Rand Hoppe recently hosted a pop-up exhibition of rare Jack Kirby prints in a vacant storefront space on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a neighborhood where the co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Hulk struggled to survive during the hardscrabble Depression era.
"It was really a pretty horrible ghetto at the time that he worked hard to get his family (and himself) out of," says Hoppe of Lower Manhattan's eight-block grid of trendy nightclubs, restaurants and luxury apartments that was once a cold-water tenement ward of tough immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy.
Today, Rand is working to bring Kirby's work (Kirby died in 1994) back to the Lower East Side in a museum that will celebrate the native son whose struggles and exploits in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood became grist for a pulp pantheon of distinctly modern heroes.
The Jack Kirby Museum currently lives online and consists of an extensive digital archive of original works drawn from private collectors and Kirby's family.
"Right now we are a virtual nonprofit," says Hoppe, who established an early incarnation of the museum in 1997, when he created a website for The Jack Kirby Collector, a newsletter for Kirby enthusiasts. He has since gone on to spearhead the systematic digitizing of Kirby's entire oeuvre.
"Since 2006 we've been scanning original Kirby art," says Hoppe of his collaborative effort with Kirby Museum board member Tom Kraft to digitize and preserve all of Kirby's surviving art by setting up booths with high-resolution scanners at comic conventions. "We would go around the convention to the dealers booths who were offering artwork and we asked if we could borrow the artwork for a little bit so we could scan it. That's how we've ended up with 4,000 pages in our digital archive."
Initially, the resulting scans resided in Hoppe's Hoboken, N.J., apartment, along with thousands of original pencil drawings belonging to the Kirby family. Three years ago, he moved the collection to a commercial storage space.
Hoppe's carefully maintained originals and extensive digital archive figured prominently in a major exhibition of Kirby's work at the Fumetto - International Comix-Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 2010.
"They have a building that's normally filled with Picasso art and for this particular show they took all the Picassos out and put Kirbys in," says Hoppe from the bunker-like storage space where the collection currently resides. "It was a career-spanning exhibit. We were able to help them find collectors and (prints of) some of our scans were on the walls as well."
More recently, Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby, an exhibit at California State University, Northridge (Aug. 24-Oct. 10, 2015) drew heavily on Kirby prints and drawings from Hoppe's archives, and featured an iPad program Hoppe helped develop to enable swiping between Kirby's pencil sketches and inked originals.
Hoppe believes the relationships he's built with collectors and dealers in his effort to digitize Kirby's work will provide a basis for the exhibition of original art in a Jack Kirby museum on the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, he intends to continue showing the collection at pop-up exhibitions.
"Our goal with them is to make an appearance in New York and just get the word out that this son of the Lower East Side was so involved in developing the language of comic books and so many of these characters — that this guy sat at a table and drew these comic books that people are watching movies about."
Hoppe is planning his next pop-up for May 2016, to coincide with the release of X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War and Iron Man 4.
"We want to get to the point where by 2017 (Kirby's birthday centennial) either we're popping up all over the world or staying somewhere.... That's what we're working for, to have a big party for Jack in 2017."