- The History of Comic Books  

Jack "The King" Kirby

Over his lifetime Jack "the King" Kirby has created or co-created over 400 characters. It is Jack's creativity and his ability to evolve with the times that have made him the legend he is. I've reprinted (without permission) an article by William A. Christensen and Mark Seifert called "The King" that ran in Wizard #36, August 1994.

The King

A look at the life and career of Jack "King" Kirby.

It's hard to imagine what comics would be like today without the contributions of Jack Kirby (1917- 1994). No one did more for the medium and the industry itself then the man who was deservedly known as the king of comics. Consider the number and magnitude of the characters that Kirby created alone or with others: Captain America, the Fantastic Four, The X-men, Darkseid, The Hulk, The Silver Surfer, and literally hundreds of others sprung from Kirby's fertile imagination. But these characters are just part of his influence on the comic medium. Kirby's contribution to the art of comic storytelling itself cannot be ignored. His narrative ability imbued his work with an almost cinematic quality. Early in his career, Kirby popularized the full-page and double page spreads that are so common in comics today. But it is probably his dynamic drawing style itself that has had the most profound impact on comic art. The sheer power of Kirby's drawings has inspired many if not most comic artists since. Without any doubt, Jack Kirby is the single most important creator in the History of American Comicbooks.

The Formative Years

Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, in New York City. He developed a taste for adventure at an early age, in part because of his frenetic surroundings. "I was very active kid and it was an active environment," Kirby recalled in an interview conducted shortly before his death in February. "It was on the lower east side of New York, and what I mean by active is that anything could happen. There was usually a fight- some guy would come up from the next block and you would fight. If you knocked him out, you and the guys would lay him out near his mother's door and vice versa. There were a lot of street fights, but we never used weapons of any kind, just our fists."

Young Jacob's thirst for adventure soon translated into a love of science fiction and motion pictures. "I loved science fiction in general, and I still enjoy it to this day." Kirby remembered. "I have always been a filmgoer, and I would see a picture maybe two or three times. My mother used to have to come to the theater to take me out. They made very, very good movies at that time and I enjoyed them all."

His drawing skills and imagination were also evident early on. As a young boy, he began to study how-to-draw books he found in the library. He was to attend the Pratt Institute in New York City formal training, but those plans fell prey to the Great Depression when his father lost his job and the family could no longer afford the tuition.

Undaunted, Kirby continued to draw, He joined the Boys Brotherhood republic, and organization that taught young men responsibility. "It has its own paper, and I was the artist on [the] newspaper" Kirby said. K's Konceptions, his regular strip for the BBR Reporter, was the 16 year-old's first brush with publishing.

In 1935, Kirby got the chance to refine his drawing skills when he went to work at Max Fleischer's animation studio. As an in-betweener on cartoons like Popeye and Betty Boop it was his job to draw characters "in between" their key actions, thereby simulating fluid motions. This tedious, repetitive task helped Kirby develop the polish and speed for which he would later become noted.

The skills he cultivated there served him well in his next job at Lincoln Newspaper Features, which produced and distributed comic strips and other features for subscribing newspapers. Kirby's work in this company included contributions to short-lived strips such as The Black Buccaneer, Detective Riley, and Socko the Sea Dog as well as one-panel editorial cartoons. With this experience in hand, Kirby made and easy transition to the fledgling comic book industry.

The Pre-Simon Years

In 1937, Samuel Maxwell Iger and Will Eisner formed a studio and began furnishing finished material to the booming comic book publishing field. One of their early jobs was to put together the oversized Jumbo Comics for the new Fiction House Magazines. Strips entitles The Count of Monte Cristo and Wilton of the West, which appeared in September 1938's Jumbo Comics #1, were Kirby's first published comic book work.

At about this time, the Impact of DC's Superman character was being felt throughout the industry. "It was well conceived, well drawn, and we admired the people that produced it," Kirby said. Indeed, Superman was admired so much that he soon inspired legions of other superheroes. By 1939, the Golden Age of Comics was in full swing. As publishers sprang up to take advantage of the boom, the field was wide open for aspiring comic artist.

"I began to go up to [various] offices and leave samples of my work, and I began to sell my work that way," Kirby said. He soon landed a job at Fox Features Syndicate, which produced both newspaper strips and comic books. Kirby worked on the Blue Beetle newspaper strip there in 1940, his first experience with a costumed superhero.

