Other segments from the episode on May 21, 2008
DATE May 21, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Rick Perlstein, author of "Nixonland," on Nixon's
methods during his rise to power
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable
magazine and tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.
When actor James Stewart addressed the 1972 Republican National Convention, he
was sweating profusely. Why? Because police outside had sprayed so much mace
at demonstrators, it was sucked into the air conditioning ducts and triggered
a shutdown of the cooling system. That's the kind of detail you'll read in
the latest book by today's first guest, writer Rick Perlstein. Perlstein's
book is an evocative trip through the '60s and early '70s, and an assessment
of the impact of Richard Nixon's political career. Perlstein argues that many
of the deep political divisions in modern American politics were defined by
that period, and exploited effectively by Nixon.
Rick Perlstein is a writer and historian. His previous book was "Before the
Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus." FRESH AIR
contributor Dave Davies spoke to Perlstein about his new book, called
"Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America."
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Well, Rick Perlstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. This book is a great read. It's
sort of a fascinating ride through the late '60s and early '70s, sort of
centered on the career of Richard Nixon. Let's talk a little bit about
Nixon's early life. You say that he was a serial collector of resentments.
What resentments did he collect growing up?
Mr. RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, he was a real loner. Apparently, according to the
early oral histories, he wouldn't ride on the school bus because he thought
the other kids smelled. He was very lonely. He spent all his time up in his
father's--his father had a grocery store in a former church, and he would go
up into the bell tower and read and read and read and read and read. And by
the time he made it to college, he was working three times harder than
everyone else, he was very smart, and he received a scholarship to Harvard.
And he never went to Harvard. He never went to Harvard because his family
basically couldn't afford the train ticket from Whittier. They couldn't
afford to send him there from Whittier, California, the small Quaker town in
Southern California where he grew up. So he went to this local
school--Whittier--which was a fine school but, you know, it was not Harvard,
which he bore anger and resentment towards the rest of his life. I mean, you
can hear him raging about it on the Nixon tapes.
And when he got to Whittier, the first thing he did, this kind of young man on
the make, was try to join the school's one fraternity, which were called the
Franklins. And they wouldn't let him in; he was too uncool. So he started
his own fraternity. His own fraternity was called the Orthogonians, which he
said meant "upright" or "upstanding." And basically he created a fraternity
for the uncool kids. And this turned out to be a brilliant way to charter his
political career. Soon he was the student body president, and the secret of
his success was that the uncool people in society outnumber the cool people.
And someone who speaks to their resentments at being looked down upon could
reap a harvest of popularity, which is what he did all through his career, and
every step of the way. He later would call that group of people the silent
DAVIES: Let's move forward a bit. You know, your book really focuses on the
years, I guess, in between like 1966 and 1972, and you note that--you describe
1964, which is the year that Goldwater of course lost in a landslide election
to Lyndon Johnson, as a liberal apotheosis, an apparent national liberal
consensus. Explain what you mean.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah. That was what the pundits said at the time. Lyndon
Johnson won with about 61 percent of the vote, and basically people like James
Reston and Walter Lippmann, who were kind of like the Tom Friedmans of their
day, said that if the Republican Party wants to win another election ever,
they'll have to purge the conservatives. They'll have to purge the right
wingers, who've been completely repudiated by the electorate. And it seemed
so. I mean, when Lyndon Johnson was nominated, he basically had a two-to-one
majority of progressives or liberals in the Senate and the House of
Representatives. And they passed, you know, the great social legislation that
we're still, you know, enjoying, I would say, today: Medicare, Medicaid, the
NEA, the NEH, the first environmental legislation, legal aid. Of course, the
culmination of that, the absolute apotheosis of the apotheosis was the Voting
DAVIES: So there was a sense of tolerance and consensus in the land. Now, we
go to 1968, and things are very different. I mean, America is roiling with
cultural trends, which are disturbing to a lot of people, and, you know, you
describe a point before the New Hampshire primary of 1968, and this struck me
as sort of again just an example of what sort of the roiling social conflicts
that were going on. You'd had the Newark riots the year before, 30-some-odd
people killed. A report came out on urban riots, the Kerner Commission in
February. On February 17th, the Black Panthers gathered to celebrate Huey
Newton's birthday, and one of them, James Forman, advocates killing police
sheriffs and Southern governors; that's widely reported. At a police chiefs
convention they were displaying armored personnel carriers to deal with civil
unrest. And into that climate we have Richard Nixon staging his comeback.
