Jack Kirby. King Kirby. King.
It’s a testament to Jack Kirby‘s lasting legacy to the comic book industry that just the epitaph ‘King’ is enough to identify him and the kind of comic with which he is synonymous. Kirby’s influence on the medium cannot be understated – he was present at the birth of the comic book industry in 1938 (the Golden Age) and he was one of the prime architects at it’s rebirth in the early sixties (the Silver Age). In a career spanning over 40 years he almost single-handedly created the visual lexicon of the comics medium, imbuing it with a dynamism, excitement and energy not seen before and he was instrumental in transforming the funny books from throw away pulp reprints to an art form in it’s own right. There isn’t an artist or writer working in the field today who doesn’t owe him a debt of gratitude, whether they know so or not.
Born in 1917 to Jewish immigrant parents in the tough Lower East Side of New York, Jacob Kurtzberg grew up pugnacious and stubborn with a strong worth ethic and an even stronger desire to provide for his family – traits that would remain with him for the rest of his life. From an early age Jacob (Jack to his friends) undertook any work he could to try and provide a little extra for his struggling family, and with his parents blessing he left school before the age of 17 to provide his family with a steady source of income. A talented self-taught artist who honed his skills by copying comic strips and photos from local newspapers, his first paid commissions were for the signs he painted for local barrow merchants before he found temporary employment with the Max Fleischer animation studio doing menial work on Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. After that he worked for a small newspaper syndicate working on thinly disguised imitations of established cartoon strips before the comic book boom of the late thirties provided an opportunity for more steady income.
The surprising – and highly lucrative – success of Action Comics No 1 in 1938 helped create the comic book industry almost overnight. It was a time when demand for artists was so high that almost anyone who could hold a pencil could find a gig drawing comics and so the 19-year old Kurtzberg easily found work in the busy Will Eisner studio. While learning all he could under Eisner, who would soon find fame as the creator of The Spirit, Kurtzburg (who by now had adopted the pen name Kirby) met his first creative partner, Joe Simon. Initially they would create a string of instantly forgettable characters such as Red Raven and The Vision for comics publisher Martin Goodman. But they would hit pay-dirt with their most famous, and most enduring creation, the star-spangled crusader Captain America.
Despite the huge success of the book Goodman stiffed the duo on royalties and so in 1941 they quit in and moved to DC Comics, enjoying an almost unbroken run of success that was only interrupted when both men were drafted to fight in the war. After the war was over they worked for various small comics publishers for the following decade. By the early Fifties the comics boom was beginning to fade but the Simon/Kirby team would buck this downward trend by creating a new genre of book: the romance comic. They sold well for a time but overall sales of comics continued to dip throughout the industry, thanks in part to the near hysterical reaction of the US government to the medium’s perceived high levels of violence and it’s supposed effect on children. Joe and Jack eventually went their separate ways and Kirby worked as a jobbing artist for a few years until lack of work forced him to reach out to an old contact from his Goodman publishing days. Stan Lee, Goodman’s nephew, now worked as Editor-in-Chief at the company and was more than happy to welcome Kirby back.
Lee would be Kirby’s second and, by far, most successful creative partnership. In the space of a few short years the two would revitalise the entire moribund comic book industry with an almost unbroken run of successful new characters and titles: The Fantastic Four; The Hulk; The Mighty Thor; The X-Men; The Avengers; The Silver Surfer; The Black Panther – it seemed that every character they created instantly found an audience and sales went through the roof. It was an incredibly productive collaboration the likes of which had never been seen before in the industry, and sadly has never been seen since.
On the surface their secret was simple: Lee’s work load was so heavy that he didn’t have time to write full scripts for each story, so he’d outline a story to Kirby (usually verbally), who would then draw the comic to include the story beats Lee wanted while adding any extra bits of business he saw fit and finally Lee would add the dialogue. Sometimes the story Kirby handed in followed Lee’s plot outline, sometimes it didn’t. The stories worked either way so Lee didn’t seem to mind. Lee would call this new way of working The Marvel Method and soon all the company’s titles were produced using this winning formula. But this approach, born from a work-around, hides a more salient truth: both men were at the top of their game. Lee was a talented writer with a gift for witty dialogue and for creating sympathetic characters. Kirby was an experienced artist and storyteller who understood perfectly the language of comics and knew how to engage his readers.
But the success of The Marvel Method would eventually create a rift between the two men that would never heal. Lee believed he was the catalyst for the stories and credited himself as sole author. Kirby believed he was the main creative force behind these comics and viewed Lee’s input as marginal. But neither could deny the success of their system so while the work, and the money, kept coming in Kirby was content to hold his tongue.
