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Jack Kirby: Behind the Lines Jack Kirby: Behind the Lines

“Who the Hell Was the Conscious and Clever Brains Behind the Marvel Phenomenon?”

Today I want to show you some rare documents unearthed by Sean Howe the author of the book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story which recently came out in paperback. In the future, I hope to discuss the segment on the 1960s at length and ask the author a few questions. In the meantime I encourage you to pick the book up and check it out. The documents we’re going to look at today are located at Sean’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story Tumblr page. There are a lot of other interesting images on the site. Here’s the first document I want to discuss:

Excerpt from Unpublished Proposal for a Book about Marvel, by Ron Whyte – Fragment One

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Sean Howe writes these are “notes about Jack Kirby, for Ron Whyte’s proposed (but never written) book about Marvel Comics.” Ron Whyte wrote some western comics for Stan Lee in the 1960s while he was a student at the Yale School for Drama. He worked on Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt. Whyte also wrote for Creepy Magazine and Eerie in the 60s. He went on to be become a playwright, a critic, he wrote for TV, and became a disability-rights activist. He passed away in 1989.

In this fragment Whyte discusses WW II and Jack’s request for a transfer so he could interview with Yank Magazine, but his lieutenant denied the request because he felt Kirby was just trying to get into Officer Training School, and he wanted to make Kirby an infantryman. According to the anecdote here, the lieutenant knew Jack drew Captain America so since Jack considered himself an illustrator, he gave him a map then told Jack to go into enemy territory — if he saw a Tiger Tank Jack was supposed to draw a cross on the map (putting his artistic skills to work). Not sure if Whyte got this anecdote from another source or from Jack, but Whyte adds, “this is a typical story of writers and artists trying to get audition with Yank.” So this could be a true story from Jack where he (and a legion of artists) did anything they could to see if they could get a job away from the front lines, or it could be the kind of military urban legend passed around by many vets piecing together their recollections of the war based on memory fragments like this very document.

Here is a self-portrait of Jack from that period scribbled on either an envelope or a piece of military issue paper, sent to his wife Rosalind, dated Oct 1944, France. The image appears in Ray Wyman’s The Art of Jack Kirby (1992). It looks like Ray cleaned the image up a bit. I would love to see a photograph of the original piece on the faded yellow paper.

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On the Whyte document in pencil at the top you can see where he wrote, “Fifth Division, commanded by General Patton, served as combat infantryman,” and at the bottom it says, “Kirby hospitalized that winter, back in USA 1944,” the 4 is crossed out, so corrected, it reads 1945.

This excerpt from Whyte’s research is a fun glimpse into the old-school way of putting together a history book — using a typewriter to make notes, and a pencil for additions and corrections. Whyte’s books and papers are in the collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. I wonder if some more of his comics research is in that archive. If any of you ever are in the area, check it out and let us know if you dig anything up.

Here’s a short excerpt from an early draft of a new Jack Kirby biography currently being written by Stan Taylor giving some of the details of Jack’s condition before returning home from the war:

On Nov. 14 the 11th joined up with the 10th Infantry in a push against a new German line of defense southwest of Metz. Jack Kirby wouldn’t be with them. The day before Jack had collapsed (probably while stringing some barb wire) and he had been sent to a field hospital with a severe case of trench foot. Immersion foot, as it is now called, is caused when the feet become wet and cold while wearing tight footwear. The affected feet become numb and turn bluish. Advanced trench foot can blister and cause open wounds, which can become infected and turn gangrene. The infection period was commonly called “jungle rot” as it could eat large portions of the foot or toes. Jack’s condition was such that he was rushed to a hospital in Paris for immediate care where the doctors at first considered amputation. Trenchfoot was the plague of World War I, but the medical profession had learned if trench foot was treated properly, complete recovery was normal, though it is marked by severe short-term pain when feeling returns. One soldier said that it became almost impossible to tolerate the pain. Luckily, Jack’s circulation began to improve. Soon he was transferred to a hospital in England. Full recuperation would take a long time and Jack prepared for coming home.