Tell us how he exploited some of that atmosphere, those fears and anxieties in
maneuvering his way to the presidency.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Well, at first he didn't, and that certainly baffled me at
first. I mean, the tail end of the story about the signing of the Voting
Rights Act was five days later were the Watts riots, you know, and they were
seen live on TV, because KTLA, the television station in Los Angeles, was the
first station to have a news helicopter. And in 1966, Lyndon Johnson proposed
what was supposed to be the third triumphant, apotheosis-like civil rights
bill. And this was a civil rights bill that had, as its centerpiece, an open
housing amendment, an open housing title that would make it illegal to say,
`I'm not going to rent my house to someone because they're the wrong race.'
And that year it went up in flames. I mean, it basically--the whole notion
that we had this kind of tolerant nation that was passing more and more civil
rights legislation just went up in smoke. And the reason it probably went up
in smoke was because of all the riots that broke out, in city after city: in
Cleveland, in Chicago, and even places like Des Moines.
And Richard Nixon was very busy in 1966. It really was the pivotal year of
his comeback. He campaigned for tons and tons and tons of congressional
candidates. He worked his tail off. And so he campaigned in city after city
after city, and he never mentioned this stuff. He never mentioned the
backlash. People like Ronald Reagan and people like George Wallace,
respectively, gubernatorial candidate for California governor and the governor
of Alabama, would mention it all the time. And Nixon didn't mention it, I
think, because he knew he had to re-establish his reputation as a statesman
and not a guttersnipe.
But by 1968, when you get things like the Kerner Commission report, he kind of
pivots and he goes all-in, and that's when he starts giving speeches about how
we have to crush these insurrections by any means necessary, and really kind
of casts himself as kind of the field general in the culture war.
DAVIES: Now, he was facing some tough Republican opposition for the
Republican presidential nomination. John Lindsay, the former mayor of New
York; George Romney, father of Mitt Romney; George Romney was the governor of
Michigan. How did he use these fears and resentments to make himself a
different kind of politician to advance his political interest?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: He had this gift for seeing the angers and the resentments
that kind of roiled slightly beneath the surface. In that 1966 congressional
election where he worked so hard, the Republicans picked up 47 seats. I mean,
basically everyone who won on Lyndon Johnson's coattails in 1964 lost in 1966.
I mean, basically we had two years of this heroically liberal Congress.
DAVIES: You know, by 1968, Nixon has taken a different tack, right, and has
decided that there's a different way to elect Republicans.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah. And the way he does it is he runs a commercial, hour
after hour after hour--you couldn't turn on the TV in the fall of 1968 without
seeing Richard Nixon's commercial bearing the slogan "The first civil right of
every American is to be free from domestic violence." So he basically turns
the civil rights argument on its head and said the people who are suffering
deficits in civil rights were actually white middle-class Americans.
DAVIES: It's interesting. You note that the California primary of 1968 is
remembered for Robert Kennedy's win on the Democratic side, and then of course
his assassination that very night. But forgotten, you say, is something that
Nixon saw in the results of that primary, which was a sign to him that the
shape of the American electorate was shifting. Describe that, will you?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: There was a fellow by the name of Max Rafferty. I can't
imagine a more obscure name in the annals of recent American politics. He was
the education commissioner in California, and he had basically won office in
1962 railing against things like swear words in dictionaries in school
libraries, you know, railing against progressive education, railing against
even the teaching of evolution in schools. And he ran for Senate in 1968
against an enormously popular liberal Republican by the name of Tom Kuchel,
who was the Senate whip. And no one imagined that California would turn out
such a powerful senator who basically brought home so much bacon to
California. And on the same day that Robert F. Kennedy won the California
primary, Max Rafferty won the Republican primary. And in fact he was on a
glide path to winning a Senate seat. This guy who was very extreme, very
conservative. And the only reason he was kept from winning was a newspaper
reporter discovered, a week or two before the election, that he had dodged the
draft during World War II.
DAVIES: But that was the general election, right? In the primary, he won.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: The general election. He won resoundingly, and absolutely
stunned the pundits. Of course, the pundits were serially stunned. They were
stunned over and over again by these conservative...
DAVIES: Some things never change.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah. By these conservative groundswells that they never saw
DAVIES: So at a time when a lot of people looked at California and saw a
nation embracing the return of a Kennedy and a liberal political philosophy,
Nixon saw the beginning of a national realignment, right? I mean, is this
when he embraced the Southern strategy?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yes. And political observers should have noticed it much
earlier, because on election day in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won California
by a million votes, and this was seen as this kind of national consensus for
civil rights, on that same day there was an initiative on the ballot against
an open housing law, and that also won by a million votes.
