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.

Gil Kane on Jack Kirby

Interviewed by and © Jon B. Cooke

From Jack Kirby Collector #21

This is just a small portion of Gil's interview. For the full version, be sure to order a copy of TJKC #21.

THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR: Did Jack change over the years that you knew him?
GIL KANE: It was the same Jack thirty years later at Marvel as when he started. At Marvel, he was more refined but it was essentially the same thing. He had the same basic approaches to machinery, to action, and to the figure. Actually to tell you the truth, he lost a little when he got more and more into it. When he was doing the early Captain Americas, "Hurricane," and Blue Bolt, he was doing figures that were the envy of everybody. The figures had a great spontaneity and naturalism, but years later he got it to the point that it became just the idea of a figure. Time gave him more power but it also took away from the meaningful quality of his work, as far as I was concerned. But none of us were geniuses and he held forth for 30 or 40 years as one of the ranking guys. He made some money and now he's seen as practically a religious figure. What else can you want?

TJKC: When did you first recognize Jack Kirby's work?
Gil: The first time I saw his stuff was the third issue of Blue Bolt. He did the Red Raven cover for Joe Simon. Bits and pieces of Jack and Joe appeared in different things; and, of course, when they started Captain America and settled in at Marvel.

TJKC: When did you realize that Jack had a unique style?
Gil: Right from the first. In fact, the early stuff (as raw as it was) was even better than his last stuff because later he became so mannered and abstract. The figures became bigger and bigger, and they couldn't be contained by a single panel or even a single page-eventually he had to have two pages and still he could barely get a picture in!

TJKC: Do you think there was a change in his psyche as he got older?
Gil: Sure. He used to do many panels to a page with everything proportionate-there was a lot of air around the figures. Then, when he really started getting out there in the '70s, the amount of space around the figures became less and less until finally each head would fill up a panel. He would do only four panels to a page.

This is nothing against Jack; first of all, Jack was getting older and second, he was enjoying a degree of fame that was unusual for a comic book artist. I felt that he thought what he put down on paper would do. I saw it in the animation presentations and his comic book work. Ultimately his stuff was so uneven that I felt it was not something he was deliberately doing, but just something that was happening to him. There was the decline that happens to most artists sooner or later. Age usually neutralizes most people.

TJKC: Your first professional job was with MLJ [later Archie Comics]. Editor John Beardsley recommended you as an art assistant to Joe Simon?
Gil: After I was with MLJ for about six months and out of work for awhile, Beardsley recommended me to Joe. He was close to Joe.

TJKC: Do you remember going down to Simon & Kirby's Tudor City art studio? What was Tudor City like?
Gil: It was a luxury apartment building that must have been hot stuff in the late '20s. It just absolutely screams Art Deco. There was a special entrance: You had to drive in on a special street, and if you walked, you had to go over a foot bridge. It was almost like a walk across a moat just to get there. It was right where the United Nations building is today. Jack and Joe took an apartment that had one large room, bathroom, and a small kitchen behind some closet doors. It couldn't have cost too much to rent; the building was coming out of the Depression. (But when I came out of the Army, you couldn't get in there for the love of money! It became one of the tightest places in the world to get into.)

TJKC: Letterer Howard Ferguson was there?
Gil: Howard and a guy named Charles Nicholas who was a penciler for Fox (I think he did the Blue Beetle). He and Jack and Joe had some arrangement that wherever Simon & Kirby went, there was Charlie Nicholas inking their stuff. Jack would turn out so much work!

TJKC: What were your job duties with S&K?
Gil: Mine was penciling. I would try to turn out a job every week or so. [They were] 12-page stories. I was copying-tracing-Jack's work.

TJKC: What was the relationship between Joe and Jack at the time?
Gil: Joe was involved in the creative process and he was the one who made all the deals. Joe would ink all the splashes and occasionally he would pencil a job and ink it. He didn't write-it was Jack who wrote. Jack would either write a script or get one and adjust it as he saw fit.

