Had he lived, Jack “King” Kirby, born 28th August 1917, would have been 100 this year. In advance of Lancaster Comics Day 2017, where Kirby’s work will be celebrated on a special panel, British comic artist (and Comics Day guest) Tim Perkins sings the praises of this great American comic artist, whose work was instrumental in inspiring him on his own career path…
Jack “King” Kirby was born in 1917, in the Lower East Side of New York City. Originally named Jacob Kurtzberg, he decided early on in his comics career that his name did not sound like a comic artist so changed his name to the one we are more familiar with nowadays.
One of the founding fathers of comics from the early days in the 1930s, Jack’s first work was at the Max Fleischer Studio, an animation company based at 1600, Broadway, near to Times Square New York, where he worked opaquing cels, before quickly moving up the creative ladder to clean-up work. The company produced the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons.
Back then, he lived with his parents in an area in Manhattan, New York called, The Bowery, which was certainly not the best part of town. Back when I was working at the Defiant offices, my colleague and buddy, Joe James, took me around to the area, as he knew I was a big Jack Kirby fan.
I had hoped to meet him one day, firstly at a UK Comic Art Convention in London where he was scheduled to be the Guest of Honour at and more especially when I was working in the US. It was not to be, but I have to point out here, as I have on other places on this and other websites that Jack’s work is the reason for me wanting to become a comic artist in the first place, from way back when I was at most eight years old.
My first memories of his wonderfully inventive work was on Marvel’s The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, The Uncanny X-Men and The Mighty Thor, although looking back on things now with hindsight I reckon I had seen a lot more of his work on DC Comics The Challengers of the Unknown and the like, due to seeing comics at my Uncle Bob’s house. It is for this reason that the examples I have included in this piece on Jack contain work, which I was actually around to see and was influenced by early on in my life and not his earlier work, which I saw later on.
By the time I was eleven and at high school, I had met my best friend Paul Roberts, with whom I shared a common, comics, and more importantly, Jack Kirby. It was when we first met that Jack became the helmsman on Superman’s Friend, The New Jimmy Olsen. His Whizz Wagon, DNAliens, Evil Factory and the mysterious guy in the background, manipulating events, Darkseid, my favourite villain of all time, had me hooked right from the off.
Jack’s first comic strip work was produced for Lincoln Features Syndicate. So prolific was he that he was asked to draw ever-increasing amounts of newspaper strip work, using different styles and under numerous pseudonyms such as, Brady, Lawrence, Jack Curtiss, Bob Brown, and Teddy.
In 1938,Jack began producing his first comic books. He began work at the Eisner-Iger shop, which packaged comic books for various publishers, some of which were overseas. It was around the same time as a very young Siegel and Schuster saw their Superman character appear in the first issue of Action Comics and superhero comics as we know them today were born. By this time Will Eisner was a comic veteran of two years(!), but the studio was a great place to learn. All the artists there swapped ideas, pointers and critiques of each other’s work. Will Eisner and Jack Kirby became known as the “innovators” of the form and in my opinion, rightly so.
For a short period Kirby was unable to find work but hearing Bob Kahn (Kane) had created a new character in the same mould as Superman, Batman, he went over to work for Victor Fox. Here he worked on numerous titles, but the money wasn’t great. It was here, however, that he met his first comics partner, Joe Simon. Blue Bolt #5 saw Jack adopt his now famous name of Jack Kirby, under the tag line of “by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby”.
The next step saw Jack and Joe create Captain America for Martin Goodman’s Timely (later to become Marvel Comics), after creating numerous other titles for the company. There was a pattern appearing with Jack and that was his prolific output of work.
On May 23rd 1942 Jack married Rosalind Goldstein. Whilst working on Captain America, he met Martin Goodman’s nephew Stanley Leiber, later to become Stan Lee.
Simon and Kirby next went to DC Comics and created such comics characters as Manhunter and Sandman, then the Boy Commandos. It was shortly after this that Jack entered World War Two. Upon his return to the United States, he again teamed up with Joe and they produced characters like Stuntman for Harvey Comics, the Boy Explorers and Captain 3-D.
At Hillman they worked on gangster stories for Real Clue Crime and My Date, a precursor to their romance comics. They next created Justice Traps the Guilty and Young Romance, the latter proving a hit. Black Magic followed, then The Strange World of your Dreams.
Again for Harvey they created Boy’s Ranch, a take on their earlier boys gang comics. Creating their own imprint Mainline, whilst the industry was suffering under the clamp down on comics by psychologists, who blamed the country’s juvenile delinquency on comics. There, Simon and Kirby created Foxhole, a war comic and Bullseye, a cowboy comic.
When the company went out of business in this oppressive atmosphere they took two remaining and unused titles to Harvey Comics, Insanity, a MAD immitation and Win a Prize, a game show type comic.
