Considered by many to be the greatest comic book artist of all time, Jack “King” Kirby led a career that proved to be one of the most abundantly creative in the history of the comics industry. Though he shares the credit with Joe Simon and Stan Lee on many of his creations, it is no exaggeration to say that characters such as Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The X-Men, The Avengers, Thor, The Silver Surfer, The New Gods and so many others would either never have got off the ground or would never have enjoyed the success they did had Kirby not been involved in their creation.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, Kirby was raised in New York’s Bowery and his art proved to be his ticket out of the slums and out of poverty. His career began in 1935 at the Max Fleischer Studio where he worked as an “in-betweener” on animated cartoons. By 1937 he was drawing comic strips and single-panel cartoons for a small newspaper syndicate.
In 1938 Superman exploded onto the scene and his immense popularity and success quickly led to high demand for other “super heroes.” Kirby was 21 years old at this point and a seasoned professional using different styles and different pen names on half a dozen different features. Some of those features found their way into the fledgling comic book market. Kirby quickly followed them.
While working at Fox Comics, Kirby met Joe Simon, a freelance writer and artist. With Simon’s business sense and Kirby’s artistic skill and speed, the team of Simon & Kirby soon became immensely popular. Their work appeared at Fox, Novelty and Timely/Marvel – often as the cover artist team. Initially, Simon provided the layouts and Kirby the finishing touches. However, Kirby’s artistic talent and understanding of the comic book medium helped to quickly reverse those roles. Their first big success was Captain America, a character they created for Timely Comics.
After nearly a year producing Captain America, the two left Timely to work for National Comics (DC) where they created their next big hit, the Boy Commandos. Then came the real war and both men were drafted in 1943. After the war, comics were in a slump and Kirby took what work he could get. But he soon re-teamed with Simon, creating Stuntman and Boy Explorers for Harvey. National was still using their work and they were producing a wide variety of work for Hillman. They did crime stories for Real Clue, an aviation strip, as well as Link Thorne, The Flying Fool for Airboy, and a teen title, My Date.
Seeking more, specifically a share in the profits, the pair invented the Romance comic genre and sold the idea to Crestwood/Prize Comics for a 50% cut of the profits. Young Romance, Young Love, Western Love, Headline and Justice Traps the Guilty were the main titles that the Simon & Kirby team produced for Crestwood. They had a whole studio of artists working for them and many were adept at approximating Kirby’s pencil style or Simon’s inking. Still others had distinctive styles of their own that were almost submerged in their style.
They became publishers themselves. In 1954, as the rest of the industry was retrenching due to the public furor over comics and juvenile delinquency, Simon and Kirby launched Mainline Comics, to minimal fanfare and mediocre sales. With titles like In Love, Foxhole, Police Trap and Bulls-Eye, they had all the popular genres covered. They were the most successful and well-known creators in comics but their new venture failed miserably.
With the failure, the team split up to make each his own way in the new, post Comics Code, comic book landscape. Romance comics survived. Kirby returned to the strong publishers for work. He drew lots of strips for Harvey and he did mystery stories and Challengers of the Unknown for National/DC, a few mysteries and westerns for Atlas (once Timely) comics. He continued to produce romance stories for Young Love and Young Romance at Prize, and he found work at Harvey as well. He achieved the goal of most comic artists – he landed a newspaper strip.
In late 1958, Kirby went to work for Stan Lee at Timely/Atlas/Marvel Comics and together they not only rejuvenated a single company but also revitalized the entire comics industry. The pairing of the two literally made comics history. Lee channeled Kirby’s energies as they’d never been directed before and, though the Silver Age may have begun at DC with Showcase #4, it soared at Marvel under the direction of Lee and Kirby.
The magic began slowly, however. It took three years and the positive sales figures on a DC super hero team comic – Justice League of America – for Lee and Kirby to create The Fantastic Four. Immodestly billing itself as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” it quickly laid a very legitimate claim to the title. Within the next few years, Marvel Comics released equally fantastic characters like the Hulk, Iron-Man, Thor, X-Men, and another team-up book called The Avengers that quickly revived Captain America to be a leading member. In 1962, the most prolific year of his career, Kirby produced an amazing 1,158 pages of art – over three pages a day. Kirby was essentially a one-man company, producing over half the art for Marvel’s top eight titles.
As the company grew – eventually surpassing its hitherto larger rival DC – Marvel became the major comic book force. The dynamic Kirby approach to comics became the Marvel “house style” and many artists would continue using it long after Kirby left the company. Unfortunately, most would adopt the dynamism without the controls that Kirby injected into his work. The lessons they learned from Kirby were superficial and their lack of understanding of the underpinnings of his work would lead to a lessening of the comic craft just as production values were increasing for the first time in the history of the medium.
As sales escalated, Kirby wanted his share of the credit and profits but they weren’t forthcoming. So, in 1970, he accepted an offer from DC to edit, draw and write his own books for the company. The epic “Fourth World” saga was the result with all new Kirby characters and three new titles, New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle. Coupled with the existing Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen title, Kirby was totally in charge of his “Fourth World” and drawing for the first time- regularly in Jimmy Olsen and in guest appearances in some of the other Fourth World titles – the first super hero of them all, Superman.
Unfortunately, New Gods and Forever People lasted only eleven issues each; Mister Miracle managed 18. Another title Kirby did for DC, Kamandi, faired better. It featured a post-apocalypse world and lasted 40 issues. But his other efforts like OMAC and The Demon lasted for relatively short runs. Despite their initial poor showing, most of the characters Kirby created for the “Fourth World” still play an important role in DC Continuity. Still, it seems that Stan Lee’s contributions to the Marvel stories had been critical to their success.
In 1976 he returned to Marvel and, in addition to working on mainstream characters like Captain America and Thor, Kirby produced such titles as Machine Man, The Eternals, Black Panther, and Devil Dinosaur. But with the release of 1978 graphic novel featuring the Silver Surfer, he bade a final goodbye to the company he helped make so successful. Returning to his much earlier career, animation, Kirby assumed an entirely different role. His enthusiasm and creativity were harnessed for character designs for Saturday morning cartoon fare. He remained in the industry through 1987.
Kirby, though he had permanently left both Marvel and DC, was unable to leave the comics industry behind completely. His tremendous talent kept appearing in comic books created for the “direct market.” Here he owned the rights to his characters. In 1981, he released two titles, Captain Victory and Silver Star, through Pacific Comics. Lasting 13 and 6 issues, respectively, both sank with barely a ripple in the burgeoning comic book market. Many readers felt Kirby’s art style was now outdated and thus sought more “sophisticated” renderings done by artists who learned from artists who’d learned from Kirby. Though visually appealing, the end result itself revealed little concern with storytelling.
During the last years of his life, Kirby was revered as one of the comic industries elder statesman. He passed away in 1994 and the industry outpouring was unprecedented as fans mourned the loss of one of not only one of the founders of the industry but also one of the greatest talents in that industry. His work, which transcended the comic book medium, is familiar to filmmakers too numerous to mention (Bryan Singer and George Lucas among them) who acknowledge the influence Kirby had on their work. Further, the television shows, movies, comics, novels, and video games based on his characters have grossed well over a billion dollars.
Perhaps Jim Steranko, in tribute during tenth anniversary of Kirby’s passing, said it best about the King: “Artist, writer, architect, inventor, visionary: Kirby was all of them and more, the ultimate comic-book techno-wizard, a pop-culture Leonardo da Vinci who explored our collective fantasies on the palette of his imagination. His art was so primal that it spoke to millions of readers around the world, cutting across all barriers of age, language, sex, and culture. He will be with us as long as comics endure.”