The first, and by far most important, was that Monday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby. Kirby is arguably the most important creator of pop culture over the last several decades. There would be no Marvel Comics without him. The reason I didn’t post a tribute yesterday was that there was little I could add to all the well-deserved accolades that appeared all over the internet to mark his centenary. I never met the man. I had a chance once, being in the same room with him, but for once in my life I was starstruck and was too nervous to introduce myself. That’s a regret that I will carry to my grave.
I would suggest that, if you want to read more about Jack Kirby, the best place to start would be Mark Evanier’s blog. he knew and worked with Kirby, and will be posting links to some of the best tributes. Plus his blog is a pretty good every-day read anyway.
There is a bit of a debate among comic book fans over who deserves the most credit for the work credited to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I am firmly on the Kirby side of this debate, but I think that the contributions of Lee should not be dismissed. Lee had created the “Marvel Method” of working, mainly as a money-saving device for his uncle’s company (Stan Lee was the nephew of Martin Goodman’s wife, and Goodman owned the company that would become Marvel).
Basically, Lee would give a short plot description to the artist, and let the artist break it down into a story, which would then be finished by Lee, who would write the dialogue. While many of the artists tended to enjoy this because it gave them more control over the finished product, it also gave them half of the job of the writer, with no increase in pay.
Stan Lee was the editor, and as management, paid himself little or nothing as the writer of credit, saving the company a bundle by not paying writers for the work they published.
At the beginning of the Marvel age, when Kirby and Lee created The Fantastic Four, Lee deserves all the credit in the world for hiring Kirby, then getting out of his way. Kirby was so intent on storytelling that he didn’t want to deal with details like dialogue and inking. He wanted to tell his story and then move on to the next story. Sometimes he followed plots that he’d worked out with Lee, oftentimes he just did what he wanted. Lee was smart enough to stay out of his way, tidy up the dialogue and hire the inker to finish the art.
Kirby’s brilliance was in creating characters and telling stories. Lee’s brilliance was in selling those stories to the public. He ranks as one of the best editors to ever work in comics, and his role as a salesman and ambassador of comics is unchallenged. When you look at what Lee produced before and after his collaboration with Kirby, you can easily see that Jack Kirby was the true creative force behind the Marvel Universe. Lee fostered that creativity, but Kirby did all the heavy lifting.
Looking back, some of the most cringe-worthy writing in The Fantastic Four is clearly the work of Stan Lee. Often his words don’t match the expressions on Kirby’s characters. Eventually that became very frustrating, not only for Kirby, but also for Steve Ditko, who was basically writing and drawing Spider-man and Doctor Strange by himself. With his best collaborators having moved on to other publishers, Lee essentially retired as a writer and turned the reigns over to a younger generation.
Kirby, however, kept creating. At DC Comics he came up with The New Gods, the source of the major villains in the upcoming Justice League movie, and also created Kamandi and The Demon. He returned to Marvel, and working without Stan Lee, had memorable runs on Captain America, Black Panther, Machine Man and Devil Dinosaur.
Before he ever teamed with Stan Lee, Kirby had co-created or created Captain America, The Newsboy Legion, Boy commandos, Boys Ranch, Black Magic (the first horror comic), Young Romance (the first romance comic), Fighting American and Challengers of the Unknown.
The fact that both Marvel and DC are leaning heavily on concepts that he created for their movies, television and animated programs is a testament to his lasting legacy. I’ve been writing about Kirby’s influence on pop culture since almost day one of this blog, and it’s clear that a world without Kirby would have been a much more dull place.
And speaking of “since almost day one of this blog,” there was another milestone I missed yesterday. Monday was the twelfth anniversary of the very first post in PopCult. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. I think PopCult is now the longest-surviving single-author blog at what is now the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and it’s been a fun trip. It has to have been, since they stopped paying me in 2008. So thanks for reading, and let’s see how much longer they’ll let me get away with writing this stuff.