Original Art Stories: The Mystery Of Jack Kirby's Art Ghost

The second, and final, volume of Greg Theakston’s excellent Jack Kirby biography, Jack Magic Vol II, is now out and, as with Volume I it’s a cracking read and worth every cent - if you're even remotely serious about comic book history then you need both volumes of this book.  It’s doubtful that a biography of Kirby will be released in the future that will surpass this one for sheer entertainment value and insights, although I expect that many will try.  There might be more detailed biographies and studies to come, but Theakston's work will always sit at the head of the table, and with Jack Kirby to be featured in a major Hollywood movie, titled Argo, written by George Clooney, directed by Ben Affleck and slated for release in 2012, the time is certainly ripe for a major push for Marvel to finally start crediting Kirby with the co-creation, if not outright creation, of those seminal characters, along with some more tangible rewards for his family.

Sotheby's June 15, 1994 Catalogue
Reading the final volume of Jack Magic I was stunned to come across information relating to the cover recreations that Kirby penciled back in the early 1990s.  In short, Marvel gave Kirby, Dick Ayers and John Romita permission to pencil recreations of some of their most famous, and iconic, Marvel covers for sale at auction.  The idea was that the artists would receive all of the profits.  In Kirby's case if the covers were inked, as some were by Dick Ayers, then the profits would be split between Kirby and the inker.  As maligned as Marvel is, it was a kind gesture from the publisher and a way for Kirby to raise some serious money for his wife, Roz Kirby, and family as his health was failing rapidly.  The story is that Kirby duly set to work in the latter part of 1993 and penciled a series of covers which were then sold at auction at Sotheby’s in June 1994 , with the result being that the Kirby family realised a five figure sum.  Granted it was a pittance compared to what Marvel really owed Kirby, but, on the flip-side, they did allow the recreations to be sanctioned without a license fee.  It was the very least that Marvel could do.  Where the story is a bit strange is that, if we believe the official version, Kirby reportedly drew the pieces only months before he passed away.  In that time, we are led to believe, Kirby was in failing health, yet managed to produce high quality pencil drawings.  More on that shortly.

The recreated items of art sold for high prices, indeed some of the highest amounts that Kirby art had gone for to that point.  This was due to a number of factors, first a foremost being that these covers were amongst the first Marvel cover recreations that Kirby had done, second was the covers were official, third that some of the covers were inked by Ayers.  For Marvel collectors, who had long given up on the idea of seeing, let alone owning, the original art to covers such as Amazing Fantasy #15, or Fantastic Four #1, a recreation by the original penciler was the next best thing.  However there was one factor that collectors and the purchasers of the art didn’t know at the time, and that was some of the art, sold as being pure Kirby, was actually ghosted.  As Greg Theakston recounts; 

During the last two years of his life, the family began to offer re-creations of some of Jack’s most famous covers. Kirby had quit drawing a few years before and if he couldn’t sign his name without some tremor he certainly couldn’t transcribe a Comics Code stamp. A ghost artist was enlisted to produce the work, some of which was inked by Kirby’s long-time associate Dick Ayers. Even if Kirby could, he wouldn’t want to do cover recreation because he hated doing anything twice, much less covers the first time.

The June 18, 1994, some four months after his death, Sotheby’s Auction House featured the following recreations, some by Kirby’s ghost only, some by Kirby’s ghost and Ayers.
AMAZING FANTASY #15 ($10,925)
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 ($14,950)-
TALES OF SUSPENSE #39 ($7,475)
FANTASTIC FOUR #1 ($7,475)-
FANTASTIC FOUR #5 ($6,325)
X-MEN #1 ($4,887)
STRANGE TALES #89 ($5,750)
For those of you without a calculator, that’s just under $68,000, less what the ghost artist and Dick Ayers were paid.  A handful off private commissions from the same period included:
FANTASTIC FOUR #48, #49, #50, #72
At an average of $6,000 per cover, the figure jumps to about $89,000, or about three years worth of work at Marvel. Now, it may seem unethical to pull such a fast one but it was all being done to help support Roz. Jack’s earning days were over and if all he had left was the selling power of his name, so be it. And the guy knew the end was near. Hell, for a woman about to become a widow? My surrogate mother about to be a widow? If they’d asked me, I’d have done re-creations for them and not given the ethics a second thought[1].

