Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Big Animation Circle

In The Comics Journal #167 Published shortly after Kirby's death collected tributes from industry professionals. Jim Woodring remembered,  “I met Jack in 1982, when I began work at Ruby Spears Productions. Jack was their star designer (that's "star designer" not charity case.); his job was to work at home on large drawings of characters, hardware and environments.”
“Every Monday he would saunter in with a thick stack under his arm. All the in-house cartoonists would gather to look at them one by one and pore over them. Jack was treated with great respect because he was an elder and a legend, but the awed admiration we all demonstrated for his work was not polite deference. His drawings were inspirational to all of us. He was like a wild spraying geyser of the substance we struggled pitifully to evoke in driblets. Even those among us who had never read super hero comics and saw Jack without his aura, so to speak, stood in awe of him. He was more than a master: he was the comic book impulse incarnate.
“We loved to draw him out in conversation because he was completely unpredictable: his mind was nimble and unfettered by convention. I never heard him tell an anecdote that was not heavily spiced with benign absurdity. As with his drawing there was something precociously fragile about his sledgehammer approach to storytelling. One sensed that a hard life had made Jack tough, but that the great child’s heart of which he was the custodian had been sheltered and saved at all costs and that this heart was the force that drove him.”
Jack’s first professional work was in animation and much of his last work would be there, though he probably never would have guessed it. At the Fleisher Studio he was an every-other-frame kind of guy, commanded to draw like another artist, or else.  California animation was a much different take on the industry. Jack had won his fame in the years between and was rewarded with top-of-the-artistic-totem-pole status. Management and staff all admired his talent, the former paying him well and the latter paying respect.
It made Kirby’s later years in Comics seem like time killed in a snake pit.
In 1978, while still working for Marvel, Kirby produced thirteen sets of storyboards for DePattie-Freling Enterprises’ animated FANTASTIC FOUR show and it was the first assignment in his new career.  For the first time in his life his employer was paying for his family’s health insurance, topped off with the first paid vacation in his life. Though, chances are pretty good he worked on something else those two weeks.
In early 1980 Jack worked at Hanna-Barbara in the design department for the SUPERFRIENDS HOUR, a show featuring many of the D.C. Super heros. That season’s shows also included the FLINTSTONES, YOGI BEAR and RICHIE RICH characters, so work at the studio was limited. While there, Jack met Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, both large fans of the King and his art.
The team opened their studio shortly after and immediately offered Kirby all of the work he could handle. Assignments at Ruby-Spears consisted of drawing the secondary characters on any given program, designs for props and vehicles, set designs and presentation boards.
Animation studios would pitch new series to the networks with the aid of the large, colorful concept drawings. Jack penciled these on boards that were as big as his drawing table and they were later inked and colored by the Ruby/Spears art department.  As Saturday morning only has so many hours, dozens of shows were pitched but never produced. Unrealized series Kirby worked on include: POWER PLANET; FUTURE FORCE; STREET ANGELS; WARRIORS OF ILLUSION; MICROMITES and too many more to list.
One proposal that did sell was THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN (Oct. 4, 1980), the story of life after the collapse of civilization.

In an on-line interview:  What was the inspiration for THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN and how did the show come about?

Joe Ruby:  I had gotten hold of some action/adventure magazines to see what was the latest in this arena. I noticed a story that Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to make a movie based on the CONAN THE BARBARIAN stories. Usually, we waited until a movie was released to see how well it did, especially with kids, then we'd develop shows in that arena. But, this time I decided to develop a show in the swords and sorcery arena a year before the movie came out. That way, if it worked, we'd have a show on the air at the same time as the movie.
And hopefully our show would do as well as we thought the movie would do.

Alex Toth had done the main character designs, but was unavailable to do any more, so Ruby and Spears turned to Jack Kirby, an artist with much experience with post-holocaust worlds: they reminded him of The Lower East Side, or his time in the service. Over the course of twenty-one episodes, Kirby created the design elements of a world gone mad, at a very good rate.
At the San Diego ComicCon in 2008:

Joe Ruby:  Steve Gerber was at Ruby-Spears, doing THUNDARR, with Alex Toth character designs. ABC was waffling: they wanted to see more art. All of a sudden, we got the pickup. We needed a new artist. We wanted it to be a hard looking show, not soft like the others. John Dorman recommended Jack and Steve also. Jack came over, very unassuming, very cordial, humble. I said ‘you’re hired.’ He started turning out character designs that blew me away. The pages were dynamic and jumped out at you.
Jack wasn’t just an artist, he was a creator. He created very distinctive characters, people or creatures, whatever they were. He created with a story in mind. He would put story behind his creations. He had a philosophical view. Where are these characters coming from? That all came out on the paper. Jack had it. He had it all. And prolific. You’d ask for 2 or 3 pages, you’d get a stack. We put him under contract for six years.

