“I’m Gonna Open Sealed Door to Negative Zone!”

Thanks to several readers for calling my attention to five Kirby pencil photostats from Fantastic Four # 61 (Apr 1967) that were recently sold at the Heritage Auction website. Every one of these FF # 61 pages have a lot of interesting things to discuss, especially the page where Lee had John Romita add Peter Parker and Mary Jane to Jack’s story/art, but since I don’t want to infringe on Marvel’s copyright of the material we’ll only look at two pages. Let’s dive right in. Here’s a full scan of both pages back to back. Large-size photostats of Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four #61, penciled pages 18 and 19 (Marvel, 1967).



I’m going to show the individual panels again later in the column next to the published artwork, but I’d like to do a little group participation experiment with you first. Let’s go ahead and look at an enlarged scan of each Kirby penciled panel one-by-one in sequence (I broke one horizontal panel in half so each image has the same size). When Stan Lee received this entire 20-page story (plus the cover) this is how the art would have looked to him before he added text to Jack’s story – first Stan would read Jack’s entire book (looking at Jack’s art and referring to Jack’s directions in the margins to get the gist of the entire book) then in the next phase Lee would go back and add his own text to Kirby's story. You can see when these photostats were made Lee had already completed that phase of the process – notice where Lee added empty word balloons. The letterer would have worked off a Lee type-written script and filled in those spots.

I encourage you to look at Jack’s artwork and read Jack’s notes for yourself; think about how you would add text to this imagery if you were the “Guest Editor of the Week” when this book was published in 1967. Or better yet, imagine Marvel is reprinting this material in 2014 and you won a contest and have been selected to add the captions to the story for a nice pile of money. Reflect on how long it takes you to come up with the captions for each panel, and you can compare your own ideas to Lee’s text later.


Okay, let’s compare those individual Kirby pencil images to the published artwork inked by the legendary Joe Sinnott. I’m going to describe the image first since that is what Jack did first -- Kirby added his directions in the margins for Lee after the visuals were completed.

Fantastic Four # 61, page 17, panel 1



Kirby image: the Sandman is being bombarded by a barrage of the Human Torch’s flame. Sandman is knocked backwards.

There is a prodigious amount of Kirby crackle in this frame, and a lot more throughout the entire sequence (some comics historians refer to the effect as “Kirby krackle”).  Jack started using that effect a lot during this period, and as you can see Sinnott’s supreme craftsmanship and specifically Joe’s decision to delineate much of the Kirby crackle with perfect circles makes the effect remarkably dynamic. Notice the wonderful contrast of this image – an almost equal mix of dark and light.

Jack’s directions for Stan Lee: “Sandman dodges but can’t for long -- he press button on belt."

Lee’s text: mirrors Jack’s directions. The Sandman speaking out loud says, “Maybe I can’t dodge your firey attack…” and Lee has the Sandman verbally express that he is pressing a button on his costume.

Lee idea: You can see where Lee added the sound effect “click!” on the penciled image. The sound effects are Lee contributions.

Fantastic Four # 61, page 17, panel 2


Kirby image: the Sandman is encased in a frozen cocoon.

Terrific line variety: the pencilwork on the body representing what looks like snow; thin lines representing the swirling clouds of smoke; scratchy blotches symbolize sizzling power pouring off the Sandman; speed lines shoot off in all directions. A bit of this energy is lost in the inking phase, especially the directionality of the lines since Sinnott inks the energy in all black. In the bottom of the image there is a perfect example of how Joe Sinnott changes what I’ll call Kirby splotches into Kirby crackle – in the pencil phase there are only a few circles and rough patches, after the inking phase there are hundreds of circles and sketchy areas are in all-black.

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “Chemicals cause him to freeze – sand mixed with liquid nitrogen – when flame hits it – it gives off poison vapors.”

