Why would FilmBuffOnline, a website about films, be celebrating Jack Kirby on what would have been his 100th birthday? Well, if you are asking that question, you don’t know Jack (pardon the pun).
Did you like Guardians of the Galaxy 2? Baby Groot was great, wasn’t he? Groot was co-created by Jack Kirby. Liked the character of Ego? Ego was co-created by Jack Kirby.
Excited to see Thor: Ragnarok? Thor is a Jack Kirby co-creation. As is Loki. As is Heimdall, Skurge and most of the Asgardians in the film. You’ll see Thor battle Hulk, another Kirby co-creation, and Hela, yet another Kirby co-creation.
Next year, we get a film based on another Kirby co-creation Black Panther gets a film of his own and most of the characters already mentioned will join other Kirby co-creations such as Captain America and Nick Fury, characters Kirby designed like Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier, originally known as Bucky, the sidekick Kirby co-created for Captain America, as the Avengers, a team Kirby also co-created, in Avengers: Infinity War. After that, Marvel gives us Ant-Man & Wasp, new characters inspired by characters, you guessed it, co-created by Jack Kirby.
Not a Marvel fan? Maybe the you’re more excited about this year’s Justice League, where the heroes of the DCEU fight Steppenwolf, a character Jack Kirby created wholly on his own and one that is working for another Kirby creation, Darkseid.
That gets the point across and I didn’t even name the X-Men or Fantastic Four, also characters Jack Kirby co-created. In an era where comic book movies rule the box office, Jack Kirby’s legacy proves why his nickname in life was “King.”
However, Jack Kirby’s life story is worthy of a movie itself. Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg 100 years ago today on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A self-taught artist, he started work drawing strips for newspaper syndicate at age 19, as many people his age did to help their families during the The Great Depression. That led to a job doing animation work for Fleisher Studios which then led to work in comic books.
In 1940, Kirby met Joe Simon and would begin the first great creative partnership of his life. They met at Fox Feature Syndicate before moving on to Timely Comics, the company that would eventually become the Marvel Comics we know today. While there, the team created one of the most iconic characters of ll-time: Captain America.
Captain America first appeared in early 1941, months before the Pearl Harbor attack, and featured its lead character fighting Nazis. The iconic front cover of the first issue , seen to the left, infamously showed Cap punching out Adolph Hitler. Simon & Kirby saw where the country was headed, but the character’s actions did not sit well with Nazi sympathizers in the U.S.. The pair received numerous death threats. Kirby even received one from someone who said he’d wait for him in the lobby of Timely Comics, threatening bodily harm if Kirby showed his face. Jack addressed this in what would be typical Jack Kirby fashion–he immediately went downstairs to confront the bully. The bully left before Kirby got there.
Death threats aside, Captain America was incredibly popular but Simon & Kirby believed they weren’t getting a fair share of the sales for the work they did. The pair left Timely for National Comics Publications where they worked on characters like Sandman and created characters like the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandoes and Guardian.
Kirby would get married to a Roz Goldstein on May 23, 1942 and little over a year later, World War II came to call. Kirby was drafted into the Army on June 27, 1943 and that’s when his life took on a cinematic quality.
Kirby wasn’t the only comic book creator drafted into service during the war. Most comic book creators ended up in safe assignments that would capitalize on their artistic skills. His then-partner Joe Simon joined the Coast Guard and produced a promotional comic book for the military branch. Once and future collaborator Stan Lee ended up in the Training Film Division, creating scripts for films shown to the troops about the dangers of syphilis and other such public service films. Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, got a job doing cartoons for Army Motors and other instructional pamphlets and was instrumental in designing what eventually would become PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly.
Jack Kirby didn’t get one of these safe, home front jobs. He was sent to the front lines. He was sent to the European Theater in August of 1944, just over two months after D-Day. His artistic skill was still used by the by the Army. He was employed as an advance scout, given the dangerous job of going ahead of his unit to draw maps and pictures to guide them safely along their journey. He lasted in the assignment until winter, when a bad case of frostbite sent him home to the U.S. for motor pool duty until his time was up. Kirby was honorably discharged as a Private First Class on July 20, 1945, having received a Combat Infantryman Badge and a European/African/Middle Eastern Theater ribbon with Bronze Star Medal.
Back home, he reunited with Simon, working at Harvey Comics, Hillman Comics and Crestwood Comics. Simon and Kirby came back during a period when superhero comics were on a downturn and publishers were looking for alternative genres. While at Crestwood, the duo floated the novel idea of making romance comics, a novelty at the time. In the process, they created one of the most popular genres in comic books, one that sold many comics for many publishers over the next 30 years.
The Simon/Kirby partnership lasted until the mid-1950s, ending after a brief period running their own comic book imprint, Mainline Comics and creating a notable Captain America cloned named Fighting American.
Kirby then began freelancing on his own, returning to work for Atlas Comics (what Timely Comics was then calling itself) and National Comics Publications/DC Comics. At the latter, he created a team of adventurers called The Challengers of the Unknown and worked on Green Arrow. His work at DC led him to get his own newspaper comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force. The strip ran from 1958 to 1961, but a disagreement between DC Comics editor Jack Schiff and Kirby over rights for the strip led to a lawsuit that Kirby lost. The result was Kirby leaving DC Comics for a period of time.
During this period, Kirby started doing more work for Atlas, which was primarily publishing monster and western comic books. The company was climbing out of a financial downturn at the time, so Kirby had to up his production of pages in order to make a living from the publisher. He would inevitably be called on to do the lion’s share of the artwork for the publisher. By August 1961, Kirby was drawing around thirteen stories per month, 109 pages of artwork (four times the page count of the next closest artist, a man named Jack Keller, who provided twenty-five measly pages of art spread out over three stories), did either art ot covers for over half of the company’s output.
