Category Archives: Kirby’s Life

Get, Read: The Oven, by James Romberger

Jack Kirby is in danger of becoming a mythological character. On the one hand, he is now a “Disney Legend,” his name and career story coopted to bolster the continuing mythification of Marvel. Hype for recent and forthcoming film blockbusters has brought Kirby to, almost literally, Disney’s Main Street:

Walt Disney Presents marquee

Jack Kirby, Disney Legend

On the other, scholars and creators have recently made Kirby into a literary character, on the stage and on the page: protagonist of both fantastical homages and more grounded historical fictions. Examples of the former can be found in, say, DC’s 2017 spate of one-shot “Specials” celebrating Kirby’s centenary (notably, the Sandman special dated Oct. 2017) or Tom King and company’s tragic homage in the pages of the otherwise-boring Kamandi Challenge (Nov. 2017). These are fantasies: dreams of Kirby freed from the rigors of historiography. For the latter, the more grounded historical fictions, take for example the biographical play King Kirby by Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente (2014), premiered Off-Off Broadway at The Brick in 2014, or another biographical play, The King and Me, by Dutch writer Ger Apeldoorn (2015), performed in the UK, the Netherlands, the US, and most recently in conjunction with the exhibition Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super-héros in Cherbourg France.

For Real 1 cover.jpg

But consider too the comics informed by the details of Kirby’s life: Tom Scioli and Jean Depelley’s collaboration on “Private Kirby Adventures,” based on Kirby’s experience as a combat infantryman, or Scioli’s graphic biography in progress. Such projects undertake serious research into Kirby’s life, and constitute sequels, of a sort, to Kirby’s own classic autobiographical comic, “Street Code.” James Romberger’s just-released “The Oven” could be added to this list. It’s a subtle piece whose version of Kirby, while admittedly fictive, is sensitively and convincingly drawn. It’s also a beautiful comic.

Opening splash of James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

“The Oven,” opening panel

In “The Oven,” an elderly Kirby goes from his drawing board to the hospital, and a CAT scan, even as his mind turns back to the war-ravaged fields of France, circa 1944, and his own near-fatal encounter, as a foot soldier, with a troop of Nazis—a haunting moment in a brick and tile factory in the town of Corny, on the banks of the Moselle River. Romberger’s panels shift from black to gray as the older Kirby, near seventy, shifts from the present of the hospital back to his indelible memories of war, when he was in his late twenties. Young Kirby and a fellow soldier get holed up in factory kilns—ovens for baking ceramics—each one a squat octagon, a little cell. The kilns’ warmth draws the soldiers in; they are cozy:

A page from James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

Kirby, elder and younger: entrapment in “The Oven”

But then Germans troops enter the factory, and the two GIs have to hide inside the kilns, quiet, desperate. This scene runs parallel to the older Kirby’s immersion in the cell of a CT scanner, as he undergoes a test for cancer. Both, as Kirby’s dialogue suggests, are “tight spots,” pivotal and implicitly life-threatening moments. Romberger, however, takes a discreet, understated approach—there are no histrionics here—and ends on a near-silent page in which Kirby returns to his drawing board, while awaiting a doctor’s call (with test results). I found this last page quietly moving.

The conclusion of James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

Back to the drawing board…

“The Oven,” a 20-page short, appears in the first issue of Romberger’s projected anthology series For Real, which aims to focus on fact-based comics stories and essays (a typically quixotic and unconventional project for its publisher, the terrific Uncivilized Books). Alongside “The Oven” runs a roughly 10-page essay by Romberger, “The Real Thing,” which makes the case that Kirby’s wartime experience was life-changing and central to his art. Romberger breaks new ground in this now-familiar territory, stressing the “intimate acknowledgement of trauma and suffering” that suffuses Kirby’s work, and contrasting Kirby to other comics creators—notably the great Alex Toth, whose war comics, Romberger notes, have a sanitized glamour and little of Kirby’s lived-in, haunted quality. There are anecdotes and insights here that Kirby scholars will want to plumb.

Page detail from James Romberger's comic "The Oven"

I love the matter-of-factness here.

