Every medium has its defining creators, those men and women who utilized the capabilities their canvases provided and pushed those capabilities to their outmost limits. The ones who defined their medium and influenced every single creator that came after. The ones whose influence is still palpably felt in every aspect of their chosen canvas.
You know their names: Kubrick, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Beatles. But there’s another name that belongs in the pantheon of the greats, a man who earned the title of “King” throughout his illustrious career in the comic book medium. A name that no creator working today hasn’t been touched by in some way.
If you’ve never heard of Jack Kirby, you must be new to the four-color world because his creations are littered across almost every page of the superhero market. Just about every character you’ve fallen in love with through the films and television adaptations of comic books was created or co-created by Kirby. The Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, Black Panther, Thor, Nick Fury, the New Gods, the Avengers, Ant-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Doom, Bucky Barnes, the Inhumans, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Groot, Loki, the Sentinels, the Wasp, the Red Skull…and that’s just the tip of the Kirby Iceberg!
Kirby was one of the rare artists, not just in comics, but art in general, who made magic every single time he created. There’s not a single work Kirby was involved in that didn’t exude some kind of energy, that left an impression on you after you finished. Sure, he was work-for-hire for years, churning out light romance stories or crime dramas, but what the story lacked in energy he made up for in his artwork. Characters exploded off of the page, their emotions poured from the panels and reached out to the reader, demanding their attention and leaving a lasting impression that stayed with them long after the love triangle was resolved that month.
When Kirby first started working in the comics industry, it was never anything illustrious. Simple newspaper strips, cartoon ads, and even some one-off stories in a few anthologies in the thirties. But even here, in the small, isolated corner of the burgeoning market, his style shone through the already bloated industry and attracted the right kind of attention. Joe Simon, a respectable voice in the world of comics, took notice and, in 1940, snatched up Kirby to come work with him at Timely Comics. Together, they co-created one of the most popular characters in modern American mythology: Captain America. That first issue, with Steve Rogers giving Hitler a mean right-hook, has become iconic and defined the character is one energetic image.
Kirby and Simon eventually left Timely for National Comics and had a few successes in the form of the Sandman and the Boy Commandos, but it was cut short when Kirby was drafted into World War II. Upon his return, Kirby found that superheroes had fallen out of favor with the majority of young audiences and, as a result, he and Simon began working on romance comics, a fairly successful genre in the post-war industry. Though his name didn’t draw in readers like his Captain America days, the comics still found a wide audience and Kirby became renowned as an industry workhorse. And, if comics had continued as they were in the fifties, Kirby would have probably faded into obscurity with the rest of the industry talents, still being talked about by fan clubs and historians, but not seen as the King of Comics he’s known as today. It was the birth of Marvel Comics that cemented Kirby in the minds of the world as the definitive comics creator.
During the fifties, Kirby had returned to Timely, now known as Atlas, and was cranking out science fiction horror comics along with a young writer named Stan Lee. Sales weren’t great, and, needing a hit, Lee came to Kirby to brainstorm. Seeing the success that their competition, formally National Comics, now DC, was having with superheroes, Lee and Kirby decided to launch their own team of colorful characters. Grabbing inspiration from one of his earlier creations for National, the Challengers of the Unknown, Kirby began to piece together what would become known as the birth of the Marvel Age of Comics. Along with Lee, Kirby launched the Fantastic Four and with it the dawn of a new era of superhero stories.
Kirby’s art exploded off of the page and the emotional energy he gave his romance characters and science fiction monsters were brought to the world of supeheroes. No longer were the heroes clean cut and infallible. Now, with Kirby’s distinct style, they were grittier, with faults you could see just by looking at them. And the power. The sheer power these characters had within them could barely be contained within the panels on the page. Along with Lee’s scripts, these characters launched a new pantheon of mythical figures for in the comic world and Kirby began to garner the attention he deserved from a larger audience.
His name brought fans to a book, not just the characters within. Along with Lee, Kirby created most of the Marvel Universe, introducing the world to Ant-Man a few months after the Fantastic Four. Thor, one of Kirby’s favorites, followed soon after that. Captain America was even brought back from the Golden Age as a member of the Avengers. And, in the pages of Fantastic Four, they introduced a whole host of new characters like the Black Panther, the Inhumans, Doctor Doom, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Kree, the Skrull, and countless others across their one hundred and eight issue run.
Eventually, though, the more popular the characters became, the more restrictive the creative process became for Kirby and, not being satisfied with the direction Marvel Comics was going, left for the competition. Kirby arrived at DC in the early seventies and it was here that he began work on what would become his magnum opus.
Beginning the saga in the pages of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (an odd choice, to be sure), Kirby crafted the start of what he viewed as a sequel to his Thor run at Marvel. Here, the old gods had died and gave birth to the New Gods. Across four titles, Kirby wrote and drew the Fourth World Saga with all the energy he gave during his Marvel years. Jimmy Olsen, Mister Miracle, the Forever People, and the New Gods all built upon one another in an attempt to bring the epic nature of Tolkien to the pages of comics. And, though it’s viewed as a masterpiece today, it wasn’t viewed so at the time, and every book except Jimmy Olsen was cancelled in under a year. He continued to work for DC on smaller projects, introducing the world to the likes of Etrigan the Demon, Kamandi, and OMAC, but the editorial oversight DC brought to his books eventually sent Kirby back into the arms of his old camp at Marvel.
Here, Kirby enjoyed runs writing and drawing Black Panther and Captain America, and even tried to continue his Fourth World Saga in the pages of the Eternals. He even created new characters for the Marvel roster with Machine Man and Devil Dinosaur, but it wasn’t meant to last. Kirby left Marvel again after a few years and began freelance work outside the influence of the Big Two Publishers.
Kirby went into animation soon after this, working on projects such as Thundarr the Barbarian and the New Fantastic Four for Hanna-Barbera. Throughout these years, Kirby provided tons of concept art for films and television series and his style continued to influence the world even when they weren’t contained in the confines of a panel.
In the last few years of his life, Kirby went back to comics and floated from one project to the next, even returning to DC to wrap up his Fourth World Saga. He created such independent comics as Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star, his name continuing to draw in fans long after he had stopped working at large publishers. His final work, Phantom Force, lasted eight issues and allowed Kirby to collaborate with all of the new talent that had popped up in the late eighties and early nineties, a passing of the torch from one generation to the next.
Jack Kirby died on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76. Though he never quite received the credit that was due him thanks to Marvel and DC’s abysmal creator’s right policies, he was still an industry legend. He defined what the modern superhero moved and looked like. He brought the gods to us and revealed that they were just as broken as we were. And he showed us that, even though we may not like what we see, there is always the opportunity to rise above that and become the people we always believed that we could be.
All hail the King.