|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
Jack Kirby - The Master Of Comic Book Art
Introduction and interview © 1987, 1995 by Ken Viola.
All rights reserved. This interview, excerpt or otherwise, cannot be reprinted nor quoted from without the express written consent of Ken Viola.From Jack Kirby Collector #7
I thank God that in February 1987, before he passed through that portal to the Positive Zone and the cosmos beyond, I got to meet and interview Jack Kirby.
Like a lot of you, I was fortunate enough to come of age and grow up with Jack Kirby. Over 25 years had passed since my seeking and fertile mind had first encountered and embraced Jacks art as it leaped off the racks right into my hands.
There were a lot of comic books to choose from in those days, or so it seemed, and not much money to buy with, even at 10 each... but Jacks work never let you down. I can still, if I close my eyes and let myself fall back, feel that thrill of excitement and anticipation that came from the discovery of a new Kirby book.
I firmly believe that the best part of us all, the finality that gives meaning, purpose and satisfaction to our lives, is the ability to communicate and share with each other what is special about being human; to feel down to the very fiber of our being that tingle, that spark deep in our soul; The Essence Of Life.
When I first began the journey to make my 1987 film The Masters Of Comic Book Art, I had no idea it would end up being about The Storyteller/artists who both drew and wrote. It is the supreme challenge of the artist and their ability to tell the story to break it down visually, in terms of content, time, space, action, emotion, reflection... et al. The accomplishment of that goal is to take the personal and private experience of the artist and give it to the reader. To then be able to communicate that same spark of life to the masses is the rarest of gifts. That achievement is Jack Kirby's life's work.
In a medium which is comprised of a singular expression, uniquely composed of a combination of words and pictures, with Kirby's work you almost didn't need the words.
He came from a humble and oppressed beginning. Instilled with a strong work ethic and an overwhelming thirst for survival, he self-intellectualized with his own hand, heart, and mind his means of escape.
When I visited him in his home in Thousand Oaks, California, he had made it to the top of his mountain. Jack had the support and love of his wife, Roz. His children were grown. He was happy, fulfilled. The legacy of his life's work lived on; a true triumph of the real American Dream.
Close-up and in-person, Jack was bursting with energy, crackling, glowing, and awe-inspiring; rough-hewn on the outside, kind and pure inside.
Jack told me that behind Dr. Dooms mask was a flawless, unmarked face that Doom could not bring himself to look upon. He told me how much he loved young people, among them kids who grew up in the 1960s, my generation. On the wall in his studio was a photo of Jack with Frank Zappa. How well he'd come to understand human nature.
"Comic book people are the nicest people in the world," he confided to me.
I miss him.
KEN VIOLA: When you approach the blank comic book page, how do you service it in terms of the storytelling?
JACK KIRBY: I see that story first. I feel that story first. I know those people first, and I put them down as Id like them to live on those pages. My stories are very sincere. My stories are people stories and there are elements that are very, very real. It doesn't matter what the subject is, and I've done stories on a wide range of subjects.
I feel that no matter what kind of a story you're going to write, if you're sincere in telling that story and not contriving it, you will find whatever you feel will have a pungent element of that story. The reader will feel it because he's (or she's) no different than you. I've always felt if I could communicate with myself, I can do it with the next guy.
I never wanted a typical audience, I wanted a universal audience. I was talking to everybody. When I began with Captain America, I was saying, Listen world, this is how I feel! But I didn't know it then, I wasn't that sophisticated. Whatever I recorded in Captain America was part of my own experience. If there was a fight, it was a real fight, and Id make it entertaining. I would choreograph it.
When I was a very young boy, I used to wait for three guys to pass and figure out how to beat them up. How does one guy fight three? I would do it in Captain America. How does one guy fight ten guys? And that's how it came out in the story. That was an element in Captain America I felt everyone would connect with. They'd seen it in movies, felt it in their own bodies and in their own brains. Many entertained those thoughts and of course never have done anything about them. But if you come from a restricted and unsophisticated area, you will entertain those thoughts in a confrontational way and endanger yourself just to see if they'll work! (laughter)
And that's what I did. I unconsciously drew upon my own feelings, which were very real... and they came off the page. That helped me in my job, which was to sell comic books. I never felt I was going to be a Rembrandt. I never wanted to be. I sold those books, I was making a salary, and was bringing that money home.
KV: Legends, myths and classics have been revitalized and redefined by you. Why were you drawn to them?
JK: Legends are real. They're real because they have been fossilized by real people. In my estimation, it doesn't matter that they might have an unreal foundation. I felt that legends were born from the urge to soften someone's suffering.
If you were a Viking, and you just got back from a raid, looking like hell, covered with blood... and you looked down at yourself and felt miserable... there was always Thor hammering away heroically at the top of the mountain. The lightning would flash and great Odin was there smiling at ya.