“The Oven” is a speculative biographical fantasy. Romberger is frank about fictionalizing Kirby’s experiences; he calls his story a mix of “approximation” and “guesstimation,” and begs indulgence for “the liberties I have taken.” Yet “The Oven” is also a respectful and soulful effort, persuasive in the unassuming way it depicts Kirby and his wife Roz. Geographical and biographical details are suggested rather that ostentatiously insisted upon; in effect, Romberger hides the depth of his research, or rather, does not ask to be hailed for it. “The Oven” goes by disarmingly quickly, belying the depth of knowledge and care surely required to make it.

Graphically, rather than aiming for spectacle in the familiar late-Kirby mode, Romberger’s drawing harks back to the plainspokenness of much of Toth’s work. Romberger’s naturalism, brushwork, and lettering all recall Toth, and the spartan four-tier grid that he favors here reminds me of the restrained three-tier, six-panel pages that were common in Toth’s Dell comics around the late 1950s. Shorn of the vivid colors that partner Marguerite Van Cook often brings to Romberger’s work (see their superb collaborations on Seven Miles a Second and The Late Child), “The Oven” is spare, unadorned work, with loose and rugged figures, muted body English, and minimal yet effective evocations of “tight” spaces. The freedom of the rendering remind me of other artists who have learned from Toth (Tony Salmons, say). But the tamped-down storytelling and hushed suspense are distinctly Romberger’s. The pages look as if they were drawn directly from the mind.

For Real #1 is a fascinating comic book, and highly recommended. “The Oven,” in particular, is excellent: a believable homage that links together Kirby’s well-known war experience and his less well-known fight with cancer near the end of his life. I’d call it a biographical dream—deeply affecting, and highly recommended. Look for it in better comic shops on Nov. 6.

Kirby Day 2019

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Kirby at work, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sept. 1972. Photo by and (c) David Folkman.

Today, August 28, I call Kirby Day. This would have been the 102nd birthday of Jack Kirby (b. Jacob Kurtzberg, 1917-1994), as inventive and influential a comics creator as the field has ever seen, and one of the under-appreciated architects of what is now 21st century popular culture, both in the US and around the world. On this day, this unofficial holiday, why not donate to The Hero Initiative in support of veteran comics creators in need? Giving back on Kirby’s birthday is a grand tradition that deserves continuing.

Hero Initiative masthead

And, if you’re in or near New York City — not, like me, on the wrong coast — then why not join the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center this evening on the Lower East Side, Kirby’s point of origin, for their celebratory walking tour and mixer? That sounds wonderful. It’s a free, non-ticketed event (the precise starting point and other info can be found on the Museum’s site at the above link). Kirby belongs to the world, but his roots in NYC deserve to be recognized and retraced. (How about a commemorative plaque at Kirby’s Essex Street birthplace, hmm?)

KIRBY, HYPE & HISTORY

Kirby’s name has now been coopted and rebranded as a “Disney legend,” and is at last gaining traction in entertainment media coverage, with film adaptations of his late-period auteurist works The New Gods and The Eternals looming (from Warner/DC and Marvel Studios respectively). However, his larger career story, beyond what can be harnessed to hype new adaptations, still seems unknown even to many fans of the Marvel Universe — a pop-culture franchise impossible to imagine without Kirby’s foundational work. Happily, the now-touring exhibition Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes (reviewed here on 23 April 2018) casts Kirby as, essentially, cofounder of that universe, and conversations around films like Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Eternals have made Kirby and his designs a frequent talking point. I have to admit, I had never expected to see this.

But to me the heart of the story remains (of course) Kirby’s own art and storytelling, and his own improbable record of unstinting creativity against long odds, in an industry that often treated creators like dirt. Thrilling to the latest news of pending screen adaptations ought to be balanced, I think, by a critical awareness that comics, as comics, do not necessarily gain from these things, and that a history of comics that is hostage to the current exploitation of corporate IP is not really history, but hype. Anyone who has published scholarship on comics creators like Kirby is probably familiar with  the odd sensation of seeing scholarly opportunities open up  precisely because of that hype — but I believe we should be wary of pop-culture presentism that repackages, but also occludes, the very history of the things we are researching. Sure, bring on the adaptations, the marketing campaigns, the DVD/Blu-ray extras and all that (I’ll be paying attention to the Eternals and New Gods films), but it’s the conversation around Kirby’s comic art as such that most interests me.

