Interview: Mark Evanier on ‘Kirby: King of Comics’
If the entertainment industry was a baseball team, Mark Evanier would be the utility infielder. A quick glance at his resume and you’ll see a career that spans the worlds of comics, television, film and animation, and a creator who’s found success playing a variety of roles in the creative process.
He began his career working with the late, great, comics creator Jack Kirby, and their friendship endured beyond their initial professional association. Evanier’s name can be found on the writing credits of television series such as Welcome Back, Kotter, as well as various animated series, including Dungeons and Dragons, Thundarr the Barbarian and Garfield and Friends. His portfolio of comics work includes a longstanding partnership with Sergio Aragones on Groo the Wanderer and the current, ongoing DC series The Spirit, based on the popular Will Eisner character.
Evanier also acts as administrator for the official online home of Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip, and maintains a regularly updated blog about comics, film and the entertainment industry as a whole on his website at www.povonline.com.
I spoke with Evanier about the recent release of Kirby: King of Comics, the biography of Jack Kirby he authored, as well as his work with The Spirit and Pogo. We even found some time to talk a bit about his experience at AnthroCon, and his introduction to the world of "Furries."
COMICMIX: What are you up to today, Mark?
MARK EVANIER: Today I’m working on the foreword for the collection of Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C. comic that DC’s going to publish. I had to do some proofreading and finalization on a new Crossfire story that’s going to be published, and I’m working on the Garfield cartoon show today. See, if you do enough different things, you don’t do any of them well. But they’ll think you’re versatile.
CMix: Kirby: King of Comics, your biography of Jack Kirby just hit shelves. Can you tell me a little about your relationship with Kirby? How did the biography project come about?
ME: Well, we first met in July of 1969, and a few months later he asked me to become his assistant. I worked for him for a couple of years and then I left and we stayed friends. Then we had a fight, and then we became friends again.
Jack was kind of my brilliant, eccentric uncle for a while there, and early on in our association he gave me a clue that he’d like me to be a historian of his, also. One of the things that intrigued me was that he wasn’t telling me what to write or what not to write. Jack was very committed to the truth. He was kind of obsessive and he always thought that he would come off well in any history if people just wrote the truth.
I always knew that I was going to write stuff about him, I just didn’t know what form it would take or when I’d write it. But then, after he passed away, his widow said to me, "Listen, when are you going to write a book about Jack?" I said, "Oh, do you think this is the time?" She said, "Yes, please do it." I agreed to do it and she helped me a lot and gave me all of Jack’s personal papers and effects and such.
I’ve been working since Jack passed away, which is 14 years now, on a humongous-sized book about his life. It’s still a few years off in the future, so when the Harry N. Abrams Company asked me to do an interim book to tide people over, I took a look at what I was doing and realized the massive book I was writing was getting too mired in minutia to the point where I thought a lot of ordinary civilians wouldn’t be able to make their way through it. So I thought I’d do a sort of simplified version first.
CMix: So the larger version, it’s sort of an "Absolute" edition of the Kirby biography?
ME: Yeah, it’s the all-encompassing, "everything that Mark knows about Jack" edition. That’s still a few years down the line, though. I don’t know when it’ll come out. It’s always "a few years down the line." We’ll see how that goes.
But I’m very proud of this book and happy that people will have a chance to hold in their hands a kind of overview of Jack’s life. I’m very happy that it came out from a very prestigious art book publisher. They’re the same people who publish Picasso’s work — and I think that Jack deserves to be on the same shelf as Picasso.
CMix: What lessons did you learn from your time with Jack? What experiences or knowledge gained during that time with Jack have you found yourself falling back on through the years?
ME: The number-one thing that I learned from Jack is probably the work ethic. He was a very hard worker and very much intent on giving his all to every project, even though he had reason to suspect it would be ruined before it got to the audience. Even though he knew the work was going to be mauled, it had to leave him as something he was proud of.
Jack was enormously proud of the fact that he could sit down in the morning and… Well, actually he slept in the morning, so he would sit down in the afternoon and start with blank paper and a pencil — in other words, just about nothing — and by the end of the day, at 5 AM or 6 AM, he would have made something that was going to buy groceries and pay the rent for his family. And it would be something that he was proud of. He had this "look what I did" attitude. In a very human, non-egotistical way, he was very proud of the fact that he could create something of value out of nothing. There’s a joy to that.
Even though I was doing a little bit of professional writing before I met Jack and started working with him, I don’t know that I fully understood what it meant to be a creative person. I’m using the small "c" there, "creative" as in a guy who writes or draws for a living. I didn’t really understand exactly where the joy in that was, and I saw in Jack that it was the joy of creation and the joy of being satisfied with what you produce even if no one else is.
CMix: You mentioned on your blog that, now that the book is out, there are a few things you wish you’d done differently. What types of things?
CMix: You mentioned on your blog that, now that the book is out, there are a few things you wish you’d done differently. What types of things?
ME: One of the problems is that Kirby: King of Comics is about 35,000 words and the other book is over 250,000 and growing, so the minute you write 35,000 words on Jack you’re leaving out an awful lot of words. If I read it over, I think, "Oh, I wish I’d added that." But if I had added everything that I wished, there’d be no room for the pictures.
