A Toast to the King

A Toast to the King

The first time I encountered Jack Kirby's work was in a cardboard box in our basement when I was maybe 5 years-old. The box contained my older brother's comics, a pile of mostly Marvel issues, classic stuff like early "Amazing Spider-Man" and "Fantastic Four" and "Avengers." Even then, they were redolent with the "old comics" smell of musty newsprint.

I was young enough that I probably couldn't read those issues very well. But I remember sitting in the cool of the basement on warm summer days, and being fascinated just paging through the issues, looking at the pictures. I was especially fascinated by "Fantastic Four," because I found the artwork to be... well, frightening. I don't mean the fearsome designs for Doctor Doom or the Dragon Man. I mean the art itself. The square fingers, the tortured poses. To my child eyes, it was grotesque. But I couldn't look away. I returned to those pages again and again, repelled and yet keenly attracted.

Those long-ago, dog-eared issues were my introduction to Jack Kirby, though of course I was too young at the time to even recognize it as the work of a specific person. I just knew it was different from the art in the other comics in the cardboard box, different from people I would later recognize as Steve Ditko and Don Heck and Russ Manning. Even as a kid, I realized there was something utterly unique about Jack's work.

I probably didn't grasp Jack Kirby as a specific individual until a number of years later, when I came across of a copy of "Captain America" #193 on the magazine rack at an art-supply store. It wasn't the comic I was looking for. I wasn't a particularly Captain America fan. But it was the best of the bunch of a pretty meager rack, so I talked my mom into buying it for me (for the princely sum of 30 cents).

The art inside was still ugly to my 10-year-old eyes, but full of energy. I didn't exactly like it, but I read that comic over and over again. A few months later, there was a Kirby cover on issue #151 of "Avengers," my favorite series. I liked that cover. A lot. Maybe this Kirby guy wasn't too bad after all.

A month later, I plucked "Thor" #252 off the spinner rack at the Red Barn Deli not far from my house. Another Kirby cover, and to this day, one of my favorite covers ever. I still wasn't converted to the join the kingdom of Kirby, but I was at least starting to appreciate it.

I strayed from comics until my senior year of high school, brought back into the fold just before "Watchmen" and "Dark Knight Returns" changed the landscape forever. The deeper I got into the medium, the more my appreciation for Kirby grew. But it wasn't a full-blown love affair until I was in my 20s, when it was like someone flipped a switch. Suddenly I got it.

The majesty.

The energy.

The power.

I needed to reach a certain level of sophistication to wholly appreciate Kirby. Not uncommon when beholding genius, I guess. Even now, when I need inspiration, I'm most likely to pull a "Kamandi" Omnibus or the "New Gods" Artist's Edition off the shelf.

I had my chance to meet Jack in the early '90s at Comic-Con in San Diego. It might not have been my first year in San Diego, but it was certainly one of the first. I was writing "Silver Surfer," my first monthly assignment, and I bumped into my editor, Craig Anderson, in one of the aisles. Yes, there was a time when you could actually walk in the aisles at San Diego.

Craig told me he'd just come from chatting with Kirby, who was set up at a booth a few aisles over. I was incredulous: "What, you mean just sitting there at a table?" It seemed like Kirby should be astride some sort of cosmic throne that crackled with arcane energies.

Craig offered to take me over to Jack and introduce me, but I begged off, saying I'd make it over to see the King a little later. The truth was... I was more than a little nervous to meet Kirby. I was keenly concerned about bothering him. I assumed he'd had people pestering him all day, and I didn't want to add to that burden. It seemed to me selfish to take up his time merely so I could tell him how much he had inspired me, and even more specifically, that his work was the reason I had a job. I didn't want to impose, I didn't want to be another awkward fan stammering to the great man. The foolishness of youth, huh?

Now, of course, I understand that you always take the time tell your heroes what they mean to you. But I never did make it over to meet Jack. It was my last chance to ever do so. Jack Kirby died in 1994. Everything I should have said to him, everything I needed to say to him, remained unsaid. It's one of the biggest regrets of not only my career, but my life.

The King is dead. But Long Live the King. There will never be another like Jack Kirby, not even close. But we still have everything he created, so we celebrate the man and all that he made, especially on his birthday, Aug. 28.

The comics charity Hero Initiative helps celebrate Jack's birthday on Thursday, Aug. 28 with events including store signings, parties and an array of artists who will "Wake Up and Draw" Kirby-inspired illustrations, to be auctioned later as a fundraiser. My friend (and fantasy football enemy) Phil Hester has vowed to produce 97 drawings, since Jack would've been 97 this year.

Here in the Albany, New York area, we're doing something a little more unique as a fundraiser for Hero Initiative. The Shmaltz Brewery in Clifton Park is holding a birthday party for Jack Kirby in its tasting room, complete with cake and a limited-edition labeling of King Kirby Ale in both light (Genesis) and dark (Messiah) varieties, as well as variant "sketch" labels. A limited number of cases of King Kirby Ale will be available for purchase.

The event is largely the brainchild of Paul Harding, sculptor for DC Direct, Sideshow and others, as well as one of my golfing buddies. Paul discovered the brewery had quite literally moved into his neighborhood -- he lives less than a mile from it. Paul was wearing a Silver Surfer T-shirt the first time he visited Shmaltz. One of the brewers, Mike Myers, is a comics fan who noticed Paul's shirt. There's been a comics-and-beer connection ever since.

Shmaltz will host a collection of comic pros at the birthday party, including me, Paul Harding, Tom Raney, Fred Van Lente and his wife Crystal Skillman (who co-write the recent "King Kirby" play), David A. Rodriguez, Bill Anderson and more. We'll all be signing and sketching (on special Kirby sketch cards) for donations to Hero Initiative.

Door prizes will be provided by local shops Comic Depot and Excellent Adventures. Saratoga-based band Sugar Pill will provide live music, and Fanboys Inc. will be on hand to record a podcast. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online as well as at the door. Click here for complete information.

There will also be auctions of some special Kirby items, including a light-up, one-of-a-kind Groot bust sculpted by Paul Harding. The 7-inch Groot bust, 3D printed and hand-painted by Jason Wires of JW Productions, is the only one in existence, and will only be auctioned at the event.

The birthday party will be bookended by signings at Comics Depot in Saraotga Springs, which will hold its annual Depot Day on Aug. 23, and Excellent Adventures in Ballston Spa on Aug. 30.

Everyone's donating their time and talent to the cause. I like to think Jack would approve. Come toast the King with us.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Witchblade" and the graphic novel series "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athlitacomics, his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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