Lee’s text: once again mirrors Jack’s directions. The Sandman says his costume is releasing “liquid nitrogen” and that when flame is mixed with his “sandy molecules” this will cause him to “freeze” releasing “poisonous vapors.” There are six Kirby concepts there: (1) chemicals are released by Sandman’s costume, (2) resulting in freezing, (3) then when chemicals are mixed with sand, (4) mixed with liquid nitrogen, (5) and when hit by flame, (6) they release poison vapor. “Kirby physics,” and all six of these story elements made it into Lee’s caption.

Lee idea: Lee adds in the first caption that Sandman’s Frightful Four cohort the Wizard added that particular gadget to the costume as a perfect means to stop the Torch. Relatively minor revelation since Sandman had mentioned the Wizard’s connection to the costume in page 9 of the story, but this is an example of Lee possibly adding a new story element to Jack’s story (unless Kirby had already said the Wizard designed certain elements of the costume in an earlier margin note we don’t access to). Mercifully, Lee doesn't add a sound effect to this panel.

And how wonderfully creative is that whole concept of the chemicals and flame, mixed with sand and liquid nitrogen, freezing Sandman, and releasing the poison gas that blasts the FF. This is the type of thing that made Jack’s 60s comics so much fun – every single panel has a new surprise. Jack’s ideas are unpredictable, innovative, at times totally unconventional, and even wacky. Kirby comics in the 60s were a roller coaster ride through a fun house. And they still are: as I’m working on this article breaking down only two pages of Kirby art, I’m struck by how these pages are jam-packed with ideas. There was a reason the Marvel comics line took off like a rocket when Jack came onboard in the 1960s. And if wasn’t Forbush Man.

Fantastic Four # 61, page 17, panel 3


Kirby image: we cut to Reed and Johnny getting slammed by the poison gas released by the Sandman’s costume. Both of them clutch their throats, chocking, gasping for air. Jack’s decision to use parallel lines to silhouette the figures and symbolize the inescapable, smothering gas is very effective -- another example of clever line variety to visually express a story element.

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “Johnny and Reed overcome / Reed must save them or die.”

Lee’s text: This is our first example of what I call “Lee STO” -- "Lee Stating the Obvious." The Torch says his flame is out and he can’t breathe, which is obvious – the caption is a mirror reflection of the image. And I don’t mean “Lee STO” to be an offensive term (not like “STD” or something), I could call it “Comics STO” because a large amount of text from 60s comics reiterates what is in the image, but Lee in particular is a comic book writer who tended to state the obvious a lot on Kirby’s work, And you could argue he did that because it works -- that way the text doesn’t interfere with the momentum of the images all working together to drive the story forward.

In Reed’s word balloon you have more comics STO dialogue: Sandman “isn’t affected” by the poison gas (I would hope not, poisoning himself would be a pretty dumb move) and they have “…to do something or -- it’s over!” (they are being drenched in poison gas, obviously they have to do something). In my opinion most comics STO dialogue and STO captions are there to fill space; it’s there to make readers linger on a comic book page for a few minutes so they feel like they got their money’s worth. In this type of STO dialogue we don’t learn anything about character and it doesn’t necessarily further the story, but STO dialogue does keep things going without confusing the reader or distracting them from Jack’s imagery, and in that sense Lee does his job.

Fantastic Four # 61, page 17, panel 4


Kirby image: Johnny is overcome by the poison gas and collapsing. Reed struggles to turn a giant lock that will open a massive metal door. Notice how Jack uses speed lines that start on the left side of the image and radiate to the right upwards and downwards (this effect is lost a bit in the inking phase), drawing your eye towards the door -- therein lies salvation (if only temporarily). The Torch is falling down and Reed reaching up along with those speed lines direct the eye towards that gateway to the negative zone, first introduced in Fantastic Four # 51 (Jun 1966), and as a reader once you turn the page, it’s as if you’ve opened the door yourself…

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “He yells grab something Johnny – hold on fast – I’m gonna open sealed door to negative zone.”

Lee’s text mirrors Jack’s directions: Reed says he's "got to open the door to the negative zone," and he tells Johnny to “grab one of the pipes nearby.”