The pair then created Fighting American, a character as much a part of the 1950s as Captain America had been in the 1940s, with its Cold War bad guys and sensibilities.
Unfortunately, the timing was wrong with the resulting set-up of the Comics Code Authority and with many companies closing their doors for the final time, Joe Simon took an editing job with Harvey Comics and Jack found himself doing the rounds again, looking for work in New York.
He found it at DC with Challengers of the Unknown. In 1959, he produced Sky Masters of the Space Force, with inks by Wallace Wood, for the George Matthew Adams Syndicate. He then created The Double Life of Private Strong with Joe Simon and The Fly for Archie Comics. He did some work for Classic Illustrated as well during this time.
But with things going badly wrong for him on the Sky Masters strip and, as a result, with his route back to DC effectively shut behind him, he had no option but to return to Marvel where he produced numerous science fiction and monster books for them, with stories such as; “Homecoming: Year 3000”, “Prison 2000 AD”, “Fin Fang Foom”, “I created Sporr, The Thing that could not Die”, “Gorgolla, The Living Gargoyle”, “What was ‘X’, The Thing That Lived?”
There he also produced comics such as Rawhide Kid and Two-Gun Kid, but something special lay around the corner and jack was soon to come into his own. Martin Goodman came close to closing Marvel down, then had heard that DC had a hit on their hands with Justice League of America, so asked Stan Lee to come up with something… and the rest is history.
The Fantastic Four hit the stands in November 1961 and was followed by a whole slew of titles with characters such as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, The Uncanny X-Men, The Mighty Thor, the return of Captain America, Ant Man, Iron Man, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos, Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Not Brand Ecch, Daredevil, Ka-Zar, The Silver Surfer and characters such as the Inhumans, Galactus, Black Panther, Doctor Doom and many more, too numerous to mention here – more than enough to create a multi-billion dollar empire.
In early 1969 Jack and his family moved West to Southern California.
Despite such a huge inventory of characters and vast amounts of pages of artwork and plots and un-credited scripts (the dialogue was written on the margins of the pages on many cases along with what was going on in each panel) Jack was quite often referred to as the guy who drew the pictures to Stan Lee’s genius behind the comics. As time went on this became contentious for Jack, and when a new contract arrived in January 1970 with no raise, despite large profits for the company for his creations, no writing credits and no security and the fact that despite having created all this stuff the company could just fire as and when they saw fit, he got up and left.
Jack got off the phone with Marvel’s lawyers having told them he needed changes to the contract, which they refused to do, believing everything at Marvel had been created by Stan Lee and that they could get anyone to draw his wonderful stuff. He rang Carmine Infantino at DC and switched companies.
In 1970, when DC announced Jack Kirby is here the comic book world rumbled with the aftershock.
His first book was Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, to which he would add “the New” to the title, a trade off for producing his own work. He quickly wove the title into his Fourth World mythos and lay the foundations for the upcoming new war between the New Gods, following the death of the old gods. The concept could have been Marvel’s, but as he became more and more unsettled there he kept back more and more of his ideas, figuring he would use them somewhere else. The somewhere else did not appear for a while, but when it did his imagination let rip throughout the comic cosmos, just like within his stories.
Jimmy Olsen was quickly followed by The Forever People, New Gods and Mister Miracle and was Jack’s Fourth World saga. The stories, for me, are some of, if not his best ever work. Sadly, the series was ended abruptly when he was only a small way into his epic. The saga was told over the four books and had their own self-contained storylines, characters and subject matter.
Jack was contracted to produce lots of different types of books in different genres and formats and produced two short-lived, black and white magazine format periodicals, Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob, which only lasted one issue each, although two of each were prepared by jack at story and artwork stage.
The Fourth World books may have been too much too soon for some folks. Sales were supposedly not as good as anticipated, but were as good as and better than some of their other best selling titles.
For whatever reasons, Jack was contracted to produce 15 pages of story and art per week and so had to create new titles. He did this though Kamandi and The Demon, quickly followed by a series of First Issue specials, Atlas the Great, Manhunter, a return and reinvention of his earlier creation. Other titles included OMAC, The Dingbats of Street, Justice Inc., Our Fighting Forces, Kobra, The Losers and Sandman, the latter produced with Joe Simon on the first issue .
Also during this period, in my honest opinion, he also produced a piece intended originally for inclusion in Spirit World, but which ended up in Weird Mystery Tales #2: “Toxl The World Killer”, which to my mind is one of his finest ever stories.
He followed this prolific period with a return to Marvel, having seen no great shakes or changes with DC. There he returned to Captain America. He produced the adaptation and art for the large format, treasury edition, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he followed up with the 2001 A Space Odyssey comic using the basic premise, but enlarging upon the concept, something jack was brilliant at. Inside 2001 he created another long standing character Mister Machine, later to become known as Machine Man.
