WonderCon: Kirby - King of Comics

Sat, February 23rd, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Dave Sikula, Contributing Writer

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A group of comics writers and artists discussed the legacy of Jack Kirby's life and work Saturday at San Francisco's WonderCon, and the consensus was that, even though Kirby died in 1994, his influence is still felt by today's creators.

Mark Evanier opened up the panel – consisting of "Superman" and "Trinity" writer Kurt Busiek, "New Frontier" creator Darwyn Cooke, longtime Kirby and Disney inker Mike Royer, animation director Paul Dini, and former Marvel Comics artist Herb Trimpe by ranting against a certain airline that left him stranded at the Los Angeles airport for twelve hours on Friday, leaving him to dine on "Bugles, corn chips, and those $2.50 bottles of water." The rant became a running gag throughout the panel, as various technical difficulties were attributed to the airline.

Evanier introduced the proceedings by saying that "Since Jack passed away 14 years ago, I always tell con organizers 'let's do a Kirby panel, because if we don't have a Kirby panel, we end up talking about him anyway; because he was so influential in so many people's lives." The fact that his first book on Kirby, "Kirby, King of Comics," has been published made for a nice tie-in. When Evanier mentioned that the very first copies of the book were available in the Dealer Room downstairs, Cooke feigned leaving to go buy one. Evanier stopped him, asking him to "wait and I'll send you one" Cooke cried, "I can't wait!"

Evanier mentioned that someone had told him that the book had gotten a "rave review" in the "New York Times Book Review," but he deflected the compliment by mentioning that in 2003, he had gotten a similar review for his book "Mad Art." When he read the review, he discovered that the reviewer loved "Mad Magazine," and was giving it a rave, not necessarily his own book. "It's the same with the Kirby book," he said. "People love Jack, and all I did was put a lot of Jack Kirby illustrations in the book." He does have another Kirby book coming out, though; a formal biography, so complete that Evanier promises it will "tell you the kind of doughnuts Jack was eating in 1953." He also hinted at the possibility that some of Kirby's work from the 50s, including "Fighting American," "Black Magic," and Bullseye" may soon be available in deluxe hardcover editions.

Turning to the panel members, Evanier asked each to answer two questions: "What was the first work of Kirby's that you were aware and cognicent of, and what was your favorite?"

Kurt Busiek got the ball rolling: "I didn't read comics as a kid; I started at fourteen when everyone else was getting out. I started reading "Fantastic Four," the version by Roy Thomas and Rich Buckler, and "Marvel's Greatest Comics," which at the time was printing the "Him saga (from "Fantastic Four" #s 66 and 67). I didn't think there were writers and artists; I thought there were just stories and characters. I thought the people were up in Marvel's offices saving the very best stories for "Marvel's Greatest Comics;" it wasn't that they were doing that; it was just that they were reprinting Kirby stories.

His favorite story? "The Glory Boat" (from "New Gods" #6) or "Mother Delilah" from "Boy's Ranch" #3. Busiek also threw in some support for Evanier's airline, having had "a great experience. But I also eat cole slaw and candy corn."

Darwyn Cooke began by mentioning that the airline had "worked fine for me, too," then turned to Kirby. "I read comics as a kid and picked them up again at thirteen. The first Kirby I was aware of was ('Fantastic Four' #s 62 and 63) the two-parter, 'Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst.' Being a Neal Adams fan, I thought I wasn't supposed to like this art, because the draftsmanship wasn't as sharp. It took me a while until I realized that what it was that I liked was the energy that radiated from the drawings. There was one shot of the police running down the street to trap the Sandman, and then firing a cement cannon at him, so that all was left was a few pebbles tumbling and the top of his head. His favorite story, though, was "Flower," from "Kamandi" #6.

