Friday, July 29, 2011

Jack Kirby Loses Again

The film version of Thor was a smash hit a few weeks ago, the Captain America movie looks to surpass it at the box office this weekend, on the heels of The two Fantastic Four films, two more featuring the Incredible Hulk, and an entire franchise built around the X-men --- all Marvel comic book characters from the 1960s ... and all of them created by one man: Jack Kirby.

His estate suffered a crushing blow today, as the United States District Court in the State of New York denied his heirs any share in the wealth he created for so many venal, untalented mercenary shareholders and executives. It’s one more in a long line of tragic and despicable assaults on the dignity and the legacy of this extraordinary artist. He spent his declining years fighting with a steely-eyed, relentless Marvel corporate machine far more frightening than any villain he ever conjured with his pencil. He wasn’t asking for compensation, or fair treatment, or credit or even respect … he had given up on all of that long ago. All he wanted, as mortality loomed, was the right to take possession of the physical drawings themselves – the original art that he gone into the comics. They wouldn’t even give him that. Why did they hate him so much? Was it because he was so talented, so abundant, so productive that he made them feel small and puny and worthless? If so he was only a mirror and you can shatter a thousand mirrors without improving yourself at all. You’re just the same pathetic greedy parasite, standing in a drift of shards.

I suppose it’s the glory of capitalism that these people win and the great innovators and visionaries like Jack Kirby get beaten down. “He didn’t have much business sense,” the Fox and Warner Brothers executives must be chortling tonight as they pound the champagne with their cronies from Marvel: “What a sap!”

Let’s toast to that, you debased money-grubbing toads. Drink until you’re drunk and drive on some twisty road as fast as you can.

Kirby’s case is often compared to Jerome Siegel, who invented Superman and finally got credit as well as cash (albeit posthumously). But, due respect, Kirby was a far more significant figure than Siegel. Kirby invented more than the idea of putting a muscle bound do-gooder into spandex: He devised a whole heroic language and ethos, a whole richly imagined universe of grace and glamour, power and poise not in the stories he co-created with Stan Lee and later cooked up on his own, for DC Comics (the later stuff was just bad), but in the way he conceived the human figure and set it on paper. He characters had density and authority and style, and that style informs all the films made from his comics, and all the comics that came after him, even if they’re only reacting against the larger than life gusto and vitality of Kirby’s creations. More than that, they made this ten year old boy believe in some exalted and exhilarating form of heroic nobility. Kirby imbued his world with a grandeur that I had never really found anywhere else.

I remember so vividly growing up, those awful moments when I realized that Kirby had abandoned a title to a lesser artist and moved on. It happened all the time. He still did the covers, which exploded with movement and energy … but as soon as you opened the magazine, the flat lifeless replacement art made your spirit sag. Awkward an amateurish by comparison, they made you appreciate and hunger for Kirby’s gift. Sometimes he did ‘lay outs’, organizing each panel for the new guy, but even that didn’t help much. All the joy was gone. Kirby’s Thor is at the top of this post, with marvel journeyman Don Heck's version just above it.

Scroll up and take a look at them both.

I was trying to explain Kirby to my mother one rainy afternoon, and I showed her those two drawings. She couldn’t see any difference. Well, I couldn’t see the difference between Cezanne and Pissaro until I’d really studied them both. But this was like not seeing the difference between Van Gogh and Andy Warhol. These men were magnitudes of talent apart.

The decades have proved my point, as Jack Kirby's aesthetic rules the movies now and has made untold billions for the people who have appropriated it. And they won’t even give his widow and his kids some crumbs from the table he built and piled high with the bounty they’re feasting on. It’s a pity his characters aren’t real. They were all stern moralists, and I can imagine what Tony Stark, and The God of Thunder and Bruce Banner (AKA The In credible Hulk) and Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America – soon to be featured together in a movie about the team Kirby conjured so long ago – would have to say about this – the battle cry that always rang out before some malevolent crackpot or would be world conquering villain got his ass kicked big time by the super team:


But no. I’m kidding myself. There would be no battle royal with these spring-water sipping, limousine jockeys. They’d just sue the Avengers, and win their case in District Court and disarm them, and take everything from them, including their costumes. (“Those outfits are creating a public nuisance.Do you have a licensed for that shield? That hammer is a deadly weapon.”) And the Avengers would go along with it, because they believe in the rule of law, just like Jack Kirby did.


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