Reel to Real: Two portraits of innovation

Hori Smoku: Sailor Jerry, the life of Norman K Collins -2008

Director-Erich Weiss

Starring- Norman K Collins, Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle, Mike Malone

Jack Kirby: Storyteller -2005

Director- Paul Baker

Starring – Jack Kirby,Roz Kirby, Lisa Kirby, Alex Ross, Marv Wolfman, 

While trying to nimbly navigate the foul waters of common cultural mediocrity, one soon learns that originality remains an elusive commodity. A betting man could claim better odds on spotting a whore in church, than coming across a modern artist possessing a unique idea.

While many submit and sink deeper into the seas of banality, there are those who have risen above the derivative muck, leading the way to stand as true beacons of creativity. These are the kinds of individuals who harness their raw talents, and forge a style or movement that inadvertently sets the foundations from which future generations are built on.

Two of these legendary architects of culture were, Norman, ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, the quintessential godfather of modern tattooing in the West, and Jack ‘King’ Kirby, who is commonly recognized as one of the most prolific influential comic book artists of the twentieth century. The lives and tribulations of both of these cultural icons were recently documented in two very comprehensive films.

In 2008 first time director Erich Weiss compiled a thorough look into the life and times of Sailor Jerry in his film. ‘Hori Smoku: Sailor Jerry, the life of Norman K Collins’.

The title of the film partially comes from a humorous title that Jerry bestowed upon himself to parody the honorific title given to master Japanese tattoo artists. Norman Collins began his career in his early youth, leaving his home in Nevada and learning the art of tattooing crossing America in the 1920’s while living the life of a vagabond. Eventually enlisting in the United States Navy, Jerry traveled throughout the Pacific. The film clearly shows how Jerry’s ventures into Asia had a profound impact on the development of his art, and his attraction to both Oriental and nautical imagery. Jerry himself even admits to learning much from the original Japanese ‘Hori’, and branching into his own style from their influence.

As Jerry perfected his art on the bodies of thousands of sailors, he eventually gravitated towards Hawaii as a base of operations, and opened his legendary studio on Hotel Street in Honolulu. One interesting element that the film briefly delves into is the history of how Hawaii and Honolulu in particular would become ‘Doorway to the Pacific’ for millions of servicemen at sea. Hotel street was the place that every sailor laid money down to get ‘stewed screwed and tattooed’, and Jerry was there to gladly drop ink on most anyone who darkened his door.

Sailor Jerry Collins was a man of clear contradictions, and the film does a solid job of showing this. While Collins took pride in the fact that he excelled in an art form that was considered, ‘anti-establishment’, he was also a staunch Uber-conservative. Most knew Sailor Jerry as a no bullshit old school hippie hating sea salt who doled out ‘blood and thunder’, not only through his character, but through his needle as well. Through interviews with close friends and fellow associates in the field, the film also shows that while Jerry was initially influenced by Oriental aesthetics, he also harbored a deep rooted resentment towards the Japanese for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Through collected interviews with such tattooing legends such as Lyle Tuttle, and Don ‘Ed’ Hardy, and Mike Malone the film adeptly shows the influence and legacy that Sailor Jerry left behind due to a lifetime of commitment to his art. Director Weiss does an admirable job of presenting Jerry Collins not only an artist, but also as a multi faceted man. Regardless of whether you carry ink, or have a minor interest in tattoos, ‘Hori Smoku: Sailor Jerry, the life of Norman K Collins’ is a solid doc, and a story well worth delving into.

If Galactus was the destroyer of comic book worlds, Jack ‘King’ Kirby was definitely the creator of them. It is almost impossible to be a child of the 60’s and 70’s in North America without having been exposed to the art of Kirby. Even if he was not directly know by name, he was always recognized by his art, and the iconic characters he helped define.

