What if Jack Kirby deliberately wrote farce? What if he consciously chose to write silly dialogue, like no one else spoke just because he could and he found it funny? Jack Kirby felt free at National/DC, constrained and patronised at Marvel: ‘DC was actually like a haven because I was an individual there….I felt a sense of freedom there…I went to California because I just about had it with the field. I had to feel like a man again.’¹ The King’s free, far-out fun is well on display in Jimmy Olsen # 144 (December 1971), published 50 years ago today, 19 October, 1971.
Criticism of Kirby’s writing, by which critics mean his dialogue as opposed to his plotting or visual storytelling, lambast him for a perceived tin ear. They slate him for his declaratory speech in the mouths of the New Gods of Forever People, or what they see as strained attempts at counter-cultural youth speak.
In their fulminations, they tend to focus on very small examples from the thousands of words in Kirby’s stories and somehow imply that Kirby was not aware of what they see as his shortcomings and they want to point that out as if to bring the King back to the earth of lesser, leaden writers. As Kirby sought to push the boundaries of what could be done with superhero comics, some cultural mavens wouldn’t let him take off, they felt there was a standard of comic book scripting and Kirby was falling short.
Representative of that school of thought back in 1971 is ‘Pesky Pasko’ (the late Martin Pasko) who was a regular letter-writer to the Fourth World titles before he became a writer for DC a few years later. Pasko praised Kirby’s plotting in Jimmy Olsen # 144’s letter column but says ‘Jack Kirby cannot write well’ and is ‘often deficient’ in characterisation and ‘natural-sounding dialogue’.
At least in this letter, Pasko, and other modern-day critics, don’t seem to have considered the possibility that, after being straitjacketed into relative conformity by a lesser talent in Stan Lee who was afraid to let Kirby’s imagination full release lest the poor readers couldn’t cope with it and the dollars stopped flowing, what if Kirby knew exactly what he was doing and just had fun being wild? What if he didn’t care if it didn’t work all the time, he just wanted to let loose?
No one would argue that Jimmy Olsen # 144 is a literary masterpiece or that Scottish people actually say ‘bless me tartan’ or that a black kid in 1971 would utter the phrase ‘Real groovy-doovy serious’ (I’m going to use it, however), although as we walk through the office we might have wanted to say, as Scrapper says, ‘Wow! What a chick!’ I don’t recommend this in 2021 but feel free to think it. The point is because no one talks or talked like this, does that make the comic any less funny, any less engaging?
With some exceptions, Jimmy Olsen was Jack Kirby’s escape valve. After heavy-duty, eloquent, social commentary in the Forever People, New Gods and Mister Miracle, he lets it all hang out with Jimmy and the Boys. In National/DC’s lowest selling title, no one is going to tell him, ‘you can’t do that.’ If he wants to be silly, if he wants to be farcical, if he wants to have his characters speak like an ancient Scottish novel, why not? He’s earnt it.
The freedom he feels at National/DC doesn’t just apply to the words he puts in his characters’ mouths. He deliberately includes Scott Shaw! and his San Diego comics pals in Jimmy Olsen # 144 as the ‘San Diego Five String Mob’.² In his personal and creative life, Kirby was reaching out to his fan base, acknowledging it, bringing creator and reader closer to each other and here in this issue, he gave a group of his readers comics immortality.
Freedom to do or say what you want, freedom to invite your friends around any time. Jimmy Olsen, a title targeted at the younger reader, is most frequently kids’ world. On the cover, the adult, establishment figure Superman flies above the kids like a super parent, almost oblivious to the trouble they’re in, stratospherically separate in the adult world. The kids fight, they try out silly voices, they seek adventure, they meet pretty girls, they find out everything isn’t as it seems. They do what they want and no one really tells them ‘no’.
In his comics and his life, Jack Kirby wanted and earned the right, to do the same.
¹The Comics Journal # 134, pgs. 94 and 92.
²Scott Shaw! talks about how this came about in Comic Book Creator # 24, pg. 19
Research this article:
-Comic Book Creator # 24, Fall 2020
-Comics Journal # 134, February 1990 (Jack Kirby interview by Gary Groth)
-Jack Kirby Collector # 5, May 1995 and # 8, January 1996
-Mike’s Amazing World of Comics website
-The indispensable Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said! (Jack Kirby Collector # 75: TwoMorrows)
-The equally indispensable Old Gods, New Gods (Jack Kirby Collector # 80: TwoMorrows)
-Helter Skelter, the True Story of the Manson Murders (Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry, W.W. Norton, 1994)
-There’s A Riot Going On (Peter Doggett, Canongate, 2007)
-Time Magazine, September 27, 1971
-Uncovering the Sixties (Abe Peck, Pantheon, 1985)
-Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War (Max Hastings, William Collins, 2019)
Michael Mead is a 55-year-old New Zealand comic book collector, who likes to think he can do "contextual" commentary reviews of old comics, asking: "where does this story come from?", looking at the social, political, cultural times it came from, the state of the comics industry, the personal and creative journey of the writer or artist, the personal journey of the reader as a child and as an adult.
As part of this, he is vain enough to think he can bring new insights into Kirby's Fourth World comics and so, on the 50th anniversary of publication of each issue of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, Forever People, New Gods and Mister Miracle, he will publish a contextual commentary. This is his 28th of a projected 48 Fourth World commentaries (only 20 to go!). Check out his earlier entries on this blog and tell him to stop talking so pretentiously in the third person for God's sake!