Kirby Memorial issue of Marvel Age

This is not an old and/or obscure comics post, for the simple reason that Marvel Age was not a comic book.

Marvel Age was, I guess, basically a house-produced fan magazine, something probably near 100% obsolete in the age of the World Wide Web. But these did exist, in the Before Time. (Other examples which come to mind are Nintendo Power and something from Sierra which may have had a couple of names over the course of its existence.)

Although Marvel Age shared the size and format of a typical comic book, it generally contained minimal actual comics content. Issue #138 was no exception. It did contain, however, about as much a formal memorial as the company published upon the death of its all-time MVP, Jack Kirby.

So let’s revisit that, 26 years later.

Marvel Age #138 might serve as exhibit A for a blog post I wrote several years ago, about how much Jack Kirby’s standing has risen since the early 1990s. In said blog post I suggested that, at the end of Kirby’s life, “even a rabid fan of characters like the Fantastic Four which are almost emblems of the man’s work, they’re so thoroughly Kirby, could have only a limited awareness of ‘Jack Kirby’ as ‘the name of that guy who drew this stuff way way back in the 1960s.’”

I submit that Marvel Age #138 demonstrates that this wasn’t just me.

Within its pages there’s praise and love for Kirby, even awe. The four-page Kirby feature included comments from numerous people who had worked alongside the man during the Golden and Silver Ages. Yet the fact that most of the comments were from old friends, from days gone by, speaks volumes about 1994 Marvel’s attitude toward Kirby.

While the written text in Marvel Age #138 contains glowing tribute, the sur- and subtexts are a contrasting message. For one thing, Marvel Age #138 was basically it from Marvel at the time, as I recall (and I was rabidly into Marvel at the time). And while Marvel Age included a Kirby tribute, it would be a stretch to say that it was a Kirby tribute; issue #138 was basically another issue of Marvel Age which included maybe eight pages of Kirby content out of 32 total.

The actual front cover (as opposed to the back cover which for some reason Marvel Age always printed upside down so that the binding is on the left side if you flip it upright) was Cable and Deadpool.

This also says a lot about where things were at the time Jack Kirby died. Both Cable and Deadpool obviously have a good deal of Kirby influence in their design. Although their then-super-hot creator Rob Liefeld is really not very gifted, such as he did accomplish as a creator probably owes Kirby in multiple ways, not least of them learning from the terrible example of Marvel’s exploitation of Kirby, and figuring out how actually to profit from his work (however derivative) instead. A bit more than a year later, Marvel turned over two Kirby co-creations (Captain America and The Avengers) to Liefeld for rebooting. The result was actually so bad that Marvel pulled the plug on Liefeld after six issues and assigned others to finish up the one-year Heroes Reborn stories in both titles… but in 1994 Rob Liefeld was regarded as molten hot, and owed Jack Kirby plenty for his success, despite which Marvel Age didn’t get a comment from him or even anyone of his generation.

Even the editorial on the inside cover begins with four paragraphs about the Archie/Punisher crossover, then addresses “this issue’s tribute to Jack Kirby.” Aiieeee.

I don’t really know what Marvel did when Stan Lee died, much more recently, but I will guess that had Jack died within the past few years, the official memorial would have been on the same scale or greater. As I wrote in 2012, Kirby’s standing within comics feels like it has risen from “important artist of the Silver Age for whom the deepest appreciation was mostly an insider thing” almost to “creator-deity and still a living force within American comics.” Again, I salute the lengthy effort by those who worked for this transformation. Because as Marvel Age #138 demonstrates, it was a climb launched from a pretty low altitude.

One more odd note about Marvel Age #138, which is probably only what it is, yet forces me to question everything else in the magazine. According to the feature article by Stephen Vrattos, Kirby’s last work—”found, completed, on his drawing table” after the discovery of his death—was a penciled re-creation of the cover of Fantastic Four #1.

This was probably complete and total bullshit.

The story itself feels like ham-handed fiction, although part of it was true nonetheless. In 1993 Sotheby’s did commission several classic Marvel covers, including FF #1, to be reproduced in pencil and ink by the original artists.

