|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.|
You Can't Go Home Again
Kirby's 1970s return to the "Snake Pit" of Marvel Comics
examined by Mike Gartland & John Morrow
Editor's note: The following article was compiled through published accounts, and particularly through interviews with current and ex-Marvel staffers and freelancers. The goal here is not to point fingers, but simply to put together as accurate an account of Kirby's 1970s Marvel stay as possible. Some of our requests for interviews were denied, some of our interview subjects simply couldn't remember many details, and still others wanted to remain anonymous for fear or reprisals from within the industry, so we won't be "naming names" here. Nevertheless, our thanks go out to all those who contributed information for this article.
When Jack Kirby returned to Marvel in the mid-1970s, it was because he needed a change; but he was to discover that some things never change, while others, perhaps, change too much.
Although Jack returned to Marvel in the Spring of 1975, this tale's roots actually are found in late 1973, almost two years earlier. Jack was very disappointed and upset at the cancellation of his Fourth World books, and the news of the cancellation of Mr. Miracle in late '73 led Jack to start thinking of breaking his then-contract with DC and looking elsewhere for work. Although the matter was resolved quickly with DC, the seed of discontent was planted. Stan Lee had always wanted Jack back (he never wanted him to leave in the first place). As Kirby neared the end of his DC contract, Stan made it known publicly in interviews that Marvel would welcome Jack's return. But Kirby still harbored resentment toward Lee, stemming from his 1960s stay at Marvel. Stan once said to a mutual friend of the two, "If only Jack wouldn't hang up on me, I'm sure something could be worked out."
Eventually, the failure to communicate (sorry, couldn't resist) was smoothed over. Stan told Jack that Marvel was willing to make him an offer, so Jack, still under contract, sounded DC out about a new deal. DC, it became apparent to Jack, didn't want him to stay on in his present capacity of writer/editor. Once Jack was sure that DC wanted someone else to write with him (or for him), Jack knew he would leave, and told Marvel he was ready to hear their offer. There appears to be a time overlap, where Jack is still doing Kamandi while already having signed on with Marvel, but Jack had some backlog already done on Kamandi, and once DC knew he was going to leave, decided to bring on Gerry Conway to indoctrinate him to the series and perhaps clean-up some dialogue; this is why Conway is credited as writer/editor on the last Kirby Kamandis.
Marvel offered a contract which Jack felt was the best he could obtain at the time. What Jack wanted, to put it frankly, was to be left alone to write and edit his own stories, and have no collaborators (in the storytelling sense) or tie-ins with other titles done by other people. (This shows how strongly Jack was determined to never again fall victim to losing credit for his concepts or creations—the hundreds of characters and/or ideas he gave Marvel in the '60s, and was sometimes acknowledged for.)
Once Jack returned to Marvel, several projects were discussed; the results of some are made clear in the books that were published. Captain America and the Black Panther were the only Marvel characters (co-created by Jack) that Kirby agreed to return to; everything else would be new concepts, unrelated to the then-current Marvel line. Although the new creations weren't as noticeable, Captain America and Black Panther became somewhat conspicuous by the lack of involvement with the rest of Marvel. Not only would Jack keep them detached from Marvel continuity, but with the exception of the Red Skull, no established villains were used. The two heroes became involved in an action/adventure genre that could have showcased any action hero; it was entertaining and interesting, but weird to many Marvel fans.
Another Kirby book would be based not on New Gods as so many thought (and claimed), but on the then-debated topic of Von Däniken's book Chariots of the Gods. The comic was originally to be titled Return of the Gods, but since it too closely resembled the Chariots title, it became The Eternals instead, arguably the best of the "return to Marvel" series Jack did. (Interestingly, DC used the title "Return of the New Gods" when they brought back Jack's opus in 1976 under new creative hands in First Issue Special #13, but abandoned it when they resurrected the New Gods book with #12 in 1977, perhaps because it too was also deemed too similar to Von Däniken's novel's title.)
When Marvel purchased the rights to 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was given to Jack to reproduce as a series. The gem of this run was Jack's "Machine Man" (originally named Mister Machine until Marvel heard from Ideal Toys about their character of the same name). He was spun-off to receive his own series. When Marvel heard that DC had TV networks interested in turning Kamandi into a Saturday morning cartoon show, they asked Jack for a proposal of their own, and Devil Dinosaur was created. This may help explain why this series reads as it does, because it was developed with children in mind; of course, many Marvel fans panned Devil Dinosaur as beneath both Jack and them, which shows just how childish some can be.
