Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part 3)

In November 1961 The Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands across America. The story of four uniquely powered individuals related to each other as relatives, in friendship and purpose, revolutionised the industry. Although clearly reminiscent of hundreds of Sci-fi books before this had a comparative naturalism to it that hadn’t been seen before blended with a cosmic purview informed by boundless imagination. It was powered by Marvel Editor-in-chief Stan Lee and seasoned comics artist Jack Kirby.

For almost a decade, Kirby provided Marvel’s house style, co-creating with Stan Lee many of the Marvel characters and designing their visual motifs. At Lee’s request he often provided ‘new-to-marvel artists ‘breakdown’ layouts, over which they would pencil in order to become acquainted with the Marvel look. As artist Gil Kane described:

‘Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company … It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but … Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field … [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists … and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. … Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me … It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.’

Highlights from the House of Ideas other than the Fantastic Four include: Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Uatu the Watcher, Magneto, Ego the Living Planet, the Inhumans and their hidden city Attilan and the Black Panther – comic’s first black superhero – and his African nation Wakanda. Last year and 2010 Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men grossed worldwide ($1,425,062,845) One Billion, four hundred and twenty five million, sixty two thousand, eight hundred and forty five dollars (A combination of $623,933,331 for Iron Man 2, $448,512,824 for Thor and $352,616,690 for X-Men: First Class). This was begun by two men, one of which was Jack Kirby. They cemented the concepts so clearly that while developed, the core values remain. All of them have the best writers, directors and actors vying to be a small part in the development of these ideas formed 51 years ago. Decades of the most talented artists have looked to Kirby for inspiration. His ideas as only presented more clearly, barely changed from the original concept design – perhaps drawn, in one case, on a table in Brooklyn many years before – with thoughts of war he hadn’t yet been called on to fight in his mind.

In March 1964, Simon and Kirby’s Captain America was also incorporated into Marvel, Kirby approving Lee’s idea of partially remaking the characters as a man out of his time and regretting the death of his partner. The suit returned almost exactly as it had been 23 years before. Last year, Captain America made $368,608,363 at the box office as Kirby’s suit stepped, again almost unchanged close to 70 years after the day it was designed on the back of Chris Evans.

In 1968 and 1969, Joe Simon was involved in litigation with Marvel Comics over the ownership of Captain America, initiated by Marvel after Simon registered the copyright renewal for Captain America in his own name. According to Simon, Kirby agreed to support the company in the litigation and, as part of a deal Kirby made with publisher Martin Goodman, signed over to Marvel any rights he might have had to the character.

Kirby continued to push the industries boundaries, devising photo collage covers and interiors reminiscent of ’80s artists in England playing with sellotape and photocopiers. Developing new drawing techniques such as the method of depicting energy fields known as ‘Kirbydots’ and other experiments. Able to handle high detail, explosive composition, emotion, perspective, conceptualisation and design – it was Kirby’s sense of scale that blows many artists away. Alien engines dwarf figures in certain panels, coils, springs and rivets collected together in such ways that they seem to be an optical illusion. Perspective twists in some of his environments such as Mr Fantastic’s lab in a way that somehow bends the eye. Many generations of artists have dismissed Kirby as dated or unsophisticated until presented with his depictions of machinery and the Silver Surfer.

A character of incredible simplicity, divinity and … just … cool. The concept of a humanoid riding the waves of space at incredible speeds highlights the natural beauty and associations with divine advancement incorporating the universe around it and the increased simplicity it brings. But none of that is said. But all of it is inherent. A perfectly formed, universally accessible character made even more interesting by Stan Lee by being a good man acting as herald to a being of unimaginable power. Again, the genius of the character is that it is a perfect template that can be adapted into anyone’s style. Much like any Kirby character you can mention. The simplicity and intuitive details he applies are often so universal that they are only more interesting with each new reinterpretation. While Iron Man had to inevitably change as technology developed, Thor still carries the same Hammer and wears the same white riveted top, Captain America still has his Red, White and Blue, the star on his chest and the skull cap design applied to him in the newest incarnation, the Ultimates, by Bryan Hitch is a throwback to Kirby’s original design, Hulk remains Green (as he was in his second appearance) and even had a Grey countenance as Peter David’s Joe Fixit in the ’90s – a nod to the original design. Black Panther, Magneto, The Inhumans and Attilan have also only ever been refined – never redesigned. This is the testament to the lasting influence of Kirby. Even the X-Men have retained the yellow and blue of their original uniforms for more than 45 years. Somehow Kirby just knew. Wiser than the rest of us what he put down on paper worked and generations of artists have never cracked how to improve on his original designs.

