Growing up on the Lower East Side shaped his life and his work which, combined with a robust imagination and seemingly inexhaustible energy, substantially shaped the trajectory of the American commercial comic book. I got sick of chasing people all over rooftops and having them chase me over rooftops. Everybody who lived on Norfolk Street would be the Norfolk Street Gang.
A dubious contribution to the American comic book, you may think, until you realized that it wasn’t Kirby’s fault that hacks and no talents, aided and abetted by opportunistic publishers, have been ripping off his work and plagiarizing him wholesale for decades. I knew that there was something better, and instinct told me that it was uptown, and I’d walk every day from my block to 42nd Street where the the Hearst newspapers. My boss was playing golf [in the office], and he was shooting golf balls through an upturned telephone book, see?
You became a gangster depending upon how fast you wanted a suit.
Yet his mother would come out and slap him around for not going to church on Sunday.
I think you can be looked up to out of fear just as much as you in look up to a man because of his ability or his promise. GROTH: Did you yourself get in a lot of fights when you were a kid?
Adolf Hitler took all of Europe, and my generation had to confront Adolf Hitler. ROZ KIRBY: And your brother got into a lot of fights.
And he’d pull me out from under this pile, and he’d whale in to them. I knew the real ones, and the real ones were out for big money. I’d see politicians who were supposed to be on opposite sides of issues all together at one table. They became the cops and the crooks, and the crooks became the gangsters. GROTH: Were crooked politicians and gangsters looked on with disfavor?
He was about 6’ 1”, very broad kid, and when I came out of school, I’d be jumped by all these guys, and he’d see my feet sticking out of this pile and dive in. Gangsters weren’t the stereotypes you see in the movies. I’d see them in these restaurants, and they’d all hold these conferences.
GROTH: Let’s talk about how you learned to draw, I understand that at age 11, you began getting how-to-draw books at a local library and started —KIRBY: Yes I did. I was drawing editorial cartoons for the syndicate, and I drew a thing called “Your Health Comes First.” I was called in once for drawing an editorial cartoon when Chamberlain made that pact with Hitler. I thought comics was a common form of art and strictly American in my estimation because America was the home of the common man, and show me the common man that can’t do a comic. It’s not a formal art, I feel a fine artist is never through with his work because it’s never perfect to him.
All families love their children, and we were good boys. And of course, if the fellows caught me reading it or doing anything academic outside of school…, of course, it was astonishing to see this beautiful illustration in the newspaper, and it was so different from the ordinary comic. I didn’t think I was going to create any great masterpieces like Rembrandt or Gauguin.
When I visited New York, somebody thought it would give me a big thrill if he took me down there where I grew up, and I’d be thrilled by the sight of my humble origins, and I hated the place.
And the place for all immigrants was the factories. You know, the punches were real, and the anger was real, and we’d chase each other up and down fire escapes, over rooftops, and we’d climb across clotheslines, and there were real injuries. Bad things would come out of it because some guys are in a hurry, but that doesn’t mean they’re evil or anything, it just means they fall into bad grace somehow. A friend of mine was going to go out to get a job because his mother told him to get a job, so he said, I’ll go out and draw pictures and they’ll pay me for them. GROTH: Can you describe the social context a little more? There were a lot of ethnic slurs, there had to be, and I think in that respect that through the fighting, through the adversity, we began to know each other.
Out of a class of 27, just me and another fellow graduated. GROTH: Now, what do you mean by a “climb-out fight”? You fight on the roof, and you fight all the way down again.