The Marvel Method according to Jack Kirby, Part Two

Evidence

Synopses

1974’s Origins was a company-directed retelling of the creation of the Marvel Universe, with some of the principals relegated to minor roles. As if to give credence to the ridiculous tales, an authentic-looking synopsis for FF #1 turned up. At John Byrne’s insistence that Marvel editor Roger Stern discovered the synopsis in Stan Lee’s old desk, Patrick Ford asked Stern about the desk. Stern said it was David Anthony Kraft who found the synopsis. 1 If this discovery took place in the early ’80s, why was the synopsis not mentioned until the late ’90s?

Daniel Best: 2
…the veracity of this document has been called into question with such a degree that, as believable evidence, it appears to be about as genuine as Bob Kane’s 1934 sketches of Batman… Some claim that it’s not believable at all and are stunned if anyone, even Stan Lee, believes that this was written before Jack Kirby began to draw the first issue. Those who subscribe to that theory believe that it was written well after the event, possibly after the book was produced, perhaps in the 1970s or even the 1980s, in which event it’s not likely that Stan wrote this as a guide for Kirby to follow. It’s just too perfect to be true.

In 2013, Roy Thomas sent a brutally condescending letter 3 to Comic Book Creator in response to Jon Cooke’s first-issue article, “Kirby’s Kingdom.”

You make the mistake that a lot of rank amateur analysts make (even though you are obviously not one of those) in assuming that, if an artist draws pictures which tell a story and then writes out margin notes which clarify points and suggest dialogue to go with it, that necessarily means that the artist made up the story out of whole cloth… that he was not given any directions beforehand as to what the story was. You cannot honestly and reasonably assume that, simply because there is no paper trail of a plot from Stan Lee…

Like me, you’ve seen the plot pages done for portions of Fantastic Four #1 and #8. Jack made a lot of changes and additions to the plot of #1’s origin, most notably introducing the heroes dramatically before going into the flashback origin. That action was breathtaking and wonderful… but it didn’t create the characters or the main story, which was the origin. And in #8, as I pointed out while AE was still part of CBA, Stan’s plot even went into more detail about the actions of the Puppet Master and the F.F. than I would have imagined without reading that plot…

You start out with a defensible aim… to show that Jack did more than he was paid for… and turn it into not much more than a more sophisticated form of Lee-bashing… What’s done on pp. 48-49 of CBC #1 is not far from the kind of statement Jack himself made, during the years when he had first left Marvel, when an interviewer tried to pin him down and ask him what Stan Lee did in those stories. “Stan Lee was my editor,” was all Jack would say. Jack, who of course was and remains even years after his demise one of the greatest artists in the history of the comic book medium, was given at that stage to delusions of grandeur that went far beyond even his massive talents and contributions… and your garbled characterization of the early Lee-Kirby work merely contributes to the fog.

As he admits, Thomas was no more present during story conferences than was Cooke (only Lee and Kirby were). Cooke, who may not be a rank amateur analyst but sure behaves like one according to Thomas, shouldn’t be allowed to interpret the overwhelming evidence when Thomas’s take should be sufficient for anyone. Meanwhile it’s the rank professional historian who’s spewing fog: Thomas blindly supports the Lee version of events, knowing better than anyone the questionable reliability of its author. From his indefensible position, he joins Lee in making Kirby and others out to be the liars. Delusions of grandeur? It’s that grandeur that still provides the payroll, his portion of which allows Thomas to conveniently dismiss the truth while kicking dirt on Jack Kirby’s reputation.

Thomas’s certainty regarding the FF #1 synopsis has grown with age. In his 1997 Kirby Collector interview he wasn’t so sure: 4 “Later I saw Stan’s plot for Fantastic Four #1, but even Stan would never claim for sure that he and Jack hadn’t talked the idea over before he wrote this.” [emphasis mine]

The light was made to dawn on Thomas as soon as the interview saw print: Marvel recognized the misstep and persuaded him the synopsis was authentic. As soon as it could be scheduled in Alter Ego, Thomas printed the document along with a rebuttal of his comment by Lee and company: yes of course it was written before discussion with Kirby. The AE synopsis exposé 5 reads like an ad taken out by Marvel’s lawyers touting Lee’s new, improved memory. In it, Thomas revealed he had initially seen the synopsis in Lee’s office, “late-1960s,” making the timing of even the initial discovery suspect. That would place it at the time Perfect Film & Chemical were looking for documentation to prove Kirby wasn’t involved in creation. From then on, Thomas never waffled on the pedigree of the synopsis.

