Long live the King

So, last post suggested that I was going to lead into more writing tips. Those are coming, but first a recap of some things that have been whistling around my head and indeed the internet of late.

For those that don’t know, there’s a single man whose gift for storytelling sits at the heart of a dozen or more movies that have, between them, earned millions upon millions of dollars. Many of the biggest hits for multiple studios over the past decade – Captain America. Thor. The Hulk. Iron Man. The Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four – are all there because of a single individual’s imagination. That man is – was – Jack ‘The King’ Kirby.

The King

The comic book industry, as it currently stands (and has stood for some time), is essentially a branch of larger multimedia empires. The two largest players in the English-language market are owned by Warner Brothers and Disney. Comic book companies are idea factories, churning out relatively few works that sufficiently pay for themselves, but rather acting as the proving ground for concepts that will eventually become cinematic and video-game blockbusters. Everyone knows who Batman is: millions play him as a character in the latest X-Box game,  millions more will see Christopher Nolan’s movies, and Schumacher’s and Burton’s before him. But, very few buy comic books with Batman’s name on the cover.Like the vast majority of comic book creators, Kirby was a freelancer, working for hire at what is now Marvel Comics (during those early days it was known variously as Timely, then Atlas Comics*) and later DC – home of Batman and Superman. Kirby towered over his peers in energy, raw talent and output. All of the characters I mentioned in that first paragraph – and more – were created by him. His drawings seem simplistic now in comparison to modern draftsmanship, but they are incredibly powerful. The figures tumble over each other and burst with crackling energy. They are the basis for our modern mythologies.

Jake Kurtzberg, as The King was born, was raised on the tough streets of a New York. Jack learned to use his fists early and often. He’d fight anyone – whether it was the Sicilian gangs that clashed with the Jews, or the mobsters who came around to hustle money from the garment shop where he worked. He was small, tough and determined. The energy in his person was there, in all its glory, on the page. His linework, to quote Gerard Jones’ excellent Men of Tomorrow, was “an opera of line and mass. The stories didn’t matter, so much drama did his anger bring to the figures bursting out of panels, the bodies hurtling through space as fists and feet drove into them, the faces contorted in passion, the camera angles swinging wildly and the panels stretched and bent by the needs of the action.”

As unconventional, distinctive and genre-defining as Kirby’s art was, he didn’t put words in these characters’ mouths. In the majority of cases, that fell to Kirby’s brother-in-arms Stanley Lieber – better known as Stan Lee. Lee was, unlike Kirby, staff. An ingenue like Jack, he managed to score a job as editor whilst simultaneously scripting dozens of comics. Because Lee was so busy, his plots became looser and looser. Panel breakdowns became page summaries, then a handful of sentences to guide the direction of the ploy. Effectively, Kirby started crafting his own stories with Lee coming in and putting words in balloons to try to corral some narrative to the artist’s fever-pitch sagas.

Lee ended up with a million-dollar-a-year stipend from Marvel. Kirby worked for years, but eventually ended up on the scrapheap. He never was down-and-out like Superman‘s creators – Siegel and Schuster spent their wilderness years only a paycheque away from the breadline – but he certainly never saw the riches he deserved. He fought for years with the company that he put on the map – a fight that has been continued by his family, after Jack’s death in the 1990s – but his seminal work has been deemed ‘work for hire’ and thus not requiring of royalties.

Kirby has been, from the perspective of the broader public, whitewashed from the record. The recent release of The Avengers movie has stirred up a lot of angst around the shoddy – and even downright criminal – treatment of some of the comic book industry’s finest creators. It is, as this article points out, not Kirby’s Avengers, but rather Marvel’s Avengers. As if, as it says, a company had crafted those characters or stories from whole cloth.

Lee, I must make pains to emphasise, wasn’t to blame. He has always been generous in attributing creative input – whether from Kirby, John Romita, or Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man (which is, by the by, Lee’s only non-Kirby affiliated hit to speak of). Lee was a good businessman though, and learned from a very early age how to benefit from being the public face of an expanding company. Kirby was too much of a firebrand to follow Lee’s path, and suffered for it later in life.

The industry is built on freelancers, and is the poorer for it. With the exception of a couple of second-tier companies, the default in the American comic book industry is still work-for-hire, albeit at least more clearly marked as such than the wild days of the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, back when Kirby and others were creating their hits. Just because it’s more defined doesn’t make the situation any better though. I think of Bill Mantlo, a man who created many of the comics that shaped my childhood. He’s now in a near-vegetative state after a hit-and-run in the early 1990s, effectively left to fend for himself because the industry doesn’t provide decent healthcare and his insurer has paid all the bills it wants to. That’s a story reflecting the parlous state of American health care as much as the American comic book industry, but it still hits hard knowing that the man behind the first comic book I bought with my own money – which I talked about here – has been left to slowly die.

The bitter legacy of Kirby’s treatment may be a dark, twisted hole at the heart of the American comic book industry, but there are some rays of light in all this. Here, Jack’s son shares some private memories on what it was like to grow up with such a man. Recently, a creator named Chris Roberson vowed that, as soon as his most current series with the publisher wrapped up, he’d never work for DC Comics again. They repaid him the favour by sacking him – giving him what he wanted, as they put it, if a little early (some of the fallout is discussed here) – but I still think of it as a good-news story as, essentially, it’s showing that some players within the system are willing to make public stands to bring attention to the industry’s issues.

That’s it for this week. For further reading, I recommend Daniel Best’s website. If you trot through the archives you’ll find depositions from the most recent round of legal stoushes on Kirby’s work and the industry’s heady days in the 1960s. Excerpts of these depositions can also be found at BleedingCool.com, including those from luminaries of the day including John Romita, Roy Thomas, Larry Lieber (Stan’s brother) and Stan Lee himself.

(*) – in Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow, Jones claimed that publisher Martin Goodman would, to manipulate tax laws, publish under eighty or more different names, often at the same time. ‘Marvel’ is simply the last, and longest-lasting, name attached to Goodman’s rough empire.

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