Jack "The King" Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg; August 28, 1917 - February 6, 1994) was one of the most pioneering comic creators of all time. Proficient in every stage of the creation process, he was responsible for creating dozens of unique characters for both Marvel and DC Comics. One of Kirby's most enduring contributions is the mythology of the New Gods (commonly referred to as the Fourth World).
Kirby was born to Austrian Jewish immigrants. He developed an interest in drawing at an early age. He was mostly self-taught as an artist, having started by studying newspaper artwork from comic strip artists and political cartoonists. He cited among his main influences comic strip artists Milton Caniff (1907-1988), Hal Foster (1892-1982), and Alex Raymond (1909-1956), who were all pioneers of the adventure genre in comic strips. His professional name "Jack Kirby" was possibly chosen in reference to Rollin Kirby (1875-1952), an influential political cartoonist who won three Pulitzer Prizes in the 1920s.
A 14-year-old Kirby enrolled in Pratt Institute, a prestigious school for illustrators, but quit early. According to Kirby, his personal philosophy did not agree with that of the school. He was interested in producing quantities of artwork at a rapid rate and "get things done", while the Institute taught students to devote large amounts of time to a single piece of artwork. See Also Jack Kirby's Biography at the Marvel Database Wikia.
After publishing a few works in outlets for amateur artists, Kirby entered the world of professional cartooning in 1936. He was hired by the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate to work on comic strips and advice cartoons. He stayed there until 1939. He then briefly joined the field of animation and was hired by the Fleischer Studios. He worked as an in-betweener in animated shorts, drawing intermediate frames between two images to give the appearance that the first image evolves smoothly into the second image. He quit after a short period, feeling dissatisfied with the factory-like conditions at Fleischer.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the comic book medium was taking off and there were many available positions for writers and artists interested in working in the medium. Kirby soon joined the staff at the Eisner and Iger Studio, working under co-founders Will Eisner and Jerry Iger. The Studio was one of a number of pioneering companies selling completed comic book stories and artwork to the fledgling publishing companies of the time. Under various pseudonyms, Kirby contributed artwork to series in various genres, including humor, science fiction, swashbucklers, and Westerns.
The Eisner and Iger Studio dissolved for uncertain reasons by 1940. By that time comic book publishing companies were starting to hire writers and artists directly instead of simply buying stories. Kirby found work at one of the publishers of the time, Fox Features Syndicate. Kirby's first superhero stories were Blue Beetle stories. He was not credited as an artist, the credit going to the non-existent "Charles Nicholas".
While working at Fox, Kirby was acquainted with Joe Simon. Simon was producing stories for various publishers and had recently created a superhero called Blue Bolt for Novelty Press. He had seeking for a partner to work on the second issue of Blue Bolt and was impressed enough with Kirby's work to offer him the partnership. Kirby accepted and the duo ended up working together for the following decades.
Simon was soon hired as an editor for Timely Comics (later renamed to Marvel Comics) and was also interested in contributing stories. He had the idea for a new patriotic superhero and managed to convince Timely publisher Martin Goodman that the new hero would work as the star of a solo comic book. This was at the time rare, since most comic book characters were featured in anthology titles. Once securing a publisher, Simon asked Kirby to join him in working on the character. The new character was called Captain America and debuted in 1941. Despite its strong similarities to an earlier MLJ Comics character called The Shield, Captain America became the most successful of the two characters and the fist two issues of his title were major best sellers of the comic book medium. This helped establish co-creators Simon and Kirby among the most famous comic creators of the time.
Despite the commercial success of Captain America, Kirby was not paid more than the average comic book artist of the time: 75 dollars per week. He and Simon continued working on the Captain America series until issue #10 while secretly negotiating a deal with another publisher. An early incarnation of DC Comics was offering them a combined weekly salary of 500 dollars if they switched publishers. The switch was formalized by 1942.
At first DC was uncertain on what work to assign Simon and Kirby. After a few minor assignments, they were asked to contribute their own story ideas. The duo soon took over the already established Sandman series featured in Adventure Comics and revamped the character. They also created a new version of the Manhunter, this time as a superhero. Kirby and Simon wanted to name the character "Rick Nelson", but the editor changed the name to "Paul Kirk", essentially naming him after an earlier character called Paul Kirk, Manhunter.
Simon and Kirby found more success with a non-superhero idea. They created the Boy Commandos, a combination of the "kid gang" concept that was already established in comic books with a then-modern war setting. The Commandos soon became one of the most popular DC series of their time, graduated to their own title, and reportedly sold "over a million copies each month". In their heyday, the commandos were the third highest selling characters DC had in its stable. Only Superman and Batman actually sold more.
