I spent this past weekend helping my friends Rand and Lisa Hoppe (previously mentioned here) represent the Jack Kirby Museum at the HOWL Festival in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side.
As the name suggests, the HOWL Festival showcases artists, musicians, and performers of the East Village and Lower East Side...and it took place just a few blocks north of where Jack Kirby was born and spent his childhood. The Kirby Museum was involved at the request of festival curator, painter, graphic novelist, and noted Jack Kirby scholar James Romberger and his wife, filmmaker and former punk rocker Marguerite Van Cook. James insisted that Kirby be represented at the festival, Rand and Lisa were up for promoting the Museum...and I was more than happy to spend a couple of days goofing off and hanging out, so I invited myself along.
The Kirby Museum table was pretty much what you'd expect to see at a comics convention. We had recent issues of The Jack Kirby Collector for sale, as well as the trade paperback collections of same, the Kirby Unleashed portfolio book, the Silver Star Graphite Edition, and the Streetwise anthology including "Street Code," Kirby's autobiographical story about his impoverished childhood on Suffolk Street. With that selection of items, the Kirby Museum table was threatening to look like a TwoMorrows Publishing table instead, but we also had postcards promoting the museum and photocopies of an article about Kirby from the Sunday, August 26 New York Times written by Brent Staples to hand out. Rand put up some samples of Kirby art, including posters offered as a bonus with museum memberships. We also had a preview flyer for Mark Evanier's upcoming Kirby: King of Comics to show around, because it's always good to help a struggling new author get his start.
Perhaps the strangest item we offered visitors -- at least in the sense of being most incongruous with the above -- was an issue of the hardcore conspiracy journal Steamshovel Press published by hardcore conspiracy theorist (and hardcore Kirby fan) Kenn Thomas featuring an article by aforementoned festival curators James and Marguerite describing how Jack Kirby helped the CIA free six Americans during the Iranian Revolution.
So you have the basic picture: as a favor to an arts festival organizer, the three of us are sitting in a New York City public park on a summer weekend, behind a table that obviously belongs at a comics con and just as obviously does not belong in Tompkins Square Park. Surely, you say to yourself, this is a recipe for misery and disappointment; those poor saps are about to suffer abject humiliation and embarassment. This would be a reasonable assumption. And it would be totally wrong.
What I discovered this weekend was that if you put up a big display about Jack Kirby in a New York City public park, you get tons of people stopping by. And I mean people who were Kirby fans. Painters and actors and musicians participating in the festival were coming over and telling us how Kirby inspired them...but at least half of our visitors were folks from the neighborhood who hadn't even known an arts festival was taking place that day. Random passersby would say "Oh man, the guy who created the Silver Surfer!" or "The Inhumans were the best! They oughtta make a movie with them!" or "He came from around here? No way!" We met uniformed cops who were comic fans, and Kirby fans in particular. Over the course of the weekend we had four or five people who met Jack in person or had spoken to him. I'm not making this up; I have witnesses.
It was nothing like I expected. Had this been a comic con, the level of traffic coming by our table would be pretty decent, but this was in the middle of a city park on a summer afternoon. Rand sold a respectable stack of books; this is all the more impressive when you consider that people weren't coming to the park with cash expecting to buy expensive artsy books full of interviews and articles about some comic book creator, as they would be at a convention.
Here's a funny thing: kids still dig the superheroes. They know the characters from cartoons, they know the movies, they have the toys, the games, the action figures. I saw kids who were genuinely excited to hear that the guy who first drew the Fantastic Four and the X-Men and Thor and the Hulk and Captain America came from their neighborhood. If only we'd had something more kid-friendly and accessible to offer them than back issues of JKC our table would have been an even bigger hit with the younger crowd. I've said it before and I'll say it again a thousand times: hiding comics away in those secluded and forbidding comic shops for grownups and not making any available in newsstands or drug stores or supermarkets is killing comics with the younger audience. I saw with my own eyes that a lot of kids still want the characters and the colorful costumes and all the good stuff; it just isn't where they can get to it anymore.
Another comment I heard a lot was regular folks -- not geeky weirdo fans -- asking where the "Kirby Museum" was located and if they could go there. On finding out it only exists online so far, they were disappointed. The idea of visiting a museum for a comic book artist sounded really appealing to them. Imagine!
This weekend, I saw a big crack in the wall dividing "comic book culture" from the general public. There was a time when comics could handle being a mass medium, not just a precious little inside club for our elite fandom. A fair segment of the public wants to be allowed back in. Are the big companies ready to let them? Who among us is willing to tear down that wall?