others. The difference these days is you'll have serious journalists like Ta‑Nehisi Coates, or for that matter literary novelists like Jonathan Lethem, talking about their enthusiasm for comics in front of God and everybody. It strikes us as a bit odd.

The thing that might seem curious to the innocent observer is that Gary would choke on Kamandi but swallow Donald Duck. When we speak of Carl Barks we speak of an artist who subordinated himself a set of characters and a style dictated by a corporate entity, as opposed to Kirby, who as much as anyone invented his idiom himself.  For those familiar with the respective works there's no mystery to it at all.  It is a curious truth that much of what commends itself the attention of an adult reader in commercial comics was created not only for children but for pre-adolescent children. The quality in Barks' work that leads you to recommend it without reservation to any open minded reader, beyond his absolute mastery of the medium, is sophistication.  You find the same sophistication in the work of John Stanley. For all his excellencies I don't know that you would call Kirby's work sophisticated.  His appeal is predominantly to the senses, and when he has ideas to express they tend toward the crackpot.  Moreover, the emotions and motivations expressed by the anthropomorphic animals of Barks' stories have an objective correlative with the emotions and motivations of real people.  The operatic emotions expressed in Jack Kirby's comics apply only to the godlike creatures who have them.  They are in the final analysis stories about characters with attributes that are impossible battling menaces that don't exist.  While you have little reservation recommending Carl Barks or John Stanley or for that matter Jack Cole to a civilian as it were, you know that in order to engage with Kirby the reader has to be willing to sign on to the superhero idea.

It's misleading to apply criteria developed for fine art to art produced to make a buck. In such art the desire to make a buck is the lead melody and personal expression of the artist is the counter-melody, which may harmonize or be discordant. In this type of art having one single artist to point to as the author for instance is not necessarily a great imperative.  Superhero comics are an art form that exists primarily because people want to buy it.  This is unlike for instance the comics of Harvey Pekar, which exist only because Harvey Pekar wanted them to, and operated at a loss for many years.  By now it's quite likely that if superhero comics ceased to be viable commercially people would still want to create them, but as they are still commercially viable there's no reason that the commercial form won't dominate.

The only reason superhero comics exist in the first place is that at a certain point in history children were given the privilege of deciding what kind of stories they were told, in books they bought with their personal pocket money.  This isn't something that occurs in societies that allow child labor, where the child's earnings will all go towards their families' bare subsistence, but in more affluent societies, where children are given spending money by their parents, or spend the proceeds from what work they are still allowed to do for their own amusement.  These child-engendered artistic products appear through a process of trial and error, which in effect goes something like:

"Would you like this?"

"Unh unh."

"Would you like this?"

"Unh unh."

"How about this?"

"Maybe.  Do another and we'll see."

"And this one?"

"Yeah!  I'll take a lot of those!"

Once the child-generated thing the superhero comic book exists in the market its appeal can spread to other readers, but it's not something adults would have generated for themselves.  As time goes on the target audience shifts to the oldest one that is likely to entertain the superhero idea.

The adults who initially come to produce this art might be craftsmen, or they might be technicians, or they might be hacks, but for some of them the material engages their creativity.  The superhero comic engages the creativity of a Jack Kirby because it incites his artistic ambitions.  It engages the creativity of a Jack Cole because he sees what is intrinsically comic about the concept.  (If Jack Kirby is Beethoven, Jack Cole is Fats Waller.)  It should be noted that while Art Spiegelman has no use for Kirby, he does have a use for Cole, and Kirby and Cole were in the same business, the business of selling comic magazines to children for pocket change.  By the second generation, the one that comes after Kirby, you have cartoonists and writers drawn from the ranks of superhero comics enthusiasts, and their pursuit of the form comes naturally.

It ought to be remembered that the purpose of the "collaboration" is to maximize the number of pages produced, and when he got paid by the page Kirby had a practical interest in this system himself.  What occurs to me is that most of the collaborating takes place after the work has left Kirby's hands.  As I understand the process, Lee and Kirby would discuss the basic plot orally, Kirby would pencil the entire story by himself, then hand it in for inking and writing and lettering the captions and dialog.  As such Kirby is in the position of the director of a silent movie who improvises the entire story from a rough scenario, if the director played all the roles himself.  Stan Lee is in the position of the writer of the title cards.  The caveat here is how much input Lee actually had at the plotting stage, and since that's become a point of contention and there's no written evidence, by now there's no way to know.  What we do know is that since Lee was the paymaster, he would have as much input on editorial direction as he wanted.  Since we have a body of work that Kirby did afterwards without Lee, we can infer that input by comparing the two.  On balance, however, I think we can say that on balance, creatively speaking Lee was essentially Kirby's caddy.  A caddy might provide direction and advice, but the golfer plays the game.

This doesn't render Lee's contribution insignificant.  The bane of the comic book had always been lousy writing, against which not even an Alex Toth could prevail.  As editor Lee broke this age-old curse by writing all the captions and dialog himself, or nearly so. Having Kirby and Ditko to cook up the stories allowed him to do more captions and dialog in the same way that having someone else do the inking allowed Kirby and Ditko to draw more pages.  Lee could keep things light while laying it on thick, and if he spent much of his time telling you how much fun you were having, he never forgot that fun is what it was supposed to be.  If you watch recordings of Johnny Carson on the old Tonight Show you see that the key to his success was his knack for communicating enthusiasm, of signaling by his reactions that the spectacle before you was the wildest thing you'd seen in your life.  Stan Lee brought a similar quality to comic book writing, and I don't know if anyone else in the business had the brass to pull it off in the same way.  More to the point, he was better at it than Kirby, whose captions and dialog, while serviceable, were flat and clumsy by comparison.

I would have to agree with Hatfield that superhero comics are the heart and soul of Kirby's achievement.  The thing that truly engaged his creativity was the titanic struggle between powerful beings, the opera on paper.  While his superhero comics were enriched by what he learned working in other genres, they were ingredients and not the main dish.  To put it bluntly, if Kirby's career had consisted of everything he did besides superhero comics I don't think any of us would be talking about him.  Ever hear of Jack Kirby, did some wild monster comics in the '50s?  Invented the romance comic.  Really?  Hmm.

Furthermore, I believe it was not until Kirby, Ditko, and Lee remade the genre that the straight-faced, straight-ahead action-oriented superhero comic became anything more than lucrative, lousy things that kids liked.  The superhero comics that had artistically distinguished themselves before that, Plastic Man and Captain Marvel, had been send-ups in whole or in significant part.  It wasn't until Kirby came into his own that the superhero story in earnest truly entered the realm of good comics.


Both Dan Nadel and Robert Fiore have posted some meaty comments, which I wanted to respond to and perhaps use to spur further discussion.

As Dan notes, it’s fair enough for a study of Kirby to focus on his superhero work. For better or worse, that’s the genre that  Kirby is most associated with and the lasting repository of his reputation. When Kirby started drawing comics in the late 1930s, the superhero quickly became a popular but slightly disreputable off-shot of the pulps and adventure cartooning (fusing together the rip-roaring style of Roy Crane with the mystery-man tradition of the Scarlett Pimpernel, the Lone Ranger, and the Shadow). But as Hatfield persuasively argues, when Kirby returned to the superhero in the 1960s, he not only brought with him the lessons learned from other genres like romance and horror but also transformed the genre by giving it more cosmic ambitions.

And now nearly twenty years after Kirby’s death, the superhero has almost become the default mode of American popular entertainment, as seen not just in countless video games and Hollywood movies but also in the way that characters from other genres (I’m thinking here of the James Bondian super-spy or the Sherlock Holmesian detective or the Harry Potter-esque wizard) are transformed into superheroes.

The cultural triumph of the superhero, for good or ill, wouldn’t have happened without Kirby’s crucial reinvigoration and expansion of the genre in the 1960s.

Having said that, for reasons that Robert Fiore very powerfully outlined, the superhero has been a suspect genre for decades not only by outside critics like Fredric Wertham but even by those who love comics and have themselves been formed by the superhero. There are all sorts of reasons to question the superhero – not just for aesthetic reasons but also on political, emotional, and gender grounds.

From Marshall McLuhan in the 1940s to Art Spiegelman in the 1990s, lots of critics have seen the superhero as inherently authoritarian, if not fascistic. This accusation can be contested based not just on Kirby’s personal history (his war record and life-long commitment to liberal democracy) but also within the comics themselves where Kirby’s persistent embrace of the outsider, the freak and the underdog is as far as possible from fascism.

