Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hail to the King: Remembering Jack Kirby

Today would have been Jack "King" Kirby's 96th birthday.  While Kirby is arguably better known amongst the general populace today than he was during his lifetime, he's still not a household name by far.  Kirby was one half of the team (along with partner Stan Lee) that rocked comics and popular culture on its ear with the debut of the Marvel Universe in the 60's.  The collaboration between Lee and Kirby was complicated and has led to disputes over the years as to who contributed what.  But what cannot be disputed is that Kirby left a lasting mark on comics and popular culture and was one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.

Comics Icon Jack Kirby, August 28, 1917 - February 6, 1994

Kirby grew up as Jacob Kurtzberg in New York City's Lower East Side.  Jacob was a tough kid who used to run with street gangs until he had an epiphany on one rainy day in 1929.  Kurtzberg saw a pulp adventure magazine in the gutter that was about to get washed down the storm sewer.  He saved the magazine from its sure demise and was captivated by the fantastic imagery on the cover.  At that moment, Jacob knew that he wanted to spend his life illustrating fantastic settings and the people who lived within them.  From that spark, a legend was born.

An example of Kirby's fantastic settings influenced by the science fiction stories that captured his imagination as a kid.  Art is from Marvel's Thor #143.

Changing his name to Jack Kirby to emulate the Irish-American movie stars that he admired, Kurtzberg found early success working with his partner Joe Simon.  Together they created Captain America in the spring of 1941.  Kirby and Simon supported the view that America should get involved in World War II, and the cover of Timely Comics' Captain America Comics #1, depicting Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw, left no ambiguity as to the creators' political views.  The issue was an instant success, selling out in only a few days and cementing Kirby's reputation.

Jack Kirby's cover of Captain America Comics #1, one of the most powerful pieces of propaganda art of all time.

Kirby would soon meet a young gofer around the Timely offices named Stanley Lieber, who happened to be the nephew of Timely's publisher.  Lieber aspired to become a writer, and got his first opportunity by writing a prose "back-up" story in Captain America Comics #3 under the pen name Stan Lee.  Kirby and Lee's relationship would soon sour though.  Kirby and Simon decided that they would form an independent studio and start working for Timely's competitor, National Comics, on the sly.  They were motivated by the continued success that National was experiencing with characters such as Superman and Batman, and felt assured that they could handle the work load due to Kirby's rapid drawing speed.  However, the plan fell apart with Timely's publisher, Martin Goodman, got wind of the moonlighting arrangement and fired Simon and Kirby.  Kirby pointed the finger of blame squarely at Lee, who was doing gofer work for Simon and Kirby's studio as well, thinking that the young writer had spilled the beans to his cousin the publisher.  This marked the beginning of a strained relationship that would carry on throughout the rest of Kirby's life.

Kirby (standing) and partner Joe Simon, circa 1940.

Soon after, Kirby was drafted into the army during World War II.  Angling for an art job, Kirby's lack of political finesse and almost comical habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time worked against him, and he found himself attached to Patton's Third Army right after D-Day.  When Kirby's commanding officer found out that Kirby was THE Jack Kirby, he assigned Kirby to the dangerous job of an advance scout.  Kirby's job would be to sneak close to enemy lines and draw accurate maps of enemy emplacements for Patton's armor, risking capture all the time.

Kirby survived the war and reunited with Simon.  The duo continued to innovate throughout the late 40's and 50's, and actually invented the genre of romance comics when the popularity of superhero comics waned in the post-war years.  After struggling through the comic book witch hunts headed by Dr. Frederic Wertham in the 1950's, it looked like Kirby's luck would finally turn.  In the late 50's, Kirby was hand-picked to draw a newspaper strip called Sky Masters of the Space Force, an opportunity he jumped at.  While comic books and those who worked to make them were looked down upon in the 30's, 40's and 50's, newspaper comic strip writers and artists were viewed very favorably.  In addition, newspaper strips offered the promise of steady pay, which was a constant worry of the freelancing comic book professional.  However, Kirby's typical bad luck would spoil this opportunity as well.  Kirby's editor sued him over a cut of Kirby's profits when the editor claimed that he was also Kirby's agent, having arranged for him to work on the strip, and was therefore due an agent's fee.  Kirby lost the case in court, and because the editor worked for DC Comics in his day job, Kirby was shut out of the largest comics publisher in the country.

Sky Masters of the Space Force was ideally suited to Kirby's love of science fiction, but it was a project destined to bring him heartache and financial worry.

Hat in hand, Kirby returned to Timely Comics, which was now known as Atlas Comics, working for his former gofer, Stan Lee, who now worked as editor-in-chief at his cousin's company.  When Atlas got into the superhero game in the early 60's, Lee, who was disillusioned with the comics field and the generally juvenile tone of the typical comics story, decided he would go out with one last hurrah, and he enlisted Kirby to help him in his endeavor.  The two created Fantastic Four #1 under the banner of Marvel Comics, and the industry would never be the same again.  Kirby was an equal collaborator with Lee, and designed the look of the characters.  Lee in turn based the personality and speech of one of the quartet, Ben Grimm, aka The Thing, on Kirby.

Kirby's cover to Fantastic Four #1; his alter ego, Ben Grimm, aka the rocky Thing, is drawn in the lower left corner.