Mike Royer was up next. "I'm an old codger, and when I was a kid in the early 50s, I loved to go to the grocery story with my father and just gape at the comics rack. I wasn't aware there were creators, and I loved 'Boy's Ranch.' There was a little country store down the road that sold coverless comics from the 40s – three for a dime – and there was work by the same guy. Then later, in the 60s, I discovered it was the same guy doing work at Marvel and he had a name: It was Jack Kirby. I'll never forget getting a phone call one night and the voice on the other hand saying 'Mike Royer? This is Jack Kirby. Alex Toth tells me you're a pretty good inker.' Kirby asked Royer if he'd take over as his inker on his work at DC. At that time, Kirby had moved from New York to California and after leaving Marvel, he wanted to consolidate all of the work on his comics – penciling, inking, and lettering – on the West Coast, for which he was receiving flack from the DC editorial offices. He wanted to show that the work in California could be produced as quickly as it could on the East Coast.

Royer: "It was amazing to me that Jack could do it at all (that is, turn out so much art and story); the fact that it was as good as it was. It was my job to keep it unruined and unexpurgated. And I had to do it as fast as Jack could turn it out – the lettering, too; and it was 'do it all' or 'do none of it.'" Royer never missed a deadline, in spite of having "to turn out a full book in a week. I had to ink and letter three pages a day to keep up with him," a pace that the other creators on the panel marveled at.

Royer's favorite story is also "The Glory Boat" (which also happened to be the second issue of "The New Gods" that he inked). In the years since, he's had to recreate the splash page a few times. Evanier mentioned that that splash page has long been a favorite of many Kirby fans. Artist Alex Ross was commissioned to reproduce a page as a contribution to a book on Kirby, and he agreed to do so only if he could do a painting based on that page.

Dini said that "The first time I was exposed to Kirby, it was a negative experience. I would read the comic books down at the barber shop and the first one I remember was an issue where the Thing had just saved the world, and there he was on Yancy Street, and they were egging him. And I thought, 'That's a heckuva way to treat a guy who just saved the universe. It's back to Uncle Scrooge for me!' When I was in college, there was a used book store that had a stack of 'Fantastic Fours,' especially the ones with the story where the Silver Surfer fought Dr. Doom (FF #s 57-59), and I thought, 'These are great!,' and I bought as many as I could and took them back to my dorm to read. Later in Boston, I roomed with Richard Howell, who had a bunch of stuff, especially Kirby's romance comics from the 50s, and those had killer splash panels." His favorite is also "Mother Delilah."

Evanier asked Dini about the use of Kirby concepts in the Warner Bros. animated shows. Dini replied that they were "looking for bigger and bigger villains for Superman to fight, and there was such a natural fit with Apokolips and Kirby's other concepts. I don't know if that was (Kirby's) intention (to use them that way), but we did it."

Trimpe said that he had been "stationed in the Highlands in Vietnam. I wasn't much of a comic reader. I knew the DC stuff, but not Marvel's; I didn't know Kirby, let alone Stan Lee. A buddy of mine got a huge stack of comics from his mom, and I picked one up – it was a "Thor' – I didn't even know until I worked for Marvel that it was a Kirby story, inked by Colletta. I thought, "God, this is awesome stuff! This is really cool stuff!" A little over a year later, when I was already working for Marvel, I suddenly realized that that was Jack Kirby and he was the guy who had drawn that issue.

Evanier asked Trimpe, "What was Jack's influence on the Marvel bullpen? How did people react when the pages I came in?"

Trimpe: "There were certain icons already in place, that I couldn't touch – John Buscema, John Romita, Kirby. I came to Marvel with an EC (Comics)-style and couldn't compare with that. Stan never said, 'This is Jack Kirby, draw like him,' but everyone was so influenced by him – his work was so powerful and unique – that it was inevitable. But in order to get the paycheck, you have to develop a style that works quickly enough to meet the deadlines and is exciting enough that the book sells. We got to see his (Kirby's) pencils, and while his early stuff doesn't have the dynamic quality he later developed; the anatomy was very powerful and shorthand. He never fooled with panel layouts, either; everything was either six panels to the page or maybe five and a long panel, and he managed within that very confined space to make you think that you were looking through that window (of the panel) into another universe. If anything, I tried to emulate that, but what I tried to do was to make the line within the panel give the eye a sense that it was seeing more than it was taking in. There are artists whose drafting skills were better, but as far making a book interesting, there was no one better; he was and still is the King."

Evanier asked Royer about his work for Disney (mainly on such characters as "Winnie-the-Pooh") as another example of Kirby's influence.