In a letter dated Nov, 22, 1944, Jack jokingly told Roz of his arrival in England: “Surprise! Am in merrie ole H’england again with my gazoola still resting ‘neath comfortable sheets and my brogans [feet] stuck daringly out in the ozone to defrost in gradual stages. Nice enough place – chow is good and attendance pleasantly given. Have certainly made the rounds since I last wrote you and am still uncertain as to the extent of this amazing situation… However, with the exception of a dull numbness in the tootsies and a rheumy drawing in the joints am still intact and functioning. Love you more’n ever. Hope you’re not worrying, Please don’t, honey. Jackson.”

Here are a couple photos of Jack in 1945 after he returned home from Europe. These are from Jack’s granddaughter Jillian Kirby’s website Kirby4heroes. Jillian’s caption for this image says: “Back from the war. Jack with Roz, friend Morris Cohen and his wife, March, 1945.”

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Jillian writes of her Grandfather next to this image: “Glad to be out of uniform and back in Brooklyn, May, 1945.”

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After the hell of WW II, I bet the streets of Brooklyn never looked so good.

Excerpt from Unpublished Proposal for a Book about Marvel, by Ron Whyte – Fragment Two

2Before I begin, I have to say I don’t know a lot about this Esquire anecdote or Whyte’s conclusions. I’m not sure who from Esquire met with the bullpen, when, or for how long. I also don’t know if Whyte is getting his information from an interview or if he is using direct quotes or making assumptions. If any of you hardcore comics experts or Kirby historians know more about this incident, please share any info you’ve got and I can add it to the article and credit you.

The line from the fragment “… and he drew only that one assignment for them,” must refer to Jack’s three-page story about the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald published in 1967, by Esquire magazine. I showed the story here at Kirby Dynamics: Jack Kirby Inspired Situationist comic?

The people at Esquire might have wanted to capture some of the “Marvel Magic” for their publication, but after talking to Lee, Kirby, Ditko, and Marie Severin, they apparently found themselves wondering: where was the magic coming from? Whyte’s comments that reportedly the Esquire people “saw through Stan like a flash” and viewed Marie Severin as possibly being the “brains” behind Marvel are revealing.

Of Kirby, Whyte writes: “Kirby scared them to death. He smoked his cigars, talked like a decent hard-hat, and had all the media sophistication of work-shoes.” According to Whyte, the people at Esquire wondered “who the hell was the conscious and clever brains behind the Marvel phenomenon?” Whyte goes on to say that since “none of these people could hold the attention of an academician or a college student in a one to one,” the conclusion of the people from Esquire was, “only the Marvel ‘phenomenon’ was real.”

Whyte also writes: “the Esquire editors dumped Stan, Jack, and Marie like poison.” Maybe the Esquire editors found themselves in an incredibly awkward situation speaking to the Marvel staff during this period. Kirby and Ditko were focused on telling their own stories, they wanted writer credit, writer compensation, and future royalties for their creations, and both were considering quitting. Ditko must have left very soon after this incident, and although Kirby held on for a few more years he also left in large part due to Lee’s refusal to share credit for the stories.

Let’s look at a few more documents from Sean Howe’s site.

A letter Written by Stan Lee to Jerry Bails (1961)

 3Lee is responding here to a letter from one of the superhero comics medium’s earliest superfans and promoters, Jerry Bails. Bails is considered by many to be the unofficial “Father of Comic Book Fandom,” he was the founding editor of Alter-Ego in 1961, and played a major role developing early comics fandom. Bails famously coined the term “panelologist” for comics fans interested in studying the comic book medium. After a long life celebrating and promoting the comics medium, Bails passed away in 2006.

