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Comic Books, Film
COMIC LEGEND: Marvel staffers intentionally included extra negative letters in the letter columns of Jack Kirby’s titles in the mid-1970s.
STATUS: Appears to be False
Jack Kirby returned to Marvel at the end of 1975 after spending the previous five years at DC Comics.
His return to Marvel was not quite as successful as his last stint at the company, but the work he did was fine, especially his creation of the Eternals…
And when Kirby left Marvel, it was less an issue of the books not doing well and more of Kirby wanting to do other things, especially as the world of animation was calling.
However, it seems pretty clear that at the time there were a few Marvel staffers who were not pleased with Kirby’s return. Perhaps not so much that they were irked that he was returning PERIOD but rather that they didn’t think his new stories necessarily fit in with the then-current Marvel style of writing. Kirby’s scripting definitely stood out from the rest of Marvel. I don’t think that that was necessarily a bad thing, but clearly some folks DID.
Anyhow, a longstanding legend is that Marvel staffers did not like Kirby so much that they intentionally crafted letter columns for his titles filled with negative letters. Kirby himself believed so, calling them “knock letters” and he felt that these staffers felt that THEY should be writing the books, not Kirby.
When I first heard this, it seemed a bit hard for me to believe, as some of the folks on staff at the time included Roger Stern and Scott Edelman, people who I just didn’t see as doing something so juvenile and mean (I could see people having issue with Kirby’s mid-70s Marvel work, but not to the point where they’d intentionally make a negative letter column just to spit him). Early last year, I actually found an editorial that Stern had written in 1982 in Comics Feature.
He denied anything untoward was happening to Kirby’s letter column, stating:
As for the idea that competing writers filled the pages of Jack’s books with overly critical letters- ‘knock letters’ as Jack called them- well, nothing could be further from the truth. To the best of my recollection, the letters pages to Jack’s books were assembled by then-staffer Scott Edelman and neo-writer David Anthony Kraft, though I put together a few myself. Certainly none of us coveted Mr. Kirby’s assignments, nor were we in any position to have even dreamed of assuming them.
Not fully trusting my memory on this, I checked back over the old letters pages to see just how negative the printed mail was. In Captain America and Black Panther, I found that over two-thirds of the mail responses were out-and-out raves, an impressive statistic when one considers that the previous writers associated with those two series- Steve Englehart and Don McGregor- had such a rabid fan following. On the 2001 book, mail was about 75% positive. In the only letters page to run in Machine Man during Jack’s tenure, mail was 100% positive. I could find only four negative letters in the entire run of the Eternals, and one of those was from a reader who felt the book raised troubling theological questions.
For whatever reason, I never ended up using this legend then (I don’t recall why. I often plan on using a legend, then I put it down and the next thing I know it’s a year later and I still haven’t used it). But I figured, okay, I’ll try it this week. I figured I’d see if anything new was written about this and sure enough, Scott Edelman actually did an extensive feature on this issue over at his neat blog.
Edelman, too, examining the letter columns could not find any evidence of the columns being filled with negative letters to Kirby (in addition, of course, he personally does not believe that he was doing anything of the sort at the time, despite his own personal view at the time that yes, he was not a big fan of Kirby’s scripting). He even shared this bit that he wrote in response to a fan who specifically brought up Kirby’s scripting and how Marvel fandom all wanted Steve Englehart back:
Do they, Jim? We don’t think so.
As we’ve said before, the difference between Kirby and Englehart is basically one of style. They each have their individual visions as to who Cap is, and both of their Caps are different in character then the way he originally appeared. We could argue forever about their respective merits and maladies, but there is nothing we can say about the book that the King can’t say for himself in his work.
We feel that most of our readers like Jack’s work, and whether we’re right, only time and sales will tell.
Check out the link to see scans of a bunch of letter columns.
I am not saying that there were not staffers at Marvel in the mid-1970s that had a problem with Jack Kirby but it sure does not appear as if said problem made its way into the letter columns.
Thanks to Roger Stern and Scott Edelman for the information!
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