It can take a long time for something to get born, but the one person in comics who never seemed to have trouble giving birth to a new idea was Jack Kirby. Over his legendary nearly 60-year career, the King of Comics dreamed up more superheroes, cosmic gods, giant monster and wicked witches than any artist in the medium’s history, and this summer Dynamite Entertainment will gather a wealth of those characters together for the first time in the epic limited series “Kirby: Genesis.”
Conceived by the team of writer Kurt Busiek and artist Alex Ross (who aside from providing covers for the book will fully layout the series as well as contribute final paintings), “Genesis” is an idea years in the making. Built upon the gathering of all of Kirby’s creator owned work from his ’80s launches of heroes like Captain Victory and the Silver Star back through his unused sketchbooks and story notes spanning his entire career, the series has been growing creatively under the hands of the men best known for creating the award-winning “Marvels” series as well as the backbone for Busiek’s “Astro City.”
The floodgates on the project opened in full last August when Busiek flew to Ross’ home in suburban Chicago for an intensive three-day summit to take the massive amount of Kirby material seen and unseen and shape it into a story worthy of the King’s name. In the midst of the pair’s planning with Dynamite publisher Nick Barrucci and editor Joe Rybandt, CBR News was invited out to dinner with the creators for a first look inside their process. Talk at the table started with Busiek and Ross comparing notes on their own corporate comics work and a healthy dose of history, but once the recorders got rolling, it was all Kirby as the team opened up below on what hidden characters and concepts tied to Kirby’s biggest franchises will be reinvented in “Genesis,” how they’ve conceived a story that can bring forth an entire universe of adventure and the human element that ties the fantastic nature of Kirby’s mind to the humanity in comic fans everywhere. Read on for the full discussion and an EXCLUSIVE first look at “Kirby: Genesis” #0!
CBR News: Gentlemen, this project grew from the idea that Dynamite had acquired the rights to Kirby’s original creations from his family. What was your guys’ first reaction to that idea? What was your first impulse in terms of making all these disparate things a coherent whole?
Alex Ross: Well, that’s been more progressive. We’d been having some trepidation along the way just in terms of the fact that that’s been tried before to some extent with the Topps stuff and, of course, what Kirby did independently in the early ’80s with Captain Victory and the Silver Star. So we thought, anything that comes from his mind – especially in terms of honoring his memory – we want to make the best of it. You want to find some progressive points that hadn’t been tried before like mining through some material from his sketchbooks and previous designs. Concepts that were rendered in full color but not given full voice to. These were things that just didn’t make it into “New Gods.”
Kurt Busiek: Or character ideas that he’d sketched out but never sold or did anything with. There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in there, and we wanted to say from the beginning that this is not just a revival of whatever someone did the last time there was a “Kirby comic.” We’re going back to the beginning and going back to Kirby to find material you never saw and build it from the ground up using what he did. I spent a week and a half going through every issue of “The Jack Kirby Collector” going “He owned that drawing. He owned that idea. There’s a proposal for something he did where these pieces made it to publication but those ideas are still in the background. So they’re all available for use.”
Eventually, I did a big concordance of every character we had to work with and started to combine them and work out a cosmology so we’d have something to talk about in terms of which characters we liked best and which ones we could start with first. How could we build a well-established world that could work to establish some of the others? Right from the ground up, we were looking to get a handle on knowing EVERYTHING we could work with and then picking and choosing from that to build the castle.
A lot of people, even if they’ve just seen a glimpse from “The Kirby Collector” or a random image online, have seen some of this stuff before, but I understand there are some story notes and concepts to accompany a lot of this that many haven’t taken into consideration before, right? What’s that ratio like?
Busiek: Some are characters that you’ve seen before like Captain Victory and Silver Star. Some are characters you’ve seen in a different form. Some are just things like when he did five character designs for “New Gods” that were published in the gods portfolio which he never used in the series. We don’t know anything about what he intended to use them for, but we’ve got these five characters that were designed all roughly around the same time and intended for the same book. So we’re keeping them as a group of five and saying they go together. There are sometimes where he’d written a bunch of notes on a series and said “Here’s some head sketches for three villains and notes on what they could do.” He did “Atlas” for DC which appeared in “First Issue Special” and he’s got notes on other stories to do in that world that DC never picked up. Those stories were never drawn, so the characters are still out there.
But at the same time, there was one year where he designed costumes for a production of “Julius Caesar” for a local college, and there are some great designs in there. There’s one for a character called Calpurnia that I just look at and go, “This is s character! I don’t know where we use her yet, but the costume is so strong that we can build a character out of this.” Or he had a bunch of notes for something called “Dark Domain” which basically from the character notes he had in there, we can see other characters from other times and go “That feels like these belong together. This feels like it belongs over here.” Over time, a picture starts to come together overall.
