DC’s Batman of 1959 Meets Thor?! On Thunder Gods and the Gift of Jack Kirby.

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Lest the somewhat rambling exploration to follow lack any context whatsoever, I will briefly explain that the love for everything about comic books that in some ways defined my childhood between the ages of 12 and (about) 14, has mysteriously burst back into flame. The event took me completely by surprise; I had not known that a passion so heartfelt and intense could slumber for decades as if put away upon a shelf (never forgotten, but definitely in the past tense), and then suddenly reawaken as if cued by some distant signal, with a siren’s call as irresistible and compelling as ever.

So there is a mystery surrounding the whole phenomenon, and at its heart. In coming to terms with the frequently incomprehensible events of life, I have found useful the practice of taking a little deeper any given question, with the idea that “it’s not the experience that’s so important, as the needs of the soul behind it.” Since I’ve come to a fundamental working belief that we are each of us souls upon a journey, and since the events of the day tend always toward chaos as the nature of things, the principle is universally applicable and bears a quiet power of its own, promising of clarity.  It is often less about providing neat and tidy answers than helping to maintain a state of openness, bracing us with a readiness to live with the great questions that inevitably accompany any path of true growth. Meanwhile, I cannot doubt that I am walking my path.

There is something of a grounding feeling in having stumbled so unexpectedly into the completion of so full a circle, yet it’s also quite interesting as an experience because I am no longer a young boy. As is said of the one who, returning, again dips fingers into a river’s flowing current, “you can’t touch the same river twice.” Not only has the boy become a man (though I think the kid’s still definitely in here, somewhere!), but the hobby has changed in so many ways that at times I feel the disorientation that the awakening Rip Van Winkle must have felt upon sleepy-stumbling back into town!  That water keeps on a ‘flowing.

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Anyway, back to the point. Along the course of my journey’s way, I have occasionally bought and sold on that most bizarre and wonderful of virtual international marketplaces known as eBay. And Wow! have I had an experience!  I’ve met all kinds of people, and cultivated relationships with trading partners the world over. There seems nothing generally true about those who love comic art as a group; we seem a nearly perfect cross-section of Humanity, for better and for worse, living and working and “doing our thing” wherever it may be that we call home.

But even so, I have always felt blessed to be part of a special community, in equal measures both wholly unlikely and brimming over with potential. It seems a very special thing when people of all ages, the whole world over, are drawn by their own various personal and private passions (yet often having something to do with joy!), to seek out and take their own places, together, in a great mosaic forever taking shape, forming, and re-forming as a kaleidoscope, in a spirit of devotion to some shared Greater Dream.

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All of which is intended as brief background for the piece to follow. The core idea of the essay came about as part of a rather unorthodox (and some might justly say, ridiculous!) listing done in the process of selling my copy of the above Batman comic book. Whenever I sell, I have made it a point to learn and share some of “the stories behind the stories,” for they are without number.  And they interest me deeply.  (Hey, I said I was a comics geek!)

And messages received from different ports of call, from enthusiasts of all ages, have encouraged me to “keep it up.” (And lest you might ever be weighing the prospect of sending anybody such encouragement for anything he or she might be doing that makes a difference to you, yet hesitate for whatever reason, don’t. I am here to tell you: even small encouragements can make a real difference. And they do.)

So, anybody out there ready to venture forth on a little journey? Shall we off?   Good!

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NO, you are not hallucinating with regard to the comic book shown above, at least insofar as you might see upon its 1959 cover the mighty Thor, armed and complete with legendary hammer! And this is no extraordinary early “cross-over;” the Thor that we have come to know and love would not yet exist for another couple of years.

Here is a classic Batman comic, in fact an excellent representative period piece with stalwarts Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff at the typewriter and behind the drawing board, respectively. Yet its true historical importance, it seems to me, is in its roughly contemporaneous featuring of Thor in comic book format (and on the cover, yet!) with Marvel’s.

The synchronicity raises a few interesting and ultimately unanswerable questions: What exactly so set this “old God” apart from all of his long-forgotten, dust-covered peers? His legend was both documented and truly ancient: his exploits had been spoken of aloud before ancient communal fires, and passed along between numberless generations, well before the practice of inscribing symbols in ink upon parchment had even first become new.

So why was he showing up in modern American pop culture?

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Thor, above, and Odin, below, Icelandic Manuscripts, ca. 1760

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thor and OdinAs depicted in 2011 film, Thor.