He’s a very vast topic. One of the things that I learned from Jack that I can’t always apply is that Jack was a big-picture kind of guy. He didn’t get too mired in the details. Whatever he did, he thought about how it fit into the cosmic universe, how it fit into the future, the overall story. It used to drive him nuts when I’d be pointing out little mistakes or background details, like, "This character doesn’t have a belt buckle." It was important, but it was nowhere near important to him as whether the overall story worked. A lot of people get so mired in making sure that the belt buckles are all correct that they don’t realize that the story is banal or doesn’t make sense, or has a faulty through-line of logic to it.
One of the other things that I learned from Jack is how to treat people. He was a very decent man. He and Roz [Kirby’s widow] both were. They were very nice to people, including some that I didn’t believe were worth being nice to. There are hundreds and hundreds of stories around that people will tell about how they approached Jack at a convention or called him up on the phone when he had a listed phone number, and were floored at how nice they were treated by this person that was, to them, a God. He’d sit for hours and talk to people. He would stand up and talk to people for hours at conventions and Roz was always saying to him, "Sit down, Kirby. Rest."
Jack would sit down for 30 seconds and then something else would come up. At a convention, the person that wanted to talk to Jack would be standing, so out of common courtesy he would stand, too. It was courtesy, because to him, he wasn’t above the other people. Even total strangers got that treatment. He was very meticulous about being nice to people. That’s one of the things that I learned from him.
It sounds very cliché and like it’s a bad sitcom to say this, but rarely does a day go by that I don’t realize that I’ll be thinking about Jack, and not just because I’m doing the book about him. I’ll realize something that he taught me about people or the world that I can apply to my life in a practical manner. Often times I didn’t understand at the time he told me, either. But I have a very good memory and I remember conversations verbatim, 20 to 30 years after the fact, sometimes.
Jack had a very odd and disconnected way of speaking. He wasn’t always the easiest person to understand. One of the many reasons that his career did not go quite the way that he wanted it to, in terms of the reward for the work he did, was because he wasn’t a very articulate speaker. His brain was always locked in another dimension. Jack couldn’t drive a car because he would run off the road. Every time he’d try it, he’d end up in a ditch somewhere. Sometimes trying to maintain a conversation with the guy went the same way. He would talk to me sometimes and I would nod and pretend that I understood it. I’d understand the gist of it, but I didn’t understand the whole thing that he was saying to me. Then, six months later, I’m walking down the street and suddenly some part of my brain hits "playback" and it’s like, "Oh, now I get it!"
CMix: What’s been the initial response to Kirby: King of Comics?
ME: You do a book on Jack and you have to be aware of the fact that you’re going to get a "pass" of sorts. I did this book a couple of years ago for Watson-Guptill a while back about Mad Magazine. People were calling me up all excited, saying, "Oh, you got a rave review in The New York Times." And that’s not a bad thing to get if you’re an author.
So I got the review, read it over and said, "This isn’t a rave review for me. This is a rave review for Mad Magazine." The guy who wrote the review just loved Mad Magazine. If you read it carefully, it said, "Mad Magazine is wonderful. Here’s a book about it."
So I feel, to a certain extent, that I’m going to get some of the same response out of a Kirby book, because there are so many people who are already thrilled about a book about Jack. Since the book is 60- or 70-percent Jack Kirby art, then 60- to 70-percent of the book is already great. That’s not because of anything I did other than to say, "Lets find a good copy of that piece of art."
Part of my function here was as a gatherer of material and not as a creator of it. I just find that it’s very fortuitous sometimes that knowing Jack has opened up a lot of doors for me. I don’t want to exploit them unreasonably. I tried not to make very much money off of his memory. I don’t usually write comics that he started unless there’s a compelling reason, but I’ve found that the reception to the book has been wonderful. I’m taking the bows on behalf of Kirby, and not anything on my part.
CMix: You’re also working on another project linked with a legendary creator, The Spirit. With a Frank Miller-helmed film in production based on the popular Will Eisner character, has that affected your work with Sergio Aragones on the current Spirit series?
ME: I assume that the comic book is being published, to some extent, because the movie is coming up, but we’re just doing the comic and we’re trying to do a good comic together, for a change. I haven’t read the script for the movie. I don’t know what the movie is even about. I saw Frank Miller two weeks ago and we talked about everything except for the movie. But I think The Spirit is a kind of constant that goes on and on through the years. The movie might be wonderful, but ultimately "The Spirit" is a huge body of work of which the movie will only be one part.
CMix: From Kirby to Eisner, you’ve worked on projects closely connected with many creators. How do you get into the mindset to handle something as high-profile as The Spirit or a biography of Jack Kirby?
ME: I don’t know if there’s anything necessarily that that you can do. You just go do them. I think that you have to be a little careful, though. I don’t believe in this attitude of "say yes to everything" that some people have. I think that you have to say "no" to the things that you can’t do. Tomorrow, if someone asked me to dance at the ballet I would have sense enough to say, "No, I don’t think that’s what I do well." Doing a book on Jack Kirby, though, I think I can handle that. In the case of The Spirit, Sergio is the guy on the stories and I’m just there to fill in the balloons and try to make it funny where it’s supposed to be funny. I think I can handle that — and if not, they’ll get someone else.
