Richard Kyle in Retrospect

I became fascinated with Richard Kyle sometime in the mid-2000s because of his writing and his own publication, Graphic Story World (later called Wonderworld), and because it was clear that he was both prescient in his vision of the medium and keenly aware of the nooks and crannies of its history. Even more unusual, he had a novelist’s approach to that history and its personalities. He always managed to suss out the humanity of the creators and publishers he was discussing – an approach that only a few writers have really grasped, Tom De Haven and Gerard Jones perhaps first among them. This began with his very first contribution to a fanzine: “The Education of Victor Fox” for Dick Lupoff’s Xero #8, 1962 (and recently reprinted in Alter Ego, vol. 3, number 101, May 2011).  “The Education…” looked at the early 1940s output of Fox Publications and its infamous proprietor Victor Fox, through an interpretive reading of the comics, from cover to story to advertisements. In 1964 he wrote "The Future of the Comics" in which he coined the term "graphic novel" (he would later publish the first self-identified graphic novel,  Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger). Kyle later had a column, Graphic Story Review, in Bill Spicer’s brilliant Graphic Story Magazine and contributed other texts, including co-authoring the wild, sprawling interview with Will Gould in issue 11, 1970. That interview, which he and I spoke about below, was one of the very first of its kind for comics. Gary Groth summed up the impact of Kyle and GSM on this very site:

Kyle wrote a column called “Graphic Story Review” in GSM, and in 1971 began publishing a newsletter devoted to news and critical commentary of comics called Graphic Story World, which he somewhat inexplicably re-titled Wonderworld in 1973. This was a miraculous extension of Graphic Story Magazine (which had by then either ceased publication altogether or drastically slowed down its periodicity), full of literate reviews, news, essays, and discussions. It was also the first time a fan magazine devoted energy and space to covering international comics. Here was a handful of serious comics fans who focused on the better mainstream comics, underground comix, European (and even Japanese) comics, newspaper strips (past and, occasionally, present) — and saw the potential of a medium whose potential had barely been scratched. 

Kyle’s Graphic Story World was fascinatingly catholic in its state. For example, in issue 5, 1972, and he has Jean Pierre Dionnet on Moebius, John Benson interviewing Roger Brown, and an article on Bill Everett. In just a single issue. Other issues covered EC conventions, the underground (via a regular column by Clay Geerdes), Alex Toth, and of course Jack Kirby, whose pre-inked comic book pages Kyle published, again, way ahead of the pack. John Benson had a regular column; Russ Manning wrote an appreciation of Dell Comics; Geerdes profiled Richard Corben; and so on, all before mid-decade. 

In 1972, Kyle partnered with a SF, fantasy and animation fan named Fred Patten to open the Graphic Story Bookshop in Long Beach, California. Patten immediately began importing manga (perhaps the first retailer to do so?) as well as European comics. These were advertised in Graphic Story World, and those ads provide a snapshot of what more discerning readers were excited about at the time. I remember Richard telling me that he sold Druillet books to Jack Kirby, which makes perfect sense. The store was, like the magazine, later called Wonderworld Books and finally Richard Kyle Books. Perhaps most crucially, in 1983 Richard commissioned Kirby to create an autobiographical comic. It wasn't published until 1990, when Kyle briefly edited the revived Argosy magazine. Beyond all of this, Richard also published pulp and crime novels under a name that he wouldn’t reveal to me, and which, as far as I know, has never been fully explained. 

So, I went to see him one afternoon in the Spring of 2010 and we chatted mostly about Jack Kirby, a bit about his life, but not nearly enough. And then… well, and then time passed. I had imagined this interview to maybe be a short book about looking at comics through the eyes of peripheral players. I also saw something of myself and my friends in him, especially back in those days of Comics Comics and our informal attempts to rewrite the critical and historical canon. I loved his irreverence and his lack of interest in high/low distinctions. He embodied another way to look at the great genre classics of comics, basically, and a way that I think could still be explored -- earnest examination with an awareness of the medium and genre's limitations.

But I got distracted by other projects and just never could figure out what to do. Well, it’s a bit late now. Richard Kyle died last year at the age of 86. I don’t think he had any children, and he was certainly unmarried when we met, so I can’t say what became of his papers. Jamie Coville interviewed him as well, and that piece some more information on his family. Moreover, Nick Caputo has a thorough issue-by-issue rundown on Graphic Story World.

I’ve compiled the best bits of the interview below, with my own notes interspersed, as it was a very digressive conversation. I came back to this manuscript because I still think that the way he talks about comics is relevant and refreshing, and that his thoughts on Kirby, Caniff, et al, are unusual, valuable and worth considering. So, here we go...