And might his featured appearance here, on one of the lead titles in the closely watched “competition,” have played even the slightest role in what was to come at Marvel?

What particularly excites me about the book is not really the book itself. It’s more what it tells us about myths that will not die, the creation of comic books, and most of all, about the artist named Jack Kirby. .

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Jack Kirby (28 Aug. 1917 – 6 Feb. 1994)

It provides a most unlikely and certainly rare window of clarity upon the real scope of the man’s creative contribution to Marvel, generally, and the extreme power of that great golden gift. As some of you may be aware, clear answers to questions about exactly how the creative partnership between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby might have actually worked are nearly impossible to find.

With one-time simple comic book characters having evolved over time (somehow!) into powerhouse franchises, Disney having acquired ownership of the Marvel dream in its entirety in exchange for stock and cash worth over four billion dollars, and litigation having been undertaken by the Kirby family on behalf of his Estate throwing into legitimate question true ownership of the heart of the corporate assets Disney had bought and paid for, any matters that might have once had simple answers have now become anything but. The entire painful subject has devolved into the legal equivalent of a nude mud-wrestling match, except for sloppier and without all the dignity.

And a most unfortunate dynamic has arisen, in which any positive recognition or acknowledgment about the contributions of one, is seen as necessarily diminishing the other.

As if it were a competition, of sorts.

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In happier times. Stan and Jack out for drinks, sharing a light moment, 1965. Credit: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

The issue remains sensitive because it is becoming ever more clear, even as the history on the dynamic period only begins to cool and harden, that the credits traditionally assigned by Lee in so jaunty and playful a manner– Stan Lee, Writer, and Jack Kirby, Artist— paint an actively misleading picture of what was actually happening, and do Kirby a grave injustice. And they always have.

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Quote From Interview by Alex Pappademas, On the (surprisingly complicated) legacy of Stan Lee

Stan Lee always completed the finished dialogue in their joint projects, it is true. That was one of his fortes. But even completely setting aside for the moment Kirby’s credible contentions that he played a much larger role than has ever been acknowledged in first creating and conceptualizing nearly all of the characters that would so quickly come to mean Marvel, and do still to this day, let’s focus on that which is agreed upon as fact.

What we know is that Jack Kirby, on every single story that he and Lee ever did together, took a root idea, most often reached through active creative collaboration between the pair, and drew out the story completely on his own. He alone made all the decisions as to how a saga might best fit into an allotted number of pages, and proceeded to get busy drawing. In the course of that process, he unilaterally decided what each character– hero and villain alike– would look like, and wear, and (importantly) how they’d move, singly and in relationship (“Ker-POW” or otherwise!) to one another.

With a true master’s touch, he made all the critical decisions as to the pacing of a story, its dramatic presentation, and all the rest. And so it was that Kirby– page upon page after page– told the stories that we so loved, and do still to this day

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Once the artwork had been completed for each book, each of those beautifully penciled pages were then sent back to Lee (along with the artist’s notations, thoughts, and observations in the sidelines about dialogue, plot twists, etc. Or, in short, any ideas that might be relevant to the story’s final form, thus bearing on dialogue.) That’s simply the way it was done, and I do not believe there to be controversy or disagreement upon the point. And considering the nature of the comic book medium, as (essentially) a marriage of words and pictures for the purpose of telling stories on paper, that is all I need know to conclude beyond doubt that Kirby was given the short end of the stick.

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The bottom line is that, of the two, it is Kirby that was fully fluent in the two occasionally intersecting but very different languages we might label in shorthand as story and art. Though certainly not as “verbal” as Lee (then again, who is?), nor quite as highly skilled in the art of “putting words into the mouths” of the characters to bring them so fully to life, neither was Kirby to be mistaken for a slouch in that arena, or as anything less than thoroughly competent. He just wasn’t, Thank God, Stan Lee. And yet I am grateful for Stan Lee, as well.

They were a team, damn it. No matter what the nature of our our personal biases, brought to the table while engaging in an “outsider’s analysis” of a “Marvel Age of Comics” now nearly fifty years passed in an effort to figure what might have made it tick, I feel it important to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the extraordinary gifts that each of these two men brought to the table, from the very beginning. So if Stan Lee said of Jack Kirby with specific reference to the Fantastic Four, as he once did, that “[Kirby] was pretty much able to keep the book up and running by himself,” that need not necessarily be heard as diminishing Lee’s importance. Because the pair had built up the Fabulous Foursome very much together, from the ground up.