The Simon and Kirby Team

It was at Fox that Kirby met his future partner, Joe Simon. Two years Kirby's elder, Simon had started his comic book career at art packaging studio Funnies Inc,. where editor Lloyd Jacquet and artists Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, and others created comics for publishers much the same way that the Eisner/Iger studio did. Funnies Inc. produced comics for publishers such as Timely Comics, which became Marvel Comics, and Curtis Publishing Co,. which also published the Saturday Evening Post. At Fox, Simon created characters like the Fiery Mask for Marvel and the Blue Bolt for Curtis's comic imprint, Novelty Press. He became Marvel's first editor in 1939.

But Simon continued to freelance for other publishers, including Fox Features, where he met Kirby. To ease his considerable workload, Simon recruited Kirby's help, and Blue Bolt #2, cover dated July 1940, became their first collaboration. The two quickly developed a unique partnership, with each able to handle any of the various aspects of producing a comic story as needed. "We both collaborated closely on stories and art," Kirby revealed, "I would pencil and ink, Joe would pencil and ink, and we did whatever we had to do to get things done."

Around this time, Jacob Kurtzberg adopted the name Jack Kirby. Simon speculated that the artist first started signing his name Kirby because he didn't want Fox to know that he was freelancing. The creator later legally changed his name to Kirby.

Kirby and Simon began to freelance for other publishers, including Fawcett Comics, where they produced the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures and contributed to Wow #1. At about this time, they also began their association with Marvel Comics. Their first work at Marvel was the production of Red Raven Comics #1. Although Kirby didn't have a hand in the creation of Red Raven's story, the second story featured the mythological speedster Mercury and was Kirby's first work for Marvel. He and Simon went on to create features for Marvel Mystery Comics.

Rising feelings of patriotism prompted by the threat of Nazism in Europe inspired Simon and Kirby to create Captain America in late 1940. Kirby asserted that Captain America was the obvious response to the climate of the times. "We developed Captain America because that was the general feeling at the time," he said. "We couldn't do anything else. If you had to come up with something, it would have had to have been a character like Captain America. The times were very, turbulent, very patriotic, and it was time to be an American. So in the world of comic art, we had to develop characters like Captain America. It was a natural thing to do."

It was also a wild success from the beginning. The Captain premiered in Captain America Comics #1, cover dated March 1941, and immediately made an impression of the American consciousness. From the cover of that issue, which showed Cap socking Hitler on the Jaw, to the patriotic costume and shield, the character struck a cord with an American public ready for war. The finishing touch was one of comic's most memorable villains. "The Red Skull was kind of a showpiece," said Kirby. "We needed a Nazi spy who had to spectacular in some way, so Joe and I conjured up the Red Skull, and he was an immediate hit. The readers- they loved to see him in the stories."

The pair had been contracted to produce only 10 issues of Captain America. In the meantime, Simon, the duo's businessman, had gotten them a better deal from National Periodical Publications, which later became DC. They completed their 10 Captain America issues and created the Young Allies for Marvel before heading for the home of Superman and Batman.

But rather than working on DC's heavy hitters, Simon and Kirby's first job was to revamp the original Sandman, who had a regular feature in Adventure Comics. The character; which had been created with a very Shadowish cloak and hat, had been given a pair of yellow-and-purple superhero tights just before Simon and Kirby's arrival. The duo completed his evolution from pulp magazine-inspired character to comic book superhero. While he had formally put crooks to sleep with doses of sleeping gas, he now did so mainly with his fists. The Simon and Kirby Sandman first premiered in Adventure Comics #72 (1942).

In the next issue of Adventure Comics, the pair revamped a rather plain adventure feature called Paul Kirk, Manhunter. Manhunter also became a costumed superhero fighting criminals in exotic locales all over the world.

Next, the two returned to the kid gang concept that they had originated at Marvel with the Young Allies. Their first DC kid gang, the Newsboy legion, made its debut in Star Spangled Comics #7 (April 1942). This group of crime fighting kids were aided by a shield carrying hero named the Guardian, who was really policeman Jim Harper in disguise. With the Newsboy Legion, Simon and Kirby perfected the kid gang concept that would serve them so well during their collaboration.

"The kid gang comics were a natural part of my life, and it was something I knew very well," Kirby explained. "What I did was take the kids from my environment and put them into strips. There was always one tough kid in every strip, and that kid would be modeled on myself." Simon and Kirby combined their successful kid gang formula with the war comics genre to create the Boy Commandos in 1942. The Commandos premiered in Detective Comics #64 and became popular enough to receive their own series that same winter.

Over the next two years, Simon and Kirby prosper at DC. However, their careers were interrupted by the United State's entry into World War II, during which both served in the army. Before leaving the battlefield, they raced to build up a backlog of stories that could be used while they were gone, as did their war bound colleagues. After the war, Simon and Kirby returned to do a small amount of work for DC on familiar titles like Adventure and Star Spangled Comics, but then began to concentrate on an abortive line of titles for Harvey Comics. The line, which included Stuntman and Boy Explorers, never really got of the ground because of distribution problems.