Emotionally the superhero is very much grounded in adolescent angst, which is both hormonally potent but also, for adults looking back in retrospect, embarrassing. (Adolescence is much more embarrassing than childhood, which perhaps explains the curious fact that Robert alluded to, that Carl Barks’ duck comics are more reputable than Kirby’s superheroes).  In gender terms, the sheer hyper-masculinity of superheroes can be off-putting.  All these considerations feed into aesthetics, of course, and there is a critique of Kirby that acknowledges the potency of his visual imagination but also sees him as severely constrained by his commitment to the superhero.

I don’t necessarily agree with the critiques I’ve outlined here but I wanted to put them on the table as something to think about.

In reading Hatfield's book, it might be worth asking to what degree the focus on superheroes offers a skewed view of Kirby’s career. As Dan Nadel noted, it’s curious that the book ends on The Eternals, when Kirby went to do some more major works (in a generally science fiction vein) in the 1980s. Hatfield’s decision to end on The Eternals only makes sense if you see Kirby’s work on superheroes (and indeed more narrowly on superheroes for Marvel and DC comics) as the core of his achievement. That’s a defensible point of view, but perhaps also worth arguing with.



Meanwhile, I've got this for you folks. Plot thickens, etc. (scroll down just a bit for Kirby Kontent.)




The link Jonathan sent out reminded me that there is an entire subset of Kirby fans and commentators that basically see him as the comic book counterpart of Philip K. Dick -- that is to say as a visionary or seer in the guise of a pulp hack. The major text in this tradition is Jeffrey J. Kripal's Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (University of Chicago Press). Kripal -- who is a big figure in religious studies -- basically sees both science fiction and the superhero genre as manifestations of transcendental or supernatural experiences by various creators. He quotes a writer named Christopher Knowles who argues that, "something very, very powerful hit [Kirby] around '65 or '66, and transformed him from an already imaginative man into a psychedelic shaman disguised as a freelance pencil pusher." (Kripal 154)

I have to confess that as a rather old-fashioned historical materialist, I find such claims to be absurd. Kirby was intrigued by Erich von Daniken-style pseudo-science but he took that stuff and used it the right way -- as the raw material for fantasy comics! And of course the great and admirable thing about Dick's Valis experience is that Dick (unlike say L. Ron Hubbard) resisted the temptation to become a seer and prophet of a new religion. My understanding is that Dick never came to a definitive judgement about the meaning of the Valis experience (fortunately we have the co-editor of the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick as part of this roundtable and he can correct me if I'm wrong).

I don't want to assign any more readings but the Kripal book does pursue all this in more detail. I have to say, it strikes me as nonsense, but feel free to disagree.


Don't see it. As these things are figured in science fiction Dick was never really considered a hack. He had aspirations to write literary fiction, he had short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy, which were the prestige markets at the time insofar as there were any, he had stories adapted on the X Minus One radio show, he had novels published in hardcover and by the better paperback houses (as well as crummy ones), he won the Hugo award and was frequently nominated for the Hugos and Nebulas. I don't know if you could really call Kirby a hack in the comic book world; a hack in comic books could be awfully damned hacky. I suppose Dell and DC were what you could call the reputable houses and he didn't work for them in his early career, but he wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel, either. Captain America was a big seller in the 1940s. I don't think comics fandom started establishing the pecking order of "Golden Age" comic book cartoonists until the 1960s, and by then Kirby was a star. Or am I supposed to be looking through the lens where every science fiction writer and every comic book cartoonist is a hack, rather than the way they were viewed within genre?

The main way in which Dick and Kirby were analogous was that they were both adopted as counterculture figures in the 1960s. In the world of literary fiction Dick's reputation has been incrementally building from that of a cult figure into a literary figure. It's sort of like watching an ape evolve. Kirby is simultaneously square in the main line of commercial comics and a cult figure in art comics, but I don't see him being taken seriously in the art world the way some are beginning to consider Dick a major writer in the literary world. A better analogy with Dick would be Robert Crumb, who goes from being a total outlaw to a kind of Brueghel of his time. Fletcher Hanks is an example of a pure hack who comes to be seen as a primitive back door visionary.

As for Dick as a supernatural visionary, I would lean towards Michael Bishop's theory that the Valis experience was a mild stroke. The best book on Dick is Emmanuel Carrere's I Am Alive and You Are Dead.


These points are fair enough. Hack is too strong a term -- perhaps it would be better to say that at the start of their career Dick and Kirby were both journeymen pulp creators but they managed to make a name for themselves as visionaries despite the fact that they never left the pulp tradition. The other point of comparison would be their incredible productivity (and the resultant unevenness of their work) and their engagement with Californian culture (which Kirby came to late in life but really embraced in his 1970s work). I should add that the author I mentioned -- Kripal -- sees them both as genuine mystics whose works contain a valid religious message (a position that I reject -- or can only accept in the general form that all interesting art has a spiritual component). But perhaps it is better to say that Kirby and Dick are too idiosyncratic to be compared.


A completely fascinating series of posts and almost impossible to do it all justice.

First, suffice to say I passed that link along in a spirit of astonishment that Kirby's omnivorous and archetypal imaginings could ever be mistaken for specifically prophetic in that way -- the rabbit-hole of millennial conspiracy thinking is a deep one.

Second, as a Dick scholar, I'd want to throw in that though I enjoyed Carrerre's book myself, his family and others who knew him seem to regard it as obnoxious affront, for the liberties taken. Lawrence Sutin's is of course the factually reputable biography, and a solid job it is too. An Italian scholar named Umberto Rossi has just published a remarkable monograph called The Twisted World of Philip K. Dick: A Study of Twenty Ontologically Uncertain Novels.

I like the comparison of Robert Crumb and Dick, which seems to catch something exactly.

The SF writer I'd compare to Kirby is Robert Heinlein. Neither is the inventor of the landscape, and neither transforms it upon their first arrival, but rather hatch their mature style slowly. Then, when the flowering does come, they seem as definitive as a Duke Ellington, Picasso, or Bob Dylan, and for a while every other creator has to react/bow or stand apart in defiance of their style. In both cases a dominant editor/publisher figure (Lee/Campell) holds them up as THE model for others to adapt their work to. And then they stick around long enough to become self-referentially eccentric, and to strike many readers as embarrassingly entrenched in a past style. Silver Star equals The Name of the Beast.

"Hack" is a very peculiar lens, which, as Mr. Fiore points out, either applies to everyone working outside the canons of consecrated taste -- all cartoonists and SF writers, in other words -- or to those within any given field who dishonor it with hurried, paltry, or imitative work. Or "hack-work" might be applied to the hurried, paltry, or imitative work done at times by those who might be seen as true artists when working at their best. It's no secret that Dick considered himself to be doing hack work at times -- depending on the context of the conversation, or the state of his self-regard, he might sometimes have called his whole career 'hack work'. I doubt Kirby was prone to the same self-judgement...

So much more I'd like to say in reply to all of this, but no time at the moment!


To walk my casual statement back a bit, I have not read every book about Philip K. Dick (though I have read nearly every book by Philip K. Dick) and I say Carrerre's book is the best largely because I was so taken with it that I assumed it had to be.  The best book and the most factually accurate book about Dick are not necessarily going to be the same thing, though a factually accurate book on this subject presents special challenges and is entitled to extra credit.

Popular artists do their apprenticeships in public.  Standards are lower, gatekeepers are indulgent, pay is poor, and young people always want to be big name professionals right now.  Juvenilia which for legit authors doesn't see the light of day until the heirs get greedy is part of popular author's body of work from the start.  Robert Bloch's autobiography Once Around the Bloch illustrates just what making a living as a commercial writer entailed.  Here you have a big name in his particular patch who made his way into slick magazines and got to wet his beak in movies and television, and yet his career is just a mad treadmill of never-slackening production.