DAVIES: You tell a fascinating story here of how Nixon connected with his
media consultant Roger Ailes. How did they meet?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Roger Ailes was the producer, a very young producer, by the
way. One of the ironies of the '60s was young people were seen as these kind
of avatars of the left and the counterculture, but actually Roger Ailes was
younger than Tom Hayden. He was younger than Abbie Hoffman. And he was the
producer of a local show in your own town of Philadelphia called "The Mike
Douglas Show." And he was a young wiz kid producer; and they had on, in this
pivotal year, as I say, for Nixon's career, 1966, Richard Nixon in the makeup
chair getting ready to go on "The Mike Douglas Show." And Nixon is making
small talk with this kid, and saying, `Oh, you know, isn't it ridiculous the
things you have to do to get elected president these days? Go on, you know, a
midday show watched by housewives.' And Roger Ailes fixed him in the eye and
said, `If you think that this is silly, you're never going to become
president.' And Nixon immediately sent him to New York and ended up hiring him
as his media consultant for the 1968 election, where he invented something
that's still with us today: the kind of ersatz town hall meeting, in which
basically a supposed cross-section of Americans grilled the candidate before a
carefully selected audience friendly to the candidate, and that let Roger
Ailes cut these things into these TV commercials that made Nixon look
enormously smart, charming, heroic, all the rest.
DAVIES: So it was an entirely staged event, but it looked like he was being
spontaneous and taking citizens as they come. And one of the fascinating
things that you reveal here is that they would often bring somebody in who was
too hard edged, too openly racist, too brazenly conservative. The point being
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Right. So there's a story. They're having one of these
shows. And they're always done locally so that he could kind of spin local
issues in local ways, right? And one of the people they had chosen for the
panel turned out to be a psychiatrist. And Richard Nixon had earlier told Len
Garment that he would do anything to be president except see a shrink. So Len
Garment realizes he has this irrational hatred, or fear, or whatever of
psychiatrists, and is like, `We got to get the shrink off the panel,' but it's
the last minute, and they don't know what to do. They have to fill someone in
in the panel. And Roger Ailes, in this absolutely astonishing quote in
selling the president, which, you know, I'm not sure people paid a lot of
attention to, says, `Well, let's get a George Wallace supporter, a cab
driver.' and Roger Ailes said, `He can say, "All right, Mack, what are you
going to do about the"'--and then he used a racial slur that beings with N.
You know, Roger Ailes recounting how they should get a cab driver.
And the whole point of that was, then Richard Nixon could come back and
deplore that awful language, deplore the sentiments, but basically endorse the
same kind of backlash politics that George Wallace was promoting, just in more
DAVIES: He could be anti-bussing, but in a more reasoned way.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Sure. He could do it in four-syllable words, and not say
things like George Wallace, who said that, `We don't have riots in Alabama, we
just shoot them in the head.'
DAVIES: Well, you know, I wanted to ask you about George Wallace. You know,
your thesis is, in part, is that Nixon is to some extent responsible for the
kind of deep divisions of America that we have today between, you know, red
states and blue states and hard partisan battling on political and ideological
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: But you had George Wallace in the election in 1968 and again in '72;
and he was, you know, in some respects a much more divisive figure. Why, in
the end, do you regard Nixon as a more effectively polarizing force in
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Well, George Wallace never could have been elected president.
And in 1966, or 1968, Ronald Reagan probably never could've been elected
president because they seemed extreme. And Richard Nixon was able to couch
these sentiments in very noble-sounding terms. And, by the way, he ran in
1968 as the proverbial uniter, not a divider. He said, `Bring us together.'
DAVIES: Right. But the together was a certain definition of those he was
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah. When he gave his silent majority speech in 1969,
basically he defined the silent majority as the nonshouters, the
nonprotesters. Well, what they were protesting for was basically withdrawal
from Vietnam. And his very argument in that speech, silent majority speech,
in which he proposed the doctrine of Vietnamization, which he was going to
start withdrawing troops and turning the Vietnam over to the South Vietnamese,
was withdrawal from Vietnam. So basically he said, `The people who are making
the same argument I'm making, but look different from you, smell different
from you, raise their voices, are not quite American at all.'
DAVIES: You know, one of the most memorable phrases from this period comes
from Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was vice president under Nixon, and he
referred to the media, the press then as the "nattering naybobs of
negativism." Now, I think this comes from the congressional elections of 1970,
I believe, when he and Nixon stumped all the way around the country for
conservative senators and congressmen. Give us an idea of their approach, the
rhetoric they used and its impact.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Well, this is 1970, when the most transfixing event of the
year happened in May, when four students were shot at Kent State in Ohio.