While it is impossible to sum up the overall influence that Jack Kirby has had on comic book art, director Paul Baker attempts to give people a better understanding with his documentary, ‘Jack Kirby :Storyteller‘. The film stands as both a biography, and fitting tribute to a man who single handedly forever changed the way we see comic books.

We see Kirby starting out as Jacob Kurtzberg, born to poor immigrants in 1915 in New York city. Determined as a young man to develop his skill and desire, Kirby broke out beyond the economic and social boundaries of New York City and began to draw.

Before the outbreak of World War II Kirby would create one of the most symbolic American comic book figures, Captain America with his partner Joe Simon. After serving in Europe Kirby returned and once again started to establish himself in the comic book industry.

It was from the late 1950’s and into the 1970’s the Kirby’s work exploded, both in terms of content and creativity. No one could draw two-dimensional figures that could leap off a page like Jack Kirby. Some said that the only things that confined his art were the paper pages themselves. Many also initially saw Kirby’s drawings as somewhat ‘psychedelic’ to begin with, but only due to his wild visions and unfettered creativity. It seemed as if Kirby had found mythical keys that unlocked doors to a million dimensions the only he could see in his imagination. Working on up to five or six different titles at once, he proved to be a powerhouse whose pencil never left the page.

Unfortunately throughout his career Kirby was plagued by financial difficulties in the form of shifty companies and publishers who attempted to fleece him, and undermine and exploit his skills and art. The film clearly states without a doubt that Marvel comics would have never existed without the principal contributions of Jack Kirby. Interviews throughout with countless artists and fans repeatedly state that Kirby was the ‘prime mover’ that took Marvel from it’s start as a simple idea and propelled it to the institution it would become.

Despite his groundbreaking work, Kirby faced lawsuits and litigation with both DC and Marvel throughout his career to fight for what he rightfully deserved. The film does not really mention the sad financial battles that befell Jack Kirby, most likely due to legal restraints. Those in the know will tell you how Kirby was thoroughly screwed by both of the majors repeatedly, and it was only through the will and desire of his family to preserve his name and art that his estate continues to thrive. What the film does manage to show is the love of a wife, children, and artistic apprentices towards a man who gave so much of himself to so many. Jack Kirby left behind a reputation as a man with a rigorous work ethic and a kinetic art style with living depth that would only fully be appreciated long after.

“He barreled like a freight train through the first 50 years of comic books like he owned the place.”

– Gary Groth


In both films we see a portrayal of two authentic artisans who truly loved their craft, and committed countless years and hours refining them.

Hori Smoku: The life of Sailor Jerry, Norman K Collins

Erich Weiss has put together a really insightful look into both life and legend of Sailor Jerry Collins. The humor and character of Sailor Jerry comes to life not only through photographs, but the narrative reading of his numerous letters he sent out to various pen pals abroad. The film is not only a great look at tattooing, but also a brief look into the rough and tumble history of the US Navy in Honolulu, and the hell raisers who served and were ‘served’ on hotel street. While the legacy of Sailor Jerry has become corporatized through rum, shoes, and t-shirts (something he would have despised), the film will help to educate many interested in separating the man from the legend.


Jack Kirby: Storyteller

While the characters that he drew were larger than life, Jack Kirby himself was a quiet humble man. Through true commitment to his craft Kirby did more as one artist than the many who have come before or after him. There are few comic artists today who would not admit a large debt of gratitude to Kirby, for his struggles for artist’s rights, and also for the influence he ingrained on all of them. Through his film, Paul Baker gives many the opportunities to share their feelings about Jack Kirby and to honor his legacy. While detailed, the film seems more geared towards those with an absolute interest in Kirby’s work, and comic books in general. Regardless of your opinion towards comic books, and those that collect them, the film is a great piece to check out in regards to seeing how one man’s lifetime of art was able to change social perspectives toward the generic comic book so that it was finally acknowledged as a legitimate art form. There will only be one ‘King’ in comic books. The King is gone, but lives on forever on the page, and in our imaginations.



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