TJKC: What was Jack like?
Gil: We were friendly but not intimates. He may have been more open with others. He was like an accountant: Always chewing on his cigar and always working. When you looked at his taboret, it was just littered with dozens of No. 2 pencil stubs. He would just wear them down, put 'em aside, until ultimately there was a logjam on top of his board! They would build up so quickly. It was a soft pencil and I never knew the guy to use up less than five pencils a day. Very often he would go through one an hour! He would just wear the pencils down, talking while he was working. He would talk everyday stuff, nothing of consequence-I came away with no bits of wisdom. Mostly Jack saw himself as the star of his own work. When guys came along like Frank Frazetta or Neal Adams, he'd never say what was obvious: That both of those guys, in different ways, were sensational.

TJKC: So he saw them as competition?
Gil: I think that he saw everybody as competition; that was the thing that finally dawned on me. It was Jack against the world.

TJKC: Was Jack one to ever look back at the printed comics?
Gil: I don't know, but I know one thing: He had practically everything that he ever did, whether xeroxes or anything else. When I was a 16-year-old working for him in Tudor City, I didn't deal with him much. We just sat there and worked. He was flying high, though I saw him sometimes when he wasn't flying high-when he was working for DC, doing Challengers of the Unknown and not getting enough work.

TJKC: You've mentioned that Jack has been practically deified. Do you see inherent problems in that?
Gil: No. Jack was only a symbol of his time. The good thing was that he came through with a liberating expressiveness (just like the '60s) that was perfectly suited to the time. Perfectly. And, all of the sudden, the Dan Barry/Al Toth qualities or values (as superb as Toth was) took a nosedive and Jack took over. Kirby was fresh, inventive, free, and much more with the time. Alex was already a figure from the '40s and '30s.

TJKC: Back in Tudor City, did Jack have an appreciation for Lou Fine, for instance?
Gil: I used to talk to him about his influences. I couldn't get sh*t out of him. Despite the fact I used to pump him regularly over the years, I never got a word that was really useful-it was so broad that it was just absolutely worthless. It was like the secrets of his cartooning were locked in his lips and he would never betray the secret. He might have been different with others.

TJKC: What happened when Simon & Kirby went into the service? What happened to you?
Gil: I got a "Newsboy Legion" job to do by myself (like I had done the rest of them except they didn't fix it up or do the splash), but when I walked through the door with the finished job, they said, "You're fired." They didn't even look at the work. I really was lousy and I was out! At that point, I was about seventeen and I worked for Continental Comics for a guy named Temmerson. (I penciled and Carmine Infantino inked.) But that only lasted until I went into the Army.

TJKC: In spite of the fact that Jack was rather tight-lipped about cartooning, what did you learn from his work? Did you learn from looking at Jack's art?
Gil: Only by studying it on my own. I didn't have a capacity for deep focus (in fact, I still think that I miss a lot). Precision is not one of the qualities that comes out in my work. I think the lack of precision and deep focus is why it took me years to build up my work. Everything was sensory and I never saw the structure in anything. I just saw the emotion in everything, so I got to feel everything that was going on and that I was viewing, but I couldn't think in terms of structure, which is the whole point of deep focus.

When I got to be thirty, I was really unhappy about my work; I thought I stunk and was at the bottom of a list of artists. So many of the guys were, at thirty, already achieving a kind of professional identity that was good. I was still swirling around, still looking for something, still copying. So I figured to hell with it and started to teach myself perspective because I noticed a thing called deep space for the first time. Once I saw deep space it took me to perspective and I learned how deep space worked. That took a lot of time. Then I learned negative and positive space, and then I came to the figure. I tried Bridgeman a half dozen times but I just couldn't break the combination. Finally I was looking at Reed Crandall and through him I broke the combination. So I got into Bridgeman and that began to solve a lot of problems. Each doorway opened up into a bigger room, so ultimately into my late thirties and early forties, rooms were opening up for me. I was at last achieving a kind of professional status that I was comfortable with. But, geez, that was 25 years past the guys I had grown up with! So by the time I got to Marvel, I was on the trail-I wasn't there yet but I was on the trail.