[The interview began with Red Barry and Will Gould, since Kyle and Bill Spicer's dedicated issue of Graphics Story Magazine still fascinates me because of its level of dedication to something forgotten, the interviewers’ willingness to let Gould just talk extemporaneously, and the dogged research that went into producing something that makes the material really live.

RICHARD KYLE: I just loved Red Barry as a kid, just loved it. And we were living in San Diego in 1938 or ’39.

DAN NADEL: Your family?

Yeah, and Red Barry came to an end in the first newspapers at that time. We didn’t ordinarily buy the newspaper, but my mother would buy the Sunday ones because it had a magazine section on a lot of stuff … 

Red Barry was filled full of lead by a bunch of gangsters and tossed in a ditch, or something like that, I’m not quite sure what it was. [Laughter.] Anyhow, he was pretty shaky. They saved him and everything like that; he’s out of the hospital, and he thinks he’ll take a vacation. And that was it. That was the end of it! It turned out — we found out from [Will] Gould — that it wasn’t the end of it, that the local paper just stopped carrying it. That, in fact, it ran for another couple of years, until a war came along and he was drafted. I guess he enlisted, come to think about it.

Anyway, I discovered from, what was the name of it? It was a comic book store that was up in Hollywood — one of the very earliest ones, I can’t remember the name of it — I was up there one time, and someone said something about Will Gould. So I discover — from what little this guy knew — that he lived in the Valley somewhere, well, he was listed in the phone book. So I called him up, and he was quite voluble. His conversation is a little like mine; it just jumps back and forth. Anyhow, we made arrangements, cause Bill [Spicer] was interested… because his style was a style that was more suited really to slightly later period.

Yeah, that’s true.

His very early stuff — the very first Red Barry strips, belong to sports-cartoonist stuff. But the later stuff, he was really getting into the use of the brush and all that, and he was very proud of himself with that stuff, and deservingly so. So anyway, Bill and I went over: he was living in a small, detached apartment not unlike this, except it was all on one level. And he had a golf injury. He was nuts on golf, and he paralyzed his ankle, and it was slowly regenerating apparently, and he was sort of out of sorts about all this, but he was that kind of a guy anyway.

Then I learned that he wrote Lassie episodes. He wrote an awful lot of stuff. He was very prolific. He quit drawing, but he still drew — he loved to draw the Red Barry profile, and the Red Barry profile, the later one, was Jackie Cooper as a grown man. Now he would never admit that it was his conception of what he would have looked like, but that’s what he looked like. And he talked about maybe going back and doing comics again, quite unrealistically, ’cause the comics changed. It was a very interesting conversation, all of that. But Bill hadn’t brought a tape recorder with us, or anything. So we made arrangements to come back with what we then knew to go through, chronologically more or less, and to do a real interview. So we came back, Bill had the recorder there, and we talked for five hours or so. So: incredible length of time, and he talked about the ins and out of the business, life and how he got there, and anecdotes that meant nothing to anybody. Because he for a while, I think he was the editor of the Writers Guild magazine.

Oh, right, right, right.

And I don’t know exactly how he came to be doing that, but he did. Bill went home and he transcribed. It probably wasn’t five hours, but it was a long three hours. And so he transcribed all this stuff, and he gave it to me, and asked me if I could do some editing on it. So I cut, went through, chopped out a few things, not very much. I left almost all of it in there ’cause it’s good: it’s got stuff about the mafia guys that he grew up with. He wouldn’t allow us to put that in the interview, by the way. I didn’t know whether he was making up the story, or whether it was a real story, and he wanted nothing whatever to do with the mafia. It could be either.It may have been both of them, in a way.

Exactly, [laughs] exactly. Whatever it was, it was good stuff.

But it was that stuff, and stuff about Barbara Stanwyck. The stuff he said about Barbara Stanwyck, and Mae West. It was kind of like: Someone was there at the time, and who was informed about this stuff, and had brushing acquaintances, so I’m inclined to think maybe the mafia stuff was legit, and he just wanted no trouble, because that world was still alive.

Oh yeah, yeah; in the ’60s, sure.

