Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part Two)

With World War II underway, Editor – In-Chief Liebowitz antcipated that Kirby and his partner Joe Simon would be drafted, so both Kirby and Simon employed writers, inkers, letterers and colourists in a order to create a year’s worth of material. Kirby was drafted into the army on June 7, 1943. After basic training at Camp Stewart, near Atlanta, Georgia, he was assigned to Company F of the 11th Infantry. He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on August 23, 1944. two and a half months after D-Day though the man himself claimed to have arrived 10 days after. Kirby recalled that one lieutenant, upon learning that he had a comic artist under his command, assigned him the position of scout who would push forward the advance into new towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures. This means that Kirby was not just front line but beyond the front line – in potentially enemy heavy territory and completely exposed without heavy armed support. A job most would have expected to keep someone safe and sound had at this point put Kirby in one of the most dangerous positions in the world.

Kirby and his wife corresponded from Europe via V-mail (doubly secure method to communicate with soldiers abroad, known as Victory mail), with Roz sending him ‘a letter a day’ while she worked in a lingeries shop with her mother in Brooklyn. During the winter 1944, Kirby suffered severe frostbite on his lower extremities and was flown to hospital in London from the front line, for recovery. Doctor’s considered amputating Kirby’s legs, but Kirby pulled through and recovered fully from the frostbite. Finally, in January 1945, with the final push into Germany and with the Japanese conflict nearing, unexpectedly, a harrowing end, Kirby was returned to the United States. Assigned to Camp Butner in North Carolina, where he spent the last six months of his service as part of the motor pool. Kirby was honourably discharged as a Private First Class on July 20, 1945 having received a Combat Infantryman Badge and a European/ African / Middle Eastern Theatre ribbon with a bronze battle star.

After returning from the army and after the birth of his first daughter, Susan, born on December 6, 1945, Simon arranged for work and Kirby and himself at Harvey Comics. Throughout the early 195Os, the pair created titles such as the Boy Explorers Comics, the kid-gang Western Boy’s Ranch, the superhero comic, Stuntman and catching a ride on the first bout of 3-D movies, Captain 3-D. They also freelanced for Hillman periodicals(the crime fiction comic Real Clue Crime) and for Crestwood Publications (Justice Traps the Guilty). Simon and Kirby were naturals at identifying the next big things – or the current thing – and putting out books that appealed to the widest audience. They were commercial operators but were capable enough to convert this into exciting, entertaining and gripping story lines and innovative and original characters. That capacity to react and adjust kept them at the top of the game, competitive as it was, with so many publishers vying for a majority of the audience.

But it’s biggest success was with Romance comics, the ‘mature’ interpretation of MacFadden Publications’ Young Romance. Stipulating that they would take no money up front, Kirby and Simon made an agreement with Crestwood General Manager Maurice Rosenfield with the agreement of publishers Teddy Epstein and Mike Bleier agreed. Young Romance #1 (Oct 1947) ‘ became Joe and Jack’s biggest success in years’ selling 92% of it’s print run, encouraging Crestwood to increase the print run by a third by the third issue. Becoming monthly within a few issues, Young Romance spawned a spin-off, Young Love – together selling 2 million copies a month. Following this with Young Brides in Love, Simon and Kirby had struck it once again, this time featuring ‘full length romance stories.’ Publishers such as Timely, Fawcett, Quality and Fox Feature Syndicate followed suit with their own romance titles. In spite of the increased competition, the Simon & Kirby originals continued to sell millions of copies a month, which allowed Kirby to buy a house for his family in Mineola, Long Island New York.

Kirby’s second child, Neal, was born in May 1948. His third child, Barbara, was born in November 1952.
Bitter that Timely Comics’ 1950s iteration, Atlas Comics, had relaunched Captain America in a new series in 1954, Kirby and Simon created Fighting American. Simon recalled, “We thought we’d show them how to do Captain America”. While the comic book initially portrayed the protagonist as anti-Communist, Simon and Kirby turned the series into a superhero satire with the second issue, in the aftermath of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the public backlash against the Red-baiting McCarthy. But the initial formula proved too strong to compete with, Captain America continuing unabated. This still remained a feather in Simon and Kirby’s caps, effectively beaten by the strength of their own character design. Fighting American would prove too unoriginal to survive the ages.