I don’t doubt Greg Theakston’s account for a few reasons.  He was there at the time, which is more than a lot of people can say, and as he was acting as Kirby’s art dealer and agent, he would have been privy to information that others outside of his family wouldn’t have been.  This leaves us with a few options, either Kirby drew the recreations alone, he had help, or a ‘ghost’ artist penciled the covers with either minimal or no input or assistance from Kirby.  Naturally this information wasn’t disclosed at the time of the Sotheby’s auctions, nor did Mark Evanier disclose this information in his subsequent POV column in The Comic Buyers Guide about the recreations.  But if Kirby didn’t draw the art, then who did?  I’ve been led to believe that none other than Mike Royer was the Kirby ghost, but that has yet to be confirmed, what is also known is that latter day Kirby inker Mike Thibodeaux both penciled and inked the titles and mastheads on some of the covers.  Certainly the infamous ‘work in progress’ photos, which shows Kirby at the drawing board supposedly drawing the recreated Amazing Fantasy #15 cover, offers up no concrete conclusions as the art appears to be fully finished in both shots, so it could be that Kirby merely sat down at the board with the cover in front of him.  It’s also worth keeping in mind that the cover was finished a mere two months before Kirby’s death, and here lies some more damning evidence.

Jack Kirby posing with the cover shown below
If you look art that Kirby produced professionally towards the end of his life it’s clear that a pattern of deterioration developed.  The art in his final few fully pencilled books wasn’t the usual high Kirby quality; in its original pencil form its generally shaky and not clearly defined.  It’s well known that a lot of his later art was ‘fixed’ in the inks by the likes of Royer, D. Bruce Berry, Thibodeaux and Theakston himself, and that Kirby had pretty much finished drawing in the early 1990s.  The idea that Kirby, in failing health, could produce such detailed, high quality pencil recreations is a bit of a stretch, but such was the emotive quality of the art that people were willing to suspend disbelief in order to gain a bargain.  But what of those who now own the recreations?  What, if any, recourse do they have?

It’s doubtful that Dick Ayers knew that the covers had been ghosted, and there’s no suggestion that Ayers did anything other than ink the art put before him, as he was asked, and paid, to.  However it’s highly possible that Sotheby’s was aware of the ghosting, but ignored it, certainly the descriptions and write up in the art catalogue make no mention of the art being anything but genuine. Art dealer Mike Burkey sold the Amazing Fantasy #15 recreation for a price around the $70,000-$80,000 mark in recent times, certainly Mike wasn’t aware that the art had been either fully or partially ghosted by another artist when he bought the art or when he sold it.  If Sotheby’s were aware of the ghosting at the time of the sale then it’s possible that they would have put it down to a standard practice, that being that Kirby, similar to artists in the fine art world, regularly employed ghosts to produce work under his name and in his style.  He wouldn’t have been the first artist to do so, indeed he wouldn’t have been the first comic book artist to sign high end art for auction that he didn’t produce – it’s common knowledge that a lot of the Bob Kane ‘paintings’ and other images, such as lithographs that he sold at auction towards the end of his life were ghosted by others; legend has it that one artist brought legal action against Kane for his failure to promptly pay for the work.  The practice of using ghost artists to produce work under the supervision, or approval, of an artist isn’t illegal per se, but the selling of that art, without clear and proper attribution is somewhat unethical.  In the case of the Kirby recreations they were sold with certificates of authenticity signed by Roz Kirby and representatives of both Marvel and Sotheby’s.  Certainly those who paid the price then, and have paid higher prices since 1994, could have a valid complaint, and the accusation that the art, in all likeliness, wasn’t produced by Jack Kirby, means its overall value will diminish considerably.  After all it’s one thing to believe that you own the last ever full pencil piece by Jack Kirby only to find out that he probably didn’t draw it.