These were the books Jack worked on during this period; he wrote, drew, and edited them, then handed them in to Marvel—and then the problems began. To start with, Jack was in California and Marvel was in New York. There was no way he could tell what was being done to his work in the Marvel offices until it was usually too late. Jack would come to realize that Marvel had changed drastically since he originally left in 1970. There was no Stan Lee to oversee all production; in fact, Marvel had ballooned to such proportions that no one person could possible control it. According to one Marvel staffer of the time, "It was a mess."
Marvel was now being handled by the next generation, many of whom were fans who grew up on Kirby's work; younger, aspiring people who made the transition from fan to professional. When it was announced that Jack was returning, some of these young writers very much wanted to work with Jack. Some, on the other hand, felt that someone who left the company the way Jack did shouldn't have been welcomed back with such enthusiasm. When it became apparent that Jack would not work in collaboration with anyone, some shrugged and went on with their already hectic schedules; some would try and "help" Jack's books for the sake of quality control; while others... well, there are jerks in every workplace.
To state that Jack's writing (dialogue) was an acquired taste is not insulting, but some of the young writers and editors, who thought themselves better, couldn't stand it. When Jack's books came into the offices, these people began doing rewrites; even though Jack was credited as editor, his books would go through another in-office editor before publication. This was standard procedure for the majority of books being done by Marvel at that time; Marvel had grown considerably since the 1960s, so it wasn't possible for one editor to oversee so many books (Marvel's revolving door of Editors-In-Chief didn't help, either). Almost everyone had an associate editor, so in this respect Jack was not being singled out, but his dialogue was being altered to his chagrin, nonetheless. (It should be noted that Archie Goodwin ended up overseeing the majority of Jack's books, during which time Jack had few complaints.)
Stan Lee was still around, but only barely, as he was immersed in other Marvel-related media business. Once Jack discovered that the editorial staff was tampering with his work, he asked Lee to intervene, which he did. Stan even went so far as to review the "before" and "after" on one of Jack's stories and agreed with Jack that the changes were arbitrary and not beneficial. It wasn't long after that when, as one Marvel staffer put it, "The spite work began." The letters pages of Jack's books began to have more negative mail than positive, which would have been acceptable except that it appeared to be being done intentionally, and some of the negative letters weren't genuine, but contrived by the staff. Other Marvel books of the time got equal or greater numbers of negative letters, but they weren't published.
Around this time, Jack began to receive hate mail on Marvel interoffice stationery; he even got phone calls suggesting that someone else should write for him. Ex-staffers recall seeing copies of his work hanging in the Marvel offices with derogatory comments and insults written on them. It all just added to Jack's disillusionment and disgust with the industry altogether.
On the letters page of Captain America #214—the last issue Jack worked on—was a sidebar noting Jack's leaving the series and moving on to other things. Of his '70s tenure on Cap it was written: "The two years since the return of the celebrated Mr. K have been one big roller coaster ride of incredible encounters and fantastic folks." Do tell!! Unfortunately, in hindsight, this could be accepted as a reflection on not only what Jack's characters were going through, but Jack as well!
Jack, after spending three years at Marvel, had had it. He was 60 years old at the time and felt burned out (and burned). He felt he had done all he could, and knew he wouldn't be renewing his contract with Marvel. Upon leaving, he likened it to a pit of snakes that eventually turn on each other. Although there were many fine and respectable talents at Marvel during Jack's second tenure, as stated before, every job has its jerks, and Jack had to deal with more than his share of them.
Having made some inroads in the animation industry during his last year at Marvel (through his involvement on the Fantastic Four animated series of the time), Jack went full-time into the field. The pay was much better than comics, and the health insurance he received would be invaluable in dealing with his and Roz's health problems in later years—insurance he wouldn't have received had he stayed in comics. He found animation much more rewarding (since he didn't have to live up to his past work there), and he was treated with more respect. There he produced literally thousands of pieces of presentation art, most of which will never be seen by his fans. That's the ironic part of it all; because he was treated so shabbily by a few at Marvel in the 1970s—some of whom were his fans in the 1960s—we all were robbed of seeing several more years of comics stories while he was still in his penciling prime.
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