Mr Miracle_06_22bot

If the AE article weren’t convincing enough, Comic Book Artist #2 on the flip side contained an interview of Stan Lee by Roy Thomas. Lee needed to set the record straight following Kirby’s TCJ interview, and Thomas provided the avenue. He assisted Lee in giving birth to memories that refuted Kirby’s claims, some (again) of events that took place before Thomas was around to witness them. 6

Roy: By Fantastic Four #1, you had developed what later came to be called “the Marvel style.” But you were doing this all along for some monster stories, some time before this. How far back does that go?

Stan: You mean just doing synopses for the artists? Was I doing them before Marvel?

Roy: I know that you did it for Fantastic Four. [Stan’s synopsis for F.F. #1 is printed in Alter Ego, Vol. 2, #2, backing this issue of CBA.] So I figured with Jack as the artist—and maybe Ditko, too—in these minor stories that you mostly wrote, along with Larry Lieber, you must have been doing it since the monster days.

Stan: You know something, Roy? Now that you say it, that’s probably true; but I had never thought of that. I thought that I started it with the Fantastic Four, but you’re probably right.

If the FF #1 synopsis did not precede Kirby’s work on the issue, the other observations made by Thomas and Lee in the interview are clearly apocryphal. Mark Evanier was asked about the item in his 2010 deposition: 7

[ FF #1] feels an awful lot more like Jack’s earlier work than anything that Stan had done to that date. So I find it very difficult to believe that Jack did not have input into the creation of the characters prior to the – that synopsis, whenever it was composed. And, also, I have the fact that I talked to Stan many times, and he told me – and he said it in print in a few places – that he and Jack had sat down one day and figured out what the Fantastic Four would be.

QUINN. And they discussed the plot before they actually – the drawings were done?

A. They discussed the plot before the alleged synopsis was done also.

Did Jack Kirby have something to say on the subject of the synopsis? He was unequivocal: 8

I’ve never seen it, and of course I would say that’s an outright lie.

The second synopsis that surfaced is even easier to discount. In a 1964 issue of K-A CAPA-alpha,9 Jerry Bails reproduced a plot for FF #8 Lee had sent him. In the accompanying text, he wrote: “Stan writes a one-page synopsis of an entire FF story; then Kirby breaks down the whole story even before any dialogue or captions are written. Naturally then, there can be little in the way of real plot carried in the ‘script’. Captions must be limited largely to describing the action in the box, and dialogue must consist mainly of wisecracks, both of which can be added directly to the pencilled drawings.”

Aside from the spot-on assessment of Lee’s dialogue and captions, Bails has got it wrong, presumably because his information came straight from Lee. Perhaps Lee was asked for a script, and he scrambled to improvise. He grabbed an issue he had on hand and performed a little reverse engineering to create the synopsis. It was an unfortunate choice.

In Pure Images #2,10 Greg Theakston presented a transcription of the same synopsis, conspicuously missing the last page. He reserved comment while devoting a page of the article to comparing the last four panels of “Voodoo on Tenth Avenue” in Black Magic #4 (1951) to the nearly identical last three panels of Fantastic Four #8 (1962). Oops, Lee chose the wrong story to synopsize. Although it would be amusing to see how he would have outlined the plot on that “missing” last page, it’s safe to say he had no prior input into a story whose plot Kirby re-used from an eleven-year-old story in his own repertoire.

The charitable view on the synopses is that Lee wrote them for his own reference after Kirby related each story to him. Skeptics, however, will insist they were a device manufactured sometime after the fact to “confirm” the details of a history rewritten.

Plots

Stan Taylor uncovered a myriad of Kirby plots in early Marvel comics while researching his Spider-Man article. He began by detailing Jack’s re-use of his earlier work in The Shield and The Fly when plotting the first appearances of Spider-Man and Thor, and found a pattern: 11

This cross-pollination of a character from one story, and a plot from another is classic Kirby. Kirby’s touches are repetitive and easily identifiable. It appears that Kirby did not cross match the Fly and the Shield one time; he did it twice, and both simultaneously. For Spider-Man, Kirby took the basic character traits (insect), and the villain (petty crook) from the Fly, and the origin gimmick (scientific, older teen), and the dramatic ending (mourning a lost friend) from the Shield. For Thor, Kirby reversed himself, taking the origin element, (finding of a mystical artifact) and ending, (transformation back to hapless human) from the Fly, and the villain (rampaging aliens) from the Shield, plus adding in a hero from an earlier DC fantasy story. (Tales of the Unexpected #16).

