Jack Kirby was one of the most influential comic book artists and writers of the United States, and one of the innovators of the superhero genre. Nicknamed the “King of Comics”, he has been a driving force behind the industry during both the Golden Age of Comic Books in the 1940s and the Silver Age in the 1960s. With his partner Joe Simon, he created the all-American hero ‘Captain America’, and later with Stan Lee he developed even more iconic characters like the ‘Fantastic Four’, ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘The Mighty Thor’. His co-creations saved the suffering Atlas/Marvel Comics from bankruptcy and turned it into the media powerhouse it is today. Kirby produced over 20,000 comic book pages during his career, as well as about 1,400 cover illustrations. His cinematographic and dynamic artwork has left a lasting impression on generations of comic book artists, and was even plagiarized on several occasions.
He was born in 1917 as Jacob Kurtzberg in New York City into a poor family of Jewish immigrants from Austria. He grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a tough and violent neighborhood, which moulded Kirby’s further life and career. He regularly fled the gang fights around his house and hung around 42nd Street, where he ran errands for the reporters from the Daily News and the Hearst papers. He also met the newspaper cartoonist Walter Berndt there. Kirby especially enjoyed reading newspaper comics like ‘Barney Google’ by Billy DeBeck, ‘Prince Valiant’ by Hal Foster and ‘Terry and the Pirates’ by Milton Caniff. Other early influences were the editorial cartoonists C.H. Sykes, Ding Darling and Rollin Kirby. He was furthermore an avid fan of the movies, which influenced his cinematic feel for motion in his later comic art. At age 14, the young man enrolled at the Pratt Institute, but stayed for only one week because he didn’t connect with the school’s focus on fine arts. He learnedhis graphic skills by studying other artists’ work.
Early newspaper work
By 1936 Kurtzberg got his first job with Horace T. Elmo’s small newspaper syndicate, Lincoln Features. He did editorial cartoons and art for educational features like ‘Your Health Comes First’ and ‘Facts You Never Knew’. He was reprimanded for a cartoon about British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain making a pact with Hitler by his editor, who sneered: “Where does a young squirt like you get the nerve to do an editorial cartoon on Chamberlain and Hitler?” Kirby simply replied he knew a gangster when he saw one. For his early cartooning work, the artist used pen names like Jack Curtiss, Jack Cortez, Jack Davis, Jack Kurtz, Teddy, Lance Kirby and Jack Kirby. He stuck with the latter.
Kirby remained with Lincoln Features until 1939 and also developed his first comic strips for the syndicate. Some of these only appeared in a few newspapers, while others may not have been published at all, like ‘Abdul Jones’. His funny comic strip ‘Socko the Seadog’ was obviously inspired by E.C. Segar’s ‘Popeye’, and appeared in the late 1930s. Among his realistic features were the sci-fi strip ‘Cyclone Burke’, the pirate comic ‘The Black Buccaneer’, and the western ‘Lightnin’ and The Lone Rider’ (January-February 1939). ‘The Lone Rider’ appeared in the comic book Famous Funnies by Eastern Color Printing as well (1939-1940). Kirby also had a stint on Lincoln’s flagship strip ‘Detective Riley’. Late in 1939, Jack Kirby worked as an inbetweener for the Max Fleischer’s animation studio for a while on cartoons like ‘Popeye’ and ‘Betty Boop’.
Venture into comic books
Around the same period he began working in the upcoming comic book industry. He did his first work through packagers like Victor Fox and the Eisner-Iger Studio, who produced ready-made comic books for publishing houses. Kirby once remembered that the first comic book he worked on was Wild Boy Magazine, but proof of this has not been found. In the Eisner-Iger comic book Jumbo Comics, he published the science fiction feature ‘The Diary of Dr. Hayward’ (under the pseudonym “Curt Davis”), the modern-West crimefighter ‘Wilton of the West’ (as “Fred Sande”), and an adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ (as “Jack Curtiss”), all as early as 1938. In those days, pseudonyms were used all the time, and to make matters more confusing, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ was continued by Lou Fine under the pen name “Jack Cortez” from the third issue on.