But matters came to a head in 1970 when Kirby’s repeated requests for a formal contract, with guaranteed income and pension options, were constantly rebuffed by Marvel. And recent newspaper articles exaggerating Lee’s role while simultaneously down-playing Kirby’s didn’t help. When Kirby was given a work contract so unfairly biased towards the company and told to sign it or leave, he did just that. Kirby quit to work for Marvel’s biggest rival, DC Comics. It was an embarrassing blow to Marvel and a bitter one to Lee.
Given complete creative control over four titles by DC, and finally unfettered by what he viewed as interfering editorial influences, Kirby began to create an ambitious overarching story quite unlike anything tried in the medium before. The four titles – The New Gods, Mr Miracle, The Forever People and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olson – would come to be collectively known as The Fourth World saga. It was as if Kirby took all the grand cosmic mythology hinted at in his Marvel work and threw them all together into an epic visual poem of warring ancient gods, giant space battles, cosmic creatures, great betrayals, greater heroism and anything else he could think of. Sadly the story proved a little too much for the average Seventies comic book reader and the series faltered and was eventually cancelled in less than 2 years. Although deflated by his failure to find an audience, he worked on a few other titles (Kamandi, The Demon to name a few) for a year or so and then quit DC to return to Marvel. They (and Lee) were were glad to have him back and heralded his return as a major coup but to Kirby it was an embarrassing backward step.
Despite producing some of the finest artwork of his career his Marvel work in this three year period (1975 -78) never really found an audience. He was happy to be given the opportunity to work on one of his earlier creations, Captain America, but overall sales of his titles were poor. It seemed that reader tastes had changed since he left Marvel in 1970 and stories told ‘the Kirby way’ appeared to have been no longer in fashion. For the first time in his career he contemplated leaving the industry he loved but he still needed to provide for his family so what could he do? Television provided the answer. Hearing that Kirby was unhappy at Marvel the Ruby-Spears animation studio offered him a job and for the rest of his working life Kirby worked for a selection of TV animation studios providing concept drawings and story boards, even working on a Fantastic Four cartoon. Much to his delight he discovered that most of the other animators had not only heard of him but cited him as a major influence.
He wasn’t done with Marvel though and In the ’80s he instigated legal proceedings to force the publisher to return his original artwork. The fight turned bitter with most of the comics industry siding with Kirby, who was viewed as David to Marvel’s Goliath. The legal action also brought unwanted attention to Marvel’s freelance working conditions and the embarrassed publisher finally returned over 2,000 pages of original art. The legal action also had the effect of reminding the industry of Kirby’s massive contribution to the medium and he relished the attention. For someone who had fought most of his working life for the recognition he felt was his, it was immensely gratifying to now finally receive it. He also continued to contribute comic stories and artwork to smaller independent publishers – nothing too major or time consuming though, done more to keep his hand in.
Jack Kirby passed away in 1994 leaving behind an incredible legacy of work that has lost none of it’s power to entertain or thrill and the concepts and characters he created are still inspiring creators to this day. In 2007 the US Postal Service issued a commemorative set of stamps featuring Marvel’s most popular characters and Kirby’s work features on 8 of the stamps – a fitting tribute to the King of Comics.
Kirby, King of Comics was published in 2008 by Harry N. Abrams, inc and written by Mark Evanier. As a one time assistant to Kirby Evanier is uniquely positioned to write the first illustrated biography of the artist and it’s a solid, informative read. It isn’t a warts and all story but more of an affectionate retrospective written by someone who know Kirby and clearly liked him. The more objective part of me wishes the book was a little more even handed in it’s treatment of Kirby though. For instance there is no mention of his Funky Flashman character, a sleazy con-man clearly (very clearly!) based on Stan Lee and created with the express intention of wounding Lee personally. There is also no mention of the interview Kirby gave to Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth in 1989 in which he seemed to take the credit for single-handely creating all of Marvel’s characters from the early sixties. And an analysis of the evolution of Kirby’s drawing style wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, these are minor quibbles and on the whole the book is very enjoyable. It’s well designed with lots of full-page images featuring a broad selection of Kirby’s original artwork. It’s printed on good paper stock and at 224 pages it’s an fitting tribute to the influential artist.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe
HarperCollins, 2012, 496 pages.
Howe’s excellent and even-handed biography of the company features in-depth coverage of Kirby’s role, although told from a slightly more objective perspective.
Tales to Astonish by Ronin Ro
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005, 296 pages
In the ongoing argument of who contributed more to Marvel, Lee or Kirby, Ro firmly plants is flag in the Kirby corner. His bias gets a little tiresome at times but it’s still worth a read.
Jack Kirby: The Comics Journal Interviews
Fantagraphics, 2002, 120 pages
Reprints several interviews with Kirby, including the contentious one discussed in the above article, and an in-depth analysis of his legal fight to recover his original artwork from Marvel. It’s out of print but still available on eBay or Amazon Marketplace.