Jack Kirby was very much at home not only upon the page, but in all that helped inform and give it structure: he was fully fluent in the realms of storytelling, characterization, and plot development. And not just from page to page, singly, but with each seen from the perspective of its place in a complete story, in relation with, and reference to, every other. And then, all of that in relation (as well) to the issue that was to follow, beginning with the next month’s cover. A little more like a chess match than a free and unrestrained exercise in creative artistry, but more textured and challenging,

And it was unquestionably he and not Lee, just for a couple of examples, that single-handedly conceptualized and created some of the most memorable characters giving the series such vivid drama and color.  He gave birth to the Silver Surfer, as well as that breakaway group of unlikely characters generally known as The Inhumans.  With that credit undeniably under his belt as a matter of historical fact, how do you imagine that Kirby might have felt to see the credits as set forth below forever superimposed upon his artwork?

 

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Lee, on the other hand, could not draw a stick figure, on a good day. Perhaps that is why he tended to so consistently minimalize the contribution of his artists, generally.

No, upon further thought about the above, I think it might more fairly be said of Lee that he at least seemed pro-artist, in many respects.  But never at his own perceived expense.  Otherwise put: singing the artists’ praises,  forever bestowing endearing monikers upon each as part of a “bullpen” that (sadly) did not actually exist, and thus building “brand” loyalty in his huge fan base toward his finest, could all be seen as the marketing genius at work, tooting (indirectly) his own horn.

But Jack Kirby, through absolutely no fault of his own, was different from all of the rest.  He was the only artist at Marvel that posed a genuine threat to the story Stan Lee had begun telling the world about what had happened, and his primary role in the process. Not only had Kirby actually been there from (since before) Day One, but Lee knew that all the right people would have been inclined to listen to, and believe Kirby whenever he spoke a more complete truth.  His lifetime body of work spoke for itself, unimpeachably, and the unrivaled esteem in which he was held by nearly all of his peers (as it would be forevermore, for all those to follow) lent him a credibility, and his word a gravitas, that Lee might for good reason have found threatening

Though the signs were all around Kirby for him to see, and only becoming more clear, it was just not his nature to see them until it was much too late.  To use a somewhat sensationalistic but sadly apt analogy, Kirby was like the Indians in his dealings with  Marvel Management, and the latter, the White Man.    He was doomed.  The lessons that would be his to learn about the darker capacity of Man, there in the offices of Marvel, would strip him of his innocence and finally undo him.

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Yet if Stan Lee indeed made presumptuous claims at Kirby’s great expense, perhaps we ought ask ourselves why we all so quickly fell for it, and continue to, even now. In all fairness to Stan Lee, it might well behoove us all to stop, take a breath, and ponder exactly why it might be that we are so quick to read Writer/ Artist as True Creator/ Hired Illustrator, even before he has opened his mouth.  And the answer is quite simple.

Much of the problem is that the rare kind of actual teamwork and/or joint and dynamic creativity put to specific use by Kirby and Lee in the process of their storytelling is “off our radar screen” altogether.  We have no place for it within our frame of reference.  Quite on the other hand, however, we have plenty of experience with the notion that, for the most part, artists are hired by authors (or their publishing houses) to help illuminate and make more appealing to readers the written story. There is no question about the “reason for the season,” or who is intended to shine. Let’s first illustrate the rule with a notable exception. Many of us might at least recognize the name of this man:

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and that would be because he was so very extraordinary an illustrator, and because (as it happened) it was he that was tapped to draw the pictures for one of the most perpetually beloved story-books, ever: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

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Many more of us might know of the man below, if not by his actual name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson:

clip_image004[6] Lewis Carroll

And quite a few of us are likely to know of this author, or more likely, the boy seated on his lap (or, more likely still, the namesake stuffed bear by his side):

clip_image006A.A. Milne with son Christopher Robin, & Friend Winnie the Pooh

Yet what of the man who brought the bear and his friends so unforgettably and joyfully to life, with his pen on paper?

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His name was E.H. Sheppard, and he was once a young artist with plans and ambitions of his own. Though finally knighted by the Queen and well-beloved by millions, he had privately come to the bittersweet realization that when one has been tapped to breathe life into a character like Pooh, that will be his artistic legacy. The people simply would not have it be otherwise. So perhaps we really should remember his name, after all.