In fact he once told a story, and this one may be cooked, but I’m not quite sure. I think that it was probably legitimate, but perhaps he was stretching the story a little bit. Bugsy Siegel and his brother owned a fighter, and of course their fights were as corrupt as they were, and so anyhow, this fighter lost a fight, and really should not have. He said he’d broken his hands in the fight, and they were puffed up twice the size of any ordinary hand. And Gould said we all knew that you just go to a doctor and he injects you with saline solution and that pumps up your hand and all of that. And that’s what they’d done. And so anyway Bugsy and his brother were there, and they were insisting that this was legitimate, and Gould says that, being this punk kid, because he was like 20, or 21; he says, Oh that’s easy to do, of course it’s a fake! Now whether he really said that to them or not, I don’t know.

[Jack Kirby’s "Street Code" was originally published in Argosy in 1990, but commissioned and drawn years before. Here Kyle talks about its origins and ruminates on Kirby himself]

Did you come up with the idea to commission Jack Kirby for "Street Code"?

KYLE: Oh yeah. The way it worked out was, I was at the San Diego Comic Convention and at that time the store was doing well — I think in ’83, I’m not sure. But I didn’t publish it until ’90. What happened was, that I was really feeling good. The store was doing a terrific business. I sold secondary rights on three novels to somebody in Romania.

NADEL: Are you serious? To publish it in Romania?

KYLE: I guess so. I never heard from them again. But they did send me some money: most of the stuff they were gonna steal anyway. That’s what I heard from everybody. And so I asked for what was an excessively modest amount. And I gave them the rights, because nothing lost, and they paid me a $1,000, five hundred apiece. In American money, which was the amazing thing. So, it was the ’83 comic book convention in San Diego I fell into conversation with Jack. Jack and Roz and Jessica and I were sitting at a table together just by happenstance. I was talking to Jack about what I’d like to see in comics, and Jack was really interested. He had lost interest in superheroes.

And I was worried about Jack because there was some deterioration. I think he had series of very small strokes. He was doing breakdowns differently than he had been. So I wanted to see if he could do it.

At that point he would have finished Captain Victory and Silver Star. He was doing animation, right?

 You know I honestly can’t remember. I was planning on producing a publication anyway. But this was a different version. I had some backing and it was gonna be semi-thick paper, because I like semi-thick paper. I said to Jack, “I’d love to have something by you, just the way you lived it. Just draw what your life was when you were a kid. Anything you want, any story that you want and I’ll pay you.”  We shook hands on it and Jack said, he turned to [Roz] and said, “The way it was.” And she said, “The way it was.” It doesn’t seem to mean anything but it does.  At the time I knew what Jack’s pay grade was supposed to be and I told him, “I’ll pay you a $150 a page, you keep all of that art which I return in 90 days. I’ll pay you half now and half when you turn it in and it’s up to you.”

But what’s so funny about “The Way it Was” for him is that, he didn’t try to make it something it wasn’t. It’s just completely his language. That’s the way it was for him. It didn’t seem like he was trying to achieve a sort of fake sense of objectivity. It’s just, “The Way It Was.”

The only thing I did say, I said that in the event that there are more stories like this, it might make sense to have the boy, the protagonist in it, you at that age, not to look exactly like you. So if you want to use somebody else’s story in the future you have this boy as a stand-in. He could have used stories from a variety of people. The world of Street Code was as real a comics world to him as The New Gods was.

Anyhow, I gave Jack a choice of eight or 10 pages, and he took 10, which I hoped he would, but I wanted to give him some flexibility. He delivered it in 30 days.  I had the story but I couldn’t print it. I mean I couldn’t print anything, for a long time. And he could do it, but by that time I didn’t have the money, it was gone. I had hospital bills, you can’t believe how much. You know if you breathe it cost you $20.  So it came out and Jack was kind enough not to you know, Hey wait a minute. Because he could of easily of sold it to somebody else after three years, or five years: something like that.

And was the idea for it to be published just as pencils?

Yeah. I insisted, because in the first place I couldn’t afford an inker, but in the second place I wouldn’t have afforded an inker. But what I did find to do, it was going to be in the pencils, but there was going to be a light water color wash for the coloring. So it was gonna be in color. And it would have looked the way watercolors do. There was a girl who worked for me who was a good watercolorist, and someday I would like to see how it would of turned out. I liked these pencils better than looking at inked pages from that time.

How do you account for Kirby the man?

I think Jack was just profoundly affected by the ghetto, and no money, and seeing himself as head of the family, and apparently he carried all these feelings with him to his dying day.

What did you guys talk about? Did you talk to him about writing and drawing? Did you ever get him going on that stuff? At a certain point, his interviews from the ’70s on he’s kinda restating things, because nobody was asking him different, everybody asking him the same questions. You were older than the regular fan, so did that make a difference?  

