Growing up Kirby: The Marvel memories of Jack Kirby’s son
Posted in: Comics
Jack Kirby in "The Dungeon," his home studio, in 1949. (Kirby family collection)Link
Jack Kirby, 1945, Brighton Beach. (Kirby family collection)Link
Jack Kirby in 1949 in New York City. (Kirby family collection)Link
Long Island, 1950. Rosalind and Jack Kirby with their children, Neal, 2, and Susan, 6. Credit: (Kirby family collection)Link
1961, Neal Kirby's Bar Mitzvah. Left to right in rear: Neal Kirby, Rosalind Kirby, Susan Kirby and Jack Kirby; Barbara Kirby in front. (Kirby family collection)Link
Jack Kirby touching up an Iron Man page in 1965 at the Marvel offices. (Kirby family collection)Link
Jack Kirby at work in his Thousand Oaks home studio in 1982. (Kirby family collection)Link
Jack Kirby, 1991 portrait photo. (Ray Wyman/Kirby family collection)Link
This week, the Marvel Universe reaches a new plateau with the Hollywood red-carpet premiere of “The Avengers,” which unites the title characters from four film franchises — Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the Hulk — to save Earth from a cosmic threat. The only person who had a hand in creating all of those characters was the late Jack Kirby, a titan figure in comics, but his heirs weren’t invited to the premiere; their presence would be awkward considering their legal quest to reclaim the rights to hundreds of his Marvel creations. That leaves Neal Kirby, Jack’s only son, on the outside looking in but in this guest essay he writes about the days when the Marvel Universe was as close as his family basement.
In 1961, I was the luckiest damn kid on my block — or maybe any block. My father worked at home. Everyone else’s dad had to drive into Queens or Brooklyn or take the train into Manhattan. And it was not some boring, old desk job; my father was Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, and — though his humble personality would have him cringing to hear this — he is regarded as the greatest comic book artist and creator – ever. (Sorry, Dad).
Of course back in 1961, though well-regarded in his field, he wasn’t yet crowned. He was just Jack Kirby — “Dad” to me, “Jack” to his wife, Roz; “Jacov” to his mother, Rose; and “Jankel” to his brother, Dave. Wanting a better life for his family (the overriding theme of his life), we were packed into the Studebaker and left Brooklyn for the green suburbs of Long Island in 1949. Buying a house in East Williston, Nassau County, it was to be our home for the next 20 years.
Sixty-three years later, memories of that house are still vivid for me, but what I remember most is my father’s studio. Buried in the basement, “The Dungeon” was tiny (just 10 feet across) and the walls that separated it from the rest of the cellar were covered in stained, tongue-and-groove knotty pine with a glossy varnish. Dad’s drawing table faced a beautiful cherry wood cabinet that housed a 10″ black-and-white television.
To the left of the cabinet was a beat-up, four-drawer file cabinet that was stuffed with Dad’s vast archive of picture references to, well, everything. I could sit for hours and just mull through musty old folders with bayonets, battleships, medieval armor, cowboy hats, skyscrapers, satellites — countless files on countless subjects. And — much out of character for my father — that metal cabinet sat beneath a stuffed and mounted deer’s head. I can’t remember where he said he got that damned thing, but it was always there. The things you remember…
My father finally got his first color television in 1963. The first color television program I ever saw at home? The Kennedy assassination in Dallas reached me, there in the Dungeon, and in more ways than one the world was no longer black-and-white. Dad handed me the old TV so I could take it apart and explore. I heard something bumping around inside the set when I dragged it on the basement floor beyond the Dungeon’s door. Screwdriver in hand, it didn’t take long to find the loose object but my jaw dropped when I studied the heavy disc. It was a 2,000-year-old Roman coin. Dad, I knew the TV was old, but…
My father couldn’t stop laughing. There was a lot of superhero history flying across his drawing board around that time — remember, September 1963 was the date on the first issue of “The Avengers” and “The X-Men” — but it all took a backseat that day to the mysterious return of Caesar Augustus. Dad had no idea how that coin got inside the television but he did know how it first reached America. Back in 1944, he explained, he had been pulled from combat with a dangerous case of frozen feet and frostbite and then sent to a hospital in Britain. English farmers would plow ancient coins up by the dozen and while they kept the gold ones they gave the lumpy lead coins to “the boys in the ward” as souvenirs of Europe.