Actually, 13 students were shot, but four died, and afterwards these
insurrections broke out on almost a thousand college campuses. It was
absolutely astonishing. And, really, it seemed like America was on the verge
of open violence almost in the streets. And this was the year that Richard
Nixon thought he could finally win a majority in the Senate, and he could
finally kind of have his will in foreign policy by taking advantage of this
social discord in order to campaign for conservative candidates, and his point
man in this actually was his vice president, Spiro Agnew. And he gave this
absolutely scathing series of speeches.
Now, lo and behold, it didn't succeed. For whatever reason--and it's a
complicated set of circumstances involving economics, certainly involving the
Democrats, co-opting some of that law-and-order rhetoric--the Republicans did
terribly that year. And a lot of people make the argument that that was the
trauma that finally brought Nixon to the brink of Watergate, that he couldn't
stand this loss of control, that kind of democracy hadn't worked for him,
almost, and he was going to try other means.
DAVIES: Do you think, even though it was a failed electoral strategy, do you
think that the impact on political discourse was significant?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yes. What he did was, he had kind of reverted to the
rhetoric--he and Spiro Agnew, I should say--reverted to the rhetoric of a
George Wallace in 1968. He had forgotten his lesson that you have to present
yourself in a time of tumult as someone who has an antidote to the tumult.
But he just looked like that year--and he made the Republicans look that
year--just like another part of the roiling civil war. He didn't appear to be
above the divisions. He didn't appear to be transcendent, and he was punished
at the polls.
DAVIES: When Nixon ran for re-election in 1972, there were a number of
Democratic candidates, and the strongest contender was Edmund Muskie, who
veterans of the time will remember was the senator from Maine who had been the
vice presidential candidate for the Democrats in '68, a strong centrist
candidate. And Nixon clearly did not want to run against him. He preferred
to run against George McGovern, the liberal from South Dakota. And he
undertook to make sure that Muskie would not be the nominee. What did Nixon
do to ensure that Muskie wouldn't be the Democratic nominee?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: He cheated. And the most sort of fragrant tactics were
basically ones that were meant to sabotage the campaigns of every Democratic
candidate who he thought that he couldn't beat in November so that he would be
running against the one he thought he could beat, who was the anti-war--well,
they were all anti-war candidates. Basically everyone, even Scoop Jackson,
was saying we need to get out of Vietnam. But he wanted to run against George
McGovern because he seemed like the furthest left viable candidate.
And so he would do things--or, more accurately, his deputies would do
things--like stealing Muskie's stationery, writing a nasty letter about how
some other candidate had fathered a child out of wedlock, sending it out to
the media, and making it look like the Muskie team was spreading smears about
some other candidate. And then he would take another candidate's stationery,
say Hubert Humphrey's, and do the same thing. They had a word for it that
basically you can't say on a family radio station, but it worked. Edmund
Muskie eventually withdrew from the race because he was so mercilessly
harassed by a letter to a New Hampshire newspaper that turned out to have been
written by the White House. It was called the Canuck letter. You know,
later, when it was investigated and The Washington Post exposed it, it had
been written by the White House.
The Canuck letter basically was a letter to the editor saying, `I, down in
Florida, heard Edmund Muskie call French-Canadians Canucks,' which was
basically the N word for French-Canadians in New Hampshire, who are an
important part of the electorate there. And, you know, it was all made up, it
was written by a White House aide, and it so incensed Edmund Muskie that he
gave this passionate speech to defend himself right in front of the newspaper,
and he either did or didn't cry during that speech. Some people think it
might have been just a snowflake in his eye or something like that. And when
that got out, and when people like David Broder put it all over the papers,
that this guy had cried on the stump, he was done for.
DAVIES: When the sabotage of Muskie and other candidates' campaigns began to
take effect, did the Democratic candidates suspect each other? Did any of
them think that the Republicans might have been behind this?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: There was a really fascinating moment where--basically there
was a third-party candidate who was, you know, just absolutely completely
marginal, he was a John Birch Society member named John Schmitz. And he ran
on the line of George Wallace's old party, and, you know, got like, you know,
whatever, less than 1 percent of the vote. And he gave a quote to the
newspapers in which he said, `You know, I bet that Richard Nixon is sabotaging
these Democratic campaigns so he can run against George McGovern.' And this
was kind of presented as this kind of hilarious example of this crazy John
Birch Society guy who was running for president.
DAVIES: Just want to come back for one second to for when these dirty tricks
were being played on the Democrats during the Democratic primary campaign,
when Muskie and McGovern and others were battling it out, and when all these
nasty things started to happen, you write in this book, "It was surpassingly
strange. Democratic campaigns usually weren't like this, in the watering
holes where rival campaign staffers meant to unwind to gently chide each
other, exchange war stories, a veil of hostility descended between camps."
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yes, no one suspected...