Lee idea: Reed addresses Sue who is out of the frame. Lee adds another new facet to that panel: he has the Torch say, “But -- you always warned us -- told us -- never to open it!” Although a relatively minor plot point, that is a new addition to Jack’s story. So as you see Lee does add little new bits and pieces to Jack’s story/art. I’ve described this in the past as Lee adding a few ornaments to a Kirby Christmas tree that has already been almost completely decorated.

Fantastic Four # 62, page 18, panel 1



Kirby image: the Torch is caught in a vortex. What I call “Kirby debris” is flying all over the room, and it’s being sucked towards the negative zone. Terrific composition: notice how the debris is evenly spaced all around the Torch, great example of "Kirby controlled chaos." Also notice how Lee tries to position the balloons in a way that doesn’t cover up too much of Jack’s art.

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “Suddenly green light fills room – a roaring gale draws gas – and everything else in room toward light.”

I love Jack’s “roaring gale,” line -- that would have been a nice addition to a caption for this image. The idea of the green light is also a nice addition to the sequence, it creates the feeling of transition into a new realm.

Unfortunately I have a hard time reading Lee’s handwritten text in the pencil phase that you can see under Jack's directions. If there are any Stan Lee historians out there, if you can translate Stan’s first note to Sol Brodsky, I’m sure we’d all appreciate it. I can read the second note where Lee wrote “Sol copy,” in the circle but the rest of that is indecipherable to me.

Addendum: Thanks to a reader for this translation of Lee's note: “Stan G Green cast to all this." The reader added, "Stan Goldberg was colouring a lot of Marvel titles at the time, so it might be addressed to him."

Lee adds a lot of text to the panel in the lettering phase. Which is a shame -- it diminishes the impact of Jack’s composition by filling up about a fifth of the image with that long caption box. Covering the Torch's hand was unnecessary, Lee could have easily cut a sentence out of that box, especially the first two lines. But I suppose it was necessary to let the reader know what direction the energy is moving in. Again, Lee’s text mirrors Jack’s directions: Lee mentions the green light (which the colorist implements), and the fact that “the gas and everything else” are being drawn to a light source. All story elements in Jack’s notes.

Lee idea: Reed out of frame telling Sue and Johnny to grab onto something. Having Reed address Sue out-of-fame is a Lee contribution to the story not specifically in Jack's directions. Big thumbs up to Stan for not cluttering this image up with an invasive sound effect.

Fantastic Four # 62, page 18, panel 2


Kirby image: a close-up image of Johnny Storm screaming while being bombarded by hundreds of pieces of debris flying through the air. Terrific image by Kirby; the whole world flying to pieces.

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “Torch grabs a hand hold on pipe – as room is being ripped apart – debris hits him from all sides.”

It’s fun to see Kirby himself calling his famous “Kirby Debris” debris.

Lee idea: Stan’s text in the previous panel was very effective in helping to transition into this panel -- Johnny turns to his left and grabs the pipe as Reed directed. This is a perfect example of Lee “filling in the blank” so to speak. He looked at Jack’s art, saw the Human Torch character change direction and grab onto a pipe, Lee figured out a way to add dialogue to that story element reflecting the action. The first caption is STO dialogue, but I do like the “We’ve unleashed something much more dangerous than the Sandman!” line. That’s a great way to add more drama to the sequence.

One additional observation about the art: notice how Sinnott adds trademark Kirby squiggles to the left side of that pipe and to that piece of debris.


You can see a few other examples of Joe adding squiggles to Kirby pencils on these two pages, notably on the lock to the negative zone. Great example of the symbiosis between penciler and inker: Joe using elements of Jack's own unique style to add detail to the artwork. One has to wonder how much of a role Joe played in the evolution of Jack's famous squiggles. This method of depicting shiny metal is a technique many comics artists have gone on to use over the years.

Fantastic Four # 62, page 18, panel 3



Kirby image: in this image the Sandman is bathed by a heavy dose of quintessential late-60s “Kirby energy.” Again, in the pencil phase the Kirby crackle is kind of sketchy -- it’s Sinnott that gives the crackle the famous polka-dot sheen that has become a superhero comics motif used by hundreds of cartoonists over the years (especially at Marvel).


