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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 3)

In an unusual third part for The Practitioners, Alan Moore furthers the boundaries of leftist and liberal ideologies through comics and marriage and promptly slides back into the thorny embrace of the mainstream…

Alan Tiberius Benedict Leoness Moore III has almost none of those names. However, in 1988 he had a hate on for all things commercial and vowed to work separately from the mainstream with the able help of his wife Phyllis and their mutual lover Deborah Delano. As you might expect the independent comics publishing run by them was known as Mad Love. Tired of the requirements and apparently double handed treatment of creatives in his chosen field Moore moved away from his mainstay subjects of Science Fiction and Superheroes, revealing clearly a wish for more literary comic work, concentrating now on social, political and current subjects for his work.

'Growing Out of It' by Mark Vicars, Jamie Delano, Shane Oakley and Tom Frame for ARGH!! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) (1988)

Beginning with their first publication ARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia)- an anthology of work by a number of writers (including Moore) that directly opposed the Thatcher Government’s Clause 28, a law designed to prevent councils and schools ‘promoting homosexuality’ with sales going towards the Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Action, it’s fair to say they went for the political jugular of late ’80s Britain, something Moore, a dignified and practicing leftist all his life found great satisfaction in. Moore was pleased with his involvement, stating at the time “we hadn’t prevented this bill from becoming law, but we had joined in the general uproar against it, which prevented it from ever becoming as viciously effective as its designers might have hoped.”

His title, Shadowplay: The Secret Team, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz for Ecipse Comics and commissioned by the Christic Institute, a public service law firm founded in 1980 and based in Washington DC, with offices on other major US cities, included in the anthology ‘Brought to Light’,a description of the CIA’s covert drug smuggling and arms dealing furthered his ideological goals to great success.

Adding to this Moore’s Big Numbers, an unfinished title involving a hardly disguised Northampton known as ‘Hampton’ and dealing with the effects by big businesses on ordinary people – a story certainly prescient of the situation we have found ourselves in now – and a Small Killing, hailed as Moore’s ‘most underrated work’ about a once idealistic adveritsing executive haunted by his boyhood self for Victor Gollancz Ltd publishing, it looked as though Moore was finally getting what he wanted. A career without compromise. An opportunity to change people’s minds without speaking through a (however kindly) censored soundbox.

Following this with Warren Elis’ ‘all-time favourite graphic novel, the now notorious From Hell, in which Moore, inspired by Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s holistic detective reasoned that in order to solve a crime holistically, one would need to solve the entire society it occurred in. Using a fictionalised account of the Jack the Ripper stories almost every lasting figure of the period is in some way directly or indirectly involved in the story, including ‘Elephant Man ‘John Merrick, Oscar Wilde, textile designer William Morris, artist Walter Sickert and occultist, astrologer and ceremonial magician, Aliester Crowley among others. Taking nearly ten years to complete, using sooty, scratched pen and ink style by Eddie Campbell, it was a great work, very much toiled over. Hilariously, this caused it to outlive Taboo, the small independent comic anthology created by former collborator, Stephen R. Bissette that it had originally been intended for.

With his other work, Moore wanted again to attempt something innovative in comics, and believed that creating comics pornography was a way of achieving this. This is perhaps something that only Moore could tackle and remain viable, given what he did after completing this project. He remarked that “I had a lot of different ideas as to how it might be possible to do an up-front sexual comic strip and to do it in a way that would remove a lot of what I saw were the problems with pornography in general. That it’s mostly ugly, it’s mostly boring, it’s not inventive – it has no standards.” His answer to this conundrum was Lost Girls, another title that outlasted Taboo itself, in spite of also being intended for it, a story in which three women – of different ages and classes – Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Wendy, of Peter Pan meet in a European hotel and regale each other with stories of their sexual adventures. Illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, whom Moore, in spite of being visually part-wookee, entered into a relationship with, Lost Girls was published erratically until the work was finished and collected in 2006.

In this time, Moore wrote a prose novel, Voice of the Fire, which was published in 1996 – following linked events through the Bronze Age to Present day in Moore’s hometown of Northampton through linked stories that formed ingeniously into one coherent story. It remains available online in Hardback and Paperback versions.

It was around this time that Moore became a ceremonial magician. Ceremonial magic, also referred to as High Magic and as learned magic and developed via Hermetism which, in late antiquity, grew in parallel to ancient religions including early christianity and was “characterized by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.” Moore practices his magic through long, elaborate and complex rituals of magic and is far too complicated and steeped in ancient lore and anti-religion to go into fully here.

