CCI: The Jack Kirby Tribute Panel

Ubiquitous panel-host Mark Evanier convened the annual Jack Kirby Tribute panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego last month and began the panel by explaining what he saw as Jack Kirby's greatest gift in his opening remarks.

"People have asked me, did he have psychic powers? I don't believe in psychic powers; if I ever did, I would believe Jack had them. I still don't believe in psychic powers, but I do believe that some human beings on this planet are just smarter than other people, and some are more perceptive than other people, at least in some areas. When it came to grand visions of the future, he didn't always know where he was going, but he knew where the future was going.

"Jack would give you philosophical concepts. One of the concepts that Jack gave me, that he threw out a few times in different ways, giving me something to think about, was what might be termed 'the passing of the torch.' I met Jack in July of 1969. It's scary to me now that Jack was younger then than I am now. Jack was one of the few guys who really embraced the idea that it was time for his generation to step aside and allow the new generation to take over. There were a lot of people in comics who loved the fans, as long as they remained fans. The unspoken (and occasionally spoken) sentiment was 'You're here to appreciate us, not to replace us.' Jack's attitude to every kid who came to him was, 'Welcome to the business; it's going to be yours any day now.'

"The one comic Jack did that came out the least the way he intended was the 'Forever People.' What he envisioned was not the comic he did. What he envisioned, and you can see some of this between the panels, was a comic about passing the torch. What he wanted to do was show how the Forever People had to break away from the New Gods, not because they wanted to, but because that's just the way it works.

"Jack was very supportive in an amazing way of the new generation. Jack encouraged everybody. You could come to Jack with the worst art in the world, and he'd say 'You're great, keep at it. Keep working hard.' Because even though he might not believe in your artwork, he believed in energy and youthful enthusiasm and the human spirit, and he believed that it should never be squashed or discouraged, so Jack never discouraged anybody.

"But Jack had two kinds of encouragement. He had the encouragement he gave to everyone, 'You're great, keep at it.' And he had the encouragement he gave to people with genuine talent, people like Dave Stevens, and Scott Shaw! and Wendy Pini, and in many cases it was an encouragement not to get into comics; not to think that inking Spider-Man was a life goal. He told Pini, 'If I catch you working for Marvel, I'm going to spank you.' Because he believed that so many other things were possible. He was very frustrated that for him, working for DC or Marvel, were the only options until he met people like Joe Ruby and Ken Spears."

He concluded his opening remarks saying, "To the extent that I can leave you with a philosophical concept, the way that Jack did, I'll say, remember that the future only works in one direction. He would take you back to WWII gladly, but he didn't want to live there."

Following his philosophical ruminations, Evanier then moved on to what he called "the announcements portion of the panel," mentioning that although Lisa Kirby could not be at the convention, "she wanted you to know there is another volume of Jack Kirby's Galactic Bounty Hunters in the works, coming soon to a store near you."

At last year's panel, Evanier and Neil Gaiman discussed Jack's work on "The Losers" and there was "a gust of enthusiasm in the room." He explained that DC's Bob Wayne, sitting in the back of the room, "whipped out his Blackberry and texted the office, telling them that they needed to reprint 'The Losers' next." Evanier then announced that DC has declared that "The Losers" will be reprinted soon.

Evanier then flatly declared, "I predict that everything major that Jack did will be reprinted within five years." He then qualified the statement by excluding properties such as "2001," "Justice Inc.," and others, due to licensing issues, though he felt that those issues might be surmounted as well.

Then Evanier introduced Jack's grandson, Jeremy Kirby, who thanked the audience and panel members for their support and protection of Jack's legacy and work.

After discussing his recent book, "Kirby: King of Comics," which he said was doing phenomenally well, Evanier turned the mic over to his publisher, Charlie Kochman from Harry N. Abrams Co., who announced that Joe Simon is opening his archives and Abrams will publish "The Art of the Simon & Kirby Studio" in Spring 2010. The large-format book will have oversize pages, with faithful reproductions scanned from the original art boards.

TwoMorrow's John Morrow then announced the New Gold Edition of "Kirby Checklist" available now, both in print and as a downloadable PDF.

Rand Hoppe of the online Kirby Museum website, announced that the site is adding 6000 pages of scanned copies of Kirby pencils, which were provided by Morrow. Hoppe also announced that the Cook Brothers, makers of the recent documentary "Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist," are developing a Kirby documentary. Finally, he announced that the Kirby Museum has begun to acquire actual Kirby art, which will be part of a traveling retrospective that's being planned.

Reminding the audience about Bob Wayne's decision from last year, Evanier said that Bob told him to ask what DC should reprint next. After asking for suggestions from the audience, and then responding to a number of them by saying "it's already in the works" ("The Demon"), "they've already done it" ("Challengers of the Unknown"), and "that's not DC" ("Sky Master"s), Evanier then decided to make a list of possible selections, and put it to a vote. The final selections were the rest of Kamandi (a first volume has been published); the '70s one-shot stuff, including "Dingbats," "Kobra" and others; The black & white work such as "Days of the Mob" and "Spirit World"; "Newsboy Legion"; "Manhunter"; "Sandman"; "Kid Commandos"; and Kirby's '50s work such as "House of Mystery" and others. The audience support was pretty evenly divided among all the selections, so Evanier declared it a tie and said that whatever DC published next, they could say that the fans demanded it.

