Jack Kirby: A master of all genres

‘Kirby is here!’ His defection to DC Comics in 1970 was a huge coup for Marvel’s greatest rival.

We pay tribute to Jack Kirby, one of the greatest comic creators of all time, who died 20 years ago.

LAST Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the passing of Jack “The King” Kirby, one of the most influential comic creators of all time. If there were one person to rival or even surpass Stan “The Man” Lee’s stature, Kirby would be that man.

Born Jacob Kurtzberg on Aug 28, 1917, Kirby created almost 400 comic characters for a host of publishers. While his name and deeds will endure through major creations such as Captain America, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Hulk, the Avengers and X-Men, what truly defined him was his revolutionary approach to his work. From applying scientific concepts alien to daily life (cosmic rays, gamma rays, etc) to creating whole new worlds and locations (the Negative Zone, 4th World, Apokolips, etc), he was light-years ahead of many of his peers.

This week, we pay tribute to “King” Kirby by looking back at some of his career-defining moments.

On the ground: The legendary Jack Kirby at the San Diego Comic Convention in the United States in 1982. – Photo by ALAN LIGHT

Man of many names

Kirby’s comic contributions go beyond his Marvel days, though they were his most successful moments. He used a string of pseudonyms while working for other publishers – his first comic-book work was on Eisner & Iger’s Wild Boy Magazine, where he used the pseudonym Curt Davis.

He subsequently used several other pseudonyms (Fred Sande, Jack Curtiss, Ted Grey, Teddy, Lance Kirby) before finally settling for Jack Kirby because it reminded him of actor James Cagney.

Storyteller supreme

Romance, war, western, supernatural, fantasy, science fiction and super-powers – Kirby’s creative versatility was indisputable. From the Thing from Planet X to Fin Fang Foom, his uncanny ability to create life on paper irrespective of genre was a testament to the natural innovator in him.

While working on different genres, he also improvised and revolutionised drawing techniques – special mention goes to the “Kirby Dots”, his method for depicting energy fields.

During the 1980s, he also ventured into animation where he provided designs for Turbo Teen, Thundarr The Barbarian and the Fantastic Four cartoons.

Kirby was responsible for the creation of one of DC Comics’ greatest villains – Darkseid, who made his first appearance here, in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #134 (1970).

Pioneering romantic

Before cosmic and gamma rays, it was Cupid’s arrows and broken hearts for Kirby, as he and writer Joe Simon were credited with creating the romance comics genre.

After his return from serving in World War II, Kirby teamed up with Simon to create Young Romance #1 (October 1947), which was an instant success, selling more than a million copies monthly. It spawned an equally successful spin-off, Young Love, and inspired a host of imitators.

Courtesy of this romance-driven success is Kirby’s Long Island family home, which houses his infamous 3m-wide work studio aka “The Dungeon”.

Silver Age Marvel

While most of the credit for launching Marvel’s foray into the Silver Age has gone to Stan Lee, Kirby’s influence and contribution to the House of Ideas cannot be ignored.

Collectively, their creative fusion in the 1960s generated a continuous stream of groundbreaking characters, concepts and story arcs that form the foundation for today’s entertainment titans.

Without starting a “Who’s Better – Kirby or Lee?” debate, it’s best to acknowledge that both Kirby and Lee brought different strengths and dimensions to comics.

Kirby also created some of Marvel’s greatest villains, including Doctor Doom.

Kirby didn’t just create characters but also ensured they came in a total package – in a complete concept with all the nuts and bolts. Think Hulk with the military and gamma rays; and the Fantastic Four with science and cosmic rays.

Kirby’s influence at Marvel lasted a decade (1961 to 1970) where he determined the house style while designing characters and their visual motifs. Additionally, he also provided “breakdown” layouts to the company’s newcomers. In other words, it wouldn’t be politically wrong to rename the House of Ideas as the House of Jack’s Ideas!

As the legendary Gil Kane said in 1985: “Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company. It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field ...

“(Marvel took) Jack and used him as a primer. They would get artists and taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me ... It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.”

Nice pose, Cap – Captain America was originally co-created in the 1940s by Kirby and Joe Simon for Timely Comics – the predecessor of Marvel Comics.