Yet, Kirby grew increasingly unhappy at Marvel. The reasons given for this included resentment over Stan Lee’s increasing media prominence, a lack of full creative control, anger over breaches of perceived promises by publisher Martin Goodman and at Marvel specifically for lack of credit for his story plotting, character creations and co-creations. He began to both script and draw some secondary features for Marvel, such as “The Inhumans” in Amazing Adventures, as well as horror stories for the anthology title Chamber of Darkness, and received full credit for doing so; but he eventually left the company in 1970 for rival DC Comics, under editorial director Carmine Infantino.

Spending nearly two years trying to negotiate a three year contract with the option of staying on a further two additional years. In 1970, at the age of 53, Kirby joined DC and immediately started creating a ‘Fourth World’. A trilogy of New Titles – New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People. He took on Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen because the series was without a stable creative team and he didn’t want to be responsible for losing anyone their job. The central villain of the Fourth World, Darkseid, and some other Fourth World concepts appeared in the pages of Jimmy Olsen before being launched as their own series, giving greater exposure to potential buyers. Jack Kirby remained an incredibly shrewd operator, still demonstrating the guile and forward thinking that is expected of great creative directors. Though here he was without a company, working as he had always wanted to. As a creative.

Kirby had a lasting effect on DC too, leaving characters that have recurred or consistently remained in the DC Universe, though not as centrally as the Marvel Universe. These included OMAC (seen in the Final Crisis crossover of 2009), Kamandi, The Demon, The Losers, Dingbats of Danger Street, Kobra and together with old partner Joe Simon for one last time, a new incarnation of the Sandman.

But it had to be said that rather than Kirby having Marvel blood in his veins, Marvel ran on Kirby Engine Oil and the company would always have taken him back. In 1975, Stan Lee used a Fantastic Four discussion panel to announce that Kirby was returning to Marvel. Ever the showman, Lee wrote in his monthly article ‘Stan Lee’s Soapbox’ that “I mentioned that I had a special announcement to make. As I started telling about Jack’s return, to a totally incredulous audience, everyone’s head started to snap around as Kirby himself came waltzin’ down the aisle to join us on the rostrum! You can imagine how it felt clownin’ around with the co-creator of most of Marvel’s greatest strips once more.”

Back at Marvel, Kirby both wrote and drew Captain America and created the series The Eternals, which featured a race of inscrutable alien giants, the Celestials, whose behind-the-scenes intervention in primordial humanity would eventually become a core element of Marvel Universe continuity. Kirby’s other Marvel creations in this period include Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and an adaptation and expansion of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as an abortive attempt to do the same for the classic television series, The Prisoner. He also wrote and drew Black Panther and did numerous covers across the line.

Still dissatisfied with Marvel’s treatment of him and with the companies refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, Kirby sadly left Marvel to work in animation. In that field, he did designs for Turbo Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and other animated television series. He also worked on The Fantastic Four cartoon show, reuniting him with scriptwriter Stan Lee. He illustrated an adaptation of the Walt Disney movie The Black Hole for Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales syndicated comic strip in 1979-80.

