AVENGERS #25 February 1966
Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers original artists
Long, long ago, shortly after I first managed to sneak my way into the comics biz, I'd make up piles of what amounted to be primitive prototypes of these more refined cover reinterpretations and cart 'em along with me to conventions, hoping to sell a few. While what you see up there on your screens is derived from a 10" by 15" black and white original, employing a full range of rapidographs utilizing varying sized nibs, these old con illos of mine were a whole 'nother bird.
Only the focal elements were redrawn, for instance--no backgrounds, no lettering, no logos. Additionally, they were rendered in permanent magic marker, not good ol' India ink. As a bonus--and hopefully, a selling point--my lovely wife Lynn went after 'em with a set of color markers and did her level best to brighten up my cheesy cartoons. I've long since abandoned this particular format for my redos, but back in 1980, I took a score of 'em with me when I was invited to attend a big convention deep in the heart of Houston, Texas as an honored guest--and sure enough, one of the pieces included was a simplified version of the above Klassic Kirby Kover, featuring his oh-so-memorable depiction of a vastly outclassed group of neo-Avengers--AND Captain America-- nonetheless facing down the supremely powerful Dr. Doom, practically on the very street where the metal-plated ne'er do well lived!?! And the reason I'm telling you all this? Well, stick with me. You'll figure it out soon enough, I'm sure...

Y'see, that very con--which, in many ways, was a total and near complete nightmare--was where I met Jack Kirby for the one and only time in my life!?! Oh, THAT wasn't the bad part, not by any means. The big problem was the overreaching manner in which this event was mounted, promising so much to so many people--they actually had all the cast members of the original "Star Trek" signed up to perform a stage play written by Chekov (Walter Koenig, I hasten to add, not that OTHER guy...), calling it "The Ultimate Fantasy"--as well as comics icon Kirby, the likes of Roy Thomas, Richard and Wendy Pini, and, yes, even yours truly. I knew we were in for big trouble when, while merely attempting to check in at the con's hotel, we saw the problems Bond girl Caroline Munro was having trying to confirm HER reservations!?! She had just flown in from England--and boy, were her arms tired!!--and she was in no mood for the complications that were being sprung on her. None of us were. The details are a little fuzzy, two plus decades on, but the gist of it was, the genius who organized this mess--and charged big, big ticket prices for all aspects of the affair (collecting as much in advance sales as possible) but especially that Trek reunion--up and absconded with ALL the money barely hours before the doors were scheduled to open!?! We never actually dealt with this skunk--and I have NO idea how this case eventually played out--but luckily we instead were invited to attend by a very nice fellow in charge of the comics contingent who went by the initials "J. R." After he dipped into his bank account--the poor sap---and sprung for our room, HIM we didn't want to shoot, just the other guy!?! (That's a "Dallas" allusion for any of you young folks out there. Um, ARE there any young folks out there?...)

The three day weekend convention was always on the verge of collapsing, but it somehow someway successfully struggled to keep it's doors open. Not that it wasn't a nerve-racking experience--I can vividly recall going up to my room mid-afternoon on Saturday only to find a strongly worded flyer shoved under the door courtesy of the hotel. Seems they were about to evict us all, and soon, unless they got their cash for the balance of our stay!! Worse yet--the Star Trek show may not even go on!! Heavens! The actors actually wanted to be PAID--imagine that? The night before this star-crossed "enterprise" (pun, of course, intended) was on the verge of crashing, I remember a great and lively--if hopelessly naive--debate in the hallways amongst the sci-fi show's most rabid fans, with the ultimate solution decided upon being an attempt to pass the hat and take up a collection so as to insure that their beloved Trekspians hit the not-quite-Broadway-boards!?! (And no, no money left THIS ensign's pocket towards such a dubious cause, I assure you!...)