In 1940 he joined Fox Feature Syndicate, where one of his first jobs was drawing the futuristic feature ‘The Solar Legion’ for Crash Comics Adventures. He was also one of the many artists who used the pen name Charles Nicholas when drawing the ‘Blue Beetle’, a character created by Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski. As the character’s popularity rose a newspaper comic was created around him, which ran from January through November 1940. Kirby was one of the ghost artists for this feature, just like Luis Cazeneuve. At Fox, he also began his artistic partnership with Joe Simon. The two men continued to produce a great many comic books together until 1956. Most of their material was written by them personally, with Kirby serving as penciller and lay-out artist, while Simon took care of the inking and the business aspects. When their production increased, they hired other inkers (Al Avison, Al Gabriele) and a letterer (Howard Ferguson) to assist them in their Manhattan studio.
Partnership with Joe Simon
Among Kirby and Simon’s early collaborative works was the superhero ‘Blue Bolt’ for Novelty Press (1940-1941). A couple of months later, Joe Simon was appointed art director over at Timely Comics (the predecessor of Marvel), where he oversaw the production of a new comic book called Red Raven Comics. Kirby was of course brought along, and worked on the science fiction story ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ in the book’s sole issue. They further produced the back-up feature ‘The Vision’ in Marvel Mystery Comics from 1940 to 1942, as well as ‘Marvel Boy’, a boy with the strength of Hercules, in June 1940. Kirby and Simon made one story with the character for Daring Mystery Comics #6. The character appeared once again in a story by Bob Oksner in 1943, and was revamped by Russ Heath and Stan Lee in 1950.
Apart from Timely, Kirby and Simon put their stamp on earlier creations like ‘The Black Owl’ (created by Robert Turner and Pete Riss) for Prize Comics (1940-1941) and ‘Captain Marvel’ (created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker) for Fawcett (1941). However, they garnered most fame as the creators of ‘Captain America’ for Timely in 1941. Kirby put a lot of his own background in the comic. Just like him, the main character was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Kirby also claimed that the realistic depictions of fighting scenes came from his experiences in this neighborhood. The rather frail Steve Rogers is a test subject in the so-called “Super-Soldier” project. A special serum turns him into a superhuman with unlimited strenght and stamina, who becomes the country’s morale-boosting hero against the Nazis. Even months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the US involvement in World War II, Kirby and Simon let their character punch out Adolf Hitler on the cover of the first issue (dated March 1941). The Nazi threat is further personified in the Red Skull, evidently one of the first emblematic and lasting villains in a superhero comic after ‘The Joker’ in Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s ‘Batman’. Add a junior side-kick called Bucky to the mix, and Timely had its counterweight title to National’s Batman and Robin. Kirby and Simon produced three monthly stories and a cover illustation for ten issues of Captain America Comics until early 1942, after which Al Avison became the penciller.
The duo was however not satisfied with Timely’s payment for their work, and moved over to the company’s main competitor National Periodicals. There, they got full artistic freedom to produce whatever they want. They succeeded Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris on the ‘Sandman’ feature in Adventure Comics (1942-1946). The Kirby-Simon tandem also turned the green-suited superhero into a Nazi fighter. They furthermore completely reinvented the character ‘Paul Kirk, Manhunter’ in that same title in 1942. Their most notable creation was however ‘The Boy Commandos’, about a gang of kids fighting Nazis. The feature debuted in Detective Comics in June 1942. Later that year the kids got their own title, which became the company’s third best-selling property after ‘Superman’ and ‘Batman’. Kirby and Simon produced about three stories per issue until 1949. At this time, Kirby’s production was pencilling 5 pages a day, which also included another kids gang feature called ‘The Newsboy Legion’ in Star-Spangled Comics (1942-1947). By 1943, the editor feared that the authors could be drafted and requested an even higher production so he could fill new comic books during their absence. Extra artists were brought in to assist, including Curt Swan, Steve Brodie, Luis Cazeneuve, Carmine Infantino and a young Gil Kane.