In the early 1980s, Pacific Comics, a new, non-newsstand comic book publisher, made a then-groundbreaking deal with Kirby to publish a creator-owned series Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers, and a six-issue mini-series called Silver Star which was collected in hardcover format in 2007. This, together with similar actions by other independent comics publishers as Eclipse Comics (where Kirby co-created Destroyer Duck in a benefit comic-book series published to help Steve Gerber fight a legal case versus Marvel), helped establish a precedent to end the monopoly of the work for hire system, wherein comics creators, even freelancers, had owned no rights to characters they created.
Though estranged from Marvel, Kirby continued to do periodic work for DC Comics during the 1980s, including a brief revival of his “Fourth World” saga in the 1984 and 1985 Super Powers mini-series and the 1985 graphic novel The Hunger Dogs. And in 1987, under much industry pressure, Marvel finally returned much of Kirby’s original art to him.
Kirby also retained ownership of characters used by Topps Comics beginning in 1993, for a set of series in what the company dubbed “The Kirbyverse”. These titles were derived mainly from designs and concepts that Kirby had kept in his files, some intended initially for the by-then-defunct Pacific Comics, and then licensed to Topps for what would become the “Jack Kirby’s Secret City Saga” mythos. Marvel posthumously published a “lost” Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four story, Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure (April 2008), with unused pages Kirby had originally drawn for Fantastic Four 108 (March 1971).
On February 6, 1994, Kirby died at age 76 of heart failure in his Thousand Oaks, California home. He was buried at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, Westlake Village, California.

Kirby’s legacy is enormous. Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis crossover hinged on Kirby’s Fourth World – specifically Darkseid himself – inflicting themselves on Earth, Captain America still leads the Avengers / Ultimates in colours picked out for him by a man he could have fought in the war with. The Hulk continues to smash, the Surfer continues to glide through the Marvel Universe. Artists around the world look to Kirby’s example of steadfast, unfussy iconography, simple, effective design and dizzying compositions. A generation of Marvel artists were trained by him. But more important than that, Jacob Kurtzberg of Suffolk Street, New York City built dreams others could build upon while simply building his own. He has influenced and inspired thousands of creatives (including this one) and built a House of Ideas that millions of people continue to enjoy. Kirby is a true legend to those who know, possibly the greatest comic book artist who ever lived. Responsible for the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and The Human Torch. If they existed, all of them would have visited the grave of Jack Kirby. The Hulk would have stood in the rain over Kirby’s resting place, a giant over a small guy’s crypt and simply said ‘Goodbye Dad’. With that, the broad shouldered goliath would turn and launch himself up into the sky, disappearing into the distance. If Kirby, lying where he was could see it he’d have thought ‘Good angle, but perhaps it could be just a little tighter…’

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Practitioners 46: Jim Lee

Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea on August 11, 1964 and emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four, growing up in St Louis Missouri. In Lee’s St. Louis Country Day School his classmates predicted he would found hi sown comic book company. Despite this, Lee seemed resigned to following in his father’s profession of medicine, studying psychology at Princeton University, with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. However, medicine’s loss was certainly going to be popular culture’s gain as Lee became one of the most influential and well known artists on the biggest selling comic book of all time. One that founded movie franchises and supported an ailing Marvel in the late ’90s and found some of the most famous comic companies in the world to rival it.

Lee’s rise to fame with Marvel Comics was inevitable as it was undeniable. In 1986, as Lee was preparing to graduate from his psychology degree, Lee took an art class that reignited his fascination with art at a time when seminal work such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen was reinvigorating the American comic book industry. With the psychology degree complete, Lee did something, with the reluctant blessing of his parents, that shows incredible courage and clarity of mind and self belief. He postponed his medical degree. The rest is without a doubt comic book history. He vowed he would return if he failed to break the comic book industry. Not something that should’ve worried him.

Submitting examples to various publishers, Lee did not see success until a New York comic book convention where he met Archie Goodwin, comic book editor (regularly cited as the ‘best loved comic book editor… ever), artist and writer who introduced him to Marvel Comics. Now it seems hard to believe that Lee was not snapped up immediately by the first commissioning editor to spot him but Lee exposes the nature of the industry. Retrospectively, artists are professional, passionate and confident in the style they work in and seem undeniable masters of their art but even the most capable artist can be subject to the pressures, misunderstandings, bad luck and bad timing of the industry. Lee began on Alpha Flight and moved over to Punisher: War Journal, his work there inspired by Frank Miller, David Ross, Kevin Nowlan and Whilce Portacio, as well as Japanese Manga.

