8 Jul 2009

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

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

Click here for Part 1, here for Part 2, here for Part 3 and here for Part 4.

If there had been criticism levelled at Kirby for what he had done in turning the clock back for Captain America, that was nothing compared to the outrage fans felt when Jack relaunched Black Panther. The bar had been set extremely high with the Don McGregor run in Jungle Action: the story arc, Panther’s Rage, was a master class in how to write superhero fiction with literary merit. The later issues in particular, when T’Challa embarked on a quest to track down and avenge himself against Erik Killmonger, stood head and shoulders above most other Marvel product. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the McGregor run was, to earlier appearances of the Panther, what Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was to the Dylan original.

Kirby of course couldn’t even begin to approach the quality of McGregor’s writing, and to his credit he didn’t try. He delivered his usual light-hearted adventure escapism with an endless display of inventiveness, but the problem was he was doing it to a sacred cow of comic book literature. It would be like John Byrne writing/drawing a sequel to Maus, only doing it in the style of Sergeant Fury and his Howlin' Commandos.

It just didn’t seem right. McGregor had crafted a realistic Africa, packed with detail and social commentary. When he had taken the Panther back to America, he had involved T’Challa in the inherent racism of the Southern states, with the Klan forefront in the story. It was weighty, serious storytelling. Jack Kirby’s Quest For King Solomon’s Frog wasn’t really in the same league. And yet Kirby wasn’t consciously trying to annoy anyone. He was simply telling the sorts of stories he enjoyed writing – bizarre flights of fantasy, barely grounded in the real world. He didn’t seem to understand this new found ‘realism’ in comics. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. For Jack, comics were supposed to be fun. He didn’t want to adapt his style to this soul searching, more solemn world.

Machine Man was a character that had appeared in two issues of 2001: A Space Odyssey. By all accounts the character (quite obviously a machine built to look like a man) seemed to appeal to fans, perhaps because of its Spock-like qualities. The popularity must have been misjudged as the solo title bombed and was cancelled before it really had a chance to go anywhere.

Why Marvel thought that Devil Dinosaur would succeed remains a mystery to me. The tale of a monkey boy and his red dinosaur friend, having prehistoric adventures together, couldn’t possibly have been a serious stab at launching a commercial hit title, and yet it appeared on the spinner racks with the usual Marvel hype. Perhaps they just assumed it couldn’t be any worse sales wise than anything else Jack came up with. It failed to last even a year.

The writing was on the wall. Kirby’s titles for Marvel in the Seventies had proved no more successful than his titles for DC. Kirby began to drift aimlessly, still producing great covers at a reasonable pace, but his heart was no longer in the comics industry. When the chance came to work in TV animation, he made the big leap and left Marvel for the second and final time.

The story of Kirby and Marvel sadly doesn’t h
ave a happy ending. Later in the Eighties, Marvel bowed to pressure and began to return original artwork to the artists responsible for them. When Jack tried to reclaim his art though, he was presented with a four-page document which Marvel required him to sign first. It was a seriously restrictive document designed to counter any possibility of Jack claiming any part in the creative process of Marvel. Gary Groth, editor of the esteemed Comics Journal summed up the document in issue 101:

"The Agreement Marvel demands Kirby sign is a degrading document. In addition to strengthening their rights to own material he created - rights about which they are obviously concerned - the Agreement revokes his constitutional right to seek redress in a court of law if he so chooses; it denies him the right to help other artists dispute 'Marvel's complete, exclusive and unrestricted worldwide right to ownership of the copyright' to [their] work; denies Kirby the right to exhibit his own artwork without first notifying Marvel; allows Marvel access to make copies of the original artwork they returned; states that Kirby cannot sell his own artwork unless the buyer signs a copy of the same Agreement; and so on."