However, some years ago, I came across an account by Mark Evanier revealing that Kirby had no hands-on role in this. I can’t recall exactly where or when I read this, but it makes much more sense than the Marvel Age version, even without the authority of someone (Evanier) who probably knows more about what Jack Kirby did and when than Kirby himself did.

Even in 1994 this entire project seemed kind of questionable, to me. Like, what was the point? It basically seems to flow from someone’s desire to own really expensive pieces of original art, leading to the idea of producing fakes, but hoping that if the original artists produce the fakes they’re less fake. Hm. Anyway the concept would have seemed at least as pointless to Jack Kirby, who was always moving on to new stuff and didn’t like to ink his own work because he had already drawn it; what point can he have seen in re-drawing something in pencil for someone else to go over it in ink?

What’s more, pure tracing is probably the only way Kirby even could have re-drawn the cover to FF #1 in 1994 because his eyesight had been deteriorating for years. Even had he been minded to try freehand re-drawing the cover, using the original only for visual reference instead of direct tracing, I don’t think he could have.

As I recall, Evanier suggested that someone else penciled the damn thing, probably Dick Ayers who also inked it. (Which suggests that as of 1994, he was the accepted inker for the cover of FF #1, although it seems like this has been a topic of debate more recently than that.)

This story is believable and holds together. When Sotheby’s commissioned the impractical, various people agreed to fake “Jack Kirby’s contribution” and lie about it, probably so that he would receive some money. Depending on who was in the know, this seems like it constitutes blatant fraud, although given the questionable point of the commission I feel like this was ethically close to Sherlock Holmes breaking the law in the cause of justice. Whatever.

To bring things back to Marvel Age, I will add that it’s entirely credible that it was telling lies to us readers in order to gloss over frauds, because I can think of at least one other obvious instance off the top of my head: Marvel Age also told me that Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four film was very definitely a real feature film being made for theatrical release, and not some wheeze cobbled together solely to game the intellectual property laws (which it actually was).

2 Thoughts on “Kirby Memorial issue of Marvel Age

  1. I’m kind of feeling obliged to post a response here. 🙂

    Stan definitely got a decent-sized send-off. In the opening credits of the Captain Marvel movie — the first MCU film released after Stan’s passing — they replaced all the clips of their characters with Stan’s various movie cameos followed by a “Thank You, Stan” message. This was the opening credits so everybody saw them, and this was in a movie about a character Stan had nothing to do with. I’m not even sure he ever even wrote a single scene with her in it!

    Would Jack have gotten as big a send-off? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. Jack is lauded and respected a LOT more now than he used to be, but he also did a horrible job promoting himself and his work. Which is pretty much all Stan did from about 1980 onward. By way of a more direct comparison, we can look at Steve Ditko, who died only about six months before Stan. Nothing remotely comparable in terms of “in memoriam”s.

    Regarding the cover recreation, yeah, that story is BS. You’re 100% right that Jack wouldn’t have had the faculties to do a recreation at that point, and even in his heyday, he would have been really hard-pressed to do a recreation of any of his work, at least as we might think of a “recreation” here. It was always easier/quicker for him to just completely reimagine it than to faithfully duplicate what he had done before. He couldn’t be bothered re-hashing old work.

    I don’t know for sure who penciled/inked that recreation, but Ayers would be a likely candidate. I seem to recall seeing him recreate that cover before, but I don’t know if it was necessarily for that project. I don’t know that he ever took credit for the original, though. His records were pretty meticulous and he was generally pretty frank about what he did/didn’t work on; I don’t recall the timing of when he said this, but he’s actively denied working on FF #1 in any capacity. I think he would’ve been hired for the gig as one of the few surviving folks who had worked on the FF early on, although he didn’t start until issue #6. George Klein died in ’69, Art Simek in ’75, Christopher Rule in ’83, Sol Brodsky in ’84… Joe Sinnott was still around, but he was pretty busy with the Spider-Man newspaper strip at the time. Ayers would’ve been the closest to an original FF creator they could probably get.

    For the record, too, the current thinking/consensus is that the original inker to FF #1 was Klein.

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