It seems only fair. Shepard.  E. H. Shepard.

clip_image010 Ernest Howard (“E.H.”) Shepard, OBE, MC (10 Dec. 1879- 24 Mar. 1976)

One more for the road: we have loved the Narnian Chronicles by C.S. Lewis, including The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the numerous others. If you are among the many millions who’ve had the good fortune to turn those pages, you might have indelibly etched upon your memory some of these images:

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They are by Pauline Baynes, an English illustrator who over the course of a long and incredible lifetime career contributed not only to the works of C.S. Lewis, but also J.R.R. Tolkien and many others. Tolkien, who became a longtime friend, was utterly delighted by her work on their first project together, his book Farmer Giles of Ham.  He observed that her drawings are “more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme.” He also apparently took the greatest pleasure in reporting that friends had told him “that her pictures had succeeded in reducing [his] text to a commentary on the drawings.” She also wrote and illustrated books of her own.

In addition to the foregoing, the multitude of projects she tackled over the years included one of Mary Norton’s immensely popular The Borrowers series (The Borrowers Avenged), the Koran and the Book of Job, and some quite-elaborate imagined texts of the Middle Ages (embellished extravagantly in the Medieval style, but playfully). The evening she passed peacefully away at home, she had strewn all about her neat studio a number of lush, colorful illustrations for Aesop’s Fables. Though the ink had recently dried upon them even when found, the legends that they so brilliantly depict will survive as long as Humankind, and told each time in colors that are always  fresh.

Baynes Studio

Finally, as she had requested, the ashes of her remains were scattered amongst the shades of living green making up the English garden just outside her studio window, created for her several years before by the loving hands of her late husband.

 

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Pauline Diana Baynes (9 Sept. 1922 – 1 Aug. 2008)

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One can only hope to be forgiven for so very wide and shameless a digression, but I have ventured there purposefully in the hopes of shedding some light on why we might have been, and remain even still, so ready to accept as unvarnished truth Stan Lee’s territorial claims of authorship. His position needed no real “hard sell;” we had all been prepared by our experience to fill in all of the blanks with our generally consistent experience of the relationship between authors with stories, and their illustrators. What was the sense in raising such a ruckus, we might have thought on a level possibly just beneath our conscious awareness, when we all knew perfectly well that Jack Kirby had only been the illustrator? It said as much, right there on each page of credits in the comic books.

What? An illustrator claiming part ownership of a story? It was downright unseemly. It just wasn’t done.

But then again, there has ever, in all of time, been only one Jack Kirby. Let’s return our attention to him, and to the longing that built up within after so many years of helping make Marvel happen, one insult (small or large), denial, or slight at a time.  It finally burst at last into flame, and raged inside of him. More than anything else, he yearned simply for fundamental fairness. He wanted to see the right thing happen in real life, for once, and not just upon another Goddamn fanciful page in a comic book yarn. He wanted, needed, only recognition for that which he had unquestionably co-created.

thor2_eIt is easy to imagine how smothering it must have felt, for one of Kirby’s extreme talent, practical makeup and somewhat gentle disposition, to feel his hard-earned professional reputation evaporating, or running like sand from between even tightly-clenched fingers.  The man himself must have felt lost, somewhere within the considerable gloom of Stan Lee’s huge and seemingly boundless shadow. Lee, after all, lost no opportunity to leap directly in front of the nearest spotlights, where- and whenever, and the brighter the better, to put on his “I’m just a regular fella,” [but] “Just look at what I did!” soft-shoe routine.

And with Kirby’s passing on Feb, 6, 1994, aged 76, his voice would be forever silenced, leaving whatever story that would thereafter be told about the making of Marvel, and the creation of recorded modern history, squarely in the hands of Stan Lee alone.  And at that point, the venerated comic book creator emeritus, who after all was eminently experienced in both storytelling and the creation of Legends, had really only begun to refine his spin upon the tale.

And he appeared to find this one particularly engaging.

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In a sense, Kirby wanted only one word. That’s it. A single and solitary word, perhaps, but nevertheless one of huge importance in his chosen field of endeavor. If you have read the comic books and seen the credits, you may have observed that in all of the Marvel credits, his name is followed by “artist.”  And that was certainly true, but also painfully incomplete. He wanted the title artist/ writer as a matter of fairness and accuracy, professional and personal dignity, and pay scale. And he wanted it badly. He was not the kind that is forever making additional demand, or asking for more. So when he did on occasion make request, those that knew him must have taken note accordingly.