Well, the good news was that, somehow, we never got kicked out of our rooms, and better yet--YES!-- the immortal original Treksters put on their little play! Not that I went to see it, mind you--and at the outrageously high ticket prices, neither did very many others, leaving the cavernous auditorium in which it was staged mostly empty and ripe for echo practice--but at least the show went on. Of course, either Nimoy or Shatner dropped out in light of these suspect circumstances--I don't rightly recall exactly WHICH one bailed on his fans, but hey, take your pick. I mention all this calamity just to give you a bit of a feel for the sort of strained atmosphere under which I got to meet one of the true artistic inspirations of my youth!...

Let's go back to that first night, shall we? After J.R. so kindly had taken care of our accommodations, we checked in, went up to our room and dropped off our luggage--what we had of it, anyway!?! Did I mention that a suitcase or two was delayed until the following day because the airlines, um, misplaced 'em? No? And that our car broke down on the way to the airport, and to make our flight, we had to leave it parked on the side of the street and call for a taxi, hoping it would still be there when we returned ?? (It was. Thank Rao for small favors...) All this is absolutely true, and all of this was on my mind when we FINALLY made our way downstairs to the con, already underway on a Friday evening. I spotted a familiar face from a previous mutual convention appearance, the artist Mike Gustovich. We greeted each other warmly, and while attempting to unload on him the the Reader's Digest version of the trials and tribulations Lynn and I had just endured, we both suddenly realized that none other than the Great Man himself, Jack Kirby, was giving a talk in the very next room!?! Well, my self-involved whining could wait for another time (say, 23 years later, zapped across a medium that hadn't even been invented yet! Yeah, sounds right...)--let's go see the King!!

Now, what I'm about to confess to you isn't exactly easy. Understand that as much as I worshiped Jack's drawing while growing up on his brilliant Marvel Comics work, I never fully warmed up to his later work for DC, at least not to the same extent. A large part of this conflict had to do with Jack's idiosyncratic dialog. While his plotting was as majestic as ever, the words that came out of his characters mouths from pretty much 1970 on just sounded...odd to my ears. Bear this in mind, because as we walked into the crowded room and heard Jack expounding enthusiastically from up there on that stage, a thought suddenly hit me, a thought that's still the one most distinct thing I remember after all these years from that infamously memorable weekend, and without thinking, that thought just tumbled out of my mouth...

"Ohmighod--he REALLY talks like that?!?"

I said it with a certain amount of astonishment in the tone of my voice, but after taking note of the dirty look Mike quickly shot me, I realized that my spontaneous assessment of the Great Kirby's manner of speaking sounded more like an insult than a comment. I've been pretty much embarrassed by it ever since, but the truth is, it WAS the truth!?! Jack talked just like they did in NEW GODS, MISTER MIRACLE, MACHINE MAN, even--heaven help us--THE DINGBATS OF DANGER STREET!?! Well, after I got over the shock, I settled in and took in the rest of Jack's chat, enjoying it as my ears became more accustomed to the unique Kirby dialect. As for my audience companion, well, I don't recall if Mike Gustovich EVER spoke to me again!...( Okay, okay--he probably did, but it'd sure make for a whole lot better story if he didn't, don'tcha think?...)

Later that same night, there was a little cocktail party for all the guests, and THAT'S where I finally met Jack Kirby face to face! Needless to say, I was incredibly intimidated by the very prospect, and it had NOTHING to do with the language employed. I mean, there I was, standing mere inches away from one of my all time biggest influences!?! Yipes all mighty!! Add that to the fact that I'd never been particularly comfortable with folks that much my senior (which can no doubt be traced back to having parents of an elderly nature--full and sordid details found over in the "Life Story" section of this site). I hemmed, I hawed, I said as little as possible (unlike the mighty Kirby, I apparently couldn't talk at ALL!?!..), and was greatly relieved when Wendy Pini sauntered up and engaged Jack in a far more entertaining conversation. But I'd met Jack Kirby, by golly! And, along with his his wife Roz, he was just as nice as could be! Most amazingly, I think what really floored me about the encounter was the fact that he actually KNEW who I was!?! He wasn't just faking it either--I don't recall the exact piece of evidence that tipped me off, but I was certain that he honest to gosh knew who goofy cartoonist Fred Hembeck was!?! This fact surprised AND tickled me to no end, and as I type this, I'm suddenly flashing back on the return trip to our room after that modest little soiree ended. There I was, standing alone in the elevator with wife Lynn, just repeating over and over, "Jack Kirby knew who I was? He REALLY knew who I was!?!", a silly little smile pasted across my face all the while. It was, most definitely, my supreme Sally Field moment...

