Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Camp 2015 - Jack "King" Kirby

This month I was invited to give a talk to 40 kids, aged 8 -12 at Book Camp London. I was asked to talk about a writer who inspired and influenced me. Pretty interesting topic really.

As a cartoonist, I felt I needed to think of another cartoonist who inspired me rather than a writer - I thought it would give the kids some variety and some insights into comics being a writing form as well as a visual form. After some considerable thought, I came up with the perfect subject - Jack Kirby.

The King.
The talk was one hour (including a Q&A and signing), but really it is no small feat to hold kids' attention for that long. I felt like I knew my subject pretty well, but I like to be prepared so I did quite a few hours of research to put my slides together. I ended up learning quite a few new things about the King (much of which got incorporated into my talk but not all), which I thought I'd share here as well as some of the reactions from the kids.

The Early Years

Jack and Roz Kirby
  • One thing I didn't know and should have is that the real name of Jack Kirby's wife, the infamous "Roz" - is Rosalind. Why is this noteworthy? Only because that's my daughter's name. My daughter is named after Rosalind from Shakespeare's "As You Like It", but the fact that this is Roz Kirby's full name is a delightful coincidence for me.
  • I also hadn't realized the extent of Roz's support of Kirby, and how vital her support was to him. Roz looked after the kids and the household so that all Jack had to do was draw. He would work all day, then eat dinner with Roz and the kids and go back to the drawing board.

    Fans starting visiting their house in the 1960s in California with some regularity and Roz would welcome them in, and give them sandwiches while they talked to Jack - sometimes for hours on end!

    She seemed to look after his physical health and his mental health, as well as being his biggest cheerleader and supporter. What a gift for an artist.

Simon and Kirby

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
  • I also hadn't realized what a good businessman Joe Simon was. It seems that the best financial deal Jack Kirby had in comics were negotiated by Joe Simon.
  • Specifically when they were doing Captain America comics for Timely, the duo were supposed to be receiving a percentage of the profits. Simon felt they were getting stiffed though, so he negotiated a deal and moved to National Comics (DC), where they would received a $500/week (they were making about $80/week at Timely). This is in the Boy Commandos days.
  • As we know, the duo both came back to comics after WWII and created the new genre of Romance Comics together. Their romance titles sold millions of copies and Simon negotiated taking no money up front, but instead a share of the profits. This is apparently what allowed Kirby to purchase his family home in California.

Numbers and Process

Fantastic Four page - look at all the direction from Kirby to Stan.
  • We all know how prolific Kirby was, but I tried to find some numbers for the kids. The best estimate is that Kirby drew approximately 25,000 comic pages in his life. Incredible.
  • Kirby drew Captain America #112 in a weekend - 20 pages!
  • Kirby had no formal art training and was self-taught.
  • When he penciled a page, Kirby would start in the upper left-hand panel and just continued in sequential order until he was finished in the bottom right.
  • Kirby didn't do thumbnails, he went right to the page and apparently didn't erase! I found this pretty mind-blowing. He did see to be channeling some inner rich imagination that just flowed out on to the page. Who knows if we'll ever see another one like him.

Reaction from the Kids

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
  • I started with a place of familiarity asking the kids how many of them had seen a Marvel movie. Just about everyone's hand went up. Then I showed a slide of all the Marvel comics movie characters and pointed out all of the characters created by Kirby - they were duly impressed.
  • I asked them what they knew about Stan Lee - I was surprised that he didn't register with most of them. The ones who knew him, just knew him as the older guy who had cameos in the Marvel movies.
  • I spent some time on the Marvel Process and the Lee vs. Kirby story and asked them what they thought. I was surprised they weren't too engaged with the argument. When pressed, they thought it "wasn't fair" to Kirby. Maybe it's not surprising really that they don't care too much about copyright, IP payments and the Kirby estate - it's just what keeps us hard-core nerds up at night.
  • They didn't really care that I had met both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but they did think it was neat that I worked for Marvel (briefly when Marvel had offices in Canada during their Heroes World days - it was an awesome job).
  • No matter what the audience, everyone is interested in the comics process and how long it takes. The kids were pretty surprised that comics-making is more than a full-time job where you work weekends and don't take a lot of time off.

Q &A Time

  • The kids (who were about 60% girls, 40% boys I'd say), seemed to be really taken with Kirby's imagination and the number of characters he'd created.
  • "Who's your favourite character?" - I have a weird love for Fin Fang Foom (which of course I had an image of). They weren't too impressed.
  • "Who's your least favourite character?" Probably Moon Boy from Devil Dinosaur - that they thought was funny.
  • "Did Jack Kirby create Deadpool?" Sigh no, not that one. What is up with Deadpool anyway? I don't understand the love for him.
When the kids figured out that I'm a bit of a comic encyclopedia - the questions really started coming,
  • "Can you explain the differences between Marvel and DC?" This was from a young girl who said she thought she should be reading more comics and was trying to understand them more.

    Marvel tends be set in the "real world" with characters who have real problems and issues - like Peter Parker. DC takes place in imaginary cities and places with more fantastic adventures and characters not like us - like Green Lantern as a space cop or Bruce Wayne, the multi-millionaire playboy. We can't be like these people.
  • "What do you like better - Marvel or DC" - DC.
  • "Who's your favourite charater?" - Superman always and forever.
  • "What did you think of Man of Steel?" - Had to explain that I didn't see it because I knew it would break my heart. That Superman is not my Superman. My Superman does not kill bad guys or injure innocent people.
  • "Whats your favourite super-hero movie?" - Superman I and Superman II. I also thought Iron Man was really good, especially since the comics are pretty bad - that drew an intake of breath and hushed silence.
  • "What's your second favourite super-hero? - Spider-Man.
  • "What's the best DC villain?" - the Joker, no question.
  • "What's the best Marvel villain?" - Green Goblin. Also Galactus is pretty great.
  • And finally - "What do you think of the new 52?" - I didn't sugar coat it - it blows.
Afterwards I signed my comics for them, signed their t-shirts and they chatted with me. I was surprised that tons of the girls wanted to talk about Black Widow and were big fans of hers. I agreed with them that she is totally cool. I had to draw the Black Widow logo for them on a bunch of their Book Camp t-shirts. For the boys, I drew the Superman "S"

Black Widow movie Marvel - make it, put her back on the Avengers marketing materials. Stop screwing this up. The youngsters LOVE her. 

The Book Camp organizer was nice enough to email me some feedback afterwards from the kids - this is what they had to say:

I LOVED the comic book presentation. Its so cool that she used to work for Marvel! That’s what I want to do; I liked learning about Jack Kirby’s life.
I never knew how much work went into developing comics. It was really neat to learn. 

So all in all, I had a lot of fun. Talking about comics and Jack Kirby with kids is an a-ok way to spend some time.


Anonymous said...

This is great :)

I also believe you are right about Joe Simon being the best negotiator for Jack that he ever had.

BK said...

hard-core nerd reading this late at night --great fun!