Royer: "I like to do large group scenes, and every shot needs to tell a story. What I learned from Jack was to not be afraid of a blank sheet of paper. I'd think, 'What would Jack do?,' even though I'd be dealing with a group of plush animals, and I'd finish it and look at it and think 'Damn. Did I do that?' Jack was such a creative individual, and had the ability to say the same thing six different ways, and make every one of them interesting. Some criticize his panel layout, but he always said: 'When you go to the movies, the size of the screen never changes; it's what goes on inside it.' Jack and (his wife) Roz were always very warm talking about anything."

Evanier continued the discussion of panel layout: "Jack had to decide which panels would be what size for a book and he thought of every panel as a huge scene. If he'd been left to his own devices, every page would have been a full-page panel. There would be issues where he'd use a full page for a shot of someone's head, and then there'd be a battle scene with eleven people in one small panel."

Dini went back to talk about Kirby's conversational skills: "I worked with Jack at Ruby-Spears (animation studio). I got to know Jack when he and Roz were waiting in the lobby. I went up and introduced myself. Eventually, I would go to the San Diego ComicCon with Richard Howell and Carol Kalish, and we'd end up at dinner with (Jack) and he'd just tell stories about World War II or anything. He was always very genial."

Royer: "Jack and Russ Manning and other artists and I would judge an art contest in Orange County every year. One year the other judge was (Tarzan artist) Burne Hogarth, and the lunch before was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Hogarth and Kirby, these two giants, would be arguing violently, but they were saying exactly the same thing."

Evanier: "I would occasional run into Hogarth in a drugstore in our neighborhood and he'd ask me, 'Why do people think Kirby is so great?' He just didn't understand him."

Evanier asked Trimpe to describe the feeling around the Marvel Bullpen the day Kirby left.

Trimpe said that "when he left, Kirby somehow left a cigar butt behind, Marie Severin made a very elaborate plaque out of it, labeling it 'Jack Kirby's Last Cigar at Marvel,' with fancy scroll work on it, and hung it on the wall with the title: 'Kirby Was Here.' Royer remembered Kirby's cigars as well, mentioning that he'd get packages of art from Kirby that reeked on Kirby's Roi-Tan Cigars. He'd even taken up smoking Roi-Tans himself, until his wife asked him why his voice was always so harsh.

Evanier opened the floor to questions and artist Paul Power asked Trimpe, "How did you feel about inking Kirby?"

Trimpe: "I think I inked a page here and there, and the "Silver Surfer" story; it was like dying and going to heaven. In those days, inkers used brushes, and it was a job of finesse and skill. I can't do it anymore, but I inked (Kirby's) work with a brush, and it was a pleasure."

Cooke loved that book and called Trimpe's work on it "A masterful job. Amazing and explosive."

Evanier expanded on why Trimpe was chosen to ink that book: "Herb doesn't remember this. The 'Silver Surfer' with John Buscema's art wasn't selling well as a twenty-five-cent book. (Marvel editor) Stan Lee had Chic Stone ink it to give it a 'Kirby' look; they guest-starred Spider-Man; nothing worked. Finally, Stan asked Jack to do one issue of the 'Surfer' and Buscema would trade with Kirby and do 'Thor.' Stan was looking for someone to take over from Kirby on 'Thor,' so he could move him to another book. (He didn't know Jack would be leaving in a few months.) Stan said, 'The Surfer is too passive and renamed the book 'The Savage Silver Surfer,' and Herb inked it, and would have taken the book over. But they had looked at the sales figures just after that issue came out and canceled the book."

There was suddenly a problem with the lights dimming and turning off. Evanier gave the airline a break and explained the reason was that they were "executing inkers next door." Cooke amplified that it's a "new DC policy."

That last issue of "The Silver Surfer" reminded Evanier of Kirby's tendency to place himself in his stories. "I reproduced the last page of that issue is in my book. It's the Silver Surfer vowing to declare war on the people who hadn't appreciated him in the past –and that's just what Jack did a few months later. He gave notice in first week of March 1970. He'd negotiated his deal with DC in February. Jack and Roz took Steve Sherman and me to lunch at Canter's Delicatessen in Los Angeles and told us he was leaving Marvel for DC. He wanted a signed contract before leaving and told us he had some projects that he'd need some assistants for, and he wanted us to do it."

