GROTH: When you and Joe Simon worked together in your studio was it just the two of you or did you employ other people?
KIRBY: We had a letterer.
GROTH: Would the companies give your studio scripts, which you would then illustrate?
KIRBY: I never took their scripts. DC would send me scripts, I’d throw them out the window.
GROTH: Why was that?
KIRBY: I don’t like anything that’s contrived. I conceive, they contrive. OK?
GROTH: [Laughter.] That’s good.
KIRBY: That’s why my book sold. Captain America was real. When Captain America got into a fight with a dozen guys he could lick those guys, and anybody who read the book can see how he did it.
GROTH: You only had a letterer working with you in the studio?
KIRBY: Yes, I had a letterer.
GROTH: Why didn’t you hire five more artists and crank up production?
KIRBY: I didn’t think that way. We had artists who inked for us and who lettered for us, but I worked on the stories myself.
GROTH: The business part of Simon and Kirby had been Simon?
KIRBY: Yes, Joe was the business side.
GROTH: Were you a legal partnership?
KIRBY: Yes, we were a legitimate partnership.
GROTH: Speaking about the period before World War II when you were working in comics, did you pal around with other artists? What was the social environment like?
KIRBY: We palled around. I knew Mort Meskin very well. All the artists knew each other. I was social with Joe [Simon] of course. We were very close.
GROTH: Were you all obsessed with comics?
KIRBY: Yes, we were obsessed with comics. I remember when I met Roz we went out with Joe and his girlfriend. We were taking them to Times Square and, the crazy thing about it was that there was trouble in the air, and yet the young people didn’t give a damn. If you saw Brighton Beach Memoirs you may have seen the houses. They were two story houses. I saw Roz, and I scared away about five guys.
GROTH: Was that around 1940 when you met?
ROZ KIRBY: When I met Jack, he asked me if I wanted to go to his room and see his etchings, and I did, but imagine my surprise when he really did show me etchings! [Laughter.]
KIRBY: Let’s face it, I was rather naive.
GROTH: In romance and business. [Laughter.]
KIRBY: No, I wasn’t naive in romance. [Laughter.] My character never changed. She had about five boyfriends, and one was a piano player, and I stood behind him and said, “It would be terrible if the piano lid closed on your fingers. That would be painful wouldn’t it?” I said, “You belong in Hollywood out West, you play too well.” And he took the hint.
GROTH: You were in Brooklyn at this time?
GROTH: When did you move from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn?
KIRBY: I was beginning to make money, Brooklyn was great. Brighton Beach was great.
GROTH: Was the Simon and Kirby studio in Manhattan?
KIRBY: Yes, it was in Tudor City.
GROTH: Up to this point what was your social life like?
KIRBY: We’d go to theaters. We’d see movies. We saw Sammy Kay.
GROTH: Were you a real fan of big band music?
KIRBY: No, not really. But I felt that was the thing to do. I took her horseback riding — a thing I’d never done in my life. I wanted to prove to her that I had a lot of class. I was very sincere. I wanted Rosaline, and I was going to do anything to make her my permanent babe. I brought riding boots and went horseback riding, and I almost fell off a horse.
ROZ KIRBY: He got these horses that were slow…
KIRBY: We got some very bad horses. [Laughter.] I never went riding again. I was terrible at it.
GROTH: Did you go dancing?
KIRBY: Yeah, we danced pretty well. We were average.
ROZ KIRBY: Then he was drafted.
GROTH: Had you been out of the New York area before the war?
KIRBY: I was down in Georgia for basic training. I met real Southerners. I met Texans.
GROTH: That must have been exciting.
KIRBY: It was exciting for me.
GROTH: You were drafted in ’43—
KIRBY: I came home in ’44. I was drafted in the late autumn of ’43. I trained in Georgia and there was one pig walking in the middle of the road.
GROTH: You were in the Army. right?
KIRBY: I was in the combat infantry. I went to Liverpool first. Then they shipped us to Southampton, which is the port of embarkation for Normandy. I got to Normandy 10 days after the invasion. All the guys on that landing were still laying there.