Unfortunately this is not a very good scan of Lee’s letter, but I think you all should be able to read it if you copy it and enlarge it on your computer. This thing is pretty fascinating; a rare peek into what would become a multi-billion dollar empire. It’s stamped September 1, 1961 at the top, and dated by Lee as August 25, 1961, so this was written at the very genesis of the “Marvel Age.” Obviously we could pick the letter apart line-by-line, but I’m only going to discuss a few things that are Kirby-related. The first quote I want to talk about is this one:

Lee writes: “Just to correct a few inaccuracies, I’m not a ‘former’ editor of Timely – I’ve been editor and art director of that redoubtable institution for the past 21 years, and I hope to continue ad infinitum.”

This suggests to me that maybe Lee’s story about wanting to quit comics in 1961 and write a novel might not be factual. Fantastic Four # 1 (cover-dated Nov 1961) went on sale during the months of July and August of 1961. Lee’s letter about working “ad infinitum” for Marvel was written at the end of August 1961, not more than a few weeks after the publication of Fantastic Four # 1.

Lee writes: “As for the future of the F.F., we will have: costumes, a different treatment (art-wise) of the Torch. Additional new characters in months to come (Don’t be too surprised to meet Sub-Mariner again, or Captain America! Who knows? And a few more surprises… so stay with us, pal!”

Maybe Lee had Carl Burgos’ Human Torch, Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner, and Simon & Kirby’s Captain America in an early incarnation of a Marvel JLA. I wouldn’t be shocked if such a group morphed into FF — that could be why we see Sub-Mariner in the early FF books, and if he had not ended up in The Avengers Lee’s letter suggests Captain America might have been reintroduced via FF as a supporting player.

Lee writes: “Would be interested in your opinion of another new mag due to go on sale soon – Amazing Adult Fantasy. We think it’s a smash.”

I think it’s true that Lee did want to do more “adult” fare in 1961 (the average age of the Baby Boomers was around 15-years-old, so an entire generation was coming of age) but I personally don’t see it in the 1961 Marvel books—unless you consider the fact that FF was a family, and that was a new direction for heroes in comics. Kirby may have had the idea to make FF a family unit, an idea that immediately resonated with Baby Boomers living conservative middle class lives in a traditional nuclear family. Reed and Sue might be loosely based on Jack and his wife keeping the family ship chugging along; Ben and Johnny were like the Kirby kids, always engaging in good-natured joking-around and play-fighting, but in the end maintaining a strong family unit. The FF family may have been based on a real family: The Kirbys.

To be clear, I’m giving credit to Lee for wanting to make the books more adult, and I do think Lee helped create FF, I want to emphasize the fact that Jack also played a huge role in making the FF a believable family. FF may have even been Jack’s idea – Jack may have taken the four elemental characters from his 1957 Challengers of the Unknown series, made the blonde character a woman, and transformed them into an early 60s loose-knit super-family.

Lee writes: “Regarding some of the various comments concerning the F.F., we have purposely refrained from letting invisible girl (oops, sorry!) Invisible Girl walk thru walls, and from giving too much super powers to our characters, as we feel that affects like those are chiefly of appeal to the younger readers, and we are trying (perhaps vainly?) to reach a slightly older, more sophisticated group.”

I’m wondering if Jerry Bails, asked Lee “why doesn’t Invisible Girl walk through walls,” or maybe that was a Kirby idea that Lee rejected because Lee wanted to limit the FFs powers? Is preventing an invisible girl character from having the power to walk through walls “adult?” Turning invisible alone is pretty silly to begin with, so why on earth would having the ability to additionally walk through walls be any more or less believable?

Lee wanted to create a more “sophisticated” super-group, but I don’t know if reigning in Kirby’s imagination necessarily accomplished that. You get the feeling reading this letter and documents like the Lee FF # 1 synopses that Lee is constantly holding Jack back, creating unnecessary obstacles for him to overcome. For example in the FF # 1 synopses, Lee says because of the Comics Code, Human Torch can’t burn anything other than ropes (Jack rejects that idea in the art phase), Lee wonders if Sue Storm should have to strip naked to be totally invisible (Jack solves that problem using common sense), Lee wants it to be painful for Mr. Fantastic to stretch every time (Jack rejects that in the art phase), and Lee wants the Thing to “lust” after his best friend Reed Richard’s girlfriend (Jack rejects that in the art phase).