There's a folk perception of science fiction that was formed I think largely by low budget movies and television and an assumption that they were an accurate representation of what was going on in the magazines where the form developed.  Uniquely among popular forms science fiction always had a baseline commitment to big, important ideas.  It isn't like crime fiction where you have one large segment that's devoted to violence, thrills and sex and another large segment that's devoted to intellectual puzzles about train schedules and exotic poisons and another segment that has literary ambitions to plumb the dark heart of the criminal act.  Ideas are what science fiction is or was about and every other literary value could be sacrificed to the pursuit of ideas.  What I like to say is that science fiction is literature, but it's badly written literature.  Should Philip K. Dick be admitted to the canon Theodore Dreiser will no longer be the worst prose stylist in respectable American literature.


[after mentioning  his off-topic Kramers Ergot 8 review] ...although whether PKD had a stroke or heard the voice of God or what's the difference is a stretch too, so I don't feel that bad.


I would say it would make a great deal of difference whether Dick had a genuine supernatural religious experience or a medical episode he mistook for a supernatural religious experience.


I realize I may have failed to weigh in on exactly the matter on which I would be most expected to weigh in. A part of my disinclination is simply "Exegesis burn-out", after spending far  too much of the past two years first in the editing, copyediting, and proofreading of the monstrous manuscript, and then in the aftermath, where along with light promotional duties I was asked to play the role of the sounding-board for everyone's responses to it.

I do see an opportunity here to say a couple of things that I may never have said quite as clearly as I'd have liked -- possible precisely because this exchange between Doug and Bob ("It makes no difference" v. "It makes a great deal of difference") reduces some of the murk around the thing to an apparently simple binary:

For what it's worth, I find this question of whether or not his explicit visionary episodes were triggered by a stroke strikes me as leaving the actual fact of the 8,000 pages of writing, and the matter of their contents, completely unconfronted. Or perhaps it would be better to say the question leaves what interests me in the late phase of this great writer's efforts completely undescribed. Suffice to say any number of millions of humans have had strokes. Only one of them did what Philip K. Dick did.

Even if you quest around for a more exotic diagnosis -- Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, say, which has been proposed for Dick (as with Kirby and PSTD, of course, none of us will ever know, but that hasn't stopped speculation), as it has also been proposed for Saint Theresa of Avila, and Dostoyevsky, and a few other interesting people -- and which has been specifically associated with bouts of graphomaniacal literary production -- you still don't find that anyone except Philip K. Dick wrote the Exegesis, or even anything very much like it, in the whole history of humankind.

And as a student of his work, I personally find the effort to split the last writings completely away from the "great novels of the '60s" unconvincing. In fact, evidence of a visionary gnostic sensibility is traceable as far back (at least) as Cosmic Puppets, an unredeemable crappy fantasy novel written early in his 1950s apprenticeship. And by the time of the mid-'60s -- in and around any of the work that would -- and does -- qualify him as a canonical writer (one who, as Bob points out, is canonical like Dreiser, i.e. despite the genius having to drag the prose into the canon like a butterfly dragging a lead sinker), all of the primary concerns of the impossible Exegesis material are already in play: the trapdoor philosophizing, the eschatological and ontological obsessions, the theological raptures and solipsistic terrors. He also had episodes, in his life, quite a lot like the episodes of the late '70s (voices in the night, depression breakdowns and exultant fits of productivity). Unless you want to suggest that he began suffering a series of tiny strokes sometime in the '50s... there's no way to make that diagnosis really encompass the tendencies that become so explosive later on.

The only reason I can imagine getting worked up on the matter of denying Dick really heard God's voice is if you A. believe there is a God and B. believe he spoke to you and told you stuff that contradicted the stuff Dick claimed God said (up to and including, I suppose, "that guy Dick is going around claiming he heard me speak, but I never said a word to him.") Since I don't believe in God, I can't really get very interested in this -- and when people who I suspect also don't believe in God do get worked up about it, it doesn't coming out sounding any different to me than when people say, "But Philip K. Dick was really crazy, wasn't he?" In both cases, my translation of the remark ends up being: "I don't really want to encounter that material. It's easier not to have to."

Since I don't look on the Exegesis as revelation, or even, really, philosophy, but as "writing by a writer I like" -- and since, in fact, there's intermittently astoundingly rich and mind-bending and funny and provocative and trippy writing contained in it -- all the virtues that drew me to the writer in question to begin with -- I'm fighting the good fight to encourage people to abandon the "crazy/not crazy" or "God/not-God" framing that seems to be the only way anyone can think to approach the book.

Except I'm not really fighting that fight, I've really given it up already -- except for writing this e-mail.

Hey, I even got Kirby's name in there once, folks!


Sorry, I didn't mean the topic was uninteresting or insignificant, just that it probably won't make the final cut in a roundtable article on Hatfield's Kirby book. But for the record, my understanding (and I'd hazard Dick's and possibly Kirby's) allows for the possibility that "a stroke" and "hearing the voice of God" are just different ways of describing the same phenomenon; from a medical/materialist POV and from a mystical/subjectivist POV. Which are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Alterations in brain function have been inextricable from supernatural religious experiences (prayer, chanting, fasting, yoga, whirling, flagellation, trepanation, mushrooms...) throughout our species' history, and I don't see how the possibility that PKD's experiences may have coincided with a physiological change makes them less valid than those of, say, some one who sits in one position under a tree for forty-nine days. What I want to know -- and I'm sure some of you have better intel on this than me - is whether Kirby ever dropped acid. Because my friend Scott? In 8th grade? Said there's no way he didn't, man.


Oh, yes, I agree with that, totally beside the point as it doesn't relate to Kirby.


Unless he dropped acid!



44 Responses to Jack Kirby: Hand of Fire Roundtable (Part 2)

  1. patrick ford says:

    Dan, makes a good point when he talks about fitting Kirby to genre. The genre is simply not relevant to my appreciation of Kirby. Just as a Samurai film could be reimagined as a Western or Science Fiction, what is most interesting about Kirby’s work, works just as well in a War comic book or a Romance comic.
    That said Kirby’s best known ’60s and later work is far better defined as science fiction than super heroics. If some producer had the idea of basing a film on Silver Star the thing to do would be to dispense with the super suits all together. There is no reason Mister Machine, Silver Star, or Orion has to be wearing what looks like a super suit aside from perceived market considerations.
    I’m not even sure Kirby had much of an influence on super hero comics. To the best of my knowledge his work is seen with undisguised contempt by a very high percentage of super hero fans. His artwork is often described as crude and primitive (in fact it is sophisticated and refined). IT seems to me what happened in the ’60s was yet another example of comic book publishers reaching out to a slightly older readership. This had happened once before after WWll where publishers noticed a good chunk of their readers had gotten older and were more prone to read Romance and Horror (Sex and Violence) than super hero comic books.
    As I see it Kirby had little to do with any broadening of scope in super hero comics it was more a function of the times. Other media were following the same trends, comics, if anything, were lagging behind restrained by the comics code. By the ’70s Kirby was out of fashion among mainstream super hero fans and that attitude became increasingly common until the end of Kirby’s career. Silver Star, Captain Victory, Even Gods Must Die, and The Hunger Dogs are widely dismissed as “sad” or viewed with contemptuous hilarity by people who were wrapped up in ’80s Batman and X-Men comic books.
    Not having followed super hero comic books since a brief period in the early ’70s I can’t say for certain but my vague impression is Kirby is not a big influence on today’s super hero comic books.

  2. patrick ford says:

    BTW as Dan says I not only found it strange the book does not cover Captain Victory and Silver Star, but Charles seems to want and distance himself from them, and goes so far as to say they have their charms but can only be appreciated by a “loyalist.” And a person who does like them lacks the objectivity Charles has. These comments are right up front in the book. It’s one thing for an author to dislike something. People not liking, or actively hating Kirby’s work is something I see all the time, but when someone gets a bit condescending and tells me that something I like isn’t very good, and only a loyalist would claim otherwise. Charles expanded on this up in his interview with Tom Spurgeon:

    “Of course a lot of Kirby fans don’t think so, and so maybe they’ll howl at those parts of the book where I dismiss that period. Sure, I get a kick out of those comics — I lost anything like objectivity a long time ago — but it does seem clear to me that Kirby’s powers were failing then, and that he wasn’t well served editorially by the environment he was in, though surely he felt much freer. I think the years over the drawing board wrung a lot out of Kirby: when his work started to fall off, he fell hard, and the results could be pretty distressing.”

    Well that stuff is some of my favorite Kirby material, but to defend it paints me as a Kirby Kultist?
    See, objectively, if you aren’t seeing the material as a loyalist, well it’s factually distressing.

