Like Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men, Groot…? Then meet the ‘King of Comics’ who brought them to life!

Gautham Shenoy August 26, 2017

If Jack Kirby had been alive, he’d be hundred on August 28 this year. But what is alive and kicking – nay, almost all-pervasive – are his creations, co-creations and his artistic legacy, one that’s sure not just to survive, but thrive, for as long as comics exist. That’s not a tall claim, some would call it an understatement. Because Jack Kirby was the driving force behind many of Marvel Comics’ popular and enduring superheroes and some DC Comics characters even. He was an artist who pushed the boundaries and storytelling possibilities of the medium, and a legend who is rightly referred to as ‘King’ Kirby by comic book fans, artists and writers who acknowledge his influence.

Left: Jack Kirby in the 80s (Photo by Marc Hempel via Kirby Museum). Right: A young Jack Kirby – on the right – with Joe Simon, working on the Boy Commandos comic.

Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, Jack Kirby over the course of his prolific comics book career, would with his first frequent collaborator, fellow artist, and writer Joe Simon create the runaway success that was Captain America in 1940 at Timely Comics (which would soon become Atlas Comics and, finally, Marvel Comics) when Stanley Leiber was just a young, eager assistant still in his teens.

Drafted into the US Army in 1943, Kirby would put his artistic skills to use by being a scout whose job – after landing in Normandy a couple of months after D-Day – was to reconnoitre towns and draw maps and pictures to aid the advance of the Allied troops.

After the war, Jack Kirby reunited with Joe Simon, and the pair would together spawn a whole new genre of comics – romance comics – aimed at adults. While they worked on other titles, The Young Romance and Young Loveline of comics was so successful that Kirby was finally able to buy a house for his family, one with a basement that – in the words of his son, Neal Kirby – his family would call ‘the dungeon’, because that’s where Kirby would work out of. And given the paltry fee that artists got then, even if they were for all practical purposes writers too, it meant that most of Kirby’s day – and night – would be spent there.

The very first issues of just two of the more popular creations/titles that resulted from the Jack Kirby-Joe Simon partnership in the 1940s.

But it wasn’t until the 1960s – after a failed publishing venture with Simon and freelancing stints – that Jack Kirby would really hit his stride, with his creative output and trademark art that was to influence so many, fully blossoming and hitting its peak. And it happened at Marvel Comics – in a conflicted partnership with Stanley Leiber, now Stan Lee, Marvel’s Editor-in Chief and soon to be the larger-than-life personality that we know him as today.

Covers of the very first issues of Fantastic Four and The X-Men. Art by Jack Kirby.

One of the biggest changes Jack Kirby brought to the superhero stories was that Kirby’s heroes were no longer the cut-and-dry, one-dimensional heroes, they were human too. Kirby brought emotional depth to the stories, which were also about hurt, feelings and relationships. Starting with Marvel’s highly successful and best-selling answer to DC Comics’ Justice League – the Fantastic Four and its supporting cast including the Silver Surfer and the villain Galactus. That was just the beginning. The Kirby-Lee partnership would create the bedrock of Marvel’s future success – Hulk, The Mighty Thor and Iron Man (with writer Larry Leiber), and the first black superhero, Black Panther to name a few. Together they would create the original X-men and their villains. They would assemble heroes they created into The Avengers (which originally consisted of Hulk, Thor, Ant-man, the Wasp, and Iron Man, with Captain America joining them soon after).

Left: The cover of the first issue of The Avengers. Right: The first appearance of the original Groot (as an alien invader) in Tales to Astonish #13

Starting with Marvel’s first superhero team, Fantastic Four in 1961, and through the 60s, with a heavy workload, and obsessed with providing for his family, Jack Kirby would work up to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, not just creating the art and but also plotting the stories and writing the dialogue outlines, most often based on nothing more than a one-line plot from Lee (like ‘let’s make Dr. Doom the villain in this issue’). As fabled as the Kirby-Lee partnership is, and as enduring as the characters they created are, it is still amongst the most polarising debates in the comic book fandom – and the jury’s still out on this one – as to how much (or how little) Stan Lee contributed to the partnership. Combine this with the general public perception of Marvel characters and Lee’s penchant for publicity and taking credit, and you get mean memes like this that surface every so often, circulated and forwarded regularly among comic book fans:

By the end of the decade, bitter about how Marvel and Stan Lee were treating him, and being denied due credit and a tad resentful of Lee’s unfair prominence, Kirby would leave Marvel Comics again to work for DC Comics, where he would create – writing and drawing – yet another fantastical realm, the Fourth World universe filling it with New Gods, Mister Miracle and the villain of them all, Darkseid. Prolific as always, he would also create for DC, Etrigan the Demon and Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. And for one last time with former partner Joe Simon, work on the Sandman comics along with Ernie Chua and Michael Fleisher. (Sidenote: It was a Neil Gaiman proposal to revive this series, that ultimately led to the acclaimed Vertigo series, The Sandman).

Left: The first issue of DC’s New Gods, that kicked off Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga. Right: The first issue of Demon, in which Etrigan made his debut.

By the time the 80s rolled in Jack Kirby had left DC Comics over creative differences and being forced to work on projects he didn’t fancy. He returned to Marvel again and left it again soon after for the same reasons as the previous time. It was animation and film that Jack Kirby then turned his artistic skill to, and at Hanna-Barberra work on designs for many animated series, including Thundarr the Barbarian. He also worked on the concept art and the illustrations for the movie adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s science fiction classic, Lord of Light. The movie never did get made but was instrumental in the CIA’s Canadian Caper – the basis for the movie, Argo. (Readers of New Worlds Weekly would be familiar with this story.). Amongst his last contributions would be the creation and concept – along with Gil Kane – for a series familiar to many from our childhood, The Centurions (PowerXtreme! remember?!)

Also Read: The book that Argo forgot: SF Classic Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light

But it wasn’t just with his characters that included heroes and villains and with his co-creations that Jack Kirby left his mark. It was with his art as well. Jack Kirby single-handedly – armed with a pencil and a cigar – changed the way comics were visualised, giving it a whole new visual vocabulary.

In Kirby’s hands, panels were no longer boxes to constrict heroes – or villains – in. They were dynamic boundaries that shifted in size and tone to suit the story and the mood. Action scenes – once limited to a single punch in a single panel – would ebb and flow in a beautiful, choreographed sequences across several wordless panels. The superheroes would almost leap out of the pages, their adventures flow in a centre spread across pages. His art was psychedelic, high-voltage, emanated raw power and drew the reader in with its sense of urgency and action. The most prominent of his artistic legacy is the stylistic device known as the Kirby Krackle, with its clusters of dots and use of fractal shapes and negative space to depict everything from explosions and ray-gun blasts to cosmic energy and slipstream.

Jack Kirby died in 1994 aged 76, of heart failure, having seen not a single Marvel movie and not earning any more than what he was paid per page.

The comics and Kirby creations mentioned above are just a fraction of his prodigious output across genres, across publishers, but I hope this introduction is just enough for now for you to appreciate the legend that is Jack Kirby. So that the next time you read a Fantastic Four comic or watch an Avengers movie, catch a rerun of X-Men, remember Jack Kirby, the King of Comics and say thanks.

If you’d like to know more about Jack Kirby, I’d recommend starting by spending some time over at the online Jack Kirby Museum and going through its articles/blogs. And as you head on to do that, I bid you goodbye until next weekend, when we shall meet again, with yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live Long and Prosper!


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