A Letter by Stan Lee to Jerry Bails (1963) Page 1

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In response to Jerry Bails’ letter, on January 9, 1963, Lee writes: “… we have a very small staff — quite unlike National Comics Group. If one of our men gets ill, or if a new mag is suddenly scheduled it throws everything haywire. We seem to exist crisis to crisis — not that we’d want it any other way!”

Many comics experts contend Martin Goodman was the real boss at Marvel so Goodman may have been forcing Stan to work with a shoe-string budget, but I want to add that unless we have hard evidence I’m unaware of, we can never know for sure whether Goodman forced Lee to work under a specific budget, or if Lee kept his budgets low to impress Goodman (or if it was a combination of both).

Lee writes: “As for Jack starting strips then turning ‘em over to less talented artists — well, it’s not quite that simple. The poor guy only has two hands and can only draw with one! I like to have him start as may strips as possible, to get them off on the right foot — but he cannot physically keep ‘em all up — in fact, I sometimes wonder how he does as much as he does do. At present he will concentrate on FF and our new war mag, Sgt. Fury — as well as pinch-hitting for other features if and when needed. And he does almost all our covers, of course.”

Pretty clear statement. Kirby and Lee would have a fast story meeting (where apparently Lee emphasized that he wanted all the new Kirby superheroes to have limited powers because he felt that makes them “adult” and “sophisticated”). Kirby had to go home and get down to the nuts-and-bolts business of writing the origin story with visuals. For many books (like The Hulk, The AvengersNick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, and X-Men) Kirby worked on the first several stories then Lee passed the properties off to a new artist. Jack even gave those artists breakdowns in some cases with margin notes to help them with the transition and teach them “The Marvel House Style.” Then Jack even did most of the covers for the whole line. If you consider comics a visual medium, Jack Kirby was the face of Marvel comics in the early 1960s.

It would appear that in his letter to Lee, Jerry Bails may have said the other artists at Marvel were “less talented” than Kirby. Surprising that Lee did not defend them.

A Letter Written by Stan Lee to Jerry Bails (1963) Page 2

5Throughout the entire letter notice Lee emphasizes the fact that they are all under crushing deadline pressure. I think that’s true and I’m sure it was hard work, but I bet making comics sure beat working in a coal mine. Joe Sinnott was actually a real coal miner at one point in his life.

In the first paragraph on page two discussing Dr. Strange, I think it’s notable that Lee makes it very clear that Ditko created the character, and Stan seems apprehensive. Lee writes: “the first story is nothing great but perhaps we can make something of him.”

Go ahead and read that second paragraph in page two of the letter. It’s a wonderful example of how much Lee genuinely treasured working on FF, and how he was sincerely passionate about the project. I’ve often said that I think the biggest Jack Kirby fan on the planet from 1960 – 1970 was Stan Lee, and I think that paragraph proves I’m right.

As you can see, Lee admits there were never any “scripts.” Lee would type up what he calls a plot, then Lee and Kirby would discuss the plot (notice Lee doesn’t physically hand Jack a piece of paper with a plot, they discuss Lee’s ideas verbally), then Jack draws the story based on the “hasty story conference.” Remember, Jack would pitch ideas during these jam sessions as well, and when Jack actually wrote the story with visuals and margin notes panel-by-panel he’d move in all sorts of different directions. Lee’s “plot” and the “hasty story conference” were springboards for Kirby to work from. In my opinion, that phase should be called the job assignment.

Lee writes: “with his drawings in front of me I write the captions and dialogue, usually right on the original artwork.” Then adds “it’s not a system I’d advise anyone else to try.” If that “system” was something so challenging, I wonder why Lee didn’t let Jack add the captions to his own story?

In the third paragraph, it’s refreshing to see Lee say “we” when talking about creating Ant-Man and the Wasp, and “we” when discussing writing Thor — Kirby was playing a huge role in the character creation process and the storywriting process at Marvel. Interesting that Lee has no idea where Thor is going other than, “I think we’ll be playing up life in Asgard more and more as the issues go by.”

