Jack Kirby Collector 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.

The Never-Ending Question: Lee Or Kirby?

by and © R.C. Harvey

From Jack Kirby Collector #18

Much as I admire Earl Wells' attempt in The Comics Journal #181 to solve the question of authorship of the Marvel Universe by using the analytical methods of literary criticism, I think his deployment of those methods is based upon an erroneous premise and therefore leads him astray. Wells examines Jack Kirby's work on the New Gods series at DC in the early 1970s and compares it to the work he did while at Marvel in the 1960s. So far, Wells is on solid ground. Then he loses his footing; noting that the spirit of the New Gods books is antithetical to the spirit that animates the Marvel books of the previous decade, he concludes that the same man could not have written both - ergo, the true author of the Marvel books was Stan Lee, not Kirby.

While it is true that the whole body of work produced by any creator such as Kirby should be taken into account when examining any aspect of that work, the examination must also recognize that the creator may change his mind or attitude over the period of time that his work is produced. Wells, I think, overlooks this possibility entirely; and there is ample evidence to support the notion that Kirby viewed heroism differently at different times in his career. In the common parlance of literary criticism, this sort of change is called "growth." In short, Kirby grew as an artist and as a storyteller; and as he grew in technical proficiency, he also grew philosophically, and that growth, in turn, is reflected in the themes of his work.

Wells writes that "it is difficult for me to believe that the same man, an adult professional with years of experience, over the course of only five or so years (the span between, say, the birth of the Marvel Universe and the genesis of the New Gods), could have written with such deep feeling about two such widely divergent themes - on the one hand, that great power requires responsibility, sacrifice, and suffering, and on the other, that great power is so dangerous that even a philosophy of responsibility, suffering, and sacrifice can be twisted into an obsession with death and (be) made to serve anti-life."

But if we assume that a creative artist grows and matures during his career, we can find in Kirby's growth the explanation for the difference between the New Gods and the Marvel heroes.

Wells says "Kirby was writing about war" in the New Gods. I agree. And Kirby had written about war before - in the early 1940s, when, with Europe plunged into the Nazi maw, he and Joe Simon created Captain America. The character personified patriotism, pure and simple. And that's what patriotism was during the years of that war - pure and simple. It was uncomplicated, uncompromised, unequivocal devotion to the principles for which the nation said it stood; and Captain America was not a complicated personality. He embodied those high-sounding principles.

Kirby was scarcely alone in embracing these ideas at that time. Indeed, most Americans embraced a kindred idealism-and they did so unquestioningly. So did Kirby. For Kirby, the struggle was between Good and Evil, and the heroes of his fictions were the Good Guys.

Kirby continued to subscribe to this idealism through the war and into the post-war era. But by the time he reached Boys' Ranch in 1950, his understanding of the nature of Good and Evil had achieved a more nuanced balance than before. If we consider only the "Mother Delilah" story in #3, we find a seriously flawed hero (the long-haired kid Angel) and a villainess (Delilah) not altogether bad. I examined this story in great detail in a book of mine called The Art of the Comic Book (published in January 1996), so I won't go into it here. Suffice it to say that the tales in Boys' Ranch are markedly different from the patriotic epics of World War II.

But then, none of us were as simple-minded about our country or about good and evil in the 1950s as we'd been in the 1940s. Working with his long-time partner Joe Simon, Kirby nonetheless tried to revive the clarity of war-time patriotism with another super-powered patriot, Fighting American, in 1954. An unabashed attempt to cash in (this time) on a patriotic creation like Captain America, Fighting American was a crusader against Communism, which, in the McCarthy atmosphere of that time, was a noble thing to be. Unhappily (as I point out in The Art of the Comic Book), the timing was wrong: McCarthy and his minions were discredited just about the time Fighting American hit the stands. Simon and Kirby quickly revamped their concept and attempted to produce a satirical book. Alas, neither of them was much good at satire.

But perhaps in the foundering satire of Fighting American we have the seeds of the self-mockery that distinguishes the early Marvel creations. Couldn't Kirby have brought that notion with him to Marvel? Suggested it to Stan Lee as a novel approach to heroism? And Lee, the man who scripted My Friend Irma and other similarly juvenile humor titles, seeing in the concept a place where his penchant for humor could be exercised, immediately pounced upon it. Why not?

It's pretty clear from the testimony quoted in Wells' article and in other places in the same issue of the Journal that Lee ginned up plot ideas and that Kirby accepted some of them and rejected others as he fleshed out the ideas that Lee rained down upon his head. Over-_hearing a story-development session from the back seat of a car, John Romita reports: "Stan would plot the Fantastic Four with Jack, and they would both come in with their ideas, and they would both ignore each other. Each one would have their own ideas, and I could see that the other guy was countering with another idea... So when Jack got the story in, sometimes Stan would say, 'Gee, Jack forgot what we talked about.' And I'm sure Jack thought the same thing, that Stan forgot what they talked about."

The pages of art that Kirby turned in transformed Lee's story ideas into dramatic action; and Lee embellished the action with his verbiage, writing captions and speech balloons that gave the stories a self-deprecating patina. Kirby could not have injected any such mocking tone into the tales; but Lee's contribution was as lyricist, refining the creative output of his collaborator. This is no small achievement. But the creative workhorse here was - in my view - Kirby, not Lee.

Despite the mockery, the stories were still celebrations of the heroic, as Wells maintains. So how did Kirby get from the Marvel ambiance to the New Gods ambiance? The latter shows that Kirby, once a believer in the redemptive and triumphant power of heroism, had lost his faith -or, rather, had tempered it with an almost cynical realism. He did what all of us did as we progressed from World War II through the Korean War to Vietnam.

Kirby was as fond of his audience as he was of drawing and storytelling. Any comic book reader who spent any time with him can testify to that. And Marvel's success with the college crowd (slightly older readers than he'd been working for prior to that time) doubtless made Kirby more aware of the blighting impact of Vietnam on American youth than he had been before during either of the other conflicts he'd witnessed. His readers were being marched off to a war they despised for reasons that seemed wholly irrelevant. Kirby could scarcely have ignored what was going on around him - and around his readers.

This was another war. But by now, we had all learned something about how war works in a purely political context, a war fought not to win but to make a political statement; an endless war. But this time - in sharp contrast to the World War of the 1940s - many Americans viewed war as futile and, ultimately, meaningless. Kirby, I believe, came to share that view, and he incorporated his attitude into the New Gods books; and heroism in that context was certainly less heroic.

That's the route I think Kirby's thinking took - and that's why the New Gods books, although produced by the same creative personality as the Marvel Universe, seem so anti-thetical. The New Gods books represent just another step in the philosophical and psychological evolution of Kirby's thinking about life and heroism. The New Gods, as Wells says, were not 1960s Marvel heroes. They were, rather, 1970s Kirby heroes.

That Kirby attempted such a mature and nuanced treatment of heroism was due, probably, to his understanding that comic books could be made for older, more mature readers than before. His experience with the Marvel books had shown him that. With the New Gods books, then, he simply took the next step. Kirby's entire career can be seen as a progression. I've indicated some of that progression here; in my book, I indicate other aspects of it. For now, however, it is perhaps enough to say that if we view the creative artist as a growing, developing consciousness, we can easily explain what Wells finds so inexplicable: The conflicting views of heroism and human nature found in the Marvel Universe and in the New Gods universe.

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