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Gregg Bendian on Jack Kirby

Jack “The King” Kirby (b. 1917, d. 1994) was the dean of comic-book artists. Along with writer/editor/glory-taker Stan Lee, Kirby laid the groundwork of the Marvel Universe by co-creating the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Silver Surfer, Hulk and Captain America, and he blew minds in the ’70s with his explosive, psychedelic sci-fi Fourth World series of comics for DC: New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle.

Kirby’s influence goes beyond the sometimes-insular world of comic books. It’s hard to image what Star Wars would look like without Kirby’s galactic visions, and writer Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which was partially based on Kirby and Lee.

As a kid, percussionist-vibist Gregg Bendian was a fan of Kirby’s work, but it wasn’t until he re-read the collected editions of New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle as an adult that Kirby’s philosophically grand plot, over-the-top verbiage, ingenious inventions and beautifully epic drawings truly hit home. Bendian has honored musicians on his past records: on Interstellar Space Revisited (Atavistic), his and guitarist Nels Cline’s John Coltrane tribute; Gregg Bendian’s Interzone’s self-titled CD for Eremite propped prog-rockers Gentle Giant. On Gregg Bendian’s Interzone’s latest Atavistic CD, Requiem for Jack Kirby, the King gets crowned with a sonically wondrous and adventurous soundtrack suited perfectly for his comics.

JazzTimes: How did you translate Kirby’s sis-boom-bah images into notation/notes?

There was some literal translation into sound. The album starts with the sonic equivalent of a Kirby energy blast, replete with the vibes and guitar issuing forth crackling sparks, flying off in every direction. The drama, the very large dramatic scope of events, the violent confrontations, the otherworldly-ness, all inspired my writing of this music. The idea of having each piece cover a different approach to jazz composition was inspired by Jack’s incredibly varied output as an artist. Ultimately, I tried to capture that exciting feeling from childhood where I’d pick up a comic book and become completely ensconced in another world of the imagination.

JazzTimes: Your compositions seem to focus on the spacier aspects of Kirby’s work, the psychedelic sci-fi he was so renown for.

I don’t think we focused on the spacey in particular. [Our song] “New Gods” gets very violent during the battle section. So does “The Mother Box.” Then there’s the rattling metal of the prepared vibes and the steel guitar on “Air Above Zenn-La.” I went for a large scale of emotions and textures ranging from the small to the gigantic. That’s another nod to the breadth of Kirby’s creative power.

I’ve always felt that Interzone [guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Alex Cline, bassist Joel Hamilton] was a bit like my own little Fantastic Four, each contributing a distinct musical identity and using our powers for the benefit of all creative music listeners!

JazzTimes: Was Kirby a jazz fan? He was certainly as prolific as some jazz artists!

I was unable to find out about his musical tastes apart from knowing that he and his wife went to hear Sinatra on one of their first dates. [Comic artist Jim] Steranko tells me that Jack often worked with the TV on in the background and not music.

Like jazz, comics are a uniquely American art form. And I do think of Kirby as a “jazz artist.” He was an energetic, passionate man-certainly no cold, calculating draftsman. As Mark Evanier, his assistant, tells in his liner notes, Jack would sit down at the page with a theme in mind and a pencil in hand, and allow his imagination to run wild. Often the results would surprise even him. Kind of reminds me of Coltrane saying he couldn’t play a transcription of his solos after the fact, because “they’re too hard.”

JazzTimes: Is Kirby the Charlie Parker of comics? His co-creation/refinement of sequential art seems on par with Parker’s co-creation/refinement of bebop.

I think of Kirby as a Coltrane figure. Like Trane, he was a virtuoso and so prolific. Like Trane, his early work defined the parameters of what that form would become for all that followed. Sadly, also like Trane, his later, most personal and abstract work-Jack’s Mister Miracle or Trane’s Interstellar Space-is considered by many to be self- indulgent and lacking coherence. But I don’t think the artist/visionary can help but move into more and more challenging areas, and so I say wrong in both cases.

He invented the graphic novel. Check out the films of Spielberg, Lucas, Ridley Scott and you’ll see Kirbyesque cities, spacecraft, aliens and villains. He was a wellspring of creative ideas, a visionary of sci-fi concepts. He is famous for being able to draw an intricately detailed page as fast as Bird could play an equally detailed solo.

JazzTimes: Do you see parallels between jazz fans and comic book fans-the zealotry, the passion, however misplaced it may be at times?

Yes, and a wonderful result of doing this record is hearing from Interzone fans that say, “I’m a huge comic fan and a jazz fan, and thanks for combining the two worlds!” That’s very gratifying, since I had this feeling I wasn’t alone in sensing the connection between the two. I recently received a note from Sonny Rollins, who heard the Requiem and said he’s pleasantly surprised by all the jazz people who are also Kirby fans!

Hey, with the Michael Chabon book winning the Pulitzer, this stuff is becoming damned near respectable!

Originally Published