  3. R. Maheras says:

    R. Fiore wrote: “People of Gary’s and my vintage are willing to openly discuss our enthusiasm among those we know will share it but less so among the general population.”

    I shed that aversion about 25 years ago and have never looked back.

    Regarding Kirby’s work, if you distill it down to its essence, Kirby=Power.

    If you are the type of person who recoils when friends, associates, family members, public officials, military officials, or anyone else exudes too much power, you may inherently be unable to mentally embrace Kirby’s work. Instead, you may prefer the more sublime.

    Just thinking out loud…

  4. Danny Ceballos says:

    So far, this whole round table conversation has been worth it, if only to get to that golden phrase “like a butterfly dragging a lead sinker”

  5. patrick ford says:

    The funny thing is a good sized slice of the general population (although mysteriously no one I know) is going to super hero movies, which on their face look to be repulsive in every way. I hear people say some of these things are “good” and I can’t even imagine it. Thankfully I’ve gotten a pass on seeing any of them. My kids like comics, but are not interested in super heroes so they don’t ask me to take them to those kinds of movies.
    To my eye live action super heroes are about 10X more cringe inducing than an old copy of Superman, so I can’t see where there would be any embarassment associated with super heroes when people are going to super hero movies in large numbers.

  6. George Bush (not that one) says:

    I find it a bit weird that so many Kirby fans think so much of his work is crap. I see a lot of excuses( “well of course this is crap ,but look at this!”) in most of the writing about Kirby. And personally I have come to love the later day Kirby.

  7. George Bush (not that one) says:

    Is Image still going to put out Captain Victory this year???

  8. Paul Slade says:

    On Mr Fiore’s point about Barks v Kirby in the general public’s mind, I guess many adults find talking ducks more respectable than superheroes because the ducks have fond associations with the genteel children’s books of their youth, while the superheroes are associated only with cheap, vulgar, trashy pamphlets.

    For them, funny animals signify innocence and charm, but superheroes suggest only crude exploitation, violence and sub-literacy. I suspect that would apply no matter how good or bad each particular book’s creators might be.

  9. patrick ford says:

    This comment by Glen David Gold left me with a couple comments:

    “neither Stan nor Jack was very good at continuity. Hatfield mentions Kirby’s aversion to continuity upon his return in the 1970s, but the fact is, even from the beginning, neither Stan nor Jack could remember anything. The Hulk might appear in six different storylines, and Bruce Banner’s name might be Bob in one of them and David in another. (My current favorite continuity problem is that in Thor #160, Jack has Galactus attacking Ego the living planet. Which is a relief, as Jack had started that attack in issue #134, two years beforehand. Not only had he forgotten about that, when he had Galactus appear in the FF in the intervening months, there was no reference to the suspended Ego battle, and when he got back to Thor the next year, there was no mention of the FF adventures, either. It’s especially funny that Stan forgot, too.) That these two guys with terrible memories created the tapestry they did is inadvertently hilarious.”

    The problem with the disjointed narratives in the Marvel books is a result of the working method. Kirby could not reasonably be said to have collaborated with Lee. Both Kirby and Lee say they did not collaborate in plotting the stories. Kirby said (Mark Herbert interview) as early as 1969 he was creating all the characters and the plots. Kirby has said he did not care to speak to Lee and was in and out of the office as quickly as possible. Marie Severin commented “Jack was not one to hang around the office.” The reason the Marvel era plots are such a mess is not because Kirby lost track of what the story he was telling, it was because of the tremendous amount of rewriting Lee did over-top of Kirby’s already complete story. The two men did not bounce ideas back and forth and settle on one story. Instead Kirby gave Lee a story, and then Lee wrote a different story based on the story Kirby gave him. Martin Goodman was rarely quoted but turned up in a 1970 NYT story quoted as saying, “I’ve tried reading some of our stories. I can’t understand them.” One thing Lee did invent was the “no-rize” a way he developed of llaughing off the many gaping plot holes and continuity errors resulting from Lee’s “method.” My own view is Lee ‘collaborated with Lee in the same way Britsh Petroleum collaborated with the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and water don’t mix.
    Mike Gartland, Mark Evanier, and Kirby himself have all documented what went on. It isn’t that Lee would tweak the stories he would turn them upside down. The relationship between The Watcher, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer is one of the best and most complex examples of how Kirby’s intent was completely destroyed. There are several issues of the FF and Thor involving those charters which were so heavily rewritten by Lee that Kirby had to redraw or rework whole issues of both those titles.
    Kirby’s narrative structure on The Fourth World pretty seamless as far as I’m aware. If there are any lapses I’ve missed them in my readings. One example is in Mister Miracle #1 Thadeus Brown mentions his son was killed in Vietnam. Much later the son shows up and becomes a regular character, but by those issues of Mister Miracle it may as well have been a different comic book, the connection to the Fourth World was dampened by editorial edict from NY. I do think it’s necessary to read the Fourth World books in original publication order to get a full grip on the interwoven narrative structure. Even there editorial pressures sometimes affected the published comic books. The very first comic book story Kirby produced for DC was Forever People #1. The reason Frank Giacoia inked the cover is because he was going to be the regular inker. In the first story Jimmy Olsen appears in his “cub-reporter” bow-tie and sweater vest, something we never see again. There is no mention of Morgan Edge, and Olsen and Kent are working at the Daily Planet rather that as television reporters working for Edge. What happened is DC decided they liked what Kirby had done with the Superman character based on the first issue of Forever People. Forever People #1 was put on the shelf until and didn’t show up until after Kirby was assigned to Jimmy Olsen and produced the first three issues of that title. So right there is an awkward fit not because Kirby forgot what he’d done in Jimmy Olsen 133-135, but because Forever People #1 was printed out of sequence, and there was really no way to make it fit the continuity without tearing it up. And of course while Forever People #1 was waiting it’s turn Vince Colletta offered DC a package price they couldn’t refuse, and Giacoia never got to ink Forever People #1.
    There are some narrative issues with EVEN GODS MUST DIE and THE HUNGER DOGS, but once again that is mainly because Kirby produced as masterful 22 page story called THE ROAD TO ARMAGETTO where in characters DC wanted to market ended up dead.
    DC had Kirby rework the pages into a graphic novel and then decided they wanted Kirby to create a prequel to THE HUNGER DOGS which is how EVEN DOGS MUST DIE came about. Although the whole is not seamless it’s actually a masterful example of how Kirby was able to make something largely cohesive (and there are no major snafus I know of) while having to do a major rewrite on what was also a tight deadline. If people will recall the News Gods was being reprinted in a Baxter format. Two issue of the original comic book were collected in each issue of the Baxter edition. Since there were nine issues of the original comic book DC needed extra material to fill issue #5 of the Baxter edition, and Kirby created THE ROAD TO ARMAGETTO to fill out issue #5. When it was rejected Kirby transformed it into the HUNGER DOGS graphic novel and created EVEN GODS MUST DIE to fill out issue #5. And unless I’m mistaken Kirby was able to do all that with issue #5 shipping on time.
    One last thing on this. The reason Captain Victory was going along nicely with tightly plotted stories and then ended up with the very compressed final issue is Kirby got the offer from DC and dropped Captain Victory, but wanted to finish the origin of Captain Victory (He’s clearly Orion’s son) story he’d been telling over the past couple of issues of that title. Since he wanted to complete the story Kirby compressed two or three issues worth of plot into the final issue, and it would probably be incomprehensible to most people if they hadn’t been following along.

  10. James says:

    Well, George, the answer to that is that those folks are not actually Kirby fans.

  11. Eddie campbell says:

    Fiore’s account of the lee-Kirby relationship is the most acceptable I have read (and there is a mountain of baloney on the subject)

    “This doesn’t render Lee’s contribution insignificant. The bane of the comic book had always been lousy writing, against which not even an Alex Toth could prevail. As editor Lee broke this age-old curse by writing all the captions and dialog himself, or nearly so. Having Kirby and Ditko to cook up the stories allowed him to do more captions and dialog in the same way that having someone else do the inking allowed Kirby and Ditko to draw more pages. Lee could keep things light while laying it on thick, and if he spent much of his time telling you how much fun you were having, he never forgot that fun is what it was supposed to be. If you watch recordings of Johnny Carson on the old Tonight Show you see that the key to his success was his knack for communicating enthusiasm, of signaling by his reactions that the spectacle before you was the wildest thing you’d seen in your life. Stan Lee brought a similar quality to comic book writing, and I don’t know if anyone else in the business had the brass to pull it off in the same way. More to the point, he was better at it than Kirby, whose captions and dialog, while serviceable, were flat and clumsy by comparison.”