Kirby does not equal Marvel, or DC, and even his work for DC and Marvel ought to be framed in terms other than those of corporate mythology!

KIRBY STUDIES NEWS:

Man, I wish I had been able to go to France this summer. It’s been a feast of comic art exhibitions in France these last few months, and not one but two shows about Kirby have taken place in the Normandy region, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy and subsequent liberation of France. In France, Kirby’s name seems indelibly linked with his part in the liberation as well as his Marvel work, so this seems to have been perfect timing. One of these exhibitions closed just this past weekend, and the other (sigh) closes on September 29. I so wanted to give my passport another workout this summer, but, alas, could not.

I owe most of what I know about these exhibitions to social media posts and, especially, a review essay by comics scholar Jean-Paul Gabilliet (Of Comics and Men) for the International Journal of Comic Art. This thoughtful and detailed essay, by one of the leading historians of the American comic book, is happily available online, pending its publication in a future issue of IJOCA; I recommend it highly:

http://ijoca.blogspot.com/2019/08/about-four-comic-art-exhibits-in-france.html

One of the exhibitions, co-curated by French Kirby biographer Jean Depelley, focused squarely on Kirby’s wartime experience. Titled La guerre de Jack Kirby, l’inventeur des super-héros modernes [The war of Jack Kirby, the inventor of modern superheroes], it reportedly consisted of reproductions of comic book art and photographs, with emphasis on Kirby’s time as a combat infantryman in Nazi-occupied France. This fairly small exhibition ran from June 4 through August 24 at Les 7 lieux, a media library and cultural center in the city of Bayeux (famed in not only military history but also, of course, the history of sequential art).

At the same time, roughly 60 miles away, a very large exhibition titled Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super-héros ran (and is still running, through Sept. 29, having been extended) at Le Musée Thomas Henry, a fine-arts museum in Cherbourg, the famed Normandy port city. Co-curated by Musée curator Louise Hallet and comic art dealer Bernard Mahé, this exhibition is part of the Biennale du 9e art, a biennial event that centers on a big exhibition focused on a major creator. La galaxie reportedly includes more than 200 pieces of original comic art, about three-fourths of which are by Kirby, the other one-fourth being works by, as Gabilliet says, Kirby’s precursors (e.g. Hal Foster; Alex Raymond) and followers (e.g. Steranko; John Buscema). This sounds frankly like an overwhelming feast for the eye and the mind. Dig a couple of borrowed photos:

La galaxie exhibit entryway

Jack Kirby: la galaxie des super héros at Le Musée Thomas Henry. Photo: actua.fr, 28 July 2019.

Curator Louise Hallet (and Darkseid) at Le Musée Thomas Henry

Curator Louise Hallet and Darkseid, Le Musée Thomas Henry. Photo: Ouest-France, 22 May 2019.

La galaxie appears to have been one of the very largest Kirby exhibitions ever, comparable in scope to The House that Jack Built (co-curated by Paul Gravett and Dan Nadel for Lucerne’s Fumetto festival in 2010). Gabilliet writes thoughtfully of the exhibition’s pleasures and limitations, in terms that reminded me of the challenges I faced when curating Comic Book Apocalypse for the CSUN Art Galleries (2015). But, ah, just to see the complete “Even Gods Must Die” (New Gods, 1984 series, #6), on view at La galaxie — man, what I wouldn’t have done for that experience. I dearly regret missing these shows, just as I regret missing Mostri, uomini, dei [Monsters, Men, Gods], the Kirby exhibition at Bologna’s BilBOLBul comics festival last fall.

Right now, Gabilliet’s conclusion is ringing in my head:

[C]omic art exhibiting seems increasingly open to a plurality of conceptual and aesthetic possibilities that by far transcend the arguably increasingly humdrum pattern of “career retrospectives,” notwithstanding the genuine satisfaction one is perfectly free to experience while beholding wall-to-wall displays of original comic art drawn by a given creator. While many museums and galleries still regard comic art as “easily accessible” art that will likely attract paying visitors—a legitimate expectation by all means, unfortunately—the full museographic potential of comic art is yet to be tapped. The more imaginative curators will prove, the more alive we will all become to the versatility of our favorite art form.