Ross: I think something that’s important to say about Jack Kirby that we can’t say about anybody else over this last 100 years of creating comics and comic strips is that there isn’t this wellspring of an unending sea of ideas for every artist. At least not all the ones I’ve admired. Certainly, some people have come along and created all kinds of characters, but to have this many offshoots and things that were done independently that could be mined for creative potential…when you look at some of Kirby’s designs and see the intricacy of thought and detail he’d put into a throwaway drawing, you realize this was a mind that was exploding with concepts. That’s a very unique thing for a very unique person, and it makes it very special for us to be doing this. We couldn’t just do this with Artist X, Y or Z.
At the same time, you have all these different ideas that could exist on their own, but are you finding that since they all come from Kirby, they’re cut from a similar cloth? Is it easier to link them into one story, or can it be harder to make some piece work?
Ross: We have an over-arching concept that will link everything from a central creative point. Things will explode out from that and start to reveal themselves in the series. Otherwise we find inspiration from the published history of Kirby and the different archetypes he worked with at DC and Marvel and independent companies. We’ll probably be mirroring those streams of thought some. You talk about gods, he worked with gods at multiple companies including Marvel and DC. So there’s a continuation of that thought that was exciting to Kirby, whether it was gods he made up or ones he was adapting.
Busiek: We have a sense if we’re dealing with his god characters that we don’t want to duplicate anything he did elsewhere, but what he did defines a region to play in. We know it should be something that feels like it belongs in that territory and can stand next to those ideas rather than replace them. But in some cases, that’s a way of building structures. If he’s got primordial beings from the past, which he came back to again and again, we’ve got characters he created in the 1940s and 1960s and 1980s that all have that similar background. It’s easy for us to say, “Let’s make it the same background. They all come from the same place.” Here’s a bunch of horror-oriented characters from 1980 and similar ones from 1972 and say these characters should interact much like X-Men characters and Fantastic Four characters or New Gods characters and he Challengers of the Unknown sort of clump together as belonging to the same area and possible the same series.
Ross: So basically, we’re doing Joe Casey’s “GODLAND” except with characters Kirby actually came up with. [Laughter]
Kurt, you’ve worked with some of this material in the past with the Topps Comics stuff of the ’90s. Did you get to interact with Kirby at that time and see a little of what his process was like with these characters?
Busiek: Yes and no. Yes, I did get to briefly interact with Kirby, and he gave me one of the best pieces of creative advice I’ve ever gotten. He said, “It doesn’t matter how far out you get with this stuff as long as the characters react like real people would. If the character react the way your audience would, than your audience will follow you anywhere.” That’s something I come back to over and over again, and that’s one of the reasons I think Marvel did so well in the ’60s. While the DC characters would go, “An ear in the fireplace? He must be on the roof!” without even blinking at the idea that somebody has stretched an ear down the chimney, Marvel characters would freak out. Marvel characters would react the way people would react. There was an emotional connection.
Ross: That’s something that worked between Lee and Kirby – bringing in a humanistic view that hadn’t been fully explored before in comics. It wasn’t a mockery of the way people had done these fantastic events so much as it was a more realistic way of stopping and going “Wow! This is fantastic! It’s weird!” That’s where those two guys were very much of a similar mind and how they helped each other.
Nick Barrucci: There was an interview Kirby did once on “Entertainment Tonight” where he was doing some drawings and talking, and he said at the time “We’ve had some characters that have lasted 25 years, but always remember to create new stories, do new characters and take it further than it’s ever been taken.” And that was part of his mindset. Part of this was because he was one of the hardest working men in comics who kept making pages, but another part was that this was the most fertile mind in comics. He couldn’t stop.
Ross: These are ideas that came from an interesting combination of artistic ability and creativity that is one of the most boundless ever found and the mindset of someone who started in the Depression. It was “Whenever you get that job, you work it to death to bring in that money” because you know how bad things can get.
Barrucci: And with all the ups and downs comics had from the ’40s through the ’60s, even John Romita told us that they used to look at that thinking, “When is this business going to drop again? When’s it going to be over?” It was a hard business to be in, but those guys really paved the way for the rest of us.
What was goal #1 when you guys got together today in terms of finally taking all these ideas into an actual story?
Barrucci: Well, Kurt had written down all the characters and all the reasons why we should use them, so we were reviewing that overview, and a lot of today was discussing everything he’d done to see what would work.
Joe Rybant: It was filling in the skeleton. Kurt had given us a tremendous amount of detail in terms of how he thought it all fit and what he wanted to use. Alex had a list of characters he wanted to use. We’d done an initial conference call together, but today was sitting down and looking at all the paperwork to saying, “This character means this…are we all on the same page?”