The popularity of Fantastic Four #1 revitalized both the comics industry and Kirby and Lee in general, and the duo would go on to create a majority of the major Marvel characters of the 60's, including Doctor Doom, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men and Magneto, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Inhumans, and the Black Panther.  Because of staff limitations and the number of titles that Lee and Kirby needed to produce, the duo of pioneered the so-called "Marvel method" of comic book creation during this period.  In the Marvel method, Lee, the writer, would devise a general plot outline and then leave Kirby, the penciller, to interpret the plot and create the art as he saw fit.  Lee would then receive Kirby's art and craft dialogue and captions that would match the art as he understood it.  This method would result in decades of speculation as to how much of the creative work was actually Lee's and how much was Kirby's, a debate that continues to this day.  It would also occasionally result in confusing stories, as Kirby might not agree with Lee's plot and would try to do his own thing in the art, only to have Lee then try to regain control of the story in the scripting phase.  However, most of the stories that Lee and Kirby produced during this period are considered classic and sophisticated works of art that helped comics gain legitimacy amongst adults and academics.

Eventually Kirby and Lee had another falling out, as Kirby had grudgingly felt that the talkative and outgoing Lee was stealing the limelight and that Kirby wasn't being given enough creative control to try his own thing after years of working in Lee's shadow.  Due to his meteoric rise in popularity during the Marvel era, DC was now willing to let bygones be bygones and welcomed Kirby back into the fold.  There Kirby unleashed his Fourth World saga, which he had created in anticipation of a split with Marvel.  The Fourth World's greatest lasting contribution to the DC pantheon was the introduction one of the DC Universe's greatest villians, Darkseid (pronounced Darkside).  The Fourth World saga was Kirby's attempt to create a modern science-fiction based mythology that commented on current social and political trends through allegory.  Chock full of Kirby's imaginative character designs, fantastic vistas, and pseudo-scientific gadgetry, the Fourth World was Kirby's pride and joy, and the ideas in the Fourth World books are continually name-checked as influential in subsequent popular culture, including, it is believed, Star Wars.

The cover of DC's New Gods #1 proudly proclaimed "Kirby Is Here!" to the delight of DC fans everywhere.

Despite his satisfaction while working on the Fourth World titles (which included The New Gods, Forever People, and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, Kirby was growing frustrated at DC, as the publisher was requiring him to draw increasingly more projects that didn't interest him.  By the mid-70's Kirby would leave DC and return to Marvel, where he tried to recapture the Fourth World magic by creating a Marvel analogue called The Eternals.  Kirby also returned to the character of the Black Panther, a supporting character of the Fantastic Four who was the first black superhero in comics.  Kirby also continued to produce science fiction-influenced work, including an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  By the mid-70's however, artistic tastes had changed, and contemporary Marvel readers didn't appreciate Kirby's art or his ideas the way they had 10 years earlier.  Kirby would never again find the success of the early days of Marvel Comics, and eventually left the publisher for good in the late 70's.

The Eternals was the cornerstone of Kirby's return to Marvel in the mid-70's.

Kirby would spend most of the rest of his career in the field of animation, with some early notable design work on the cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian (see below).  Kirby would occasionally do some work for DC in the 80's, including a short revival of his Fourth World concepts, as well as some art for the comic book adaptation of DC's Super Powers toys produced by Kenner.  Kirby would bring long dormant ideas to light through publisher Topps Comics (the now-defunct comic book arm of the baseball card giant), some of which continue to be published under other creators today through independent companies such as Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics.  In an interesting historical footnote, Kirby's concept art for a science fiction film that was never produced was co-opted as an important part of the CIA cover story used to smuggle U.S diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis in the 1970's.  (That effort is depicted in the film Argo.)

Despite Kirby's accomplishments, he would continue to struggle for recognition throughout the rest of his life.  An anecdote involving Johnny Carson best illustrates this.  In the early 80's, Kirby produced a one-off 3-D comic book.  The book came with glasses printed with the motto "Jack Kirby King of the Comics."  Somehow Johnny Carson learned of the glasses, and misunderstanding the context of the word "comics" (thinking it meant comedians), proceeded to do a lengthy bit that centered around the idea that no one had ever heard of this guy, and how dare he call himself the King of the Comics.  Kirby was quite upset by the disparaging remarks and contacted Carson, who eventually issued an on-air apology to Kirby.  By the early 90's, Kirby's premier reputation in comics fandom circles was undisputed, but it would continue to be many years more before his name would start to become known to casual fans. 

Kirby died in California of heart failure on February 6, 1994.  Despite years of on-again, off-again disputes with his former partner Stan Lee, it seems that the two may have been able to patch things up somewhat during the final years of Kirby's life.  Lee, perhaps bowing to pressure from comics fans, now publicly acknowledges Kirby's collaboration, though controversy continues to rage about who did what in the early days of Marvel.  Regardless of the continuing argument, it's impossible to dispute the impact that the 12-year old street tough from Manhattan had on the popular culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Happy Birthday Jack, and thanks for years of inspiring and entertaining stories.

A self-portrait of Kirby surrounded by the characters of the 60's-era Marvel Universe, most of whom he co-created.

(For a highly entertaining account of Jack Kirby's life, as well as the history of the comic book medium at large, I highly recommend The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, available in trade paperback from publisher IDW.  You can find the trade at your local comic book store or from online retailers such as Amazon or In-Stock Trades.

1 comment:

  1. It really is a shame that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had such contention over the years. I love Kirby's art and vivid imagination but my favorite stories he's drawn are all written by Stan.
    Like everyone always says, "They're the Bernie Taupin and Elton John of comics."