Yet to be tapped. Absolutely. But things are happening. This puts me in mind of, one, Kim Munson’s forthcoming academic anthology, Comic Art in Museums (UP of Mississippi, 2020), in which I believe I will have a couple of pieces; two, the pending Comic-Con Museum in San Diego; and three, the pending Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles (currently advertising for a comic art curator). It would be reasonable to expect major Kirby-themed exhibitions from either or both of those places.

TWO OTHER NEWS ITEMS:

ONE. Speaking of Kirby’s wartime experience, acclaimed artist and Kirby expert James Romberger has a Kirby-themed biographical comic about to drop: For Real #1, promised from Uncivilized Books this November, which will reportedly contain:

“The Oven,” a short comics story that is a fictionalized amalgam of two little-discussed and largely undocumented parts of Kirby’s life: a harrowing encounter with Nazis in World War 2 and his treatment for cancer many years later, a story that touches on themes of PTSD, graphic medicine, courage and empathy; and “The Real Thing,” an accompanying essay by James that clarifies aspects of the story and contextualizes them with the reality of Kirby’s experiences.

For Real cover by Romberger

James Romberger’s anthology series For Real will begin with a comic and an essay about Kirby. In shops Nov. 6, 2019.

This comic book, Romberger says, is “the first issue of what will be a continuing anthology title” that he will edit, to be published by Uncivilized Books.

Romberger will be speaking about this project at the New York Comics & Picture-story Symposium next Tuesday, September 3, at 7pm at Parsons School of Design, University Center, 63 Fifth Avenue, Room UL 105. This event is free and open to the public.

I’m excited about this project, which promises to complement some other recent biographical projects: Tom Scioli’s graphic bio of Kirby (in progress), Scioli and Jean Depelley’s collaboration on “Private Kirby Adventures” (as seen in The Jack Kirby Collector #64, 2014), and Depelley and Marc Azéma’s 2017 documentary film La guerre de Kirby. Romberger is a superb artist, with a great feel for period and place and an abiding interest in Kirby.

TWO. On an academic and theoretical front, Kirby’s work figures in the recently released bilingual (French and English) anthology Abstraction and Comics/Bande dessinée et abstraction, a two-volume slipcased beauty edited by Aarnoud Rommens with the collaboration of Benoît Crucifix, Björn-Olav Dozo, Erwin Dejasse, and Pablo Turnes.

bandedessinéeabstraction

Abstraction and Comics | Bande dessinée et abstraction. La Cinquième Couche/Presses universitaires de Liège, collection ACME, 201

Abstraction and Comics is a project of the ACME research group at the University of Liège in Belgium, and jointly published by La Cinquième Couche and the University Presses of Liège. It totals nearly 900 pages, and includes essays and comics by more than fifty contributors (among them my esteemed colleagues Jan Baetens, Hugo Frey, Gene Kannenberg, Jr., Martha Kuhlman, Pascal Lefèvre, Gert Meesters, and Barbara Postema). Two essays will be of special interest to Kirby scholars and fans: “Jack Kirby: In-between the Abstract and the Psychedelic,” by Spanish scholar Roberto Bartual (author of Jack Kirby: Una Odisea Psicodélica); and “The Kirby ‘Krackle’: A Graphic Lexicon for Cosmic Superheroes,” by Argentinean scholar Amadeo Gandolfo.

There’s a ton to take in and think about in this pair of books. Recommended emphatically! My own research on collage in comics (including Kirby’s) will draw quite a bit from these pages.

It’s great to see Kirby studies flourishing internationally, and so many exhibitions and projects taking up his work. By Halloween I’ll have another such project to announce.

HAPPY KIRBY DAY! Indeed, #K i r b y I s E t e r n a l.

PS. My thanks to the great Paul Gravett for providing me updated and corrected information about the Cherbourg exhibition!

Kirby (and Kirby Studies) in Moselle

 

Nov. 11, 2017. Studying Kirby never gets old. These past few days I’ve been in Metz, France, learning new ways to think about him and his work.

Metz lies in France’s northeast corner, in the region of Lorraine, not far from the German border. It belongs to the Département (i.e. administrative region) of Moselle—that is, within the Moselle River valley. It is about an hour and a half’s ride (by super-fast TGV train) from Paris. To me-—to my awestruck American eyes—it seems like a pleasant city that wears its history like a badge. It’s home to the Saulcy campus of the University of (Université de) Lorraine, or UdL, which is where I’ve been these past few days.