Evanier called Royer that night.

Royer: "Jack was looking for a west coast inker, and called me and asked me come over to the house. I got there and he asked me to ink his self-portrait. I told him I'd bring it back tomorrow. 'No,' he said, 'do it now.' I sat at his drawing table and he went out of the room, but he kept coming in and looking over my shoulder. It was the most intimidating thing you can imagine."

Evanier: "That was a terrible drawing table. It was at a bad angle, and was filled with burn marks from Jack's cigars."

Someone in the audience asked if Kirby's cameo in Will Eisner's graphic novel "The Dreamer" was based on a true story. Evanier explained that it was. Kirby (ID'ed by Eisner as "Jack King") worked in the Eisner Studio and one day a mob guy came in and told them, 'We're gonna supply you with towels from now on." Kirby, who was all of five feet four, threatened to punch this 6' 5" guy out. It was one of the few times Eisner was impressed with Jack.

"I usually don't have any use for people who threaten physical violence, but Jack had a genius for threatening the right people at the right time."

Royer asked about a mysterious phone call Kirby had gotten once. A man with a rough voice told Kirby that "I want youse to do a sketch of Orion for my kid." Evanier didn't know the story, but chalked it up to Warner Bros. executives. Cooke said, "They're still there."

Evanier elaborated. "DC in those days was owned by a company called Kinney Services, which owned funeral homes and parking lots, which were dirty then." Intergang (the Mob featured in Kirby's "Fourth World" books as buying the Daily Planet) was Kirby's comment on Kinney taking over DC. "'Are you sure you want to do this?,' I asked him. The storyline didn't last very long."

One audience member asked about the recently-released "Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure," which reprints one of Kirby's last stories before leaving for DC. One character regains the use of his legs at the end of the story. The questioner wanted to know if that plot point, "of getting his legs back, was Kirby's comment on his leaving Marvel and getting more control of his work." Evanier replied that "Every single story Jack did when he a say in the plot was autobiographical," pointing out that when he saw the only "Fantastic Four" cover that inked, he realized Kirby was drawing himself as FF leader Reed Richards. "Sgt. Fury was the way he wanted to people to see him, but Ben Grimm (The Thing) was the way he thought people did see him.

"Mister Miracle was his comment on how he felt locked in by Marvel and DC. Most escape artists use tricks to get out of traps, but Mr. Miracle never did; he did it through skill and training, which Jack felt he did when he 'escaped' from both DC and Marvel."

Cooke was asked about Kirby's influence on his "New Frontier" graphic novel. "Kirby was the biggest influence on the book. When I realized the book was going to be set in that period (the 50s), I thought, 'What if Kirby hadn't gotten into that fight with Jack Schiff (that led to his departure from DC for Atlas, later Marvel) about "Sky-Masters," and had applied that genius to the DC characters?' I did some sketches in a Kirby style, and Mike Carlin pulled me aside and told me it was a bad idea. 'You're going to ape the style of the greatest comic artist who ever lived? Do it in your own style.' So I did. But even today, when I get burned out from working intensely, I go downstairs and print out three panels from the Jack Kirby Pencil Book and just sit and ink them and go 'ahhhhh.' My wife doesn't understand it, but I do it and get into a totally Zen state."

From the audience: "Who influenced who more? Kirby or (fellow Golden Age artist) Mort Meskin?

Evanier: "Meskin was an original artist who brought the Noel Sickels-style of realistic art to the comics. Meskin was one of the artists for whom Kirby had the greatest respect. Meskin, unlike most artists, used to work from dark to light. He would gray out the whole page with a pencil and them take an artgum eraser and block out the white areas, erase them and then ink the page." (Cooke was astonished that anyone could work that way.) "The comic "The Strange World of Your Dreams" was based on the dreams that Meskin used to tell Joe (Simon) and Jack about every morning.

Question: How did Steve Ditko and Kirby get along?

