In Their Own Words: When Jack Kirby Left Marvel Comics
This entry follows on from previous In Their Own Words entries, hopefully putting forward a picture of what happened at Marvel Comics from 1957 through to the mid-1970s, as told by the people who were there at the time. In earlier entries we’ve seen discrepancies and disputes over who created what, denials over who wrote, or didn’t write, what and what really went on behind the closed doors. But for all of the issues that Jack Kirby had with Marvel he never left. That is until 1970.
Kirby had stuck with Marvel since he went back to them in the late 1950s. Working with Stan Lee (or alone, depending on your point of view) he had co-created characters that would serve as the foundation upon which the Marvel Empire would be built, and indeed still remains upon. Even today the billion dollar movie franchise that Marvel now enjoys is focused around Kirby characters – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men – Kirby either had a direct or indirect hand in their creation. Marvel, and Stan Lee for that matter, continues to reap the financial benefits of these and more characters, but Jack Kirby never saw the big, big dollars, nor do his children today. No wonder they’re bitter and angry.
But Kirby clearly saw some of this coming. In the late ‘60s he was becoming disenfranchised with the treatment that he was getting from Marvel. The extrovert, Stan Lee, was getting all of the public recognition, while the introvert, Jack Kirby, yearned for it. Stan would mention Jack, but, for the most part, Stan was busy being the spokesperson for the company that paid his bills – Marvel Comics – so there was only so much Stan would say. Interviews with Stan were, and still are now, at the mercy of editors, writers and journalists who, at times, felt that the sound bites Stan gave were far more interesting than any reality he might present about the companies working practices. “Excelsior! ‘Nuff Said! True Believer!” These phrases, and more, held more interest than, “Jack Kirby drew that.”
As Mike Esposito once stated, “Marvel wanted to be Disney.” Part of the Disney model was the myth that Walt Disney did everything, his signature appeared on all movies, comic books and picture books. ‘Walt Disney’s World’ was the mantra. Matt Groening does the same today with The Simpsons; his name appears on every Simpson related item regardless of who might have written or drawn it. People might get credit, but the name above the title is the one that matters. For Disney it was always Walt, for The Simpsons it will always be Matt Groening. For Peanuts, Charles M Schulz and, for Marvel Comics, it was Stan Lee. ‘Stan Lee Presents’ all the Marvel Comics proudly announced.
Across the road (figuratively) DC Comics produced largely anonymous comics, by interchangeable writers, artists and editors, and only began to place credits on their books well into the 1960s. Even then, to the public at large, it was still the company that produced the work, not the individual. Even with Disney names of artists and writers only became common knowledge in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, the same applies for companies such as Western Publishing, Charlton and more. Kirby knew this, but he wasn’t overly pleased with the arrangement, nor was he pleased with the renumeration that he was being offered. Steve Ditko had similar issues to that of Jack Kirby, resulting in Ditko walking out on Marvel in the late ’60s, in mid-story. DC Comics soon snapped him up.
When Kirby came to Marvel he was the most important artist that they had. At the time the staff, in art terms, was Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Stan Goldberg and a handful of freelancers. Gradually more and more artists came on board as Marvel became more popular. By the end of the ‘60s and going into the ‘70s Marvel was awash in artists, both new and old, Gene Colan, Jim Mooney, John Romita, Steranko, Barry Smith, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Herb Trimpe, Werner Roth, George Tuska, John Severin, Marie Severin, Frank Brunner, Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, John Buscema, Sal Buscema – these artists, and many more, were all there or getting ready to kick the doors down. Marvel was changing and Kirby didn’t see his role in it. The problem was, clearly those in charge, seemingly with the exception of Stan Lee, saw a role for Kirby either. Thus when Kirby announced that unless he was given a raise in his annual salary (reported at $35,000pa – good money for 1969) then he would leave, his bluff was called.
Kirby wanted something more than money, he wanted recognition. Kirby believed that he was writing all of the books that he drew and perhaps he was. Certainly by the late 1960s he was plotting them, but Stan Lee, who was providing dialogue and plots, didn’t agree. Instead of altering the credits, Lee offered Kirby the role of Art Director, overseeing all of the art that was coming in and going out of Marvel. This would provide him with more money, but not the credit that he wanted. It wasn’t enough, so, after handing in his last issue of The Fantastic Four (#102) in mid-1970, Kirby took up an offer from DC Comics. His parting gift to Marvel was an incomplete issue of the Fantastic Four, not wanting to waste anything, Stan Lee had John Buscema and John Romita finish it off and duly published it.