To commemorate this, Kirby’s centennial year, the Département of Moselle is paying tribute to him and his work with a series of comics-related events and exhibitions (see kirbysuperheros.fr). That is what brought me to the UdL.

Metz was a pivotal place in Kirby’s life—which is an understatement. As a 27-year-old combat infantryman in World War Two, Kirby took part in La Bataille (Battle) de Metz, which raged in the Moselle from September to December 1944. He was lucky to survive; most of his comrades-in-arms did not.

To be specific, the 11th Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division of Patton’s Third Army came to Metz in early September 1944. From September 8th to 10th, Kirby and some 1200 other soldiers took part in an ill-fated bid to cross the Moselle at Dornot-Corny (Dornot being a village on the west side of the river, and Corny a village on the opposite shore). They were ordered to establish a bridgehead and drive the Germans from the Fort St. Blaise. Opposing them were battle-worn German soldiers reassigned from the Russian front (the Voss battalion), as well as fresh graduates from a SS school (the Berg battalion) and elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. The Moselle had become a heavily defended German frontier, so the Metz campaign was hard-fought and brutal. Dornot-Corny in particular became a disaster. The Americans were poorly informed and ill-prepared; lines of communication were tangled, and roads clogged; rain poured down, and the waters of the Moselle were ice-cold. Expected support did not come, and artillery support, when it came, inadvertently killed Americans (“friendly fire”). The Germans, for their part, rained artillery on the Americans nonstop; shells whistled and howled through the air, explosions ripped up the ground. Many Americans huddled in makeshift foxholes in a small wood that they came to call Horseshoe Wood (named for the horseshoe-shaped pattern of the troops’ movement). Trees were blasted apart—wooden shrapnel flew—and the woods were laid bare.

The roughly mile and a half of territory around Dornot-Corny became a killing ground. Of the 1200 Americans who went into it, 945 were eventually reported lost or wounded. Within days, American troops did establish a bridgehead further south, at Arnaville, but Dornot-Corny was remembered, if it all, as a defeat—the kind of thing armies would prefer not to remember, in fact. Indeed Dornot-Corny been has been described as “une bataille oubliée” (a forgotten battle). The people of Metz, however, have worked to make sure that it is not forgotten, and the events of September 8-10 are now memorialized as “60 hours in hell.”

Jack Kirby lived through that.

I visited Dornot-Corny two days ago. I will say more about that in a later post, and hopefully with a few photos. It was an oddly appropriate Veterans’ Day observance, so to speak. Suffice to say for now that the experience was moving and eye-opening, and I will not forget it. Thank you to Elisabeth Gozzo and the Association Thanks GIs for working so hard to preserve the memory of the soldiers and their sacrifice.*

081D22F9-E1FB-4815-8035-47B1FF4A1C2A.jpeg

How and why did I get to Metz? I was invited to speak at the colloquy or symposium Expérience autobiographique et bande dessinée de genre: le récit de soi in spaces contraints (Autobiographical Experience and Genre Comics: Self-Narratives in Constrained Contexts), organized by scholar Jean-Matthieu Méon of the CREM (Centre de eEcherche sur les Médiations, or Center for Media Research) at the UdL. The impetus for this colloquy was Kirby’s centenary, as indicated by the subtitle Autour de Jack Kirby et de son passage en Moselle/Traces of Jack Kirby’s War in Moselle—thus the symposium built on Moselle’s larger Kirby tribute. Méon worked generously, tirelessly, to involve me in the symposium, arrange my travel to France, and make sure I understood things despite my language deficit—for which I cannot thank him enough. (Merci mille fois, Jean-Matthieu!)

The colloquy consisted of two days’ conversation in the UdL’s Salle Ferrari (a conference room arranged in concentric rings and with microphones everywhere!). Its main purpose, to paraphrase Jean-Matthieu, was to talk about Kirby, his life, his style, and his development, in order to talk more broadly about the category of “autobiographical comics”; or, in other words, to “expand the repertoire of authors, works, and formal strategies to consider when discussing the expression of autiobiography in comics.” As both autobiographical comics and Kirby are deep interests of mine, I was thrilled to have been invited. Moreover, the opportunity to talk about Kirby in a European context was something I had never experienced before—and frankly I had not realized how deeply Kirby’s work has affected so many readers outside of anglophone North America. To see such strong, firsthand evidence of this has been a great experience. Kirby studies is international!