Because of Sinnott’s importance in the process, I call this symmetrical crackle “Kirby/Sinnott crackle.” Mike Royer in particular made good use of this technique in Jack’s 1970s work. Here is a Kirby Dynamics article where I discuss Kirby's "crackle" in more detail: Kirby Crackle.

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “Strange unleashed forces thunder and flash around Sandman / Reed isn’t seen.”

Lee’s text: Not a whole lot of relevant substance to the captions, but from a story perspective the Sandman does mention he made his feet like “sandy anchors” to hold himself in place. I think this is an effective addition to Jack’s story -- a clever way to fill space, which after all is Stan’s main job here: to give the readers some words to chew on which will make this a visual/textual reading experience. In these action sequences, Stan’s job is to stay out of the way of the story which is thundering ahead like a freight train in warp drive.

Fantastic Four # 62, page 18, panel 4


Kirby image: a close-up of the Sandman screaming, surrounded by cosmic crackle. The contrast makes it look like the character is on fire, consumed by energy.

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “Sandman yells with fright as the yawning unknown pulls him toward it.“

I love the line “yawning unknown.”

Lee text: relatively STO dialogue -- a typical 60s comic book character talking out loud to himself. Stan does have Sandman mention the “force is getting stronger,” but that’s pretty obvious, this whole sequence has been building and building and building. Jack is conducting a great comics symphony in this FF # 61 book, and I guess you could consider Lee, Sinnott, the letterer and colorist members of the orchestra.

Fantastic Four # 62, page 18, panel 5


Kirby image: Sandman decides it’s time to split so he leaps out the window. Glass shatters in all directions.

Great abrupt end to the battle -- the Sandman simply quits and runs away. This image reminds me of an old silent comedy film, the cowardly bad guy turns tail and heads for ze hills -- all you can see is his back and a dust trail. The action moving from left-to-right draws the reader up and away, out, and onto the next page.

Kirby’s directions for Stan Lee: “He spots only window in room – and plunges through it to escape.”

Notice it looks like Lee practiced writing “KLASH,” then “KLL” at the bottom of the page. Then if you look closely you can barely make out where Lee added the sound effect “KLLASH!” on Jack’s art. And how totally unnecessary is that sound effect; why cover up Sandman with that text? It's amazing to me how arbitrary Lee's sound effects are -- why add  a sound effect to this image but not the others? I guess we can be grateful every panel in the book doesn't have a big red "BTOOM!" covering up Jack's art.

Lee’s text: I think the addition of that long caption is unfortunate. Instead of a dramatic image of Sandman in the center of the comic book frame crashing through the entire window frame, we get lengthy Lee STO -- a totally unnecessary self-explanatory piece of text that tells us nothing we can’t infer from Jack’s illustration, mainly it disrupts Jack’s original composition. The single “The window – I made it!” caption would have made that panel far more dynamic.

It probably took Jack between 4 to 6 hours to write and illustrate these two pages (maybe more because there is a tremendous amount of detail in that art), it may have taken Stan Lee a maximum 10 minutes to add captions to that art. Try it yourself on the blank pages. I timed myself once and it took me about two minutes per page to add STO captions to a Kirby action page (talking head scenes take a bit longer).

Let’s do a report card and briefly break down who did what on these pages so it’s easy to see the whole process in one space. Before I do that, I realize there will be those who will say, “Well, maybe Lee gave Jack a plot for this story. Maybe Lee said, ‘Hey Jack, for FF # 61: have FF fight Sandman and Reed gets sucked into the negative zone,’ so Lee deserves a plot credit for each image.” The problem is that we don’t know if Lee gave Jack a “plot” for this story so all we can report on is what we do know (and I realize this is subjective, so feel free to try this at home if you disagree with my analysis).