Boy Commandos #15
Kirby was indeed drafted and served in the US Army’s combat infantry from Autumn 1943 up until 1944. He was part of the troops who landed in Omaha Beach, Normandy, shortly after D-Day. A trench foot retired him from active duty by the winter. He was sent back to London andreturned to US soil in January 1945. After his dischargement later that year, he resumed his work with Joe Simon. They came back to the pages of Boy Commandos and Star-Spangled Comics, and also began an association with Harvey Comics in 1946. They returned to the superhero genre with ‘Stuntman’ (three issues, 1946) and ‘Captain 3-D’ (one issue, 1953), and to kid-gangs with the ‘Boy Explorers’ (two issues, 1946) and ‘Boys’ Ranch’ (six issues, 1950-1951). Other Harvey features they worked on were ‘Duke of Broadway’ and ‘Vagabond Prince’ for Black Cat Comics (1947). Much of their Harvey work was reprinted in the mid 1950s in titles like ‘Thrills of Tomorrow’, ‘Witches Western Tales’ and ‘Western Tales’. By then, Kirby also returned to the pages of ‘Black Cat’ with fantasy stories, while also contributing to other anthology titles like ‘Alarming Tales’ and ‘Race for the Moon’ until 1958.
Crime and romance
Kirby and Simon created hard-boiled stories about “crimes throughout the ages” for Crestwood’s Prize Comics imprint in 1946. After a first story in ‘Treasure Comics’, they filled the pages of ‘Headline Comics’, ‘Justice Traps the Guilty’ and ‘Charlie Chan’ throughout the rest of the decade, introducing characters like ‘Red-Hot Blaze’ and ‘Charlie Chan’. By 1947-1948, they were doing crime stories for Hillman’s ‘Real Clue Crime Comics’ as well. At Hillman Periodicals, Kirby and Simon additionally contributed to Airboy Comics (the feature ‘Flying Fool’) and the teenage book My Date Comics (features like ‘House-Date Harry’ and ‘Swifty Chase’). Kirby even tried his hand at funny animal comics with ‘Lockjaw the Alligator’ and ‘Earl the Rich Rabbit’ in Punch and Judy Comics.
The Kirby-Simon studio served as packagers for Crestwood’s Prize Comics line in the second half of the 1940s and the 1950s. Their production of war stories declined in the late 1940s, because by then they had created a whole new genre of comic books, aimed at a female audience. Inspired by the pulp magazines of the time, they launched ‘Young Romance’, a comic book devoted entirely to love stories. The first issue was published under the Prize Comics imprint in October 1947 and proved to be an instant hit. Kirby and Simon produced at least one long story per issue, as well as the cover illustration, until the late 1950s. Artists like Bill Draut, Jerry Robinson, Mort Meskin, Bruno Premiani, Ann Brewster, John Prentice and Leonard Starr were also contributing. As ‘Young Romance’ apparently sold millions of copies a month, additional titles like ‘Young Love’ (1949-1957) and ‘Young Brides’ (1952-1956) were launched, all with contributions by Kirby and Simon and their team. Other publishers noticed that comic books aimed at girls proved successful, and hitched a ride on Crestwood’s wagon with romance titles of their own. ‘Young Romance’ was also Kirby’s first financial success, as he was able to buy himself a house in Mineola, Long Island, in 1949.
In addition to crime and romance, the tandem also added a horror/suspense title to the Prize Comics line, called ‘Black Magic’. The title ran from 1950 until 1961, with gory horror contributions by Kirby-Simon until 1954. As Atlas Comics had revived Kirby and Simon’s Golden Age character ‘Captain America’ in 1954, the artists created another patriotic hero for Prize Comics with ‘Fighting American’ (1954-1955). Labeled by Joe Simon as the first “Communist-basher” in comic books, the artists made the stories more satirical along the comic book’s seven issue run.