For comics historians, this letter and any bits-and-pieces of 1960s Marvel correspondences we can find are a rare glimpse at what really took place at Marvel in the 1960s. These source documents are a tiny peep-hole that reveal the reality behind what Stan Lee called “The Bullpen” and the “Marvel Method.” If Marvel kept a significant amount of paperwork from that period in their files, one can only imagine how much more we could learn about the Kirby/Lee working relationship if we had access to the material; especially the rumored “Kirby File” Marvel may have put together in the 1980s when there were reports Jack might fight them in court. Maybe once the Disney-Megacorporation has used their iron fist to mercilessly crush all opposition and legally establish that they 100% own everything Jack ever did in the ’60s forever, for all time, and for eternity, maybe they will finally honor Kirby’s contribution to their empire and share those documents with us. Probably for a fee.

Every month I end this column highlighting Jack’s service to his country, reflecting on all our verterans, specifically our World War II veterans. There are tons of Kirby images I can show, but let’s stick with the Foxhole covers, it’s fun to have an excuse to look at them again. Certainly an honor to share them with you here. Here is a beautiful scan of the cover for Foxhole #2 (Charlton, 1954) from the Heritage Auctions website, I hope I can be forgiven for removing their logo from the bottom of the scan.

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I love the “Gillman’s Drug Store” stamp on the cover, it looks like it says, “Open every day until 12 o’clock and all day Sunday.” The stamp probably hurts the book’s monetary value, but I think it makes it even more of a quintessential piece of Americana.

Image penciled and inked by Jack Kirby. Simple yet powerful artwork. Brutal — the bayonet right in the enemy soldier’s face, about to stab him through his skull. The main figure is Jack’s archetypal-everyman American soldier. If Disney-Marvel bought this art today and stamped Nick Fury and his Howling Commandoes on it, people would think this was another solo Smilin’ Stan Lee creation on the cover of a Stan “The Man” Lee story.

Notice in the background, in red, one soldier is fighting with a knife and he’s about to get his brains bashed in by the butt of a rifle. No doubt this was Kirby giving you a frozen moment in time emphasizing the ferocity of hand-to-hand combat. I almost feel like I see a bit of a Milton Canniff influence in those inks (although by this point Jack was an accomplished inker with his own style) and the piece reminds me a lot of the direction Frank Miller went in as he evolved as an inker. The inks are loose, electric. Nice contrast in the shading, great use of a brush to create line variety delineating the dirt in the foxhole.

I can’t prove it, but after discussing Jack’s color palette with several Kirby historians over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jack colored this cover as well. Here is a Kirby color palette put together by Steven Brower in 2010.

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The blood red outline around the Foxhole logo makes that white text pop off the page. The image itself: a purple background, green figures, grey background figure, blood red background. Definitely an untraditional combination you probably never saw in a Hollywood war movie. The dark green shadows especially on the enemy soldier’s back is very effective. Notice how there is a yellow-green tone on the walls of the foxhole, and a lighter-green on the enemy soldier and the upper leg of the GI — this creates the illusion that there is a flash of light and the American soldier is emerging from the darkness.

What Kirby is able to accomplish with a few figures and a few colors is powerful. It’s a classic piece of World War II art illustrated by a WW II vet who knew what combat looked like on the battlefield from first-hand experience


8 Responses to “Who the Hell Was the Conscious and Clever Brains Behind the Marvel Phenomenon?”

  1. R. Fiore says:

    What’s great about this is that you know there isn’t going to be a long, contentious comments thread.

  2. Kirby couldn’t draw, and Stan created everything, and why didn’t anyone interview Jim Shooter about any of this? Art comics suck.

  3. tor says:

    Could someone explain the significance of Kirby’s colour palette to me? Were these the only colours he used for front covers or something? & ifso, was this an aesthetic choice, or a publishing limitation?

    and also; this line from the article: “the piece reminds me a lot of the direction Frank Miller went in..” is an astute observation! it almost looks like something from sin city! great to see how influential this Kirby character was

  4. tor: (Nov 10, 2013) “Could someone explain the significance of Kirby’s colour palette to me? Were these the only colours he used for front covers or something? & ifso, was this an aesthetic choice, or a publishing limitation?”