I was in shooting distance. Well, when he first came out here, he was living on a hill  and there were a bunch of bikers, and they just drove Jack crazy. He tried to see it through and to accept it, but he couldn’t and I don’t blame him. So he moved. I called him in the evening, that’s when I had Graphic Story World and so I was calling for a news item on this or that. So I call in the evening, or rather I started out calling him at different times. Roz said, “You know if you call us we will set up around such and such a time Jack will be freer then,” or something like that. That’s when he quit drawing for a while. And we just talked about this and that, I have no, it was mainly about the current political scene and about this and that. I didn’t think Jack wanted particularly to talk about comics, because what can you say to Jack about comics.  

You were here and knew him while the Fourth World stuff was happening. That’s kinda interesting.

Yeah, we got on very well. The thing that annoys me now is that I could have gotten to know Jack very closely if I had made an effort. And I didn’t think I could because Jack couldn’t remember people’s name for 10 seconds. Sometimes he would sometimes he wouldn’t. You know, he clearly, he knew me, that is the presence, Here I am.

But maybe not your name?

But he didn’t really know my name. So I concluded from that he probably thought that I was just another guy. Later on, after he died, I realized that now as I look back, while he was actually trying to make a connection with me. It would have been very interesting to have worked with Jack, because some of the occasions that we talked, I talked about aspects of the work.

We talked about the Vietnam War and Jack was not in favor of it particularly. I remember remarking to him, that the Vietnamese must think we are remorseless. What I meant to say was relentless. Then I realized what I said. No, we just talked about all subjects; he was extraordinary well-informed man. It was clear when he was one-on-one. He related to the page in front of him and to the customers on the other side of that page who where sitting there reading it as he’s drawing it. He didn’t relate otherwise, except what he liked and was interested in.

One time I mentioned —in fact it was the same conversation that lead up to Street Code — I mentioned that we had gone to the L.A. County Fair, and then at that time the summers were just incredibly hot — at least out on the fairground.  And boy, it was interesting to go to the fair, because it was fairly large to walk around, you’re completely out of yourself. You’re so hot; you can’t make fine distinctions about anything. It’s just fascinating to see these teenage girls wearing spike heels, giving up and holding them in their hands and walking around barefooted. And these guys were just covered with sweat. And people just completely zonked out, they’re gone. I said, Jack go sit down, and we just sat there watching people being people; they can’t drum up any façade at all. Then I said the same thing is true in shopping malls. We sit there and watch these people and these styles. That was at a time when girls were first starting to tie their blouses up and midriff. Then also during that time, they wore these bows, these strings: that they wore loose. You know, which I thought was fascinating. Jack sort of flipped out because he was talking to someone and Roz said, Jack likes to do that at the mall too. He’s fascinated by people; and if you look at Jack’s stuff, he draws poses nobody else would draw. He had one, I remember sitting in my store, looking out the window when this girl comes along. And she’s walking along like this [mimics her walking]. I thought, God I’ve seen that pose, uh oh, [snaps finger] Jack. I thought nobody walked like that but there it was. Jack had observed that there was this walk. All these little things, when he had some time to fiddle around. I mean was  Marvel or DC, I would have paid Jack the same amount for an exclusive contract, but had him do half the work, so he could have had more time to experiment.

You know it’s a shame, and I wish Kirby had explored the war stuff more.

We started out on that. The trouble was, and this was Jack in later life, but it’s also true earlier — he said once that his guns don’t work. They look like they work, but they wouldn’t work. These skyscrapers look like skyscrapers, but if you try to build them they all fall down. Towards the end of it all, Jack, if you look the end of his rifle barrels, they’re just these two circles attached to a rod. He could draw realistically anything he wanted to draw, but this wasn’t really about war. There was this horror comic Tower of Shadows or something that Jack did, and Stan Lee said he couldn’t use it. It was rewritten a couple of times, Jack hated it, but he didn’t tell me about that.  I complimented him on it once and he kinda swept it off. What happened was that there was this dwarf that lived in this castle, and there were these rumors about what he did with young woman. Finally, the villagers come, they peer in through the windows and they burn the whole place down and kill him. I’ve heard a little bit from Roy [Thomas], who said they had to get someone in to fix it up. What Jack did apparently was, You want horror? All right, here’s horror. He’s got these women that have been kidnapped being hacked up and chopped. It’s done realistically and it’s horrible. I think that was his commentary, I think, on it, but maybe not exact …

What I’ve always get from him, is this [strong sense?] that he had seen real horror. Knew what horror was.

