Knock Letters again

Here’s a chapter from my book. It’s actually an unnumbered chapter, meant as a sidebar or supplemental information to the chapter before it. It’s my earlier blog post of the same name but updated for the book.

In the chapter that follows, I quoted Jack Kirby’s interview with Howard Zimmerman in Comics Scene #2, famous for Kirby’s characterization of the Marvel offices as a serpent’s nest. Ferran Delgado recently posted the company response, undertaken in the form of letters to the magazine from Roger Stern and John Byrne that had Zimmerman backpedaling on his presentation of Kirby’s views (which were, still, Kirby’s views).1

Byrne wrote that the article “was so full of inaccuracy and muddled re-tellings of events that it was almost unreadable. Example: when I started at Marvel in 1974 they had already established a policy of returning artwork to the artists and writers involved. Kirby makes it sound as if he had to fight for the return of his work after he came back to Marvel in 1976, and this is reported as true… Unfortunately, since Marvel, Jim Shooter, Stan Lee, and probably myself by now, are branded as corporate bad-guys the majority of your readers will probably take every word of the Kirby article as gospel.”

John Byrne is not, and will never be, Jack Kirby. Like Gene Colan, John Romita, John Buscema, or Stan Goldberg, Byrne’s experience with Marvel cannot be used to relate to, or discredit, Kirby’s. Kirby’s treatment at the hands of the company was shameful, and Byrne compounds it by attempting to deny it. While Kirby was getting his 1970s artwork returned, Marvel was not only holding his earlier more valuable work hostage, the company was going to great measures to encourage the theft of what was left of it after certain people were permitted to help themselves to it in the ’60s. In his letter, although he intended it sarcastically, Byrne identified the correct approach: take Kirby’s words in the article “as gospel.” He was also spot on in his enumeration of the “bad guys.”

Stern wrote, “If Mr Kirby has been led to believe that there was some sort of conspiracy to sabotage his books at Marvel in the 1970s, then someone has played a cruel joke on the man. When I started working at Marvel in December of 1975, standard operating procedure was to basically let Jack do whatever he wanted… Hell, the whole office, yours truly included, looked upon Jack as a comics demi-god.” Translation: we were “Jack’s biggest fans,” a euphemism for “We slag Kirby out of our love for him.” (It goes with his conclusion, where he wrote, “I don’t wish to have this sound like I’m down on Jack Kirby. There are few people in the comics industry whom I more admire and respect. I must point out, though, that he is laboring under some misconceptions which can only do him harm.”) Stern went on… “As for the idea that competing writers filled the pages of Jack’s books with overly critical letters—’knock letters’ as Jack called them—well, nothing could be further from the truth… Moreover, I find it hard to believe Mr Kirby’s claim that he wrote all of the early Marvels.”

The transparent strategy of this pair of company men to discredit Kirby closely follows that of their mentor: bluster through the list of “outrageous” claims and conclude, if Kirby hasn’t lost it, then Marvel, Lee, Shooter, and Byrne are the bad guys. Isn’t that ridiculous?

This is the version of the Knock Letters chapter included in the book after the First Edition. It originally started with a quote from a Mike Royer interview, but I removed it at the request of the interviewer. During the resulting reorganization, a casualty of space considerations was Eric Stedman’s concise assessment, but I’ll include it again here:

“All of this is nothing more than vilification of a mature genius by greedy young dumbshits in order to try and justify theft of his creations.”2

Knock Letters

In the midst of Marvel’s lawsuit against the Kirbys, something was bugging Scott Edelman, the letter column editor on a number of issues of Kirby’s Captain America and Black Panther. On his blog, he attempted to demonstrate how fair he’d been, and asked: “Where are those letters columns designed to turn fans into a torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding mob intent on storming the House of Ideas and demanding Kirby be fired? I just don’t see it. And I’d like those who feel they do see it to back up their claims with some proof. Otherwise, all they’re doing is maligning folks like me who were doing their best to let readers have their say.”3

In an earlier blog post, Edelman proved that it was about more than just letters:4 “I was on staff at Marvel Comics in the mid-’70s when the King returned and tried to pick up where he’d left off… The buzz from us kids in the office wasn’t kind. I’ll admit it. Kirby was a god to us for what he did during the ’60s, but what he was doing at Marvel in the ’70s made us wince, and we didn’t have the tact or maturity to say it appropriately. So we acted like ungrateful punks.”

In The Jack Kirby Collector #72, Shane Foley did an investigative report called “The Great Kirby Kontroversy Letters.” He set out to read all of the letters printed in Jack Kirby’s titles during Kirby’s final years at Marvel, from 1975 to 1978.

Contrary to the article’s title, the Marvel knock letters are not controversial. To expend so much effort to prove Kirby’s (and Jim Shooter’s) impressions were wrong about them seems misguided. The article should have shown the brutal examples from Captain America and Black Panther, and called the case closed. Ralph Macchio’s letter, printed a month before he joined the staff, portended the demise of the medium with the fanboy call for “continuity and verisimilitude,” and provided the template for many letters to come. Editor/publisher Robin Snyder, in his letter to Black Panther, asked for some respect for Kirby and an end to the knock letters.

