Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Happy Birthday, Jack!

Today would have been Jack Kirby's 96th birthday were he still with us. If you don't know who Jack Kirby is, you might wonder why that matters--but if you've ever enjoyed Marvel characters like the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, the Avengers, the X-Men, Captain America, or Thor, you owe a debt of gratitude to the brilliant artist who envisioned these characters. Heck, if you're a Spider-Man fan, you  should celebrate Mr. Kirby's life and accomplishments as well--because while Kirby didn't illustrate Spider-Man (other than a cover here and a story there), he did make the Marvel Universe so popular that it was popular for Spider-Man to join Marvel's superhero world in 1962.

My admiration of Kirby is well documented: even before I enjoyed superhero stories, I thrilled to his pre-hero monster and SF tales for Strange Tales, Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish. His art enthralled me; his monsters were massive and monstrous, his action sequences were dynamic, his panels struggled to contain the energy that he conveyed in his linework. I was a Marvel superhero fan from the moment I saw his artwork on Fantastic Four #1; even though I wasn't capable of putting an artist's name with his work at that time, I knew this was the work of a man who was equally adept at drawing the monstrous, the grotesque, and the heroic. He brought a monster-movie sensibility to superhero comics in a way that no one else did, and I loved it.

On his birthday, I'll share two Kirby stories that my friends have heard me tell and retell.

Story Number One: At one San Diego Comic Con, I was lucky enough to enjoy a lengthy conversation with Jack and wife Ros. I had interviewed Jack over the phone previously, and wanted to introduce myself and express my sincere admiration for his work. Jack remembered me and invited my friend Charles and I to join him. We had been talking for several minutes when a brusque man stepped directly in front of me, his back to me as he greeted Jack and began talking to him. He didn't even acknowledge that we existed; he acted as if he thought it would be beneath him to speak to us at all. Suddenly Jack interrupted him by putting his hand up; the speaker halted, at which point Jack pointed to me and to Charles and said, "Bob, have you met my friends Cliff and Charles? Cliff, Charles--this is Bob Kane." Bob Kane, of course, is the man who has been contractually credited as the creator of Batman  (although I would argue that Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson deserve much of the credit for that). At that moment, though, Bob was just a guy who had interrupted a conversation, and Jack wouldn't let him get away with it. Jack treated everyone with equal respect, and expected the same of others--even those with an ego as large as Bob Kane's.

Story Number Two: Jack regaled us with conversations about his war experiences, with tales of his work in the early days of Marvel's Silver Age, about moving to California--and then he began asking us questions. What got us into comics? What titles did we like? Then, since I had mentioned being a fan of his work from the beginning of the Marvel Age, he asked me what was my favorite story of his. I replied instantly. "'Fantastic Four #4. I loved that Sub-Mariner story," I told him. Jack smiled; the he looked me in the eye, and said with absolute sincerity, "Cliff, I drew that story for you." And  at that moment, I believed it just as much as he did. I have never looked at that wonderful story the same way since then; it holds a special significance, because when Jack drew it he knew that there were legions of younger readers like me who had never heard of the Sub-Mariner before, but would be captivated by Kirby's reintroduction of the character into the then-new Marvel Universe.

Thanks, Jack--thanks for the memories, thanks for the talent and genius you shared with us, thank for the amazing worlds of imagination you let us peer into. And 96 years later, I commemorate your birth and want you to know that you changed my life.

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