In the spring of 1984, much to their surprise, the Kirbys received a call from Jenette Kahn, the publisher of D.C. Comics. She was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel and wanted to have lunch with them. During the meal, she explained that D.C. had cut a deal with the Kenner Toys Company to license their heroes and villains and that she wanted to promote the Fourth World characters as a line of plastic figures and vehicles. If Jack would agree to redesign some of the characters and create new vehicles, D.C. would be willing to offer them a percentage of the profits.
The Kirbys were stunned.
They’d been so abused by the Comics industry, that any act of kindness was stunning. D.C. could have gone ahead with the line without paying Kirby a nickel, but were making a magnanimous gesture because management thought it was the right thing to do.
At the same time, D.C. invited Jack to do a tie-in SUPER POWERS comic book mini-series of five books, but he declined, countering with an offer to plot the series, offer character designs and do the final issue, as well as all of the covers.
A large promotional poster featuring most of the company’s top heroes and villains was penciled and Mike Royer inked it. Unhappy with the result, D.C. tinkered with it and the result was a little irritating to Jack, but they had done him a huge favor so he kept quiet, as usual.
As the Royer-inked covers arrived, they too seemed to be a problem. It all came to a head with the fourth issue of SUPER POWERS, with a cover featuring Wonder Woman. The piece had been corrected several times, including alterations by editor-in-chief, Dick Giordano. I remember being in the hallway at DC watching Dick and special-projects editor Joe Orlando pulling their hair over the situation. Giordano looked at me and said, “Hey, you want to try inking the next cover?” He knew that Jack and I were close and it might be a way to defuse potential conflicts.
So, when the next cover arrived, I inked it on a piece of frosted acetate, then traced off a finished copy on another piece of acetate. Very serious. If I’d screwed-up the pencils, there was no going back and frankly, inking Kirby for the first time in the Comics almost made me tremble. When I brought the cover in, Giordano smiled and commented, “I love the way you did AQUAMAN’s shirt.” Kirby loved it too, though no mention of shirts.
Having passed the audition, D.C. assigned me the last cover as well as the interiors. The pages, done at 150% of the printed size, were hardly Jack’s strongest work ever. Some of the drawing was askew and figures were out of proportion and I did my best to correct them while keeping the spirit of the pencils. Another problem was that Kirby was drawing characters he hadn’t created and didn’t give a damn about. Consequently, many of the costumes changed from panel to panel and SUPERMAN’s chest logo was always wrong.
Years before when Royer began inking, Jack laid down the law that his pencils were never to be altered in the finishing stage. As his art began to change, Royer and Berry were forced to simply trace the pencils, with varied results. I’d been illustrating for over decade and Jack must have thought that counted for something when he instructed me to ink as I pleased.
I was flattered.
The end result was a good looking book that all of the involved parties were satisfied with.
When Jeanette Kahn investigated the sales of the Fourth World books, she couldn’t understand why they had been cancelled. She reissued the NEW GODS, two stories to an issue, on a much better paper, with new wrap-around covers by Jack. The idea was that Kirby would now get to finish his opus in the final issue: DARKSIED and ORION would finally battle face to face.
When the story arrived Giordano was shocked to find that it wasn’t what they had discussed. Shocked, shocked and amazed. Dick called California and Kirby took it badly. They told him he could finish the saga and now it wasn’t good enough.
Joe Orlando smoothed things over and Kirby agreed to draw a new end and wrap a story around other pages for a Graphic Novel.
As a goodwill gesture, Orlando and SUPER POWERS editor Andy Helfer visited Thousand Oaks. When they arrived on that very steep street that the Kirbys lived on, Joe failed to put on the emergency brake and as handshakes were being exchanged the car slipped out of gear. Rolling freely, it ran over the curb smashing into the Kirby’s phone line connection, effectively knocking out their service for a couple of days.
Work on HUNGER DOGS started in earnest, but Royer was unavailable to ink the balance and it was passed to D. Bruce Berry.
The book was finished on a very tight schedule because Jack and Roz were finally ready to travel to Israel, something both had wanted to do their entire lives.
In TJKC #10 (TwoMorrows 1998), Roz remembered the time: “When the kids were older, Jack and I went to Israel, before he passed on, about eight years ago. That was great, because he always wanted to go there, to see the Wall. He put a note in the Wall, so I said to him, ‘What did you write?’ And he says, ‘Thanks for the vacation.’ We were there for about three weeks. We went with our temple, with a group of about forty people. We had a great time, because they took us to the out-of-the-way places. We were up on the Gaza Strip and right on the borders. It was very, very exciting. Everybody should do it. I’m glad that, before he passed on, he got to go on that trip that he wanted.
“We went to Lucca, Italy and got that award in the 1970s. We were invited to quite a few places, but Jack never liked to fly. He dreaded to fly. Even when we went to Israel, I had to practically get him drunk to get him on the plane. He’d say he liked to put his feet on the ground. He hated being in a place where he didn’t have any control.”
Some forty years after his arrival at D.C., Julie Schwartz, was still drawing a weekly paycheck. Like Jack, he was one of the last of the dinosaurs. He’d worked with almost every top talent who’d passed through the D.C. doors, with the exception of Jack Kirby. “I really don’t know why,” Schwartz remarked to me, “but I’ve never worked with Jack. I have an eight page CHALLENGERS inventory story by Alex Toth that I want Jack to do a story around. Ya wanna ink it?”
Now, considering that Royer and Berry had locked-down Kirby’s inks for a decade, getting a foot in anywhere was near impossible. Worse, his output had dwindled to a trickle and this might be the last chance I’d ever get to ink one of Jack’s stories.
I instantly accepted and did my best familial best.
It was like backing-up Louis Armstrong on a record. Here I was, working with a man who’d codified the form and this was not missed on me.
Worried about a screw-up, elated at a confirming nod in my general direction. Apprentice seeking the approval of two masters.
Around the same time, THE HUNGER DOGS was in the offices and editor Andy Helfer was ready to wash his hands of the mess. When the comic book sized art was photostatted to accommodate the Graphic Novel sized paper, the rejected work was shot at the same size, rather than blowing them up so that the tops and bottoms of the art filled the page. In effect, Kirby was being asked to fill out much more of the art than he had to. Worse, the stats were a little dark and added slightly to Royer’s line weight. This clashed with the Berry pages, as his inking style was much lighter.
Helfer invited me to paint the cover and translating Kirby’s work into oil paint was a thrill to both Jack and myself. For me, working on anything Jack produced was a thrill but to Kirby it was a feeling of legitimacy. He’d never seen his art on canvas in oil paint: that was museum style. The piece ended up in the Kirby living room and was the only art in the house on an easel and that was the highest artistic compliment I ever received.
I was supposed to color the interiors as well and Andy passed a stack of pages into my hands. Looking it over, I must have made a face, because Andy remarked, “Yeah, right?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Nothing. It’s in your hands now. If you want to work on it, be my guest.”
An editor who lets you run wild is the editor you want to work for more.
Now, this was going to be the nicest packaging Kirby had ever gotten and the work produced wasn’t quite up to it. I packed the pages into my portfolio and returned to my studio.
For the next week, I did my best to align the conflicting styles and using my freedom to do as I pleased with the inks, attempted to polish many of the faces and figure work. For free. Literally.
I thought the results were good, but the work got mixed reactions from Comic fans. Royer was offended and I never heard Berry ring-in on it.
For all of the difficulties in producing the book, Jack was quite happy with it. Here was a book on good paper, with fully rendered coloring (another very late first,) and was something Kirby had been striving for since the 1950s. The industry was finally catching up to his visions.