This isn’t a question of balance, and a comparison to the LOC pages of other editors proves nothing. What Foley left out of the discussion is that Stan Lee wouldn’t have printed a negative letter. The meaningful comparison would be with ’60s letter columns, with Lee writing and answering letters in FF and signing the names of Stan Goldberg and Sol Brodsky: “Your comics are a cut above!” and “Our readers are more intelligent than most!” (See Chapter 8 in the book.)

The knock letters were the tip of the iceberg of Kirby’s treatment at the hands of the “serpent’s nest.” It was part of a coordinated campaign to discredit him, causing him to take the extreme step of wrestling control of the letters pages away from New York. The campaign was orchestrated by young men of lesser talent without a shred of gratitude (or shame) who wanted to ride Kirby to success the way Lee had. When Kirby declined, they showed a unanimous lack of class and belittled the guy who made their careers possible. His perception of negativity doesn’t bear contesting: it was Kirby’s perception, and calling him overly sensitive is beneath TJKC.

127[140]: [Morrow] I attend my first major comics convention, the Atlanta Fantasy Fair, and pick up the Kirby Masterworks Portfolio from Jim Steranko’s Supergraphics table. I meet Stan Lee, and Jack’s new Silver Surfer Graphic Novel pages are on display. But I overhear some Marvel staffers make disparaging comments about how Jack has “lost it” and can’t produce decent work anymore. I am stunned, to say the least, as I’m still enjoying his work greatly at the time.

Tom Brevoort:5 “It’s been reported that people in the Marvel offices who weren’t enamored with what Kirby was doing on his titles (and who may have preferred it if he had been drawing stories of their design) filled up his letters pages with ‘knock letters.’ In this instance [Captain America #210], they have a point. The whole page is devoted to how divisive Kirby’s return to CAPTAIN AMERICA has been–and while there’s a balance of viewpoints presented, the very fact that the idea of a controversy is acknowledged and given credence plays into the situation. This is a far cry from the typically-laudatory fare that filled most Marvel letters pages. Sure, an occasional knock letter might be printed, but usually those were few and far-between.”

Others’ perceptions aside, what was Kirby’s experience?

Stephen Bissette:6 “I can only imagine how demoralizing this must have been for Jack; I was freelancing at Marvel around this time, and it was heartbreaking to see with one’s own eyes various photocopies of Kirby’s work posted around the offices with ‘satiric’ overdrawings and sarcastic written comments scrawled on them. The utter contempt for and jeering at Kirby’s work for the company was mortifying, and a stern lesson for a budding freelancer working to (maybe) get one’s foot in the door.”

Mark Evanier:7 “Archie Goodwin, whom Jack respected greatly, kept in touch with Jack and did do a little editing on the books, sometimes rewriting (or allowing his assistants to rewrite) a line or a caption. Jack once showed me a splash page to a CAPTAIN AMERICA where someone in New York had rewritten some of his copy. He asked me to explain what this had accomplished and I couldn’t; the rewritten text was not substantially better or different in meaning…it was just different. Some of the other editorial changes were more logical.

“Jack’s feelings about this work (and his concern about his letters pages trashing him, which someone else mentioned) will perhaps make more sense if you know that there was at least one editorial staffer at Marvel at the time who was quite vocal in his dislike of Kirby writing, and who felt HE should have the job of doing the dialogue. Jack told me that this guy would phone him up and say, ‘Well, your new issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA just arrived, Mr. Kirby, and the artwork is breathtaking but everyone here in the office [a gross exaggeration] agrees that the writing is shit. Your books are all bombing, too. The only way you can save your career is to have one of us take over doing the dialogue.’ Or words to that effect.”

Michael Vassallo: “You mean to tell me that some disrespectful moron at Marvel actually said to Jack personally that his writing was ‘shit’? You’d better keep his name a secret Mark. This is one livid Sicilian here!! Even 20 years after the fact I’m appalled.”

Mark Evanier: “It’s true and there were some worse incidents than that.”

Jack Kirby to Howard Zimmerman:8

The health of a comic book can be manipulated by the staff alone. You fill up a book with knock letters [negative criticisms in the letters pages]. The reader who picks up the book and reads all those knock letters knows that the book he’s reading… well, it’s not so hot. And if you do it consistently, it becomes ‘a bad book.’ I haven’t seen anything like a bad book anywhere. I’ve seen a lot of guys trying. I’ve seen a lot of guys who’ll never get the chance to develop. And you can’t develop with two or three issues. You’ve got to give a man a chance to stay in there—either take his beating or succeed. And comics have not done this today.

