Goodbye, Keith Giffen

© 2023 Glen Cadigan
Originally written on October 12, 2023
Published on Facebook

Keith Giffen breaks the news of his own death on Facebook as only Keith Giffen can.

Keith Giffen passed away on October 9th, but waited a few days to announce his demise to the world via Facebook. Here's what I said about him there:

So. Keith Giffen is dead. He broke the news on Facebook himself, that's the kind of guy he was. People thought it was just Keith being Keith, but it was true. That tells you everything you need to know about the man and his sense of humor -- anyone or anything could be a target, including his own death.

Just months before he died, Giffen started his own podcast.

He had recently taken to podcasting (called "I'm Not Dead Yet!" -- true at the time) and told stories of how he crossed state lines with a monkey, walked into Muhammad Ali (and bounced off), did the same thing with George Lucas up at Marvel before Star Wars was a hit, and other things that could only happen to Keith Giffen. He described his character, The Heckler, as being Bugs Bunny in human form, and you could say the same thing about his creator. In fact, Keith once wrote a Bugs Bunny story (when DC was publishing a Bugs book) about Bugs versus a vending machine which Keith said was the most autobiographical thing he'd ever written. He was always mischievous, looking to get away with whatever he could. His first major collaborator, Paul Levitz, had this to say:

"He had an infinite number of ideas, pouring constantly out. Many, thankfully, never saw print as wholly insane or inappropriate. But the ones that did!"

Keith Giffen's creator-owned character (along with Tom & Mary Bierbaum), The Heckler. TM and © Estate of Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum.

Keith Giffen's brain was like a car without brakes. He definitely needed a handler to navigate what came out of his head since he couldn't tell which of his ideas would fly and which wouldn't. Case in point: when he was working on the comedy, Formerly Known as The Justice League (or was it its sequel, I Can't Believe It's Not The Justice League?), Mary Marvel was a member. At that point in time she was wearing a white costume instead of her traditional red (to distinguish her, I suppose, from Captain Marvel) and Keith wanted to put her back in her red one. His idea was this: she would lose her virginity (off-page, I assume), and the next time she said, "Shazam!" her costume would be red instead of white. Hilarious, but shot down by his editor at DC for obvious reasons.

Before Netflix revived old shows, the Giffen-DeMatteis Justice League experienced a revival. Art by Kevin Maguire, not Keith Giffen. Justice League TM and © DC Comics.

The headlines are billing him as the co-creator of Rocket Raccoon, Lobo, and the most recent Blue Beetle, but if you ask me, he's most closely identified with the Legion of Super-Heroes or Ambush Bug. (Guess if they ever appear in a movie, they'll get a nod.) He had a long run as the co-writer of Justice League, and he was the one who made it take a funny turn. But he could certainly do drama, and did. If you wanted someone to blow up a planet and kill millions of people, Keith Giffen was your man.

He's best known as an artist, and his art style changed multiple times over the years because that's just how his brain worked. When he first broke in, he burned bridges and ended up washing out almost as soon as he got in the door. He briefly worked selling Kirby vacuum cleaners (you read that right) door-to-door and repossessing cars near Atlantic City because he was skinny and could slip in through half-open windows. Then he was given a second chance and didn't look back. That led to back-ups on The Legion, which led to him drawing the whole book, which led to "The Great Darkness Saga" and collaborating with Paul Levitz and The Legion being second only to The New Teen Titans in sales at DC, and Keith Giffen becoming a superstar.

The poster that broke Keith Giffen's brain! Featuring every character that had appeared in a "Legion" story to date. The Legion of Super-Heroes TM and © DC Comics.

(When I interviewed him about his Legion career and its relative position to the Titans (drawn by George Perez), I knew who I was talking to and made a joke that he could've done a Tonya Harding and taken George out with a lead pipe. His response was, "If you've ever seen George and me together, I probably couldn't get my hands around George. I'm a little gnomish creature. George is this huge, massive person who could hurt me.")

Keith Giffen at a convention. Photographer unknown.

Keith Giffen's favorite piece of criticism was something a fan said about him once. "Break Keith Giffen's hands, and break his feet, too, because that guy in My Left Foot learned how to draw with his feet!" I can also remember a Legion fan, upon seeing a photo of Keith for the first time, saying, "Keith Giffen looks like one of his drawings!" but it was an observation, not an insult, and I think that Keith would've laughed at it.

Despite his intro on his Facebook page ("I write stories and draw pictures while I'm waiting to die."), his death was unexpected, so this is a shock. Check out his podcast on YouTube if you want a sense of the man. He was chaos and creativity incarnate, equal parts creating and destroying to create. There were times when he was everywhere, and at least one time when he couldn't get arrested, and this was long after he was an established star.

Keith Giffen at the Florida Supercon in 2016, taken by (and © by) Dreamer of Nights. Used under a Creative Commons License.

He was as unpredictable as the industry that employed him. He turned the Legion of Substitute Heroes into a joke, then he turned them into an elite commando squad called S.U.B.S.. He worked for the big two, and worked for smaller, almost invisible publishers. Even a throwaway character like Rocket Racoon, who first appeared in a black and white magazine at Marvel at the very start of his career, came back as a big hit. He designed Jack of Hearts' almost impossible to draw costume around the same time, earning him curses from his fellow artists whenever they had to illustrate him. And then there's Trencher, and Punx, and Video Jack, and other things people aren't even mentioning (like working with Rob Liefeld and Eric Larsen and Jim Valentino at Image in the '90s) because he did so damn much.

Three of Keith Giffen's lesser known works. Trencher TM and © Estate of Keith Giffen, Punx TM and © Valiant Entertainment, and Video Jack TM and © Cary Bates and the Estate of Keith Giffen.

Goodbye, Keith Giffen. If the Earth is still around in a billion years, there'll never be another one like you.