Marvel had begun to display a callous attitude towards the writers and artists who had created the stable of characters and concepts that was its bread and butter. Marvel Editor in Chief, Jim Shooter, in particular made the following statement in court in 1986 (in the case of Fleisher v. The Comics Journal) which illustrates only too well how important writers and artists were deemed to be by the corporate hierarchy:

NORWICK: "Wouldn't you agree that it is Michael Fleisher (the writer ‘credited’ with authorship of the story under discussion) and not the editor who is associated with that particular story? Wouldn't you agree with that?"

SHOOTER: “That's a mistake that a fan would make. Anyone in the profession would know better."

NORWICK: “Do you think it's unfair for people to associate the writer with the product that is published under that writer's name?"

SHOOTER: "I think that the fact that the writer's name is on the material is a courtesy. It's something that Stan Lee started doing in the '60's."

That same year Stan Lee was asked at the San Diego comic convention about Jack’s creative input in the 1960s. Did Lee feel that Jack had played any part in creating any of the characters Marvel was famous for?

"As far as I can remember these things happening, I was the editor and head writer at Marvel, and Jack was an artist who worked for us." – Stan Lee

There in a nutshell was Jack’s legacy in the eyes of corporate Marvel and the man who had relied on him for a decade. Jack was "an artist who worked for us."

Contemporary Marvel artist, Gil Kane, offered the following comments regarding the level of input an artist could expect from Stan Lee:

"Stan, on the other hand, would give you very little. I remember in this particular sequence that I think had to do with Gwen Stacy, he told me: 'I'd like you to draw a character like Broderick Crawford as the villain.' But that was about it. So I put together what I could from the material we had done before. I mean, there's a kind of continuity that gives you at least a direction for the material, from what preceded it. I'd build it up and bring it in, and he'd take a look at it: 'Yeah, yeah, yeah... Oh, geez, I don't like this at all.' And although I didn't say it to him, I'd think in my mind: 'Well, why the fuck don't you write it yourself? You're getting paid for it!' But we all went through that. Including Jack. Jack made up all those stories, and I'm positive he'd made up practically all the characters, with very few exceptions." – Gil Kane (THE COMICS JOURNAL #186).

The legacy of the third age of Jack Kirby is still with us today. The characters and concepts he was responsible for at both DC and Marvel have been resurrected many times after he left. Darkseid, the New Gods, the Eternals, even such minor
characters as Machine Man and OMAC have inspired many other writers and artists over the years to the point where they are now a permanent feature of both sets of comic book mythologies. There is no doubt that Kirby will always be remembered as a fantastic visual artist, but in addition to that his character concepts live on too.

But above all else, the third age of Jack Kirby does point to a definitive answer to the question of how big a part he played in the creation of the Marvel Universe. No one doubts that Kirby created the plethora of characters from the New Gods onwards when he was free of Stan Lee’s shadow. Now get a pen and paper and make a list of the equivalent concepts Stan Lee came up with after he was no longer working with Kirby. Or come to that, what Stan Lee created in the twenty years he was writing before working with Kirby in the early Sixties. Not a very big list, is it? Not a very big list at all.

Jack Kirby: "an artist who worked for us." – Stan Lee.

1 comment:

boo said...

more great stuff from kirby central!

i have to confess i've never read the classy sounding black panther stuff that preceeded 'solomons frog', but from what you say here, it's no wonder folk were up in arms when jack's run commenced. i for one though, having read it out of continuity thought it was another classic and hilarious psychedelic ride from the king, and the cover of issue #1 is one of my fave kibry's. i suspect that being in the war switched off the part of jack's brain that catered for creating gritty realism, and left the kaleioscopic idealism channel wide open! his stuff was never even close to gratuitously violent, whereas i love drawing a good bit of the old ultraviolence - i've never been in a war.....

devil dinosaur is a rare gem and an even crazier kettle of fish. against the backdrop of contemporary releases it's no surprise it bombed, but i would sooner have the hardback of devil dinosaur dished out in schools than the bible...would you adam 'n' eve it?