Evanier: "They were very friendly. I was at Bob Kane's funeral (By the way, Kane was buried with Batman toys. I'm serious; before they closed the coffin, they were putting little toy Batmobiles in there.) As they were lowering Bob Kane into the ground, Stan Lee turns to me and says out of nowhere, 'You know Steve Ditko was the best inker Jack Kirby ever had.' I said, 'All right.' Now, because Stan doesn't have the greatest attention span in the world, we're out in the middle of Forest Lawn (cemetery), and he says, 'There's lots of celebrities here, aren't there?' 'Yes, Stan Laurel is buried here; I saw the grave marker as we were coming in.' 'Really? Let's go see it!' 'Wait. Let them finish lowering Bob first.'

"Jack loved Steve Ditko. The first time I met Ditko, in the 70s with Steve Sherman, he told us how he'd loved Jack and his work and how much he hated how he'd been inked over the years, and how he'd gotten a bad deal from Marvel, and how he had tried to convince Jack to leave when he did, but he couldn't."

Question: Was Kirby working on a version of James Joyce's "Ulysses" set in Brooklyn?

Evanier: "I don't think so, but he was working on lots of odd projects in his last years. People would approach him with projects and oddball stuff. He never got paid for most of it. And a lot of it is still floating around."

Question: You say in your book that George Klein is the mysterious unknown inker of "Fantastic Four" #1. Is that mystery now solved?

Evanier: "If you ask me, yes. Other people have other opinions, but that's what I think."

Question: "What was the relationship between (the late) Steve Gerber and Kirby?

Evanier: "They were good friends. Steve was a guy who Jack respected, because he felt he'd gotten the short end of the stick from Marvel (over the ownership rights to Howard the Duck), which Jack could identify with. He donated twenty pages of art to the "Destroyer Duck" benefit book, because he thought that (Gerber) shouldn't lose the lawsuit just because he didn't have as much money as the other guy.

Someone asked why the relatively obscure "Fourth World" character Sonny Sumo never reappeared.

Evanier: "Jack had all these ideas and never got a chance to go back and develop them. He was never sure if he had discussed them with Stan (before he left Marvel), so he had to get them into print as soon as he could. The Black Racer was intended to be a stand-alone character in his own book, but he wanted to get him into print as soon as possible, so he put him into "The New Gods."

Royer talked about how tough it was to convince some of the people at DC that his inking of Kirby was adequate and that all the work could be done on the west coast. At the same time, "Jack was concerned that, by my taking over for Colletta, that Vince wouldn't be getting enough work."

Evanier: "Jack would frequently call E. Nelson Bridwell at DC and ask him, 'Is Vinny okay? Does he have enough work?' He was a Depression kid, and didn't want to take work from anyone. Roz would get letters asking 'Who is this Royer? We want Colletta!' There was a lot of resentment at DC against Mike; it took about six months before they realized that the work was coming in on-time, lettered and inked professionally, and he won him over."

The panel concluded with a discussion of Kirby's comic strip work, particularly on a strip created by Frank Giacoia, "Billy Reb and Johnny Yank"

Royer mentioned that he loved the strip as a kid, and became a fan of Giacoia's, not realizing it was actually penciled by Kirby, "so I was an inadvertent Kirby fan."

Evanier explained how Kirby came to work on the strip: "Joe Simon (Kirby's long-time collaborator) had been approached by DC to do 'Challengers of the Unknown,' but when he realized that he'd have no real creative input, he left. At that time, 'Showcase' (DC's tryout book) was a contest among editors to see who could sell the most copies. Kirby went to DC and said he wasn't getting enough work. At that time, there was a kickback system at DC, for which editors were later fired, and one editor told Kirby he'd get work if he kicked money back to him. Jack refused and left DC.

"It was one of the nice examples of one creator helping another. Mike Sekowsky, who was outwardly very surly, but one of the nicest people in the world, was a guy who would help other artists by pencilling things overnight. He was working on "Billy Reb" when Kirby had his fight and left DC, so (Sekowsky) went to Giacoia and told him to give the work to Kirby, which he did until the strip ended.

"Years later, Mike Sekowsky was asked who won the battle between Kirby and Jack Schiff, and he said, 'Stan Lee.'"

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