A beginner’s guide to the King Of Comics, Jack Kirby

A beginner’s guide to the King Of Comics, Jack Kirby

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby 101
As surely as Elvis Presley is the King Of Rock ’N’ Roll and Michael Jackson is the King Of Pop, Jack Kirby is the King Of Comics. Not that he ever aspired to such lofty heights. In fact, the notion that comics could be anything noble was an alien idea when the late Kirby (who would have turned 96 on August 28) broke into the nascent medium in the ’30s, brimming with energy and imagination. Any normal artist would have had those qualities beaten out of him by the grueling, low-paying, glory-free grind of the industry back then. Instead, Kirby flourished. Prolific and profoundly innovate, he fought through setbacks, market upheavals, and an egregious dearth of creators’ rights, yet emerged by the end of the century as the undisputed figurehead of a medium that had made billions off his work—and continues to do so with the successful franchising of his most popular co-creations: The Avengers, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, and the character that put Kirby on the map, Captain America.

Kirby was 22 and had already been experimenting for years with different genres and styles when he clicked with another young writer/cartoonist, Joe Simon, and the two men started collaborating, inventing characters first for Fox Feature Syndicate and then Timely Comics. It was for Timely that Simon and Kirby conceived Captain America, a super-soldier who began life as scrawny Steve Rogers, before volunteering to be injected with a serum intended to help the United States beat the Nazis in World War II. Kirby’s art was still raw back in 1940 when Captain America Comics #1 first appeared on newsstands, but the rudiments of the dynamic Kirby action pose—legs crouched, arms thrusting forward, pained expression on the face—was already in place, and he was already fiddling with page design by using irregularly shaped panels and having the characters sprawl beyond their borders.

Moreover, the Captain America stories had a focus and depth that had largely been lacking from Simon and Kirby’s earlier stabs at superheroes. Beginning with the drawing of Cap socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw on the first issue’s cover, these comics had a livewire energy and a sense of purpose, enhanced by Simon and Kirby’s immediate additions to the Captain America mythology: boy sidekick Bucky and the fiendish villain Red Skull. A lot of Golden Age superhero comics feel overly stiff, but Simon and Kirby’s Captain America comics have a casualness in the dialogue and a funkiness in the drawing. They’re assured and entertaining, and it would’ve been interesting to see what would’ve happened had Simon and Kirby stayed with the title beyond the first 10 issues. Instead, they decided to look for better-paying work elsewhere while they were still in demand.

After Simon and Kirby left Timely, they had a cup of coffee at National Comics (eventually renamed DC Comics), where they created the Boy Commandos and the Newsboy Legion, two super-teams that still pop up in DC continuity from time to time—both of which channel a lot of Kirby’s background as a scrappy New York street kid by spotlighting characters with rough edges and plenty of moxie. Then the partners left to fight in World War II, and though they returned to DC together after the war, they eventually grew apart and ventured off in different directions. By the end of the ’50s, Kirby was on his own, working as a freelancer. By that point he’d developed a more consistent style, with a blockier line, deeper shadows, and dramatic forced angles, and he applied that technique to some of the Silver Age adventures of DC’s Green Arrow, working with writers Dick and Dave Wood to move the character in more of a fantastical direction (and thus showing off his facility for drawing massive pieces of inexplicable technology). 

But Kirby and the Woods’ most significant collaboration—at least in terms of pointing the way toward where Kirby would make his name—was on the super-team Challengers Of The Unknown, which debuted in the anthology series Showcase #6, in 1957. Made up of four men with disparate talents but the same fearless derring-do, the Challengers tackled “anything out of this world,” and did so while teasing one another other about their particular quirks and habits. The early Challengers Of The Unknown stories are fast-paced to the point of being practically incomprehensible, and the team’s string of space-alien enemies are interchangeable. But Kirby’s art is bold and imaginative, taking some of the character design and scene-setting that he’d perfected with his romance and sci-fi comics and focusing them through the adventures of four heroes with a lot of personality. If circumstances had been different, Kirby might’ve drawn a hundred Challengers stories, working well into the ’60s, developing the characters’ mythology and bringing DC the reputation for innovation and sophistication that he was about to take elsewhere.

