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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, September 24, 2011


As I've been writing a lot about Jack Kirby's work in both CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN and FANTASTIC FOUR of late, it seemed appropriate to wrap up with a general overview.  Here's how I rate what I deem four loosely-designated "periods" of Kirby work in terms of aesthetic successfulness.

(1) Kirby's collaborations at Marvel, mostly with Stan Lee. 
(2) The "Fourth World" books, which remain in a class by themselves due to the ambitiousness of Kirby's theme and content.
(3) The Simon-Kirby years, roughly from 1939 or 1940 to 1955.
(4) Pretty much everything after the "Fourth World."
(5) Kirby in the late 1950s, excluding his Marvel work.

At the end of CONSUMMATELY CHALLENGED I reflected:

None of the Kirby CHALLENGERS stories, whatever their behind-the-scenes origins, ever score very high on the mythicity scale. That's why it's equally puzzling that he should have experienced such a comparative creative ferment for the early Marvel stories. But that's another essay.

There's no way that this essay can prove that Kirby experienced a "comparative creative ferment" at Marvel, in comparison to his level of activity at DC and other companies in the late 1950s, which, as readers will note, I find to be Kirby at his creative low point.  All one can do is to draw comparisons at the comparative levels of complexity in Kirby works produced within a few years of each other, as I did in CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER FOURSOMES PART 3.  At the end of that essay I asserted the possibility that on some level Stan Lee had "challenged" Kirby, perhaps not so much in terms of providing Kirby with raw ideas (of which the artist never seemed to run short) but in terms of shaping them for maximum dramatic impact. In dramatic terms Kirby's Marvel work bears more resemblance to his collaborations with Joe Simon, particularly in the 1940s more than the downsliding 1950s, than it does to most of the work he'd been producing in the 1950s.
And although I give the "Fourth World" books a high rating, I think it significant that these were the books Kirby produced immediately after his last collaborations with Stan Lee (disincluding their one reunion later); the books in which Kirby may've been riffing on ideas and techniques he'd developed with Lee and, at the same time, trying to distance himself from Lee's ideas and techniques to prove himself to assembled fandom.
Even while keeping in mind that my ratings are in no way universally representative-- though I think there are many fans who would feel roughly the same way-- I think the general high opinion of the Marvel work says something interesting about the nature of creativity.
In my essay on Jerry Siegel, OCD ON A HOTPLATE, I wrote:
Interestingly, of all the Siegel stories I've read, the ones with the greatest mythicity are the ones he did for the 1960s SUPERMAN titles under legendary tough-editor Mort Weisinger. A story like "Superman's Return to Krypton" shows a far greater organization of story elements-- including symbolism-- than anything Siegel had done in earlier eras. Yet it doesn't seem that this was Siegel's normal mode of operation, for after he severed relations with DC in the mid-60s, his scripts became pretty wild-and-woolly once more, as one can observe from his output at the Archie imprint Mighty Comics.

This apparent process, by which Siegel wrote with greater restraint under the strong editorship of Mort Weisinger, yet went back to a "wild-and-woolly" mode of scripting, seems no less applicable to the development of Kirby after he determined that he would no longer work with other writers. 

What I suspect happened both times is that Kirby and Siegel-- both of whom had been in the comics-business many years-- benefitted from strong editors Mort Weisinger and Stan Lee in a *creative* sense, in spite of all indications that both editors probably abused their authority to differing extents.  This is not a logical development, but I believe there's some truth, even if it's only that Kirby and Siegel did some of their best work for exigent business-reasons; because they knew they'd lose valuable time and money if they didn't do their best each time out, or at least what those editors deemed to be their best.

One might imagine Lee and Weisinger functioning in the two creators' heads as little representations of the "ego," attempting to dominate and control the "id" of wild creativity that stemmed from Kirby and Siegel respectively.

Can I prove that Jack Kirby designed more organized, aesthetically-pleasing scenarios for THOR and FANTASTIC FOUR than he did in THE ETERNALS because in the former he had a little "Stan Lee" in his head?  Of course not; no more than I can prove my above ratings to be objective truth.

But for me personally, it goes a long way for explaining how Kirby went from his DC work to his Marvel work with a "zero to sixty" rapidity.

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