GROTH: Did you arrive on one of those landing crafts?
KIRBY: Yes. I arrived on an LST. When I got there, they were laying in heaps.
GROTH: What beach did you land on?
GROTH: Did you think you’d be drafted?
KIRBY: I figured I would, but I didn’t know when. I was a married man. That’s why I didn’t get drafted earlier. The crazy part about it was I got drafted at 480 Lexington Ave — that’s where DC was.
GROTH: [Laughter.] I guess you could say that you were drafted twice. How did you take Army life?
KIRBY: I didn’t like Army life. I didn’t like taking orders. I didn’t like discipline. I didn’t like being yelled at. You’d get 10 years for punching a sergeant so I couldn’t punch a sergeant.
GROTH: But you thought about it.
KIRBY: No, I kept my temper. By the time I saw the Germans, I can tell ya’, boy, I was fairly happy. I let it all loose.
GROTH: You came back to the U.S. before the war ended?
KIRBY: I came home from the hospital. I had trench foot— I slept out in the snow for six months and if you sleep out in the snow that long… It was cold mud, cold snow, cold wind… It was cold. So my legs became like elephant legs and there were guys in the ambulance whose legs turned black. My legs were a deep purple. The guys in the ambulance whose legs turned black, they fell off. I had purple legs? I wondered how they were going to cure purple legs! I was sore as hell. I was miserable, I was miserable. I was the most dangerous guy alive I think. And Murray Boltinoff walks into my hospital room with Mort Weisinger — they were editors from DC. I was in Paris at that time. My legs were a real nice blue. I said, “What are you guys doing here?” They said, “Come on outside Jackie, you’ll see Paris” — they didn’t know what was wrong with me. They were having a great time in Paris. “You ought to see the broads here, they’re great!” And I looked at these guys and called them every name in the book. They were so scared they got out of my room. I’m talking back to editors — and I’m an artist!
GROTH: Was this in England or France?
KIRBY: This was in England. We were all headed home. I got to a tug, a hospital tug, that rocked back and forth across the entire ocean. I was so sea sick…it took us nine days— the Queen Mary took them in two or three. They brought me the best meals I ever saw. Those hospital people treated us wonderfully. They brought me meals I hadn’t seen for it seemed like years and I couldn’t eat them. There was another frustration.
GROTH: You just showed me a pencil story you drew in the early ’80s that was the only strictly autobiographical story I have ever known you to do. Why did you draw that and why had you never done an autobiographical story before?
KIRBY: This is an experiment for me to test my storytelling abilities. At that time I told what I knew. To be frank with you, I’ve never told a lie to anybody. And what I’ve drawn was always the truth. It might be a very, very fantastic situation. This might be a repeat of what I might have told you before, but I never lie. The situation, even as far out as I can make it, will always have that…
GROTH: Core of truth?
KIRBY: Yes. It will have the sound of truth or the sight of truth. And the characters will always act according to what they are and what they would really do in real life.
ROZ KIRBY: He wants to know why you never did a story about yourself until 1984.
KIRBY: I don’t think anybody would have believed it. So many things have happened to me that they’d say it all couldn’t have happened to one person. Who would think that I would be walking through French towns or meeting with the SS or French farmers? Who ever thought that I’d be going up to the Bronx? Who ever thought that I’d be going to Brooklyn — I went to Brooklyn and met Roz. That’s where I met my wife. Let me say this: most of the guys who lived on the East Side stayed there. It became part of them. But for some reason that I can’t understand, I hated the East Side, I hated being poor.
I hated to fight all the time just to enjoy my day. Fighting wasn’t the kind of thing that I enjoyed, but I grew to enjoy it because I did it so long. In the Army when we had judo classes, out of the class of 27 just me and another guy graduated. Yes, I grew to enjoy it because I knew I could do it well. I tried to do everything well.
