Comics Historian, and writer of comic books, television shows and books Mark Evanier recently announced on his website (www.newsfromme.com) that he is finally on the brink of publishing his ten-years-in-the-making biography of Jack Kirby — often referred to as the King of Comics. Don’t confuse my use of that phrase as in “Johnny Carson is the King of Comics.” No, I call Jack Kirby the “King of Comics” because that’s a label he was given early on in his long career penciling a host of comic book characters you may be familiar with: Fantastic Four? Kirby co-created them and penciled the first 100 or so issues. Spider-Man? He came up with the prototype called the Silver Spider. X-Men? You guess it….Kirby co-created that super-group as well. Oh wait…I forgot the Hulk….Captain America….Thor…and so many other characters in his 50-year career that this article can’t possibly accommodate them all.
So when news that this new book will hit the streets in October 2007 (simply titled, “Kirby: King of Comics” and published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) it’s sure to stir up a decades-long debate that will probably never be resolved. The argument? “Who did what — The artist or the writer?” The “writer” in this little scenario just happens to be none other than Stan Lee — pretty much known the world over as the “father figure” of Marvel Comics during it’s golden age and also the head writer, editor and then publisher of what eventually evolved into Marvel Entertainment.
As many sources have recorded — up until 1961, Marvel Comics was not exactly lighting the world on fire. The comic book industry in general was in a slump. Still recovering from the Dr. Fredric Wertham led hearings in the mid-1950’s which famously labeled comics as a bad influence for children; Marvel was publishing a revolving line-up of comic books that featured anonymous monsters, teenagers in love and gunfighters. Jack Kirby was one of a handful of artists working for Marvel (Steve Ditko was another artist of significance) who was churning out pages as fast as they could be published.
And then a funny thing happened to the funny books. The Fantastic Four was born. And with it begins one of the longest-lasting debates ever witnessed by the comic book industry: just who did what?
Now, Jack Kirby was no stranger to Stan Lee. In fact in the early 1950’s it was Kirby — along with his then partner Joe Simon – who gave Lee his first big break in comics: hiring the then 17-year old Lee as a gopher for odd-jobs in the office, while the other two wrote and produced comic books (re: The Comic Book Makers by Joe Simon). Ten years later and the roles were reversed: Stan Lee was the head writer for Marvel Comics (owned by his uncle Martin Goodman) and Kirby was a hired hand. But Lee was smart enough to know that Kirby was the best go-to man a writer could hope for. By Lee’s own accord in numerous interviews he only had to “…give Jack the barest kernel of an idea and Jack could bring back an entire 22 page adventure…” (Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee, 1975).
So the gears were already in motion when Lee handed Kirby a plot synopsis for the first issue of Fantastic Four. Kirby took the basic elements of the plot and turned it into something…well…FANTASTC. Kids were yanking it off the shelves, writing unheard of (at the time) fan letters and all of a sudden Marvel Comics started to become HOT.
A slew of titles followed: the Hulk…a revived Captain America (which Kirby originally co-created with Joe Simon), the X-Men…the Avengers…Thor and dozens of others. And as was much the case — Kirby would stay on board for the first 12 to 15 issues or so before turning the artistic chores over to other illustrators. However, the Fantastic Four, Captain America and Thor were pretty much Kirby’s babies – being illustrated by Jack every month right up until the early 1970’s.
Jack Kirby was the fastest comic book artist alive. According to Mark Evanier he was a consistent 3-to-5 page a day illustrator who literally worked round-the-clock drawing what were fast becoming the best-selling books in the industry.
But all was not well in the four-color world of comic books. The question was quickly becoming: was Kirby drawing as fast as Lee could write? Or was Lee writing even faster and providing Kirby with a never ending run of plot threads on which to expand upon? Further more, Lee had other responsibilities at Marvel Comics — he was the art director, editor and public relations man. Who the heck had time to write so many titles unless someone wasn’t actually giving him a hand?
Which brings up the debate as to what a “writer” actually is. Getting back to Mark Evanier, he worked as Jack Kirby’s assistant for several years in the early 1970’s and commented on www.newsfromme.comand in other publications that in Jack Kirby’s mind the “writer” was the guy who thinks up the overall plot. If you look at reproductions of Kirby’s penciled comic book pages (gloriously preserved in The Jack Kirby Collector (www.twomorrows.com) and published quarterly by TwoMorrow Publishing you’ll see Kirby’s handwritten border notes all over the place explaining the action and including snippets of dialogue. Everything was pretty much there on the page — all Stan Lee had to do was go with the flow and write in the word balloons. Which by the way — happens to encompass Lee’s version of what a writer is: Lee wrote the dialogue so he was the writer of the books! This did nothing more than produce a slow-burn in Jack Kirby’s mind and it did little to alter the credits in the many books Jack worked on — which usually read “Written by Stan Lee and Illustrated by Jack Kirby.” Although a little later in the late 1960’s the credits started to read “A Lee/Kirby Production” or something similar to that effect.
It all got to be too much for Kirby. According to Evanier, Kirby felt he was writing books and not only not getting credit but not being compensated, nor was he getting any type of royalties on characters he felt he at least co-created and were earning millions of dollars for Marvel and it’s publisher. The result? Kirby eventually left Marvel in the early 1970’s at the height of its popularity and went over to rival DC comics (producer of Superman and Batman) where he stayed for five years.
During this period, it would seem that Lee did everything he could to push the impression that Stan Lee was the “creator” of Marvel Comics. In fact, by this time he held the title of “publisher” as well and was actually doing very little writing. But the dye was cast: after 15 years of expertly hawking a product to the public, most fans came to recognize Stan Lee as the figure-head of Marvel Comics.
That does not mean that the Kirby-credit issue was left alone. An article in the New York Times (January 31st, 2005) addressed the question of who did what quite well. And earlier Times article (August 31st 2003) comes right out and gives Kirby credit where credit is due. Michael Chabon who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel about the comic book industry, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” based one of the main characters on Kirby and has since been a vocal proponent for Kirby receiving credit. But more often than not these have been the exception and not the rule.
Fast-forward to 2007 and it looks like Jack Kirby is finally getting the notice he deserves — just a bit. Thanks to the efforts of the Jack Kirby Collector, the Kirby-l internet forum, Mark Evanier and a host of supporters; many articles and publications refer to Kirby as a “co-creator” in the best sense of the word, and even Stan Lee — who is now in his 80’s — grudgingly admits that “…the artists practically wrote the books for me…” That’s probably as good an admission as we’re ever going to get from him. There’s a new group of creators in charge ay Marvel Entertainment these days and for the most part they are undoing past wrongs. In particular, Marvel’s Tom Brevoort has spearheaded a long list of Kirby-related reprint projects that have done much to keep Kirby’s name in circulation and Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada has also been a big supporter of Kirby’s contributions to the company since he came to the helm several years ago.
Which gets me back to Mark Evanier’s soon-to-be published book, Kirby: King of Comics. Hopefully it will provide a bit more insight on exactly “who did what.” Jack Kirby himself may not be alive to have seen it (he died in 1994) but certainly he’d be pleased that his story is finally being told.