I’ve worked on over twenty-five Kirby books during the course of my career. Some I’m more pleased with than I am with others, but the biggest disaster was JACK KIRBY’S HEROES AND VILLAINS: BLACK MAGIC EDITION and inked version of the pencil sketchbook Pure Imagination had previously issued. Jack did 132 full-page illustrations of characters he’d worked on and offered the completed project to Roz as a Valentines Day gift. Until publication it was referred to as “The Black Book,” and a must-see when touring the Kirby residence.
When the Kirbys were alive, I was pleased to send them a check after every new book shipped, though I certainly wouldn’t call them hefty. Truth is, in the direct market there were only so many collectors interested in Kirby’s older work. Many of his fans who’d liked Jack’s stuff had fallen away from the newer market and if I got an order for 2,000 copies of anything it was remarkable. Checks amounted from about $500 to as much as $2,000 on a 25% split of the profits, with another 25% to Joe Simon. Fifty percent is unheard of in publishing, but I didn’t mind as my illustration career was picking up any financial slack.
In the spring of 1992, Roz asked me if there was anything that I could do to help generate some extra income. I’d considered doing an inked version of HEROES AND VILLAINS, so this seemed like a logical move.
The idea was that over one hundred inkers would do a page, from the famous to not so. I decided to do two of the illustrations in oil paint on canvas, because I was the boss of this job. Kirby in oil paint meant a great to him. Some kind of accomplishment. Legitimate. And, I wondered why Jack’s art had never been painted in oils much before.
He was just another innocent on the planet, wondering why I was taking a lesser rate on this job than I could elsewhere. And, while Kirby could hardly appreciated it on a business level, he appreciated it artistically, every time I produced his works in oil paint.
Jack liked it when his work was presented in an innovative fashion.
I picked two good images to finish and set to work. While I was painting THE SENTRY on a 2.5’x3.5’ canvas something dawned on me and it made me smile throughout the rest of the job.
The book took an entire year to assemble, but by the summer of the following year it was almost done. As usual, Julie and I showed up at 2590 Sapra on our way to the San Diego Con and I unrolled the large painting, draping it over a door in the living room. Jack and Roz had never seen Kirby’s work painted so large and were quite pleased. After a moment I said “Roz, would you please give Jack and I a moment alone?”
She looked a little quizzical as I’d never asked that before, but moved towards the kitchen. I whispered in Jack’s ear, “You gave him a giant mechanical cock.”
Either she wasn’t far enough away, or I was too loud, but Roz laughed pretty hard.
“Gee, I guess I did,” was Kirby’s semi-amazed answer.
One year before, I was ready to begin JACK KIRBY’S HEROES AND VILLAINS: BLACK MAGIC EDITION. I’d done 11”x17” blow-ups of every page and once I hit the San Diego convention floor, I began to scan for known talent. Everybody was on board with the idea and everybody wanted to go through every page before they made their choice. It was amazing to see another artist “ohh” and “ahh” over page after page of Kirby drawings they’d never seen. That’s like asking a Jazz fan if he’d like to hear 132 unreleased cuts of prime Armstrong.
One well-known inker, who I knew would do a spectacular job, begged for twelve instead of the mandatory one, I crumbled. I knew he’d do a great job. He peeled-off the proper number and thanked me. In the end he didn’t do one of them and I had to scramble to fill twelve slots, pressing deadline looming.
Frank Miller grabbed SPIDER-MAN, which I thought was odd at the time as it was one of the weakest drawings in the book. Still, it was interesting to watch him hold and look at it. He went into one of those famous Kirby fugue states and I just knew he was mapping the whole thing out and the approach in his brain. The finished piece was an amazing combination of Kirby structure stripped to Miller minimalist.
Lot’s of other artists took the basic drawing and ran with it and Kirby had never looked so varied as under the control of so many creators. Totally unexpected results in the rendering and yet Kirby’s stamp was never canceled. That’s just Jack Kirby: the guy’s work is indestructible.
