For most Americans of a certain age, the summer of 1968 is viewed as a kind of dark chasm that yawned between the Summer of Love and the Summer of Woodstock. It was, after all, the summer of Martin, the summer of Bobby. Of My Lai and Biafra. It marked the rise of Nixon and the collapse of Prague Spring. It hosted the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the Olympic riots in Mexico City.
For me, the dog days of 1968 evoke different memories, fonder memories, and none more enduring than the memory of my improbable audience with the King.
Iron Man, X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four. It was these Ektachrome heroes of today’s CG cinema who formed the warp and weft of my boyhood narrative, their parallel universe of lantern-jawed heroes, buxom damsels, and evil villains bent on world conquest the golden latchkey for a yearning pre-teen fettered to the terrestrial orthodoxy of 1960s Levittown, New York.
Captain America, the Avengers, the Mighty Thor, the Silver Surfer. Conflicted but righteous, misunderstood yet unerring, they and countless other pulp paladins all sprang fully-formed from the sharpened No. 2 pencil of one man, a man who today is acknowledged, posthumously, as the greatest artist and innovator in comic book history. I’m speaking, of course, of the King of Comics, Jack Kirby.
And all I wanted was his autograph.
It was in 1968 – that tumultuous summer of my twelfth year – that my pal Jimmy and I hauled out the Nassau County phone book and started paging through the Ks. We’d reasoned that if Marvel Comics was headquartered on Madison Avenue, then some of the artists must surely ride the Long Island Railroad to work just like our fathers. Just like ordinary mortals.
We found several possibilities – Johns, Jacks, and Js – and I wrote to all of them, effusive in my adulation, and humble, or so I’d hoped, in my request for a signed photograph. I posted the letters and waited.
A week passed, two weeks. My attention, meanwhile, wandered to the more prosaic diversions of a Levittown summer. The Village Green swimming pool. Curb-ball. Ringalevio. The not-yet-amazin’ Mets.
And then, all but forgotten, it suddenly arrived – a stiff manila envelope with artful block lettering. Inside was no photograph, however, but an original pencil drawing. The Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm, a.k.a. The Thing, his arms bulging beneath a tight T-shirt, sat hunched over a drafting table with a word balloon suspended over his rocky brow. “Is this shot okay, Chuck?” he asked, the smoke from his stogie curling upward to form the magical number 4.
Jimmy was jealous. Jimmy was, in fact, beside himself. And Jimmy had a plan.
Over the phone, Mr. Kirby was gracious. Yes, he worked from his home. No, he enjoyed having visitors. Tomorrow? Sure, not a problem.
We lied to our parents, naturally, and set out after breakfast on our bicycles for what would prove to be a half-day’s ride into uncharted territory. A suburban neighborhood, a modest home. We knocked. We waited nervously. And Jack Kirby answered the door.
He was friendly, avuncular. He offered us Orange Crush and led us downstairs to the basement studio where he’d been working on a forthcoming issue of the Fantastic Four. The room was littered with monochrome panels of mutants and monsters, machinery and mayhem.
We watched him work. He patiently answered all of our inane questions. We hung. And in the end, after we’d wrung the last drops from our soda bottles, he offered to make a drawing for each of us.
My favorite comic book hero that week was T’Challa, the Black Panther, Marvel’s first-ever African-American superhero, yet another of Kirby’s pioneering creations. He seemed surprised by my choice, and pleased.
He found a clean sheet of paper. He sketched, he shaded, and in less than thirty seconds he confected an astonishing image. The Black Panther, tightly muscled and perfectly proportioned, sprang forth from the page. Above his head, a word balloon declared, “Chuck, it’s great meeting you!”
Today, almost 50 years later, I look at both drawings every day where they hang on the wall of my writing office. They’re totems, I suppose, paeans to innocence in turbulent times. And they’re tributes to a man whose genius continues, even in these trying times, to offer the same promise of magic and adventure to a new generation of dreamers.
As a work-for-hire artist, Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg on New York’s Lower East Side, profited little from the billion-dollar media empire his imagination spawned. He died in relative obscurity on February 6, 1994 in Thousand Oaks, California. He was 76 years young.
Jack, it was great meeting you.
Chuck Greaves is the author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury). You can visit him at his website.