In 1954, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were among the first artists to venture into self-publishing, although with aid from Crestwood Publishing. Their Mainline Publications imprint launched four titles in all the common genres of the time: western (‘Western Scout’), war (‘Foxhole’), romance (‘In Love’) and crime (‘Police Trap’). Contrary to the other comic books in these genres, Mainline’s ‘Foxhole’ was presented as war stories by actual veterans, while ‘In Love’ features issue-length romance dramas and ‘Police Trap’ depicted true crime events. Issues with their distributor, Leader News, constant attacks from anti-comics agitator Dr. Fredric Wertham and the arrival of the Comics Code cut the Mainline project short. The company folded in 1956, and also meant the end of Kirby and Simon’s regular partnership of sixteen years. The remaining titles and material were sold to Charlton Comics. The two men cooperated once again at Archie Comics in 1959 with the superhero characters ‘The Shield’ (in ‘The Double Life of Private Strong’) and ‘The Fly’ (in its own title). Joe Simon moved on to work in commercial art, while Kirby still had the prime years of his comics career ahead of him…
Jack Kirby spent the rest of the 1950s alternating between jobs for DC Comics, Atlas Comics, Archie Comics and Gilberton. Kirby’s regular inkers during this DC period were Marvin Stein and Wallace Wood. One of his most notable efforts for this company was creating ‘Challengers of the Unknown’ in DC’s Showcase in February 1957. The feature presented a team of heroes exploring science fictional and paranormal events. A comic book of the same name was launched in April 1958. Kirby worked on eight issues in cooperation with writer Dick Wood until early 1959, when Bob Wood became the penciller. The characters have remained in the “DC Universe” since then. In addition, Kirby contributed to the company’s anthology titles ‘House of Mystery’, ‘House of Secrets’, ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ and ‘My Greatest Adventure’. Between 1958 and 1961, Kirby additionally did artwork for Gilberton’s educational ‘The World Around Us’ series and for special issues of ‘Classics Illustrated’. He also made an adaptation of the Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ for the regular ‘Classics Illustrated’ series.
For his next project, Kirby was inspired by the “Space Age”, which had started with the launch of the Sputnik in 1957. ‘Sky Masters of the Space Force’ also marked his return to newspapers. The daily and Sunday comic strip about the adventures of an American astronaut were syndicated to about 300 newspapers by George Matthew Adams Service from 8 September 1958 until 25 February 1961. Dick and Dave Wood were assigned to write the scripts, while Wallace Wood (no relation to the Wood brothers) and later Dick Ayers did most of the inking. The strip’s run was troubled by conflicts from the start, especially with DC editor Jack Schiff, who had paired Kirby and Wood with the syndicate. Disagreements over Schiff’s royalty share and subsequent threats by Schiff of firing Kirby from his DC work ended up in a lawsuit shortly after the launch of ‘Sky Masters’. In the end, Schiff was assigned a percentage of the royalties, and Kirby left DC Comics in early 1959. Although he continued to draw ‘Sky Masters’ until 1961, he found a new home for his comic book work at Atlas Comics, which was previously known as Timely Comics.
Kirby had already returned to his old publisher as a freelancer in 1956 and 1957. He initially worked on the short-lived comic book ‘The Yellow Claw’, about a Communist mandarin/supervillain, created by Al Feldstein and Joe Maneely in 1956. He also drew for the western comic book ‘Black Rider’ and some war, western and romance titles. His early Atlas work was either inked by John Severin, his wife Roz or by himself. When his collaboration with DC Comics came to an end in late 1958/early 1959, Kirby became a staple of the Atlas sci-fi, supernatural and mystery titles ‘Journey into Mystery’, ‘Tales of Suspense’, ‘Strange Worlds’, ‘World of Fantasy’ and ‘Tales to Astonish’, together with inkers like Christopher Rule and Dick Ayers. His designs of unearthly monsters like ‘Groot’, ‘Goom, the Thing from Planet X’, ‘Grottu, King of the Insects’, ‘Gorgilla’, and ‘Fin Fang Foom’ foreshadowed his 1960s comics. Kirby additionally found time to draw for Atlas’ romance (‘Love Romances’, ‘My Own Romance’), western (‘Wyatt Earp’, ‘The Rawhide Kid’, ‘Kid Colt Outlaw’) and war (‘Battle’) comic books.