Emboldened by this knowledge, when I was situated at a table very near the Kirbys the next morning, I no longer felt the tentativeness I'd suffered from the night before. And why should I? Jack and Roz were very down to earth, warm people, and there was certainly no hint of any over-sized ego anywhere amongst the pair!! Not that I became any sort of chatterbox--I remained respectful of the man over to my right. I just treated him in a far more casual manner than I'd ever dreamed possible. The thing was, the couple seemed to have a knack for putting admirers totally at ease, and Lynn and I were not exempt from their charms. Now, as you can well imagine, the fans kept Jack pretty doggone busy throughout the entire weekend--hey, I even had MY hands full at times!?!--so our opportunities to yak was fairly limited. Roz had more time, and she proved to be a tremendously delightful woman! You could tell she could be tough when she had to be, sharing all sort of hard-earned advice with us, but you could ALSO tell she could be as sweet as could be with folks she considered friends. Happily, by the time the whole affair wrapped up, I felt we had somehow managed to qualify for that privileged group!!

As our time in the King's makeshift court began to wind down, Jack came over and suggested we swap drawings. He was pretty much doing pencil sketches of Captain's Victory and America exclusively, and he offered me my choice. No offense meant towards the Pacific Comics stalwart, but inasmuch as Steve Rogers costumed alter ego was and remains my all-time favorite comic book character, well, you can just imagine WHICH one I chose!?! And yup, it's long since been framed (by the multi-talented Rocco Nigro--thanks, Roc!) and hangs on my wall even now! And as for MY part of the deal? Remember what we were talking about way, way back at the beginning of this motley and meandering monolog?...

Uh huh. Jack rifled through the color illos remaining in my sales pile. After some small consideration, Jack chose my demented remake of AVENGERS #25 and I proudly gave it to him. Being younger, more naive, and--yup, no getting around it--stupider, it never even occurred to me the inherent tackiness of that simple act. Here I was, blithely gifting one of the true geniuses of the comics medium with a screwy little rip-off of a scene he his own self had first drawn 15 years earlier!?! I mean, was that REALLY any less cringe-inducing than my earlier embarrassing outburst (which, thankfully, took place far out of Jack's earshot)? But Jack accepted my offering in good spirits, and if he ever had any negative thoughts regarding my playfully plagiarizing his work, he never said anything.

Soon enough, having somehow survived the constantly collapsing con, it was time to truly leave our hotel room for real and return home. Sad to say, I never had the honor of being in Jack or Roz's presence again, but years later, when I scribbled up my own Christmas cards in the early nineties for a few seasons, I made sure to send them out to the Kirbys. Much to my delight, they swapped cards with us, buttressing the good vibes by enclosing a very complimentary note inscribed therein regarding my work! Golly, I blush at the very thought! They hadn't forgotten Lynn and I, much to our everlovin' delight!

Y'know, I've had a chance to take a second and even a third look at some of those seventies Kirby books in recent times, and yeah, the lingo is a tad bit out of the ordinary, granted. But you know what? I've come to realize it's not HOW you say it, but WHAT it is that you say! And what Jack Kirby had to say (and Roz, too!!) was ALWAYS worth a listen!

As one of his old partners might put it, "Nuff said!"...