Captain creator

The creation of Captain America predates the Marvel Universe – he was originally co-created in the 1940s by Kirby and Simon for Timely Comics, the predecessor of Marvel Comics.

Post-WW II, the appeal of superheroes at war declined and Timely decided to pull the plug on such publications. Timely’s successor, Atlas Comics, rebooted the Cap series in 1954, but in doing so replaced Kirby and Simon with Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. In retaliation, Kirby and Simon created a Cap-like hero called Fighting American, with the intention of portraying the “real” Captain America.

The situation was rectified when Kirby returned to Marvel and launched the Avengers, inducting Captain America into the team. While this sorted out Kirby’s issues with the character, it did not address Simon’s. Later, when Simon got involved in a legal wrangle over the ownership of Captain America with Marvel Comics (the successor to Atlas Comics) in the late 1960s, Kirby supported Marvel’s claim, much to Simon’s surprise.

Bad guy builder

It is more difficult to create a dastardly villain than a holier-than-thou hero. Kirby had a hand in creating some of the biggest and baddest villains in comics, including Doctor Doom, Galactus, Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the Red Skull, Darkseid, Skrulls, Surtur, and er ... Iron Man villain Wong Chu.

The classic story of Galactus’ arrival on Earth (Fantastic Four #48-#50) in particular is, for me, Kirby’s most defining piece of work. Until today, no other alien invasion (Secret Invasion was a C-grader to me) has generated that much suspense or excitement!

When he moved to DC, Kirby suffered the ignominy of having his work redrawn by other artists – in this case, the late Al Plastino, whose redrawn Superman is on the right.

Defection to DC

In 1970, Kirby did the unimaginable – he defected from Marvel to arch-rival DC Comics.

Before that, there had been several breaking points in the Kirby-Marvel relationship, with the artist feeling that he was unfairly treated, lacked full creative control, and saddled with unfavourable contract terms

While Kirby previously did work for DC in the mid-1950s (where he created the Challengers of the Unknown), his second homecoming was a different experience altogether.

At Marvel he was both creator and innovator, but at DC, there were already certain existing foundations and hierarchies in place. Nevertheless, Kirby still managed to make his mark via his Fourth World saga, which spawned the New Gods and Darkseid. Initially, these creations were not commercially successful but they have remained a significant part of today’s continuity.

Superman redrawn

The biggest insult to an artist is probably having his work redrawn by another artist, which is even worse when the replacement artist isn’t on par with the original artist. Surprisingly, this was the fate that befell Kirby when he moved to DC, as he found his Superman illustrations redrawn by past Man of Steel artists – the late Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson!

After being regarded as “The King” at Marvel, DC’s treatment of his talent smacked of disrespect. However, being the newcomer, he played along, but confided to his close friends (particularly Mark Evanier) that he was annoyed and mystified by the shabby treatment.

‘Kirby is here!’ His defection to DC Comics in 1970 was a huge coup for Marvel’s greatest rival.

Victory for Kirby

After a topsy-turvy relationship with Marvel that lasted decades, Kirby finally tasted victory in 1987, when the publishing house returned approximately 2,000 pages of the estimated 10,000 pieces of artwork Kirby had previously drawn for the company.

It was a double victory for Kirby as he also retained ownership of characters he created for Topps Comics in 1993, aka “The Kirbyverse”.

With Marvel finally succumbing to pressure from comics’ creators and the fan community, Kirby’s victory marked a significant victory for all creative talents and offered a new dimension in terms of character ownership rights.

Death of a legend

Kirby passed away on Feb 6, 1994 from heart failure, prompting an outpouring of tributes from the comic industry. Marvel posthumously published a “lost” Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four story in 2008, entitled Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure – which showcased unused pages Kirby initially drew for Fantastic Four #108 (March 1971). DC dedicated the 1998 Superman: The Animated Series episode Apokalips ... Now! Part 2 to his memory.

Beyond the Big Two, Dynamite Entertainment also embarked on a Kirby: Genesis miniseries in 2011, showcasing Kirby characters previously published by Pacific Comics and Topps Comics.

Twenty years after his death, his legacy continues to live on in countless comic books, movies and cartoons based on or influenced by his creations and his genius. Rest in peace, King Kirby.

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