We here at Comic Sans have been quiet of late. Partly due to life, partly due to us prepping to come at you with a weekly Twitch series that will premiere SOON! Yes, you will soon be able to communicate with us as we talk comics and comic-related news (and whatever else floats our boat) in a new show in the Digital Fiasco family!
But until then, you get some sporadic written words. And the title should tell you all you need to know.
OK, maybe not. Wrong king. And, no, not Elvis either.
Today, as I write this, it is August 28, 2017. 100 years ago today the comic book legend of Jack Kirby was born. Like most in the original Marvel bullpen, he had a nickname: Stan “The Man” Lee, “Rascally” Roy Thomas, and (of course) the man of the hour, Jack “The King” Kirby.
Why “The King”? The man could crank out more comic book pages in a month than anyone. But that’s not all he is remembered for…
So Who Was He?
Jack Kirby (or, rather, Jacob Kurtzberg) was born on August 28, 1917 in New York City. He dabbled in being an artist for many years as an escape and used cartoon images in newspapers as his inspiration, essentially teaching himself how to draw. Yes, you read that right – one of the most influential artists to the comic book medium today was essentially self-taught.
His first comic-related work came in the mid-1930s, when Kirby started working for a company called Eisner & Iger who produced comic books. He did a variety of titles and stories, from sci-fi to humor to westerns. Kirby did it all. He was not a person who wanted to live forever in one space – he wanted to get something done and move on to the next big thing. And working on individual stories such as this let him do just that.
His First Collaborator
In 1940 Kirby had moved on to take on the Blue Beetle comic strip for Fox Feature Syndicate, featuring the first incarnation of a character that still exists today. That was his first time taking on both art and story duties, and it’s something that served Kirby immensely as time went on. Although the Blue Beetle strip was important in giving him that chance, something more impressive occurred during Kirby’s stint at Fox (not to be confused with the Fox of today). He met an editor and a project collaborator Joe Simon, and the two went on to create one of the most recognizable characters in comics, even to this day.
Simon and Kirby began working for Timely Comics, known mostly for pulp fiction (not to be confused with Pulp Fiction). In early 1941, Timely published the very first issue of Captain America Comics, created by Simon and Kirby.
However, even with the success of the book, there were hints that they were not getting their fair share of the profits from the title. As a result, Simon and Kirby found work at National Comics Publications, a company that would eventually be known by another name (just as Timely Comics would also be renamed). One of the editorial assistants at Timely, Stanley Lieber, would later get the chance to work with Kirby again, many times over.
Production of comics for Kirby came to a halt in June 1943 when he was drafted for World War II. After basic training, Kirby was assigned to the 11th Infantry Regiment and was part of a group that landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy in August 1944 (not D-Day). Because of his artistic talent, Kirby was assigned duties as a scout, one of the most dangerous duties in the military. His role was to go into towns ahead of the rest of the troops and perform recon duties, including drawing maps and pictures of items the rest of the platoon would need to know about. In 1945 he returned to the United States and was honorably discharged, with several medals, having performed his duty to his country.
After he returned back to the US, Kirby worked for a number of companies, including Harvey Comics (the company that would publish Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich), Hillman Periodicals, and Crestwood Publications. In those companies, he continued to work on many genres, including western and true crime, but he really came into his own with another Simon collaboration in the publication of romance comics. Simon and Kirby essentially re-created the romance comic and took it to sales of new heights for the genre: in excess of 2 million issues sold per month.
Kirby continued working for many a publisher, including National and Atlas Comics (formerly known as Timely). Kirby wrote and drew a number of stories for both publishers in that time, including a number of anthology stories and creating such characters that live on to today (such as the Challengers of the Unknown for National, which at this time was already branding itself under its current name of DC Comics) and also worked on popular characters (such as Green Arrow).
Atlas and Onward
Working freelance for Atlas Comics primarily at this time, Kirby once again worked with Stanley Lieber (now working under the name we all know him by – “Stan Lee”) again all over the genre map, creating such monster-type characters as Fin Fang Foom and the menacing tree monster known as Groot. (Yes, Groot was originally a monster.)
In 1961, 2 significant events happened that changed things. One of which was Atlas changing the company name and becoming known as Marvel Comics. Second, Kirby and Lee created a superhero comic for the company and released Fantastic Four #1. And this is where things changed.
During his time at Marvel, Kirby helped to create such iconic characters as the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men. He brought visuals to the villainy of Doctor Doom, Loki and Magneto. In the pages of the FF he went cosmic with helping to create Galactus and the Silver Surfer, as well as bringing the Inhumans to life. The Lee/Kirby duo created The Avengers, which included reviving Kirby’s old creation Captain America, as the rights were held by Timely/Atlas/Marvel for the character. He was instrumental in creating the first African-American superhero in comics, the Black Panther.