After a last call for Kirby-related announcements, Evanier turned to the panelists for their reminiscences about working with Kirby. Jerry Robinson describe working with Jack at DC Comics just before Kirby was to enter military service in World War II, saying, "watching Jack draw...It was a fantastic time, a unique group of artists who happened to land at DC's bullpen at the same time. I met Jack when I was 18. Jack was five years older. On one side of me was Joe Shuster, on the other Jack Kirby. Fred Ray, Mort Meskin. We were all side-by side, learning from each other. We all benefited from that unique experience. Jack was unique -- he was very quiet, very self-contained . All his inner fires came out on the paper."

According to Evanier, at that time, Kirby was preparing to go into the service and was trying to get ahead on work so that the impact on his family's income would be lessened. Robinson agreed, remarking, "I was doing pencil and ink on two pages a day, Jack did at least five or six pages a day, pencils only. He was after the movement, action, energy. Keep it flowing. I tried to learn what he was doing, how he was doing it, why he was doing it. His pages were alive, they moved, he captured action, emotion. And of course, DC had a bunch of autocratic editors who didn't appreciate art at that time."

One of those editors was Mort Weisinger, whom Kirby did not get along with at all. Evanier related a story about the day Kirby went into the Army. The induction center was actually in the same building with the DC Comics offices, so Kirby simply went downstairs to where the bus was waiting to take him to Basic Training. As he settled into his seat on the bus, he thought, "I'm going into the service, but at least I'm getting away from Weisinger." At that moment, Weisinger boarded the bus and Kirby found himself going into the military alongside the guy he thought he was getting away from.

The conversation then moved down the table to Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, whose animation studio had employed Kirby during the latter part of his life. Evanier explained, "Jack wasn't happy in comics, and comics weren't happy with Jack. He had hoped to be out of comics or taking comics in new directions, and here he was, back doing 32 page comics for a daily page rate."

Kirby's contract with Marvel was about to expire, and he didn't want to sign with them again, but he felt he had no other options. About that time, he started getting animation work. Evanier clarified a long-held misconception, stating that Kirby never worked for Filmation. He worked at DePatie-Freling and Hanna-Barbera, but later got confused and said it was Filmation in an interview.

Joe Spears told how he came to hire Kirby, saying, "Steve Gerber was at Ruby-Spears, doing 'Thundarr,' with Alex Toth character designs. ABC was waffling, they wanted to see more art. All of a sudden, we got the pickup. We needed a new artist. We wanted it to be a hard looking show, not soft like the others. John Dorman recommended Jack, and Steve also. Jack came over, very unassuming, very cordial, humble. I said 'you're hired.' He started turning out character designs that blew me away. The pages were dynamic and jumped out at you.

"Jack wasn't just an artist, he was a creator. He created very distinctive characters, people or creatures, whatever they were. He created with a story in mind. He would put story behind his creations. He had a philosophical view. Where are these characters coming from? That all came out on the paper. Jack had it. He had it all. And prolific. You'd ask for 2 or 3 pages, you'd get a stack. We put him under contract for six years."

Ken Spears then elaborated on his memories of Kirby. "My relationship with Jack was entirely different from Joe's. We started at Hanna-Barbera in the late '50s, When we got our chance to open our studios, we decided one of us was going to be Hanna, the other Barbera. (At Hanna-Barbera, Bill Hanna handled the business side of the company while Joe Barbera supervised the art side.) Joe jumped at it and said 'I'll be Barbera; you can be Hanna.' So I was running the studio from a production standpoint; I had to worry about budgets. 'Who is this Jack Kirby and why is he costing us so much?' The one nice thing is he got us a really good rate on our storage fees because of the volume of work he put out."

According to Evanier, during the time Kirby worked at Ruby-Spears, he had a heart attack, but, worried that he'd lose his job if they knew he was ill, he told Ruby & Spears that he'd been in an auto accident. All of his hospital bills were covered by the health insurance plan he was able to get because of his employment with the studio. He had never had health insurance prior to this time. He told Evanier, "If I weren't working for those guys, I would have lost the house." Jack had a very secure life in the '80s, Evanier related, saying "He had a house, a steady paycheck, health insurance, and he was out of comics, all thanks to Joe and Ken."

Jerry Robinson closed the panel by recalling his participation in one of the very few collaborations Kirby did with anyone but Joe Simon. "The only time Jack collaborated with anyone but Simon on a cover was an issue of 'Detective Comics' when the Boy Commandos joined the book. The cover showed Batman and the Boy Commandos shaking hands. I drew Batman and Jack drew the Commandos."

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