Kirby was gone. The King had abdicated his throne. Clearly he believed that life would be far better at DC Comics, where he was promised the world, editorial control, the ability to write, to draw, to oversee his own little universe and not be told what to do and when to do it. At first the marriage was perfect. DC Comics released Kirby’s new concepts and proudly announced, “Kirby Is Here” on the covers of his books, damned glad to have stolen Marvel’s main asset. The offer was perfect, he’d only work on his own characters, his art would be left alone and not changed by the office and he’d have his pick of titles. The shame is that offer wasn’t adhered to…
Kirby Moves To The Distinguished Competition
JACK KIRBY: There comes a time when you’ve had a gut-full of everything. I had a gut-full of Marvel, a gut-full of New York. First of all, Marvel already had very popular strips going, and they didn’t throw any ropes around me to hold me. It was my decision. They knew I was going to make it anyway, and so I went over to DC to do it. They didn’t care because they had all these artists waiting in the wings who drew like Jack Kirby. Kirby imitators.[i]
STAN LEE: There was never a time when Jack Kirby just sat down and told me what, if anything, was bothering him. The same held true for Steve Ditko. It’s hard to correct a misunderstanding if you don’t know what it is that’s misunderstood.[ii]
STEVE DITKO: You learn that all they (publishers) ever want is a half-assed reprint of the story you did for them last
week. You learn that if you want to survive you have to put up a wall and stay away from all the comic people before they make you as dull and repetitive as they are.[iii]
JACK KIRBY: A lot of ingratitude. It hasn’t left me bitter; it’s just that it shouldn’t work out that way. If there’s anybody who knows Stan Lee, I’m the guy who knows him. Stan Lee as a person is no better or worse than anybody else. I wasn’t competing with Stan. I got along very well with Stan. We were very good friends. And, my God, I came up with an army of characters! I felt that his [Lee’s] plans, somehow, didn’t mesh with mine. Stan was already a publisher at that time and could call the shots. If you can call the shots on somebody…you win.[iv]
STAN LEE:I don’t even know the real reason why Jack Kirby left Marvel. He never told me. He may have just been tired of having his name always linked with mine. Because when he went to DC, he did things on his own. He wrote and he illustrated his own books. So that may have been what he wanted to do. I suspect that Jack just felt maybe like I felt after all those years, I wanted to do something different…that he wanted to do his own thing. The first few years of his career, so many things said by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby…I suspect he woke up one morning and said, gee, all these years everything has said by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and he probably wanted to prove how good he is on his own. I know we never had a fight. We got along beautifully.[v]
JACK KIRBY: The situation demanded it. That’s the only thing I can tell you. The details would bore you. But I can tell you that the situation demanded it. I do what I have to do. I can’t vacillate. I’m not an indecisive man. I do what I have to do, and I did it at that time.[vi]
STAN LEE: I knew why he left at the time but right now, I absolutely cannot remember. The one thing I remember and felt bad about when Jack left, was that I had been thinking about – and maybe I even talked to him about it – that I wanted to make Jack my partner in a sense; I wanted him to be the art director and I though that he could serve in that function and I would serve as the editor. Maybe this was way earlier, but I was disappointed when he left because I always felt that Jack and I would be working there forever and doing everything.
I wasn’t thinking of Jack being art director because I would be leaving; I just thought that it would be great working with him in that capacity. I was serving as art director and thought that he could take it off my shoulders, so I could just worry about the stories. It probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway, because I might have disagreed with him about things – not about his own work, but if we started critiquing other artists’ work, Jack and I might have looked at it differently. So it might just be that I never could have worked with any art director who would function the way I did, because I guess no two people see anything the same.[vii]
JACK KIRBY: I feel at ease with full control. It’s not the fact that you want to dominate every book that you’re working on. It’s just that you’re able to do the book in your own way, in your own manner. The book reflects what you want to put in it, what you want to see in it, and what you want to read in it. Having done editing, writing, and drawing for years, I find myself in the happiest situation just working that way. I can mold the characters the way I think they should be. The characters become the kind of people I think the story needs. I feel I can give them a lot more dimension if I work on them individually. I feel that I have nobody else’s concepts blending with mine as far as working out the construction of the type of story I want it to be. So I’m happiest doing it that way.[viii]
STAN LEE: I’ve also heard that some people tried to inflame Jack by telling him that I earned more money than he. It’s true. I did. But the situation wasn’t that cut-and-dried. Jack was paid as a freelancer for his artwork. I too was paid on a freelance basis, for my scripts. We were both paid “by the page.”