DAVIES: The Democrats thought that they were after each other, right?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Yeah, no one suspected what was going on. This technique
worked like a charm. Basically, these false flag operations, as they call it
in the intelligence world, achieved their purpose. Hubert Humphrey thought
that Edmund Muskie was sabotaging him, and Edmund Muskie thought Hubert
Humphrey was sabotaging him, and no one knew that it was Richard Nixon's
little underlings who were pulling the strings.
DAVIES: Do you think that the lessons of Richard Nixon's career are
particularly relevant today?
Mr. PERLSTEIN: I think they're becoming less relevant, actually. I think
that the ground is shifting beneath our feet once more. I mean, there was a
fascinating special election the first Tuesday in May in Mississippi in which
the same kind of Nixonian TV commercials were run against the Democratic
candidate. You know, they accused the Democratic candidate of, you know, not
denouncing Barack Obama when he called rural people bitter, and said that they
were clinging to gods and guns. And lo and behold, it didn't work. This
Mississippi district voted in the Democrat by about 8 points. So, you know, I
think we're in the midst of a very, very, very unsettled political movement,
and, you know, the last sentence of my book is, "We're living in Nixonland
still." But, you know, you never know in history, but maybe we're not.
DAVIES: Well, Rick Perlstein, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PERLSTEIN: Thank you so much, Dave.
BIANCULLI: Author and historian Rick Perlstein speaking with Dave Davies.
Perlstein's new book is called "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the
Fracturing of America." Dave Davies is senior writer for the Philadelphia
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Mark Evanier, author of "Kirby: King of Comics," on
Jack Kirby's life and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Many of the most popular action movie franchises of recent years--the "X-Men"
trilogy, the "Fantastic Four" films, even the recent, hugely popular "Iron
Man"--originated as comic books either co-created or sometimes drawn by artist
Jack Kirby. His influence on pop culture began when he co-created the
character of Captain America in 1940, and it hasn't stopped since. Right
after "Iron Man" became a megahit on its opening weekend, Marvel Studios
announced that future projects on its schedule included movie versions of
"Captain America" and "Thor," and a new big-screen version of "The Incredible
Hulk" is right around the corner. All of those characters wouldn't exist if
not for Jack "The King" Kirby. His partnership with Stan Lee at Marvel Comics
in the 1960s was wildly influential and changed the direction of comics.
Mark Evanier met and worked for Jack Kirby at a young age and has just written
a combination biography and art book. It's called "Kirby: King of Comics,"
and it's the second book Evanier has written about an influential but often
overlooked artform lapped up by young readers. The first was a book on Mad
magazine. Mark Evanier has written for comics, but also has written for TV.
He was a story editor on "Welcome Back, Kotter" and worked on one of the most
infamous TV failures of all time, "Pink Lady and Jeff." But when I spoke with
Evanier, we were both most eager to talk about Jack Kirby.
Mark Evanier, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MARK EVANIER: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Jack Kirby, who created or co-created such comic book icons as
Captain America, Fantastic Four and the X-Men, is he credited correctly or
given too much credit for changing illustrations from sort of comic strip to a
much more dynamic, all-over-the-page, all-over-the-spread kind of thing? Was
that really Jack Kirby?
Mr. EVANIER: I think that the two people who--well, three, actually,
counting Jack's partner Joe Simon, and also the other one would be Will
Eisner--were the men who invented comic books as being different from comic
strips. Before Kirby and before Eisner, a comic book was a repasted newspaper
strip page, and it had all the limitations of those little three-, four-panel
syndicated strips, panels of all the same height, everything tucked in neatly,
distant shots, not a lot of different camera angles unnecessarily. Jack was
one of the first people to say, `We're doing comic books here,' and he had his
characters start spilling out of the pages. He designed pages as a whole, as
opposed to just designing individual panels, and he designed--he did full-page
panels. He did double-page spreads. He did--Jack liked big pictures, and
when he did do newspaper strips, he found them confining and small, and when
he had that big canvas to paint on with comic books, he just cut loose.
BIANCULLI: Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg.
Mr. EVANIER: Yes.
BIANCULLI: And so many of the key figures in the Golden Age of comics--I
mean, not only Kirby, but Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman,
and Bob Kane, who created Batman, and Stan Lee of Marvel Comics and M.C.
Gaines of Mad, they're all Jewish. Why so many, and why so influential?
Mr. EVANIER: Well, I think that part of it was that comic books were an easy
entrance business. In the late '30s, early '40s, it was one of the few fields
where a kid could sit down at the kitchen table, whip up something, go in and
get a glamour job. There were ads in The New York Times and other places for
people who'd want to do comics; and in the early days there was no one that
was so lousy that the industry couldn't find some place for them. So that was
part of it.