Despite their large line of comic books, Atlas Comics was on the verge of bankruptcy near the end of the 1950s. In a 1990 interview with the Comics Journal, Kirby recalled people were moving the furniture out of the offices one day. A crying Stan Lee nearly begged Kirby to come up with comic books that’d make money. Although the anecdote is most likely exaggerated, the new line of superhero comics developed by Kirby and Lee saved the company, which became known as Marvel Comics by 1961. In the wake of DC’s return to many of their superheroes from the 1940s and the launch of their team-up series ‘Justice League of America’ (1960), Marvel’s ‘Fantastic Four’ came just at the right time. The first issue was published in November 1961 and presented a team of superheroes consisting of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and Thing. All four got their superpowers after being exposed to cosmic radiation. Whereas most other superheroes were masked vigilantes seeking vengeance or justice, Kirby and Lee’s creations got their special abilities through accidents or mutations. Besides spectacular fighting scenes, the Marvel comic books also delved into the character’s inner struggles about the powers which had come to them by chance.
Jack Kirby co-plotted, scripted and drew ‘The Fantastic Four’ throughout the 1960s, up until issue #102 (1970). He defined Marvel’s house style, and developed many other major Marvel characters during the so-called “Silver Age of Comic Books”. The first was ‘The Incredible Hulk’, about physicist Bruce Banner who turns into a giant green monster with immense power when agitated, the result of accidental exposure to gamma radiation. Kirby said he got the idea for this contemporary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after seeing a mother lift a car to save her baby who was trapped underneath it. He figured that with enough aggrevation people could acquire great strength. Together with co-plotter Lee and several inkers, Kirby produced the first five issues of the original six-issue mini-series from 1962 to 1963, while issue #6 was pencilled by Steve Ditko. Lee and Ditko then continued the character’s adventures in ‘Tales to Astonish’.
‘The Mighty Thor’ debuted in ‘Journey into Mystery’ #83 of August 1962, in a story plotted by Kirby and Lee and scripted by Larry Lieber. Although the character shared his name and looks with the Nordic god of thunder, he was a rather straightforward superhero in his early appearances, which were either scripted by Lieber or Robert Bernstein, while Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, and Al Hartley also pencilled stories. It was however Kirby’s back-up feature ‘Tales of Asgard’ (from October 1963) that proved to be most memorable. Kirby could indulge in Nordic mythology and legends, crafting the imaginative world of Asgard. He told the epic stories of the Norse gods, with each panel showing an even more spectacular point-of-view. The feature also showed the origins of ‘Thor’, while the Asgardian elements gradually appeared in the main feature as well. Kirby became the regular co-plotter and artist of the entire comic book ‘Journey into Mystery’ from February 1964 until 1966, after which it was renamed to ‘Thor’. Kirby drew ‘Thor’ until the end of his tenure with Marvel in 1970. One of the highlights of his ‘Thor’ work was the storyline involving ‘Planet Ego’, which featured an entire planet as a personality. Kirby was originally signed up to draw ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ as well, but his initial design of the character was changed when Steve Ditko became the feature’s penciller and co-plotter. Kirby did draw the cover for the character’s debut in ‘Amazing Fantasy’ #15 (September 1962).
‘Iron Man’ told the story of Tony Stark, a rather unlikable billionaire, playboy and engineer who was forced to wear an armor suit with technological gadgets due to a shrapnel near his heart. The character debuted in ‘Tales of Suspense’ #39 in March 1963. Kirby provided the character design and the cover illustrations until 1965, while Don Heck pencilled the stories. Several of Kirby and Lee’s new creations teamed up to form the all-star superhero team ‘The Avengers’ in September 1963. Some Golden Age creations were also added to the line-up, such as ‘Sub-Mariner’, ‘Ka-Zar’ and Kirby’s own ‘Captain America’. Kirby drew the title until issue #16 in May 1965, but remained involved as the cover artist until the following year. Don Heck pencilled these stories as well.
Kirby and Lee further delved into the burden of superpowers with the creation of the ‘X-Men’, a group of teenage mutants who are trained to deal with their abilities in Professor Xavier’s special school. The original team consisted of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, and Iceman, who found their nemesis in Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Kirby was the regular penciller of ‘The X-Men’ from the first issue in September 1963 until issue #17 in February 1966. One of the final major Marvel superheroes co-created by Kirby was the ‘Silver Surfer’, an alien humanoid who surfs through space. The character was created by accident. Kirby drew him as a new member of the ‘Fantastic Four’ in issue #48 (March 1966). However, this herald for the god-like planet-eater Galactus appeared without Stan Lee’s knowledge. The landmark “Galactus Trilogy” proved to be one of most memorable storylines of ‘The Fantastic Four’, and the ‘Silver Surfer’ remained a recurring character. A solo title was launched in 1968, pencilled by John Buscema. Kirby drew the final and eighteenth issue, which appeared in September 1970. Kirby’s run on ‘The ‘Fantastic Four’ also included the debut of ‘The Inhumans’ (December 1965), a race of superhumans, and ‘The Black Panther’ (July 1966), the first black superhero in mainstream comics.
