Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 1-58234-345-4. Paperback edition published in 2005, ISBN 1-58234-566-X.
Tales to Astonish follows the career of one of the greatest names in comics, Jack Kirby, and by extension, follows the very industry of comics from its infancy until his death. Anyone who loves the artwork of Jack Kirby, loved the Marvel Age of the 60s, or even just loves comics in general will enjoy this book.
I must confess, however, that it is a terrible indictment of the comic book industry and anyone who has, as I did, an image of Marvel during the Silver Age of comics as a sort of 4-color Camelot will have their eyes opened.
Kirby, who was the creator, or co-creator, of nearly every comic book character Marvel introduced in the 60s, was treated horribly by the very company that road his back to fame, fortune, and dominance in the comic book industry.
If you have images of Stan Lee as the benevolent leader, this will dispel that image. You’ll find that Lee was a company man who took nearly all the credit for the work Jack Kirby created, originated, labored and toiled over, all the while portraying the Marvel Bullpen as a happy-go-lucky bunch of guys joyfully producing comic adventures each and every month.
But Kirby, as well as Steve Ditko, the two work-horses for Marvel, were promised raises, percentages of merchandising, and many other incentives that never materialized. As Marvel grew in wealth and prestige, as Stan Lee grew in power, Kirby worked his ass off for little pay and little appreciation.
Kirby was responsible for the Marvel Style. Hell, he was the Marvel Style and he trained new artists how to draw in his style. Besides his regular work load, Kirby also did covers, story boards, and taught new artists “the Marvel Method,” which was essentially that the artist’s took a short plot and created the stories and Stan Lee merely created the dialog, while getting full billing as writer.
For instance, Neal Adams spoke of the Marvel Method: In May 1969, Neal Adams came to Marvel. While speaking with Jim Steranko, he’d asked about the Marvel Method. “Because at DC Comics, of course, they write scripts and you follow the script,” Adams explained. Steranko told him that at Marvel, artists could do their own stories, “and Stan will just dialogue them.” They didn’t even have scripts. You could sit at lunch and discuss a story and go off and do what you what. “And he said, the way he was doing it, he was just doing the stories and handing them in. He just put notes on the page,” Adams said, “You know, that’s in interesting way to do it. I’d really like to try that.”
The book shows the early years of Timely/Atlas/Marvel as poorly run by Martin Goodman. Goodman is portrayed as a rather unimaginative man who merely reacted to changes in the industry, never an innovator. He’s always first at being number two, Lee quips. In fact Goodman sort of lucked out with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, which was a million copy seller. And again, he reluctantly allowed Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create the Fantastic Four, which essentially saved the company.
It’s a fascinating book with a lot of personal observations by some of the industry’s giants, like Carmen Infantino, Neal Adams, John Romita, Gil Kane, Stan Lee (who oddly enough doesn’t seem to remember things as others do), and Roy Thomas, among others.
It follows Simon and Kirby’s careers working with Fox, moving to Timely and creating Captain America, getting fed up with mistreatment and moving to DC, where again they weren’t fully appreciated.
They leave to create various best-selling comics for Harvey and Crestwood, until in the 50s Simon leaves the business for advertising and Kirby found himself stuck in an industry under attack by a New York psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent which blamed comic books for everything from causing juvenile delinquency, promoting same-sex relationships, encouraging violent behavior, and causing acne. It was his rants, reminiscent of Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunts, that created the biggest recession in the comic book industry, put horror comic giant EC out of business, and introduced the horribly misdirected Comics Code Authority.
It also follows the early years at Timely/Atlas as a young Stan Lee, Martin Goodman’s relative, tries to keep the comic book company afloat with little help, and a lot of poor decision making by Goodman.
DC is the giant during this time. They created an industry by essentially stealing the character Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster for a measly $130. It wasn’t until years later, the 80s, with the help of Neal Adams and the National Comics Society that DC finally began to pay the pair a living wage and give them credit.
It seems that this is how all the originators were treated, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that even Marvel treated it’s creators with disdain. The rollicking good times presented in the Bullpen Bulletins were a farce. Kirby’s mistreatment was the equivalent of slave labor.
He created the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, Captain America, Silver Surfer, Galactus, Dr. Doom, and pretty nearly every character, good or evil, in the Marvel Universe except Daredevil.
As Marvel raked in thousands of dollars from its various fan clubs, MMMS (Merry Marvel Marching Society), Marvelmania, and FOOM (Friends of Old Marvel), all based on work created by Kirby directly or indirectly, Kirby never saw a penny of it.
As a child, I was heartbroken when Kirby left Marvel for “the enemy,” DC, and started creating new characters for them. I thought he was a traitor. I had no clue why he’d left. Later on I heard that it had something to do with copyrights and owning your own property. Now, because of Tales to Astonish, I know the reality was darker than that.
Marvel, Stan Lee, essentially took all the credit for every character created by Kirby. Lee said as much in many interviews. “…in Variety, he [Lee] said, ‘In the case of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four and others, Jack Kirby created the characters visually – and it’s important to keep the word “visually” in there. He drew the characters that I described to him.’ And during a promotional appearance at the 1986 San Diego Comic Convention, in response to a fan asking about Jack’s involvement, Stan said, ‘As far as I can remember these things happening, I was the editor and head writer at Marvel, and jack was an artist who worked for us.’”