Probably had, could have been war, but I think it really precedes that. I think it’s living in the ghetto and not liking it.

Also being aware enough not to like it. That’s the thing: he clearly had a real meta level to everything, as a kid just his vividness of his memories and Street Code. Who remembers that kind of sensation?

Well, for them to mean that much. For example, I can remember from my own life remembering a scene at that exact same age as well, but I would never write it. Because it didn’t mean as much to me as it meant to him. I wouldn’t go to the trouble of it.

It clearly impacted him.

It’s the things that really bothered him and if you were a kid of any sensibilities and got this hunchback kid around in the neighborhood and he’s demeaned, it’s got to be something that really bothers you. He just never had a chance to do a long complete story from beginning to end until it satisfied him. Which is what a novelist, a good novelist, always has. Or a good painter, or a good anything, on his own terms. But in a way that’s not what he was.

The other thing about Jack that is really important... there are three aspect to the human race; there’s the individual, there’s society, and then there is one’s religion or commitment to mankind. It goes from one person, to two people, to a few people, to everybody, the collective nature of humanity. Jack always had that sense, which most people don’t have. They’re usually the individual, and society and that’s good enough for them, and Jack could go on through this extra dimension. Jack shorted society a little bit, because he himself didn’t really relate all that much to individual people. But he really emphasized mankind as a whole.

He did. He had a real sense of humanity.

And that I think is maybe the most critical aspect of his ability as a creator: because Milton Caniff, for example, had no metaphysical dimensions.

Do you like Caniff’s writing?

I don’t know. The reason is, when I was a kid they didn’t carry Terry and Pirates. I only read them in popular comics or wherever they were. They were reprinted and they were all hacked up. I could never quite follow the continuity as a kid. I never liked Steve Canyon; I thought he was a complete bore. Which tells you that Jack’s approach to the New Gods was right, because Crane came up with Buz Sawyer, Buz Sawyer was flat. He owned Sawyer and he got it. The thing was he was stuck with Wash Tubbs, or George Washington Tubbs, whatever his real name was. He was stuck with him and he was stuck with Captain Easy. So he had to use them to make it work. Terry and the Pirates, they had, it had to be made to work. So you couldn’t just create your own perfect hero, you had to have this imperfect one that you are trying to get all this smooth stuff out. If you looked at all those self-created characters, the ones that survived, it’s true of them. They started off with these ditzy girls that ended up being ravishing romantic leads. Or they were so good as villains that they were remade heroines.  

[And lastly, a brief aside about Alex Toth, who Kyle published in Wonderworld and apparently tried to work with later]

Did you end up dealing with Alex Toth much?

Early on; we had a falling out eventually. Everybody had one. He got a letter from some publication company in Europe, one of the major ones. They wanted him to do an album for them, and the pay was, for that point, $150? $250 per page? I’m not sure.

He couldn’t quite pull it together?

Oh he did, eventually. He said he didn’t want to write it. He said, It’s an awful a lot of work, and I said, I’ll write it. I’ll put in all the stuff you like -- the mid-’30s, the flying and all that. I’ll tell you, I loved the premise. I’ll probably never write it, but nobody has ever done this. I wrote the first 10, 15, 20 pages. I had these flyers, they’re supposed to be down in Texas, filming the equivalent of the Hell’s Angels. There’s all these World War I pilots from different countries, they’re all down and they’re doing the stunts. They got their wives and girlfriends and all that, and this one, I’m telling him the story, they’re flying and flying and I’m saying these two are having an affair.

We went like that [snaps fingers]. Bang! That was it.

He’s very conservative, with practically a child’s view of morality.

The Hayes Office, the censorship body of film, excited him. Whereas Milton [Caniff] spent practically his entire career trying to figure out ways to get around the censors, through inference and this and that and so on. Alex couldn’t do it. And another story that I once suggested to him, I still like the premise of it, it’s silly but I thought kinda worked. There’s this guy, this was before cocaine was the drug of choice; it was relatively obscure. Iad Alex's character, The Fox, following a cocaine dealer in a car. And The Fox uses a car phone. Car phones weren’t common back then, but people had them. He just uses it, he just this thing and he’s talking to somebody — I can’t remember now anything about this story. Except the payoff was that I put Alex and his sword fighting, sabre fighting, in this guy. They’re surrounded by bags of cocaine, processed dry cocaine, and they’re wielding these sabres and of course they’re slicing open the bags of coke.

Good premise [Laughter].

It’s about drugs. That was that. I said, “Well, we can switch it to diamonds.” He said, “That’d be OK.”