Some years ago, in connection with the X-Men films, I made a reference to Jack Kirby. My friend – a big fan of both X-Men films and comics – asked me “Who’s Jack Kirby?”
Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) was the co-creator of the X-Men.
He also created or co-created such heroes as Captain America, the Hulk, the Mighty Thor, the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer. He also had some involvement in Iron Man’s creation and was lurking about the genesis of Spider-Man too.
In other words, Marvel Comics would not have existed if not for Jack Kirby.
And how much money has the Kirby Estate got from these creations? Peanuts! In his lifetime, Jack Kirby saw more money from a few minor appearances of his villain Darkseid in the Super Friends cartoon and action figures in the Super Powers toyline than he did from creating all these big Marvel heroes.
So, it’s not that surprising while movie audiences can spot Stan Lee’s cameos in films like 2008’s Incredible Hulk – the average person, even the average superhero fan has never heard of Jack Kirby.
Captain America, for example, was created by Jack Kirby and his 1940s partner Joe Simon. And yet I’ve seen article after article claim that Stan Lee (who joined Captain America comics during its early run as an assistant to Simon and Kirby) was the sole creator of Captain America. For years, the title pages of Marvel Comics could proclaim “Stan Lee presents…”. So, it’s not surprising that most people don’t remember the other people who created these comic book icons.
The Marvel style of writing was for Lee to give a few plot ideas, and then the artist would go away and do his own thing, and Lee would dialogue the comic. Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko managed to get a co-plotting credit in his later issues. I don’t think Kirby ever did, although important characters like the Silver Surfer never appeared in Lee’s brief to the artist.
And that’s his superhero stuff. Kirby also worked on westerns, war comics and pretty much created the once-popular romance comic genre. Most comic creators with even a tenth of Kirby’s output and influence would rightly be considered masters of the medium.
Today I just finished reading Mark Evanier’s new coffee table biography/artbook “Kirby: King of Comics”. Admittedly, Evanier was too close to Kirby and his family for a wholly unbiased account and I gather this is only a tiny bit of larger work on Kirby that Evanier has planned. But still Kirby’s life and work deserves to be celebrated, and it’s wonderful to see Kirby artwork blown up to coffee table size.
Kirby’s art was dynamic. Heroes were bursting out of the pages. All superhero artists either imitate or consciously distance themselves from Kirby. And as for his work ethic, not only was Kirby’s art gorgeous, but he could produce four times as much as the comic book artists of today. In the 1960s, he carried Marvel Comics – drawing most of the important books and often being assigned to coach the other artists.
Here’s classic science fiction writer Harlan Ellison waxing poetic on Kirby and an interview with comics’ grandmaster. It features images of much classic Kirby art. No, it’s not realistic. But it bursts off the page with energy that few comic book artists even come close to.
If you’re not familiar with Darkseid (who has since become a major bad guy in DC Comics) and the New Gods, well Darkseid is a helmet-wearing villain who controls a planet with a giant hole in it. He, and his antagonists on New Genesis, are powered by something called “The Source”. And his main enemy is his heroic son, Orion – who was fostered by the good guys. In case this mythology sounds at all similar to a certain movie franchise. Darkseid and the New Gods characters first appeared in 1970-1, and Star Wars came out in 1977.
I love comics. I love the artform, the medium. I think it is more interactive than film and TV, and I doubt its true potential has been reached yet. Even if most comics are admittedly crap, that does not mean the medium is stupid, silly and childish.
And so it infuriates me that the average person has no idea who Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or Will Eisner or Bill Finger or Curt Swan or Carmine Infantino or dozens of other names I could mention are. It bothers me that when Stanley Kubrick died, there were pages of tributes to his life and films. But when Eisner and Kirby died, they just got a few token articles.
So, that’s the reason for this entry. The foolish hope that maybe a few more people will know and care that a man named Jack Kirby once existed, and that he spent his life giving pleasure to millions of people who will never know his name.
Now I’m hoping to find the new book on Steve Ditko – original artist and co-creator of Spider-Man. Ditko’s a very different artist from Kirby but also deserves to be revered (well, for his art. Not so much for his Ayn Rand-inspired politics, although that certainly helped fuel some extremely well-drawn comics.)