Is this use of a Kirby plot, in a book not drawn by Kirby, unusual for Marvel at the time? No! Iron Man’s origin, from Tales Of Suspense #39, uses a Kirby plot, first seen in a Green Arrow story from 1959. (“The War That Never Ended”, Adventure Comics 255). Similarly, the origin of Dr. Strange is a reworking of the origin of Dr. Droom from Amazing Adventures #1.(Atlas Pub. June 1961). The idea that Kirby would plot the origin of a new character is the rule at Marvel in the early ’60s. It would actually be an anomaly if Kirby hadn’t provided the origin.

But it doesn’t stop there, for while I was cross-referencing the plots to see if any matched up with AF #15, I noticed another striking coincidence, and this staggered me! Not only does it appear that Kirby provided the plot for AF #15, it appears that he also assisted in plotting some of the following Spidey stories. The second and third Spider-Man stories have plot elements taken directly from the second and third Private Strong stories. That’s correct; the first three Spidey stories mirror the first three Shield stories.

Taylor went on to list earlier Kirby stories containing elements that resurfaced in Amazing Spider-Man #1 and #2: Kirby’s first Green Arrow story, the second Yellow Claw story, the third Doctor Droom tale, the second Fantastic Four story, the second Ant-Man, the third Thor story, Fighting American #7, the test appearance of Captain America in Strange Tales #114, Captain America #7, Headline Comics #24, the third Doctor Droom story, and Challengers of the Unknown #3, all fed elements into the two books. Taylor: 12

What are the odds, if Kirby didn’t assist on the plots, that the first three Spider-Man stories would mirror the first three Shield stories? Wouldn’t one think that Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko would have their own plotting patterns? So it seems clear that Kirby’s participation with Spider-Man extended further than just a rejected proposal. It appears that he not only created the character, he also assisted greatly in the origin and early story lines and added many early plot elements.

Again, is this out of character? No. Kirby helped Stan with the plotting of several characters even when not specifically drawing them. The plot to the origin of Iron Man, several of the early Thor stories, and some of the Torch stories from Strange Tales, not drawn by Kirby, have unmistakable Kirby supplied villains, plots, and dramatic elements. Daredevil showed some early Kirby involvement. Why wouldn’t Kirby assist Stan on Spider-Man? The early Marvel titles and characters were never considered private domains. Stan certainly had no compunction about Kirby doing the first 2 covers, or a back up story.

Marvel had a modus operandi also. Evidence shows that Kirby helped out on just about every new project, even the ones he didn’t draw.

Concept pages

You’ve seen them—Jack Kirby presentation pages for proposed titles. Examples have been published featuring Starman Zero from the ’40s; the New Gods in the ’60s; Kamandi, OMAC and Atlas from the ’70s at DC.13 Kirby’s concept page for Boomerang was printed in Tales to Astonish #81. Two ’60s Marvel presentation images (including one for the original Captain Victory) have been featured on covers of Jack Kirby Collector. Still others that no longer exist in presentation form may have been turned into covers (Iron Man’s debut, for instance, on Tales of Suspense #39) or Marvel Masterworks Posters.

According to Susan and Neal Kirby, Jack worked on new character pages for the FF and Thor in the basement.

From Susan Kirby’s deposition: 14

FLEISCHER: Do you have any recollection of discussing with your father the work he was doing for Marvel?

A. Yes. I was in his office a lot, because he had a vast library of books, because he was into everything. And I used to go down there and read, so I used to read his books, and stuff, and one day I was upstairs, and mom told me to go downstairs because Dad was creating some new super heroes. So I went downstairs, and he said, “I want you to see this.” He said, I named the female super hero after you, her name is Sue,” Sue Storm he was talking about, it was the Fantastic Four.

Q. What did you say to him? What did he say to you?

A. I said it looked great. There were three characters on the board, three of the four. And I asked about who they are, and he told me who each one was. And I said, “It looks great, they look great”.

Q. Did your mother ever discuss with you any other characters that were published by Marvel that your father created or didn’t create?

A. Well, the Incredible Hulk. I was there when he was creating him. He called me over, and said, “I want you to see a new super hero.” He said, “This is the Incredible Hulk. What do you think of him?” I said, “He is incredible.”

From Neal Kirby’s deposition: 15

FLEISCHER What story were you talking about?

A I believe it was when he was creating Thor.

Q And what do you recall telling Lisa at that time about Thor, its creation?

A Well, my father was always very interested, he loved mythology, he loved studying religion and history, just knew all about it, his bookshelves were just loaded with that kind of stuff, so as a kid I was always at that time more into history than I was science but we would have long discussions about it. But I kind of got into it, I guess you might say, on a more practical basis and I remember kind of standing by his drawing board as he was kind of doing the Thor character and he had the big, if I remember right, either Thor or one of the other characters that had big horns coming out of the helmet and I said a real Viking wouldn’t have big horns coming out of his helmet and we were laughing and that was about it. I think my father kind of laughed and made some statement that well, this isn’t, you know, Viking reality, it is a visual impact, so he gave me a little art lesson there.