Outside of the superhero realm, Kirby and Lee created ‘Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos’, a World War II combat series which debuted in May 1963. Kirby drew the initial issues, until Dick Ayers gradually took over the pencil work in 1964. He also continued to contribute to western titles like ‘Kid Colt Outlaw’ in the 1960s, and additionally drew stories for the horror anthology title ‘Chamber of Darkness’ in 1970. Among Jack Kirby’s inkers during his Marvel heyday were Dick Ayers, Paul Reinman, Frank Giacoia, George Roussos, Vince Colletta and Joe Sinnott.
Usage of photo-collage in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13
Kirby, Lee and Marvel rose to the top of the industry and completely revamped the comic book world. Yet there has been much debate about the individual contributions of each author. While Lee was credited as the creator and scriptwriter, and Kirby as the artist, the comics are by now generally seen an co-creations. Several artists who have worked with Lee, especially Kirby and Ditko, have downplayed Lee’s role in the production of the actual comics. They claimed that he merely gave the artists a plot and then filled in the dialogues after the story and the artwork were completed. This way of working later became known as the “Marvel method”. In an interview with Gary Groth for The Comics Journal in 1990, Kirby even downright stated he alone had come up with the ideas for ‘The Fantastic Four’, ‘Thor’, ‘The Hulk’, and even ‘Spider-Man’. Lee’s role was taking care of the business aspects at the editorial offices. Kirby claimed he produced the entire comic book, and Lee’s only contribution to the scriptwriting was handing the finished page to the letterer. As a friend of the publisher Martin Goodman, Lee got more credit than he deserved. It is obvious that Kirby held a grudge against Lee, and that their “cooperation” had soured along the way. The exact truth shall perhaps always remain a mystery…
Return to DC Comics
Fed up with Lee’s behavior and Marvel’s refusual to renegociate his contract, Kirby left the company. By then he lived in California, home base of DC Comics, which explained why he easily returned to them again in 1970. Editor Carmine Infantino promised to give him carte blanche and full credits for his work. Kirby’s first assignment was boosting up the company’s worst selling book, which was ‘Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen’. Kirby drew this title from issue #133 in October 1970 to #148 in April 1972, with Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson drawing Superman’s head for the sake of consistency. The ‘Jimmy Olsen’ title also marked the launch of what is probably Kirby’s most ambitious project of his career. The ‘Fourth World’ saga (1970-1973) was an epic tale about two planets at war, told through four inter-connected limited series. Elements of the concept were previously explored in Kirby’s ‘Tales from Asgard’ and ‘Inhumans’ stories. The storyline took off in ‘Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen’ and then diverged in ‘The New Gods’ (11 issues), ‘Forever People’ (11 issues) and ‘Mr. Miracle’ (18 issues). It showed Kirby at his best, crafting alien worlds and machinery, and mixing superhero stories with science fiction, mythology and Biblical elements. He got assistance on the scriptwork from Mark Evanier. Although the comic books were intended to be limited series, DC decided they wanted to keep the characters. This meant that Kirby could not kill off his ‘New Gods’, like he intended to do. Kirby was however able to conclude his ‘New Gods’ series in the 1984 reprint series, and in the graphic novel ‘The Hunger Dogs’ (1985), although with many revisions. The characters from Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ saga have appeared in later comic books as part of the “DC Universe”.
Kirby moved on to create a new set of superhero comics for DC, including ‘The Demon’ (1972-1974), ‘OMAC’ (1974-1975) and ‘Kobra’ (1976). He also wrote and drew ‘Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth’ (1972-1976), a post-apocalyptic series inspired by the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies, and the feature ‘The Losers’ in the war comic book ‘Our Fighting Forces’ (1974-1975). He worked with his old partner Joe Simon once again for a revamp of the 1940s character ‘The Sandman’ in 1974. For Infantino’s anthology series ‘1st Issue Special’ he drew features like ‘Atlas the Great’, ‘Manhunter’ and ‘Dingbats of Danger Street’. His inkers during his 1970s tenure with DC were Vince Colletta, Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry.