TJKC: When did you first meet Stan Lee?
Gil: Stan I met when I was 16 years old. Timely was my second job after MLJ. I was hired to work in the Bullpen-everybody worked in the Bullpen in the early days. Stan was the editor at nineteen years old but all the day-to-day managing of the work was done by Don Rico, who also did most of the hiring and firing.

TJKC: Wasn't Don also an artist at the time?
Gil: Yes. The office was in the McGraw-Hill Building on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. All they had were staff artists and so I worked on staff. Frank Giacoia was already working there on staff as an inker when I tried out for a week. Somehow or other it didn't work out for me. I was the butt of practical jokes because I was the youngest one there, and finally after a week I left. But it was an experience. I was just too young to deal with the day-to-day experiences of an office. Even then you had to have a level of confidence, and mine was mostly in copying. Once I had to work there I couldn't copy, so mostly I erased pages and used white-out, stuff like that. It was mostly production work.

At nineteen, Stan was the nephew of the owner of the business [Martin Goodman] and he wrote Captain America and their leading strips. That's what he did primarily but everyone knew that Stan was the bigshot.

TJKC: Was Stan like he is today?
Gil: Yeah, very much-boyish, exuberant, coming back from Central Park wearing riding jodhpurs.

TJKC: What was the effect of the romance comics on the industry?
Gil: It was an enormous boost and a lifesaver. Comics were going down for the second time and here, all of a sudden, came this thing and for the next fifteen years, romance comics were about the top sellers in the field; they outsold everything. I worked on them for DC and they were hard to do. You really had to have a draftsman's style which was different from a cartoon style. Most of us came out of Popeye, so turning Popeye into something believable was tricky enough. Others came in from advertising, bringing a more realistic representation of people so their character heads and figures were better. By the time romance came around, I was only about twenty-two years old and still embryonic-but not Toth! He drew like a whiz with the perfect style. He had a feeling for romance and that kind of allusion that was very creative. I was just stumbling along; I was just faking everything. I just didn't know why it was taking me so long. I don't think my best work came until the '70s and in the '80s. By that time, I was already in my fifties.

TJKC: Did you feel secure in your job at DC during the '50s?
Gil: Not completely. By the end of the '50s, everything began to collapse and, little by little, I lost all of my work. I lost Rex, the Wonder Dog and all the westerns. I lost everything and had nothing going. I would occasionally get a science-fiction story from Julie. I went over to Western/ Gold Key and worked with Russ Heath as a partner for a while; I penciled and he inked. So I picked up work wherever I could. Green Lantern filled in a lot but not completely; it was every six weeks and not a monthly book.

TJKC: And then The Atom.
Gil: That's how I got The Atom; because I wasn't getting enough work. The outside work was always crowding my schedule with DC; it's always easier to work for one company-when you finish one thing, another thing was always coming up from the same source. When you work all over town, you find overlapping deadlines and it's really a pain.

TJKC: Did you work for Timely/Atlas in the '50s?
Gil: Yes, but it was always a scattered effort. I worked when they were at McGraw-Hill, I worked at the Empire State Building, I worked on Madison Avenue.

TJKC: Jack Kirby said that he saved the company when he arrived in 1957. Do you believe that?
Gil: He certainly helped. First of all, I don't think that it would have been possible without Stan because in the late '50s, Jack was doing all of that monster stuff-and, believe me, that didn't make a difference in sales. That just barely kept them afloat. It wasn't until they started the super-hero stuff that sales started to improve. Stan had a lot to do with the characterization which was appropriate for the time; it was fresh and filled with mock irreverence. And that's not Jack, that was Stan. Of course, Jack was doing superb work.

