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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Jack Kirby's 100th Birthday - and my two strikes

Back in high school, the only thing I loved as much as radio were comic books. I had hundreds, mostly Marvels.  Still have most of them, preserved in plastic sleeves in boxes in my basement.

In 1971, at the height of my comic-book mania, I attended the third-ever San Diego Comic Con, which was spread out over the campus of the University of California in San Diego. My dad had quite coincidentally taken our family to a beach in San Diego for a quick vacation; Mark Hebert, a friend who had introduced me to the world of comic books, told me that if I was going to be in San Diego anyway I should check out the comics convention.  My dad drove me to the campus, dropped me off and let me wander among the vendors and exhibits. I ran into Mark there.  I also met Kirk Alyn, who played Superman in the movie serials; he signed an autobiography he was selling and talked to me for the better part of half an hour about the difficult stunts he used to perform in his movies. Then I ran into Ray Bradbury, who talked to a group of us for another half hour or so, mostly asking questions about what we thought the future should be like; he cut the talk short because his ride was leaving.  Ray Bradbury, the man whose imagination took us deep into space on rockets, didn’t drive and wasn’t too fond of flying in airplanes.

But my favorite encounter was running into Jack Kirby and his entourage in one of the exhibitor rooms.  He must have had 50 high school and college-aged kids around him, and my impression was that about half of them worked for him.  He was outgoing and gracious, shaking everybody’s hand and asking everybody’s name. He signed my program guide – to this day, that’s framed and on the wall in my bedroom. Then the questions started coming, and that’s when I got in trouble.

Right around that time, Jack had left Marvel for DC (Superman) comics and introduced the villain Darkseid and another whole world of heroes and bad guys he called the Fourth World. In fact, he signed my program guide on a page that featured his sketch of Darkseid.

Of course, I had no idea of the problems Jack was having at Marvel Comics.  They were over-working and under-paying him, and Stan Lee was getting all the press for the work Jack was doing. I was just an idiot high-schooler who saw the Lee-Kirby credits on most every comic I bought and figured that the two of them sat in a room every day, kicking around ideas and sketches, pounding out those Marvel masterworks. And, as a reader – and therefore, by rights a certified comics critic – I had complained to Mark and my other comic book friends that the last few issues of Fantastic Four that Jack had drawn before leaving Marvel had seemed sloppy in plot, dialogue and artwork. So my question to Jack, asked with the full-on snobbery that comes with being a certified comics critic, was:

“Did you get tired of drawing the Fantastic Four?”

I felt the room grow quiet, and I became the object of Kirby’s stare – and everybody else’s, for that matter. “No,” he snapped at me, “I never got tired of the Fantastic Four.”  And that was that, and the entourage moved on. I felt terrible – my one and only chance to meet Jack Kirby and I seemed to have pissed him off.

Imagine my joy when, a while later, Mark Hebert come to me with an address scratched on a piece of paper.  Jack Kirby lived in Irvine, California, mere minutes from my house!  Mark had called and been invited to visit!  A second chance! I could make good on this visit and have a pleasant conversation with the King of Comics! Mark and I and our good friend John Timpane piled in to Mark’s car and made the pilgrimage to Kirby’s house.

I remember a ranch house, stucco, very southern California, with a little patio area out front. When Jack’s wife Roz opened the door, I remember the entryway being long and narrow, so that you almost walked into a wall when you came in.  On that wall was a huge print of one of Jack’s drawings: one of the most intricate pieces of machinery imaginable. On the other side of the dividing wall was a comfortable living room where we all sat and talked.

Jack asked all the questions. John, Mark, a high school artist friend named Mike Oprian and I had, in our school lunchroom, formed T.H.O.R. Enterprises with the initials of our last names.  To create comic books, naturally.  We told Jack about one of our first ideas, which was a superhero comic book about a janitor who knocks over a shelf of chemicals while cleaning a mad scientist’s workshop; they spill all over him, and he becomes a throbbing being of energy when hit by lightning on his walk home. John and I took Latin in high school and wanted to call him “Novus,” which is Latin for “new man.” Jack corrected us.  “Call him Nova,” he said.  “Everybody knows Nova.”  I explained to him that we used “Novus” because it was, under Latin conjugation, the male version – “Nova” was female.  “Don’t get all hung up on that,” Jack said. “Use Nova. People will remember Nova.”

Now, John Timpane was the least-comic book-savvy of the T.H.O.R. Enterprises group. He readily admitted to having only read a few Metal Men comics when he was seven. But when Jack asked us what other ideas we had, John captured his attention.  John launched into a description of a short story he was working on. I was then and still am fuzzy on the details, but I think it involved something about a man trying to convince his neighbors that God was in his house. Jack liked the idea and chatted with John about it for a few minutes.  Then he turned to me.

I’d been nursing an idea that popped into my head while watching a couple of Star Trek episodes and merging the plots. One episode was about people living in a blissful Eden until outsiders came and brought guns; the other was about people who were under the spell of a nasty computer that they regarded as an idol to be worshiped and obeyed.  What if, I thought, you encountered people who were working like slaves for someone they thought was God, but seemed happy and were reluctant to rise against their master because to them, slavery was their religious duty.  My mistake was summing it up like this: “God runs a concentration camp.”

The idiot high school kid strikes again! “Concentration camp” was exactly the wrong phrase to use. I was thinking “slave labor,” not “eliminate whole races of people.”  Jack, a proud World War Two veteran, fixed that Kirby stare on me a second time.  “Terrible idea. You can’t mix God and concentration camps.” And he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

The rest of the visit was pleasant.  Roz served us lemonade and Jack took us into the room where his easel was set up. As we walked out to our car, Jack said goodbye to me and added, “Remember: Nova.”

Mike Oprian drew pages and pages of our Novus/Nova comic but it didn’t get any farther than that.  And, on the 100th anniversary of Jack Kirby’s birth, I’m left with this memory: I had not one, but TWO chances to meet and talk with the greatest comic book artist ever.  And I think I pissed him off both times.

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