In those days, all these glamorous figures couldn't come off a movie screen. They had to originate all by themselves to, I think, eliminate the personal suffering of the kind of life those people led. And it was suffering. Fighting is suffering, being fought with is suffering. There has to be an alleviation; a lighter moment from that kind of thing.
I think that were just emerging from the middle ages. You can see yourself in heroic proportions and yet look in the mirror and see how miserable you look. All that fabric has been torn by use. You're not the cleanest-looking guy in the world. You don't look like the hero you imagine. So you've got to dredge up some heroic figures.
They've done that throughout the ages. Zeus became Jupiter, who became Odin. I guess Odin became Wotan. Because these tribesmen (savages) had to have that kind of figure to glamorize their own existence, to entertain their own souls. They had to tell themselves that whatever they did was in superhuman terms, or else they couldn't survive.
There are people to this day who are trying to survive previous wars. Its hard. And that's why they have to become legendary. Today they make movies, and the movies become the myths, the entertainment. A Vietnam vet can look at a film and say, That was me. Its horrible stuff, but I had the guts to do it, to live through that. Yes, it may be savagery, but it takes a man to do it, and that man was me.
All history is like that. People creating myths to survive. Just as they want to survive in battle, they have to survive their entire life experience. I don't know how long that was for the early people, but it must've been very extreme and very hard to survive, and I believe that's why we have these dramatic myths.
KV: Similarly, after World War I and then the Depression, came super-heroes. Do you think that's why they evolved?
JK: Oh, yes! The super-heroes were created by two ordinary young fellas from the Midwest. They gave us these tremendous myths that are now internationally known.
Super-heroes are very American. I say that because I love America. I think Americans are honest and forthright, dreamers and doers. Here were young people who gave us a myth that I think rivals the classics we have like Moby Dick, Treasure Island. It may even be greater than that. I think that's a tremendous achievement.
The young people that came after them and did the same thing were giving you not only their life experience, but their willingness and gutsiness to do something beyond their own way of life, for which they had no method. They were willing to put themselves in that position, to create new myths, which is not a small job, and did it!
I think its not only laudable, but natural. I think every one of us has the potential and the urge to do it. Some of us do it with music, a lot of us with pencils, some with machines. The best car I ever drove was worked on by a young man who loved to work with automobile engines. This fella was an artist, he gave me a myth-making car. If I had Pegasus, Id have felt the same as I did about that car, because it ran so smoothly that only an artist could've done that. And I feel that in his way this young mechanic did what I had done all my life.
KV: You've said that the intellectual approach to your work was based on growing up in New York.
JK: It had to be. Whatever way of life I projected was fashioned by what I was. Whether I wrote about Europeans, or people from other regions, it was my limited impressions that were put on those pages. They were involving impressions and somehow they made their way to the reader because he felt like I did.
I'm a people writer. I know the next guy. I know what he's thinking, what he's capable of. The age of the writer is immaterial. I'm no wiser now than I was at that time. I knew people well, I was brought up among throngs of them.
I remember doing an editorial cartoon in which Neville Chamberlain was patting the head of a boa constrictor who was Hitler. In the center of the snake was a bulge which I labeled Czechoslovakia. Neville Chamberlain had just given Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The boss of the syndicate called me in. He sez, You're only a young squirt. How dare you draw a political cartoon like that?! During that day it was really important. These things were really happening. We either satirized or projected them in many ways. And he sez, How would you know about these things? I said, Its not a matter of politics to me. I know a gangster when I see one! If you give a gangster one thing, he's gonna ask for more! That was the way of things. Its something you just know and when you put it down the other guy understands.
All my stories have been that way, they've never been contrived. If I wrote Peter Pan, you would like it. Peter Pan would be a real great kid, and the characters would be the kind of people you liked, or disliked... and whatever I wrote would be positive, because ahead I feel there's a happy ending for us all. That may be from my love of the movies. I cant interpret it any other way. I feel its real, and no matter what happens, the ending is correct. The ending is dramatic and we can understand it. And I hope everyone can interpret their own script.
KV: What are your basic concepts for the hero and the villain?
JK: The hero to me is an extreme, an ordinary guy in an extreme position. The villain is the same except the results of his actions can be very harmful and drastic. The hero's actions can resolve the situation in positive terms. He would do it for the villains own good and welfare. The hero isn't a cardboard figure, and neither is the villain or the victim. I feel that all three have to correct a very extreme situation in some hopeful manner, and that reflects in every story that I write.