They indeed took note, but never listened.

It must be borne in mind that, in the comic book publishing world of the day, artists were generally given precious little respect, viewed and treated essentially as the “hired help” somewhat regrettably necessary to fulfill the creative impulses of the higher caste of writer/editor, both subservient in position and (with few exceptions) seen as quite “replaceable.”

Because Jack Kirby had a family to provide for, and because he’d put in the time and given his all, undertaking faithfully the extraordinary task of helping to build up the Dream, and perhaps most of all just because it was actually so, he wanted the recognition. Sometimes a word is so much more than just that, rarely more so than when the bestowing of a single one translates into justice and fairness, and its withholding the precise opposite.

Demands were made by Kirby to that effect, of “partner” Stan Lee and his “cousin-in-law,” publisher and manipulator par excellence Martin Goodman. Promises were made and broken, time and again.  All assistance was promptly given, short of actual help.  Excuses were given freely. “Later, just as soon as…,” and “Soon!” “Awww, come on, Jack. You know we love ya, baby!” And so forth.

But the day would never come. Kirby never stopped trusting, or believing. It seemed that he couldn’t; it was like a life force running through the very core of him. In the end, it broke his heart. Yet all the same, he had been the one who’d bought the Brooklyn Bridge, and not one of those that sold it.

 

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Marvel model

There is just no credible way, with regard to the particular phenomenon of Thor, that Stan Lee can say, “I did this.” (Even though he does, repeatedly, and always has.) Do you know why? Just take a look at the Thor of the Batman comic back up at the top, and there is your answer.  Bear in mind that, as of the date published, DC Comics had no real competition, and with its pool of remarkable talent, reputation, and sales records was unquestionably held up and viewed as the “gold standard” of the day, the singular “blue chip” publisher of comic books that mattered.  And yet for all of that: this was the best they had been able to come up with. And in all fairness, it is no small or easy task to successfully breathe new life into so ancient a legend, making the story relevant to and embraceable by a modern readership.

Whatever it might have been that DC had, they lacked completely one Jack Kirby. And how might a creator of such relentless and dynamic creativity be even imagined, until he shows up at last to fill a huge void that has always been, and therefore cannot be seen?

That, in my view, is the power of the book:  it pinpoints for us exactly where we would have been left at the relevant point in history, without the contributions of Jack Kirby.  No imagination required.

But for a man named Kirby, the vision of Thor as captured by DC (or something quite likely dreadfully similar) would have remained the state of the Thunder God in American popular culture in 1962, and quite probably forever thereafter. And who would have really cared? Or even given the entire unlikely matter a thought?

Once in a more innocent time, back in 1968, long before the cold frosts had first set in and hardened into biting sharpness, and all of the litigation papers finally been served, Stan Lee had been asked by young fans about his creative partnership with Kirby in the course of an interview done for publication in their Fanzine Excelsior!

“Was it you or Jack that conceived of the F.F.?,” they inquired. “Both,” replied Lee. “It was mainly my idea, but Jack created characters visually.”

 

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Since unlike Hulk, Spider-man, and all the others, Marvel had not been the first to tell Thor’s story, and the basics of the myth were long in place, this one is really  all about Jack’s great gift of creating visually, and on an epic scale. Without Kirby we’d have no Thor approaching the quality of the one we know. There’s just no way. Had the Universe been somehow tragically short one Jack Kirby, we’d have nothing to be talking about. No Kirby, no Thor. Not such that anyone would really give a damn. All of which is exactly the point driven home by this old Batman comic, and its claim to meaning in the present tense. _______________________________________________________

In taking a very brief look at the striking similarities at the heart of these two comic book “stories of Thor,” one important and obvious difference must first be noted. The earlier depiction, if a bit “cartoony,” is nevertheless more accurate in the truth-to-historical legend sense than he to follow. The Thunder God of legend was stout, heavily-bearded, and notably red-headed. And indeed, at the beginning Kirby and Lee had taken some grief from “purists” expressing righteous indignation at the liberties they’d taken in re-envisioning an ancient God, for Pete’s sake!

“Thor,” they were sternly advised, “is certainly NOT blond, long-haired, and pretty.” Kirby (I’m sure) carefully pretended to listen, fully empathized, and kept right on following his vision! His reasoning? As he and Stan were heard to say in interviews, “Today, blondes have more fun!” He also said in another interview, more seriously, “A mythology that is not relevant to its times, that fails to really speak to the people, is no real mythology.”