Other titles included another look at his gods on Earth themes: The Eternals, followed by a return to another earlier creation, The Black Panther, and his last creation in this final stint at Marvel, Devil Dinosaur. He drew more covers for most of Marvel titles during that period, including one of my favourite comics characters of all time, Conan the Barbarian, than you can find stars in the night sky. He also collaborated one last time with Stan Lee on The Silver Surfer.
He then went on to work in animation creating such characters as Thundarr the Barbarian. During this next period he would continue to produce comics, despite increasing eyesight trouble for such memorable titles as Captain Victory, Destroyer Duck, Silver Star, and a return to DC on Superman, Super Powers (starring his Fourth World concepts) and a final issue of New Gods, which lead to the creation of his New Gods graphic novel, The Hunger Dogs, which although never quite attaining the end for Jack’s ideas to the creator himself, and ending quite abruptly, tied up some loose ends at least.
Other creations from the Kirby blockbuster mind were Who’s Who? (a compendium of character profiles for the Fourth World saga), Super Powers II, Heroes Against Hunger, in which he had a pin-up, a cover for Last of the Viking Heroes for publisher Genesis West, and Bombast, Captain Glory, Night Glider, Satan’s Six and Phantom Force, published by Topps Comics.
You may be asking, what made Jack’s work different from the others, despite the wonderful artwork on display here?
Well, his work was so innovative and different that it or work of a similar vein is now known as “Kirby-esque”. There were the Kirby dynamics, which leap across ever page and stand proud and majestic amidst all the epic grandeur for starters.
There is his “Kirby Krackle” – those little black circles, which represent crackling energy fields. There is the limitless inventiveness, which roared across the cosmos within his pages and the comic book world – Jack would throw a dozen ideas into a single page, which maybe never got seen again. Then there is his clear non-nonsense storytelling, which guides the reader through any of his stories with absolute ease, even without word balloons, or in a foreign language. Most of all perhaps, is the power and limitless energy alongside that most human of traits, compassion for ones fellow men.
I haven’t even begun to dent the massive catalogue of work produced by Jack Kirby in his lifetime, but what I have tried to show you are highlights to his creative career.
Sadly, in 1994, whilst in the Defiant offices in New York I received a telephone call… It was quick and simple, could I tell everyone there at the office…Jack Kirby had died.
I was stunned. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him, it felt like someone close had gone. In a way, however, that thought was true. I had known Jack’s work since being a kid and although the dream of meeting him just to simply say thanks to the King of comics had passed, someone who I had known, albeit through his work, for almost thirty years at that point had gone.
His work however in its power, majesty and sheer volume remains the greatest testament and tribute to the man/ writer/ artist/ storyteller himself and makes him immortal.
I like to think Jack is up there somewhere, occasionally looking down from his drawing board and seeing us, his protégés, carrying on in the profession he helped to create and formulate for us, he smiles in the knowledge he did make a difference and he and his work will never be forgotten.
I would like to say a great big thank you to Randolph Hoppe and Jack’s daughter Lisa Kirby for allowing me to include Jack in the Hall of Fame on my Wizards Keep website.
I would like to say a very heartfelt thank you to Jack for his inspiration throughout the years. His wonderful work is THE single reason I wanted to become a comic artist, back when I was at most, eight years old.
• Lancaster Comics Day takes place on Sunday 11th June 2017. Join comics editor John Freeman, artist and publisher Tim Perkins and artist Nick Brokenshire in a celebration of Jack Kirby, along with many other guests including Roy of the Rovers artist David Sque and Doctor Who artist Richard Piers Rayner
More info: www.lancastercomicsday.uk. Tickets £5 on the door, £2 concessions (including students)
• The Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center: www.kirbymuseum.org
PO Box 5236 Hoboken, NJ 07030-1510 United States
The Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center is organized exclusively for educational purposes; more specifically, to promote and encourage the study, understanding, preservation and appreciation of the work of Jack Kirby by:
- illustrating the scope of Kirby’s multi-faceted career,
- communicating the stories, inspirations and influences of Jack Kirby,
- celebrating the life of Jack Kirby and his creations, and
- building understanding of comicbooks and comicbook creators.
To this end, the Museum will sponsor and otherwise support study, teaching, conferences, discussion groups, exhibitions, displays, publications and cinematic, theatrical or multimedia productions.
• Jack Kirby wrote and drew a number of Justice League Of America stories in the 1980s, in Super Powers comic. In all, three mini-series were published as the League battled against the forces of Darkseid. Available this month is Super Powers, a hardcover collection collecting Super Powers Volume 1 #1-5, Super Powers Volume 2 #1-6 and Super Powers Volume 3 #1-4
This post originally appeared on Tim’s Wizards Keep site and is reproduced here, slightly updated, with his kind permission
All art © respective creators/ companies