    Steven Brower talks about his Kirby color pallette here:

    http://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/effect/2010/10/21/colorpalette/

    Steven Brower: “I only used as a guide known Kirby colored personal and presentation pieces. Kirby uses a pretty limited color palate, comprised mostly of secondary and some tertiary colors. The absence of primary colors makes me wonder if his approach wasn’t a reaction to the limitations of the CMYK comic book printing, where so many primaries were used. I started with scanned art and then compared it to printed pieces. There would be a range within a tone, and I picked the middle hue. I was able to boil it all down to 36 colors, although if pushed I think it could be reduced further.”

    • Here’s another article on the subject:

      Kirby Kolor, A Kirby Myth

      http://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/simonandkirby/archives/1199

      As you can see, the author disagrees with the attribution of what he calls “Kirby Kolor.”

      Mendryk states that the “Kirby Kolor” concept is “a belief, shared by a surprising number of experts, that they can identify those stories and covers where Jack Kirby was the colorist. To date none of these experts have ever offered anything to back up their claims. The only justification advanced was the numerous works by Kirby they had studied. The only explanation as to what they looked for was vague talk of some colors such as salmon that Jack is said to have preferred.”

      I do wish Mendryk had listed some of the “experts” who never offered anything to back up their claims, but much of the conversation about what I’ll call “Jack Kirby Coloring” may have been via online chat forums so therefore unpublished.

      I respect Harry’s opinion on this, it’s just too bad he didn’t show specific examples of comics historians giving the opinions he seems to be refuting.

  5. geoff klein says:

    kudos to stan for caring what the maker of a fanzine thought. at least at the early stages of marvel, stand did care a lot about what the fanbase wanted

    its pretty clear from these letters that stan really didnt map out much, in regards to where a series was going…and that the marvel method started from the outset…not when the work got to be too much for stan to carry

    its also interesting to note, that here, stan feels that kirby is a better artist then the rest the pen…something he would do a 180 on in later interviews

    in regards to the ff…and maybe i have no clue what im talking about…but it seems that kirby was heavily influenced by doc savage

    and while there is the family dynamic, there is also the autobiographical aspect….ben grimm is jack kirby

    kirby wasnt religious, but he was a jew, and everything about the thing reflects the experience of jews in america

    he never fits in…no matter what good he does for the world, he is never fully accepted…he is a monster

    just my two cents

  6. R. Maheras says:

    Why didn’t Stan defend Bails’ apparent assertion “that other artists at Marvel were ‘less talented’ than Kirby?”

    Stan’s candid response came at a time when the fan press was in its infancy, and the regular press pretty much was still ignoring comic books. So despite his two decades as an editor, Lee had been pretty much cloistered up to that point, with little experience with the media. He had not yet learned to parse his words carefully so they wouldn’t come back and bite him in the ass, and he had not yet fully developed his “rah, rah” the Marvel Bullpen is the greatest shtick.

    The fact that Lee wrote such a detailed letter to Bails is indicative of the respect Lee had for this college professor who loved comics.

    The fact is, Bails wasn’t alone in his assessment of the Bullpen artists. Many of us racked and stacked the artists, quality-wise, oblivious that these artists were human beings with feelings. But sports fans, literary fans, fine art fans, or fans of whatever, were no different. They racked and stacked their favorites the same way.

    But that candid critical scrutiny was a fairly new and unusual thing for comics creators in the early 1960s. For more than two decades they created stuff in a vacuum, with little or no feedback from the outside world regarding their work. They got assignments from their editor, created stories or artwork, and collected their paycheck. For example, as I recall, it wasn’t until Barks had retired that he found out there were fans of his artwork. Prior to that, the only motivation he had regarding his creativity was either internal, or in the form of recurring gigs with his editor.

    Different times, to be sure.

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