Instead, Kirby began working for Atlas Comics, a re-branded incarnation of Timely. Initially, he returned to the mix of fantasy, westerns, romance, and monster comics that had been his bread and butter for much of the ’50s. Then in 1961, shortly after the company had been renamed again—as Marvel Comics—Kirby worked with his editor Stan Lee to capitalize on the success that DC was having with its super-super-team, Justice League Of America. Marvel didn’t have a Superman, Batman, Flash, or Wonder Woman to throw together, so Kirby and Lee borrowed the core concept of Challengers Of The Unknown, and threw together four brave, engaging characters linked by circumstance. Only this time the team had super-powers, and Kirby was able to stay with these heroes—The Fantastic Four—for nearly 10 years. Given his first really big canvas to paint on, Kirby poured nearly everything he knew into stories about a makeshift family of accidental champions, consisting of the brainy, elastic Mr. Fantastic, the insecure Invisible Girl, the hotheaded teenaged Human Torch, and the lumpen brute The Thing. Fantastic Four comics had a cosmic dimension, but they were also about relationships and hurt feelings and life in New York City. They were Jack Kirby through and through.

What soon became Marvel’s house style—conflicted heroes, epic struggles, and a circus atmosphere—was laid out in the earliest issues of The Fantastic Four, though the series itself was fairly leaden in the early going, as Lee and Kirby fell back on Golden Age comics formulas. Then about three years into the run, the FF had their first encounter with the planet-eating Galactus and his tortured herald The Silver Surfer, and by the end of the ’60s the team was regularly beating down baddies from outer realms and innerspace, all while continuing to bicker among themselves and question their ongoing commitment to heroism. By the end of this stretch, Lee and Kirby had developed their own formulas, which everyone else in the industry would fall back on for the next 40 years.

The Fantastic Four was an immediate success, and Lee and Kirby scrambled to follow up, introducing a slew of new characters in the early ’60s who became among the most enduring and iconic superheroes of all time. Though Kirby worked on nearly all the major Marvel titles of that era, some of the biggest Marvel stars—Spider-Man, for example—thrived under other artists. But there are four characters/creations that Kirby essentially defined, working with Lee. Six months after the FF debuted, Marvel Comics published the first issue of The Incredible Hulk, imagining an uncontrollable monster as a superhero. Three months after that (in the same month that the first Spider-Man story appeared, in a comic with a Jack Kirby cover), Journey Into Mystery #83 introduced The Mighty Thor, connecting modern superheroics with the great mythological traditions. And then in September of 1963, Marvel launched two new team books: The X-Men and The Avengers, the former being about young, super-powered mutants tasked to protect a society that hates them; and the latter being Marvel’s actual answer to DC’s Justice League, putting many of the solo heroes that the company had introduced over the previous two years together in one book (and soon bringing back Captain America to lead them).

Between the FF, the Avengers, the X-Men, Hulk, and Thor, Kirby had outlets for stories about gods, geniuses, kids, street-smart hustlers, outcasts, idols, beauties, and beasts. And with Lee moving away from the old DC model of one-and-done stories, Kirby was able to develop his ideas over months and years, filling in the details of the Marvel Universe in a way he was never able to do with the ’40s Captain America or the ’50s Challengers Of the Unknown. The title Kirby worked on in the ’60s got better the longer he drew them (and co-plotted them, though it’s still an open question how much or how little Lee contributed to Kirby’s comics). His art grew in boldness and confidence with each new facet of himself he was allowed to reveal, until by the end of the decade he could turn a single oversized panel into the kind of vivid world that comics readers could gaze into for hours.

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Intermediate Work
Throughout the ’60s, Kirby had been pivotal in making Marvel a sensation, well on its way to becoming the cultural institution it is today. But the company increasingly mistreated him—central to that tension was Kirby’s escalating friction with Lee—so he officially left to join the ranks of Marvel’s main rival, DC Comics, in 1970. It was a defection on par with the dramatic reversals in the superhero epics he’d helped perfect, but Kirby didn’t let his real-life drama get in the way of putting new epics on the page. In fact, emboldened by the long creative leash DC had provided, he went even bigger: The Fourth World, which focuses on the struggles of the alien New Gods against Darkseid, a brooding villain cut from the same archetypal cloth George Lucas would soon use for Darth Vader.

Kirby envisioned The Fourth World as a sprawling saga that allowed him to more fully explore the cosmos-wide ideas he’d begun to touch on at Marvel with the superpowered race The Inhumans. But Kirby’s staggering innovation did more than stretch the canvas on which comics milieus could exist; by weaving a single background narrative throughout multiple titles (such as Mister Miracle, starring the Houdini-like main character), with The New Gods being the anchor series, The Fourth World paved the way (for better or worse) for the crossover events that rose to prominence over the next decade with DC’s Crisis On Infinite Earths and Marvel’s Secret Wars.

