Every field of human endeavor has its legends, its masters. In time, those mentors leave the field and this world, remembered through their bodies of work that continue to inspire and teach those who follow, who do their level best to both embrace the lessons of the masters and to share with others the who, what, when, where, how and whys of those giants upon whose shoulders the students stand. It was in this spirit that the WonderCon panel, Tribute To The Legends, was organized, honoring the contribution to comics by Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon.
Moderated by Mark Evanier, longtime collaborator with and biographer of Jack Kirby, the consisted of comics and animation writer Marv Wolfman; writer/editor Len Wein; cartoonist Scott Shaw!; and “Supernatural Law” writer/artist Batton Lash.
The panel began a bit earlier than scheduled, Mark Evanier pointing out that the panelists were the current elder statesmen of comics. The Golden Age creators, those who helped to shape the world and mythology of comics and the superhero as we know them today starting in the 1930s and 1940s, were not present because either they are no longer with us or were not able to attend the show.
Reminiscing about why the panelists and he came into comics, Evanier pinpointed their collective inspiration to the Golden Age greats. They were inspired, not only because of their predecessors’ talents, but also because of the ways these creators were treated by the industry. Evanier pointed out that in the early days of comics, the business of comics was run like a lemonade stand, with little thought to the future and future generations. Comics were a quick way to make money and hopefully set the stage for other things, like book publishing, magazine illustration, animation, etc. No one, not the publishers nor the creators, thought about the impact of what they were doing. They were creating entertainment for the moment, like the pulps. Disposable, forgettable.
Having set the stage, Evanier turned his mic over to the panel.
Marv Wolfman spoke about Jack Kirby and his work, about the energy and power Kirby brought to his comics and how it impacted the young writer, how that was novel for that time. “He created an enthusiasm,” Wolfman said. Kirby’s comics were full of endless imagination and enthusiasm in the art itself.
Len Wein spoke next, talking about how Kirby was the first in many ways in comics, always turning out the new and novel in his work while trying out or bringing to comics new genres such as romance, kids’ comics, horror, funny animals and the like. While other artists and creators stayed within their comfort zones, Kirby always pushed into the new.
Evanier responded to this assessment, saying Kirby kept trying throughout his life to improve his work and thereby the industry. Kirby felt that by doing so, it would provide for and elevate the condition of his family, and thereby do something similar for the comics industry as a whole.
Scott Shaw! agreed, saying Kirby’s main goal was to take care of his family. While superheroes were what most comics fans know of him, Kirby also created funny animal comics, romance and more. According to Shaw!, Kirby did so because he came from a family of storytellers, referring to a story Kirby shared about his grandmother always telling young Jack stories, citing that as place where the Kirby storytelling drive may have begun. Shaw! also spoke of visiting Kirby’s home, seeing the collection of pulp magazines on the shelves and knowing Kirby was “a fanboy himself.” “Just like none of us aspired to be a hack,” Shaw! said, Kirby always sought to push his work into new places and to new heights, inspired to create a number of different worlds, just as a number of worlds and stories had inspired him as a young man.
Saying that he has been looking at Kirby’s work recently, Batton Lash pointed out how the internet is bringing greater attention to the art of Kirby to a new generation. Lash said he was amazed at how much he was noticing the masterfulness of Kirby’s visual storytelling which was inspired and powerful, even when the story itself wasn’t strong. “To Kirby, [comics] was his meat and potatoes,” Lash said. Creating comics was Kirby’s goal all along, unlike others who saw comics as a means to an end.
In trying to explain what Kirby did in terms of his comics work, Evanier recalled a Neil Simon lecture about adapting his own plays to screen, explaining that what Kirby did best was adapt what was in the plot or script in ways that worked best with his skills. The panel agreed across the board that Kirby saw his job as an comics artist as adapting the work, the story he was given through his lens, his vision.
Shaw! shared a famous anecdote about John Romita Sr., sitting in the back seat of a car with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the front, working on the plot of an upcoming comic. As the story goes, Romita listened as Lee and Kirby talked, thinking at one point they were discussing different stories before it dawned upon him that they were talking about a single story. Evanier corroborated this anecdote and added that Kirby would adapt or change even his own stories if something else better came along.
Wein recalled an issue of “Thor” where, through the noticeable differences between the art and the dialogue, Lee and Kirby end up telling two different stories. That conflict and contrast within the work was part of what made the Lee/Kirby comics work so well.
Batton pushed forward this way of looking at the old Marvel comics containing two contrasting visions by mentioning he is rereading old Kirby work “with the sound off,” ignoring the dialogue and captions. Reading the comics this way, Lash was beginning to get an idea of how Kirby’s storytelling worked.
Wolfman mentioned that, unlike Kirby, Steve Ditko tended not to leave notes about the plot on the artwork, causing Stan Lee to figure out how the story Ditko drew worked and forcing him to keep his dialogue more in line with what Ditko intended. Kirby, on the other hand, provided copious notes on the board, giving Lee room to play with how to interpret the art.
Evanier recounted how Ditko was often forced to redraw pages because of the changes Lee would ask for due to him not knowing how to dialogue what he was given. But, as Wolfman pointed out, it was that different kind of conflict that made the Lee/Ditko stories great in their own way.
Changing the panel’s focus to another legend, Evanier said that to Kirby, the recently departed Joe Simon was the “complete business.” Meaning, Simon was a person who had mastered every aspect of how to put comics together — writing, penciling, inking, lettering and editing, all the way down to dealing with publishers and other business people.
