“Thor: Ragnarok” launches this weekend and like most of Marvel films, its characters – including the guest-starring Incredible Hulk – were co-created by Jack Kirby.
2017 marks the centenary of birth of “The King of Comics”. If you’ve never heard of Jack Kirby, you’ve definitely heard of his characters.
Captain America. Hulk. Iron Man. Thor. Avengers. X-Men. Fantastic Four. Black Panther. Jack Kirby dreamed up them and a hundred other franchises that have made literally billions of dollars.
For some fans – like me – who came to Kirby through later artists working on characters he created, and who started out looking at graceful figures and beautiful landscapes by artists like John Buscema, John Byrne and Neal Adams, Kirby’s style takes some getting used to.
Kirby is faster, rougher and tougher. A Kirby character would never walk when they could run, or stride, or fly or burst. Everything is dramatic, and urgent. Your eye is drawn to blocky figures whose anatomy might be less than perfectly defined, but who exist complete in and of themselves, all exaggerated features and craggy faces and squiggly shadows running down strong jaws. All around those jutting characters sparks the famous Kirby Krackle. If one word comes close to defining Jack Kirby, that word would be “energy”.
If you’ve ever seen a Kirby comic, you’ll always know his style.
Kirby is vibrant in a way that prettier work could never be, but there’s a grace and a beauty there too, belying the speed at which he worked. Kirby loved showing the quiet moments too, where beings of fantastical power behaved like vulnerable people. Kirby’s work-rate was staggering, 14-hour days, seven-day weeks at his drawing board, chomping cigars and powering through ten or more pages a day, each one thrumming with explosively exciting stories.
“Kirby’s imagination was as illimitable as it was inimitable,” says author Neil Gaiman. “He drew people and machines and cities and worlds beyond imagining – beyond my imagining anyway. It was grand and huge and magnificent. But what drew me in, in retrospect, was always the storytelling, and, in contrast to the hugeness of the imagery and the impossible worlds, it was the small, human moments that Kirby loved to depict. Moments of tenderness, mostly.”
Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg to Austrian Jewish immigrant parents, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on August 28, 1917. A tough, scrappy kid, he learned to draw by tracing from newspaper comic-strips. By his early teens, Kirby was already a working artist, churning out artwork in sweatshop conditions. In 1940, the 23-year-old – going by the pseudonym Jack Kirby – teamed up with writer-editor Joe Simon to create the patriotic superhero Captain America for Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics (ancestor of Marvel Comics).
Captain America wasn’t the first of his kind, and because he carried a triangular stars-and-stripes shield, he bore a legally too-close-for-comfort resemblance to the already-established character The Shield. (That’s why Cap now slings a round shield.)
Whatever Cap lacked in originality, though, he more than made up in audacity. Simon and Kirby, two first-generation Jewish immigrant kids, went for broke: the cover of Captain America Number 1 – cover dated March 1941 but released in December 1940 – showed Cap socking a real-life super-villain on the jaw. A year before the United States entered World War II, Captain America clocked Adolf Hitler. It sold a million copies.
American Nazis, thin-skinned cowards then too, didn’t like that, and the Timely offices soon received a torrent of death threats. Years later, Joe Simon recounted that the NYPD stood guard at the door as a phone call was put through from New York Mayor LaGuardia, a long-time critic of Hitler.
“I was incredulous as I picked up the phone,” Simon wrote, “but there was no mistaking the shrill voice. ‘You boys over there are doing a good job,’ the voice squeaked, ‘The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you’.”
Joe Simon said he and Kirby were promised 25% of Captain America’s profits. Feeling that Goodman was cheating them, they negotiated a secret plan to jump ship to National Comics. National would one day become DC Comics, just as Timely would become Marvel.
Goodman got wind of their plan, and Simon and Kirby suspected Goodman was informed by his wife’s cousin, a very young production assistant named Stanley Lieber. In later years, Lieber would become known by his pseudonym, Stan Lee.
Looking across Jack Kirby’s seven-decade career, you are struck by the pattern of a creative genius working hard to provide for his family, jumping between rival publishing houses offering his all, while – time and again – being denied his due. For Kirby, his career-long problem would be that everything he did was work-for-hire, in that he’d be paid a flat rate for his pages. His artwork and his ideas would then be the property of his publishers.
In 1942, Kirby married Roz Goldstein, the love of his life. They would have four children and stay together until Jack’s death in 1994.
In 1943, Kirby was drafted into the US Army. Before he and Joe Simon left for Europe, they left a year’s worth of work at National Comics, cementing their reputations as consummate professionals.
Kirby landed on Omaha Beach not long after D-Day and recalled later that a lieutenant – realizing he had a famous artist under his command – gave him the dangerous job of being a scout who would advance into towns and draw maps.
Roz wrote to Jack every single day.
In the winter of 1944, Kirby suffered severe frostbite and almost had his legs amputated. Upon his return to the US after the war, Kirby resumed his partnership with Joe Simon and together they found success in romance comics.