Then came the crossing of two similar talents, one more senior than the other as Lee filled in for regular illustrator, Marc Silvestri on Uncanny X-Men 248, which was, due to positive response and Marvel’s own enthusiasm for Lee’s style followed up on issues 256 through to 258 as part of the ‘Acts of Vengeance’. The timing of this was key as X-Men, under Claremont was not only ground breaking and beautifully written at the time, it was on a meteoric rise in terms of popularity, beginning to challenge the more mainstream titles of Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Avengers. Eventually, Lee became Uncanny’s full time penciller, working for the first time with inker, Scott Williams, who would become his long time collaborator. To cement his position as an X-men innovator, Lee co-created the smooth talking mutant thief Gambit, with Chris Claremont. Lee’s popularity crystallised in these months, becoming more and more representative of what fan’s wanted. He gained increasingly greater control of the franchise and in 1991, Lee helped launch the second X-Men series, X-Men (Volume 2). He did so, not just as artist but as co-writer alongside Chris Claremont, giving the book a more broad and cutting edge feel to it’s perhaps more thoughtful predecessor. X-Men 1 was raw edged, fun comic book pinned with the wisdom and knowledge of an older and more restrained writer. Lee pushed Claremont’s boundaries while Claremont restrained the more inexperienced artist to just the right degree. The result was comic book history and rightfully so. However, Lee redesigned costumes, entirely successfully for Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Psylocke and Storm as well as creating villain Russian Super Soldier Omega Red.

X-Men 1 (Vol 2) remains the best selling comic book of all time with sales of 8.1 million (and nearly £7 million). This was confirmed in a public declaration by the Guinness Book of Records at the 2010 San Diego Comic con. While one aspect of it’s success was that it was released with five different variant covers as well as a limited edition gatefold edition that revealed it all in its glory, the success was thanks to Lee’s distinctive, modern take on a fan favourite and the development of the X-Men in an exciting new direction. The variant cover trick became a weight around collector’s necks in years following with Gold and Silver foil, holograms and gatefolds every few months for some titles, but this first incarnation was about piecing together a piece of art, mass produced and available to anyone who wanted it. Only Jim Lee and perhaps one or two other legends of the industry could’ve commanded such a response.

The success of X-men saw Lee hungering even more for greater creative control over his own work, and as soon as in 1992, Lee accepted an invitation to join six other artists (Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Rob Liefeld) who broke away from Marvel Comics to start Image Comics, which would release their own creator-owned titles. Lee’s batch of titles included Wild C.A.T.s, which Lee pencilled and co-wrote, and other series created in the same universe, including Stormwatch, Deathblow and arguably the more successful Gen13.

Lee and his close friend, Valiant Comics publisher Steve Massarsky, arranged a Valiant / Image crossover, Lee’s characters being used, alongside those of Rob Liefeild. Four central titles would exist – two from each company – in single edition format, each edition known as a colour rather than a number, plus a prologue and epilogue book. Wildstorm produced Deathmate Black, with Lee himself contributing to the writing, illustrating the covers of that book, as well as contributing to the prologue’s interior links. The assignment was given to Valiant creators against their better judgment, in particular Editor-in-chief Bob Layton, who complained about Image’s inability to meet their deadlines. Deathmate Black came out a few months after Valiant’s Blue and Yellow installments, which had come out on time, and Liefeld’s Deathmate Red was so late that Layton flew to California to procure that chapter personally, and ink it himself in an Anaheim hotel room. Layton see’s Deathmate’s lateness as one of Valiant’s ‘unmitigated disasters’ and views that project as the beginning of the spectacular collapse of the 1990s for the comic book industry. A collpase that would pull in Marvel and a collapse that comics has not, if ever, recovered from.

Wildstorm continued on, expanding it’s line to include other ongoing titles. As publisher, Lee later expanded this by creating two separate imprints for Wildstorm, Cliffhanger and Homage (to be replaced again years later to reform as a single Wildstorm Imprint, now owned by DC).