Mythology mattered to Jack Kirby. Urgently. He felt that everyday people suffer every day for lack of good and worthy and sufficient ones. And he could not stand to see people suffer. The man’s heart was huge.

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Returning briefly once more to the stories as published by DC and Marvel: both “humanized” the Norse God and Prince of Asgard by bestowing upon him a secret identity, perhaps the most significant single modification/ character development along the path from God to Superhero, and certainly that most essential for comic book purposes. Consider the center panel below from Batman #127, flanked by a couple of classic Kirby images. Note the archetypal similarity in “the nerd,” or “gimp” factor between the meek museum curator here transformed into the mighty, barreling Thunder God, and the crippled Dr. Don Blake, accompanied by his suitably raggedy walking stick, on either side.

As a keen and life-long student of mythology, Kirby understood that true nobility almost always masks itself, and that anything or anyone proclaiming its own nobility, in truth never really is.

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The stories also share as a central focus the perpetual lure of Thor’s mighty hammer. Consider Batman’s typically cornball observation made in closing, below. “Hmmm,” his editors might have thought, “interesting enough even to hold together a comic book?” “Naaah.”

You see, at that point they didn’t have Jack Kirby on their team.

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DESPITE all the confusion surrounding the creative relationship between the larger-than-life pair, there can be absolutely no question but that it was Kirby alone who brought new life, visually speaking, to this particular ancient vision on paper. Only he handled the art, ever, and only he could! And so it was that a legend slumbering only as mere epic idea, throughout the long centuries and in and out of millenia, was now at last ready to become something much, much more.

JIM 83 Thor ThorA legend lives! Splash page of first Thor story, by Jack Kirby. Right, modern Marvel variant cover.

And, to the extent movies are be assessed visually, every film that will ever be made about Marvel’s Thor will be heavily indebted for its very being to its well-spring source of Kirby’s imagination, and to his outrageous insistence upon quality, with no shortcuts permitted.

The very first costume in which Kirby first envisioned Thor is essentially identical to that he is still seen wearing, on the printed page and in the movies. And yet the credits will probably always say, “Writer: Stan Lee.”

THORChris Hemsworth as Thor, in the eponymous film of 2011. Director: Kenneth Branagh

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SO, just for the moment, let’s celebrate Jack “the King” Kirby’s immense contributions, and his unwavering commitment to Grand ideals, and the size of one legendary heart. And, if only in a spirit of respect to his memory, let it never be said that one person cannot make a real difference, or bring forth a vision that will touch and enrich an entire world, outlasting easily lifetimes.

clip_image016 A younger Jack Kirby, Bright Star in the Comic Book Creator Heavens.

AT the time this Kirby fellow undertook this particular commission, he had been in the business about as long as any. Few indeed could match either the sheer quantity of work he had produced over the course of decades, in any number of genres and for several different publishers, or anywhere near its consistent quality. In terms of lifetime achievement, the man stood alone.

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Kirby and partner Joe Simon at work, undated

At a very early age, he had helped partner Joe Simon bring into being one of the most explosive and phenomenally successful comic book characters of the Golden Age, or ever, Captain America! His hands had been the first to bring that star-spangled dynamo to life.  In March of 1941, scarcely three months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, here he was, all dressed-up and ready for action, even giving the top dog Nazi himself the what for, American style!

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Thereafter, outside of a stint of military service in WW II (in which he saw combat with the Nazi field forces, on the front lines), he never left the comic book field.

clip_image020 Letterhead Stationery, Simon & Kirby Studios, Late 1940’s. From Steranko’s History of the Comics, Vol. 1

It was a hard time to be a comic book creator, but he just kept on keeping on. He acted exactly as if his work in the funny books actually mattered, even during the long, cold years when no one else thought that it did. As he lived out the days of his life, tended to his business, undertaking to do his work– dignity followed always closely behind, stubbornly refusing to ever desert. He knew what he knew, and until the day he took his Great Leap into the hereafter, kept on building up a legacy.