Note: For the record, I find it highly unlikely Lee jumped up on his desk and acted out Sandman pushing a button on his new costume that released chemicals and liquid nitrogen that when mixed with sand and flame froze his body and released poison gas. Plus Jack would have had to either have a photographic memory or very good shorthand skills to follow Lee’s directions verbatim, so I will assume almost all (if not all) of the major story elements in this story originated on Jack’s drawing board.

Fantastic Four # 61 (1967), page 17, Pencils/Published Art Story Breakdown

Kirby: Sandman is hit by Torch’s flame

Kirby: Sandman hits a button on his belt

Lee: The Wizard previously gave Sandman a gizmo to defeat Torch

Kirby: Sandman's costume releases chemicals

Kirby: The chemicals cause Sandman to freeze

Kirby: The Torch blasts Sandman with more flame

Kirby: The sand is mixed with liquid nitrogen

Kirby: When hit by flame, the result is poisonous gas

Kirby: Reed and Johnny are hit by poison gas

Kirby: Gas puts out Torch's flame

Kirby: Reed and Johnny gasp for air

Lee: Reed tells Sue to hold on

Kirby: Reed tells Johnny to grab something

Kirby: Johnny is collapsing

Kirby: Reed tries to unlock portal to negative zone to escape gas

Lee: Johnny says Reed warned them never to open that door

Fantastic Four # 61 (1967), page 18, Pencils/Published Art Story Breakdown

Kirby: The portal to the negative zone is opened

Kirby: Green light fills the room

Kirby: A roaring gale sucks out poison gas

Kirby: Everything in the room is sucked towards the light

Kirby: The Torch is bombarded by debris

Lee: Reed tells Johnny to hold on

Lee: Johnny says he can't hold on

Lee: Reed tells Johnny to reach to his left

Kirby: The Torch grabs a pipe

Kirby: Debris hits the Torch from all sides

Lee: The Torch says they have unleashed something dangerous

Kirby: Strange forces thunder around Sandman

Lee: Sandman makes his feet like anchors

Kirby: Sandman yells with fright

Kirby: Sandman spots a window and jumps out

I tend to hate when people breakdown the Kirby/Lee collaboration by percentages, but here’s my conclusion: I suspect every single idea in the illustration phase came from Kirby. If Lee did tell him to have FF fight Sandman, in my opinion that’s a job assignment not a “plot.” And we can’t prove that idea came from Lee anyway. The only thing Lee really adds to these two pages is the idea the Reed is constantly telling everybody to hold onto something (as if they don’t already know to do that). Lee does add certain elements in the dialoguing phase -- for example he adds that the Wizard created the liquid nitrogen gadget, Lee added that the Sandman made his feet like anchors, and Lee added elements like the sound effects, so I’m going to give these two pages a breakdown of:

FF # 61, pages 17 and 18, Story Credit

Kirby: 95%

Lee: 5%

I know, I know, 100s of True Believer heads just exploded. Yes, I realize what I’m saying is considered blasphemous -- trust me, I have mountains of hate mail from “Your Generalissimo’s Brave Brigadiers” (as Lee now calls himself and his fans) condemning me to hell for this kind of credit breakdown. But am I wrong? Maybe Kirby: 90%, and Lee: 10% is more fair? I know most fans want a 50%/50% credit designation (which is generous towards Kirby considering Lee gives himself 100% of the credit for creating all the major 60s Marvel characters), but how on Earth does Lee deserve anything close to 50% of the credit on a story like this?

And I’m not talking about the “overall impact” Lee gave the books with his Bullpen Bulletins (where he endlessly promoted himself), his letters pages (where he endlessly promoted himself), his college lectures (where he endlessly promoted himself), and his interviews (where he endlessly promoted himself). I’m talking about giving fair and accurate credit to each man for this single story. For these two pages, in my opinion, Jack should have gotten paid 95% of Lee’s writer check, and he should have been clearly credited as a writer on this story.

