Packaging Comic Book Artist Jack Kirby

He’s been called the “architect” of the Marvel Universe, not to mention a comic book artist of near mythic proportions. He’s Jack Kirby, creator or co-creator of nearly all of Marvel’s most famous comic book characters. He’s also been dead since August of 1994. but that hasn’t stopped Marvel Comics from continuing to mine the motherlode of Jack Kirby artwork. Thanks to a resurgence in Marvel’s popularity thanks to the film adventures of many of their characters, and with so many years worth of archived Kirby material, a steady stream of Jack Kirby art has surfaced in the last few years. Re-packaged, re-formatted, and re-introduced to an eager and interested public, much to the delight of fans and publishing house accountants.

With regards to creators, the on-going debate since comic’s infancy has always involved trying to establish just “who” did “what”? Is the artist – who puts pencil to paper the spark behind a character’s creation, or is it the writer who knocks out one adventure after another? When it comes to Marvel’s greatest stories and characters, it was always a result of an almost Lennon-McCartney-like collaboration between Jack Kirby (artist) and Stan Lee (publisher and writer). Long after Kirby’s death, perhaps the true testament to the man is the amount of product that continues to be published so many years after his passing. Trade paperbacks from Marvel and DC Comics reprinting the chronicles of the Fantastic Four, Captain America, X-Men, Black Panther, New Gods and Jimmy Olson generate healthy sales for both publishers. Add to the mix recent best sellers like the “coffee-table” volume “Marvel Visionary” or fanzines like the “Jack Kirby Collector” and it’s evident that there is still a market for the 4-color visions this comic book artist and writer whose career spanned an incredible 50 years.

But what is the criteria for publishers who decide to re-package what is basically old artwork and stories in a way that appeals to the new reader and not just the hardcore Jack Kirby fan? When it comes to reprinting classic Marvel Comics stories and art, the focus – comments Marvel editor Tom Brevoort – is on the “character” and not the “artist”. “âÂ?¦The fact that the work is by Jack is secondary”, says Tom. “So when there’s a FANTASTIC FOUR movie, you can expect Marvel to produce a lot of FF collections, and certainly most of them will have some percentage of Kirby material in them. Outside of special cases – the Kirby Visionaries, or the CAP MADBOMB book – we’re not really marketing to the hardcore Kirby fans . Tom also feels that when the classic stories are reprinted, the work stands on it’s own merits. “âÂ?¦You work out what you think is the best, most economically sound package for the material you’re printing, and then you go with that. This means that certain stories may end up in black and white in an “Essentials” collection, in color on slick paper in a “Masterworks” volume, or reprinted in softcover but in color as wellâÂ?¦”

John Morrow, publisher of The Jack Kirby Collector thinks it’s critical for “the big two” (Marvel and DC Comics) to keep Kirby’s work in print so the work remains a vital entity and not just something that appeals to the hardcore fan. “âÂ?¦ I think it works in a cycle”, commented John, “âÂ?¦having a mag like TJKC out there to keep Jack’s name before the comics public is important, so that eventually companies like Marvel will do stuff like the recent Marvel Visionairies book on Jack. I’d like to think the ongoing existence of TJKC has at least helped a little to let them see there’s still a market for Kirby out there. And hopefully we’ll in turn benefit from Marvel reprinting his stuff. In any case, let’s hope that the big guys putting Jack’s work back in print will introduce it to a new generation, who undoubtedly never saw Jack’s work on the stands like we [fans] did…”

A lot of Kirby’s late 70’s comic work would seem made-to-order when it comes to trade paperback reprints. If anything, because many of Jack’s series tended to run only about 10 to 18 issues. The perfect page count for a trade paperback. Marvel and DC have demonstrated significant efforts recently in keeping Kirby’s work in print. DC in particular should be noted when they decided to reprint and publish trade paperbacks of Kirby’s run on the New Gods, Mister Miracle and Jimmy Olsen. And good sales on these books is leading to future volumes that flesh out Kirby’s tenure at DC in the 70’s including his acclaimed series “Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth”.