Ross: I had one purpose today, and that was to talk Kurt out of doing anything with the Teen Agents. [Laughter]
Busiek He didn’t succeed! That’s what I was going to tell you before. The project I talked with Kirby about back in the day was “Teen Agents,” and I had no idea what he intended to do with the Teen Agents and I’m not sure he remembered. So he gave me a lot of general advice and support, but then he said, “Do what you think works best. I’m sure it’ll be good.” One of the interesting things is that much of this project is enormously fun and creative. I get to do things I never expected I would. Like after I did that “Teen Agents” mini series for Topps, I’m now going into this series where we’re backing up and going back to the original Kirby sketches to create a whole new set of teenagers to be this universe’s version of the Teen Agents. For one thing, I’m 20 years a better writer and for another, I came up with the Teen Agents before I knew that the Secret City/Nineth Men characters came from underground. And I had the Teen Agents coming from underground! If I’d have known, I would have had their origins be something else. Now I’ve got that chance. Now I can say, “The Ninth Men and the Secret City come from underground…the Teen Agents come from someplace else.” I can build the universe better than I could when I was one piece of an operation who didn’t know what the other pieces were doing.
Part of this has been building the cosmology like you say – these guys are from underground, these are from beyond time, these are elder gods, etc. How are you taking all those specific circumstances and cosmology to turn it into story. Is there a focal point character you’re zeroing in on to introduce the world?
Ross: Yes, and we spent the last few days arguing about who that would be. [Laughter] What the look and feel and ethnicity of that character would be.
Busiek: Arguing is a very strong word! [Laughs]
Ross: Well, let’s say that I was arguing and they were all listening.
Busiek: Included in my notes was an eight-issue outline where I laid out where I saw the story going. These are our lead characters and our inciting event. Let’s bring these characters through and place this character here so he can encounter this characters. Let’s have these guys head over here so they can wake up so and so, and on it goes. We had a story structure, and one of the reason for these meetings was to pull apart the story structure and have everyone say, “I don’t think this piece works here. Let’s use this instead and see what it changes.” That causes a cascade of changes, but to my pleasant surprise my outline seems to work overall.
Ross: Except not at all. [Laughter]
Busiek: So we changed some stuff about the lead character and the secondary lead, and probably tomorrow we’ll find a way to fit all the changes into the outline. A lot of what I thought we’d have disagreements on, there wasn’t any disagreement on. And the stuff where there was any disagreement on was over minutia – the stuff you wouldn’t think mattered at all.
Ross: One thing to keep in mind during this conversation is that we’re all detail freaks. We’re all into comics enough as fans and participants that we have thoughts on every imaginable detail. It does get silly, but it’s all the kind of thing that shows each other how into it we are.
Rybandt: I think we’re all skeptics too and realists and idealists. It comes through as well when we’re going “Well, that won’t work because I’ve seen it done that way before, and it didn’t work then.” The experience between these two guys trumps our experience as publishers, but when you put it all together you get a healthy back and forth over why you’d do it a certain way.
Busiek: Alex and I have the advantage of being able to gang up on them because we can find an area of agreement where they can’t. [Laughter] So let me give you an example of the kind of minutia we mean. The instigating event of the series – in the outline I had it happen in Minneapolis. Nick wants it to happen in New York. Joe wants it to happen in Los Angeles. Alex doesn’t care where it happens as long as it’s not New York or Los Angeles.
Barrucci: And Alex said, “I’ll just back you, Kurt!”
Busiek: So I’m in a very good position here.
Barrucci: By the way, it’ll probably end up being Minneapolis. [Laughter]
Ross: The chance to work with Kurt on this is something we want to honor and encourage because we can argue over any of this, but basically he’s going to get his way. It’s a lot of heavy lifting for him to do.
Barrucci: And the other thing that’s so helpful is that both of these guys have so much Kirby archival material that when Kurt sent in his notes, he had issues and pages of “The Kirby Collector marked and said, “You don’t have to dig for this!”
Busiek: And not just “The Kirby Collector” but “The Art of Jack Kirby” and “Kirby: King of Comics” and “Jack Kirby Quarterly” and the card set.
Ross: Though I would say that “The Kirby Collector” and John Morrow’s work has been not only a huge inspiration but a seminal influence on the way I’m driven about doing ANY Kirby characters be they DC and Marvel or his independent stuff. A lot of this is in a way dedicated to that magazine.
Busiek: This wouldn’t be possible without “The Kirby Collector.” John Morrow not only has published a wonderful magazine, but he’s gone out and found stuff that nobody knew existed. And he’s still finding stuff.
