Jack Kirby was one of the most influential, yet perhaps unknown artists in comic book history. Right now, the reader may be pondering, “Who is this Kirby that you speak of”, or “the name’s a bit familiar”. While most individuals may not be familiar with the man, they are certainly familiar with the Marvel characters he co-created such as Captain America, Thor, The Fantastic Four, the Black Panther, the Hulk, and the original X-Men. In addition, Kirby also created various characters for DC Comics such as: Darkseid, Mister Miracle, Orion, Etrigan, Kamandi, and OMAC. His legacy is immense, but sadly has been forgotten over time.
If one is going to talk about Jack Kirby’s career in comics, it is always best to start at the beginning. Kirby initially had no formal art training what so ever—though he did spend a week in the Pratt Institute. His career in the industry started in the 1930’s, were he would work on comic strips for newspapers. Later on, Kirby went to work for a comic and newspaper syndicate, Fox Feature Syndicate, owned by Victor S. Fox. It was here were Kirby would befriend comic writer, artist, and Editor Joe Simon. The two collaborated on a number of works under Fox before moving to Timely Comics, which would later become Marvel Comics. It was here that they created the everlasting character, Captain America. After working on Captain America for ten issues the pair moved to National Comics, the predecessor of DC Comics.
During World War II, Kirby was drafted into the army. After being honorably discharged, he continued on his collaboration with Simon by doing work for numerous publishers. The majority of his work in the 50’s was for Atlas Comics, the predecessor of Marvel, and DC Comics. Interestingly enough, he and Simon would go on to create the romance comic genre with their series, Young Romance. During this period, Kirby did very few superhero comic books. It was deemed at this time that comic books, specifically the super hero genre, were poisonous to the impressionable minds of youths.
In the late 50’s Kirby returned to working solely for Atlas Comics. The publisher would soon after become what is known today as Marvel Comics. Kirby and writer/editor Stan Lee would resurrect the superhero genre of comics in 1961 with the launch of a brave new series, The Fantastic Four. According to legend, the series was formed when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman asked Stan Lee to create a super hero title akin to DC’s Justice League of America. Lee at the time was growing weary with the comics industry and hoped to find success in writing outside of comics. So when given the opportunity to create a new title, he decided to take a different approach to the superhero comic by giving characters unique personalities and human problems. As time went on, both Lee and Kirby would come to co-create the other famous Marvel characters such as: Thor, the X-men, Nick Fury, and the Avengers.
There exists controversy as to which one of the two deserves majority credit for creating these characters. This seems to stem primarily from the manner in which the pair would create comics. Lee would usually plot out the general story with its characters, give it to Kirby to draw, and finally Kirby would then return it to Lee in order to fill in word balloons with dialogue (this assembly line like method would later be called the Marvel Method). To put it simply, Lee would come up with an idea and then Kirby would give it life through drawing. This was the case for the majority of their comics, although some issues would have most of the premise thought up by Kirby, or sometimes he would create a character that he and Lee did not discuss prior.
Eventually, Kirby became dissatisfied with Marvel Comics for a variety of reasons. At the time, he was involved with the majority of the works being published. He would illustrate issues for some series, draw the cover of another, or have a hand in designing some new characters. Yet for all his work, Kirby felt that he was not getting enough compensation or the credit he deserved. He was also further agitated by the fact that his original art was not returned to him even after publication. After negotiating for some time he left for DC Comics in 1970.
During his time in DC that Kirby wrote what is arguably considered to be his magnum opus, “The Fourth World.” “The Fourth World” was not one single book, but four distinct books that were part of one over-arching epic-like saga. These books were: The New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. He originally began to get the ideas for a saga while still working at Marvel, but Kirby’s worsening relationship with the publisher made him decide to file away the characters until a later time. Unfortunately, the books were canceled, and Kirby was not able finish the saga the way he intended it to.
It was during the time of The Fourth World’s cancellation that Kirby created the characters Kamandi and Etrigan. He had hoped that he would only have to work on the first couple of issues, and new artists and writers would continue it. Though in the case of Etrigan, Kirby only wanted to design the character, but was asked by DC to do the debut issue to set the standards and tone of the new series. DC was pleased with the success of Etrigan, and asked him to stay on the book. Kirby spent the rest of his time in DC working on other titles he created such as OMAC.
Kirby returned to Marvel officially in 1976. He wrote and drew a bizarre 1984 like run of Captain America, and created a new sci-fi series called The Eternals. Later , he would work on a comic retelling and expansion of the film 2001: Space Odyssey, in addition to writing and drawing The Black Panther. Again he became dissatisfied with Marvel and left. He spent some time being a character designer for cartoon shows like Thundarr the Barbarian and The Fantastic Four. Kirby also had two creator owned series published by Pacific Comics called Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star.
In 1985 DC Comics published the graphic novel, The Hunger Dogs. The Hunger Dogs was meant to be the definitive ending to “The Fourth World”, but because Kirby wanted to have certain (to avoid any possible spoiler) unmentionable characters killed off, that could be used potentially in future stories, DC went in and heavily revised his work. Kirby was disappointed with the revised version, and upon its release, fans were too. After that Kirby would sporadically draw comics, and eventually died February 6, 1994 of heart failure.
In the very first issues of The Fantastic Four Kirby’s art was good, but not very distinctive. As time went on, his art style began to change noticeably, specifically in the later issues of The Fantastic Four, when characters like Galactus, the Inhumans, and The Silver Surfer began to appear. His art style was very dynamic, featuring action scenes and poses that seemed unrealistic yet at the same time gave off immense amounts of power and raw energy in an expressionistic manner. When it came to sci-fi related comics, Kirby’s art was spectacular and highly imaginative.
Jack Kirby was one of the most influential comic creators that has ever lived, and it is unfortunate that he is not given the recognition he rightfully deserves. Generations of comic creators have claimed that he was a monumental influence on their art or storytelling. Many older fans have thanked Kirby for making their childhood and adolescence such a wonderful experience, but sadly as time goes only a minority of new fans has become aware of his work. Now in the modern age, it is wonderful that Kirby’s work can be viewed and enjoyed primarily in the cinematic medium. Yet it is tragic that many fans are not aware of the creator of their favorite comic characters.