The superhero genre was on the decline by this point in the late 40's, but the resilient duo labored to change with the times. They tried their hand at crime comics such as Prize Publication's Headline comics and Justice Traps the Guilty and even children's humor comics like Punch & Judy Comics for Hillman Periodicals. The Simon and Kirby magic came back into focus when they created romance comics genre with Young Romance #1 for Prize in 1947. Young Romance became extremely successful over the next few years, spawning several imitators.

With groundbreaking success of Young Romance under their belts, the duo went on to produce a number of other successful books in the post-Golden Age era of the early 1950s. Those books included Boy's Ranch, another variation on the kid gang theme for Harvey, and Prize Publications's Black Magic, a horror comic that took advantage of the rising popularity of that genre. Simon and Kirby's output was incredibly eclectic during this period, including everything from Prize's Fighting American, a parody of their own Captain America, to Prize's bizarre Strange World of Your Dreams, which used dreams as the basis for its stories.

Kirby credited the incredible range of his storytelling abilities to his parents. "I was raised in an atmosphere of strong storytelling, a variety of storytelling," he said. "My parents came from Europe, and all the European legends came here with them. The European legends were just wonderful to learn about, and my mother was a storyteller. She left that impression with me, and I love it. I love to tell stories just like my mother did, and that is what I became: I'm a storyteller."

Apparently, printers and distributors agreed, because in 1954, Kirby and his partner cut deals with professionals in both trades that allowed them to create their own publishing company, Mainland Comics. Mainland's modest output included the western title Bulls-Eye and the war comic Foxhole. Unfortunately, Fredric Wertham and his anticomic psychoanalytic study, Seduction of the Innocent, had already caused a public backlash against comics by this time, and most small publishers, including Mainline, were forced out of business in the mid-1950s.

While many of their contemporaries fell on hard times during this era, the legendary Simon and Kirby had little problem finding work, producing mainly romance comics. But in 1956, when Simon accepted an editorial position at Harvey, Kirby decided to move on, quietly brining their partnership of 16 years to an end.

Monsters and More

After going solo, Kirby dabbled in supernatural and western comics for Marvel briefly returned to comic strips. He finally ended up back at DC in late 1956 where his monster and mystery efforts on titles like House of Mystery and My Greatest Adventure peaked with the creation of the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #6 (February 1957). Survivors of a horrible plane crash, the Challengers decided that they were living on borrowed time and dedicated themselves to facing unknown dangers, included various monsters.

When Kirby jumped to Marvel the next year, he decided to make monsters the star of the show. Strange Worlds #1 (December 1958) contained both Kirby's first Marvel monster work and the first joint effort with Stan Lee. In collaboration with Lee, Kirby produced comics featuring bizarre monsters for titles such as Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and Journey into Mystery. Born in 1922, Lee had begun working at Marvel in 1939 during Simon and Kirby's brief tenure there. In fact Lee's first published comic work was a text piece in Captain America #3. He became Marvel's editor in 1941 after Simon and Kirby left for DC, and remained with the company through the lean years of the mid-1950s.

Like many comics of the '50s, the underlying theme of the monster stories was that of technology out of control. "The monster phenomenon got started primarily just because people were concerned about science," Kirby recalled. "People were concerned about radiation and what would happen to animals and people who were exposed to that kind of thing."

Those pressing concerns translated into great entertainment, though, and the monsters became immensely popular for a brief time. "I guess one of the most popular would be Fin Fang Foom," Kirby recalled. "The kids liked him and I enjoyed doing him. I loved their reaction."

The Marvel Age

It was Kirby's rapport with his fans that allowed him to be so successful during the Silver Age. While other characters lived in a restrictive, two-dimensional world, Kirby creations seemed to live in the same world as the readers, and many of them had the same problems.

While continuing to work on the Marvel Monster titles, he also began to handle the westerns, such as Kid Colt Outlaw, Two-Gun Kid, and Rawhide Kid. However, it soon became apparent that the comic book market was changing yet again. "Superheroes to me were always the right thing to do," Kirby said, and he was ready when they came back.

He returned to superheroes in the Silver Age by way of brief reunion with former partner Joe Simon in 1959 on Archie's Double Life of Private Strong and Adventures of the Fly. Private Strong revived Archie's Golden Age hero the Shield, although this Shield had little in common with his predecessor other than his name and a patriotic viewpoint. As the title suggests, Strong was both a solder and the superhero who had superspeed, the ability to project bolts of energy, and a grab bag of assorted other powers. The Fly, like the yet-to-be-created Spider-Man, had the abilities and proportional strength of his insect counterpart, including superstrength, the ability to walk on walls, and flight. Kirby did two issues of each series.