  12. Allen Smith says:

    For some reason I’ve yet to analyze, superhero movies by and large are a bit clunky when on the big screen. It’s the whole setup of the obligatory origin sequence, the secret identity, and the costume. For some reason those things don’t seem quite so odd in the context of comics, on the big screen, where human being have to act out those things and wear the costumes, it seems more ridiculous. Not in every single superhero movie, mind you, but most of them. For the animated cartoons, it’s just different, I’ve enjoyed them all my life and accept them on the small and big screen more than superheroes, which I accept on the comics page.

  13. patrick ford says:

    I’d agree with most of that except the idea Lee’s dialogue is anything but among the absolute worst junk to ever see print. When ever I see anything good said about his drivel I have to assume the people saying it haven’t read one of the comics in decades. It’s William Shatner singing is what it is.
    I also think Kirby’s text, his word choices and style, are exceptional, particularly in a comic book context. It’s true most people hate it, and I’m not interested in trying to convince. The idea Lee could write at all, even a little bit is flat out laughable. Go read one and report back.

  14. Dan Nadel says:

    I’m actually a bit the opposite. It’s good and healthy to be skeptical of the subjects you study or obsess over. Kirby wasn’t flawless and Charles does a great job of grappling with that. Kirby is also an immense subject — impossible to address it all with the level of analysis and research Charles brought to the project. So I think it’s to his credit that he is forthright about what he is and isn’t interested in. That kind of honesty, which I think is rather brave, runs through his entire book.

  15. patrick ford says:

    Kirby produced a lot of rushed, and or dispirited work. Almost everything at Marvel 1958-1964 is rushed and recycled. The work 1969-1970 is dispirited. Kirby is invigorated at DC during the Fourth World run, but contrast that to Kirby again dispirited on the later issues of Mister Miracle. Kirby’s return to Marvel shows him once more fully engaged with work like THE MAD BOMB story in Captain America, The Eternals, 2001, but again Kirby’s work tapers off as he is subjected to editorial tampering. Beyond that his monthly work load of around 50 to 60 pages a month all through the ’60s ’70s meant there were lots of times when he was on autopilot. Still you never knew when something would bubble up even during the valleys.
    To me though the early ’80s stuff is basically the top of the mountain.

  16. Eddie campbell says:

    “I’d agree with most of that ”

    then you disagreed with all of it.

  17. James says:

    I agree that Charles has made a serious effort, whether or not I agree with everything he wrote. But I also agree with Mr. Bush that there is a tendency to dismiss his later work and a lot of times this is done by people who have haven’t actually read it. What many respond to is the mitigated Kirby, the overwritten-by-others Kirby, but I vastly prefer Jack’s own voice, even with the flaws seen in his solo efforts.

  18. patrick ford says:

    Here’s what I agree with:

    “…This doesn’t render Lee’s contribution insignificant. The bane of the comic book had always been lousy writing, against which not even an Alex Toth could prevail….Lee could keep things light while laying it on thick, and if he spent much of his time telling you how much fun you were having, he never forgot that fun is what it was supposed to be. If you watch recordings of Johnny Carson on the old Tonight Show you see that the key to his success was his knack for communicating enthusiasm, of signaling by his reactions that the spectacle before you was the wildest thing you’d seen in your life. Stan Lee brought a similar quality to comic book writing, and I don’t know if anyone else in the business had the brass to pull it off in the same way.”

    I do think Lee was a lot closer to Pat Robertson than Johnny Carson. I never understood what people see in his writing. The jokes were stale back in the “40s, his humor is mean spirited and incredibly sexist. Out of curiosity I’ve made an effort to go back and read some of his material from the ’40s and ’50s , and the ’60s is just his old dumb blond jokes and teen humor stuff grafted onto super heroes. I don’t know, maybe you had to be there at the time to enjoy it? Maybe being part of the whole experience, part of the club, was the biggest part of it? I read Lee’s material in the ’70s, and at the time it was mildly entertaining, but it’s the writing parallel to orange marshmallow circus peanuts. I used to kind of like those too when I was 12-14.
    I absolutely think Marvel and it’s popularity was 99% Lee. After all it was the Lee/Romita Spider-Man which was Marvel’s best selling book by far, and it’s said the Lee/Romita issues of the FF sold better than the previous Lee/Kirby issues. To me Lee is just a very below average to average comic book writer along with all those other guys who are being mentioned as “The bane of the comic book had always been lousy writing…”

  19. patrick ford says:

    I do like the Golf idea but in my version Lee isn’t Kirby’s caddy. Lee had the final say, he controlled the outcome, the published comic books. We never got to read Kirby’s story. So in my golf game Kirby and Lee are playing a par three course. Hole after hole Kirby drives the ball to within fifteen feet of the hole, often times much closer. Then a blind man with palsy, putting with a cane comes out to putt.

  20. George Bush (not that one) says:

    OK THAT deserves a LOL.

  21. R. Fiore:

    The reason why Warhol’s Campbell soup repros are art works is not because the original soup cans are works of art. The real reason is the change of context. I. e.: real life vs. art gallery or museum. Wharol’s art must be seen as a continuation of Marcel Duchamp’s creation of the ready-made. While soup cans are part of life, Wharol’s repros and repetitions are a philosophical reflection on massification. (It’s the difference between living and thinking.) I will go even further back in art history to compare Warhol’s soup cans with William Turner’s _Rain, Steam and Speed_. While the French Naturalists painted bucolic landscapes, Turner painted a landscape changed by the Industrial Revolution.

    Glen David Gold:

    Kirby’s art owes a lot to Fascist aesthetics. The whole concept of the Technological Sublime is a Futuristic aesthetic idea. Art Spiegelman was absolutely right re. Kirby’s art.

  22. Michael Hill says:

    This is where I’d take issue with Jeet’s division of solo work/collaborative work. Jack did a lot of solo work *before* Stan, even under the S&K byline; he also did a lot of solo work *with* Stan, we just never got to see it as Kirby intended.

  23. Michael Hill says:

    Charles uses the word “decline.” If you see Kirby as the storyteller/cartoonist, even if the case can be made that his art was in decline (it was in a different phase of its evolution based on his growing physical limitations), how can it be said that his *writing* had declined? My other issue with the way the book ended was all space dedicated to the perpetrators of the letter column attack, without actually drawing conclusions or assigning responsibility.

  24. patrick ford says:

    I have no problem with Charles seeing a decline, if he sees one he should report that observation. It’s an insight into his attitudes towards art which helps explain where his aesthetics are.
    Saying the work is obviously inferior and that any objective person would see that is not a comment which encourages fair handed debate. I see this type off thing all the time recently and it might be an indication of the pernicious influence of the FOX NEWS slogan “fair and balanced.” It very difficult to discuss something with a person whose opening statement declares they are free from bias, and anyone who challengers their purely objective observations is a loyalist, a person whose opinions are shaped by bias.
    I saw this just recently when Dan gave a very positive review to the Jaime Hernandez story THE LOVE BUNGLERS. People who didn’t agree with Dan said he was reading the book through a haze of nostalgia, he was a loyalist. He was so close to the material he couldn’t see it objectively, he couldn’t see it’s evident flaws, he was reading things into it which weren’t there.
    Of course I’d say the same thing about anyone who thinks Silver Age super hero comic books are great comic books (any of them). They aren’t, are they? They are all the same aren’t they. Are Peter Parker’s problems with class mates and girls really any different from the late ’50s Superboy? Clark Kent was the nerd wearing glasses who had a curious girl friend, or was that Parker? Dan Clowes and Drew Friedman like the Weisinger Superman family of titles because they are almost neurotic. Are Clowes and Friedman out of touch because they don’t see the amazing list of things Stan Lee did at Marvel which had never been done before? Like a group with a loud mouth, a tough guy, and an intellectual, who bicker among themselves all the time. The FF right? Or…say isn’t that the ’40s Newsboy Legion?

  25. Michael Hill says:

    Let me know if you get any takers to re-read the Marvel comics of their childhood. *That* will be newsworthy.

