The end of the Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards: a lesson in honesty

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how the Jack Kirby Awards were established. It was a reaction to the Comics Buyer’s Guide Fan Awards. It came from a germ of an idea from either Gary Groth or Kim Thompson at Fantagrapics Books. The goal being to establish awards based on the votes of comic professionals, ones that might be respected both within the industry and in the outside world. 

I also promised a little melodrama as well as some lying and betrayal, so strap in for this reasonably long second chapter of our adventure in comic industry awards.

Aug. 1985

Amazing Heroes: Aug. 1985

In addition to my responsibilities as managing editor of Amazing Heroes and my work in sales, marketing and production at Fantagraphics Books, I also spent a lot of time and energy working on The Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards. In those early days, the awards nominations were open to all comic book professionals and then a second round of ballots were produced for professionals to vote on the comics and creators that were nominated. There was no blue ribbon panel that handled the nomination process.

As rushed as we were, those first set of awards came together pretty smoothly. I made mental notes of how to increase participation in the process and how to better promote them. I talked with a lot of people about the awards. I was concerned that the future life of the awards would depend on a short list of things: hard work, relentless promotion, a reliable process and credibility. To have respected professional awards, you need the people in the industry to believe that the results are honest and to “buy into” the process and participate.

With the second year of the awards, both growth and additional participation were getting harder and harder to achieve and I set about to find out why.

Kirby Award 1986 winner for Best Single Issue

Daredevil #227: Kirby Award 1986 winner for Best Single Issue

During my time at Fantagraphics Books, I had witnessed first hand an extremely wide variety of reactions when I introduced myself as someone who worked for the company. Most of the negative reactions centered on people’s reaction to The Comics Journal, but sometimes it was directed at the whole company.  I’ve already written a post about one such incident involving Walter Simonson and his refusal to be interviewed for Amazing Heroes.

Time after time, professional after professional, discussion after discussion including creators and executives that had no axe to grind as well as those that had blatant and open dislike for Fantagraphics, it was explained to me that the awards would never be respected industry-wide as long as it was associated with Fantagraphics Books and The Comics Journal.

Kirby Award 1985 for Best Single Issue

Swamp Thing Annual #2: Kirby Award 1985 for Best Single Issue

It shouldn’t be necessary, but let me set the record 100 percent straight these many, many, many years later. Despite the fact that nominations and award voting was often a disappointment to the powers that be at Fantagraphics, at no time were the results ever influenced or tampered with in any way whatsoever. There … controversy averted.

A quick check of the placement of the chess pieces would be appropriate here, in the interest of both fairness and accuracy. I had voluntarily left the employment of Fantagraphics Books in late September 1985 to work for Dominos Pizza. I left for financial reasons. As I was leaving, I had asked Groth and Thompson to continue my work on the Kirby Awards. It had become a source of great pride to me and I believed the awards showed great promise and it allowed me to stay involved in the industry that I loved (comics). They agreed.

By April of 1986, I was working at Sunrise Distribution, Scott Rosenberg’s Los Angeles-based comic book distribution company . By then most of the work had been done for the 1986 Awards (for comics published in 1985) and we had a small well-attended panel room at San Deigo Con 1986 for the awards presentation. It was at this afternoon panel, with little or no fanfare, that Steve Rude openly wept when presented with his Best Artist Award.

Kirby Award winning Best Artist

Steve Rude: 1986 Kirby Award winning Best Artist for NEXUS

By January of 1987, Rosenberg and I had come to an agreement to create Malibu Comics. It is here that the pissing match … uh … melodrama really begins. During the formation of Malibu, Rosenberg’s Sunrise Distribution was struggling financially for reasons that had nothing to do with Malibu. There is a whole other adventure to be written about this portion of the story, but in an effort to stay on point, let me keep this short. 

After the announcement of Malibu Graphics (soon to be Malibu Comics), people from Fantagraphics called and asked questions about how our new venture was being financed. I lied to them. It was wrong. I was wrong. I had maintained my relationships with everyone involved with Malibu and looked out for its (our) best interests, but I’d done so through deceit.

Then I proceeded to make the situation worse, because I was emotionally attached to the Jack Kirby Awards. It had become clear to me through my wide ranging talks with industry leaders of every kind, level of involvement and degree of influence that the “problem” with the Kirby Awards was its ties to Fantagraphics Books and The Comics Journal. From my informed perspective, the awards had no chance of achieving the respect and legitimacy that I was striving for as long as it maintained its ties to the company where they originated. Over the years, The Comics Journal had angered, irritated, annoyed and offended so many within the industry that a negative taint would always follow the awards.