Kirby bounced back to Marvel once again in the 1976-1978 period. He returned to his ‘Captain America’ character, drawing issues #192 through #208, as well as a couple of annuals. He also picked up his black superhero ‘Black Panther’ again, this time in his own comic book (1977-1978). Kirby furthermore created the race of superhumans ‘The Eternals’ (1976-1978), the android superhero ‘Machine Man’ (1978) and the ‘Devil Dinosaur’ (1978). Another notable work from this period was Kirby’s ten-issue comic book adaptation of the Stanley Kubrick film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1976-1977). He worked with Stan Lee one final time in 1978, with ‘The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience’, one of the first Marvel books published in the graphic novel format. In 1979-80, Kirby, writer Carl Fallberg and regular Kirby inker Mike Royer made an adaptation of the Walt Disney movie ‘The Black Hole’ for the syndicated ‘Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales’ series.
Animation and indie comics
In the late 1970s, Kirby felt he didn’t have much future in comic books. Instead, he ventured into animation, starting out with doing storyboards, concepts and character designs for DePatie-Freleng’s animated series ‘The New Fantastic Four’ (1978-1979). He subsequently worked on Hanna-Barbera’s ‘Space Stars’ (the ‘Space Ghost’ episode), before landing on a six-year staff position at Ruby-Spears Productions. He mainly did designs for the company’s animated TV series ‘Thundarr the Barbarian’ (1980-1982), and also worked on cartoons as ‘Turbo Teen’, ‘Mister T’, ‘Sectaurs’ and ‘Centurions: Power Xtreme’. He additionally did design work for Hanna-Barbera cartoons ‘Super Friends’ and ‘Scooby Doo and Scrappy-Doo’.
1981 also saw Kirby’s return to comic books, but now for much smaller companies like the San Diego-based Pacific Comics. Pacific was one of the several indie comic book publishers that emerged during this period and released mostly creator-owned comic books. Kirby was one of the first artists to sign on to their comic book line. He created the sci-fi series ‘Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers’ as well as the six-issue miniseries ‘Silver Star’ (1983-1984). Much of his creations for Pacific, both used and unused concepts, reappeared in the “Kirbyverse” comic book line of Topps Comics in 1993-1994. This included the ‘Secret City Saga’, which consisted of the mini-series ‘Jack Kirby’s Secret City Saga’, ‘Satan’s Six’ and ‘TeenAgents’. In 1982 Kirby worked for another indie company, Eclipse Comics, on the ‘Destroyer Duck’ anthology book with writer Steve Gerber. It was published as a way to help Gerber raise funds for a lawsuit against Marvel over the rights of ‘Howard the Duck’. Besides producing new material related to his ‘Fourth World’ cycle, Kirby also made a new miniseries for DC called ‘Super Powers’ (1984-1985), which was tie-in with Kenner’s action figures line of the same name. The last comic book Jack Kirby worked on before his death was ‘Phantom Force’, which he co-wrote with Michael Thibodeaux and Richard French for Image Comics and Genesis West in 1993-1994. The King of Comics pencilled four issues, before he passed away in 1994 of heart failure in his Thousand Oaks, California home, at the age of 76. Thibodeaux drew the rest of the eight-issue comic book series.
Marvel Comics’ Icon imprint released a six-issue limited series in 2006-2007 called ‘Jack Kirby’s Galactic Bounty Hunters’, which featured characters and concepts created by Kirby for ‘Captain Victory’. The books featured scriptwork by Kirby’s daughter Lisa, Steve Robertson, Mike Thibodeaux and Richard French, pencil work by Jack Kirby and Thibodeaux, and inking by Scott Hanna and Karl Kesel. An eight-issue miniseries by writer Kurt Busiek and artists Jack Herbert and Alex Ross called ‘Kirby: Genesis’ was published by Dynamite Entertainment in 2011. The series featured Kirby-owned characters previously published by Pacific Comics and Topps Comics.