He next tested the superhero waters at Marvel with a prototype or tryout character called Dr. Droom. Although he didn't wear a costume, Droom was a mystical hero very much like in the Dr. Strange mold. He possessed typical supernatural powers such as levitation, telepathy, telekinesis, and a mind control. Droom's tales were buried among the monster stories in Amazing Adventures (vol. 1), where he lasted from issue #1 (June 1961) until issue #6. In the meantime, Kirby was asked to start work on a superhero team comic for Marvel.

Martin Goodman, Marvel's publisher at the time, had learned that his rivals at DC were having phenomenal success with their new Justice League of America title, so he asked his crew to put out a team book as well. After getting the word from Goodman, Lee wrote a two-page outline for the first issue of the new title and gave it to Kirby. Kirby turned that outline into Fantastic Four #1, a stunning variation on the concept he had developed for the Challengers of the Unknown.

In their attempt to "beat the commies" in the space race, Reed Richards, his test pilot buddy Ben Grimm, Reed's fiancee Sue Storm, and Sue's kid brother Johnny took off in an experimental rocket bound for the moon. But the ship was inadequately shielded against the Van Allen radiation belt that circled the Earth, and the quartet crash-landed back on Earth to discover that they had gained fantastic powers.

Although they were like Challengers in some ways, the now-famous team introduced in Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961 was in other ways unlike any superhero team ever seen. They argued with each other as much as they fought evil. They worried about paying their bills as much as they worried about defeating bad guys. In other words, they were basically human.

Fantastic Four, originally bimonthly, went monthly with issue #7. In the meantime, Lee and Kirby had brought back the Golden Age Marvel character the Sub-Mariner and created one of Marvel's most famous villains, Dr. Doom. The title started receiving fan mail shortly after the first issue hit the stands, something that was almost without precedent at Marvel. In addition to praising the Lee/Kirby team, much of the mail asked when they were going to start doing more superheroes.

Kirby and Lee soon answered their fans' pleas with a comic book universe, creating heroes with superhuman abilities and human failings. They followed up Fantastic Four with the Incredible Hulk in May 1962. Like the members of the FF, the Hulk was a radiation created superhero with plenty of shortcomings.

Next, monster comics were converted into superhero titles. At the same time he was designing the cover of Amazing Fantasy #15, the debut of Spider-Man, Kirby teamed up with Lee to create Thor for Journey into Mystery #83 (both issues were dated August 1962). In the monster title Tales to Astonish, Lee and Kirby simply chose a character - Hank Pym, the diminutive Ant-Man - who had appeared in the series earlier that year and gave him a costume. Tales of Suspense became the last monster book to fall, succumbing to the power of Iron Man in March 1963. By this time all of the Marvel monster comics of the 50's had either been transformed into superhero books or canceled.

And Kirby and Lee continued to pour it on. Kirby was doing eight to 10 Marvel comics per month by 1963: he and Lee added the new titles Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Avengers, and X-Men to the ranks that year. Through the remainder of 1963 and the beginning of 1964, the foundation of the Marvel Universe fell into place.

It was a universe unlike any ever seen. Marvel had flirted with interbook continuity in the Golden-Age with numerous Human Torch/Sub-Mariner battles, but in the new Marvel Universe, you knew that what the Incredible Hulk did in his comic last month would have an effect on the Fantastic Four, and vice versa. This level of consistency between multiple comics was unprecedented. At the heart of it all were Kirby and Lee, seeming more like chroniclers of tales they had seen on the way into the office than comic book creators.

In 1965, with the Marvel Universe running smoothly, Kirby evidently turned his attention to changing his art style. Devices now known as "Kirby machines" - massive, angular, complex-looking machines that exuded importance yet had no discernible functions began appearing in Mr. Fantastic's Lab, Dr. Doom's castle, and other locales. Flying vehicles, once basic cone-nosed and fin-tailed rockets, became exotically shaped ships bristling with ominous-looking contraptions. At the same time, Kirby's human features took on the massive, indestructible quality that became his trademark. He also experimented with photographic collages during this period.