Assassin

Bill Sienkiewicz: 1987 Kirby Award winner for Best Artist for Elektra: Assassin

Today, more than 20 years later, I don’t know if that association was an insurmountable obstacle to the goals that I had for the Jack Kirby Awards, but it seemed very certain at the time.

I put a plan into motion and started taking actions to coax the awards away from Fantagraphics and continue to work on this project that I had come to love so much. These kinds of activities cannot stay secret for long and word of my behavior reached the Fantagraphics offices. From their perspective, I was in the process of stealing something owned by Fantagraphics Books. In hindsight, I think that they were correct. I had gone from liar to thief. 

The details of the communications and discussions that I had with Fantagraphics during this contentious period have long ago faded from my memory. But it wasn’t long before I got a call from Jack Kirby himself. He told me, in that straight-forward fashion that I respected so much, that he couldn’t and wouldn’t have his name caught up in the middle of a fight between Fantagraphics and me. It was clear to him that the damage to the awards would be beyond repair.

Jack Kirby told me that he wasn’t going to have his name attached to any awards, whether run by me or by Fantagraphics, out of respect for both parties.

And so it ended.

Jack Kirby did the right thing. I did not.

Jack Kirby: He did the right thing. I did not.

Gary Groth and Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics Books were right. Jack Kirby did the right thing. With the best of intentions and carried away with my emotions, I behaved badly and did the wrong thing.

End of confession. I hope that this tale provides an object lesson about doing the right thing, even when it is hard, even when you stand to lose something you love. I did not and I regret it.

That’s my version of the story.

          — Dave Olbrich  (DWO) Wed. Dec. 17, 2008

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10 Comments

Filed under Fanatical History, Point-of-view

10 responses to “The end of the Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards: a lesson in honesty

  1. Dave- honesty is always chief amongst virtues, even after the fact.
    Carrying that around for twenty+ years is more than enough, and sharing your tale like this is very commendable.
    And considering your previous blog entry detailing continued contact with Jack, I would imagine all of the air had been cleaned. It’s okay, hombre.

    -and please correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Marvel attempt to give out prizes called “Kirbys” at some point in the 90’s?

  2. Dave Olbrich

    Richard,
    I’ve done a lot of research into Kirby lately and I haven’t found any evidence of Marvel giving out Kirby prizes in the 90s. I’m not saying that they didn’t, just that I don’t remember it and I haven’t seen any web references … and at this point the web has a reference for almost everything.

    Thanks for your kind words. Clearly Jack didn’t hold a grudge because of the way the awards ended. Another lesson learned frankly. I can only hope to behave as graciously. And even though the comic landscape … and the landscape of pop culture in general has changed enormously in the last 20 years, the Will Eisner Awards are also a source of pride for me. Jackie Estrada deserves a ton of credit for navigating them to the preeminent place they now enjoy. While some may quibble, I was able to establish and Jackie has been able to maintain and grow a respected, industry-wide professional awards program that is often referenced by the outside media … and represents the industry with top quality material.

  3. DWO–

    A very commendable expiation. I was gone from Fantagraphics by that time, but it sounds like a very unpleasant episode for all concerned. I have almost nothing but fond memories from working with you, Gary, Kim and company.

  4. I still wish that some sort of Jack Kirby Award existed. As much as I love and admire the work of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, it was the work of Jack Kirby that pulled me back into comics time and again over the course of my life.
    Beanworld was nominated for a Kirby Award once, and that’ll do!

  5. Dave,

    I always thought you were a really good guy who in this case made some mistakes with the best of intentions, I’ve always regretted the bad blood that came as a consequence, and I think this was a super classy and courageous way to finally wrap it up all these years later. Much appreciated, and happy holidays to you and yours.

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  9. Dave Olbrich

    Kim –
    Thank you for the kind words. I have also come to regret the bad blood. I ran into Gary a few years ago, both of us waiting for an elevator. We had a pleasant discussion about our kids. Not burying the hatchet, but not attempting to use the hatchet either.

    I look forward to the next time I see you. Perhaps we can share a laugh or two.

    It seems as if my fanatical ramblings here have made me infamous for a minute or two in the blogosphere. It got picked up by The Comics Reporter, the Fantypoo site and separately at Journalista.

    I hope that they didn’t only show up for the bloodshed.

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