Fighting American sniffs out a Commie - something quickly reversed in response to the anti-communist McCarthy Trials

At the urging of a Crestwood salesman – in a remarkably questionable move against his own firm that should’ve seen him fired – Kirby and Simon launched their own comics company, Mainline Publications – using a distribution deal with Leader News. In late 1953 / early 1954, using work space subletted from their friend Al Harvey of Harvey Publications they set about bringing out four titles; Western Bullseye: Western Scout, the war comic Foxhole; with the added benefit of being written by actual veterans; In Love; since their earlier comics in the same vein were so popular and the crime comic Police Trap. All infinitely cool to a specific audience, three out of four specifically male young men they had it tied up – looking as though they’d covered all the bases. Frankly books like those out now would see figures in a crowded market of superhero books begging for something different but at the time it was the formula that worked. However, it was only to last for little more than a year. Republishing reworked artwork from Crestwood, Crestwood refused to pay them. After a review of Crestwood’s finances, Kirby and Simon’s attorney made it clear that they were owed $130,000 over the past seven years. Crestwood capitualted and paid them $10,000 in addition to their recent delayed payments. Now, at the peak of their popularity as a creative team – the relationship was becoming strained. Simon left the industry for a career in advertising but Kirby never waivered from his original course. The loss of his writing partner was not enough to make him reconsider his role and he moved on with his usual friendly shrug. “He wanted to do other things and I stuck with comics,” Kirby recalled in 1971. “It was fine. There was no reason to continue the partnership and we parted friends.”

At this point in the mid-1950s, Kirby made a temporary return to the former Timely Comics, now known as Atlas Comics, the direct predecessor of Marvel Comics. Inker Frank Giacoia had approached editor-in-chief Stan Lee for work and suggested he could “get Kirby back here to pencil some stuff.” While also freelancing for National Comics, the future DC Comics, Kirby drew 20 stories for Atlas from 1956 to 1957: Beginning with the five-page “Mine Field” in Battleground #14 (Nov.1956), Kirby penciled and in some cases also inked (with his wife, Roz) and wrote stories of the Western hero Black Rider, the Fu Manchu-like Yellow Claw, and more. But in 1957, distribution troubles caused the “Atlas implosion” that resulted in several series being dropped and no new material being assigned for many months. It would be the following year before Kirby returned to the nascent Marvel.

An unusual punishment for a villain in Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown

For DC around this time, Kirby co-created with writers Dick and Dave Wood the non-superpowered adventuring quartet the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #6 (Feb. 1957), while also contributing to such anthologies as House of Mystery. During 30 months freelancing for DC, Kirby drew slightly more than 600 pages, which included 11 six-page Green Arrow stories in World’s Finest Comics and Adventure Comics that, in a rarity, Kirby inked himself. Kirby recast the archer as a science-fiction hero, moving him away from his Batman-formula roots, but in the process alienating Green Arrow co-creator Mort Weisinger.

He also began drawing a newspaper comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force, written by the Wood brothers and initially inked by the unrelated Wally Wood. Kirby left National Comics due largely to a contractual dispute in which editor Jack Schiff, who had been involved in getting Kirby and the Wood brothers the Sky Masters contract, claimed he was due royalties from Kirby’s share of the strip’s profits. Schiff successfully sued Kirby. Some DC editors also had criticized him over art details, such as not drawing “the shoelaces on a cavalryman’s boots” and showing a Native American “mounting his horse from the wrong side.”

Kirby was demonstrating his incredible capacity to churn out enormous bodies of work. The criticism levelled at him was never stylistic, his style proving opiates to the waiting masses. As he drew it they were being snapped up. While there are lessons to be learned from Kirby it is a very different industry now. But the requirement for precision and composition has never moved. While books have become more naturalistic and austere in their approaches in recent years – taking such enormous pride in their production, perhaps at the cost of their accessability – there has always been a basic principle that Kirby understood. Story telling. A child on the streets of New York, Chicago or London was never fussed about a cheek bone out of place or the referencing of an engine being incorrect. Most readers of an age to truly enjoy comics as they were intended at the time wanted images that’d bounce them from panel to the next, ping ponging their eyeballs with clear, effecting and memorably indelible feats of strength, magic and wonder. Kirby was effectively a creative machine at this stage – almost the factory robot he had tried not to be at Fleischer, though, perhaps with the greater autonomy that he would never have had there. The rate at which he was working was phenomenal. Modern artists should take note (myself included) on the level of ficus and drive needed to keep hat going and strike deadlines time after time after time.