  26. patrick ford says:

    Dez Skinn (“The Stan Lee of Britain”) tried that recently. He said he hadn’t read one in ages, and thought it might be fun to dip into an old Marvel and the bathtub at the same time. After reading his FB comment was “Oh my. We used to like these things?”
    People say “But they were popular.” What that means I don’t know, but even on that point Spider-Man never outsold Lois Lane until after Lee had quit writing the book.
    One thing everyone agrees on his Kirby’s work was very different from everything else in the field at the time. Fan reaction would have been the same if Spain Rodriguez had taken over the Black Panther in 1975 rather than Kirby. The art and dialogue would have been seen as weird.

  27. R. Fiore says:

    There’s no accounting for my taste, but my impressions were based on re-reading the work. I find that I’m more impressed with Kirby’s work today than I was when I was in my teens and 20s.

  28. Jeet Heer says:

    Lee’s writing talent requires a separate post in and of itself. But, briefly, I only read a handful of Lee-scripted comics when I was a kid (some Fantastic Four and Dr. Strange reprints). I’ve only read 1960s Marvel in depth in the last few years. Stan’s writing during the 1960s varied wildly in quality — partially because — like Kirby — he was very prolific. Sometimes Lee’s dialogues and captions were wretched — Avengers #1, for example, is a profoundly dumb comic, almost pathological in its stupidity. On other occasions Lee hit the low to mediocre level of DC writers like Gardner Fox or John Broome (I’m not sure if that’s the proper spelling). But there are a few occasions — largely I think when he was particularly inspired by the art & storylines Ditko and Kirby handed in — when Lee achieved something more and produced comics that are actually fun to read (and not just to look at the art). I’m thinking here of the middle-and-late Spider-man stories with Ditko and the first Galactus story.
    One thing Lee did try to do is give each character a different speech pattern. Alas, his ear for slang and hip-talk was no better than Milton Caniff’s. But in the better Lee written comics, the characters do sound distinct and he does manage to convey something of their personality through dialogue.

  29. Glen David Gold says:

    I have been waiting in vain my entire life for anyone to ever say to me something as horripilatingly cool as “Face it, Tiger…You just hit the jackpot!”

  30. patrick ford says:

    I prefer:

    ” Are we made for war Izaya? You know—I’ve never heard you sing. Sing, Izaya. Let me hear your voice when it’s not a battle cry.”

  31. patrick ford says:

    Lee’s characters do have separate personalities. There’s Archie, Jughead, Moose, Betty, Veronica, and Mr. Dithers.

  32. patrick ford says:

    A collection of Kirby quotes, with a bit of context.

    Dr. Pretorious: “To a new world of gods and monsters!”

    New Gods #9:

    Eve: “Your friend is positively Earthly. And I was so intrigued by the incredible rumors. The bulletins are still flashing about last night. Stories of super-beings, and monsters.”

    Orion (turning to show his true face): “Oh yes Madame. There were monsters.”

    Later while Orion sleeps.

    Eve (gently touching Orion’s cheek): “There is something in that fierce and mangled face
    beyond anything I’ve ever written about. The sleeping monster. The raging heart. A vessel of fire—which consumes—even love.” (Eve starts as Orion’s eye opens, focused on her hand) OH!”

    Orion: “You’ve withdrawn your soothing touch madam. A pity—all that flowery crud ripped off—by untimely fright.

    Stan Lee: “He did his most important writing with his drawing.”

    Jack Kirby caustically summed up his own opinion of Stan Lee the wordsmith in TCJ:
    “I mean, he could barely spell.”

    Nat Freedland in New York magazine, 1966 described Kirby this way:

    “The King is a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit. He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you stood next to him on the subway you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.”

    Jack Kirby:

    “I think that is part of life. It’s instinctive in the cop, as well as the crook. In time we become our own monster. There will be things you will be ashamed of, and yet you’ve done it. And it’s on you like a scab.
    You suffer a little, you get humiliated a little, you see people die, and I’ve seen plenty of people die. In seeing them die, you see yourself die. It’s a strange experience, seeing it, and participating in it is very strange.
    There were times when I felt just great. It was almost like having sex. You feel about ten feet tall, if you can live through it.”

    Examine the work of an artist and you will see the ideas which are foremost in their thoughts. Jack Kirby was interested in the suits of skin we all wear, and what is under that surface layer. .
    Kirby explored the Janus-like duality of psychological and physiological identity. The skin of a monster, which might hide a gentle heart. And the potential or realized monster, which lurks under the handsome human skin.

    Kirby’s was born, and grew up in a ghetto on New York’s lower East side. Kirby was a short man, didn’t have a formal education (he never graduated from high school), spoke with a street accent, was Jewish, and as a comic book creator wasn’t respected by publishers or the public. In short Kirby was in position to see he was often judged, not based on the man he was, but because of his “Robert Hall birthday suit.”
    In an interview with Will Eisner Kirby recalled a shift in his work, which began to slowly emerge while he was still living in a lower East side tenement building on Suffolk Street:

    “I found myself intellectualizing. I was trying to get at the guy, who was trying to get at me.
    I began to remember people from my own background, and I began to subtly realize they were important, and that I wasn’t ashamed of them. I was no longer afraid of myself, and I began to see them as I should have seen them from the beginning
    This was a long way from Long Island. I was still trying to get to Brooklyn. I heard they had a tree there, and the tree was different.”

    In Kirby’s eyes the “soul” of man is that a man can be reflective, and self-aware. He should be able to recognize the instinctive urges that can overwhelm his rational judgment.
    Kirby described his own inner battle in “Street Code.” In the story the neighborhood boys engage in a primitive ritual (rubbing the hump of a Hunchback) to bring good luck in a street fight, it’s only part of a larger street code which the young Kirby is disgusted by, and wants badly to leave behind.

    “It was my turn. I stared at the terrible thing nature had done to Georgie’s back.
    Something inside me was spilling…Something the Street Code couldn’t touch…Something only god and my parents knew about.
    I bobbed and weaved among the backyard gravestones…But I was hurting–Hurting for Georgie and me–And the lousy things we had to do for the Street Code.”

    Bob Dylan:
    “All except for Cain and Abel
    And the hunchback of Notre Dame”
    Jack KIrby:
    “Well, we’ve made quite a jump.
    From Madison Avenue to Desolation Row.”

    Kirby mentioned Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in several interviews. The Quasimodo theme (a misunderstood suit of skin) is found going back to even Kirby’s earliest work already populated by grotesque or impaired characters with exceptional intellect or other abilities.

    Kirby identified Frankenstein, a film about a misunderstood monster, as his favorite movie.
    Kirby: I created the Hulk, and saw him as a handsome Frankenstein.

    Mark Herbert: That’s the first impression I got, but most people saw him as a monster.

    Kirby: I never felt the Hulk was a monster. Because I felt the Hulk was me. Being a monster is just a surface thing.

    An article on Kirby’s unpublished novel THE HORDE was featured in The Jack Kirby Collector #50. A major player in the novel is a black man, Hardy Jackson. In Kirby’s synopsis Kirby describes Jackson as having such a degree of self-loathing that he describes his own skin as a “Gorilla suit.” Jackson’s expressed desire is for a suit of “shining golden armor,”

    A self-described “student of science fiction,” Kirby was also a student of human nature.
    There are any number of stories by Kirby where he explores the theme of A.I. a common theme in science fiction since Karl Capek’s R.U.R introduced the term Robot.
    Capek’s play explores what it is that makes a man. As the play develops Capek’s robots learn to become more human.

    Damon: To be like people, it is necessary to kill and to dominate. Read the history books. Read the books written by people. To be like people it is necessary to dominate and to murder.
    Alquist: Ah, Domin, there’s nothing less like mankind than his image.

    In Machine Man Kirby uses X-51 to again explore his fascination with the suit of skin we all wear which has such an influence on how we are perceived.
    At one point X-51 has a nervous breakdown when his artificial “human” face is taken from him.

    Kirby (Silver Star #5):

    “Two personalities in the same body. By creating the illusion of Drumm’s face on the crowd below I stopped the “Angel of Death” who carried the truth inside him.”

