Jack Kirby and Frank Zappa, a cosmic friendship

Oct. 14, 2009 | 1:47 p.m.
Zappa

Now there’s a headline that catches your eye. Yes it turns out that late Frank Zappa, the restless musical genius who may have been the most committed inconoclast in the history of rock, was a pal to the late Jack Kirby, the cosmic dreamer who is arguably the second most essential figure in the history of the American comic book. (You have to put Superman at first.)

I remember seeing a vintage 1968 issue of “Fantastic Four” that had an ad for “We’re Only in It for the Money,” the new album from the Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and it surprised me because it seemed like an unexpected crossover moment between counter-culture music and the Marvel universe. Both were popular on college campuses, of course, but seeing the gaudy little blurb (“Thrilling clean fun!” it promised) still made me smile and think about the sweet confusion of a young first-time Zappa listener trying to get his head around the album. If you don’t know it, it’s a masterpiece of cultural satire and heady music with Zappa’s smirking wit at every corner — the titles include, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” “Hot Poop,” “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” and the mad-laughter finale “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” 

That last title sounds like some weapon you might use against Galactus if you’ve misplaced your Ultimate Nullifer, so maybe it makes sense that Zappa found plenty to talk about with Kirby. I first learned about this friendship in a piece written by Jeff Newelt for Royal Flush magazine. It turns out that Newelt got his hands on a photo (below right) of Kirby and Zappa together and then later met Ahmet Zappa, the youngest son of the musician, who filled in some of the compelling blanks. Here’s an excerpt of his article…

So I had to show Ahmet my Blackberry screensaver, the image I had found of his dad and Jack together, and Ahmet goes, “Whoa, I never saw that! That’s in my living room… Jack would come over and smoke cigars and Frank would smoke cigarettes, and they’d talk and talk.”

Frank Zappa and Jack Kirby

One of the things Frank and Jack had in common: the prodigious amount of cosmic goodness that extruded from their respective noggins was not the result of drugs; They both enjoyed tobaccy but only the unwacky. We had other stuff to discuss that evening, so I made Ahmet promise to reconnect ASAP to spill the magic beans on this egregiously undocumented duo. And he kept his promise.

Ahmet, one of four Zappa kids, the other three being Moon Unit (the oldest), Dweezil (second oldest), and Diva (youngest), was always into superheroes his entire life.
“I loved Spider-Man; it’s the jam,” gushed Ahmet. “My dad loved comics and was the first to advertise rock ‘n’ roll in comics, for ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ [in Fantastic Four #72, 1968, Natch!]. My mother made Dweezil and I costumes of Spider-Man and The Mighty Thor.”

The son of a gregarious rock star, Ahmet grew up meeting every celebrity musician under the sun. But it wasn’t a rocker who gave Ahmet that first feeling of being around greatness. “I was not starstruck at all by rock stars because music is its own language and my father spoke it, so we spoke it,” Ahmet explains matter-of-factly. “This totally demystified the fame or the celebrity. There was no currency for ‘oooh, that guy sold a million records, we just cared about good music. One of the most significant moments in my life is when my dad said, ‘Meet Jack, he’s the guy who created all those superheroes you love.’ That blew my little mind. I thought it was awesome and weird that my dad had this friendship with this guy. It was like meeting like a real magician!”

There’s a lot more in the piece (including a snapshot of young Ahmet dressed as Thor and a sidebar on Kingdom Comics) so do check out the whole thing online or in the print edition of the magazine, which is now on sale. Newelt, a good friend to the Hero Complex, also sent over a fantastic illustration done for the magazine article — it’s the Rick Veitch piece you see at top left which shows Zappa in cosmic Kirby-mode. I’m a longtime fan of Veitch’s work and if you are too, check back here in the weeks to come because we’re long overdue on talking to him for the H.C., especially with the recent re-release of his twisted classic “Brat Pack.” But right now I’m going to go dig out some Zappa vinyl and read that spiffy hardcover version of Kirby’s “Fourth World” saga

– Geoff Boucher

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Artwork: Rick Veitch. Photo: Frank Zappa with Jack Kirby. Credit: Michael J. Zuccaro

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