A Week Of Jack Kirby: The Kirby Museum Commemorates The King [INTERVIEW]

Jack Kirby is probably the single most important figure in the development of American comic books. His career spanned seven decades, and though he is best-known for his work on super-hero titles, he defied simple categorization and worked in nearly every style of comic: horror, science fiction, romance, comedy, fantasy, funny animal, crime, war, western, and probably some others that I’m forgetting.

He didn’t just define a single genre: he constantly defined (and re-defined) the entire comics medium, right up until his death in 1994. So in honor of his 96th birthday, we here at MTV Geek have assembled A Week Of Jack Kirby, a series of posts celebrating the life, work and inspiration of the man that Stan Lee dubbed simply ’The King’.

Jack Kirby was born and raised in the Lower East Side of New York City.  It’s the same neighborhood I’ve lived in for the past eleven years, and I’ve spent many an afternoon wandering around, squinting my eyes, trying to envision what the world must have looked like in the tenement era, when young Jack (or Jacob Kurtzberg, as he was then known) walked these streets and dreamed of being an artist.

And I’m clearly not the only one.  The Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center was founded in 2005, to “promote and encourage the study, understanding, preservation and appreciation of the work of Jack Kirby”.  And while the Museum has operated as a purely digital entity up until this point, publishing a number of scholarly essays and blogs about The King’s life and work, and offering an extensive online library of scanned original art, they are now raising funds for a physical museum location in the Lower East Side. So, as part of our ’Week Of Jack Kirby’ celebrations, I spoke to Museum trustee Randolph Hoppe about the Kirby Museum’s history, and their plans for the future.

MTV Geek: Tell us about the museum.  How did the idea for it arise, how was the organization founded, and what is its mission statement?

Randolph Hoppe: At age 12, I was “electrocuted in the mind” – as Kirby would put it – by Kirby’s Kamandi story “The Devil and Mister Sacker!” that featured his wild boy protagonist and a giant grasshopper, to become a lifelong Kirby and comic book fan. I interviewed Kirby at San Diego in 1992 thanks to a connection I’d made on the pre-web internet. Around 1997, I wanted to learn how to make a website so I reached to John Morrow, who publishes the Jack Kirby Collector, and got him going on the web. After a few years I noticed I’d had a number of other clients who were small non-profits. Thinking about a database of Kirby work based on Twomorrows’ Kirby Checklist, I thought the best place to make such a database available would be online under the aegis of, voila, a small non-profit dedicated to promoting Kirby as a serious cultural and literary figure. I mentioned it to John Morrow, who put me in contact with Jack’s daughter Lisa Kirby, and in 2005, we became the founding
trustees of  the Jack Kirby Museum.

Our biggest effort other than basic outreach on the net and at comic cons is our Digital Archive. Because Kirby original art has become so valuable in the time that the Museum was founded, Tom Kraft, who’s a trustee as well, and I have been scanning as much Kirby original art that we can access. Thanks to the Kirby family, collectors, and original art dealers we have approximately 3,000 pieces scanned at archival quality, front and back. We also have been lucky enough to be able to scan all of the photocopies that were made of Kirby’s pencil art. All told we have an archive of more than 7,000 scans. We’re in the midst of building a new web interface for this archive so that students, researchers, Museum members, and fans can experience this archive. We’ll even, finally, get the database that inspired the Museum’s founding online. For a while until a recent website restructuring, Museum members had special access to some of our scans. This new site we’re building will re-instate that, and offer more than we previously had. I wish I could say when we will be opening the new archive site, but all I can say is that we’re working on it right now!

By manning our Kirby Museum voice- and e-mail, we’re able to assist many writers, artists, and scholars with their efforts, as well. For example, I helped a researcher from Jerusalem with his inquiry about some art and the biography by Paul Reinman, a who inked Kirby on X-Men #1, among others. Occasionally people find work and inquire if it is by Kirby; a group of fans in Italy found a previously unknown Kirby western story.

Geek: Aside from the Charles Schulz museum in California, are there any other establishments like this, devoted to a single artist?

Hoppe: When I had the idea for the Kirby Museum, I was certainly aware of the Schulz Museum, as I was inspired by their use of “Museum And Research Center” in the name. Funnily enough, it was only after John, Lisa, and I filed all the paperwork did I briefly talk with Jean Schulz in San Diego. She mentioned she thought that “Museum and Resource Center” was a better title. She’s right! I admit that at the time I was more aware of single artist museums like those for Picasso and Miro in Barcelona.

Geek: The museum’s major campaign recently has been to establish a physical location in Manhattan’s Lower East Side…  What can you tell us about that, and what progress has been made so far?

Hoppe: Our major campaign has been to raise $30,000 to open a three month pop-up storefront museum on the Lower East Side near where Kirby was born and raised. We have raised more than half of our goal, and while we’re satisfied with the results –  people have been very generous – we certainly need to meet that goal, the sooner the better! We also hope to be able to share some exciting news regarding the LES very soon.

Geek: Does the museum possess a physical collection of Kirbyana and art, or do you focus on collecting digital content?

Hoppe: In addition to the digital archive I mentioned above, we have been gifted some Kirby ephemera from historian/artist/publisher Greg Theakston and we have some art on loan from one of the Kirby family members. The Museum has a couple of pieces of original art in its own collection, too. The LES storefront will contain not just an original art gallery, but we’ll have a biographical exhibit, a display of Kirby designed toys and ephemera, and will also have a shop selling posters, postcards, publications, limited edition prints, and so on. Much like we do at our convention booths.

Geek: Are there other, more specific details on what exhibits and activities will be planned for that space?

Hoppe: The contents of our gallery will depend on the timing of what’s available when we are able to go. An opening gala, of course! Also, lectures/presentations/discussions on a wide variety of Kirby subjects designed for specific audiences (kids, college students, seniors), drawing classes, LES walking tours. We could even have a Kirby convention with a costume contest… The possibilities are limitless!