    STANLEY KUBRICK: “…the question must be considered whether Rousseau’s view of man as a fallen angel is not really the most pessimistic and hopeless of philosophies. It leaves man a monster who has gone steadily away from his nobility. It is, I am convinced, more optimistic to accept Ardrey’s view that ‘…we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels…”

    Jack Kirby (1969 interview with Mark Herbert):

    “I felt wouldn’t it be great if I could show a kind of Fallen Angel which the Silver Surfer is.”

    Kirby felt that violence was the foundation of a predatory architecture; to recognize and suppress that impulsive infrastructure required a conscious, contemplative effort.
    That instinctive nature is rooted in man being descended from as author Jared Diamond puts it, “The Third Chimpanzee,” or as Kirby put it “Killer Baboons. Film director Stanley Kubrick listed the five common explanations for man’s predisposition towards violence. Notice #5, which Kubrick identified as his prime suspect. Kubrick felt the computer HAL in 2001 had developed a protective/predatory nature by way of being programmed by humans.

    1. Original sin: the religious view.
    2. Unjust economic exploitation: the Marxist view.
    3. Emotional and psychological frustration: the psychological view.
    4. Genetic factors based on the ‘Y’ chromosome theory: the biological view.
    5. Man, the killer ape: the evolutionary view.

    Kirby observed it was in a predator’s instinctual programming to mark territory, protect it, and if possible to expand it’s domination. He wrote of the “road-map” to our galactic doorstep included on the Pioneer Plaque:

    “I would have included no information other than a rough image of the Earth and its Moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between “discoverers” and “discoverees” history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear path to our door. My point is: who will come knocking — the trader or the tiger?”

    Kirby also spoke of blood rituals on a grand scale.

    “I quoted Hitler in the Forever People. Glorious Godfrey’s looking at a crowd and says,’ the entire crowd while I was talking to them had the same expression, it never wavered.
    If you watch baboons you’ll find the leader jumping up and down pounding on a rock shrieking, and the tribe gathers around him, they won’t move a muscle, like Hitler at the Nuremberg rallies, at his signal they will go out and kill.”

    It wasn’t only primitive human ritual where Kirby saw man’s instinct for violence, he saw violence as such an elemental component of man’s nature that it was equally present in places of supposed sophistication, like the world of business,
    TJKC #52:

    “I wouldn’t want to be in a position of leadership where I could hurt somebody, because I feel that I’m capable of it. A lot of people in my generation are capable of it. It’s done all the time in business… That’s what competition means: One man symbolically killing another.”

    In issue number three of The Forever People Kirby’s creation Darkseid says:

    “I am the revelation. The tiger-force at the core of all things.”


    “Orion is a hunter. A hunter, and a killer. He’s trapped in an environment he never made. Can you imagine a guy with that kind of frustration? A guy who’s his own monster. He can’t go against his environment, but inside him is something basic and primitive. Orion was so ashamed he used a mother box to build a good face.
    We always try to fix our faces. Don’t we look great today? Do we look like the people who built Dachau? No we look as if it never happened. Do we look like the people who committed atrocities in WWII and all the wars before that? No we don’t look like those kinds of people.
    I think we are living in medieval times. It’s only 40 years ago we cooked people in ovens. How sophisticated is that? We can pat ourselves on the back, and say we’re living in a high tech age, but I think we’re still medieval.”\


    Well, I don’t know. I’m usually in a room about this size, but I feel I see a lot because I analyze a lot. I see the same things you do but maybe I get more time to analyze it whereas you might not. So I sit and think and it’s as simple as that. If you can sit and think for 20 years, you can come up with quite a bit.

  33. Allen Smith says:

    I don’t think one has to be any kind of cultist to like a comic like Silver Star. In some ways, it’s a hard book to descibe as it’s a bit like the X-Men only stripped of the typical soap opera elements and other elements that Stan Lee provided in his writing. SS is all violence and wild apolocalypic imagery, and makes me wonder what was going through Kirby’s head as he was writing and drawing it. It’s all matter of fact violence, the only redemption comes because the hero wins.

  34. Allen Smith says:

    The thing is, the Marvel method does make me wonder what Stan would have written absent the art to bounce off of. Had he just written a full script, dialogue and all, and then just given it to the artists, would it have had that same energy, or “invigorizating” quality that someone earlier credited Stan with giviing it?
    So, even that aspect of the appeal of Lee’s writing is suspect. Not in questioning the idea that he wrote what was in the dialogue balloons, but in questioning whether seeing the images first with the story laid out already made him write better than he really could if left to his own devices.

  35. R. Fiore says:

    That’s as may be, and it certainly seems to be a broadly held interpretation, though it makes it seem more like an editorial cartoon than a work of art. I would not even call myself so much as an informed observer of gallery art, and God knows I haven’t a clue what was going on under that wig. I have to wonder, though, if people aren’t reading their own ideology into this. I’ve always thought Warhol had a large element of Chauncey Gardiner in him, assuming he wasn’t actually a model for the character. My working hypothesis is that what he wrote and said was not some cagey mask over all manner of deep thinking but an accurate reflection of what was going on inside.

    In any case, my coining is made for my purposes, and is based on my perceptions of the art.

    My favorite Warhol looks like a small color field painting of three horizontal stripes, blue, black and blue again. As you get closer to it you see it’s the side of a box of matches.

  36. Michael Hill says:

    Pat, you oughtta write a book, and there oughtta be a round-table here about it.

  37. Dave Hyde says:

    An enjoyable discussion, thank you. For Philip K. Dick fans please check out our upcoming full-color bibliography of USA and UK editions, 1955-2012. Coming in June! http://pkdickbooks.com/precious_artifacts.html

  38. Michael Grabowski says:

    So what’s up with What If? vol. 1 #11 where Jack writes & draws Stan, himself, Sol Brodsky, & Flo Steinberg as the Fantastic Four? It presents a rather different picture of office life at the bullpen, one somewhat in keeping with Stan’s mythology of the place, and in the tradition of the self-referential strips and Stan-Jack & Stan-Steve cameos in the 60’s comics. It’s hard to imagine that 1977 comic coming from the heart, mind, and hand of the late-period disgruntled Kirby, yet there it is, and edited by Houseroy. Is this comic addressed at all in Hatfield’s book?

  39. patrick ford says:

    Roy Thomas conceived the idea and wanted to write the story himself . He approached Kirby with the idea and Kirby said he’d only be involved if he was allowed to write it.
    BTW in the Chapter Charles wrote on Kirby’s work at Marvel in the ’70s he says Kirby’s work from the period is now an object of “nostalgic veneration.” That is flat out wrong. Kirby’s work from the period is an object of undisguised loathing and contempt with no parallel in mainstream comics. There are people who like it but their number is small and to describe their appreciation of the work as “nostalgic veneration” is as questionable, as describing the reviews Frank, Jeet, Tom Spurgeon, and Dan wrote for THE LOVE BUNGLERS as “nostalgic veneration.”
    There is an elephant in the room example of comics connected to Kirby which are the object of “nostalgic veneration.” Those would be the Marvel comics of the ’60s. Not the ones Kirby created and then handed over to Stan Lee, but the published comic books where Stan Lee Presents his mutilation.

  40. Allen Smith says:

    Also, “nostalgic veneration” covers the attitude of Stan Lee’s fans toward his entire career. Given that as editor he wrote all the credits, it might be correct indeed that fans are engaging in “nostalgic veneration” re: Jack Kirby when they wax nostalgic about sixties Marvel.

  41. BTW in the Chapter Charles wrote on Kirby’s work at Marvel in the ’70s he says Kirby’s work from the period is now an object of “nostalgic veneration.” That is flat out wrong.

    Patrick, first off, no pejorative is intended by the phrase “nostalgic veneration.” That line was not intended as a jab at Kirby fans, or at anyone. It’s not a dismissive remark. You seem to be reading the line as a dismissal, but it wasn’t meant to be. The context in which that line appears is not critical of Kirby’s fans and not critical of the work either. Nor is any contrast to the 1960s work implied by that line. I did not intend that passage to be critical, but reflective of changing tastes.

    Secondly, Kirby’s work at Marvel in the ’70s has been rather lavishly reprinted by Marvel, which suggests that someone is buying it. Outsized omnibus editions of works that were once deemed silly or irrelevant show that, yes, there is keen interest in those works. The revival of concepts that Kirby introduced in those comics suggests as much. The fact that many fans respond warmly to the invocation of Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur is a case in point: that series was once generally derided as childish and crude. Today the work holds an undeniable fascination for many fans–not all fans, of course, but a significant number, who have been courted by Marvel with its high-priced editions. My observation was meant simply to register that fact.

