My old friend and collaborator Keith Giffen has passed away. Keith has had his share of health issues in recent years, but he was such a feisty, tenacious guy I was sure he’d outlive us all. “Some day,” I once told him, “the Earth will be an apocalyptic hellhole, all of humanity will be gone, but you’ll still be here, sitting in the rubble, smoking a cigarette.”
Keith, as anyone who worked with him can attest, was one of the most brilliantly creative humans ever to work in comics, the Jack Kirby of my generation of creators. He was a curmudgeon with a heart of gold. An extraordinarily generous collaborator. And, as my wife observed, “He was like a character out of a Keith Giffen story.”
The curmudgeon part was half-real/half-performance art. (He could launch into cynical and hilarious monologues about the state of the world that were as good as anything you could find on an HBO comedy special.) The heart of gold was evidenced by his generosity to his friends and collaborators in the business: Keith was the kind of guy who—if he heard you were hurting for work—would pick up the phone, call DC Comics and say, “Hey! Why aren’t you using so-and-so? What’s your problem? Give ‘em work!”
We were thrown together as collaborators on our original Justice League run (and thanks to our brilliant editor Andy Helfer for doing the throwing) and, despite the fact that the book and its many spin-offs were a huge success, I don’t think any of us—including the inimitable Kevin Maguire, whose art was so important to JL’s initial success—realized just how special that collaboration was. It was another job—a fun job, but a job nonetheless—and, when our League ran out of steam after five years, we moved on and didn’t look back.
And along the way a funny thing happened: This guy who was a favorite collaborator became more than that. He became a friend. Sure, we’d get on the phone every week or so to discuss the stories we were working on, but we’d also talk about our families, politics, the ups and downs (and ups and downs and ups and downs) of the freelance life. (In recent years, I saw Keith regularly at conventions, often sitting next to him, passing JLI issues back and forth between us for signing, and chatting away.)
The truth is, if Keith and I had met out in the so-called Real World, I don’t think we would have ever become friends—we were very different people—but coming together creatively opened the door for us to come together as human beings. And I’m so very grateful for that. (Thanks, Andy.)
When people ask me what it was like to work with Giffen, one story always comes to mind. I’ve told it before—apologies if you’ve heard it—but it really defines the man.
It’s was the late 1980’s. We were standing in the halls of DC Comics on a Friday afternoon, Keith telling me his idea for a new story: the secret origin of one of our most ridiculous characters, the brain-dead Green Lantern named G’nort. Keith spent five or ten minutes spinning the entire tale, in detail. You could see he was excited. He liked this wonderfully goofy story and he wanted to do it—just the way he’d envisioned it.
The problem was, I didn’t like it. And I told him I didn’t.
Did Keith get angry? Did he tell me I was a talentless jackass who had no right passing judgment on his incandescent genius? No. He just looked at me for a second, took a breath, shrugged—and then launched into an entirely new origin of G’nort, which he created on the spot. And it was perfect. I can’t think of many people who could switch creative gears like that, but Keith had more raw creativity than just about anyone I’ve ever known: a tsunami of stories and characters and odd, brilliant notions. A one-of-a-kind mad genius whose seismic impact on the comic book industry will be felt for years to come.
Safe travels, Mr. Giffen. You will be missed.
©copyright 2023 J.M. DeMatteis