Big Numbers by Alan Moore and Bill Bill Sienkiewicz

At the same time, Moore made a choice that took him away from the core values he had grown to be known for throughout his career and took him back to the heart of mainstream comics, joining Jim Lee at Image Comics – something that shocked a great many of his fans. Image well known at the time for it’s ‘flashy artistic style, graphic violence and scantily-clad large-breasted women,’ it seemed an odd choice for a writer like Moore. But it was the content of Image that had enticed Moore, now looking at an industry that had changed dramatically in his time away. His first work was an issue of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which was then followed by the creation of his own Mini-series, 1963, “a pastiche of Jack Kirby stories drawn for Marvel in the sixties, with their rather overblown style, colourful characters and cosmic style.” According to Moore, “after I’d done the 1963 stuff I’d become aware of how much the comic audience had changed while I’d been away. That all of a sudden it seemed that the bulk of the audience really wanted things that had almost no story, just lots of big, full-page pin-up sort of pieces of artwork. And I was genuinely interested to see if I could write a decent story for that market.”

Writing what he saw as “better than average stories for 13 to 15-years olds” including three mini-series based on Spawn: Violator, Violator / Badrock and Spawn: Blood Feud, it appeared that Moore had grasped the nettle on this one. Perhaps even more unlikely, Moore was given Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. at issue #21, which he ran with for 14 issues.The series followed two groups of superheroes, one of whom are on a spaceship heading back to their home planet, and the others who are instead remaining on Earth. Moore’s biographer Lance Parkin remarked critically of the series, feeling that it was one of Moore’s worst, and that “you feel Moore should be better than this. It’s not special.” Moore himself, who remarked that he took on the series – his only regular monthly comic series since Swamp Thing – largely because he liked Jim Lee, admitted that he was not entirely happy with the work, believing that he had catered too much to his conceptions of what the fans wanted rather than being innovative.

It was arguably a laudable gesture and to Moore’s credit, conceding a great deal of control to the hands of the artist after years of delicate and intricate control of content, though it was – as conceded by the man himself – a mistake. History would confirm that this period had little lasting creative effect on the industry but at the time writers such as Moore were sidelined and choices were made based on the industry at the time – though with hindsight it is clear that this became a missed opportunity. Moore could have potentially reignited great writing in popular works, dragging the rest of the industry with him as he had done so many times – but that would have had to be intentional and Moore has never tried to influence the industry beyond the borders of his own work.

However Moore took over Rob Liefeld’s Supreme and acknowledging the considerable similarities with DC’s Superman, took the title towards the Silver Age Superman comics of the 1960s, introducing a female superhero, Superema, a super-dog Radar, and a Kryptonite-like material known as Supremium. This ‘mythic’ reimagining of Supreme departed from the character he was templated upon, giving the title fresh air between it’s content and that of the title it had so visibly been based on and under Moore, Supreme was to prove to be a commercial and critical success. Moore announced that he was finally back in mainstream comics after several years of self-imposed exile – something that no doubt saw the older reading fraternity cheer. Moore hadn’t realised something yet. That fans were still following him and waiting for the old Moore to return, fully formed and reinvigorate an ailing art form in a thriving industry. Something Moore tried soon enough with Rob Liefeld’s branched-off Awesome Universe.

With Liefeld’s departure from Image, he hired Moore to create a new universe for the characters he had brought with him from Image. This was Moore’s chance to bring to bear his considerable powers of imagination and he took to the job enthusiastically. Moore’s “solution was breathtaking and cocky – he created a long and distinguished history for these new characters, retro-fitting a fake silver and gold age for them.” Moore began writing comics for many of these characters, such as Glory and Youngblood, as well as a three-part mini-series known as Judgement Day to provide a basis for the Awesome Universe. However Moore was dissatisfied with Liefeld, saying “I just got fed up with the unreliability of information that I get from him, that I didn’t trust him. I didn’t think that he was respecting the work and I found it hard to respect him. And also by then I was probably feeling that with the exception of Jim Lee, Jim Valentino – people like that – that a couple of the Image partners were seeming, to my eyes, to be less than gentlemen. They were seeming to be not necessarily the people I wanted to deal with.”

And so with that, dear reader, the Ceremonial Magician named Moore chose instead to take to his own universe, forming it in the kernel of his own magnificent mind. To help him form the crucible in which this magnificent new universe would sit he employed his old friend Jim Lee and set about finally realising the great aspiration of generations of writers and artists. This time; the Magician Moore decided, he would finally create America’s Best Comics…

Part 3 Coming Soon