Jack’s penciling rate per page was far higher than my script rate, but I could write faster than he could draw so it pretty much evened out. But the reason I earned more was I was also the editor and art director, for which I received an additional salary.
Many times in the past I had asked Jack to take an executive staff job at Marvel. I felt if he were willing, I’d give him my art director duties; he could supervise the artwork and I’d concentrate on the editing and handle the scripts. We would be full partners with his salary equaling mine.
However, Jack never accepted the offer. He told me he’d prefer to freelance. I was disappointed because I felt that the two of us, working as a team, would have been dynamite. But that’s what irritates me about people telling Jack how unfair it was that I made more money than he. He could have had exactly the same financial arrangement as I did, but he never accepted it.[ix]
JACK KIRBY: There’s a dark side to comics. It involves personalities, differences, a lot of things. It has nothing to do with creating characters and stories. Those things can develop and so you’ve got to meet those things head on and I did. I made decisions about those things about as easily as I made decisions about a story.[x]
STAN LEE: I remember there was one time some artists had wanted an increase in their page rate, and they felt they weren’t getting paid enough. Martin was in a pretty gloomy mood that day, and he said to me, “You know what they don’t realize? They don’t realize the risk that I’m taking, because if the books don’t sell, it costs — I lose a lot of money, and I have no guarantee the books will sell, and we have periods for month after month after month where I’m losing money where the books don’t sell. But I don’t cut their rate. I don’t fire them. I try to keep going as much as possible.” And he gave me this whole thing from the publisher’s point of view.
JACK KIRBY: As things went on, I began to work at home and longer came up to the office. I developed all the stuff at home and just sent it in. I had to come up with new ideas to help the strip sell. I was faced with the frustration of having to come up with new ideas and then having them taken from me. So, I was kind of caught in a box and I had to get out of that box, and when DC came along and gave me the opportunity to do it, I took it. I believe working for DC can lead to other experimentation and a better kind of comic book, and the kind of comic book that could lead to all sorts of different things.[xi]
STAN LEE: I just don’t feel its right for people who are our better artists or writers to be working for a competitive company. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I feel you should have loyalty to one company.[xii]
Kirby At DC
CARMINE INFANTINO: Jack Kirby and I were old friends. We had done that strip that never sold and, in the ’50s, I worked for him and Joe Simon. While Jack was at Marvel, we would talk from time to time. In ’69, I was flying back and forth to California overseeing Hanna-Barbera’s work on DC’s Super-Friends TV show. I called and said, “Jack, I’m coming out to California. Do you want to get together and have a drink?” He said, “Absolutely.” So we did. And when we talked, he showed me these three covers. They were Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. I said, “They’re sensational. When is Marvel putting them out?” He said, “They’re my creations and I don’t want to do them at Marvel. Would you make me an offer?” I said, “Absolutely.”[xiii]
JACK KIRBY: I was living here in California, in Irvine. I get a message that Carmine Infantino is out in California and wants me to come up to his hotel. To make it short, they wanted me to save Superman. I said, welt, I wasn’t too happy with what was happening at Marvel. I thought, maybe this is the time to change. But, I said, I don’t want to take work away from guys who have been doing it for years. I said, I’II take that book, Jimmy Olsen. I’ll take the one that has no sales…and I’II do my own books, titles of my own.[xiv]
CARMINE INFANTINO: He wanted a three-year contract. I said, “No problem; you got it.” So I made him an offer, which was more than what he got over there, and then I gave him a contract. It was that simple. He was very unhappy at Marvel and wanted to come over to DC. Marvel wouldn’t pay him for writing and I would, so he made more money with us.[xv]
JACK KIRBY: He said yes, because he felt that I could do it. He had every confidence in me. I had confidence in nobody but myself. That’s the type of guy I am. If I’m going to do a job, any job-and believe me I’ve done quite a variety of jobs-I will think it out, I will find its key, and I will make it sell. So, I turned Jimmy Olsen into something different. I took a risk. I changed Superman into a human being. Because Superman is a human being, except that he has these exceptional qualities. Superman, in reality, would live a very short life among us. If he lived next door to me I would feel very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t care if he were for truth, justice or anybody. If I ever got into a fight with him, I wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. And I depicted that in the book. I had the heavyweight champ go up to Superman and he says, ‘I don’t feel like a champ next to you.’ He didn’t like Superman because there was no way he could beat him. Human beings do not like superior people.[xvi]
