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 fall of Prague Spring. It hosted the Chicago Convention.
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, of course, evil villains bent on world conquest the golden latchkey for a yearning pre-teen fettered to the terrestrial orthodoxy of 1960’s Levittown.
CaptainAmerica, the Avengers, the Mighty Thor, the Silver Surfer. Conflicted but righteous, misunderstood yet unerring, they and countless other pulp paladins all sprung fully-formed from the sharpened No. 2 pencil of one man, who today is acknowledged, posthumously, as the greatest pencil artist in comic book history. I’m speaking now 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 theNassauCountyphone book and started paging through the K’s. 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 J’s — 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, had 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 Thing, his arms bulging beneath a tight t-shirt, hunched over a drafting table, a word balloon suspended over his rocky brow. “Is this shot okay, Chuck?” he asked, the smoke from his stogie curled 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 Sting-Rays for what would prove to be a half-day’s ride into uncharted territory. A suburban neighborhood, a modest home. We knocked. We waited. 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 draw a picture for each of us.
My favorite 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 somehow pleased.
He took a clean sheet of paper. He sketched, he shaded, and in less than thirty seconds he’d 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 45 years later, I still look at both drawings every day, since they hang on the wall of my home 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.
Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, died inThousand Oaks,Californiain 1994. He was 76 years young.
Jack, it was great meeting you.