Supporters of Kirby like to point out that when the Fantastic Four burst onto the scene, Lee had been in the industry 20 years working and writing for Timely/Atlas and not once did he create anything memorable. And after Kirby left Marvel in 1970, he created dozens of new characters, but Lee again did nothing memorable.
To be fair, and because I still have a soft spot in my heart for Stan Lee even after reading all this, it should be mentioned that “While the entire industry honors the incredible contribution of Jack Kirby, it should be remembered that Stan Lee served as editor, writer, art director, and company representative during the Silver Age of Marvel Comics. Stand brought Marvel the corporate industry identity that distinguished it from DC and other companies. The humorous nicknames for artists, dramatic cover captions, engaging ‘Bullpen Bulletins’ column, shared universe in which heroes met one another, ‘Stan’s Soapbox!,’ various Marvel fan clubs and photograph records, the welcoming tone of the letters page, the concept of heroes with tragic flaws – these were all created by Stan Lee.”
An even darker period in the relationship between Kirby and Marvel came about when Jim Shoot was Editor-in-Chief at Marvel and he sent a four page agreement to Kirby to sign (every other artist at Marvel received a simple 1-page agreement).
“The agreement said the company would return eight-eight pages [of artwork] as a gift for having created artwork or written material on Marvel’s behalf. In return, Kirby had to acknowledge that Marvel was giving him only physical custody of the pages. Marvel would retain all rights, including the worldwide copyright. The gift didn’t mean that Marvel was transferring any rights. Jack also had to acknowledge that the pages had been commissioned and ordered by Marvel and prepared subject to the company’s supervision, direction, and control. He had to agree that he’d been fully paid and that Marvel didn’t owe him royalties; Marvel was the sole and exclusive owner of all copyrights and could do what it pleased with them; if Marvel didn’t own any copyrights, this agreement would hand those over, too.
“His signature, it continued, would also prohibit him from disputing Marvel’s complete ownership of copyright and the art or helping anyone who tried to do the same for their own work. He couldn’t object to revisions or new material created from the artwork or Marvel using his name and biography in advertising. And if Marvel didn’t want to mention his name in connection with the art or characters, it didn’t have to. Furthermore, he couldn’t copy the work, exhibit it without permission, give the pages to someone else Marvel (without this person signing a similar agreement), use the name Marvel or any of the characters, or refuse to allow Marvel to make copies if it gave reasonable advance notice and needed the pages for its business and licensing. The agreement also prohibited him from saying he had a right or claim to any of the art in Marvel’s possession, to allow Marvel to hand this art over to anyone it wanted, to sign and return any additional documents Marvel might send, and to accept that Marvel could sign these documents for him if he didn’t return them in a timely fashion.”
Whew! In other words, Marvel was going to graciously return 88 pages of artwork even though Kirby had drawn upwards of eight thousand pages for them during the 60s alone.
Kirby, now in his 60s, was being frozen out by Marvel, who ironically, would have gone out of business back in the 50s and been nothing but a footnote in the history of comics if it hadn’t been for Kirby’s creative genius and superhuman work ethic. Some say that by the 1980s, Kirby was responsible for one-quarter of Marvel’s entire output. And if his fingers weren’t directly involved, his style, his direction, his creative eye, were.
When he didn’t directly train new comic artists in his style, or wasn’t providing them with rough storyboards complete with notes in the margins explaining what was happening, then Marvel itself would give these new artists examples of Kirby’s comics and tell them to draw it that way.
In 1986, Marvel finally relinquished after years of battling Kirby, bad press, and nearly every comic artist in the industry, and sent Kirby an inventory list of about 1,900 pages of his original artwork, along with the original one-page release (instead of the 4 page one listed earlier), which Kirby had always been willing to sign. Jack signed the papers handing copyright over to Marvel.
Six months later Jim Shooter was fired and several employees partied in the conference room while hanging him in effigy.
A month later, in May of 1987, Marvel sent Jack 2,100 pages of original artwork.
“Once the pages arrived, Jack called Mike Thibodeaux and Mark Evanier. ‘And we raced over there and just went through them page by page,’ Thibodeaux recalled. ‘He was thrilled. He was really thrilled about getting it back. He was standing there, holding the splash to The Avengers number seven, and just staring at it for the longest time. You could just see he was into it. He was into what he had done, which I’d never saw him do before.’”
I admit that I had gotten out of comics by the late 70s and was totally oblivious to the infamous “Kirby Artwork Battle” or its outcome. Maybe some of this is old information, old news, but the book is written in a very readable style and while I’ve focused on the comics industry’s inhuman treatment of many of its stars, the book goes far beyond that, giving many delightful anecdotes about Kirby, Lee, and many others. It describes the history of comics with many of its personalities.
Tales to Astonish is a wonderful read, with plenty of insights, and is a very loving and informed biography of the most innovative, original, and imaginative artist in the industry. This is a book that deserves to be the bookshelf of anyone who considers themselves a comics fan.