Ancient artifacts didn’t seem out of place in the Dungeon, which felt like a time capsule — and, come to think of it, the walled-in square of Dad’s office was not much bigger than the Time Platform in Doctor Doom’s castle, which in a 1962 issue whisked the Fantastic Four back to the days of Blackbeard. Two walls in the Dungeon were covered in bookcases. Dickens, Shakespeare, Whitman, Conrad, were names I remember seeing, and one of his favorites, Damon Runyon.
There were shelves of mystery and mythology and plenty of science books and they ranged from rocks to rockets, from the inner ear to outer space. Science was always a big part of dad’s work. When he worked on “Sky Masters of the Space Force,” for instance, I remember some of the devoted fans of that post-Sputnik newspaper strip happened to wear Air Force uniforms and they even sent him photos of rocket programs of the late 1950s to lend authenticity to the syndicated sci-fi adventure.
Dad was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, so robots and aliens and tales of the future abounded. How did he actually have time to read? I have no idea, but the Dungeon collection was no ornamental library; he had read every book and probably more than twice.
The door to Dad’s studio was usually closed. That wasn’t to keep noise out, it was to keep all the smoke in. My father’s cigar smoking was legendary and when you opened the door to the Dungeon you were met with a great billowing cloud. It wasn’t so bad if he was smoking something good, like a Garcia Vega, and the smell would be almost tolerable. Unfortunately, that only happened around his birthday or Father’s Day, when boxes of decent cigars came with a bow on top. When Dad was buying he didn’t bother with fancy brands. It didn’t matter if it was rolled-up skunk cabbage, to him a stogie was a stogie.
The studio did have one window, it was at head level and it opened up to a small patio by the driveway. The threat of rain and snow to Dad’s work and library kept that window closed in the wet seasons and the position of the window frame (above a bookcase) meant it was rarely touched in the other seasons. I covered that window with plywood during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember; I guess somehow my 14-year-old brain thought it would shield us when the missiles rained down on Manhattan. Of course, the far greater danger to my family’s world were those missile-shaped stogies in the ashtray and, sure enough, Dad paid for his puffing passion with esophageal cancer later in life.
There were a lot of cigar-chomping characters in Marvel Comics and Dad was one of them — he and other writers and artists popped up in stories in a quirky trademark of the “House of Ideas,” as it was called in the 1960s. Personal parts of his life often crept into his work too. When recounting the creation of the Fantastic Four, for instance, he laughingly confessed that Sue Storm was named for my sister, Susan, and the “Storm” could be considered a bit of personality commentary. When he saw the expression on my face he appropriately apologized for the fact that he never got around to making Neal the name of the Human Torch, an Inhuman or even some low-ranking Skrull.
Dad’s war experiences, which he would rarely discuss with me in the Dungeon era, sometimes surfaced in the comics. “Foxhole,” a Mainline series that began in 1954, was my favorite, and I would sit and read old copies I found on the shelves. For Marvel, of course, he created “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos,” which drew on “The Boy Commandos“ from his 1940s work and his own infantry experiences. Sgt. Fury was Dad, big cigar and big action, the only difference being about 9 inches in height and 50 pounds of muscle. These days there’s a view that a liberal Democrat can’t be fiercely patriotic but my father was exactly that. Captain America, Sgt. Fury, the Boy Commandos, Fighting American and “Foxhole” were all born of that powerful love of country.
I loved watching TV with dad. In the 1950’s there were three shows in particular: Edward R. Murrow with the news, Groucho Marx and “Victory at Sea.” My father could explain the war backwards and forwards, both theaters. But, as I mentioned, I didn’t hear any of his war stories until I was older. Perhaps he thought I was too young, or more likely, the painful memories were still too fresh. Besides, we had plenty to talk about with the Brooklyn Dodgers and boxing.
My mother protested that I shouldn’t be exposed to such violence, but Dad was a boxer. It was how you defended yourself in the streets and my father was a product of the Lower East Side. Now and then he gave me a boxing lesson using one of grandma’s sewing mannequins. A paper bag served as the head so there was a fantastic noise when a right cross separated my rival from his head.