The COA that came with the Amazing Fantasy #15 cover

The main page detailing the recreations from the Sotheby's catalogue

[1] Jack Magic Vol II; Greg Theakston, Pure Imagination 2011


Mike D. said…
Thank you...I have got to find these books.
Booksteve said…
Similarly, toward the end of his life Salvador Dali supposedly decided it would be "surreal" to have his official signature ghosted on signed/numbered art prints.

Glad you liked the Kirby book! I was very impressed with it, too!
Anonymous said…
Hard to imagine any informed person thinking for one second those covers were done by Kirby. It's plain as day they were lightboxed.
It's just one more indication of how comic book for many people aren't about art, and artists, but rather about so called "iconic images," famous covers, and big name characters.
James said…
You and Theakston aren't doing the Kirbys any favors, are you, "Danny Boy"? I take the information from a guy who began his first volume of Kirby's bio with a gushing account of his thrill at sharing "the King's throne" (Kirby's toilet) with a certain amount of salt. But you! You sure go out of your way to give the Marvel pigs plenty of credit for a generosity that is fictitious. Given the prevalence of lame cartoonists who use assistants, if Kirby drew any lines at all on those recreations then they are valid. Maybe you should take up drowning kittens as a hobby.
James said…
By the way, I am informed that at the end of his life Dali was forced to sign piles of blank pieces of paper by his caretakers who then set him and his bed on fire.
Mike D. said…
I'm still buying the books
Anonymous said…
I was going to make a joke about waitng to see how long it would take for someone to blame this on Marvel or Stan (or even Daniel) somehow, but it seems that sometimes life beats you to the punch.

Daniel Best said…
"James", the generosity that Marvel displayed was anything but fictitious. They did not have to license the recreations but they did. They could have demanded a license fee - they didn't do that. They ensured that there was a fair amount of publicity prior to the auctions. I'd be the first to admit, as I did in the original piece (portions that I'm sure you didn't bother to read) that, "Granted it was a pittance compared to what Marvel really owed Kirby, but, on the flipside, they did allow the recreations to be sanctioned without a license fee. It was the very least that Marvel could do." Did you see that bit? Of course not.

What you need to remember here is that Jack Kirby was an incredibly talented and creative visionary, but he was also a man, with his own set of failings, as everyone has. However if Kirby did not do those recreations, yet signed them, then those who bought them in good faith certainly have reason to feel aggrieved. You might be happy with it, but I'm sure that those who paid prices in the tens of thousands aren't.

And they set Dali on fire? Amazing! What other factoids do you have on hand pally?
Ray Cuthbert said…
Mike Royer has fairly vociferously denied having anything to do with the recreations:

Anonymous said…
How funny is it that a self published book which contains many examples of unverifiable "just trust me" stories is being held up as an example of a head of the table book on Kirby.
Mike P said…
I don't know what's worse--the Kirbys being so desperate as to (allegedly) scam fans, or Greg being so desperate as to raise this alleged incident almost two decades later to sell his book.

Either way, it's ugly.

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Daniel Best said…
Ok, that's enough. No more comments by anyone who refuses to put a name to things. I don't mind being abused, so be it, but have the guts to sign your name to it, otherwise what you say is merely bullshit.
Mike D. said…
Of course the recreations don't look exactly right...they're recreations...YES sometimes even the pro's use a lightbox...especially when they are doing a classic cover. Elementary.
James said…
A recreation would need to be lightboxed or projected. It could not be drawn from scratch because it is a very difficult proposition to draw an exact copy of anything, even your own work. Kirby for instance was an entirely different artist by the time, decades later, that he was asked to do them. If he was drawing them naturally they would look entirely different, in accordance with the then-current form of their style. And any fan that was that familiar with the cover in question would notice any deviance from the original. And then doing the lettering and the code symbol and everything else perfectly? Forget it. The way it is being presented seems to me like an elaborate form of torture for the artist involvded. The recreations would have to be traced in order to make an exact copy. Plus then if some of these are inked, well, wouldn't the pencils that Kirby did have been erased anyway?
Here's my comment on Simon/Kirby blogger Harry Mendryk's post on this subject:



- Rob Steibel
Mike Royer was nice enough to respond to my email to him on the topic:



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