Sunday Bonus Post: There Goes My Hero…Watch Him As He Goes
Normally, I don’t lead with the Online Glitter Variant. This seemed to demand it.
I talk a lot about how much Jack Kirby has inspired and influenced me, but in the shuffle, Stan Lee gets lost. Stan Lee is responsible for a huge amount of what we now know and understand as Marvel Comics, with Kirby as his collaborator. The work the two did together was brilliant, and changed comics. The ideas that both of them put down on paper are still being harvested, regularly and constantly, by marvel for comics and films.
Stan is often vilified, and this is a bit unjust. Stan was a businessman, and a promoter, so sure, he looked at the bottom line. He didn’t look at that bottom line any more, or any less, than any other comics publisher would. For all the stories about him being rough on creators, or a problem to work with, there are just as many about his charming personality, and his fairness. They just get less interest, and less circulation.
In collaboration with several artists, most notably Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he co-created Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men…you may have heard of those. He was key in introducing complex, naturalistic characters and a thoroughly shared universe into superhero comic books. The idea of a stable continuity, with rules attached, started in the House of Ideas. In addition, he headed the first major successful challenge to the industry’s censorship organization, the Comics Code Authority, and forced it to reform its policies. The Comics Code was one of the most massive and unjust acts of content censorship in the history of the United States. As highlights for achievement…those are impressive.
He was also instrumental in converting Marvel from a small arm of a publishing company to a multimedia company with a diverse portfolio of assets and content. That process had fits and starts, and is where often he is represented as an evil businessman. The fact is…he was just doing business as best he could for the company. More growth meant more jobs, and more profit for everybody. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was the best that could be done in an industry that has traditionally been a bit unkind to its creators.
He was inducted into the comic book industry’s Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1995.
Lee’s revolution extended beyond the characters and storylines to the way in which comic books engaged the readership and built a sense of community between fans and creators. He introduced the practice of regularly including a credit panel on the splash page of each story, naming not just the writer and penciller but also the inker and letterer. That idea of crediting the creators just didn’t exist before…which is baffling to thing of today, where the credits are on the cover. Regular news about Marvel staff members and upcoming storylines was presented on the “Bullpen Bulletins” page, which was written in a friendly, chatty style. Lee has said that his goal was for fans to think of the comics creators as friends, and considered it a mark of his success on this front that, at a time when letters to other comics publishers were typically addressed “Dear Editor”, letters to Marvel addressed the creators by first name (like “Dear Stan and Jack”).
He also regularly did voice overs in the early 80’s cartoons, in the same friendly excited style. He would generally begin and end episodes of “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends,” and at the end, he would often “sign off” saying “This is Stan Lee saying…Excelsior!” That friendly, excited, breezy style of contact and communication was a huge influence on me.
The times I’ve met Stan, he’s been incredibly friendly, and as excited and enthusiastic as you would expect. About anything. Whatever the topic, Stan can get excited about it, be interested. He doesn’t have to be…he’s Stan Lee after all. His manner is warm, friendly…the kind of guy it would be fun to hang around with. When he’s excited about your ideas, or your work…it’s like he reached into his pocket and threw glitter, metaphorically.
Fact…Stan Lee is one of my heroes. Heck, the fact that he’s Jewish makes him something of a cultural hero, as a bonus. The art, the post…it’s my way of saying “thank you” for the countless hours I have spent reading, and re-reading, the work that he did over at Marvel. Whenever I see a marvel film, part of the fun is waiting to see Stan on screen.
It’s hard to talk about Stan Lee without talking about Jack Kirby a bit, though. Together, the two created such excellent, creative material…so much better than the work they did separately. It’s a strong statement, because work each did away from the other, like the Silver Surfer and the New God, I think are brilliant. Stan wrote the words, came up with the broad plot strokes, Jack did the awe inspiring visuals.
Kirby grew up poor in New York City and learned to draw cartoon figures by tracing characters from comic strips and editorial cartoons. He entered the nascent comics industry in the 1930s and drew various comics features under different pen names, including Jack Curtiss, ultimately settling on Jack Kirby. In 1940, he and writer-editor Joe Simon created the highly successful superhero character Captain America for Timely Comics, predecessor of Marvel Comics. During the 1940s, Kirby, generally teamed with Simon, created numerous characters for that company and for National Comics, the company that later became DC Comics. Kirby ultimately found himself at Timely’s 1950s iteration, Atlas Comics, soon to become Marvel. There, in the 1960s, he and writer-editor Stan Lee co-created many of Marvel’s major characters, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk. Despite the high sales and critical acclaim of the Lee-Kirby titles, Kirby felt treated unfairly, and left the company in 1970 for rival DC.
That last part…Stan often catches the blame for that. I understand why, but I see both sides of the story. That’s for another time, though.
At DC Kirby created his “Fourth World” saga (which I love so much it hurts), which spanned several comics titles. While these series proved commercially unsuccessful and were canceled, the Fourth World’s “New Gods” have continued as a significant part of the DC Universe. Kirby returned to Marvel briefly in the mid-to-late 1970s, then ventured into television animation and independent comics. In TV…he was one of the creators behind the Centurions in the 80’s, for instance, also “Thundarr the Barbarian.”
In his later years, Kirby, who has been called “the William Blake of comics”, began receiving great recognition in the mainstream press for his career accomplishments, and in 1987 he was one of the three inaugural inductees of the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.
Although Jack Kirby, despite my inability to speak when meeting him, was kind, and in fact, amazingly humble. Hard to believe, especially meeting him in the context of hubris driven 90’s era creators like Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld. I figure that he just had nothing to prove. He was the “King” and everyone knew it.
The New York Times, in a Sunday op-ed piece written more than a decade after his death, said of Kirby:
“He created a new grammar of storytelling and a cinematic style of motion. Once-wooden characters cascaded from one frame to another—or even from page to page—threatening to fall right out of the book into the reader’s lap. The force of punches thrown was visibly and explosively evident. Even at rest, a Kirby character pulsed with tension and energy in a way that makes movie versions of the same characters seem static by comparison.”
Michael Chabon, in his afterword to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a fictional account of two early comics pioneers, wrote, “I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I’ve ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics.”
With Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Gary Panter and Chris Ware, Kirby was among the artists honored in the exhibition “Masters of American Comics” at the Jewish Museum in New York City, New York, from September 16, 2006 to January 28, 2007. So yeah, he’s Jewish, too, which is why Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four is also quietly Jewish. Ben was always Jack’s direct voice in the story.
Jack is responsible for so much of what I think is cool, and so much of my visual lexicon, it is crazy. The times I do mixed media collaging? Because Jack did. Experiments with composition? Odd character design? Unusual proportions and the importance of foreshortening? All in the hope to be more like Jack Kirby.
I miss his work immensely.
For this Sunday bonus post in celebration of comics…I thought a retrospective of these two giants, who I love dearly, was in order.
Thanks again, Stan. Jack Kirby, you are missed.