Also, there was a certain sense of camaraderie. An awful lot of the guys who
got into comics earlier not only were Jewish, but they all came from the same
Mr. EVANIER: Will Eisner, who did "The Spirit," and Bob Kane, who did
"Batman," were in the same high school together; they were in DeWitt Clinton
High. And a lot of this was people getting their buddies in. So, you know,
`I got into comics.' `Oh, I'll follow you into the field.' Right now, if you
got all your friends into your line of work, you'd be bringing in a lot of
people who probably matched your ethnicity or at least your income or your
neighborhood. So I think it was a certain amount of that, too.
There was also an awful lot of Italian kids--same reason--got into comics in
the early days. They knew each other, they helped each other out, but also it
was a field you could get into with very easy access because it wasn't on the
radar of real illustrators or real writers at the time.
BIANCULLI: Was there any anti-Semitism in terms of them not being able to get
other jobs in ad agencies at the time, or?
Mr. EVANIER: I don't know of any of that. A lot of these guys did not have
education. There was a prejudice in ad agencies, I think, against someone who
didn't have, you know, two years of Pratt Institute on their resume, and an
awful lot of the guys who got into comics in the early days were self-taught.
So I think that that was a difference. If you were a poor enough--if you were
too poor to go to Pratt Institute and become, you know, the next Norman
Rockwell, you could ad lib something and become the next Chester Gould in
BIANCULLI: Early in Jack's career he drew under various pseudonyms and signed
his art with different names. Why did he do that, and where did he get the
Mr. EVANIER: Jack started off, one of his earliest jobs in comics was in a
very low-rent newspaper syndicate called Lincoln Features, which is kind of
the 99 cent only store of newspaper syndicates, and they did quite a few
different strips; and so they wouldn't all have the same name on, they put
different names on every strip. And it was very common at the time for Jewish
kids to try to sound less Jewish in their signatures. You know, Al Caplin
became Al Capp in his "Li'l Abner" strip, not so much because they were trying
to hide their heritage, but because you wanted to sound like a professional.
You wanted one of those--pretty much just like actors changed their names to
something that sounds like an actor. Jacob Kurtzberg did not sound like an
artist; Jack Kirby did. And Jack just put all these different names. I think
some of them--I don't think he even came up with some of them. Kurtzberg, I
assume somebody just kind of tried Kirby because it was shortened from
BIANCULLI: And was Stan Lee's name Stan Lee?
Mr. EVANIER: Stan's name at birth was Stanley Lieber, and Stan at that
point, like a lot of guys who got into comics in the early days, thought,
`Well, I'll just do this for a few years and then I'll go off and I'll become,
you know, more successful.' You know, Stan was going to write the great
American novel. And so he was saving Stanley Lieber for the great American
novel, because he, you know, at some point, it might not be advantageous to
have people know that this great novelist had written, you know, Ziggy Pig
comics at one time in his life. So he just shortened his name and signed it
Stan Lee for a while, and never changed.
BIANCULLI: Jack Kirby created Captain America with Joe Simon in 1940, and
then he went off and enlisted in the war, and then came home to draw war
comics. When he came back and he started drawing war comics, how revealing
were those comics?
Mr. EVANIER: Well, he didn't start...
BIANCULLI: What did he find?
Mr. EVANIER: Well, he didn't start initially drawing war comics. When he
came back, he picked up drawing Boy Commandos, the book he left, which I guess
was a war comic, in a way, that he left off. Then he drew, he and Simon
started romance comics about that time. They drew a few superhero books, and
they did a lot of crime comics. In the post-war era, the comic book industry
went through a very dizzying spiral, where they really weren't sure what was
going to sell. A certain part of the business had been founded on superhero
books, and they were in decline. And Jack was always all about making sales
in a very benevolent, strong way. He always wanted to do a comic book that
would sell well.
War comics came along at some point in there, and they were popular, mostly in
the '50s. But the war had a very strong impact on Jack. In his later years,
Jack had nightmares. And he would have two nightmares; he would usually have
each of them at least once a week. One of them would be back in World War II,
he'd dream, have these nightmares he was back in World War II. And the other
nightmare he would have, increasingly after the '50s, was being out of work
and being unable to provide for his family. And I suspect that the latter was
more life-threatening to him. But he talked about World War II incessantly.
If you were with Jack for more than about 15 minutes, you got a World War II
story out of him, and it was a life-changing experience for him; and he was
very proud of his service, but very overwhelmed by the entire thing. I don't
think he ever quite got over it.
BIANCULLI: Is it something that you think would fall under the category of
post traumatic stress disorder?
Mr. EVANIER: I think Jack's whole life was post traumatic stress disorder,
in the industry if not in the war. I would think that there was some that. I
mean, Jack was a--I mean this in a good sense--he was an armchair fantasist.