Marvel on the other hand continues to make big mney with it’s Masterwork’s and Essential series. And of late has started to reprint some of Kirby’s less acclaimed work such as the Black Panther (Vol I) and Kirby’s mid-1970’s run on Captain America (The Madbomb, Captain America’s Bicentenial Battles). But just because the name “Jack Kirby” sits on the cover doesn’t necessarily mean there is a market for the work. Adds Marvel’s Tom Brevoort, “…The drawback with something like MACHINE MAN, for example, is that the character’s never really been a top seller, during Kirby’s time or afterwards. So it’s harder to justify a MACHINE MAN collection – it seems much more a niche market item. This is the case with a lot of the stuff Jack did in the ’70s. We’ve made some headway successfully in recent days with the CAP MADBOMB collection and now the first Kirby BLACK PANTHER volume, so that bodes well for doing, say, ETERNALS down the line..”

The question than remains what to publish. Early work in the public domain has a secular interest that appeals to the curious fan, student, art critic and historian. The rule of thumb has generally been whatever decade a fan was first exposed to Jack’s work represents the body of work that generates the most interest. Greg Theakston – was not only a close friend and confident of Jack & Rosalind Kirby – but has also built a career out of publishing Kirby’s earlier public domain comics work with volumes like “The Complete Jack Kirby”. It’s evident that each decade of Jack’s work contains significant story and art that can appeal to a broad audience. Relates Greg, “âÂ?¦All of the comics I publish are in the public domain. In terms of content, THE COMPLETE JACK KIRBY series has a chronological dictate, so I make no choices there. In terms of the Jack Kirby Readers I try to include a little of everything to keep it well rounded. Quality of the job is a consideration, as in unusual themes, and of course what source material I have at hand. ” Having said that, Theakston added that with regards to there being a “market” for Jack Kirby’s work, the success of future sales probably has more to do with mass media and less to do with actual comics. “âÂ?¦I’m not certain that such a market can be created. The Fantastic Four movie is doing more than any ground level marketing would. At far is I can tell, TV and movies are the only way Jack’s work will be promoted. For example, lots of people invested an effort in searching out the source material after the Spider-Man movie came outâÂ?¦”

At the other end of the spectrum lies what’s left of Jack Kirby’s unpublished work. Lisa Kirby – Jack’s youngest daughter and one of the directors of the Jack Kirby Estate – has worked closely over the years with the California-based comic book publisher Genesis West. The core group of the publishing house – artist & Illustrator Mike Thibideoux, inker & designer Richard French, publicist Steve Robertson and Lisa herself – has poured over the many files Jack left behind, in hopes of taking some of his many concepts and ideas and translating them into comics and film. Those efforts are finally paying off with a soon-to-be-published mini-series entitled “Galactic Bounty Hunters.” Genesis West publicist Steve Robertson says the idea for the series started out as a venue for animation and evolved into something more. “âÂ?¦We originally decided to produce a comic series of the Galactic Bounty Hunters when we were pitching this concept to different animation producers, who encouraged us to do so. Then, we realized we were coming up on the anniversary of Kirby’s death, and this seemed like a fitting way to commemorate Jack. We’ve incorporated some great art of Jack’s, and Lisa Kirby has helped develop the concept, and write the comic series.”

The Jack Kirby Collector has covered this series’ development in depth. Suffice to say that Galactic Bounty Hunters is an amalgamation of sorts between Kirby’s ideas and artwork and new artwork by the Genesis West crew. Other unpublished artwork of Kirby’s may yet see the light of day. It’s a mater of economics for the Kirby Estate, and the interest that exists for Kirby artwork not related to Marvel or DC. Adds Robertson, “âÂ?¦There really aren’t any copyright issues with DC or Marvel to contend with concerning the archive material. Most of the artwork that remains was done on speculation, and never used. At one time, when Rosalind Kirby was still with us, we were considering the idea of collecting some of this unseen artwork into a book, but couldn’t establish whether it would be economically feasible. For now, Jack’s daughter, Lisa, and his grandchildren are all working on different characters and concepts, hoping to develop them as cartoons, movies or books. I think that the Estate is gratified to see how much Kirby’s work has meant to so many people. The reprinting of material is how new readers are being introduced to Jack (but) the estate has no say about what is reprinted, as it’s either copyrighted by Marvel or DC, or is no longer copyrighted at all (in the case of older artwork..”

It’s encouraging to see that the horizon looks promising when it comes to placing further Kirby artwork and stories on the market. That not all these ventures translate into dollar signs and/or credit for the Kirby Estate is unfortunate and another story in itself. While the resolution of those arguments is a battle better left for fate or the legal system to decide, the important point may be that Jack Kirby’s work continues to find an audience. And ultimately, it’s the comic fan and reader who come out as winners, as the timeless quality of Jack Kirby’s work continues to find a place in the hearts, minds and bookshelves of men, women and children the world over.

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