Sunday, April 03, 2016
An Audience With the King
Several people expressed an interest in hearing the story. I'm sure Charles will post it in his own blog, but the memories of that evening are so vivid that I wanted to preserve it here.
I am lucky enough to have met with and interviewed Jack "The King" Kirby several times in my life. But it just so happened that my and Charles' meeting with Jack this time in San Diego was totally spontaneous. We were walking through the hotel lobby when we saw Jack and his wife Roz sitting in the lobby. My intent was just to say hello and to thank him for working with me on a phone interview just a few weeks before--and of course, both Charles and I wanted to let him know how much his work meant to us. (If there's anyone who's as much a Kirby fan as I am, it's Charles--to this day, we still have long conversations about Jack and his work.)
We had assumed that Jack was waiting to meet someone, so we had no intention of intruding on his time--but it turned out that Jack was enjoying a rare unscheduled moment. As soon as I introduced myself (while we had met in person, I never expected someone like Jack Kirby--who undoubtedly had met tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans of his work--to remember me), Jack actually thanked me for the interview. I then introduced Charles, and both of us told Jack about our unflagging admiration for his work. Jack was obviously flattered, and he talked to us about our interest in comics, asking when we first started reading comics, what books we had enjoyed, and so on.
I mentioned that the early Fantastic Four issues were particularly meaningful to me, and that they had helped to solidify my lifelong interest in comics. I even told him that, had it not been for those books, I might never have tried to produce my own comics, or contributed to fanzines, or worked with others to launch comic shops, or bought a comic shop of my own, or started Comic Shop News. Jack smiled thoughtfully, then asked me, "So what was your very favorite issue of Fantastic Four?"
I thought for a few seconds, and then centered on the issue that has survived most vividly in my memory for more than fifty years: Fantastic Four #4, the issue that featured the first Silver Age appearance of the Sub-Mariner. It also referred to Golden Age comics (the Human Torch was reading a Golden Age comic featuring the Sub-Mariner), which has piqued my interest in those Marvel books from the 1940s. Jack was beaming as I described the book and its significance to me; then he looked me in the eye, pointed at me, and said, "I did that book for you." He wasn't being patronizing or dismissive--at that moment, Jack absolutely meant it.
From there, the conversation went on to diverse subjects--other projects Kirby was working on, fellow professionals whose work he liked, and numerous war stories. And oh, what stories they were--Jack's tales of his own experiences in the war were every bit as dynamic and exciting as any war comic he had ever done. Jack's storytelling skills were in rare form, and the more he talked, the more enthusiastic he got. The conversation went on for what must have been at least a half an hour, maybe even more--and of course, Charles and I were enthralled. We had been given a private audience with the King!
Suddenly, a man in a sports coat brusquely inserted himself between us, standing with his back to Charles and me. He had seen Jack talking with us; rather than join the conversation, he just intruded right in the middle of it, not saying a word to Charles or to me. He extended a hand towards Jack, all the while ignoring us. "Jack! How are you! Good to see you. I was just talking with---" As he turned so that we could see a little more of his face, Charles and I recognized the intruder as Bob Kane.
Bob Kane is well known as the creator of Batman. What is less well-known outside of comics is that Bob is even better known as the man who took credit for the work of others. Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff--these are just a few of the talented writers and artists whose contributions to the Batman mythos was buried under the Bob Kane by-line. (When Bob Kane published his supposed autobiography Batman & Me, the publisher offered expensive limited edition copies that contained an original hand-drawn Bob Kane Batman sketch. According to artists I know and believe, Bob Kane hired them and others to draw his sketches, then Bob signed his name to the drawings. That anecdote typified much of his career...)
Bob was in mid-sentence still vigorously shaking Jack's hand, when Jack gripped Bob's elbow with his other hand, never releasing his grip as he moved Bob to the side and turned him so that we were directly in his field of vision. "Bob, have you met my friends Cliff and Charles?" And in his amiable Jack Kirby way, he forced Bob Kane to acknowledge we were there and to say hello to us. After Bob spoke to us, Jack said, "We were just in the middle of a conversation. You and I will talk later, okay?"
Yes, Jack Kirby dismissed Bob Kane so that he could finish up his conversation with us.
Not only did Jack Kirby give us a chance to talk with a legend that evening, he also gave us a memory that neither of us would ever forget.