Sad news: Greg Theakston—publisher, artist, former convention organizer (The Detroit Triple Fan Fair), longtime member of Neal Adams’s Continuity Studios, Kirby inker (The Hunger Dogs; Super Powers) and Kirby scholar—has passed away at the age of 65. My condolences to his colleagues and loved ones.
Theakston published, under his Pure Imagination imprint, a great many books of vintage comics and of comics history. For me, especially early on, his books on Kirby were valuable compendiums of comics and lore, anecdote and example. Especially important to me were the two volumes of his biographical Jack Kirby Treasury (1982; 1991), the several volumes in his Complete Jack Kirby reprint project, and the second edition (2000) of his reprint of Kirby’s classic comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force. While the artwork in Theakston’s comic book reprints was typically drawn from published comics that had been stripped of color through a destructive chemical process nicknamed “Theakstonizing,” and thus did not quite do justice to the comics as originally printed, these collections did the great service of filling in what had been only vague outlines in my mind before. I got a hands-on feeling for Kirby’s early work from these tomes. In addition, Theakston’s two-volume biography of Kirby, Jack Magic (2011), is well worth seeking out, peppered as it is with insights and quoted remarks drawn from his personal acquaintance with Kirby. Along with biographers Mark Evanier, Ronin Ro, the late Stan Taylor, and Ray Wyman, Jr., Theakston sought to make sense of Kirby’s life and career, even as he sought to bring evidence of that career before our eyes via reprints. Beyond Kirby, too, Theakston provided such resources as his Pure Image magazine and various “readers” devoted to generally public-domain material by classic cartoonists like Jack Cole, Lou Fine, and Wally Wood. So, Theakston did a lot, and taught me and other readers a fair amount.
True, I learned to be critical of Theakston’s books. As I see them now, they tend to be haphazardly edited and aesthetically barren; the Pure Imagination “house style” is functional but graceless. Further, the books were high-priced, and aimed strictly at a captive audience of specialists. Most vanished quickly. Theakston moved on, his books seemingly a random scattering rather than any sort of coherent pattern. (His Complete Jack Kirby was anything but.) Moreover, Theakston became a vexing figure in recent years; in 2014, he publicly accused the Jack Kirby Museum of stealing more than 3000 photocopies of Kirby’s art from him (a claim disputed by the Kirby estate itself). That dustup caused some Kirby devotees to turn away from him, shaking their heads. I was one.
I never “got” Theakston artistically. Despite his enthusiasm for Kirby, aesthetically he seemed worlds away from what excited me about Kirby’s art. I gather that Theakston was a prolific magazine and paperback cover illustrator, but the samples of his work I’ve seen strike me as beholden to pulp nostalgia in ways that interest me no longer. He inked Kirby in ways that struck me as more tame than dynamic. What’s more, I have to admit I’m a skeptic when it comes to the brand of retro glam-cheesecake-pinup art that seemed to hold him in thrall and fueled some of his longest-lived publishing efforts (The Bettie Pages; Tease). Theakston’s way with paint seemed to have more to do with that kind of Vargas/Elvgren aesthetic than the rowdy cartooning of Kirby, and, well, I’m no convert. But it would be mean and foolish of me to deny that I benefited from his nostalgia, his enthusiasm, his immersion in vintage comic and pulp art. There was a time when I snagged every Pure Imagination book on Kirby that I could, and I see a bunch of them on my shelves, right here.
My one brief meeting with Greg Theakston (which convention was that at?) led to nothing; he seemed uninterested. But that makes no difference; the important thing to me is that he showed me aspects of Kirby I had never seen before, and helped me get a clearer picture. In particular, his 1982 Kirby Treasury meant a lot to me. So, thanks to Mr. Theakston for being a Kirby studies pioneer. RIP.