Having left DC Comics, Kirby began freelancing with Atlas. Because of the poor pay rates, Kirby would sit for hours daily at his drawing table at home, producing eight to ten pages of work a day. His first published work at Atlas was a cover and complete seven page story ‘I discovered the secret of Flying Saucers’ in Strange Worlds #1 (Dec. 1958). Initially working now with Christopher Rule as his regular inker, and later Dick Ayers, drew continued to work across genres, romance comics to war comics, crime stories to westerns but began to make his mark specifically on a series of Super-natural fantasy and science fiction stories featuring giant, drive-in-movie style monsters such as Groot (who made a shock reappearence in Erik Larsen’s Revenge of the Sinister Six in the early nineties in Spider-man, the Thing from Planet X; Grottu, King of the Insects and most famously Fin Fang Foom, Alien hybrid space dragon adapted into the Iron Man canon and now famous as Marvel’s classic beast of beasts. Rarely seen, Fin Fang Foom was last seen in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s madcap non-continuity-made-continuity escapade Nextwave in 2006. Through the titles such as Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and World of Fantasy, Kirby was now unbeknownst to him generating waves of creativity that he would carry on into the future. The sheer number of characters, scenarios and adventures he was bringing to life were incredible. The standard of these at such a rate would be questionable at best if it not were for one thing…

After freelancing even for Archie Comics, reuniting himself with Joe Simon to help develop the series The Fly and The Double Life of Private Strong (even drawing some issues of Classics Illustrated it was with Marvel Comics, with writer and editor-in-chief Stan Lee that Kirby would get into his stride with Superhero comics. Kirby was about to introduce the world to the most popular and consistently successful set of comic book characters the world had ever seen.

Fantastic Four #1 was only a few weeks away….

Next: The Age of Marvels Begins.

Practitioners 47: Alan Moore (Part 4)

The turn of the Millennium was fast approaching – something that would perk up the most sallow mind – and Alan Moore’s is nothing if not finely attuned to the ebbs and flow of the world around him, though perhaps unconcerned with the date itself. His is a mind that, when presented with a milestone in time and history he looks backward for another, using the existing build to a momentous date to gain insight into a period in history similar to one he found himself in. But who to populate this book? For a literary man there could be a myriad of choices. From those choices was formed the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The story of the League sees H. Rider Haggard’s elderly and Heroin addled Allan Quartermain, H.G. Well’s malevolent and uncontrollable Invisible Man, an aggressive, xenophobic but ultimately honourable Captain Nemo of Jule’s Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the puny and bestial duality of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought together in the name of England by the haunted Wilhemina Murray now some years after her ordeal in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All this at the behest of the porcine Government liaison ‘M’ (a certain Mycroft Holmes, survivor of his more famous brother). Together, drawn by the incomparable Kevin O’ Neill, the League dealt with threats as easily found in successful literature as themselves, though of course at all times unaware.

A satisfying, bounding, rambunctious rendition of old tales renewed called on almost all of Moore’s previous experience – drawing on his love of classic science fiction, withering horror, humour and unapologetic and resonant sexuality threaded seamlessly through the politics and society of the period. All presented with cartoonish glee reminiscent of Rupert Bear (who makes an appearance as a sexually aggressive experiment of Dr Moreau, who for the benefit of ease is now working out of the English Woodland) or Victorian funnies.

The first volume of the series pitted the League against Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes books; the second, against the Martians from The War of the Worlds. A third volume entitled The Black Dossier was set in the 1950s. The series was well received, and Moore was pleased that an American audience was enjoying something he considered “perversely English”, and that it was inspiring some readers to get interested in Victorian literature. Moore has always undervalued his influence. His writing has represented for a great many years a bridge across which readers of otherwise unassociated literature could cross to others.

Kim Jong Il might have declared himself Priminister of Sweden that year or Arnold Schwarzennegger a governor of California because somehow the most reknowned English comic book writer had just started a company named America’s Best Comics.

His relationship with Jim Lee had seen him agree to create an imprint within Lee’s Wildstorm company shortly before it was sold to DC. Lee and Editor Scott Dunbier flew to England specifically to reassure Moore that the sale to DC Moore had experienced before his pilgrimage into independent comics would not affect him and would not have to deal with DC directly. Moore, had already begun lining up a series of artists and writers to assist him in the venture, decided that there were too many people involved to back out now – and America’s Best Comics were born to two English creatives and a story about uniquely English characters at the height of the British Empire.

Other than League, titles such as Tom Strong, Top 10 and Promethea – all writen by Moore – covered the gamut of Moore’s interests and fascinations, supported by some of the finest artists in the business. Tom Strong, drawn by Chris Sprouse, is a post-modern superhero series, inspired by characters predating DC’s Superman was reminiscent of Moore’s work on Supreme but according to Lance Parkin was ‘more subtle’ and ABC’s most accessible comic,’ while his unnatural, drug induced longevity allowed Moore to enjoy enjoying commentary on the history of comics and pulp fiction.

Top 10, a cop procedural comedy, in a fantasy city named Neopolis in which all have super powers, costumes and secret identities was drawn by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon , spawning four spin-offs (partially written by both Cannon and Ha); including two sequel mini-series, Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct, written by Paul Di Fillipo and drawn by industry legend Jerry Ordway.