If you have a problem with that 95% - 5% Kirby/Lee story credit and want to start a flame war with me -- be careful because I might have to push a button on my belt and release chemicals that when mixed with the flame, liquid nitrogen, and the sand on my skin, will freeze me and create poisonous gas which will no doubt knock you out unless you have access to a nearby negative zone. And if you disagree with my percentages, you're in good company: Stan Lee gave himself 100% of the writer's paycheck for stories like these. He also paid himself as the editor and art director. To quote the Gershwin tune, that's nice work if you can get it.

One final thing: if you agree with my story breakdown, the official scorecard would be Kirby: 23 and Stan Lee: 8. That means 23 concepts came from Kirby, 8 from Lee (and remember Lee's concepts were based on Jack's images/directions). If you want to break down the credit based on those numbers it would be Kirby 65% and Lee 35%. I'm sure many of you out there might think that is a more reasonable split because the words are important, and the writer of those words should be fairly credited and compenstated for his/her labor. The main point I want to make is that Jack got 0% of the writer credit for these stories and 0% of Lee's writer paycheck. It's only because of the existence of the margin notes that more and more comics fans are beginning to learn that Kirby played an extremely significant role in writing every single one of his 1960s stories.

That’s it for those two pages -- pretty solid examples of the Kirby/Lee working relationship. Jack gave Lee two pages featuring dramatic, exciting, innovate illustrations along with clear directions; Lee followed Jack’s directions verbatim, occasionally adding a minor new element to the story to fill space. Lee’s text tends to be generic, it states the obvious and doesn’t interfere with Jack’s story; Jack’s visuals are explosive, overflowing with living energy, and classic examples of late-1960s Kirby cosmic comic art storytelling.

It’s important to also acknowledge the incredible inking by Joe Sinnott on these pages. I know there are a few fans out there who feel Sinnott sanitized Jack’s pencils a bit, but speaking for myself, I am in awe of the perfectionism and artistic integrity Joe Sinnott brought to the table on Kirby’s Fantastic Four series (and really everything Joe has ever worked on). You can argue Jack’s pure pencils have more dynamism, but you have to admire Joe for putting 100% into embellishing Jack’s pencils. Joe does a particularly good job nailing every single pencil line, he leaves virtually nothing out and every line is carefully crafted. I think the Kirby/Sinnott Fantastic Four artwork represents a high point in the history of comics -- not the only high point, but certainly one of them, and just these two random pages capture the power Kirby and Sinnott were able to generate with a pencil and a brush. I bet if I took this comic book outside, opened it up and set it down with the interior pages facing the hood of my car, the Kirby/Sinnott energy pouring out of this story would charge my car battery. It might make the engine explode.

We’ll close off this episode of Jack Kirby: Behind the Lines with another iconic image reflecting Jack’s service to his country, and the service of all the veterans who served in the Second World War as well as all of our brave servicemen and women. This is a rare example of Jack doing a pure piece of homage. I suppose some might say Jack plagiarized the image, but I think it’s pretty iconic so given Jack’s track record for creativity I sincerely doubt Jack stole this composition because he was out of ideas. My guess is that maybe he thought this was a powerful or haunting image so he did his own version of it. Or maybe Jack just needed to beat a crushing deadline, either way, this is a classic World War II comic book cover, illustrated by Jack Kirby, based on the iconic image “High Visibility Wrap” by Joesph Hirsch, Foxhole # 1 (1954).


Here's a unique piece from the Heritage Auction website:

Foxhole # 1 Cover Progressive Color Proof Production Art (Mainline, 1954).


Description: “Color separation sheets include seven sheets with the full color cover, line art, and CMYK breakdowns, all stapled at the top in a binder from Progressive Proofs Photo Engraving company. Overall size of the entire presentation measures 10" x 14" and the outer folder has some stains, edge wear, and small tears. The color seps have some very minor stains and a margin piece out of one page. From the Joe Simon Estate.”

I wish we could see the whole package sheet by sheet -- if the owner of this material is out there, if you would consider scanning all the pages I will publish them here in a future column.

The TwoMorrows Jack Kirby Checklist says Jack penciled and inked this cover. Jack may also have added the colors.