Fourteen scholars gave papers: eight from France, three from Belgium, one from the UK, and two (including myself) from the US. In addition, Jean-Matthieu framed the event with opening and closing remarks, establishing a rich theoretical and historical context for our discussions. Following, in order of presentation, are brief notes about the talks. Some addressed Kirby particularly, while others dealt with different topics at the intersection of comics and autobiography studies:

  • Benoît Crucifix of the University of Liège, Belgium (whom I had met before), spoke on autobiographical readings of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley in the archival reprint volumes organized by Chris Ware and Jeet Heer.
  • Benoît Tellez spoke on autobiographical dimensions of Winsor McCay’s comics.
  • Maaheen Ahmed discussed authorial presence in works situated between autobiography and genre comics, including works by Pratt, Seagle and Kristiansen, and Larcenet, and how those works construct author-personas by invoking memories of past comics as well as memories of other media incorporated by comics.
  • Jean-Charles Andries de Levis discussed Alex Barbier’s Lettres au maire de V., and how the image of the werewolf in that and other works takes on an autobiographical function.
  • Benoît Glaude explored the phenomenon of pseudo-autobiographical texts attributed to comics characters (Little Nicholas, Corto Maltese, etc.), i.e. “the passage of non-autobiographical comics through the autobiographical literary genre.”
  • Pascal Robert spoke on the drawn signatures of cartoonist André Franquin and how those signatures assert the individuality and status of the author and renegotiate the relationship between author and editorial/publishing establishment.
  • Bounthavy Suvilay presented on the work of mangaka Hiroyuki Arakawa and how that work, as it conveys the story of a community rather than giving an individual confession, does not subscribe to Western conceptions of autobiography as genre but instead follows models specific to Japan.
  • Jean-Matthieu Méon spoke on the autobiographical works of the late Sam Glanzman and how they both conform to and exceed the conventional straits of the war comic genre.
  • Hugo Frey (University of Chichester, UK), with whom I have worked but whom I had never met, spoke on Hugo Pratt’s contributions to British war comics (Fleetway’s War Picture Library) in the late 1950s to early 60s, and how hints of Pratt’s later expressionistic style emerge even in these highly conventionalized comics.
  • Laura Caraballo (presenting a paper written in collaboration with Roberto Bartual) explored Kirby’s treatment of the sublime and the “concern for pure form” that emerges in the second half of his career, in relation to abstraction, Pop Art, and psychedelic art.
  • Éric Maigret presented on contested or fractured masculinity (or conflicts between hegemonic and subordinate masculinities) as the ground of Kirby’s personal and professional struggles, as revealed in diverse works.
  • Mathieu Li-Goyette (Université de Montréal, Canada) spoke on how Kirby’s war comics address the self “in a context of brotherhood” and heterogeneity, as analyzed within a schizoanalytic framework informed by the theories of Deleuze and Guattari.
  • Steven Brower (Skyping in from the US) discussed Kirby’s late works, particularly OMAC, as prophetic and dystopian “cautionary tales.”

I had the honor of leading off the colloquy with a keynote exploring Kirby’s changing view of war via his depictions of Japanese soldiers in two very different comics, one “The Treachery of Osuki,” a Boy Commandos story from Detective Comics #68 (Oct. 1942), and the other “Bushido,” a Losers story from Our Fighting Forces #154 (April 1975). My goal was to contrast early Kirby and late Kirby regarding the way he imagined the “enemy” and the nature of heroism in war—and to show how Kirby moved from wartime propaganda to more complex views. Along the way, I indulged my growing interest in the “kid gang” genre of comics pioneered by Kirby and Joe Simon in the early 1940s, and sought to place that genre in the context of Kirby’s autobiography as well as popular culture influences.