Promethea allowed Moore to set the record straight, determined that his tale of a teenage girl, Sophie Bangs, who is possessed by an ancient pagan goddess, the titular Promethea, would not portray it’s central world of occultism ‘as a dark, scary place’ as that was not his experience of it. Drawn by the monumentally talented J.H.Williams, it has been described as ‘a personal statement’ from Moore, being one of his most personal works, and that it encompasses “a belief system, a personal cosmology.”

However, perhaps inevitably, despite the assurances that DC Comics would not interfere with Moore and his work, they subsequently did so, angering him. In League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #5, an authentic vintage advertisement for a “Marvel”-brand douche caused DC executive Paul Levitz to order the entire print run destroyed and reprinted with the advertisement amended to “Amaze”, to avoid friction with DC’s competitor Marvel Comics. A Cobweb story Moore wrote for Tomorrow Stories No. 8 (part of an Anthology featuring further characters Cobweb, First American, Grey Shirt,Jack B. Quick and Splash Brannigan) featuring references to L. Ron Hubbard, American occultist Jack Parsons, and the “Babalon Working”, was blocked by DC Comics due to the subject matter. Ironically, it was later revealed that they had already published a version of the same event in their Paradox Press volume The Big Book of Conspiracies.

DC had once again interfered in his work and Moore and with his runs on ABC titles coming to an end, he decided once again to step out of the industry, remarking to Bill Baker in 2005 “I love the comics medium. I pretty much detest the comics industry. Give it another 15 months, I’ll probably be pulling out of mainstream, commercial comics.”

Frank Quitely's portrait of Mr Alan Moore

A powerhouse and a much needed revolutionary and inspirational force was again lost to the mainstream. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen continues still now with Century, a three part saga, of which two are now available (one of which advertised in Fallen Heroes 1 which I was proud enough to be a part of).

In January 2011, the forth and final issue of Neonomicon was released by Avatar Press. Set in the H.P. Lovecraft universe it is, as it’s predecessor and prequel The Courtyard was, drawn by Jacen Burrows.

But in 2010, true to form, and after a lifetime of bucking the system and creating his own, he formed ‘the first 21st Century’s underground magazine’ titled Dodgem Logic, utilising Northampton based artists and authors, as well as original contributions from Moore.

Future projects are The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, written with Steve Moore and earmarked for release with Top Shelf in ‘the future.’ Otherwise, the easily recognisable cultural figure of Alan Moore can be found at numerous musical events, including a forthcoming appearance with guitarist Stephen O’ Malley confirmed for the ATP ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ music festival in London. Alternatively, he can be found bare chested in the Simpsons episode from 2007 ‘Husband’s and Knives’ which was aired on his 59th Birthday.

While you can apply many titles to Moore his reason for everyone being aware of him is because he is a writer. His recognisable appearance would have gained him nothing if not for the attractiveness of his words. Familiar sounds applied to unfamiliar environments, Moore’s is a voice that spits gravel but reaches the reader as blossom. Moore understood the potential of any medium to portray palpable ideas and failed to recognise the limitations artificially applied by so many other writers in the business. Where the most successful commercial writers rise and fall with the last big ‘event’ nowadays, Moore will outlast them. Moore’s writing was never based on sensationalism or the direction of a company – no matter how well intentioned. Moore’s stories are built on ideas and those last forever – no matter how they are received or sent out to the public.

Moore’s increased distancing from film adaptations of his work bely one very clear principle. His were personal projects, created with one or two others at a time. No recreation worth millions of dollars will ever compare to the thrill of reading a Moore penned panel on a Moore planned page. It was in the man, in the moment of creation that what has inspired and intoxicated so many with ideas over the years was formed. With every passing day the sentiment that placed it on the page chills, such is the immediacy and personality of a Moore script. Had it been written a day after you sense it would have been written differently, the idea formed slightly differently by an absorbed piece of prose or a remembered or realised politic. When you read a Moore panel it is the thought of a great man, crystallised and still. All you get from it is a momentary glance at the whirring cogs in the great atomic clockwork mind of Moore and even in that momentary encounter with it – there is enough wonder and intrigue to fuel 100,000 more books.

If you doubt this you only need to look at Moore’s run on the Green Lantern Corps series, short storiesdetailing a corps made up of thousands of disparate and incredible beings from a thousand different worlds. But one Green Lantern, created by Moore, doesn’t socialise. In a short story named ‘Mogo Doesn’t Socialise’, a hardened bounty hunter arrives on a partially forested planet looking for the mighty Green Lantern Mogo. In true Future Shock style, he wanders about the planet for years, determinedly hunting for his quarry, mapping the banded tree line as he goes. It’s not until his search is almost complete that he realises his mistake. The Green Lantern he is looking for is not on this planet. The Green Lantern in question is the planet. Moore is Mogo, a constant presence drifting in the dark, his influence felt among every member of his fraternity.