CARMINE INFANTINO: Kirby requested to draw Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. In fact, Jack wanted to write and draw the entire Superman line. But I said, “Well, we’ll try you on Jimmy Olsen. Let’s see what happens. If it works, you’ll get them all.”[xvii]
JOHN ROMITA: When Jack Kirby left Marvel to work at DC he called me up a couple of days after he left and asked me would I be interested in working for him on a personal basis. He said, “John, I want to write more and I want to draw less. I’m going to do about three or four features in a series and I want guys like you to do them.” In other words he wanted me to do one of the Fourth World titles. First of all I was so flattered. I had spoken to Jack many times and he knew I admired him and he was always very generous to me with his compliments. He used to tell me to throw my eraser away so I could turn out more pages. He and Buscema were always on my case because I was not fast. I was very painfully slow and they wanted to get more pages out of me. So Jack said, “You come over and I will keep you in artwork. I will supply you with artwork for as many years as you need it.”
I was very tempted. I told Virginia, “Jack Kirby just called. He made me an offer that teases the hell out of me.” She said, “If you go there you’ll be a Kirby clone.” I said, “No, no, he’s not asking me to draw like him, he’s going to give me one of his features.” She didn’t believe it. She didn’t buy it and she said, “I think you’ll be very sorry if you did that” and the truth of the matter is, as a business move, I think it would have been a mistake because when Jack was dropped from the DC line about three years later I would have been out of work. So I did the right thing. Here’s the what if: I will never know, if I had gone over and helped Jack with the art, there’s no telling what would have happened to that line. It may have succeeded more. I know that sounds immodest, but the fact is I could have helped him. I could have worked hand in hand with him and we might have had a different product. I love the product as it was, but I might have been able to make the storytelling better, who knows..[xviii]
STAN LEE: When Jack left, John became Jack Kirby to me. Suddenly the guy who was doing Daredevil was late, I said, “John. Can you do this Daredevil script?” “Sure, I’ll do it,” he said and he did it beautifully “John, can you do this cover?” “John, can you do Captain America?”[xix]
JACK KIRBY: I can only say that DC gave me my own editing affairs, and if I have an idea I can take credit for it. I don’t have the feeling of repression that I had at Marvel. I don’t say I wasn’t comfortable at Marvel, but it had its frustrating moments and there was nothing I could do about it. When I got the opportunity to transfer to DC, I took it. At DC I’m given the privilege of being associated with my own ideas. if I did come up with an idea at Marvel, they’d take it away from me and I lost all association with it. I was never given credit for the writing which I did. Most of the writing at Marvel is done by the artist from the script.[xx]
CARMINE INFANTINO: I had seen the movie Planet of the Apes and thought it was great. We could see that New Gods and Forever People weren’t doing as well as we’d hoped, and we needed something new for Jack. Inspired by Planet of the Apes, I suggested we do a comic book with a boy in a post-cataclysmic world run by animals. Jack liked the idea and revived the name Kamandi from an idea he had in the ’50s for a newspaper strip about a prehistoric caveman. Kamandi did well and continued even after Jack went on to other things. If we’re keeping score, you could consider Jack and me co-creators on Kamandi.[xxi]
JACK KIRBY: DC was actually like a haven because I was an individual there. I was able to do something under my own name. In other words, if I wrote, “Jack Kirby” wrote it. If I drew, “Jack Kirby” drew it. And the truth was there, and I began to write and draw, and I felt at last a sense of freedom, and with the sales rising from those books, my freedom became more apparent to me, and I felt a hell of a lot better.[xxii]
JOE SIMON: I wouldn’t let Kirby write anything. His work was very fragmentary. The last time we got together, we did The Sandman. I gave him complete layouts on the whole book. That was their best-selling book for several years—the first issue. And the second issue, DC did themselves. It was a real dog. It was a copy of the first issue. They used the same story, practically.[xxiii]
CARMINE INFANTINO: I was very surprised when Jack’s version of Jimmy Olsen didn’t sell. Jack’s art was better than what had been in the title before, but it didn’t help the sales. I don’t know how you figure these things; while Jack’s fans may have started buying the book, it might have been too different for the regular readers.
