Jack Kirby (1917-1994) is the greatest and most-influential comic book artist that’s ever lived. He laid the foundation for the entire Marvel universe, creating or co-creating Captain America, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, The Silver Surfer, Black Panther and The Inhumans (to name a few). He also had a hugely creative run at DC comics, where he created the Fourth World universe.
Before Kirby revolutionised superhero comics in the 1960s, he had been working in the field for over 20 years as its most in-demand artist. He had a long and successful partnership with Joe Simon, the two having their biggest hit in 1941, when they created Captain America for Timely (now Marvel) comics. The hero capitalised on the approaching war with Nazi Germany, with the first issue featuring Cap punching Hitler right in the face. Kirby would postpone his career to go fight in the war himself, serving in the 11th Infantry under General Patton.
After the war, Kirby returned to comics, continuing his collaboration with Simon. The two produced a variety of titles, including war, adventure, horror and romance comics for different publishers until 1959. After they parted ways, Kirby was forced to return to work for Timely. There, Kirby partnered with editor and writer Stan Lee. The two would become the Lennon/McCartney of comics.
Their first big hit together debuted in 1961. Fantastic Four #1 launched a new era of superhero comics and kicked off the industry’s Silver Age. The book’s combination of cosmic adventures, flawed and bickering heroes, hip dialogue and larger than life action had never been seen before. The duo would follow with a string of hits, most notably The Hulk, The Avengers and The X-Men. Like Lennon/McCartney, Kirby/Lee connected with the youth and counter-culture of the ’60s and transformed Marvel Comics into a worldwide success.
Out of necessity and due to the number of titles they were creating each month, Kirby and Lee worked together using the ‘Marvel method’. They would have informal meetings and once a basic story was decided upon, Kirby would go home and get to work. He would plot the story, stage the action scenes, design any new characters and draw the entire comic. Lee would then write the dialogue over Kirby’s penciled pages. This method resulted in some of the finest comics ever made, but also caused problems later when trying to figure out who created what exactly.
Throughout the ’60s, as Marvel’s popularity and financial success grew, Kirby, the main creative force behind it all, was not receiving any financial compensation to match the company’s growing profits. During that time, creators had zero rights when working at the big publishers and Kirby was getting royally screwed. He wasn’t on a salary, received no major pay rise, no benefits or long-term security and he wasn’t even allowed to keep his original pages. He also had growing resentment that Stan Lee was getting most of the credit for Marvel’s success. Lee was charismatic, funny and charming in interviews. Kirby was shy, spoke in a strange cadence and spent most of his time at home in his basement working. In any newspaper or magazine articles about Marvel, Lee was often painted as the man with all the ideas, while Kirby was the mindless drone who just drew what he was told.
Finally, in 1970, unhappy with the treatment he was getting at Marvel, Kirby left to go work for rivals DC Comics (Lennon/McCartney split in 1970 too, the analogy continues!). At DC, Kirby worked on a variety of titles, the most well-known being his Fourth World books, which dealt with the New Gods, Orion and his father Darkseid (characters who will play a major role in the upcoming Justice League movies).
Kirby eventually returned to Marvel in 1976, but would ‘retire’ from comics in 1978, sick of the industry that had given him so little after he had given it everything. He starting working in animation where the pay was better and to his relief, where there were health benefits for the first time in his life. After a lengthy legal battle, Marvel returned over 2000 pages of original art to Kirby in 1987. Selling them to fans became the main source of income for Kirby and his wife, Roz, for the rest of their lives. In 1995, a year after Kirby’s death, Marvel gave Roz a modest pension. In 2014, Marvel and the Kirby family settled out of court in a high stakes battle over the copyright of the Marvel characters.
Like he says himself, Kirby wasn’t the best or most-polished artist. His anatomy was often incorrect, his character’s hands were the size of basketballs and their faces sometimes looked a bit weird. But they jumped off the page with power and energy that no one could match. His layouts were more dynamic, compositions more awe-inspiring and his imagination absolutely limitless. His style became Marvel’s house style that all other artists would follow, and he largely built the language of superhero comics that we’re all familiar with today.
Not only were Kirby’s pages more original than anyone else, he could draw them FASTER than anyone else. During his peak Marvel days, between 1962 and ’64, Kirby penciled a stupefying 3130 interior pages and 285 covers. To put that in perspective, the average comic book penciler, working on a monthly 22-page book pencils 528 interior pages and 24 covers over the same period. Just like his beloved Silver Surfer, it seemed like the Power Cosmic flowed through Kirby’s fingers and onto the page, where he created entire universes all while working out of his humble basement office.
It’s crazy, unless you’re a comic fan, you’ve probably never heard of the name Jack Kirby (am I right?). But from the mark he’s left on pop culture, his name should be as well known as Walt Disney, Charles Schulz or Chuck Jones. So just remember … when Captain America: Civil War makes hundreds of millions of dollars next week, when your son wants an Avengers cake for his birthday, when your friend dresses up as the Hulk for halloween, when you play Contest of Champions on your iPhone, whenever you come across ANY superhero related toy/game/movie/tv show/merchandise that the world is saturated with right now … just remember the name Jack Kirby. Remember the KING OF COMICS!
Bill Watterson – A cartoonist’s advice
Ira Glass – Advice for beginners
Chuck Jones – An animator’s advice
Kevin Smith – It costs nothing to encourage an artist
Neil Gaiman – Make good art
– Find out more about The King at the Kirby Museum website.
– The quote used in this comic is taken from a Q&A session Kirby participated in at the first ever San Diego Comic Con in 1970. He had just been asked “What would your advice be to a young cartoonist trying to break into the field these days?”
– Most of the info in this post was sourced from the fantastic biography/art book Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier.
– Further reading: Jack Kirby, the abandoned hero of Marvel’s grand Hollywood adventure, and his family’s quest (Los Angeles Times). It’s Stan Lee’s Universe (Vulture).