Ken Spears:  My relationship with Jack was entirely different from Joe’s. We started at Hanna-Barbera in the late ‘50s. When we got our chance to open our studios, we decided one of us was going to be Hanna, the other Barbera. (At Hanna-Barbera, Bill Hanna handled the business side of the company while Joe Barbera supervised the art side.) Joe jumped at it and said ‘I’ll be Barbera; you can be Hanna.’ So I was running the studio from a production standpoint: I had to worry about budgets. ‘Who is this Jack Kirby and why is he costing us so much?’ The one nice thing is he got us a really good rate on our storage fees because of the volume of work he put out.”

In a NEW YORK TIMES article from April 12, 2010, Spears recalled, “Many times, he didn’t have enough to do, or there weren’t enough assignments,” Mr. Spears said. “He was such a prolific guy that he would, on his own, just start sketching out some thoughts.”
Jack told me, “If I weren't working for those guys, I would have lost the house.” Jack had a very secure life in the ‘80s, Mark Evanier related, saying, “He had a house, a steady paycheck, health insurance and he was out of Comics, all thanks to Joe and Ken.”
According to Evanier, during the time Kirby worked at Ruby-Spears, he had a heart attack, but, worried that he’d lose his job if they knew he was ill, he told Ruby & Spears that he’d been in an auto accident. All of his hospital bills were covered by the health insurance plan he was able to get because of his employment with the studio. He had never had health insurance prior to this time.
Everything was best when Jack had someone to watch over him.
I remember sitting in a quiet Jack Kirby studio, one sunny summer visit while the pool splashed just behind me and my Yiddishe Mamma wanders in with a stack of paper in her hands and asks if I wanted to see some of Jack’s art that had just been returned.
Undiscovered Armstrong? Hell, yes.
And she passes me half a ream of 8.5’x11’ typing paper covered with amazing graphite. For the next half-hour I peeled through a stack of 250 pages and peered into Kirby’s brain once again. Every production design was a home run and I lamented that they would probably never be mass-produced. I also lamented that I would probably never see them again.
During a brainstorming session at Ruby-Spears, Kirby and one of his bosses were trying to come up with a character to compete with their licensed RICHIE RICH, but having no luck. Kirby recalled, “The guy went to bathroom. He had his own private bathroom in his office. And he was gone for five or ten minutes, then the door swings open and he says ‘I’ve got it! GOLDIE GOLD!’”
GOLDIE GOLD AND ACTION JACK (Sep. 13, 1981) ran for a season and more than that you don’t want to know.
Always ready to capitalize on a popular trend, Ruby and Spears asked for a series called ROXIE’S RAIDERS. Inspired by RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC (Paramount, 1981) it was the story of an adventuress and her traveling circus and appears to be largely conceived by Jack.
I could detail Jack’s work on MR. T, TURBO TEEN, CHUCK NORRIS: KARATE KOMMANDOS, SECTAURS, THE CENTURIANS and RAMBO, but the only important thing at that point is that he was being well paid, got benefits and a vacation and had the respect of those around him.
Jack was on cruise-control when asked to come up with ideas. And, Ruby-Spears gladly employed him until 1987, under a six-year contract.
This kind of treatment erased a lot of pain caused by D.C. and Marvel and helped him reside on a mountaintop, with a swimming pool.
Like every other partner he’d ever had, R&S knew that Jack’s brain and soul could be successfully sold in a way he was never inclined to do, with a win-win result.
Somewhere above, Ma Kurtzberg probably admitted that she’d been wrong about Hollywood.
P.S. Jack finally got to be an actor when he appeared as a police sketch artist on THE INCREDIBLE HULK TV show “No Escape,” aired on March 30, 1978, no naked ladies in sight.

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