The hero isn't free from the same things that plague the villain. They are both human beings with problems. The villain has the problem of greed, vengeance or whatever plagues him and it must be resolved. One villain I had was a likable fellow, and he'd give you a pretty good meal before he'd finish you off. He'd be nice and that was a realistic part of his make-up. He just had style but his intentions were very evil and destructive. He had the kind of problems that made him destructive, and therefore these problems not only had to be altered, but analyzed in some way, so they could be resolved. And the hero was the form of analysis.
KV: There was an incredible run of issues of the Fantastic Four, in which you created Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, and the Black Panther.
JK: Yes, that's true.
KV: Do you recall that period of creative breakthrough, and your inspirations?
JK: My inspirations were the fact that I had to make sales and come up with characters that were no longer stereotypes. In other words, I couldn't depend on gangsters, I had to get something new.
For some reason I went to the Bible, and I came up with Galactus. And there I was in front of this tremendous figure, who I knew very well because I've always felt him. I certainly couldn't treat him in the same way I could any ordinary mortal. And I remember in my first story, I had to back away from him to resolve that story. The Silver Surfer is, of course, the fallen angel. When Galactus relegated him to Earth, he stayed on Earth, and that was the beginning of his adventures.
They were figures that had never been used before in comics. They were above mythic figures. And of course they were the first gods. I began thinking along those lines, and The New Gods evolved. I began to ask myself, Everybody else had their gods. What are ours? What is the shape of our society in the form of myths and legends? Who are our gods? Who are our evil ones, and our good ones?
I tried to resolve this in the New Gods, and I came up with some very interesting characters, and very good sales, which satisfied me immensely. Now, I didn't resolve the questions. I'm a guy who lives with a lot of questions, and I find that very interesting. I say, What's out there? and I try to resolve that, and I never can. I don't think anybody can. Who's got the answers? I'd sure like to hear the ultimate one. But I haven't yet, and so I live with a lot of questions. I find that entertaining. If my life were to end tomorrow, it would be fulfilled in that manner. I would say the questions have been terrific! I've had a good time.
So I felt these new characters Id come up with were very valid and very real. They asked the question which is rarely asked in our society. Its felt and seen but rarely asked. Who are our gods? I'm sure you and I will never see Darkseid, and yet I know he's there. You and I will never see Highfather yet I know he's there. You and I will never tread on New Genesis... maybe on part of Apokolips but we know those planets exist, at least I think so. Metron, to my mind, is an advance in mythology. We've never had a character like that before. He's our will to know, our will to find out. If you look at high tech anywhere, you'll see the reflection of Metron, and you know it'll never stop, that curiosity will never stop. They're working with computer chips and organic cells at this very moment. And where that will stop I don't know but its an interesting question. What will the product be? Metron would like to know!
KV: Metron wasn't just an observer...
JK: Oh, he participated. He compromised. Show me where that's an inhuman quality.
KV: He played both sides of the fence.
KV: How did you approach the development of your art?
JK: I approached it by dramatizing my drawing. I'm an inveterate moviegoer. I think as a kind of human camera. I am the camera and I know if you come close to me you'll distort in some way, foreshorten in some way. And of course, to me that's a dramatic happening. I experimented with that and it worked. I gave myself the toughest perspective there was, just to see if it would work. I'm just that kind of person. I would take perspectives which I felt were impossible, and made them possible. I experiment all the time, and with drawing the results were good. I think I have a highly unique and unusual style, and that's the reason I never sign my drawings. Everybody could tell any of my covers a mile away on the newsstand, and that satisfied me. I had no wishes beyond doing the kind of drawing that would attract attention and I did that.
KV: If you look at the drawing you did from the 40s to mid-60s, and then after that, there's a discernible difference.
JK: It's true in the sense that I was doing a different kind of thing after the 60s. I began to go deeper into subjects I'd done before.
If you see my drawings in the 50s, you'll see the 50s reflected there and that goes for all the objects in the illustrations, from automobiles to clothes to buildings.
If you see my drawings in the 60s, you'll see the 60s reflected there that was what the 60s looked like, and I felt that the timely touch was what was necessary.
Even in my legends, you will find that many of the questions asked in the 50s and 60s were also asked and pondered upon in my later work. I felt those were important questions.
My greatest joy was just speaking to young people of those times, and I spoke to many of them and had a wonderful time. People would send me their term papers and ask me to analyze my own characters. They'd ask, Who is Orion? Who is the Black Racer? Id never really asked myself that before. I just drew what I felt.
In analyzing Orion, who is a murderer caught up among people who love him (laughter), on a planet where everyone was friends, he couldn't give way to his own instincts. He was frustrated. He used to sit and commiserate with his own thoughts in some kind of cave on New Genesis. Here was a man who wanted to love and hate at the same time, and couldn't do either. I knew who that kind of man was.
I was asked, Why do you put a black man in a colorful costume on skis? I knew who the Black Racer was. Maybe that was the only way he could fly. And of course I feel there is a problem there... people everywhere want to say, Here I am this is what I do... That's what I was saying with those people with everybody in that particular strip.
