20 May 2009

Four-Colour Yesteryears: The 'Third Age' Of Jack Kirby, Part I

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at the periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

By Rob N

Throughout the Sixties Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had been the Lennon & McCartney (or Morrissey & Marr) of comic books. Between them they had virtually created most of what is now recognised as the early age of Marvel comics. Their creative output still shapes the modern Marvel Universe. Many of the ongoing titles and characters are drawn from the creative pool established during the prolific Silver Age. As a creative partnership they were perfect. Kirby was the man obsessed with the grandeur of what comics could present. He was obsessed with great SF concepts and continually argued to pit the Fantastic Four against cosmic forces. Without him you would not have had the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, the Negative Zone, and the epic scope of those early Thor comics. Stan Lee on the other hand was the soap opera writer, and without him you would not have had the balancing factors of the human relationships in the Spider-Man title and the marriage of Reed and Sue in Fantastic Four. They worked hand in glove to produce comics that very quickly were light years apart from the traditional DC template. Kirby had already enjoyed a ‘first age’ of creativity before Marvel came in to being, when he worked on the Golden Age stable of characters with writers such as Joe Simon. With Marvel he was in the spotlight again with the second age of his career.

But by the end of the Sixties Kirby had become a victim of his own success. Paralleling perhaps the many successful rock musicians who had signed unfair contracts before releasing million-selling albums, Kirby found himself to be the source of most of Marvel’s income. Like all the other Marvel artists, Kirby was working for a contract rate, and he enjoyed little in the way of royalties from his work. As Marvel branched out into licensed products based on its characters, Kirby was excluded from a share of the pie. To add insult to injury he was not even entitled to the return of his original artwork. Already by the late Sixties there was a growing market for original comic book art, and despite the fact that Kirby’s art was supposed to be lodged safely in the Marvel vaults, pages were ‘disappearing’ to be quickly traded for high prices. Kirby of course didn’t see a penny for these sales. In fact he’d very often be signing books at a US convention and find himself faced with a page of his original artwork that should have in theory been lodged at Marvel HQ. The smiling fan would have the cheek to ask for an autograph on it. Many years later Marvel would claim the pages in question were lost when it followed a policy of returning artwork to the original artists, provided they signed away various rights to the characters they helped create.

Kirby was also frustrated by Stan Lee’s reluctance to accept his new ideas for titles. Unofficially Kirby had already shown promise as a writer of plots and concepts, though his actual talent at writing dialogue was largely untried and untested. The Marvel system of script writing differed from the DC one and it was commonplace for artists at Marvel to have a say in the writing of a story. When Marvel began, Stan Lee was responsible for writing all of the superhero titles. Writing full scripts for each title was beyond the talents of any single man, and therefore Lee quickly devised a short-hand method of scripting. He would plot out a rough story, sometimes on paper, but sometimes verbally round a table with the artists in question. The artist would go away with either the plot outline in hand, or the memory of the conversation in mind (!), and draw the required number of pages. Artists such as Jack Kirby were responsible for translating a story outline into smoothly paced scenes that would fit inside the covers of the
comic book. The finished art would bounce back to Stan Lee who would then write dialogue for the various panels. Quite often Lee wouldn’t know what he was going to write in the word balloons until he saw what his artists had done with the plot outline. Sometimes the pages could come as quite a surprise to Lee. When the plot for Fantastic Four #48 was discussed, Lee had in mind a cosmic villain who swiftly became Galactus. When he saw the finished art he also saw another character that he hadn’t expected:

"When he brought it to me so that I could add the dialogue and captions, I was surprised to find a brand-new character floating around the artwork -- a silver-skinned, smooth-domed, sky-riding surfer on a surfboard. When I asked ol' Jackson who he was, Jack replied something to the effect that a supremely powerful gent like Galactus would surely require the services of a herald who could serve him as an advance guard."


Conversely, as the grand architect of the Marvel Universe (or at least the public face, as perceived by the readership at the time), Stan Lee was getting progressively more famous than his co-creator. As far as a lot of fans were concerned, it was Lee who deserved all the creative credit. Eventually Jack Kirby could take no more. He had spoken to Stan and proposed a series of comics based on his own ideas; ideas that he wanted to take creative control of. Kirby was, at that time, a workaholic who spent every available hour sketching out new concepts for characters. Most of these were done in his private time, and therefore he could (and did) claim them as his own when he eventually decided to jump ship to DC. Stan wasn’t keen on the concepts for one reason or another and preferred to keep Kirby where he was most in demand – pencilling the big name superhero titles. Behind Lee’s back Kirby entered into talks with (then) DC big shot Carmine Infantino. An agreement was made where Jack would be allowed to launch a series of his own titles, and enjoy creative freedom over and above any other artist at the time, provided he would take on one existing DC title as well.

DC had been stagnating throughout the Sixties. Faced with the overwhelming juggernaut that was Marvel, its sales were slipping year after year. Infantino could see which way the wind was blowing for National (the actual name for DC at the time) and was keen to turn the company around – to modernise it for the 1970s. To bag Kirby – the man co-responsible for most of Marvel’s success - seemed like an obvious no-brainer idea that would reinvigorate DC overnight. The ongoing title that Jack chose probably surprised everyone: Jimmy Olsen – a low profile, second-string book that survived courtesy of the ‘Superman’s Pal’ tagline. According to the story at the time, the Olsen book was looking for a new writer/artist, and as Jack was reluctant to put another writer out of work by bumping him from his current assignment, it was ideally suited for him to take over without treading on anyone’s toes. But if that choice of comic was to be a surprise to his many fans, then his cosmic SF masterwork – a set of three new inter-connected titles dubbed ‘The Fourth World’ - was to bewilder them even more. Kirby was about to enter his third, and most controversial period of creativity with the launch of Mister Miracle, Forever People and New Gods.

To be continued…


Kirby Fan said...

I really was a privilege to have lived through those years and been thrilled by the monthly instalments. It was obvious even back then that something was happening that would surpass the norm for comics. Wish I could have made my parents believe that, they thought anything that was a comic had to be rubbish.


Tom P said...

A great read, The sale of the art work from the Marvel vaults and the way they treated the artists is sick, and the script structure sounds mad! Being a 20 something I'm still catching up on my classics I have mostly read Kirbys stuff in reprint, my dream is to one day start a classic collection of his FF. Just need more Bloody money...