I wonder if Michelangelo had a kid watching him paint? Was there a little Luigi watching the ceiling from a quiet corner of the Sistine Chapel? Extreme example, maybe, but the emotion would have been the same that I experienced watching my father at the drawing board. I had to stand on his left, looking over his shoulder. Starting with a clean piece of Bristol board, he would first draw his panel lines with an old wood and plastic T-square. Then the page would start to come alive. He told me that once he had the story framed in his mind, he would start drawing at the middle, then go back to the beginning, and then finish it up. Everything seemed to come naturally; he didn’t even needed a compass to draw a perfect circle. He worked fast but smooth, too, no wasted movement or hesitation.
Watching him work gave us a chance to talk about science and history, subjects we both loved, but it also gave me a chance to see history being made. In the spring of 1962, for instance, I remember standing over the drawing board as Dad created a truly cosmic hero — it was a brand new character but I was confused when I heard his name. Thor? The story was “The Stone Men from Saturn.” My first reaction, before opening my mouth, was “Why the hell is a Norse god fighting rock-pile aliens?” Dad explained the whole origin story to me and how he would work in the entire pantheon of Norse deities in the future. Having either read or at least browsed through every book in his library, I thought I was pretty smart when I scoffed and asked him how Thor could even hold his head up with two big, iron wings attached to his helmet. “Don’t forget,” Dad said, nodding toward his creation, “Superhero.”
Our time together was full of moments like this. The early 1960s was the era of atomic monsters and bomb fear, so along comes the Hulk. To Dad, the science of the man-monster was in the realm of “maybe.” Could a Jekyll-and-Hyde monster be created genetically? Jack Kirby thought so. Remember, the structure of DNA had been discovered only five years earlier, and the workings were still a mystery.
Everything in Dad’s mind, heart and soul went into those paneled pages — but my contributions to the Marvel Universe were limited to one flying car. Nick Fury had been a WWII soldier but the 1960s took him into a post-war career with S.H.I.E.L.D (It stood for “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division” and was more than a little influenced by “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) and Dad needed a James Bond-type car and came to me (At that point in my life I was more interested in cars than girls). With just a little bit of research into my stack of Road and Track magazines, I found the perfect car, a Porsche 904D racer. We knew we needed to go a step beyond machine guns hidden in headlights so we stuck some missiles in the fender wells and, of course, wheels that flip and whisk the car through the air.
By the mid-‘60s I was entering high school, and my time in the studio grew less and less. There was more homework, my membership in a fledgling rock band (called the 2+2) and, of course, girls. I always made an effort, however, to spend some time in the Dungeon at least once a week, and when dad “came up for air” for coffee and crumb cake about 11 p.m. every night, I’d try to make it a point to meet him in the kitchen.
In September 1966, I was off to Syracuse University and in December, 1968, my parents did one step better and moved to California. The Dungeon was gone but the drawing board, table, chair and taberet all went west and ended up in a decent-sized, paneled family room in their Thousand Oaks home. Everything remained there, together and in place, even when Dad died in 1994 but after my mother passed in 1998 the inventory of that magical room went off in different directions.
My father’s drawing board and small taberet table now reside in my den in where they provide warm memories for me, and a basis for stories for Jack’s great-grandchildren. I wish there was some way I could borrow Victor Von Doom’s Time Platform and take the kids back to visit the secret headquarters of my father’s imagination, that smoky, paneled bunker of ink, conversation, bookshelves, creativity and love. I’m a teacher living in California and I think about Dad a lot lately, especially when I see Thor, Captain America, Magneto, or the Hulk on a movie poster. My father drew comics in six different decades and filled the skies of our collective imagination with heroes, gods, monsters, robots and aliens; most of the truly iconic ones are out of the first half of the 1960s, when he delivered masterpieces on a monthly basis. I treasure the fact that I had a front-row seat for that cosmic event. People ask me all the time how one man could have dreamed and drawn so much. The best answer I can offer is one I heard about 50 years ago: “Don’t forget: Superhero.”
– Neal Kirby
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