He was sitting in a little kitchen table for years, at a little dank drawing
table, drawing galaxies and drawing other worlds, and drawing places he had
not been, that he'd been only in his imagination. The war comics were the
only time he was drawing someplace that he had actually physically gone, and
he had very, very strong opinions about the war.
When he was working with Stan Lee on the Marvel Comics of the '60s, one of the
areas which he and Stan had real arguments, genuine knock-down, drag-out
arguments creatively, was about the way the war was being depicted in the book
they did, "Sgt. Fury." And Jack finally left that book, in large part,
because Stan was not depicting the war the way Jack felt it should be
depicted. You know, and Jack was fine with lots of different depictions of
superheroes and the Phantom Zone and Asgard. You could do a lot of different
things to it, but you couldn't tell Jack how it had been on the beaches of
BIANCULLI: At some point in Kirby's career, he ran right into the buzzsaw of
Frederic Wertham, who was the psychiatrist who wrote "Seduction of the
Innocent," and it was basically McCarthyism of comic books. Can you describe
how rabid that scare was, and what effect that had on Jack and on comic books
Mr. EVANIER: Well, one of the biggest effects it had on him is that Jack and
Joe Simon had been their own comic book company at the time, I think, and
their distributor was also distributing E.C. comics, which were the leading
horror comics, and the comic book scare put the distributor out of business,
and it put Jack's company out of the business with it. So that was a very
It also demeaned Jack's business. He hated what it did to the whole field.
The remaining publishers got together and came up with this thing called the
Comics Code, which Jack felt was a protection racket. The leading publishers
came together to squeeze out the small ones and to consolidate their power to
control the newsstands. And he didn't like that. He didn't like the fact
that--Jack was a detestor of monopolies, of these power structures that didn't
give the little guy a break. As mad as he was at Wertham for demeaning the
industry and harming the industry of putting all these guys out of work in it,
all these writers and artists out of work, he was probably maddest about the
fact that what resulted from it was this power structure where, if you wanted
to do a comic book, you had to submit it to the Comics Magazine Association of
America, which meant essentially letting the publisher of "Archie" approve
BIANCULLI: Explain, if you can, when we're talking about a Jack Kirby comic,
how much of the writing he actually did. Because, you know, I sort of know
him as an artist, but he gets some credit for shaping stories. How did that
work, and how did he work in his partnerships?
Mr. EVANIER: Well, Jack was always involved in the story of everything he
did, to some extent. The few comics where he didn't are some of the most
vapid, uninteresting things he ever drew. And nobody really wanted to employ
Jack as merely a taker of dictation. He had a great story sense. He wrote a
lot of things himself. He co-wrote a lot of them with other people. In the
'60s, when they were doing the Marvel books, which most people know him for,
they had this method of working where he and Stan Lee would get together, on
the phone or in person. They would figure out what the story was about.
Sometimes Jack would have the idea; sometimes Stan would have the idea. They
would embellish the idea. Jack would go home and he would draw up the 20
pages or whatever it was, either from based on that conversation, based on a
plot outline that Stan would type up after the meeting, or Jack would just
make stuff up on his own. It worked all different ways. And then Stan would
put in the dialogue after the story was pencilled.
This led to a certain amount of friction, because Jack felt that, while he was
being credited only as the artist on a lot of his work, he was making up the
story lines and figuring out what happened in each panel, he thought that was
writing work. Stan felt that since he was writing the balloons, that was the
writing work. And, you know, there's a semantic argument there which we could
mud wrestle work, but the point is that Jack was contributing more than
drawing up Stan's ideas.
Mr. EVANIER: And Stan has not made any secret of that. He's said it on
many, many occasions.
BIANCULLI: So how would you summarize Jack Kirby's relationship with Stan
Mr. EVANIER: Jack's relationship with Stan Lee was very stormy. It changed
over the years. It's no secret that Jack felt he was not compensated properly
or credited properly for a lot of the work. And he took some anger at that
out at Stan. Stan was not happy with Jack for leaving. He was not happy for
some of the things Jack said. They had a contentious relationship at times.
There were times they got along. I'm at a very odd position, you know. I
worked for both men at different times, and, you know, mediated a few little
disputes here and there, and respect them both tremendously. It's a very
complicated relationship that is complicated by the fact that both of these
men were working in an industry where they only had so much power, and an
industry which did not credit either of them properly or give either of them
enough compensation. Stan has lived long enough to get the compensation and
credit he deserves, and now he is an icon. He goes places, and he's a
celebrity, and people throw money at him to be Stan Lee, and I think that's
terrific. There was a time when that wasn't the case, and he was being
victimized by the way the industry worked, as well.