Kirby was breaking new ground, though, which makes The Fourth World as uneven in hindsight as it is exhilarating. Superman plays a key role at the start of the story, and Kirby never had the best grasp on the Man Of Steel, the character who had spurred him to create his own brightly dressed heroes four decades earlier. And the subpar inking by the controversial Vince Colletta—known for cutting corners and smoothing out Kirby’s angular intricacy—mars many of the chapters. On top of that, it went unfinished when Kirby left DC in 1976. Still, The Fourth World is the most grandly realized manifestation of Kirby’s boundless, mythic vision.

Kirby’s various work for DC and later Marvel throughout the ’70s ran a narrower gamut than his Golden Age and Silver Age work, but it still covered many bases. Hidden treasures abound, most notably in the surprisingly evocative, Tarzan-meets-Planet Of The Apes adventure of Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth; the resurrection of Sandman with his Golden Age writing partner, Joe Simon, which helped keep the name in the collective comics consciousness until Neil Gaiman took it and ran with it a decade later; the occult antiheroics of The Demon; Machine Man’s offbeat science fiction, which was spun off from Kirby’s licensed series based on 2001: A Space Odyssey; yet another return to Captain America; and even a brilliant run on Black Panther, a series starring his groundbreaking co-creation from the ’60s.

His major non-Fourth World work of the ’70s, though, was The Eternals. Begun upon his return to Marvel in 1976, it hit on themes that were becoming Kirby’s obsession: a pantheon of powerful, evolutionarily advanced beings who embody majesty, nobility, and the aspiration toward the divine—just as their foes, The Deviants, embodied destruction. Kirby attempted to replicate the scope and sweep of The Eternals and The Fourth World in the ’80s with the independently published Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers and in the ’90s with the Kirbyverse line released by Topps. Both had their merits—especially Captain Victory’s pulpy, Flash Gordon-esque zip—but Kirby, burned by the industry for so long, had shifted his concentration from comics to animation. His fight for recognition (and just remuneration) for his past work continued until his death in 1994 at the age of 76. By then, the King Of Comics had become his own kind of eternal.

Advanced Studies
As recently as two decades ago, comic-book fans were on their own when it came even to finding out what titles Kirby had worked on early in his career, let alone when it came to tracking them down. But as the comics archives market has boomed, enterprising publishers have busied themselves collecting the stories that Simon and Kirby worked on together both before the war and immediately afterward, before they split up and Kirby helped pioneer the Silver Age. The quality of these comics varies wildly, because the two men were cranking out stacks of pages every week, and not worrying too much about refining, since they had no expectation that anyone would care about them once they vanished from the newsstand at the end of the month. But they’re still fun to look at, and occasionally to read.

The easiest place to find the first 25 years or so of Kirby’s work is in the series of “Simon & Kirby Library” books that Titan has been releasing, which has included an overall “Best Of,” and then individual volumes dedicated to superheroes, science fiction, crime, and the complete run of the duo’s mid-’50s Captain America rip-off-turned-satire Fighting American, which is also included in full in The Simon & Kirby Superheroes. (Also scheduled to be released next year from Titan: a volume dedicated to Simon and Kirby’s horror comics.) The Fighting American comics are a must for Kirby fans, as they show him and Simon revamping a stale idea on the fly, taking their original commie-busting patriot concept and twisting it into an outrageous riff on red-baiting and square-jawed comic-book heroes.

Even better is Fantagraphics’ Young Romance: The Best Of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics, which covers nearly a decade’s worth of the mini-melodramas that the team wrote and drew for Crestwood Publications. The team did their best work before the Comics Code Authority started toning down the violence and sexual content of early-’50s comics—although the romance comics from the late ’50s remain interesting for how Kirby rendered Eisenhower-era placidity. Pre-CCA, though, the Simon and Kirby romance, crime, horror, and even superhero comics dealt with class conflict, egomania, and deceit, all of which would become core themes of Kirby’s Marvel years. And Kirby’s art was already solidifying in the ’50s, with deep shadows and a mix of characters from the glamorous to the lumpen. Simon and Kirby weren’t intending to mess with their readers’ expectations, but as they went through a series of experiments to create something new and vital and potentially lucrative, they simultaneously depicted a world of darkness and heavy emotion, inhabited by clean-looking people in pretty clothes.