These shifts seem to be a prelude to Kirby's interest in exploring more cosmically oriented subjects, which he investigated throughout the remainder of his career. He first experimented with new comic mythologies in Fantastic Four #48, which introduced the Silver Surfer and Galactus. "Galactus in actuality is a sort of god," Kirby explained. "He is beyond reproach, beyond anyone's opinion. In a way he is kind of a Zeus, who fathered Hercules. He is his own legend , and of course, he and the Silver Surfer are sort of modern legends, and they are designed that way." Thereafter, both Fantastic Four and Thor took on a cosmic quality that had not been present in any comics before. Kirby was creating new gods to explain the mysteries of the universe, surely heady stuff for his readers in the mid-60's, or even today for that matter.

Kirby was at his finest in the Silver Age while chronicling these cosmic epics, in which he strove to interweave the gods of the past with his own mythology. Thor and Hercules would fight side by side with (or against) Galactus, the High Evolutionary, or the Celestials. Kirby finished out his tenure at Marvel on Fantastic Four, Thor, and Captain America.

The Fourth World and Yonder

In 1970, then DC publisher Carmine Infantino made Kirby an unprecedented offer, giving him complete creative control over his work. Kirby took over the struggling Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen with issue #133. Jimmy Olsen, and three other titles of Kirby's creation, Forever People, Mister Miracle, and New Gods, became the basis of the Fourth World Saga. Fourth World characters included Darkseid, Lightray, and the many other denizens of Apokolips and New Genesis.

"I felt that we ourselves were without a mythology. Even the Saxons had their own mythology, and I thought that there was a new mythology needed for our times," Kirby explained. "So I created that. Darkseid and Orion [are like] Zeus and Hercules, a father and son. And it has been that way with all mythology."

The Fourth World titles chronicled that saga in a novel like form, creating a complexity that was unfortunately far beyond what comic readers were accustomed to. As a result, most of the Fourth World saga was discontinued after less than a year. Eighteen and 16 issues, respectively of Mister Miracle and the separate but similarly themed Demon were printed under Kirby's tenure. Kirby then turned to the apocalyptic themes with the postnuclear world of Kamandi and the far future of OMAC. He finished out his time at DC with his new version of the Sandman, whose series lasted six issues.

Returning to Marvel in 1975, Kirby handled a variety of assignments, including Captain America and The Invaders, and embarked on another attempt at a new mythology with The Eternals. Revising his previous themes, characters of the future, namely the race-judging Celestials. In addition to exploring mythologies, Kirby seemed intent on creating new and different kinds of characters at this point in his career. He rounded out his final stint at Marvel by creating Devil Dinosaur and Machine Man.

In late 1978, Kirby retired from full-time duty as a comic book creator and turned his talent toward animation. He worked on conceptual drawings for the Fantastic Four and Herbie the Robot animated television series. Although the show failed to generate any major following, Kirby remained in animation until 1987, contributing to the designs of Thundarr the Barbarian, Mr. T, Plastic Man, Rambo, Chuck Norris, and Laser Tag for Ruby/Spears Productions.

After the advent of creator-owned properties in comics, Kirby continued to produce new characters. He was at the forefront of the creator-owned movement in 1981-83 with his Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star, published by Pacific Comics. However Kirby's style was not widely accepted as it once had been, and both titles were canceled in early 1984 due to low sales.

But Kirby proceeded to push for creator rights on another front: he attempted to obtain pages of his original comic art from Marvel. His quest led to a much-publicized public furor involving not only the pages of art but the particulars of the creation of the Marvel Universe itself. Kirby eventually received nearly 2,000 of his pages in 1987 after signing a release form stating that he had no claim to the copyright of the material contained on the pages. Unfortunately, it's believed that most of the estimated 13,000 pages Kirby drew for Marvel during his career were lost or destroyed over the years.

Such distractions did nothing to diminish the creator's enthusiasm for comics. Kirby continued to take an active role in the industry he helped create. He got the chance to create new characters and explore mythology in his final works. Topps Comics launched its "Kirbyverse" in 1993 with the four issue Secret City Saga mini series, starring such Kirby characters as Night Glider, BomBlast, and Captain Glory. The Kirbyverse was conceived to be chronicled by others inspired by Kirby's vision. Currently Topps is launching the five-issue Victory, a mini-series heralding the return of Captain Victory, who hasn't seen print since his Pacific title was canceled. Victory will lead into another-all new Captain Victory monthly and the Ninth Men, starring Night Glider and company.

In 1996's Phantom Force, published by both Image Comics and Genesis West, Kirby once again had free reign with his creations. Combining the sagas of rank-and-file superheroes with his more cosmic concepts, Kirby weaved a tapestry that went beyond the domain of superhero comics into the realm of a new mythology.

Kirby died in his Thousand Oaks, Calif., home of heart failure on February 6, 1994. He was 76. His death was not just the passing of a single man; it was the passing of an era.