Q And how did you, what is the basis for your belief that it was the first?

A I recall his – we were – we were talking about the – about Thor’s costume and he was doing it for the first time and, again, there were other things. I think I had made some comment about the big circles on the front of the character and, you know, again my father was, you know, jokingly, jokingly referring to visual impact other than possible reality of what a true Viking might have worn.

Q What led you to believe it was the first drawing your father was doing concerning the Thor?

MR. TOBEROFF: Asked and answered.

A Again, the same thing. The basic creation of the costume.

Q Did your father tell you that this was the first drawing he was making of Thor?

A He did refer to doing a new character, yes.

Q And was it the Thor character or some other character that became part of the Thor comic book?

A No, it was the Thor character.

Q And your recollection is that part of the costume that he was creating had a helmet with horns?

A I believe so, yes.

In almost all surviving cases, the presentation pages act as model sheets and describe plots and characters. The Starman Zero example and the DC pages suggest plots for one or more issues of the proposed title. This fits in with Stan Taylor’s observation that Kirby plotted, not just initial issues of a title, but succeeding issues as well. Jim Shooter held a Spider-Man presentation page (not the initial 5-page story Steve Ditko was asked to ink): 16

I saw, and held in my hand, exactly one such [Kirby Spider-Man] page. It was a page of design drawings. I remember that his version of Spider-Man had a “Web-Gun” and wore trunks, I think, like Captain America’s. He was far bigger and bulkier than Ditko’s version. There were no similarities to Ditko’s Spider-Man costume. I think he had boots with flaps. There were notes in the margin that described the character, again, nothing like the Ditko version. I think there was something about him being related to, or having some connection with a police official, which was how he’d find out about trouble going on. It was a long time ago, I can’t swear to that last item, but I can swear to the fact that it wasn’t similar to the Ditko version. I remember thinking, “This isn’t at all like Ditko’s.”

Kurt Busiek transcribed the Don Heck interview conducted by Richard Howell and Carol Kalish, originally for ARTFORM magazine (it was ultimately published in Comics Feature #21). 17 “What Don said was that any time you saw a Kirby cover with a nice clear shot of a new villain or costume design on it, it meant Jack had designed and more than likely created that character, and the cover was a way of getting him paid for the design job… When [Kirby] was doing interior layouts, he was surely plotting, and would include character sketches to show his intent. But on, say, the Swordsman and Power Man covers, those are basically dynamic-looking design sketches with a cover framed around them. And Boomerang being an ex-ballplayer was used.”

Despite Judge McMahon’s contention that teenagers shouldn’t have a say in court, the recollections of Susan and Neal Kirby, along with Shooter’s, indicate that Kirby gave to Lee (at a minimum) presentation pieces for the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man and Spider-Man.

Original art and chapter breaks

The Heritage Auctions website provides a great resource for examining comic art at high resolution. Forensic examination of these yields clues about Kirby’s workflow during specific periods of his work. On a Tales of Suspense #28 page, penciled by Kirby and inked by Russ Heath, Kirby’s penciled lettering is visible in the balloons. This often indicates that Kirby wrote the story, since Lee has stated that according to the Marvel Method, his dialogue and captions were added after he received the penciled pages.

Pages from X-Men #5 (1963), penciled by Kirby, inked by Paul Reinman, have Stan Lee margin notes. Does this prove that Lee wrote the plot on Kirby’s art board before the penciling stage? Of course not… Marvel did not supply Kirby’s materials; as a freelancer he supplied his own. Lee’s margin notes could only have been added during the story conference, confirming Kirby’s version of events that he finished the story, then told Lee what was happening.

In addition to these examples, Kirby is generally credited with writing the stories he did for Stan Lee in the period of 1956-57. The Grand Comics Database has writing credits for no one but Kirby on the stories he penciled. Lee never missed a chance to assert his writing credit: he signed everything he wrote, and as he admits, even things he didn’t. Speaking strictly of the fantasy line, Michael Vassallo wrote (with Vassallo quotes for emphasis): ‘in the post-code fantasy period Stan Lee wrote absolutely “nothing”. There are “no” stories signed by him and I’ve seen almost all of them.’ 18 Contrary to Lee’s minor stories “recollection” (above), Nick Caputo says the evidence indicates that Kirby wrote specific stories during the monster period: 19

In 1959, concurrent with his output on monster, western and romance stories, Kirby was assigned a number of interesting war stories. Based on a reading of many early stories, it appears that Kirby also scripted many early stories, especially pre 1960 (an examination of his possible scripts on other genre stories will appear at a later date). There are many similarities in style, tone, emphasis of words, phrases, use of quotation marks and sound effects that point to Kirby’s input.