The superhero work Kirby did for Marvel in the ’60s is considered some of the best that he—and the medium—ever produced, and rightly so. But throughout the Silver Age, he spread his talents tirelessly throughout many different genres, just as he did in the Golden Age before it. His partnership with Simon had dissolved, though, leaving Kirby to seek his fortunes with a wider variety of writers—Lee being only one of many. From the mid-’50s to the late ’60s, Kirby wandered from the superhero fold to work on a steady stream of solid, EC-esque horror, crime, war, and science-fiction comics. Of particular note are the monster comics he made with Lee for Marvel—which became increasingly inventive and delightfully absurd as they want along, up to and including cult favorites such as the dragonlike Fin Fang Foom. 

Miscellany
Early in Kirby’s career, he worked for Fleischer Studios as an in-betweener on Popeye cartoons, but he had more of an impact on animation in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when he was looking for a respite from comics and found people in the movie and TV industries who wanted to tap his skill at world-building. The ’60s Kirby made it to the world of cartoons via the limited-animation syndicated series The Marvel Super Heroes, but the closest anyone’s come to turning the ’70s Kirby into animation came via the pre-He-Man sword-and-sorcery adventure Thundarr The Barbarian (which also featured the behind-the-scenes talents of noted comics creators Alex Toth and Steve Gerber). The post-apocalyptic premise combines elements of Kirby’s Kamandi with Conan and Star Wars, making it a good sampler of the whole era’s geek culture.

Until somebody makes a movie out of Kirby’s life, the best look at Kirby’s showbiz years may be a sideways glance in last year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner Argo. The real movie script that the CIA uses in Argo as a cover for its extraction operation in Iran is based on a project Kirby worked on in Hollywood: an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel Lord Of Light, which was going to be spun off into a whole theme park, Science Fiction Land, with Kirby-influenced rides. There’s once scene in Argo where Ben Affleck’s character meets with a man who is, essentially, Kirby. The upcoming documentary Science Fiction Land—partially funded through Kickstarter last year—promises to get more into that whole project.

The Essentials
1. The Fantastic Four Omnibus, Volume 2
The 30 issues of Fantastic Four in the first hardcover Omnibus find Lee and Kirby introducing the heroes and ideas that would spark a revolution in comics in the 1960s, but it’s the stories in the second volume—due to be reprinted later this year—where the series really finds its stride, deepening the Earth-bound relationships between the characters while exploring the weirder reaches of the galaxy.  (For those on a budget, pick up Essential Fantastic Four volumes three through five, which cover the best of the Lee/Kirby era, albeit in black-and-white and on cheap newsprint.)

2. The Mighty Thor Omnibus, Volume 2
Lee and Kirby’s Thor stories got stronger the longer they worked on them. The comics in this second volume—which cover the era when Journey Into Mystery was finally officially renamed The Mighty Thor—combine tales inspired by actual Asgardian legends with freaky Kirby cosmic stuff, like the introduction of a sentient planet named Ego. Unlike the Dead End Kid dialogue of the FF’s The Thing, the golden-maned Thor talks as if he stepped out of an Elizabethan drama, giving the Lee/Kirby Thor a more classically epic feel than the pulpier Fantastic Four. (These stories are also available more cheaply, in Essential Thor volumes two and three.)

3. Young Romance: The Best Of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics
For about a decade, Simon and Kirby pumped out “true confessions”-style stories about lovelorn women and the desperate lengths to which they would go to land a husband. Simon had a knack for tangled melodrama set in very specific milieus, while Kirby drew ordinary men and women with the same sweaty fervor that he lent to monsters and costumed do-gooders. Unlike most of the pre-Marvel Kirby work, the comics in this book aren’t just of minor historical interest; they’re genuinely entertaining and artful, and in some ways more readable than Simon and Kirby’s adventure stories. 

4. Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume 1
Kirby’s Fourth World opus had been collected prior the Omnibus series, but the core titles New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People had been disjointedly broken down into separate volumes. But the first of the four beautifully produced volumes of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus gets it right—by collating issues from these various original series, interspersing them with vital installments of the saga from the pages of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. In doing so, it represents Kirby at his most dazzlingly imaginative and rambunctiously ambitious.

5. Kirby: King Of Comics
Written by comics scribe and longtime Kirby champion Mark Evanier, Kirby: King Of Comics is a biography of Kirby—but it’s so much more. Full of stunning artwork, hard-to-find comics stories (including “Street Code,” a privately commissioned, poignantly autobiographical story Kirby drew in 1983), plus deep insight into every facet of Kirby’s life and career from the Golden Age forward, King Of Comics is one of the rare cultural biographies that’s transcended its author and become an indispensible part of its subject’s canon.

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