“They’re grabbers. They’ll grab a copyright, they’ll grab a drawing, they’ll grab a script. They’re grabbers — that’s their policy. They can be as dignified as they like. … They can act like businessmen. But to me, they’re acting like thugs.” -Jack Kirby
Phil Yeh is a friend of the site, a graphic novel pioneer who helped the world discover DC Comics’ mistreatment of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Phil spoke with us about the loss of Jerry Robinson back in December. This time I asked him to write about his own experiences with Jack Kirby and his thoughts on comic creator and Slate contributor James Sturm’s Marvel boycott, which was launched due to Marvel’s unfair treatment of Kirby and now his estate. Here is what he had to say.
In 1970, my friend Shane Noguchi saw an ad about this comic convention being held in San Diego. A few months before, he saw a contest in a comic book and urged me to enter a gag. I won $5, which in those days was a small fortune. I can still remember getting the check from National Periodical Publications, which was what DC was known as then. Shane really thought I would grow up and become a famous comic book artist. Shane read comic books, and unlike most of the kids in my youth, didn’t like sports at all. I didn’t like comics much and really never read them until another friend called Dennis Lew gave me his collection of DC comics in the 8th grade. Dennis told me that he was only going to collect Marvel now because they had better stories and art. I would later find out from Shane that it was because of a man called Jack Kirby. Dennis also told me that he would buy all the new DC comics from the local liquor store on El Segundo Boulevard and keep “my collection” going for me. I agreed and until I moved away to the suburbs in the middle of the 10th grade, I was a “comic book collector”. I didn’t like most superheroes, but I fell in love with with Sugar & Spike. Sheldon Mayer’s work about the world of two cute babies had a great connection to me. Anyway, even though I now lived in Seal Beach, I promised Shane that I would check out this comic book convention that summer in San Diego.
I had to convince my father, a Chinese engineer who appreciated the art in the daily comic pages but who never much liked comic books, to give me a ride to that first comic convention in San Diego at the U.S. Grant hotel. In fact, my parents really did not think highly of comic books at all. I had been encouraged to read and aside for my passion for sports, my passion was for real books, not comics. I had read just about all the books in my middle school library.
My youngest sister, Kathy, who would win the Bronze medal in Tae Kwon Do later, went along with us to that first San Diego comic convention. I can remember that it was in the hotel basement and there were about 300 people there. I remember talking to Ray Bradbury and telling him that I loved his books and that I wanted to be a writer. But I was really bad at grammar and could not spell to save my life, and I didn’t do well in my 8th grade typing class. Mr. Bradbury told me that they had editors who would fix things like spelling and grammar and that many authors wrote their books in longhand! He had not gone to college because he couldn’t afford it and told me that he was educated from reading everything he could, especially Buck Rogers.
I then went to the other guest and told him that I wanted to be an artist but didn’t know where to go to college to draw comics. Mr. Kirby seemed like a giant to me. I knew his work, not from Marvel. but from the series’ he had created for DC. But he was kind and humble and told me to just go for it! “You don’t need to go to college to draw comics!” My Chinese engineer father was shocked to hear that his eldest son was being given this advice from two professionals! A couple of months later, in the fall of 1970, I would start my own publishing company while still in high school. A 12th grade student named Roger County would forever change my career path by dropping a copy of a Rick Griffin underground comix on my desk. I immediately flew up to San Francisco with my high school classmate Mark Eliot and met Ron Turner at Last Gasp, who gave us two huge shopping bags full of underground comix. We also walked into the offices of The Rip Off Press and met the creator of The Freak Brothers, Gilbert Shelton.
By the time I started college (to please my father) at Cal State University Long Beach in 1972 I had an established studio in Anaheim and dreams of syndicating my own comic strip. I met a man called Richard Kyle in his Long Beach comic book, science fiction, and fantasy bookstore. Richard knew everyone and he hired me to paint the logo in the front of his store. One day, he told me that a friend of his called Mike Royer, who inked the work of Jack Kirby, needed an assistant to ink in the blacks. He gave me Mike’s number and I went to his house. No one was home when the day of our appointment came, but then I saw this man pushing a car down the street. All dreams that working in comics paid well evaporated when the man came huffing and puffing into the driveway and said that he was Mike Royer. We went into his little studio and he looked at the college comic strips I had brought. I had started my own daily strip called Cazco, the second day in college. He laughed and said that he could tell that I could draw and that I would be wasting my time inking in the blacks on Kirby’s pages. He suggested that I just continue to do my own thing. I have always thought how critical Mike Royer’s advice was in keeping me away from the terrible working conditions of most comic book publishers in those days. Many decades later, I was speaking at the Medford Library in Oregon about graphic novels and Mike left me his card outside the room while I was giving my talk. Having written, illustrated and published one of the first modern graphic novels in 1977, I always talk about how I came to be in this field and how people like Jack Kirby and Ray Bradbury influenced my life. My now-wife Linda Adams had actually lived in Medford, and we both joined Mike for breakfast and a nice visit of his home. I told him thanks for steering me away from a “real job” working in mainstream comics! We shared a good laugh.
My best friend from 1977 to his death his 2000 was Alfredo Alcala, who worked for everyone in the mainstream comics world. It was this association and my interview with Jerry Siegel about his and Joe Shuster’s unfair treatment by DC in 1975 that really cemented my opinion of many big corporations. Here were the two men who created Superman, living near poverty! My article, the first published on this injustice, led to Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams taking up this cause to help Jerry and Joe. Knowing Alfredo better than most gave me insight to the extreme unfairness that existed in these comic book companies at that time. Artists and writers worked for hire and never got paid if anything based on their creative talents was made, be it bedsheets or a movie. Alfredo even inked Jack Kirby’s work, and I could see that Jack was not getting anything for his creations by DC or Marvel.
When Marvel’s president called me in the middle 1980s to offer me my own children’s comic book for my character Frank the Unicorn, I replied that I would agree as long as I could own my own copyright. The deal never happened, because I insisted on copyright ownership and full artistic control. Years later I would learn of the lawsuit by Kirby’s family. Then Disney, not known for being fair with creators, bought Marvel for $4 billion, and you knew that corporate America had won. Now in 2012, we have the latest James Sturm and Steve Bissette-led boycott of the new Avengers film. It is nice to have both of them on the bandwagon. Those of us who have long boycotted both of these companies welcome all support. Perhaps we can start a real social networking revolution to bring about real justice to the creators. The people who really did the work, the real work, and not the fakes like a certain Mr. Lee, who has always overstated what he did while paying very little attention to the real people who did the actual creative work, like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.
Phil Yeh began his professional career in 1970 in Southern California where he grew up. In 1973 he created Uncle Jam, a wonderful free paper covering the arts, that he published for the next 19 years. In 1977 he wrote, illustrated and published one of the first modern American graphic novels, Even Cazco Gets the Blues. He followed up this first book with at least one brand new graphic novel each year for the next 15 years. To date, Phil has written and illustrated over 80 published books.
Phil founded Cartoonists Across America & The World in 1985 after being inspired by Wally Amos to do something about the literacy crisis on the planet. His band of artists have promised to tour the world for 25 years until 2010. They have painted more than 1700 murals in 49 states in the United States as well as more than a dozen countries working with some of the most talented artists on the planet. You can learn more about Phil here.
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