Suspended Animation # 216
In a short biography of Jack Kirby supposedly written by Jack himself that appeared in the Marvel comic books in 1961, it states: “Frustrated by bad spelling, I turned to bad drawing and improved both enough in my late teens to land a job in a small syndicate servicing weekly newspapers.
“From there to Max Fleischer animation studios – where, for negligible wages, I learned that the human body, in motion, has value and beauty. When Popeye and Betty Boop took the initial steps to throw their pies, it was my job to complete the movements and speed of the action. This operation was called in-betweening. When comic magazines blossomed as a field, I leaped in and drew for anyone who would let me tell a story.”
While most of Kirby’s peers in his neighborhood saw their future as policemen, politicians or gangsters, Kirby wanted to be an artist but only lasted less than a week at art class at Pratt University because his father lost his job. Kirby dropped out and needed to find paying work. He started doing some artwork for Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate.
He also got a job as an in-betweener at the Fleischer Studios in New York sometime in 1935 supposedly earning around fifteen dollars a week. It can be debated that this was his earliest formal art training that taught him about movement and exaggeration.
Working in the same room during that exact same time as an in-betweener was cartoonist John Stanley, who would go on to later fame on the Little Lulu comic books among other credits so it is probable that the two artists met.
Around the same time Sheldon Mayer, Harry Lampert and Gill Fox, all of whom would make an impact in early comic books, were also working there. Stanley left in 1936 to work with Hal Horne on Mickey Mouse Magazine.
By that time, Kirby was also gone. He saw there was labor unrest at the studio and left well before the strike of May 1937 and the studio later relocating to Miami, Florida in 1938.
He was not working there in 1939 as many sources state because he would have had to be living in Florida. In the summer of 1940, he and his family moved to Brooklyn, New York where he met Rosalind Goldstein who he would later marry in 1942.
Kirby did admit that one of the benefits he got from working at the animation studio was that he smuggled out large quantities of pencils and erasers, which he used for many years drawing newspaper strips and comic books. Certainly his working on Popeye cartoons inspired the work he did on the comic strip Socko the Seadog done under the name of “Teddy”.
In 1978, DePatie-Freleng got the rights to produce a Saturday morning cartoon show based on Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic book. They wanted a “Kirby” look to the project and writer Mark Evanier called the animation director to let him know Kirby was available.
Kirby agreed to work on the project because his work on the series would count toward the number of pages still required on his Marvel contract before he could leave. That experience led to Kirby developing concept art for animated series produced by H-B and Ruby-Spears for many years.
I did get to meet Kirby briefly and ask him about his time at the Fleischer Studio when John Cawley and I were having breakfast before going into man our table at a San Diego Con. Kirby’s wife Roz rightly cut the conversation short so that Jack could have his breakfast and told me to contact him later. Unfortunately, I never did.
Some of those remarks are incorporated into the following remembrance that Kirby shared in the 1971 limited edition comics fanzine Train of Thought: “I applied for the job. I think I saw an ad. I showed them some sample drawings and they needed an in-betweener. I got the job and thought it was a good opportunity. I am not knocking it.
“They didn’t pay well, especially by today’s standards but whatever you made in those days counted for a lot. Things were cheaper back then. I never knocked the money. I just knocked the life.
“Fleischer animation, like any animation studio, was a factory. It’s a factory with long rows of tables. That’s what I was doing at Fleischer’s. I was sitting at one of those long rows of tables with lights underneath. They’d give me this in-between action.
“An in-betweener penciled in the action in between a full step. In other words the man before you would begin knowing the full step. It might take three or four pictures or sometimes more. The in-betweener would draw the in between steps. He would draw the segment of completing that step. Animation was done in this type of way.
“I would finish the action on some sheets of paper and I would give them the sheets of paper. That was my importance. I felt that I was well treated at Fleischer’s. It was a good organization, a big organization, and I was just a seventeen year old kid.
“It was an assembly line. This long table — lots of people working at that table…It was, like my father’s (garment) factory. My father worked in a factory with long rows of tables with sewing machines on them. My father used to sit by them and turn out his quota of merchandise.
“That’s what I was doing at Fleischer’s. I was sitting at one of these long rows of tables with lights underneath. They were manufacturing pictures. I didn’t like that. I wanted to do my own stuff. I’m an individualist. I always felt that I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I might have done well if I had gotten into the story aspect but I just couldn’t wait for that. I just didn’t want to be a nothing like anybody else in that room.
“So who the hell was I? And that was always the question I tried to ask myself and when I didn’t get the right answer, I tried something else.
“I admit that there was some fascination to it but it wasn’t the uppermost thing in my mind. What was in my mind was to do what was required better than eight other guys could do it. It was tougher than you might think.“I had to duplicate what was being done by someone else and I had no training on how to do that. So I had to figure out how to do it the best way possible so that it would look better than the other guys.
“I used to define the human figure for myself. When I used to have to draw creases on an arm I could feel the muscle flex or I could draw out that arm to its extreme. Nice to play around with the human figure like that. I did some extreme drawings, and maybe that’s where all the motion format in my later artwork comes from. And I just like that sort of thing anyway.
“I left Fleischer’s still with no idea how they really made the drawings move. I had to get out in a hurry because I couldn’t take that kind of thing any more. I began to see the first comic books appear. I can remember them hanging from the newsstands.”
In 1942, Kirby legally changed his name from Jacob Kurtzberg to Jack Kirby, although he always insisted he did not do it to hide his Jewish heritage. So his work for Fleischer was done under his original name.