On Tuesday, 15th April, the London Institute of Contemporary Arts presented a one-off event entitled "Live at Kirby Plaza" in which some of the field's most prominent "Kirbyologists" discussed the life of work of one of, if not the finest, comic artist who ever lived - Jack Kirby. Even casual fans will undoubtedly know Kirby as Stan Lee's co-creator on a vast array of Marvel's most popular characters, as well as the creator of the DC-owned New Gods property. Despite a sell-out audience, I was lucky enough to sneak in at the last minute to report on this rare meeting of some of the biggest names in Kirby fandom.
As I was seated, the PA system was playing a lo-fi piece of garage rock later identified as the song "King Jack" by Bill Mumy's band "Seduction of the Innocent" - there are no prizes (that's no prizes, not "No-Prizes!") for guessing who the song is about. It's an immediate testament to Kirby's wide appeal that his work has inspired artists from all mediums - Paul McCartney famously recorded the song "Magneto and the Titanium Man" with his band Wings, and at one of their shows introduced an attendant Jack Kirby to the audience. When you've got the Beatles patting you on the back, you know you've made the right choices somewhere down the line.
Once the song had died down, we were introduced to a discussion panel composed of a mixture of Kirby scholars and enthusiasts - author Kim Newman, Broadcaster Paul Gambaccini; editor of Jack Kirby Quarterly, Chrissie Harper, and, appearing through the magic of teleconferencing, Kirbyologists Mark Evanier and John Morrow.
Moving immediately on, panel curator Paul Gravett narrated a fantastic overview of Kirby's life and career as compiled by Harper, with a slideshow displaying artwork and photos from all eras of Kirby's life, contrasting his artistic works with events in his personal life and the often rocky working relationships he experienced throughout his career. The undisputed highlight of this presentation came in the form of seldom-heard audio clips of Kirby himself discussing his career and influences, taken from an interview conducted in 1993, less than a year before his death.
While I'm a big fan of his Marvel work, I was largely unaware of much of Kirby's early comics - the work his partnership with Joe Simon produced, and what he did between co-creating Captain America and returning to the embryonic Marvel to draw the Fantastic Four. Those that remembered this work managed to sell me on it quite convincingly. I'm impressed at how quickly and prolifically Kirby, a man most would associate solely with superhero and science-fiction work, travelled through the industry leaving his mark on almost every major genre, from Western, to Horror, and even Romance. In fact, Romance is a genre he and Simon are credited with literally bringing to comics with the publication of their comic, "Young Romance".
The panel discussion that followed Gravett's overview covered a wide range of subjects, with anecdotes from all quarters about the man himself and each panelist's first encounters with his work. Gambaccini described how he came to buy Fantastic Four #1 and how, a few issues in, he was so upset by it that he wrote a less-than-complimentary letter which actually saw print in Fantastic Four #9 (Marvel Masterworks/Omnibus fans, go check your copies now!) Kim Newman explained how even in the days before readers cared about the credits, he and his friends would appreciate Kirby's dynamic artwork in their own way - by making fun of it in the playground, attempting to act out the poses Kirby had depicted.
Newman also related how, as a child, he was brought to the ICA (the same building we were currently in) to view Kirby's first ever UK-exhibited artwork, describing the horror his mother exhibited when she realised that some of the comics she had encouraged a young Newman to cut up and throw away were now worth as much as £5! Hearing this, Gambaccini also noted how vividly he remembers being enticed by Kirby's cover to "Amazing Fantasy #15" (even though he was sceptical of the recent name change) and how when he related the same story to Jonothan Ross, his first question was "Yes, but how many did you leave on the shelf?" (The answer to which is "Two!")
Mark Evanier, in-between demonstrations of Kirby-trivia that would probably amaze Kirby's own relatives, then discussed his recently-published illustrated biography, entitled "Kirby: King of Comics" - a large-format hardcover that reprints some of Kirby's lesser-seen work in impressive detail, the publication of which was the inspiration for the ICA event itself. John Morrows also described the content of the 50th issue of his magazine, "the Jack Kirby Collector". The issue is titled "Kirby Five-Oh!" and features an unmissable Kirby-pencilled Superman on the cover. Morrows explained that the magazine contains a series of Kirby "Top 50s" - top 50 covers, top 50 issues, top 50 unused pieces - and will also have a limited run of 500 hardback editions which, he hopes, will be available at the NYCC this week.
Of course, no panel of this sort is complete without the odd bit of news worth repeating. In addition to some discussion on the Kirby Museum, suggesting that while it's currently online-only, it may become a bricks-and-mortar establishment in the future, Evanier confirmed that DC is planning to reprint all of Kirby's DC work where possible. He even suggested that earlier, pre-Marvel Kirby series such as "The Boy Commandos" were in the running for collection from other publishers.
Speaking on cassette, Kirby himself related a story about turning down an illustration job for NASA's space program because they wouldn't allow him to go into space as payment. For those interested in hearing that in full, Harper also confirmed that her magazine, Jack Kirby Quarterly, will return for one special issue that will feature a comprehensive transcript of the interview in question.
Once the panel wound down, we were invited to move into an adjacent room to inspect some of the original Kirby artwork on display (from Jonothan Ross' personal collection), including pages from Fantastic Four #48 where Black Bolt is first shown speaking. Ross, of course, is probably the UK's biggest celebrity comics fan and a good friend of Neil Gaiman - American readers may remember him from his recent BBC-produced documentary "In Search of Steve Ditko." It was a rare chance to have a good long look at some Kirby originals and to stand next to genuine slice of comicbook history - that alone was worth the price of entry.
All in all, the ICA should be commended for hosting such an event. With a high level of professionalism and unparalleled insight from the panelists, it was a discussion that would've been worthy of even the largest comics convention or art festival, so it was doubly special to experience it in far closer quarters. As Gambaccini noted, almost all of today's comics readers didn't experience the Silver Age as it happened, and there's tremendous value in the anecdotes that could be told about that period alone - I could've listened for hours!
Kirby's legacy and talent can never be overstated, and even the most hardened Kirby-enthusiast would have found something new to them at this talk. For those like me, less familiar with earlier aspects of his career, it was a fine introduction to that world, and a perfect advert for both Evanier's book, "Kirby: King of Comics" and Morrow's "Kirby Five-Oh!" which cover similar ground as the discussion - I went in a casual fan, and came out an undisputed Kirbyphile.
TwoMorrows/Jack Kirby Collector:
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Institute of Contemporary Arts, London:
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