I’d pulled somebody aside at a vacant table and was showing-off Kirby, when a couple of inkers noted the art show and joined the party. Party favors included the only chance they would probably ever have to serve the King, in battle. Pretty soon, word filtered around the convention floor that Pure Imagination was looking for people to ink Kirby and hungry talent began to search crammed isles. There came a point where I just sat at a table on isle 68, halfway down, cooling my heels, at a table I hadn’t paid for, but was doing a lot of business on. A big thank you to whomever never showed up.
The famous and the unknown stopped by and I had to remember what Kirby told me, “I always gave a guy a chance.” And in that spirit, guys without examples of their work with them got assignments. A few did better jobs than names you’d know, if you are a Comics fan.
I got everybody’s contact info and instructed a deadline date. A week or two after the show, I got a big splash of inked drawings, followed by another shortly after, then a trickle, then a dry tap. Perhaps one-third of the artists were still outstanding, deadline approaching. Calls, promises, a splash, a trickle and then a dry tap. More calls to guys you knew you’d never hire again, with a dead-dog-deadline that had to be made, or the assignment would go to somebody else. A trickle and a dozen illustrations reassigned.
As I was trying to get guys to keep their promises, I was on top of the writers as well. Kirby historian, Richard Howell, myself and another Kirby historian were supposed to do brief descriptions of the characters and their first appearance. The list was divided by three and some of us set to work. I say some of us, because the unnamed writer continued to promise that his third would be done by deadline and not to worry, every time I called. At the eleventh-hour, he informed me that he had an emergency and that I was on my own. Not quite, as Richard and I were slammed for two days and I’m still six inked pages short, deadline breathing down my neck.
Keep in mind that I’d talked-up the book to Roz as a sure-fire hit. How could it miss? Every top artist in the business inking Kirby. The crossover audience would be colossal! I mean, a sure-fire hit? Right?
Not so much. The numbers were good, but far from great. After paying the printers and the talent that wanted to be paid, I still hadn’t broken even, though a hand full of reorders balanced the sheets to even.
The whole point of this thing was to raise some cash for Roz. A LOT of work with nothing to show for it. Well, about 130 new inkers got to work with the King of Comics and that’s certainly something.
Another backfired attempt to raise some cash for Roz, after Jack passed, occurred in conjunction with 21st Century Archives, a collectors’ card promoter, owned by a guy named Keith Ornstein. I’d met him at The Pure Imagination Fun Fair and had successfully produced three sets of Bettie Page cards for him. In the late spring of 1994, when I mentioned that I’d like to do Jack Kirby set, he was up for it. I selected the art, all in public domain, had some friends ink a few pencil images, colored most of and wrote the text for the backs of the cards. I told Kieth to send any fee I might have gotten to Roz and figured I’d done my job and she ended up getting many thousands of dollars. When the printed cards arrived, I was shocked to discover that Keith had ditched a number of my images and replaced them with scans from Ray Wyman’s THE ART OF JACK KIRBY book. Roz was upset, as she didn’t want those reproduced anywhere else and was mad at me for including those images. I explained that I’d been double-crossed, but she had a hard time of believing it.
I then called Keith and demanded to know why he’d pulled a fast one and how he justified the mistake. His answer was “I dunno: twenty-twenty hindsight, I guess,” was the most disinterested he could deliver. I told him he’d have to explain it to Roz.
When she called him he denied any involvement.
So, for a few months Roz just didn’t want to talk to me, until I tried again at the appointed time one Sunday night. Roz, in a much softer mood informed me that she forgave me. I didn’t think I’d done anything to be forgiven for. Still, I didn’t say a word other than, “Awww.”
While not a disaster, a sad story as well.
By the spring of 1989 Marvel had contracted with Simon and Kirby to reprint FIGHTING AMERICAN in a hardcover collection. I supplied the retouched art and colored the volume with S&K providing forewords. The plan was also to have Kirby pencil a new cover that Simon would ink, but when it arrived it was unusable. “Look at this,” Simon lamented, “I can’t ink this. I’d have to redraw it completely. Kirby’s lost it.”
While that may sound harsh, it was true. Fifty years had not taken its toll, his health had.