By 1961, superheroes were coming back in style and in August of 1961, Kirby partnered with Stan Lee to create Fantastic Four #1, changing the face of comic books forever.
The question of who truly created the Fantastic Four–and the Marvel Era of comics–has been up for much debate. Lee controlled the narrative in the public. In interview, he sold the story that he was ordered by publisher Martin Goodman to create a superhero team. Burnt out in the business, Lee claimed that, at the urging of his wife, he decided to do a comic book that he would like to read, one that unlike anything that came before. A plot summary from his files seems to bear this out.
However, in the 1980s, a bitter Kirby said that he created most of the Marvel Universe to help a helpless Lee keep Marvel afloat. The obvious similarities between the FF and the Kirby-created Challengers of the Unknown (both teams had a scientist, a pilot, a hot head, and a stocky-built strong guy), lends credence to Kirby’s claims.
The true most likely lies somewhere in the middle. The version of their working relationship I subscribe to is that Lee would give simple plots to Kirby, sometimes only a sentence, and Kirby would run with it. But regardless of how involved Kirby was in the writing process, even if all he did was provide the artwork, his contributions to the success of Marvel during this period could not be overstated.
Kirby set the house art style at Marvel. Where the art at other companies was staid and stiff, Kirby’s art leap off the page. The punches he drew landed with the intensity of a bomb blast, and often would sent the punched flying out of the panel they were in. The bombastic, in your face art married perfectly with Lee’s grandiose, melodramatic prose. New artists were mentored by Kirby to fall in line with his art style. The good artists managed to keep their own style but ape Kirby’s flair for the dramatic. Others simply mimicked his style.
The new direction worked. The Lee/Kirby dynamic was the perfect fit for the Pop Art 1960s. It became a hip, modern alternative to the other comic book companies and expanded the audiences for comics as well, making them popular on college campuses.
While Kirby was responsible for revolutionizing the comic medium, he wasn’t getting the credit for it. When the mainstream media started looking into the Marvel Mania, they came knocking on writer/editor Stan Lee’s door. And Stan, being the extraverted carnival barker that he was, never shied away from the attention or the opportunity to promote Marvel and, by extension, himself. Lee would often make mention of Kirby’s contribution but journalists weren’t interested finding out more from what was in their eyes just one of Marvel’s many artists. They didn’t know the true nature of Kirby’s contributions and didn’t care to find out. They got all the story they needed from the loquacious Lee.
That combined with Marvel publisher Martin Goodman doing stupid publisher tricks by cheating him out of agreed upon royalties led Kirby to do the unthinkable.
He switched sides. He signed on with DC Comics in 1970.
A generation of comic book fans knew Kirby only as the partner of Stan Lee and the main artist at Marvel. So Kirby’s defection was akin to Carl Yastrzemski signing with the New York Yankees or Jerry West agreeing to play with the Boston Celtics. It wasn’t like the Internet existed and the fact that he used to work for DC was common knowledge. This made it a big deal.
At first, the marriage was a good one. Kirby was allow more or less unfettered freedom to create and received full credit for his creations. His biggest concept was The New Gods, a cosmic epic of good fighting evil that was Shakespearean in shape and scope. It is here where Kirby created Darkseid, a malevolent, stone-faced world-beater that soon became DC’s greatest villain.
Other work Kirby did was rather hit or miss. For every Demon (a supernatural story of a demon bound to a human) or Kamandi (a post-apocalyptic story of the last human trying to survive in a world populated by sentient animals) there was an Atlas or a Dingbats of Danger Street.
Soon, Kirby ‘s relationship with DC would sour. He would rankle with editors over assignments, and was sabotaged by jealous rivals inside the company. In 1975, Kirby would return to Marvel.
He would reunite with his co-creation Captain America on a run of the character’s title. He would reunite with Stan Lee on a Silver Surfer story that was one of the first graphic novels ever published. He also worked on Black Panther during this time, and created concepts such as The Eternals, Machine Man and Devil Dinosaur.
He could only stand working at Marvel for three years before he left comics for the field of animation. He was hired by Hanna-Barbera where he worked doing character designs, most notably on Thundarr the Barbarian. He would also work on production design in films. Famously, his designs for the aborted Lord of Light film were used by the CIA as part of a scheme to safely evacuate U.S. Embassy officials from Iran under the guise that they were a Canadian film crew. This caper was the basis for the Academy Award winning film Argo. Michael Parks played Kirby in the film.
Kirby would return to comic in the 1980s as an advocate of creators rights. He did a number of creator-owned comics for Pacific Comics, including Captain Victory and his Galactic Rangers and Silver Star, and for Topps Comics in the 1990s he created concepts brought to life by other creators, namely Bombast by plotter Roy Thomas, scripter Gary Friedrich and artists Dick Ayers & John Severin and Satan’s Six writer Tony Isabella, penciler John Cleary and inker Armando Gil.
The last comic book Kirby created was one for Image Comics called Phantom Force. However, he died before he could complete the series. Jack Kirby died of heart failure at age 76 in his home on February 6, 1994.
Outside of Captain America, his contributions to the Golden Age of comics is all but forgotten. Due to Stan Lee’s boisterous personality and uncanny longevity, his contributions to Marvel Comics go unappreciated by some. But it’s safe to say that without Jack Kirby, there might not be comic books, let alone Marvel Comics, let alone films based on them. He deserves more credit than he might ever get. But as a present for his centennial, let us give him some now.