Step inside the Fourth World as we relive that one magical day when…
FRANK ZAPPA met JACK KIRBY !
by Jeff Newelt • Illustration by Rick Veitch • Photos by Michael James Zuccaro
I’ve always been a sucker for the big teamup: Superman / Shazam. Hulk / Thing. chocolate & peanut butter. So when I came across a photo of Jack Kirby and Frank Zappa embracing finally, my synapses started firing like FBI at Waco.
Were they friends? Did they hang? Play action figures together? WTF! I had to know.
For those not so in-the-know as us ubergeekanoids, Jack Kirby was the visionary artist who created The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Hulk, Thor, Silver Surfer, Captain America…the Marvel universe sprang forth from his (and writer Stan Lee’s) head. In the ’70s, Jack went solo, rocking out idiosyncratic cosmic characters – the New Gods, Omac, Forever People, Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Kamandi, Demon, all nutty, jazzy, psychedelically mythic stuff.
Frank Zappa was a musical iconoclast and genius composer/producer/guitar player. He wove together humor, avant-garde classical guitar-rock, doo-wop, dada, jazz-fusion, and political satire, hired the badass-est musicians, and rolled with world leaders like Czech playwright/philosopher Vaclav Havel. His songs are like audio comic books, hypervisual with colorful characters and scenarios like “Camarillo Brillo,” which includes the lines “She had a snake for a pet / and an amulet / and she was breeding a dwarf / But she wasn’t done yet / She had gray-green skin / A doll with a pin / I told her she was awright / But I couldn’t come in.” Sounds just like a character out of Kirby’s Demon.
Jack and Frank, both universe builders, one music, the other, comics. But what was the connection?
Fast-forward to present day. I’m at a conference in New Mexico teaching social media to female entrepreneurs, and one lady says, “Yer not one of those comics people, are you? My husband’s one, Steve Sherman.” D’OH! Steve Sherman was one of Kirby’s fabled assistants! I reached out to Steve and turns out Jack and Frank Zappa were not only pals, but also essentially neighbors. How was this friendship kept secret so long?
A mere week later, I wind up having drinks with fellow Flusher Paul Pope and none other than Frank’s youngest son, Ahmet Zappa! We learned all about Kingdom Comics, the new graphic novel line Ahmet is helming for Disney.
Contextual rewind: Not just a comics impresario, Ahmet’s been rocking in different media since he was a wee young lad. He was lead singer/songwriter in Z, a band he formed with his brother Dweezil in the early ’90s, an actor on Roseanne and Growing Pains and in films such as Pump up the Volume and Jack Frost, and most recently hosted VH1’s But Can They Sing?
So I had to show Ahmet my Blackberry screensaver, the image I had found of his dad and Jack together, and Ahmet goes, “Whoa, I never saw that! That’s in my living room… Jack would come over and smoke cigars and Frank would smoke cigarettes, and they’d talk and talk.”
One of the things Frank and Jack had in common: the prodigious amount of cosmic goodness that extruded from their respective noggins was not the result of drugs; they both enjoyed tobaccy but only the unwacky. We had other stuff to discuss that evening, so I made Ahmet promise to reconnect ASAP to spill the magic beans on this egregiously undocumented duo. And he kept his promise.
Ahmet, one of four Zappa kids, the other three being Moon Unit (the oldest), Dweezil (second oldest), and Diva (youngest), was always into superheroes his entire life.
“I loved Spider-man; it’s the jam,” gushed Ahmet. “My dad loved comics and was the first to advertise rock n’ roll in comics, for We’re Only In It For The Money [in Fantastic Four #72, 1968, Natch!]. My mother made Dweezil and I costumes of Spider-Man and The Mighty Thor.”
The son of a gregarious rock star, Ahmet grew up meeting every celebrity musician under the sun. But it wasn’t a rocker who gave Ahmet that first feeling of being around greatness. “I was not starstruck at all by rock stars because music is its own language and my father spoke it, so we spoke it,” Ahmet explains matter-of-factly. “This totally demystified the fame or the celebrity. There was no currency for ‘oooh, that guy sold a million records, we just cared about good music. One of the most significant moments in my life is when my dad said, ‘meet Jack, he’s the guy who created all those superheroes you love.’ That blew my little mind. I thought it was awesome and weird that my dad had this friendship with this guy. It was like meeting like a real magician!”
And Jack brought some presents for the kids, but oddly, they weren’t comics. “Actually, he first came over with these Mr. Men books, you know Mr. Tickle, Mr. Impossible… I thought they were fantastic, and was like ‘did you do these too?’ Weird. Dunno why he brought those instead of his own books, but later, of course, he wound up giving us comics too. Jack gave me this Silver Surfer book. I didn’t know what to make of this silver dude on a surfboard; it didn’t make any sense but, he was super cool. This was around the time Empire came out and was HUGE [1981 –ed.], and I remember Jack confided in Frank that he felt like the stories he created helped shape the Star Wars saga, that he saw direct parallels between his characters and the movie’s story arcs.”
Of all rock stars in the world, Zappa, famously an outspoken champion of free speech and artist’s rights, was the ultimate sympathetic ear.
“He told my dad stuff like, ‘Darth Vader was Doctor Doom and the Force is the Source’ and that George Lucas ripped him off. Now this you may not know, and I was only a kid, but I remember learning at the dinner table that my dad was asked to write the music for Star Wars; he turned it down, he said he wasn’t interested. That would’ve been really strange, the lives of us Star Wars fans woulda taken a different turn and that whole score woulda sounded like Tatooine Cantina music.”
Two powerful worlds that happened to collide one special night in 1981. A friendship began and a mutual bond was formed. These two titans are now sadly no longer with us, but their spirit lives on now through their family keeping tradition alive.
The only regret, Royal Flush readers, is that we’ll never get to visit the parallel universe where Frank Zappa actually got to score Star Wars. The place called the Fourth World. ♠