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At long last and in closing, I thought that you might enjoy hearing directly from the only known personal eyewitness to the actual creation of the Mighty Thor of Marvel Comic fame. So, here is Jack’s son, Neal:

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“I WONDER if Michelangelo had a kid watching him paint? Was there a little Luigi watching the ceiling from a quiet corner of the Sistine Chapel? Extreme example, maybe, but the emotion would have been the same that I experienced watching my father at the drawing board. I had to stand on his left, looking over his shoulder. Starting with a clean piece of Bristol board, he would first draw his panel lines with an old wood and plastic T-square. Then the page would start to come alive. He told me that once he had the story framed in his mind, he would start drawing at the middle, then go back to the beginning, and then finish it up. Everything seemed to come naturally; he didn’t even needed a compass to draw a perfect circle. He worked fast but smooth, too, no wasted movement or hesitation.

”Watching him work gave us a chance to talk about science and history, subjects we both loved, but it also gave me a chance to see history being made. In the spring of 1962, for instance, I remember standing over the drawing board as Dad created a truly cosmic hero– it was a brand new character but I was confused when I heard his name. Thor? The story was “The Stone Men from Saturn.” My first reaction, before opening my mouth, was “Why the hell is a Norse god fighting rock-pile aliens?” Dad explained the whole origin story to me and how he would work in the entire pantheon of Norse deities in the future. Having either read or at least browsed through every book in his library, I thought I was pretty smart when I scoffed and asked him how Thor could even hold his head up with two big, iron wings attached to his helmet. “Don’t forget,” Dad said, nodding toward his creation, “Superhero.”

 Growing up Kirby: The Marvel memories of Jack Kirby’s son

And it is here that this particular flight of fancy, having wound down at last, finally once reaches its end and gently touches ground.

Thank you for coming along on the journey.

 

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4 Responses to DC’s Batman of 1959 Meets Thor?! On Thunder Gods and the Gift of Jack Kirby.

  1. Joe The Mule says:

    “as huge a mess as possible with color” LOL
    Did you paint that picture at growing the mystery? Damn fine. Wow.
    Y’know, the same thing happened to me. I stopped collecting comics at least a thousand years ago and then I started looking back. It’s probably a common happenstance as one ages. But they were fun, weren’t they. I’ve started buying old “monster” book reprints (cheap) and I read them aloud to the Mrs. So funny. Of course our faves are the Kirby and Ditko stories (duh).
    Thank you for sending me the link to your blog.
    I love that old picture of Jack, with his apparently typical jaunty expression. Do you know why he changed his name? Jack was not a comics artist, he was an artist that drew comics. How many times had you bought a comic solely because Jack’s art was on the cover, only to be let down by others artwork in the story. Lee knew the power of Jack’s art, that’s why Jack did the overwhelming majority of covers. Hell, that’s what got me started. I was drawn (no pun intended) in by FF18, bought the book, and never bought another DC until Jack went over. I remember being so mesmerized by the cover of FF27, I bought several copies and didn’t know why.
    And look at that drawing of Robin in the last frame of the DC Thor story. OMG! It is to puke.
    Y’know, Jack WAS the Thing. He did all of the heavy lifting (and chomped cigars). I’ll bet he talked like him too.
    Thank you so much for sharing.
    Joe

    • Michael Hill says:

      James Robert Smith pointed out in a recent blog entry that not only was Jack the cigar-chomping Thing, Stan was Reed Richards. Kirby was always acting out his frustration through the characters when Ben would rebel against Reed’s leadership. Black Bolt and Maximus provide a similar example.

  2. Michael Hill says:

    Paul, thank you for a terrific piece about Jack Kirby the writer. Maybe when that idea gains some acceptance, people can start to consider Jack Kirby the creator. He always maintained that he was the idea guy, and not just in the ’80s when a smear campaign had him written off as bitter and senile.

    As for collaboration being responsible for the “root ideas,” Susan Kirby stated under oath that she was present at the creation of the Fantastic Four (and who else but Kirby would have recycled a five-year-old Kirby concept?). Rather than entertaining the possibility that at 87, Stan might be too old to remember the truth unassisted, the judge decided that at the age of 15, Susan had been too young.

  3. Joe The Mule says:

    I’m glad you chose the opening page of FF#4 as an example of Jack’s genius. The illustrations reek of family dynamic. I love that Jack chose to show The Thing with his back to Reed and Sue. It demonstrates that The Thing feels responsible for Johnny leaving and he’s too ashamed to show his face. However, his expression maintains true to his character. And finally, in the last frame on the page, The Thing does face Reed but his body language betrays his pain; his shoulder slightly raised, as though warding off a blow. Pure genius.

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