The comic genius of Jack Kirby
Geeks rule the world these days, but who built that world? If you look to the history of comic books and popular culture, one name is increasingly standing out: comic artist, writer, and editor Jack Kirby.
Kirby co-created the title character of the upcoming film “Captain America: Civil War,” in addition to many of the movie’s other characters, such as Bucky Barnes, the Black Panther, and Ant-Man. As the foundational artist of the Marvel Universe, Kirby co-created the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Thor, and the X-Men, who feature in multiple movie studios and TV shows. He created DC’s Fourth World characters, including Darkseid, who was heavily foreshadowed in last month’s “Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice.” Almost all action franchises since the 1960s show signs of Kirby’s influence, especially “Star Wars.”
Little wonder that when discussing comic book art — especially art that’s so energetic it feels like it’s coming right off the page — it’s common to hear the compliment “Kirby-esque.” Year after year, popular culture has become more Kirby-esque, too.
Kirby, known for his distinctive and vibrant depictions of violence, was no stranger to real-life violence. Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917 on New York’s Lower East Side, he grew up poor and surrounded by gangs. By necessity, young Kirby learned how to fight. As an adult, he served in World War II and was present at the liberation of concentration camps. When Kirby invented personifications of evil such as Nazi super soldier the Red Skull and fascist god Darkseid, he knew exactly what he was talking about. One of the most famous Kirby covers is the first Captain America book in 1941, which shows Cap punching Hitler in the face.
Kirby is best known for co-creating Marvel’s most successful heroes and villains in the 1960s, but he was both a groundbreaker and workhorse from the 1930s until his death in 1994. He worked in every conceivable genre, including sci-fi, crime, westerns, and war comics. He even gave creator-owned comics a shot in the arm with Captain Victory in the 1980s. It’s fitting that Kirby (along with Captain America co-creator Joe Simon) is considered the inventor of romance comics, since Kirby and his wife, Roz, were married in 1942 and stayed together till his death in 1994. Even more than a pencil, Roz was Kirby’s constant companion, and they had four children together.
Jack Kirby would have been a giant even if he’d stuck only to drawing. But thanks to an innovative new process for creating comic books pioneered at Marvel, Kirby found himself doing far more than coloring between the lines.
As comic books spread to mass markets, the folks at Marvel had more work than they could handle. Titles proliferated — Daredevil, Dr. Strange, The Avengers, The X-Men, and many others. Meanwhile, writer Stan Lee didn’t have time to use the traditional (and still dominant) full-script method, in which a writer meticulously dictates the story, page by page and panel by panel.
Instead, Lee would come up with a loose plot, and the artist (usually Kirby or Steve Ditko) would imagine and illustrate the details — taking the skeleton of an idea and layering it with flesh and blood. The writer would later return to fill in dialogue — in essence giving voice to characters who found themselves living in Kirby’s worlds.
Comic book artist and writer Walter Simonson has been an admirer of Marvel style and Kirby since the 1960s. Simonson says the Marvel process takes full advantage of the artist’s visual storytelling abilities. More thought goes into creating a “visual flow” through panel and page design. As Simonson puts it, “Everything will tell the story.” It’s also like “working without a net,” in that the artist doesn’t have a detailed script to fall back on.
That freedom allowed Kirby to contribute not only new visual perspectives but also new characters. Kirby dreamed up the idea of the character Silver Surfer and threw him into an issue of the Fantastic Four much to the surprise of writer Stan Lee.
This is typical of what Simonson calls the “dance” between writer and artist involved in Marvel style. “There was something about their [Kirby and Lee’s] dance, however they did it, that just made great comics,” he says. “The work that they did is one of the essential reasons that I’m in comics now.”
With Marvel reinventing the genre, superheroes suddenly became more than just good guys punching out jewel thieves. Comics began to travel the universe — from the mythological realm of Asgard to other dimensions such as the Negative Zone, whose weirdness Kirby portrayed in trippy photo collages. Charles Hatfield — who wrote “Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby” and curated Comic Book Apocalypse, a Kirby art show at California State University Northridge — says the artist’s influence on comics involved creating a new way of visual storytelling motivated by a “desire for maximum impact.”
Kirby’s best Marvel work — in Fantastic Four and Thor — had a grandeur and scope never before seen in comics. As Hatfield puts it, in those stories, “he’s not just firing on all cylinders, but he’s inventing new cylinders.”
Michel Fiffe, who writes, illustrates, and publishes the comic Copra, says Kirby shaped several generations of the comic book language. “His style is largely defined by power and bombast, but there’s just as much grace and elegance in his work,” Fiffe says in an e-mail. “As a kid, I was simply attracted to the way his material looked. Over the course of my own development, though, being inspired by Kirby’s genius vision, I’ve been profoundly moved to work hard, to honor the creative spirit, and to not identify the two as mutually exclusive.”
