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.
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).
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.