Lash told a story about how Simon came up to him at a convention, giving Lash advice and talking to him as an equal. Even at his then-advanced years, Simon showed an interest in Lash’s business. “Like [Will] Eisner, [Simon] always had his eyes on the markets.”
Shaw! didn’t really know Simon well when he was starting his career, but once wrote him a birthday card out of respect. When Shaw! later encountered Simon, the elder creator recalled the card and having once spoken with Shaw! about cover design, showing Shaw! that Simon always had an interest in how to make comics sell, how to package comics. While Stan Lee based a lot of the early Marvel Comics cover design style on movie posters, he saw Simon’s covers as being based on circus posters, which might have led to greater reader excitement in the comics Simon produced, something Shaw! feels is lacking in today’s comics.
Evanier pointed out that in their partnership, Simon was the writer/artist/editor and Kirby was the artist/writer, making it tough to tell who really did exactly what during their time together.
Shifting the topic to Will Eisner, Evanier said that like many, the legendary creator of The Spirit had aspirations of getting out of comics. Interestingly, the first thing Eisner did after his Spirit strips was Army technical manual comics. Moreso than when doing the comics insert for newspapers, the manuals meant getting notes from art outsiders in the form of Army sergeants, resulting in a large body of artwork that was impersonal. Only after doing this did Eisner go into the personal graphic novel work, such as “A Contract With God “and “The Dreamer.” To Evanier’s eye, the manuals don’t seem in line with the later works.
Shaw!, however disagreed with this assessment, pointing out that Eisner did put some personal ideas into his Army manuals.
Batton added that by the end of “The Spirit,” Eisner was already creating educational comics, so it was a natural outgrowth of that work to do the manuals, especially for the former Army man. Although, Lash continued, what was worse for Eisner than getting notes from sergeants was getting them from generals.
Evanier said that while Eisner wanted comics as a medium and artform to be respectable, his desire not to work for Martin Goodman, the owner of Atlas/Marvel Comics, or Harry Donenfeld, owner of National Publications also known as DC Comics, may have been just as much of a motivation for the writer/artist in the direction his work took as any artistic drive.
This led to a digression started by Batton Lash who talked about Harvey Kurtzman doing “Little Annie Fanny” for “Playboy” instead of war comics like those he wrote and edited for EC Comics. To Kurtzman, the “Playboy” work was more freeing. Evanier countered this, pointing out that Kurtzman was still edited by Hugh Hefner and forced to shape the stories around the premise of getting the titular (pardon the pun) heroine naked.
Taking the conversation back to Eisner, Shaw! talked about “A Medal For Bowser,” a little known, pro-animal vivisection promotional comic written and illustrated by Eisner. Shaw! used this particular comic as an example of how Eisner did his best with the subject at hand. “He took what would have been the hardest thing to pull off, and did it well.”
Evanier added that Kirby, too, was challenged by the work at hand, willing to take on any type of story because it challenged him, even if it was bad. Works like “The Demon” and “Kamandi” were the result of editorial suggestion, and Kirby did his best with them. Eisner probably did much the same thing with “A Medal For Bowser.”
Moving on to the career of Jerry Robinson, it was noted that the Batman work for which he is most famous comprises a small portion of his career. Robinson was also a political cartoonist and activist, and people around the world were freed from prison and captivity because of his work. Often referred to as the ambassador of comics, much of Robinson’s comics work was created under Bob Kane and much of what the fans think is the Kane style was really Robinson’.
Shaw! cut in with an anecdote about Bob Kane once saying Dick Sprang didn’t exist, a reference to Kane’s contract which included his name on every Batman comic and the years Sprang spent as Kane’s ghost artist. Evanier pointed out that many of the artists who worked with Kane were not well known in larger circles, adding that at one point, he wanted to do a panel in San Diego where the many artists who worked on the Golden Age Batman would appear and each would give their name as Bob Kane, in the manner of the old What’s My Line game show.
Shaw! then asked Evanier to recount a Stan Lee story that took place at Bob Kane’s funeral. Evanier said that only he, Stan Lee and a couple of other artists attended the Kane funeral, along with the family and friends from outside comics. As the funeral ended, Stan told Evanier that he thought the best inker of Kirby was Ditko, which brought laughter from the audience.
Evanier added that Jerry Robinson was the teacher of Steve Ditko, so by that way of thinking, Robinson might be considered the best inker of Kirby’s work.
Len Wein then shared a story about inviting Robinson to a party, where one of the other guests was Harlan Ellison. Once he learned Robinson would be in attendance, Ellison checked in often to say he was coming. At the party, Ellison showed up with a Robinson Batman comic from his collection that he showed to and talked about with the artist, a true fanboy moment for the author.
Marv Wolfman shared an Eisner anecdote that reflected on the issue of who did what in the Golden Age of comics. Once, as editor for DC, Wolfman tried to get Eisner to draw a cover for an issue of “Blackhawks,” former Quality Comics characters that the Iger/Eisner studio created. Eisner himself had never drawn them, however, even though he is thought of as the creator. Eisner initially agreed to do the work for a dollar, but ultimately backed out because he didn’t want to cause trouble in the industry about who was really behind the character’s creation, not wanting to tarnish the memory of the artists who were actually involved.
Evanier reminded the audience, there are only a few Golden Age creators left, so fans should show some appreciation upon seeing and meeting these greats who helped to give birth to the comics industry as we now know it. Wolfman added that the real Golden Age is 12, illustrating that each generation of fans has their personal golden age of creators.