For Kirby, the need to feed a family on an artist’s meager salary produced some superhuman results. In the early ’60s, Kirby was so important to Marvel that he did rough layouts — laying down a foundation for other writers to fill out — for several comics a month while penciling several others. Because of the Marvel process, this involved writing and idea generation as well. But even when he was overloaded, “he manages to be prolific while being interesting almost all the time,” Hatfield says.
In fact, Kirby couldn’t help innovating, even when it was unnecessary. For example, when he was drawing Odin for various 1960s Thor stories, the ornamental, extravagant headgear of the Scandinavian all-father changes from panel to panel. Tom Scioli — writer and artist of American Barbarian and Transformers vs. G.I. Joe — said, “It’s incredibly hard to design something like that, but Kirby would rather design something totally new than have to draw the same thing again from a slightly different angle.” Scioli thinks Kirby was “propelled by the fight against boredom.”
Wild inventiveness comes up again and again in relation to Kirby. Simonson praised Kirby’s innovations in everything from gesture to perspective to spaceship design: “They were so far beyond what anybody else was doing at that time.” As Simonson says, “Nothing else looked as interesting” and Kirby’s art was “always dramatic, always full of spark, full of energy.”
Bringing that “sense of energy and life into the work” was one lesson Simonson learned from Kirby. Another was that “You could do anything as long as you kept a straight face.” John Morrow, publisher at TwoMorrows Publishing and editor of “Jack Kirby Collector” magazine, says in an e-mail that “Kirby was fearless about generating ideas that most people would’ve tossed aside, thinking they were too odd or too far out-there. Jack instead embraced their originality and built them into franchises and universes, with such an earnest conviction to his work, that people bought what he was selling them, without questioning if it made sense.”
When you start looking for the Kirby-esque in pop culture, you can find it almost anywhere. Kirby’s influence is “ever-present, even if the general public isn’t (quite yet) fully aware of it,” says Morrow. “Go on Netflix, Amazon, in a Target store, or just look at what people are wearing walking down the street. Jack is there, all around, in big and small ways.”
One big way is Kirby’s influence on “Star Wars.” Darth Vader bears quite a resemblance to two Kirby characters: Darkseid and Dr. Doom, while the idea of a hero being the secret son of the bad guy comes straight from Orion and Darkseid, the original Luke Skywalker and Vader. Kirby’s New Gods stories also included a mysterious power called “the source,” which sounds suspiciously like the force.
As for the Kirby influence on “Star Wars,” Morrow says, “It’s there, without a doubt. There are just too many parallels in the basic narrative, and Jack was so influential with his comics work during the time leading up to that film’s production, that I don’t see how it could NOT have been an influence.” Tom Scioli calls “The Pact” and “Himon” — two high points of Kirby’s 1970s DC work — “proto Star Wars,” describing them as “pure world-building” that “exploded from the page.”
Kirby’s work also taps into the timeless patterns of mythology. Whether he was reinventing the Norse gods in Thor, co-creating the Marvel superheroes, or making up his own New Gods for DC, Kirby had a talent for building sci-fi pantheons. Morrow looks to Kirby’s biography as partial explanation: “In interviews, Jack would talk about how, as a kid, his relatives would tell tales from the Old Country, of demons and monsters and all sorts of supernatural themes. And we know that, as a teenager (and even into adulthood), he absorbed so much sci-fi through the pulps. We also know he was well-read in areas of classic mythology.”
Kirby merged those interests graphically by blending mythology and science fiction in ways that made them feel interconnected and enormous. By creating sci-fi pantheons like the New Gods and the Eternals, Kirby brought a sense of wonderment to comics that was lacking. At the same time Kirby and Lee were creating the Fantastic Four, DC’s Justice League frequently encountered aliens, but such meetings were routine — just another day at the office. When the Fantastic Four encounter Galactus — a planet-eating cosmic being — it legitimately feels like the world is ending. As Hatfield puts it, Kirby was a master at showing what it’s like “being a small person confronted by giant things.”
Some of Kirby’s mythic sci-fi art — designed for an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel “Lord of Light” — actually ended up saving lives. The illustrations were used to make a fake sci-fi movie seem real and free Iranian hostages from Iran, as portrayed in the movie “Argo.” Making the impossible feel real was Kirby’s specialty.
In 2014, Marvel settled a lawsuit with Kirby’s heirs, allowing his family to see financial rewards that Kirby himself couldn’t have imagined. Today, Marvel is acknowledging his work more than ever, including a recent tribute to Kirby’s early ’60s monster comics.
It’s likely that more art exhibits of his work will appear, along with more articles like a recent piece in Art in America and more books such as “The Marvel Legacy of Jack Kirby,” plus ongoing appreciation in Jack Kirby Collector and the online Jack Kirby Museum.
Meanwhile, Kirby’s characters will continue to thrive in “Captain America: Civil War” and future movies, TV shows, comics, games, toys, clothes, and other products, but you can see the Kirby influence anywhere you see work that is, as Morrow puts it, “Bombastic. Larger-than-life. Never-before-seen. . . . No one else in comics drew or thought the way he did, and that to me is what makes his work timeless.”