 

I wish I could share photos from the actual symposium proceedings, but I did not get any good ones of the speakers speaking—partly because the setting was small and intimate and I didn’t want to make anyone feel awkward, and partly because most of the presentations were in French and I was straining to understand them. The colloquy included both French and English talks, but frankly when it comes to French, I have seulement un trop petit peu (though this trip has given me some practice) and cannot converse in the language, so I relied on notes and impromptu help from colleagues. Fortunately, all presenters used PowerPoint, and most embedded in their slideshows text in whatever language they were not speaking; in my case, for example, I prepared French-language text for my talk. So that meant that I could follow the outlines of arguments in cases where I could not grasp the details of language. But I was keenly aware of my language deficit and working hard to show that I was listening and trying to understand—an occasionally frustrating experience, but overall the group worked hard to realize Jean-Matthieu Méon’s vision of a truly international summit. Everyone was gracious about it. I have to say, it was intense to spend so much energy trying to pick out whatever words I could recognize; fortunately, most presenters explicitly framed their talks in terms of theoretical perspective, methodology, and corpus of study, and those academic habits, which I’m familiar with, helped make up for my lack of fluency in the language. (In all, six presentations were in English and eight in French.)

This was a tremendous intellectual workout for me, and a great social occasion too. I got to make new friends, stretch my understanding, get a renewed feel for French language and culture, and—as I’ve said—learn that there are diverse international perspectives on Kirby. I only wish that I could have made it Metz earlier this year, and spent more time there, so as to fully experience the region’s celebration of Kirby (again, see kirbysuperheros.fr).

Once again, my deepest thanks to Jean-Matthieu Méon and his colleagues for making this happen!

KIRBY VIT!

*(My two main sources for the above account of the battle at Dornot-Corny are, one, my memories of conversations at the battle site, particularly the recollections of historian Elisabeth Gozzo; and two, the commemorative booklet Une bataille oubliée: les têtes de pont de Dornot-Corny et d’Arnaville, 2009, partly written by Gozzo and sponsored by the Office National does Anciens de la Moselle and the Association Thanks GIs, which Gozzo leads. They have done some wonderful “memory work” to make sure that the terrors and sacrifices of the War are not forgotten.)

Kirby’s Second Act (in honor of Kirby Day)

Kirby self-portrait from DC

Tomorrow, Thursday, August 28, would have been the 97th birthday of the great Jack Kirby. I call August 28 Kirby Day because I believe Kirby’s birthday ought to be a holiday for comics fans!

When tomorrow comes, I hope my readers will celebrate Kirby Day by helping the Kirby4Heroes campaign raise funds for The Hero Initiative. You can read more about the campaign in my post of August 11, here. Supporting the Initiative means supporting veteran comic book creators in need—a cause Kirby himself would have championed.

In honor of Kirby Day, I’m posting the following mini-essay, which I’ve adapted from two different sources. One is my reading script for a panel I co-presented with my colleague Ben Saunders at the Emerald City Comicon in Seattle in 2013. The other is the script for a video presentation I contributed to the “Echoes of ’82” panel at Heroes Con 2012 organized by my colleagues Craig Fischer and Ben Towle. I was proud and happy to do both events!

(The cover images are courtesy of the Grand Comics Database. Aptly named!)

Kirby’s Second Act

Jack Kirby changed comic books more than once. If he hadn’t drawn another page of comics after 1950, he’d still be remembered as one of the great comic book artists of the medium’s founding era. If he’d put down his pencil and disappeared from the comic book racks at about age thirty, he’d still be known as one of the giants.

But he didn’t do that, of course. In the 1960s and 70s, when Kirby himself was in his forties and fifties, he picked up the medium by the scruff and carried it along (some more). He changed comics again. In this remarkable second act of his career, Kirby gave his all: an outpouring of generosity and energy that renewed the medium, nudging the foundering industry onward yet again.

Fantastic Four 47 cover

Starting in the 60s, Kirby gave comic books an expanded canvas. He gave them scope: a sense of larger possibilities. If the superhero comics of that era moved from an episodic to an epic structure—or maybe I should say an epic and episodic structure—Kirby did more to make that happen than any other creator. The fact that superhero comics now so often deal with the apocalyptic—with the revelation, potential destruction, and re-creation of worlds, whole worlds—is testimony to his influence, to his genius for the costumed hero, yet also his impatience with the genre as he found it.