In his 50-year career, Jack Kirby has been responsible for more comic book sales than any other artist, writer or editor. He produced many of the most succesful franchises of all time. While the quality of his artwork and his lay-outs is undisputed, the artist didn’t have any highbrow pretentions about it. While he was frustrated about Lee and Marvel taking all the cash and credit for characters he (co-)created, he never pursued lawsuits for copyright claims, like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did against DC Comics for ‘Superman’ in the 1970s. It wasn’t until 2009 that his heirs began a long running legal dispute with Marvel over rights to the characters which now appear in blockbuster movies. The matter was settled confidentially in 2014 with the joint statement: “Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.” Truth is that Kirby was an artist for hire, whose main motive for writing and drawing comic books was to earn a living for his family. Kirby took great pride in the fact that his characters were real human beings with true emotions. He called himself a “visual storyteller” and added his own emotions and life experiences into his superhero stories, as Biblical and mythological influences. Yet he had no intention of becoming an icon, like Lee, although his visual innovations have received much acknowledgement in later years. His stylistic device for depicting energy or negative space has even become known as “Kirby Dots”, or “Kirby Krackles”, and special brushes with these patterns have been developed for Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
One could safely state that Kirby has influenced nearly every superhero comics artist after him. Some artists even went so far to trace Kirby’s characters onto their own pages. He has especially received praise from Frank Miller, Steve Rude, Richard Corben, John Romita, Dennis O’Neil, Barry Windsor-Smith, Dave Gibbons, Steve Parkhouse, Bill Mantlo, Scott McCloud, Jerry Ordway, Gilbert Hernandez, Don Heck, Wallace Wood, Milton Caniff, James Steranko, Burne Hogarth, Roy Thomas, Quentin Tarantino, Matt Groening and Gil Kane. Even Stan Lee has lauded his talent and fantasy. European artist Jean Giraud/Moebius called Kirby an influence on his work as well. An image from an ‘X-Men’ story by Jack Kirby and Bruno Premiani inspired the pop-art painting ‘Image Duplicator’ (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein. American novelist Michael Chabon praised Jack Kirby in the afterword of ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’. Director James Cameron has admitted that Kirby inspired the look of his 1986 sci-fi horror film ‘Aliens’, while jazz percussionist Gregg Bendian released a CD called ‘Requiem for Jack Kirby’ in 2002, which was inspired by Jack Kirby’s work.
A Jack Kirby Comics Industry Award was awarded to comic books and graphic novels in several categories by Amazing Heroes magazine (Fantagraphics) between 1985 and 1987. The awards were discontinued after a dispute between Fantagraphics and the magazine’s editor, and were succeeded by the Eisner Awards (named after Will Eisner) and the Harvey Award (named after Harvey Kurtzman). In 1987 Jack Kirby was one of the three inaugural inductees of the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame, along with Will Eisner and Carl Barks. Several authors have subsequently been inducted in the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame between 1989 and 2001. The first inductee was Wallace Wood (1989), and he was followed by Steve Ditko (1990), Alex Toth (1990), Jack Cole (1991), Basil Wolverton (1991), Walt Kelly (1992), Bernie Krigstein (1992), Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (1993), Bill Finger and Bob Kane (1994), Bill Everett (1995), Stan Lee (ironically in 1995, the year after Kirby’s death), Carl Burgos (1996), Sheldon Mayer (1996), Julius Schwartz (1996), Gil Kane (1997), Joe Kubert (1997), Carmine Infantino (1998), Murphy Anderson (1998), Neal Adams (1999), Frank Frazetta (1999), John Romita Sr. (1999) and Sheldon Moldoff (2001). From 1997 deceased artists were also inducted, such as C.C. Beck (1997), Bill Gaines (1997), Reed Crandall (1998), Gardner F. Fox (1998), Otto Binder (1999), Mort Meskin (1999) and Mort Weisinger (2001). International authors in the Hall of Fame are Jean Giraud (1997), Milo Manara (1998), Hergé (1999) and Guido Crepax (2001).
Entry by Bas Schuddeboom
Artwork © 1994 Jack Kirby
Website © 1994-2017 Lambiek