TJKC: As a DC freelancer, when did you start to realize that Marvel was making an impact? Was it felt around the office?
Gil: Oh sure. I was trying to tell them that they were staid and they had to get away from this Dan Barry concept of doing artwork-it was like a banker's view of drawing. Dull. They were certainly not capable of transition. None of the guys in charge were art people; they were all pulp people. Most of them had nothing to do with art; there wasn't even an art director in the company. Each attempt to make a change was no attempt at all! It was just the same old stuff.

TJKC: Was it the same old stuff for you? Were you bored by the work you were doing?
Gil: Yeah, I tried to break away.

TJKC: It seemed like you were really picking something up from Marvel.
Gil: I did! If I had one quality that really ruined me and at the same time helped me, it was the fact that I never stopped looking, and by that time I was really working at it. When I began my studio [in the mid-'60s], I began to do what I never did before: I practiced every day-it didn't make me a genius, but it gave me a comprehensive understanding.

TJKC: Would you characterize anyone in the field as being a genius?
Gil: I would say that some guys are brilliant. Hal Foster was brilliant. It was not only his drawing, it was his storytelling which had complexity and narrative balance. He had such a grasp of the whole story, and on top of that, the drawing was so easy! It wasn't rigid. The same thing was true for Roy Crane; you look at the actions of the characters, and they are so expressive and so perfect that they extend the narrative. On the other hand, a guy like Alex Raymond was just a guy who had an enormous facility for draftsmanship. He worked hard but never internalized the characters (except for the first couple of years of Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim). His last years had immaculately drawn people just standing around. As far as I was concerned, it was just stiff material that didn't have any life at all.

I used to think Louie Fine was a genius when I was a kid, but as an adult when I saw some of the early stuff that I used to go crazy about, it was so raw and badly drawn-but in the heart of it there was some spirit, some quality that set it aside from other work; no question about it.

TJKC: How would you characterize Jack Kirby?
Gil: Jack was a natural-and he was a natural early on before the wall hit him. I thought that in the early '40s, he was just about the best guy around. He had a narrative style that was way beyond Lou Fine or any of these guys. On top of that, he really knew enough about drawing and everything so that there was simply no upgrading him. He was just excellent. As a matter of fact, I had a job with Mac Raboy drawing Captain Marvel Jr., and I brought in samples made up equally of Jack Kirby and Reed Crandall. He said, "Forget the Reed Crandall. Just stick with Jack." It was priceless to me to find Jack Kirby's work in the "Black Owl" and the eight or nine issues of Blue Bolt, then the early Captain America, the early "Guardian." In fact, I love the first issue of "Manhunter"-it was such a glossy issue! Beautiful! Just perfect Jack. And Jack did a series of covers for DC before he went into the service that were excellent. But nobody can be king of the world forever.

TJKC: So many artists copied Jack. Is it a mistake to copy Jack?
Gil: No, I think it wasn't a mistake. I copied Jack myself, as well as many others.

TJKC: When you both were doing work for Ruby-Spears, did you see Jack at all?
Gil: Regularly. He wasn't driving at that point any more, so Roz always came in with him. They'd come in once or twice a week to deliver an assignment and pick another one up. It was like a freelance job only he was on salary. When I got there, he and I were both working on presentation boards-20" x 30"-which for me was an experience because I had never worked that size before. And I would see Jack's stuff come in. His penciling was very impressive; it was very black-&-white. But he would hand in six boards and two or three were just not up to his usual level-wheels would be out of perspective and little things you wouldn't expect from Jack. Maybe it was his eyesight or his age, I don't know, but when he succeeded it would be absolutely wonderful. In fact, I wanted to steal one of the boards-they had all this stuff standing around there that they weren't able to use, and I figured that no one was going to miss one of 'em! But I never got the opportunity to take one of his good pencils that was a homerun, right over the fence.

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