Ross: That’s where the inspiration is in great part coming from. There was one book made before Jack died that Greg Theakston produced called “The Art of Jack Kirby,” and it’s a nice book but it only has a little bit of this material. It would be a while before you’d get a lot of that material put out there in better books, but “The Collector” has been out there saying, “You thought you knew everything…but look at this!” Even showing the pencil pages before the final product makes you realize something in a page you thought you knew, but you look at it again and go “Oh wow!” Seeing what he actually drew versus how it got translated is mind blowing.
Busiek: It took me a whole week to go through “The Collector” and pull out all the stuff that was eligible for us to use. It took me a day to go through everything else. All the other Kirby references put together was just a day.
Barrucci: And you’d asked earlier about how this all came together. When Kurt came off his DC exclusive, Alex had talked to him about two projects. One project he thought wouldn’t be his thing, but when he talked about Kirby, the conversation started immediately. It took us about sixth or seven months to make the deal happen, but it all came together right before San Diego.
Ross: And Nick’s been working on this with the Kirby estate for almost two years.
Barrucci: We started pursuing it almost three and half years ago, and the first person I met, thanks to Mark Evanier, was Lisa Kirby. We had lunch, but the meeting didn’t go that far. Then about six months later, she said, “Here’s my attorney’s name. Start talking to him.” Finally, it was a year ago January when we signed the papers, and I never could have imagined it would turn into this project.
Ross: What this project is, we’re still not sure of! [Laughter] But a lot of my desire and drive on this I blame on George Perez because of the desire he spread like a cancer to me to want to draw every creative thing you’ve been inspired by from your youth. I’m still going through that laundry list of characters from all different sources. But this has a more special place because the creativity it was born from came from this special person, and all the other creativity he gave us in other places still winds up being the most important characters and concepts still used today. And we know that ten, 20, 30 years into the future, if there’s any comics Kirby’s creativity will be right in the middle. It’ll never go away.
With “Marvels” you guys had a very specific timeline of stuff to fit a story into. With “Astro City” you had a set of characters to build a world from the ground up with. With “Kirby: Genesis,” it feels like the process is a bit in between. How have things felt different from those past universe-expanding projects?
Busiek: Well, most of those expansive universe projects involved looking back. In this, we’re lighting the fuse. This is the beginning of something. There are ways in which this project will be like “Marvels.” Our lead character is a normal guy who is witness to the amazing changes happening around them and is a human’s eye view to it. But while somebody like Phil Sheldon is a witness to the beginning of something everybody knows in its final form, our guy gets to see the world happening at the same time as the readers. The readers are going to be introduced to this stuff at the same time the cast is. So in some ways it feels like “Astro City” in that we’re showing people a world they haven’t seen before. But in other ways it’s like “Marvel” because we are reaching back into the Kirby archives and working with what’s there.
I always liken working in continuity to writing a World War II novel. World War II has all this history. It’s got all these details to it. You can’t write a novel that says Dwight D. Eisenhower was in Canada at a time when he was in France. You’ve got to get it right. Working in comic book continuity is roughly the same thing but only fictional. If you wrote a sequel to “Lord of the Rings,” you’d be working with Tolkein’s history though it’s fictional.
In this case, we’ve got all the pieces and building blocks, but we get to build the structure. We’re not tied down to a specific history with the rare exception of a few guys like Captain Victory and Silver Star. We have all this material, but we get to put it in a pattern. It’s sort of like writing a World War II novel if you got to make up World War II. That’s an exciting and interesting creative challenge, and it’s empowering.
The title of the book is “Kirby: Genesis.” In what way does that title fit this story? What is being born into the world that you’re grappling with?
Busiek: That’s the question I don’t want to answer!
Rybandt: We debated the use of that word “Genesis” and went back and forth on it, but it just seems to fit. I’m not sure if I could peg why it fits, but it just does work. Kurt came up with it.
Busiek: I can tell you that what’s being born in a universe – a canopy of wonder and excitement. [Ross Laughs] I’m sounding like a huckster here, but world is a different place at the beginning of this series than it is by the end of issue #1. And what’s being born is everything. “Kirby: Genesis” does not mean “This is the Genesis of Kirby!” It means that this is the Genesis of an entire universe of Kirby concepts brought together. When I compared it before to lighting the fuse, I thought to myself, “Oh yeah…and we’re at Dynamite!” [Laughter] But we’re very much doing that.
Ross: This is not dark comics.
Busiek: No. This is big, wide-open adventure comics with science fiction and mysticism and superheroes and monsters and mysteries…
Ross: And garish colors!
Busiek: And the Teen Agents! [Laughter] But it is the beginning of something.
“Kirby: Genesis” ships this summer from Dynamite Entertainment. Check back to CBR in the months ahead for more news out of the project.