Kirby jacked up the threat level in superhero comics. He broadened the range and scale of the threats. He introduced to the genre a sense of discovery, of secret history, mythic origins, and eschatology—a sense of endings, and new beginnings—making costumed heroics an entryway into larger themes. Kirby’s superheroes addressed the grand, mind-rattling themes of epic fantasy. The fact that so many superhero comics today work at the level of the whole world or universe (or multiverse) is a testament to Kirby’s peculiar gift. Comic books drawn and plotted out by him, such as The Fantastic Four and Thor, and, later, comics entirely written and drawn by him, such as The New Gods and The Eternals, made the superhero genre a bridge between high and low fantasy: the grand and cataclysmic on the one hand, the low mimetic, comical, or absurd on the other; the cosmic and the urban; the epic and the crime story; the sublime vista and the lowly, grotesque caricature. Kirby knitted it all together, crazily, vitally, giving the superhero genre an infusion of energy that enabled it to survive and seduce further generations of fans.

Thor 154 cover

An important thing to remember about Kirby is that he was not an illustrator but a cartoonist—meaning an artist who developed stories and characters through the act of drawing. It was Kirby’s narrative drawing that made Marvel Comics work: he was Marvel’s busiest cartoonist, and its visual guide. He gave Marvel its momentum. He dreamed up and designed more concepts for the company than any other artist. Besides the comics that Kirby penciled himself—which he typically plotted, in effect co-wrote—he also laid out and plotted stories for many other artists, guiding and inspiring them. Most of Marvel’s other artists were urged to follow his lead.

In a great, mad rush between 1961 and the mid-decade, Kirby laid the foundations of what we now call the Marvel Universe. His drive and design chops provided most of the raw material for this new world. And now, half a century later—about 53 years after the launch of The Fantastic Four, about 51 after the launch of The Avengers—Marvel Entertainment is reaping the spectacular harvest of that effort. Graphically and conceptually, the foundation of Marvel’s success (in comics and movies) was laid in the basement of the Kirby family’s Long Island home between 1961 and 1966; yet, incredibly, during that period, in fact throughout the 60s, Kirby was only a freelancer for Marvel. During all the time he designed so many properties and spun so many stories for Marvel, he didn’t have a solid contract there. He didn’t have a contract at all.

The gap between what Kirby gave Marvel and what he got in return was enormous. He produced all these wild new concepts for a flat page rate; he had no salary, no security, no benefits, no assurances of long-term well-being. He just drew, drew, and drew, dreaming up new characters and ideas for Marvel several times a month for years on end. He worked unbelievably hard. When Marvel was sold to a new owner in 1968, Kirby sought a fair contract with the company that would take care of his family, but couldn’t get one. The new owners put faith in Stan Lee’s editorial savvy but did not understand Kirby’s vital role.

Of course Kirby got angry and angrier, and lost heart; he began to resent how much he’d given to the company with such slight return. He began to offer Marvel less and less, in terms of new ideas. After all, he couldn’t continue to work himself to the bone for such meager reward; the workload was draining, the situation maddening. So he left, hoping for greater recognition and editorial freedom elsewhere. He left to create the bizarre and visionary Fourth World and other comics for DC in the early 70s, where his imagination once again took flight and fans were able to see less diluted Kirby comics, comics “edited, written, and drawn” by Jack.

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There’s nothing in the annals of so-called work-for-hire that can compare with Kirby’s run at Marvel in the 1960s—or for the richness of Kirby’s barnstorming second act. There’s nothing about comic book business-as-usual that can account for that miraculous outpouring. “Work-for-hire” does not begin to describe the indispensable, seminal, endlessly inspiring contribution that Kirby made to Marvel. Jack Kirby was the co-author of the Marvel Universe, and ought to be officially recognized as such. Further, Marvel Entertainment ought to establish a healthy relationship with Kirby’s estate by compensating his family and contributing to the study and appreciation of Kirby’s work. ’Nuff said!

A Birthday Bonanza!

A moment of joy and optimism, from Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976)

Today is the 96th birthday of the great Jack Kirby, and it’s wonderful to see the online outpouring of interest, affection, and commentary that this event has inspired!

There’s so much about Kirby on the Web today that knowing where to go could be a right challenge. Me, I recommend:

Or you could just turn off your computer, pick up and read a vintage Kirby comic, and get your mind blown all over again. 🙂

Hail Kirby!!!