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Jack Kirby's Superman

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Apparently, a number of comic book discussion boards are simultaneously discussing the fact that when Jack Kirby drew the Jimmy Olsen comic book in the early seventies, the company retouched his work. I am suddenly receiving a flurry of e-mails asking me to clarify what was done, who did it, etc. Here's the answer to the best of my knowledge. If you're immersed in one of these discussions, please enter the following into evidence or link folks to this page…

The first five stories Jack wrote and drew for DC were, in this order, Forever People #1, New Gods #1, Mister Miracle #1, Jimmy Olsen #133, and Jimmy Olsen #134. Superman appeared in the Forever People, and Superman and Jimmy Olsen appeared in the last two. When Jack delivered the material in pencil, some folks up at DC said, in effect, "We can't have Superman and Jimmy Olsen looking like that." The company went through periods when they felt it was essential to their merchandising plans for certain trademarked characters to not deviate from the approved company model.

I happen to think they were too fussy about this, and I'm sure that other management at other times wouldn't have cared. But at the time, that was the policy. (Retouching was also being done occasionally to other artists. Superman heads were redrawn in one or two of the Supergirl stories that Mike Sekowsky was then drawing for DC, even though Sekowsky's interpretation of The Man of Steel had appeared, usually unexpurgated, for years in the Justice League of America comic. Alex Toth drew a new story and new front and back covers for a 1975 Super-Friends special. Toth's version of Superman was left "as is" on the story and the back cover, and of course was appearing on TV every week. But for the front cover, the head of his Superman figure was replaced with an old Curt Swan photostat.)

At right, published version retouched by Murphy Anderson

So that's one reason they made the changes they made.  Another, perhaps lesser one, was that DC was then very into cultivating a "DC look," with some there taking a certain pride in the fact that the art in their books didn't resemble the inferior (to them) artwork in the Marvel titles.  So along comes Jack Kirby and what he does, almost by definition, is a "Marvel version" of the jewel in the DC crown, Superman…and to some in the office, that just didn't look right.

Anyway, Vince Colletta had been assigned to ink Kirby's DC work and he was asked to try and bring the Kirby drawings more into line with the "official" versions of Superman and young Olsen. A few other hands pitched in but after Colletta had inked the second of Jack's Jimmy Olsens, it became apparent that they hadn't been improved. Some felt they were worse with impersonal, frozen faces.  Mr. Colletta has his defenders but I don't think any of them would claim he was as skilled a pencil artist as Jack Kirby.

Whatever, Kirby's DC debut was highly touted and it was decided that the books could not go to press with those drawings of Superman and Jimmy Olsen. (The Jimmy Olsen issues were scheduled to be published first, then Forever People would be the first of the new "Fourth World" books.) So they had veteran Superman artist Al Plastino take care of all the Superman figures and most of the Olsen heads.

(Some people think Plastino "inked" Kirby on those characters.  Not really.  By the time the pages got to Plastino, what Kirby did had already been largely obliterated.  Plastino drew new Superman figures and Olsen heads in roughly the same poses and positions, and these were pasted into the artwork.)

At right, published version retouched by Murphy Anderson

Thereafter, except for two issues, Jack drew Superman and Jimmy Olsen his way, and Murphy Anderson did the adjustments. Sometimes, Anderson would re-pencil and then Colletta would ink the entire page. More often, Colletta would ink the pages and leave the Olsen and Superman drawings for Anderson to finish.  The above panels represent a "before and after" of a panel that Jack pencilled and then Colletta inked the cape while Anderson inked the face.  There were two issues of Jimmy Olsen that were inked by Mike Royer and on those, Mike did some "correction" of the Superman and Olsen drawings as he inked. Many of Jack's covers were inked by Neal Adams who brought the drawings more in line with accepted company policy.

Jack hated that they were doing this, though he was such a "good sport" about it that he apparently convinced some at the office that he thought he was fine with it. But he thought it was insulting, and he also thought that it was just bad business. If you're selling the fans a Superman by Kirby, you ought to give them a Superman by Kirby. Moreover, he was never that wild about drawing other folks' characters anyway, and he felt that if DC didn't want to publish a Kirby Superman, they shouldn't have him on a comic that featured Superman.  He also thought it was odd that they were constantly talking about "modernizing" Superman and bringing him into the seventies…but confronted with a new approach, they immediately called in a guy (Plastino) who'd been drawing Superman since 1948.  Plastino was not even being given work on the Superman comics at the time because his style was regarded as "old-fashioned."

My own opinion — and that of several folks like Marv Wolfman who saw Jack's untouched pencils — was that DC overreacted.  Yeah, Jack couldn't draw Superman's chest emblem.  (It was the one thing in the world I drew better than Jack Kirby and he had me draw it for him in some issues.)  And yes, he often did not get that distinctive forehead curl right.  But I thought his Superman was otherwise just fine and by retouching, they wound up with a jarring clash of styles and a lot of puzzled readers.  I also think there would have been no problem if Colletta had been replaced with a better inker — say, Frank Giacoia or Wally Wood, both of whom were turned down for the assignment.  I believe either of them could have made minor adjustments that would have made Jack's Superman acceptable to all.  Even having Murphy Anderson ink the book would have lessened the awkwardness of two opposing styles in the same panel.

DC recently issued the first of two volumes reprinting Jack's Jimmy Olsen stories, just as they were originally published. There is no way to actually restore what Jack did — only a few stats of a few panels have survived — but there was once talk of having someone (probably Steve Rude) redraw the redraws into more of a Kirby style. In fact, I somewhat instigated such discussions before finally becoming convinced that it was impractical.  You really wouldn't be resurrecting what Jack did since those drawings are lost and gone forever.  You'd just be trading one set of non-Kirby drawings for another.  It might have a certain commercial appeal but it wouldn't exactly undo what was done to the work in the first place.

Rude did take an unused Kirby cover sketch and turn it into the cover of one of the Olsen reprint volumes. That's Jack's sketch that I've posted as an illustration above. If you click on it, you can see a larger version and get a little better idea of how Kirby drew Superman and Jimmy Olsen, even though this is a rough sketch and not a finished drawing.

As you can tell, I think DC made a colossal mistake in how they handled this.  One exec over in the licensing division at the time argued that it would seriously damage the value of the property to have Superman drawn "off-model."  I think hindsight has shown that far more harm was done to the character by putting out a bland, uninteresting product…even if it did stick to some official corporate interpretation.  One of the significant evolutions since then in the field of Creator Rights is that this kind of thing is never done to an artist's work now.