CMix: Continuing along the same lines, you’re the administrator for the official website of Walt Kelly’s Pogo. How is the Fantagraphics Pogo collection coming along? Last I heard, they were still looking for some strips that were missing.
ME: They’re still looking for certain strips, yes. Fantagraphics is very dedicated to a quality product, which is one of the reasons that we wanted to go with them. But a quality product, unfortunately, sometimes takes a while to do. I think we overestimated how easy it would be to find good reproduction material. Mr. Kelly’s work demands very good printing. The fine line detail is so important to his work that what might’ve been fine for someone else’s book won’t cut it with Pogo.
I don’t have a timetable that I know of at the moment. And even so, it’s not like Pogo is going to get any colder as a property. It’ll be out when it’s out, and people will be thrilled to have the books. I don’t know anybody who would say, "Just get it out. I don’t care what it looks like."
CMix: I noticed that your affiliation with Pogo found you in attendance at a recent AnthroCon. You’ve been to a great many comic conventions, I’m sure, but the world of "Furries" seems like it would be a very different scene. What was that experience like? I’m sure it wasn’t just people running around in furry animal suits, right?
ME: Well, there is a lot of that. They asked us to be there, and my friend Scott Shaw, who I’ve known for decades and decades, had been a guest of honor at the convention the previous year and he said, "Go to this thing, Mark. Trust me. You’ll have a great time. You’ll love the people. They’re so wonderful." So you can’t really ignore a recommendation like that.
So, they invited Carolyn and myself to be guests of honor. I’ve been going to comic book conventions, science-fiction conventions and film conventions since 1970, and I thought I’d seen them all. I thought I’d been to everything, and it turned out that I hadn’t. I found the AnthroCon to be enormously fun because of how creative the people were. It was a different experience in the sense that there was a "dealers room," but it wasn’t a place where people were looking to make a living. It was a place where people were saying, "I made this wonderful thing that I want to share with the world. I’ll sell it at AnthroCon." It was the most benevolent and friendly atmosphere. They were really nice people to be around, and yes, some of them were dressed as large badgers.
Long ago, I came to the mindset that there are some things in this world that I just don’t get thrilled by that delight other people, and that’s alright. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everything in the world has to cater to my tastes. Just most things. I don’t understand why people do a lot of things in this world. I don’t understand why people get tattooed or jump out of airplanes or ride roller coasters or eat coleslaw or vote for George Bush. There are a lot of things that I cannot imagine myself ever doing, but some of these things, aside from voting for George Bush, do not harm me in any way. There’s nothing wrong with someone else eating coleslaw just as long as they don’t get anywhere near my area code.
So if people enjoy dressing up as giant bears and these strange coyote-type dogs that most of them seemed to be dressed as, I can admire the artistry of the costumes. Some of the costumes were so beautifully and so cleverly well-made and with so much personality. I can just admire the show that they’re putting on for one another and say, "This is fun. These people are having a great time." I saw no reason to be judgmental.
On the last day, they had this little closing ceremony and they asked me to speak at it. I got up there and I said, "The one thing that I don’t like about this convention, about Furries, is how defensive they are. People keep coming up to me and asking I if I think they’re weird and if they make me uncomfortable. The answer is ‘No.’ But being asked that makes me uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with you people other than the fact that folks whose opinions you shouldn’t care about have somehow made you think that you have to be under the fence about what you love to do."
I just felt very comfortable and friendly among that crowd, just like I generally do at all conventions. You go to conventions for all sorts of reasons, but one of the things that I particularly enjoy at conventions is just being around creative and interesting people. You can turn around and strike up a conversation with anyone at most conventions and connect with a mind that you enjoy connecting with. Obviously, there are some idiots out there, but that’s a very, very small percentage. Just like most conventions, I enjoyed AnthroCon tremendously and I hope to go back to one of them these days.
CMix: Finally, how are you doing these days? It’s been a couple of years now since your gastric bypass surgery, and I’ve heard that people don’t recognize your new, slimmed-down self…
ME: I’m doing fine. I’m as healthy as I’ve been since I was a mere lad, probably even healthier. I’m still kind of staggered by the fact that I lost so much weight in such a short time. The other day I went to get my driver’s license renewed. I could’ve renewed by mail, but I wanted to go in and get a new picture because I was tired of people at the airport saying, "This isn’t you."
I’ve spent an awful lot of time throwing out old clothes. I have a jacket that I bought around 1985. I bought it at a Big & Tall shop in
CMix: Well, it sounds like you’re doing well for yourself, Mark.
ME: I am.
ME: I am.I’m very happy. In fact, I make people annoyed with how happy I am with everything.
Mark Evanier’s biography of Jack Kirby, Kirby: King of Comics, is available now. The Spirit #15 hits shelves March 19 from DC Comics. Mark’s official website, POV Online, can be found at www.povonline.com. The photo of Jack Kirby used in this interview was taken by James Van Hise and can be found here on Mark’s website.