BIANCULLI: When "Fantastic Four" number one came out in 1961, how
revolutionary was that, and why?
Mr. EVANIER: Well, it was revolutionary to a lot of us reading comics at
that time because, for one thing, it was the first time we got to get in on
the ground floor of something. If you were reading "Superman" and "Batman,"
wherever you came into it, they'd existed for, you know, a decade before you.
There was all this history you couldn't catch up on. So that was a big deal,
something new that was created for us. It had this same impact, to a certain
extent, as a lot of music groups of the '60s did, where part of the appeal was
that it wasn't your father's music, or it wasn't your parents' music. It was
Another thing that was revolutionary about the "Fantastic Four," and this is
more evident in hindsight than it maybe was at the time, is that they were
comics that went to another level. Prior to "Fantastic Four," most superhero
comics were about one thing. They were about catching the villain. And in
seven pages, Batman would face the villain and he would fail three times to
catch the villain. He'd catch him the third or fourth time, and that was the
end of the story. And it was only about that. And the "Fantastic Four" was
about the people as much as it was about the hero vs. villain mentality. The
characters quarreled among themselves, they had relationships among
themselves. They had different personality. If you had a scene of the
"Fantastic Four" talking amongst themselves, each character had a different
attitude and you could probably identify them just by the balloons if you
didn't even know who they were pointing to. That was not the case with a
group shot in some of the superhero comics that had preceded that. The
characters all talked alike, had the same motives.
Most of the comic books prior to "Fantastic Four" number one, the superhero
books, were kind of committee written. There were nine guys writing
"Superman." There were eight guys writing "Batman." And that homogenized the
work down. "Fantastic Four" was Stan and Jack. For the first 100 issues, it
was just Stan and Jack who were creatively--if not in synch, they were at
least working in the same direction generally; and the work seemed fresh, it
seemed like it was targeted to you as a youngster as opposed to being told by
your, you know, the story being told by your great uncle to you, which was the
mood of the DC books at the time. And you were in the beginning of a
revolution. And it just got better and better. And something exciting about
going to the newsstand every week and finding the new Marvel, because there'd
be something new in it, whereas the DC books at the time didn't have
comparable surprises. You weren't watching something being birthed.
BIANCULLI: With this book being published by Abrams and with the previous
book you did on Mad magazine, why do you think these particular pieces of pop
culture are getting more respect lately.
Mr. EVANIER: I think because people who grew up in the '60s and '70s are now
of an age to be writing the books and the magazines, to be the shapers, the
articulators of American pop culture. I think we're all in a position--and
it's odd that we have something that Jack kind of forecast. He was well aware
that kids grew up on his comics were one day going to be running movie studios
and running networks and film critics and television critics and such; and
this is the influence, this is what matters to us. And Jack knew there was
going to be a major motion picture of the Hulk and the Silver Surfer and the
Fantastic Four. He knew in his heart. People he was working for at the time
didn't know that, and didn't pay him accordingly, but Jack knew that. And he
knew what the comic book convention in San Diego was going to become. He
forecast that exactly.
Mr. EVANIER: Yeah. In the early '70s, Jack was a guest of honor at the
first comic convention in San Diego. I was there. We had about 500 people at
the convention. I think 300 of them were there for his talk, and we thought
that was exciting, you know, 300 people in one place. And you go to the comic
book convention now, there's 300 people ahead of you in line to buy a hot dog.
But Jack Knew exactly--he said at that point, and I swear to you this is
almost a verbatim quote, he said, in '70, '71, '72, he says, `Someday this
convention will be so big it'll take over all of San Diego and this will be
where Hollywood will come every year to find out what they're going to make
next year in movies and to promote what they made last year in movies.'
BIANCULLI: And that's exactly what's happened.
Mr. EVANIER: Yes. And at the time he said it, we kind of went, `Oh, yeah,
sure, Jack, that'll happen. Right.'
BIANCULLI: Well, Mark Evanier, thanks very much. Good luck with your book,
and thanks for being on FRESH AIR.
Mr. EVANIER: Thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: Mark Evanier. His new book is called "Kirby: King of Comics."
And just as an aside, Randy Silverman, wherever you are, if you're listening,
I want my comic books back. I sold you my entire complete Marvel comic
collection, including all those Jack Kirby classics, when we were in seventh
grade. You paid me 75 bucks, but if you give them back, I'll pay you double.
(Soundbite of "Superman" music)
BIANCULLI: Terry isn't here today because she's in New York receiving the
Columbia Journalism Award for 2008. It's the highest honor bestowed by
Columbia's School of Journalism. So congratulations, Terry.
For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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