Orion was saying, Relieve me of this frustration! and Darkseid was saying, What am I doing? I've got everything... but not everything; I want it all! And of course that was his frustration. There are people like that, who want it all; come damn close to getting it. There are people like Highfather who are playing everybody else's game and suddenly realize that they haven't been playing theirs. He solved his problem by saying, This is what I am. I'm always going to be this way.
In that particular vein I've written and drawn all my characters. I respect people and feel I owe it to them to reflect their own existence, which I feel is what people want. All the next guy wants to say is, Here I am. You don't have to tell me what to do, Ill do it my own way. But how about you and I? What should we do together on this world? I think we've always been trying to say that through the ages, even through all that isolation from each other. We all live together on the same planet. Its not a map to me, its a world. People believe that the world is marked by borders, but to me, its not. Because if we don't take a direction different from that, were in trouble.
KV: You're famous for dynamic action bursting right out of panels.
JK: Because I felt that's what happens. If you're at the business end of a fist, that's what you'd see, or if you're involved with a blast, that would be your impression. I felt it would be my own, so I drew it that way.
KV: To quote you: A man can simply do his job and use this mystic connection to put out his work. What drove you to create so many incredible concepts and prolifically produce so many pages at the same time?
JK: To sustain my magazines, I had to continually entertain. Therefore, I had to seek new angles, new subjects, new developments, new ways of keeping that entertainment alive, and that's what I did.
KV: But out of all the people in the comic book field, I cant think of anyone more prolific.
JK: Well, I think its one of the reasons for my own longevity in the field. I wanted to do that, do my job well. I wanted to sell magazines and it became part of my life. It was my own way of fulfilling myself, and I did that. I'm still doing it. Its the kind of guy I developed into and I doubt Id be able to change.
KV: When you created such great heroes and villains, how did you approach their costumes... like, say, Dr. Doom?
JK: I tried to develop the costumes along classic lines. Dr. Doom was the classic conception of Death, of approaching Death. I saw Dr. Doom as The Man In The Iron Mask, who symbolized approaching Death. It was the reason for the armor and the hood. Death is connected with armor and inhuman-like steel. Death is something without mercy and human flesh contains that element of mercy. Therefore I had to erase it, and I did it with a mask.
KV: The collages you designed to visually depict universes, how did you come up with that?
JK: I felt that magazine reproduction could handle that kind of change and it added an extra dimension to comics. I wanted to see if it could materialize and it did. I loved doing collages. I made a lot of good ones, still can. I feel that everybody should. It would amaze you what the ordinary fellow could do with materials other than bristol board and apply them in the field of publishing. Collages are a game we can all play, and have a great time with.
KV: As someone who's been in the field from the beginning, how have comic books changed, to you?
JK: I believe they've changed in attitude. They've softened a bit, the attitudes are not as extreme. They've gone into areas where I've never trod... perhaps having never judged men, I'm not going to judge comic books. I don't know how well they do or don't do, but I've seen the change. I feel that age is never the problem, I only believe that the person himself is the problem. I know what I know, what I think. Its all there in my mind. And if I can interpret the times correctly, I know I'm in perfect tune with them.
KV: Were you influenced by certain movies, pulps, science-fiction?
JK: Of course, of course. The pulps were the written word, and the movies were the visual world. I learned them both. I learned to write dramatically from the pulps. My heroes were the writers of the pulps and the actors of the movies. I merged them both. I read all I could and saw all I could, and when that became limited, I went further. There are more dimensions to everything then we can imagine. I live by the fact that this is a dimensional world, nothing is cut and dry. I wont accept it that way, and that's how I work within it.
KV: What do you see in the future for comic books?
JK: Whatever the artists and writers want to see. What they feel is a product of the times and if they're sincere, you'll see the times reflected in the attitudes of their heroes and villains. If they're good writers and good artists, you'll see human beings of these times in the characters that these people create. I see a lot of talent, and I hope it materializes in ways that are constructive, that we can all learn from, muse over, and think about. There has to be hope there. A positive element. A good time.
KV: Could you sum up what is so special about the comic book medium?
JK: The comic book medium itself is special, the result of evolvement. From what I understand the editorial comic was first, and they added a few panels to that, and you had a comic strip. They added a few pages to that and you had a comic book... and what we can add to the comic book we may have to think about that.
That's what I think is the interesting part of the field to say, What is it? Where is it going? How will it evolve? and we experiment with that every day.
KV: You've been quoted as calling yourself a showman and a performer. Why?
JK: Because we all are. I believe that's what life is. We all do our own performance, and then the curtain comes down, and the act is over.
Masters of Comic Book Art (1987)
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