He did several issues of Jimmy Olsen, as well as his new titles New Gods, Forever People, and Mr. Miracle, and I gave him as much freedom as possible on those books; but in the long run, the numbers just weren’t there to keep them going. Jack was a great talent and he had more success than anyone else in the business, but unfortunately his Fourth World series didn’t make it. Overall, they were great creative works that deserved to make it, and the fans still remember them very fondly. I liked and was excited about Jack’s Fourth World books. Believe me, as a publisher and a close friend of Jack’s, I wanted them to succeed, but you have to run a company based on the distribution reports. I always thought the world of Jack Kirby. If anyone thinks differently, they are sorely mistaken.[xxiv]
The King Returns To Marvel
JACK KIRBY: Of course, I honestly think the reason I’m back is because I wanted to be back. I’m home. And being among the people of Marvel is good ground to be on. They’re good people. They’re cooperative. We share laughs; we share problems. Sharing is what I’m all about. I like to share and I find that’s easy to do at Marvel. I feel that whatever I do and put in the stories will be read sincerely by the readers and whatever comments I get will be sincere. I’m glad to be working at Marvel for that reason. I’m going to do the best I can, give the best stories I can, and always try to see what new dimensions can be thought of to make the strips better than they can be. I’ll do the best I can. If they read the books, I think they’ll enjoy them. I know Marvel’s readers enjoy all the books. I just hope to add my books to the list.[xxv]
The Silver Surfer book for Simon and Schuster is a cooperative effort between Stan Lee and myself. We’re working as we’ve always worked. It’s going to be the Silver Surfer, in depth, because it’s a serious book; it’s a comic as comics should be; it’s the “human” side of the Surfer, explored inside and out.
I’ve always enjoyed working with Stan – we’ve been a successful team. In the collaboration, something good comes out; it’s the chemistry of a good team. Joe Sinnott, who is inking it, is a part of that chemistry, too. I tried to make the artwork as visually interesting as possible, so that the finished product will be a landmark![xxvi]
[i] The Comics Journal #134 (February 1990)
[ii] Stan Lee Excelsior (Fireside, 2002)
[iii] Creepy #3 (November 1977)
[iv] Comics Scene #2 (March 1982)
[v] Stan Lee Interview (1974)
[vi]San DiegoGoldenState Comic-Con (August 13, 1970)
[vii] Stan Lee Conversations, pgs 150-151 (Univ. Press of Mississippi 2007)
[viii] FOOM #10 (Marvel Comics, 1975)
[ix] Stan Lee Excelsior (Fireside, 2002)
[x] The Comic Feature #25 (1984)
[xi] The Comic Feature #25 (1984)
[xii] The Comics Journal #42 ( 1978)
[xiii] The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (Vanguard, 2001)
[xiv] Comics Scene #2 (March 1982)
[xv] The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (Vanguard, 2001)
[xvi] Comics Scene #2 (March 1982)
[xvii] The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (Vanguard, 2001)
[xviii] AI with John Romita (2005)
[xix] Comic Book Marketplace #61 (July 1991)
[xx] Rockets Blast Comic Collector #81 (1970)
[xxi] The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (Vanguard, 2001)
[xxii] The Comics Journal #134 (February 1990)
[xxiii] Comic Book Marketplace #62 (August 1998)
[xxiv] The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (Vanguard, 2001)
[xxv] FOOM #10 (September 1975)
[xxvi] FOOM #19 (Fall 1977)