Moving back, with Rob Liefeld, to Marvel for the Heroes Reborn alternate universe storyline of the mid-late nineties, Lee was given the opportunity to plot the new Iron Man and wrote and illustrated The Fantastic Four. Both used existing storyarcs and developed them, bringing them more up to date. The innovations on these titles, however, were arguably greater than the more successful Ultimate Universe that has existed since as an Imprint of Marvel, though that is more subject to greater popularity of the industry as well as greater sophistication in art and writing in modern comic books.

Lee returned to Wildstorm, where he would publish series such as The Authority and Planetary, as well as Alan Moore’s imprint, America’s Best Comics. Lee himself wrote and illustrated a 12-issue series called Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday, in which an internet slacker inadvertently manages to download the secrets of the universe, and is thrown into a wild fantasy world.

Sourced from HERE Check out the gallery there for more awesome images. Thanks to Alexandre Bihn for the awesome scan.

In a typically astute and decisive choice, Lee sold Wildstorm to DC in 1998 because he felt that his role as publisher was interfering with his role as an artist. In an echo of the choice made many years previously, he put his calling first. In 2003, Lee collborated with Jeph Loeb for a 12 issue Batman run. Introducing a new nemesis from Batman’s past, ‘Hush’ was a tightly packed and neatly executed trip through the Bat universe. Lee’s images were sumptuous, his design work intricate, emotive and innovative. Lee, the artist, through all the pitfalls and difficulties of publishing had lost none of the values and passion he had when working on X-Men 1 more than 12 years before. He followed this up with ‘For Tomorrow’ a 12-issue story in Superman by 100 Bullets writer (and Bunker firm favourite) Brian Azzarelo, although this didn’t achieve the same level of success, Lee’s work showed a maturity and stillness that perhaps wasn’t visible in his earlier career. In 2005, Lee collaborated with Frank Miller on All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, a series plagued by delays. Lee’s work was spotless throughout, in particular a redesign of the batmobile and a gatefold image that folded out from the book itself that revealed the full scale of this Elseworld Batcave. While Lee’s contribution was near infallible, Miller’s writing was unsophisticated and cynical in most ways and alienated a great many readers. During this period, Lee returned to WildC.A.T.S with Grant Morrison. The gap between All-Star Batman and Robin 4 and 5 was one year and to date, only 1 issue of WildC.A.T.S (Vol 4 has been published. During thsi time, Lee also drew covers for the Infinite Crisis series.

Lee was named Executive Creative Director for DC Universe Online MMORPG. This was released in 2009, with Lee responsible for concept art for the project.

Lee’s meteoric rise did not falter there, as he has now taken a position alongside Dan Didio as Co-publisher of DC Comics. Despite obvious concerns, Lee maintains that this will in no way effect his capacity as a creative. He cited two projects, Dark Knight: Boy Wonder – a follow up of the Frank Miller series he had worked on and also a painted cover for Giuseppe Camuncoli’s layouts in Batman: Europa 1. Neither projects have surfaced yet. The Wildstorm imprint was officially declared ended by DC in September 2010.

With DC’s enormous revamp of it’s entire line, A-List artists were brought to the forefront to work on the most prominent titles. With a Justice League movie in discussion /pre-production at present DC was always going to put JL first in their choices of creative teams. The illustrious team of Jim Lee as penciller and Geoff Johns as writer is certainly, still, a cocktail that no true fan of the artform can ignore. If anything that is Lee’s great talent. Enduring popularity. His art work remains so fresh and clear, and so respresentative of what people want from their books – in spite of changes in the industry itself – that Lee has proven himself a Practitioner who has wandered away from the thing he is most beloved for, but like a much younger, more south east asian Peter Cook, retains a place in every fan who ever saw his work. This is testament to Lee’s enormous talent. His offers to put out projects reveals a conflict of interests that has taken him away perhaps too much in the last two decades, however he is a brave artist who pursued greater goals. Without finding ourself in the same situation who are we to say we wouldn’t pursue those same goals…. however Lee’s example is certainly a cautionary one. Swathes of exceptional artwork, pages and pages of classic comic work haven’t seen the light of day. From the top down the industry runs on one thing – putting out the best books possible. While we can never undermine someone’s right to do whatever they want – what would we have given to see more Lee?