    The loathing and contempt you refer to is certainly addressed in the context of mid-70s Marvel fandom; in fact that context is addressed at length in the book’s last chapter. But contexts change. My larger point is that what was once derided has now been revived, colonized, claimed by Marvel (and DC), and has proven, guess what? Incredibly vital and generative in the long run. So my comments are meant to contest the way those comics were initially criticized in the 70s. No dismissal of “nostalgia” is implied.

  42. patrick ford says:

    Charles thanks for the clarification. In my case I came to Kirby as a 12-13 year old in 1970. By 1975 I was leaving for college, and didn’t begin looking at comics again until the early ’80s when I began buying old clipped strips and placing a monthly order with Last Gasp. It was seeing Captain Victory #1 in a used book store with a small new comics section which caused me to look into all those late ’70s Marvel comics which I’d missed the first time around.
    From my point of view the tone of Kirby’s work has more in common with WHITEMAN MEETS BIGFOOT than it does any mainstream super hero comic book I’ve ever seen. Many of the typical ways Kirby’s work is described are ambiguous. It’s very common to see his stories described as “weird” or “crazy” and terms like that serve ought to be put aside because of their ambiguity.
    In the first place we are talking about comic books here. If you place his work in the context of mainstream super hero comic books the first question which occurs to me is: “Are there super hero comic books which aren’t weird or crazy?” There is also the matter of intent. Descriptions like “bizzarely inflected” “thumping earnestness” imply that Kirby’s intent was something other than what it is. It’s like looking at Joan Miro and saying the artwork isn’t very realistic, or pointing out that PETE THE PLUMBER would never have fit down a sewage line and it absurd Crumb shows a whole group of feces covered “shitheads” living in a depository built into the sewage system.
    Like Sendak, or Seuss, or Barks, or Crumb Kirby deals with human behavior, but he deals with it in a square fingered world.
    A very wide swath of cartooning is three fingered or square fingered. Cartoons are often at their best when they take advantage of exaggeration.

  43. Michael Grabowski says:

    Thanks, Patrick, for the info on What If? #11’s background. I haven’t read the comic in decades, but my recollection/nostalgic veneration is that it seemed to be done with a sense of affection for the work environment. On the other hand, I recall it had the familiar Thing-Reed and Thing-Torch friction that was always present in the FF comic. Which makes me wonder if much of that original friction was Kirby expressing aggression towards Lee & Brodsky through his comics.

  44. patrick ford says:

    Michael, Thomas mentions the story in an interview published in TJKC #18.
    In looking for that bit I ran across something interesting.
    Is asked about Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics books. At the time (1974) Kirby was so annoyed by Lee’s commentary in the book he took his copy and cut out large portions of the text which he felt were not accurate.
    When Jim Amash mentions to Thomas many people felt the book downplayed Kirby’s role. Thomas answers.

    “The problem there may have been the legalities. Back in the ’60s both Joe Simon and Carl Burgos initiated lawsuits…It lead to Bill Everett being given a loan by Martin Goodman that wasn’t going to have to be paid back, so he (Everett) wouldn’t sue…”

    I’d completely forgotten this story of Everett getting what sounds like a non-legal settlement from Goodman in the form of a loan. Goodman had made a similar sounding “loan” to Kirby around the same time. In Kirby’s case Goodman called in the loan in 1972.

    As Joe Simon pointed out in TCJ.

    “This is a very complicated story…And it turns out some dirty little angles that Marvel pulled…On Kirby, not on me. They got him on their side… You know how to copyright works if there are two authors? One author renews, the other author is entitled to complete 50 percent of all negotiations, profits, sales, that type of thing… I told them the truth. I told them what they did to Kirby on that Captain America thing. It was disgusting. Disgusting.”

    As pointed out by Joe Simon Kirby was entitled to the the same settlement received by Simon.
    Mark Evanier has said there was another reason Kirby signed the document. Because Evanier is a witness in the Kirby vs Disney suit he is no longer commenting on any issues surrounding the case.

    EVANIER: Basically, Jack signed it under duress and you’ll have to wait for my full-scale biography to understand what that duress amounted to. It’s a very complicated story…

    Simon filed to reclaim the Captain America copyright shortly after Martin Goodman had sold Marvel to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation.
    Kirby had been trying without success to work out a freelance contract with Martin Goodman (still the publisher; no longer the owner) since early 1968.
    Frustrated in his attempts to negotiate with Goodman Kirby had his attorney contact Perfect Film executives, and traveled to New York from California in an attempt to reach agreement.

    MARK EVANIER: Jack went to New York in December of 1969 to try and work out a deal with Marvel. He didn’t succeed at that but while there, he agreed to write and draw two issues of a proposed INHUMANS comic and draw the first issue of a planned KA-ZAR comic. He went home and did them. In late January, he was asked to revise them into ten-pagers and he did whatever was necessary to make that happen. He did SILVER SURFER #18 around the middle of February. In between these, of course, he did issues of THOR and FANTASTIC FOUR. The last three stories Jack did for Marvel were — in this order — the “Janus” story that ran later in F.F., then THOR #179 and then, in early March, F.F. #102. After he mailed in F.F. #102, he phoned Stan and told him it would be his last.

    Based on this we can see that Kirby made a concerted effort to work things out by going to New York in Dec. 1969, but was repaid only a couple of weeks later in Jan. 1970 by Perfect Film insisting that if he wished to remain at Marvel it would be only on their terms. According to Evanier even after receiving an “onerous contract” proposal in early January Kirby continued working through March, and had his attorney contact Perfect Film in one last attempt to work out a contract.

    EVANIER: Jack absolutely attempted to negotiate after being offered the contract he didn’t like. He sent his lawyer to do that and Marvel refused to talk to his lawyer. Instead, they told Jack the offer was “take it or leave it.”

    It was in June 1970 over three months after Kirby had left Marvel when he signed “under duress” the agreement with Marvel which offered him the same settlement given to Joe Simon.
    As reported in TJKC #24.

    Kirby was unaware Marvel had arranged to pay most of Simon’s settlement to his attorney. The sum was then passed on to Simon confidentially. In this way Marvel was obligated to pay Kirby only a fraction of Simon’s settlement, the portion which had been paid directly to him rather than the larger amount laundered through his attorney. Two years later in 1972 Simon and Kirby met, and Kirby told Simon Marvel had still not paid him.
    A bit later Perfect Film decided to make Marvel a separate corporation.
    Clearly concerned about Kirby’s role in the creation of the companies characters, and the fact Kirby had worked from late 1958 through the early 60’s without a contract of any kind, Perfect Film wanted Kirby to waive his rights to reclaim copyright on any characters he created while at Marvel.
    Perfect Film claimed Kirby was paid for signing the waiver. Kirby said he was paid only the money owed him since 1970 for the Captain America settlement (an amount far less than what Simon was paid through his lawyer).
    If Perfect Film was confident Kirby had waived his copyright on the characters in 1972, a person might wonder why in Aug. 1984 they sent Kirby a four page contract full of legal clauses aimed at any claim Kirby
    might make on copyright. The contract concerned the return of 88 pages of Kirby’s Silver Age original art, and was unlike the contract sent to every other artist. The contract was so restrictive that while waiving all rights to copyright, Kirby according to the terms of the contract was placed in the position of storing the art for Marvel until such time as they chose to reclaim it.

    It’s my opinion that Perfect Film had become concerned about Kirby from the moment they became aware of his role at Marvel.
    Martin Goodman had sold Marvel to Perfect Film with the understanding that Stan Lee (a salaried employee; clearly work for hire) was the sole creator of the characters. Once Perfect Film became aware of Kirby’s role, and found he had worked without even the simplest kind of freelance contract they saw Kirby as a threat. As seen with the recent purchase of Marvel by Disney companies tend to value the creations of creators far more than they do the creators.
    Martin Goodman had shown this trait as early as 1941 when he valued Captain America far more than he did the services of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Having started out in the Pulp Magazine industry Goodman knew owning the Shadow was a bonanza for Street and Smith, while All-Story got nothing from having serialized Tarzan because Edgar Rice Burroughs had sold only first publication rights. Goodman failed to pay S&K the percentage of sales he had agreed to, and S&K went to work at DC.

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