Kirby at 100 by Mark Evanier
If he were still with us, Jack Kirby would have been one hundred years old today…but of course, an awful lot of Jack is still with us. Hundreds of characters he created or co-created are still appearing, many of them in hit movies that have made them more famous than ever. Back in the sixties, Jack predicted that there would someday be highly-successful, big budget motion pictures of Thor, Captain America, et al. He told me that when I first met him in 1969.
One of the reasons he never got his financial due out of Marvel was that the folks who ran Marvel back then never believed that. They had a limited idea of how much anything in Marvel Comics could ever be worth and didn't want to share those meager amounts with anyone. It was pretty simple math: The less they paid Jack and all the other folks who created their comics, the more they got to keep for themselves. When he told them what he saw as the potential value of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the rest, they nodded politely, refused him five-dollar raises and joked behind his back that he was out of his friggin' mind. And later, they sold the company for beads 'n' trinkets because they lacked the one thing Jack had by the tonweight: Imagination.
Jack's spirit and influence are also evident in 2017 in projects featuring characters and properties he never touched directly — and not just comic books. I see Kirby in movies and TV shows and advertising and videogames and animations and toy design and even in fine art. Anywhere someone makes a visual statement, you're likely to find at least some talent influenced — directly or indirectly — by Jack Kirby.
It is important to understand that when we, his fans and admirers, speak of the talent of Jack Kirby, we are not just speaking of the drawing. The drawing was great. The drawing was wonderful. We would be celebrating this man today just for the drawing. But the drawing was a function and a means of expression for Jack Kirby the Visionary — a man who dealt in concepts and creations and stories, and who always thought in bigger pictures than anything he could put down on a comic book page.
Jack was all about the story and the idea…and more importantly, the next story and the next idea. That was a key reason that so much of what appeared in Marvel comics of the sixties could later spin-off or be expanded upon. Someone else working on Fantastic Four might have come up with a new villain good for one issue and maybe a few repeat appearances down the line. With Jack, you got characters who could be brought back again and again and even stand on their own. That's why there is now an Inhumans TV series. That's why there have been Silver Surfer films and comics. Even his weakest ideas were worth building upon.
It was that way with the comics Jack wrote on his own. It was that way with the comics where Jack had a collaborator, even a collaborator who got sole writer credit. Kirby almost never drew what someone else told him to draw, nor did most of them even want him to. He almost always controlled how the story was told — what happened in each panel and on each page. That, some people do not seem to grasp, is writing. Devising or even just contributing to the plot is also writing.
He almost always added in new characters, new supporting players, new ideas. Two or three times when my then-partner Steve Sherman and I worked with him, he'd assign us to plot out some sequence in one of his comics. We'd sweat over the material and hand it in, and Jack would always tell us we'd done a great, fantastic, fine job…
…and then he'd use almost none of it — and by "almost none," I'm probably overstating how much he did use.
I felt at first like we'd failed but I came to understand that was just the way Jack worked and he could no more stop doing that than he could have started drawing left-handed. He didn't follow others' scripts and plots slavishly or sometimes at all. He didn't even follow his own stories. He'd tell me and/or Steve the plot of the next New Gods or Forever People he was slated to write and draw. It would be a brilliant tale and we would make our major contribution by saying something like, "That sounds terrific, Jack" and then we'd go home, which was our second most-important contribution.
Then the next week, we'd go back out to his home and read, right off the original art, what he'd written and drawn. On those pages might well be very little of the plot he'd told us not seven days before, the plot he'd started drawing as soon as we left. I'd say, "Uh, Jack, what happened to that story you told us last week?" and he'd be absolutely unaware of any shift.
As a professional writer of 48 years now — to some extent, due to this man — I understand that sometimes you sit down to write one thing and for good or ill, wind up writing something else…and sometimes, you really don't know how you got from there to here. With Jack, he always knew where he was going but he had the kind of brain that could find a dozen ways to get there. And of course, sometimes if you take alternate routes, they lead you to alternate destinations.
In the last year or two, as a result of a legal action — and also, I'm told, some folks at Disney who felt it was right — the credits on most of the properties Kirby launched with Stan Lee began to read "Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby." During his lifetime, this was something Jack only saw when someone at Marvel wasn't paying attention and the truth accidentally got through. Now, it is contractually guaranteed and everything Disney has put out to honor Jack has made it clear that this is not merely a way of saying Jack drew up Stan's ideas. Those comics were co-creations in every sense.
Fans can and will probably forever argue that a given comic was 70% one guy and 30% the other, or insist one particular character was mostly Stan or mostly Jack. Having worked myself in collaborations where the participants could sometimes not honestly separate who'd contributed what, I have a limited enthusiasm for those debates. I also have my own theories on what each contributed and I expound on them in the big, exhaustive bio of Jack that I hope to finish soon. (Hint: I believe that when Stan says "I wrote that comic" and Jack said, "I wrote that comic," those two men are not using the same definition of the word "write" but they both made significant contributions.)
The important thing is that Jack has been fully recognized as co-creator in time for his Centennial. I can't tell you how happy that makes me. He was a dear man…kind and generous. They may have called him "The King" but if you approached him, he was just a guy named Jack who was glad to talk to you about almost anything, including your work and your projects and your career. Just being around him made you feel smarter and more creative.
He inspired those he met and those he didn't. It was better if you did meet him but from afar and even since he passed in '94, many, many people have been motivated to write and/or draw, not necessarily in the same style and not necessarily in the same media. There are prose authors who've told me they were inspired by Jack, sculptors who've told me they were inspired by Jack, musicians who've told me they were inspired by Jack…I once even had a spot welder tell me he was inspired by Jack. I'm not sure I fully understood that last one but it had something to do with the maximum effort on every Kirby page motivating the spot welder to put maximum effort into every weld. Or something.
The photo above is of me sitting next to Jack at, I believe, a 1971 comic convention at the Disneyland Hotel. If it wasn't shot there, it was at some other con close to that date. I was 19 that year and well aware of the singular honor and boon of Jack Kirby — a man who needed no assistants — taking me on as one. With each passing year since, I increase my estimate of what that opportunity was worth. To just be around that man and his mind was/is a still-expanding privilege.
But I'll tell you: Though you can't sit with the man and hear his stories and his insights, you can get a helluva lot of them in the work he left us, particularly the stories he wrote, drew and edited in the seventies. Most of them are in print…and for the ones that aren't, just wait a year or two and they'll be back. They have an amazing staying power and a unique relevance to the world today. They're so rich that every time I read them, I see things that weren't there on previous readings. I get things that weren't there on previous readings.
And I pause and think, "Wow. He died in 1994 and I'm still learning from that man." Happy Jack Kirby Day, everyone. We were sure lucky to have him.