A guy will create a book, another will fill his book up with knock letters—he’s off in five months, or three months, and the other guy’s got his shot.” Until now Kirby has spoken in even tones. His voice quiet, firm. Now emotion breaks through. There is an anguished look in his eyes and a touch of bitterness in his voice as he says, “I see it as a serpent’s nest. And in a serpent’s nest, nothing can survive. Eventually all the snakes kill each other. Eventually they’ll also kill whatever generated them.

Kirby was attacked out of the gate. When he submitted the pages for his first issue of Captain America, Roy Thomas was permitted to pass judgment by annotating a set of photocopied pencils. On the first page, Thomas wrote, “NICE ART—lousy dialogue.” Someone saw fit to send the set to Kirby (the copies were found in his files). Morrow added it to the Thomas interview in TJKC 74, with this caption: [Morrow]: “Roy doesn’t recall this specifically, but someone at Marvel (Verpoorten, Brodsky, or Stan Lee perhaps) loaned him a set of pencil photocopies of Captain America #193 for feedback. After Roy wrote his honest assessment of the issue (though today he wishes he had used a slightly less opprobrious adjective than ‘lousy’), someone at Marvel mailed these in-house copies to Jack—a thoughtless move at best, and one that helped get Kirby’s 1970s Marvel tenure off to a rocky start.”

Ralph Macchio wrote in the foreword to a recent Kirby reprint volume9 that one of his first assignments at Marvel was “proofreading” Kirby’s work for continuity. “Rarely was there anything jarring enough in that regard to contact the King about.” In other words the defacement of Kirby’s work was done in the office without telling him.

KIRBY (to Leonard Pitts, Jr): The people at Marvel (now) weren’t there at that period. The new kids weren’t there. The new kids didn’t feel that desperation– never felt any desperation. In a way, they don’t care. Why should they? They have their lives ahead of them. Nobody will get involved or go on crusades. “Truth, justice and the American way” is just a childish slogan to a lot of people. But I can tell you that a lot of guys died for it. Superman created an attitude that helped many Americans in a very bad spot.

I can tell you that, besides being a non-person up there, I’ve had adverse personal incidents… which I won’t tell you about. And they’ve hurt me badly. It’s something you don’t like to live with. If I cut off your arm, you’re going to live with that forever. Even if they put a false arm on you, you’re never going to have a right or left arm. And that’s what they’ve done to me. They’ve cut off one of my limbs. Keeping my pages… spreading lies. Blatant lies.

Another one of Kirby’s uninvited junior editors was Scott Edelman. This would seem to be a bad combination, because at the time he was “proofreading” it, he was “offended by the crudeness and incomprehensibility of Kirby’s dialogue…”4 Yet during Kirby’s art battle with Marvel nearly thirty years earlier, Edelman penned what could have been the foreword to this book:10

I look back to the first few Bullpen Bulletins Pages of 1965-1966, and read: […] “Jack ‘King’ Kirby drops in loaded down with a new mess of masterpieces, once a week. Poor Jack! He’s so absent-minded that he usually goes home with someone else’s hat, portfolio, or train ticket! Stan wanted to put a label around his neck reading: ‘if found, please return to the Merry Marvel Bullpen!’ but he couldn’t—Jack had lost the label!”–and I think to myself, if I lied in 1975, what’s to say Stan wasn’t doing the same in 1965? Was it all really as good-natured as it seemed? Or did some of the joshing sting?

Alison Lurie, whose most famous novel is The War Between the Tates, wrote in her earlier novel Real Life (1969): “If nothing will finally survive of life besides what artists report, we have no right to report what we know to be lies.”

The terrible answer is that we are losing our real history. Losing it to people too anxious to collude in the Big Lie for the sake of being inside instead of outside as I once did, not even realizing the enormity of what we were doing. Losing it to those all too willing to say that the Emperor is fully clothed if that will keep them working in comics. Losing it to those for whom the incestuous nature of comics means: Never criticize those who might someday have the power to hire you.

The history of comics should be written by journalists, not by propagandists, and as those who can tell the truth about our past pass on one by one, I’m frightened by the thought that soon it will be too late to undo all the damage done by the propagandists.

Footnotes

back 1 Comics Scene #4.

back 2 Eric Stedman, Marvel Method group, 15 April 2020.

back 31 Scott Edelman, “Three cheers for, and long live, the King!” scottedelman.com, May 28, 2012.

back 42 Scott Edelman, “Shame on you, Captain America!” scottedelman.com, April 21, 2011.

back 53 Tom Brevoort, blog post, 14 March 2020.

back 64 Stephen R. Bissette, Jack Kirby! group, 10 September 2019.

back 75 Mark Evanier and Michael Vassallo, Kirby-L mailing list, October and November 1996.

back 86 Howard Zimmerman, “Kirby Takes on the Comics,” Comics Scene #2, March 1982.

back 97 Ralph Macchio, “The Return of the King,” Kirby Returns!, Marvel, 2019.

back 10 Scott Edelman, “Stan Lee Was My Co-Pilot,” The Comics Journal #99, June 1983.

Knock Letters again