Kirby created the visual foundation for the Marvel Comics of today, including . But behind the scenes it wasn’t all roses and champagne, and in 1970 Kirby left Marvel to return to DC.
The Fourth World and More
It was another comic legend, Carmine Infantino, who lured Kirby back to DC. Kirby produced multiple series that fell under the moniker of The Fourth World, but before doing that took over duties on another title of DC’s that was not a top seller – Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
In Olsen, Kirby brought a consistent team and an ongoing story to the series, including the re-introduction of the Newsboy Legion from his time with National back in the 50s, but also setting the stage for the Fourth World by having issue #134 of Olsen be the first appearance of new DC Big Bad, Darkseid.
After Darkseid appeared, the Fourth World emerged in 3 new titles that Kirby produced, by handling both the art and writing duties: The New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People.
Kirby would work on these titles also create some new ones for DC during his tenure back at the publisher including Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth; The Demon; and, OMAC – One Man Army Corps. The concepts that Kirby created here continue on to this day, with iterations of these characters still in print.
During the mid-70s through to his passing in 1994, Kirby was all over the place. He returned to Marvel for a while and did a long stint on Captain America (including a story arc called “Madbomb” – one of my personal favourites). He created Marvel some new characters in Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, The Eternals, and The Celestials, continuing his love of the more abstract concepts. He adapted a number of licensed properties, including 2001: A Space Odyssey for Marvel as well as a never-published adaptation of The Prisoner (which has the first issue completely penciled, missing some final inks and letters, and is available to read online courtesy of Forces of Geek).
He worked for Hanna-Barbera for a while, designing series such as Thundarr the Barbarian as well as working on a Fantastic Four animated series. He worked for many a comic publisher, working mostly in the independent space. It was partly due to his lobbying that the publishers stopped focusing on the “Work for Hire” model for the creative teams and how the creators get more credit and royalties today, which did not exist. DC could not go back in time and change their old contracts with him, but company executives had him redesign several Fourth World characters so they would be incorporated into their Super Powers toy line and Kirby would get the financial royalties many felt he was deserving of. (Kirby also went on to do the comic miniseries for Super Powers based on the toy line.)
So Why The Big Deal?
Because Jack Kirby is a big deal.
He was one of the pioneers who set the foundation for almost everything in Marvel Comics today, which includes their TV and Movie lines. The majority of the characters in the movie and TV franchises are partially due to Kirby.
DC is honoring the man with a number of one-shots of his creations all this month, and over the course of the year there is The Kamandi Challenge, a 12-issue series with each issue continuing the story of the previous one (all of which MUST have a cliffhanger), but each issue has a different creative team attached. Mister Miracle has a new series which just came out this month (and promptly sold out), and Darkseid and some of his minions are taking center stage in the new Justice League movie out later this year.
But you have to look no further that the comic creator community to see his influence and the passion that most people working in comics today have for the man. Simply look on Twitter for #Kirby100 or #JackKirby and you can see for yourself. Artists who have never worked with him, inking penciled work by the King. Many creating new images of his creations or in his style. You’d be hard pressed to not see anything but gratitude and thanks from many creators for setting a stage that challenged them – writers and artists alike – to think bigger and think outside the box.
Personally, it wasn’t until later on in my comic reading “life” that I fully understood the contributions of Jack Kirby. I have several issues of comics he worked on, including a few Jimmy Olsen books (as shown above) and an early issue of New Gods, plus several issues of OMAC and Kamandi and both Super Powers miniseries (man, did I love those toys as a kid). I have several DC collections, including the Fourth World Omnibus (there are a few of them), and the OMAC collection. I have many Captain America and Fantastic Four issues (including FF #66 and #67, where a character named Him (who emerged from a cocoon) was introduced; he would later become known as Adam Warlock – the same Adam mentioned at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and who is a major pain in Thanos’ side).
The reason I point out what I have personally is that his work stands out above so many. He has a breadth of different genres and titles that is matched by very few. You read his work and you never get the same story twice – he doesn’t rehash the same thing. Similarities, sure, but it’s never the same. And every time you read it you can find new details, little things you never noticed before, that simply enhance the experience of reading his work.
And it’s timeless. You can read Kirby’s stories and they could take place in the 1970s or 20 years from now (in most cases – not so much with the WW2 stories). But he has a knack for telling a fantastical story.
And that’s what this medium is all about.
Happy birthday, Jack. You are truly missed.
(Many of the factual events referenced above were sourced from Wikipedia, the book “Kirby: King of Comics” by Mark Evanier (Kirby’s former assistant – I highly recommend the book), and many articles about the creator by both journalists and creators alike. The editorial comments are my own.)