At the end of the 1950s, Kirby found himself back at Timely, now Atlas Comics and soon to be Marvel. In 1961, Kirby teamed up with Stan Lee – by then taking his last, disillusioned stab at comics – and they would begin a collaboration which would change comics forever and give the world first the Fantastic Four and later, the Marvel universe. In later years, Kirby would say that Lee’s only creative input had been to write the dialogue for Kirby’s finished pages. Lee disputed this.
The Fantastic Four was an extended family of adventurers, transformed to superheroes. While the likes of Superman and Batman were bland, interchangeable 1950s Republicans, Marvel characters had rudimentary personalities. As the English writer Alan Moore joked, they had an added edge which gave them a second dimension.
Genius scientist Reed Richards gained elasticity powers and became Mr Fantastic. His finance Susan Storm became the Invisible Girl (later Woman). Sue’s brash, fiery-tempered teenaged brother Johnny became the Human Torch, a recycling of an old 1940s Timely character. Then there was Reed’s best friend, Benjamin Grimm, transformed into the foul-tempered rock-encrusted orange monstrosity known as the Thing.
As Alan Moore put it, “On more than one occasion, he came dangerously close to murdering the Human Torch… With Ben Grimm, you always knew that he was quite likely to pull someone’s arms and legs off one at a time for no better reason than that his corn-flakes had gone all soggy before he got round to eating them that morning.”
This would be the start of an unparalleled decade of invention, with Stan Lee promoting himself flamboyantly as the creative genius behind Marvel Comics. In truth, though, the ‘Marvel Method’ tended to consist mainly of Stan giving an artist a sketchy plot (if even that) and — once they’d finished drawing 20 pages of story — adding dialogue and claiming he wrote the whole thing. For the three-part 1966 Fantastic Four saga, where the angelic herald the Silver Surfer selects the Earth as the next meal for the planet-eating celestial giant Galactus, Stan’s entire initial creative input had reputedly been to give Jack the four word instruction “Have them fight God”.
Lee’s tireless self-promotion – combined with Kirby’s 14-hour days in his windowless Long Island basement turning out priceless ideas he would never own – caused Kirby to chafe.
By 1971, Kirby had enough, and he was lured across town to DC Comics, where he built his cosmic Fourth World saga of New Gods. Ever a liberal democrat, Kirby based the stone-faced evil god Darkseid on Richard Nixon, even as he modelled Darkseid’s face on Jack Palance. God knows what Kirby would have made of Trump.
You can see a little of Kirby’s Fourth World next month, as Irish actor Ciarán Hinds plays Kirby’s dark god Steppenwolf in the DC ‘Justice League’ movie.
Confounded by poor sales, Kirby also found himself frustrated by DC house style which saw his depictions of Superman redrawn in a more traditional fashion. He was soon back at Marvel, by 1976 working on ‘Black Panther’, a character he had created a decade earlier. He also worked again on Captain America, and on an adaptation and continuation of ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. By his own later admission, he bounced “like a yo-yo” between Marvel and DC.
Through the 1980s, Kirby worked in animation and for smaller comics companies, as well as doing occasional work for DC. In 1984, he tried to reclaim the estimated 13,000 pages of original artwork he had produced for Marvel. Marvel demanded he sign a contract admitting that everything he created for Marvel was work-for-hire.
“I wouldn’t cooperate with the Nazis,” Kirby fumed, “and I won’t cooperate with them. If I allow them to do this to me, I’m allowing them to do this to other people.”
Three years later, Marvel bowed to pressure from comics creators and the fan community and returned some 2,000 pages.
In 1989, an embittered Kirby told the Comics Journal: “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things – or old things, for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or told stories.”
The man who created or co-created much of what would one day become the largest cinema franchise in history – by 2017 earning approximately $13 billion – despaired. “I should have told Stan to go to hell and found some other way to make a living, but I couldn’t do it. I had my family, I had an apartment. I just couldn’t give all that up.”
In later life, though, Kirby came to love the comic convention circuit, as it allowed him to meet fans. Mark Evanier, Kirby’s former production assistant and later biographer, recounted a convention which “advertised Jack’s appearance without his assent and he showed up anyway. When I told him he should have let the con promoter twist in the wind, Jack said, ‘Yes, but then the kids who showed up to meet me would have been disappointed’.”
Finally retired from comics, Jack enjoyed his life with Roz, spending their days in their Californian home. On February 6, 1994, at the age of 76, Jack Kirby died of heart failure.
Stan Lee attended the funeral, with Roz’s permission. Toward the end of the ceremony, he slipped away quietly. Roz saw him go, and called out to him, but he didn’t hear her.
Marvel was shamed into giving Roz a pension and she vowed to live long enough to claim every cent she believed Jack was owed. She died four years after Jack.
In 2014, Marvel agreed with Kirby’s estate to honour “Mr Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history”.
Early reviews suggest “Thor: Ragnarok” is great fun. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige calls it “an unabashed love letter to Jack Kirby”. I think Kirby would have loved the Marvel films – Stan Lee cameos and all. Mostly, they’re action-packed, optimistic and hugely enjoyable. At their best, they sometimes capture a little Kirby Krackle.
Mark Evanier was asked the greatest thing he learned from working with Jack Kirby.
“Treat everyone with dignity and respect. That was it. Everyone is entitled to dignity and respect until they prove otherwise.”