Kirby’s trademark chapter breaks are well-known from his non-Marvel work, from Challengers of the Unknown and Bullseye to Kamandi, The Demon and OMAC. Curiously, they also show up in Marvel origin stories supposedly plotted by Lee (The Hulk, Fantastic Four) or scripted by Larry Lieber (Thor’s origin in Journey Into Mystery), as well as Kirby’s monster stories. If Lieber scripted chapter breaks, why did they not show up in stories Lieber scripted for other “artists”? Why do chapter breaks not appear in other origin stories supposedly plotted by Lee but drawn by Ditko or Everett? The exception, as Stan Taylor notes, is Spider-Man: the origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 has a “Part 2” splash, and the first story in Amazing Spider-Man #1 has chapter breaks. Mike Gartland: 20

About this synopsis: one thing that always bothered me was that stories weren’t done in chapters by Lee until Kirby came along and incorporated them in the monster stories. Jack was doing stories this way for years. I could be wrong of course, but if Lee wrote the synopsis without input from Jack, why would he break it down into chapters ala Kirby? To me this is a telling example that, if the synopsis is real, then Lee must have worked out the plot with Kirby, because the story is broken down the way Jack would do it. In my opinion if Kirby didn’t have any input, as Lee attests, then the synopsis was typed after the story was drawn; as Jack attests!

Footnotes

Repetition for citations allows linking back to individual quotes.

back 1 “Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four synopsis,” Byrne Robotics: The John Byrne Forum, 19 October 2008; “Roger Stern’s Superman (and more!) on Kindle,” DC Archives Message Board Forum, 24 May 2013.

back 2 Daniel Best, “Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al – Stan Lee’s FF #1 Synopsis & Jerry Bails,” 20th Century Danny Boy blog, 10 April 2011.

back 3 Roy Thomas, Letter to the editor, Comic Book Creator #3, Fall 2013.

back 4 Roy Thomas interviewed by Jim Amash, conducted by phone in September 1997, published The Jack Kirby Collector #18, January 1998.

back 5 Roy Thomas, “A Fantastic First!,” Alter Ego Vol. 2, #2, Summer 1998.

back 6 “Stan the Man & Roy the Boy,” A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, Comic Book Artist #2, Summer 1998.

back 7 Mark Evanier deposition, 9 November 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 65, Exhibit 8.

back 8 Jack Kirby interviewed by Gary Groth, conducted in summer of 1989, The Comics Journal #134, February 1990.

back 9 Jerry Bails, “Agent X-ASOCTCRASIDCIWWS Reporting,” K-A CAPA-alpha #2, November 1964.

back 10 Greg Theakston, “The Birth of Marvel Comics,” Pure Images #2, Pure Imagination, January 1990.

back 11 Stan Taylor, “Spider-Man: The Case for Kirby,” 2003. Posted on The Kirby Effect: The Journal of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center.

back 12 Stan Taylor, “Spider-Man: The Case for Kirby,” 2003. Posted on The Kirby Effect: The Journal of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center.

back 13 Starman Zero and OMAC presentation pages, Kirby Unleashed, TwoMorrows Publishing, 2004. Boomerang, Jack Kirby Collector #13.

back 14 Susan Kirby deposition, 25 October 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 102, Exhibit H.

back 15 Neal Kirby deposition, 30 June 2010, Justia, Dockets & Filings, Second Circuit, New York, New York Southern District Court, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al, Filing 102, Exhibit G.

back 16 Jim Shooter, Writer. Creator. Large mammal. blog, Monday, March 21, 2011, and comment on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 post, left August 30, 2011.

back 17 Kurt Busiek, “Don Heck interview,” kirbyville (Internet mailing list), 28 November 2010.

back 18 Michael Vassallo, Kirby-L, the Jack Kirby Internet mailing list, 18 November 1999.

back 19 Nick Caputo, “More Kirby War: Battle,” Marvel Mysteries and Comics Minutiae blog, 30 November 2012.

back 20 Mike Gartland, in a comment to the Kirby Dynamics blog. Included by Robert Steibel in “My Interview Questions for Stan Lee Part 3: Chapter Breaks,” Kirby Dynamics blog,  Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center, April 7, 2012.

© 2015, Michael Hill

The Marvel Method according to Jack Kirby, Part Two