GROTH: One of the things that I was so impressed with in that story was your ability to convey the commonplace. The streets were grubby — you could almost feel the dirt and smell the garbage — more so in that story than in your super-hero work. Did you feel that you could portray a more realistic city in that autobiographical story?
KIRBY: Yes, I could. I would draw that city exactly as it was. I remember it exactly as it was, brick by brick: the garbage in the street and the things floating down to the sewer; the people sitting around a lamp post late at night conversing in their own languages. There would be grandmothers, there would be mothers with ‘kerchiefs on them and shawls and cheap dresses. There might be a few old men, grandfatherly types. Your father was always playing cards somewhere in some building with a group of men his age. But he would never join your mother sitting around with the neighbors. Every father was his own man. He did what he wanted. If your mother went shopping, your father never went with her. He was away working. I think fathers got used to the way of life where they associated with other men who worked in the factories and when they came home that’s the kind of surrounding they felt familiar with.
GROTH: Now when you were drawing superheroes like Captain America and The Fantastic Four, did you feel that you couldn’t put that kind of living detail in the type of stories you were telling? Could you not concentrate on character as you did in that autobiographical story?
KIRBY: There was no time to do it. I had to work fast. I would draw three pages a day, maybe more. I would have to vary the panels, balance the page. I took care of everything on that page — the expressions of the characters, the motivation of the characters — it all ran through my mind. I wrote my own stories. Nobody ever wrote a story for me. I told in every story what was really inside my gut, and it came out that way. My stories began to get noticed because the average reader could associate with them.
GROTH: How did you feel about other people inking your work? Would you have preferred to ink yourself, or did you not care after it was penciled?
KIRBY: No, I didn’t care. The technical side of it never bothered me. In fact, some of the inkers had a variety of styles, and it kind of pleased me to see my work done in various ink styles. The people who worked in comics were terrific guys. I had a good association with them, and I enjoyed comics for that very reason.
GROTH: Let me take up where I left off, around 1945 when you got back from the war. I believe you renewed your partnership with Joe Simon.
KIRBY: I renewed my partnership with Joe Simon, but Joe didn’t want to do comics any more. That period is hazy to me.
GROTH: Well, around 1945 I think you did Boys Ranch. Did you do the romance books with Joe Simon?
KIRBY: Yes. We created the romance field.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you came about creating the boy’s genre, Boy Commandos, Boys Ranch?
KIRBY: Essentially, they were inside me. The gang business never leaves you. It was either a gang or a club. In drawing people by the bunches I would get a variety of people. A lot of the other cartoonists were concentrating on one particular person and making him acceptable to the public whereas I would diversify and do groups.
GROTH: Did someone ask you to do that?
KIRBY: No, nobody ever asked me to do anything. Nobody knew what to do. When comics were brand new, nobody knew what kind of comics to make. So you were mostly on your own.
GROTH: I think you did Boys Ranch — I forget the publisher you did that for — but did you conceptualize it and then offer it to a publisher?
ROZ KIRBY: Joe did that.
KIRBY: Yeah. Her memory is sometimes better than mine.
GROTH: Did you write Boys Ranch as well?
KIRBY: Yes. I wrote Boys Ranch. I always wrote my strips.
GROTH: How did you collaborate with Joe Simon? What did you do and what did he do?
KIRBY: Joe did a lot of the business. Had I stayed at Joe’s side all the time while Joe operated we’d have never gotten any pages done. We got an office in Tudor City — I worked in the office with a letterer, Howard Ferguson. When Howard passed away there was another letterer to replace him. Joe did a lot of inking, and he worked when he could, but business had to be done with the publisher. Somebody had to be a bridge to the publisher. Joe is an impressive guy, and he felt that this was his function, and that’s how he became good friends with Artie and Martin Goodman. We collaborated well. Joe and I got along very well. It was very, very strange for people so different physically to collaborate so closely. Joe is 6’ 1”, a big guy and quite different than I am. But Joe’s deal was really commercial art. That’s the field he came from. Joe was a college man. He’s got a fine mind. Of course, after we came back after the war Joe gravitated to commercial art. He never went back to comics.