Besides the Boy Commandos, Simon and Kirby co-created another "kid gang" for DC: the Newsboy Legion. While never as popular as the Commandos, they became the feature characters of Star-Spangled Comics and were considered a hit in their own right.
Kirby's comic book career had to be put in hiatus in 1943, when he was drafted into the United States Army. While he never took part in any major battle, he was deployed in the European theatre of World War II in 1944. Following the Invasion of Normandy, Kirby was tasked with drawing reconnaissance maps and images of areas the Army was considering to occupy. He was effectively a military scout and reconnaissance agent and his work put him at risk. A case of severe frostbite in the winter of 1944-1945 resulted in his hospitalization. There were fears that his feet would have to be amputated for him to survive, though he managed to recover with no amputation necessary. He was discharged from the Army in July, 1945, having been awarded medals for his service.
Following his discharge from the Army, Kirby was reunited with Simon. Simon had spend the majority of the War serving in the United States Coast Guard. They were both looking for a way to return to comic book work, though their old jobs at DC had been taken by other creators. They spend the next several years working for Harvey Comics. For Harvey, the duo created some original characters such, as the superheroes Stuntman (1946) and Captain 3-D (1953). However, these characters were not as popular as their earlier creations.
Besides their relatively steady work for Harvey, Simon and Kirby freelanced for other publishers. Their employers of the time included publishers such as Crestwood Publications and Hillman Periodicals. For Crestwood, Simon and Kirby created one of their greatest hits: Young Romance, the first of the romance comics. At the time traditional comic book genres such as superheroes were in decline and publishers and creators were looking for new ideas. Simon and Kirby noticed that romance magazines of the 1940s sold well and had the idea of adapting the genre to comic books. It worked far better than expected. Young Romance and its spin-off series Young Love continued to sell millions of copies for years.
Due to the "follow the leader" mentality of comic book publishers of the time, other publishers soon published their own romance comics. Though few managed to successfully compete with the Simon and Kirby created titles, who were considered better in quality than most of their imitators. The success had an effect in the lives of the duo. Simon and Kirby had negotiated a contract which earned them a large percentage from the profits. Kirby earned more money than ever before and was able to purchase a new home for his family.
In 1953-1954, Simon and Kirby were annoyed to find out that Atlas Comics (the then-current name of Marvel Comics) was reviving Captain America. They had never asked for any input from Simon and Kirby to do this, nor offered to rehire them. Seeking for a way to outdo their old creation, the duo created a new superhero called Fighting American (1954) for Crestwood Publications. At first conceived as a serious 1950s take on the old patriotic hero concept, Fighting American's series soon became largely satirical. It never sold well and did not last long, though it has left enough of a mark in the comic book medium to be constantly reprinted and occasionally revived from a relatively high number of publishers.
In late 1953-1954, Simon and Kirby founded their own comic book publishing company: Mainline Publications. At the time the comic book industry was under attack by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (1895-1981) and politician Estes Kefauver (1903-1963). Many of the older comic book publishers were affected by the controversy and the resulting drop in sales, either getting out of the business or reducing their output. There was still a high demand for new material and Mainline Publications hoped to fill the void left by the demise of the older publishers.
Simon and Kirby's plans for their company turned out to be too optimistic. They published only four titles, all in established genres. They were "Bullseye: Western Scout" (a Western), "Foxhole" (a war comic), "In Love" (a romance comic), and "Police Trap" (a crime comic). None of them was a great success in sales, but they were noticed by Wertham who used them as exhibits of comic book "filth". At the same time, Simon and Kirby entered into a complex legal battle with Crestwood Publications. They claimed their former employer owed them at least 130,000 dollars, but the case was settled out of court with the payment of only 10,000 dollars. It was not not enough to solve ongoing financial problems for Mainline Publications, which closed in 1956.
The partnership of Simon and Kirby did not survive the demise of their company. Simon was considering leaving the comic book medium altogether and seek employment as an advertising artist, but Kirby wanted to keep working in his original medium. They parted amiably. Several of the unpublished material for Mainline Publications was sold to Charlton Comics. Kirby was left with an unused idea for a new team of adventurers. He would continue developing the idea over the following year, and eventually sell it to DC Comics. It was the the earliest incarnation of Challengers of the Unknown, though Kirby did not stay with DC long enough to further develop it.
From 1956 to 1958, Kirby was producing freelance work for DC Comics and Atlas Comics (Marvel Comics), mostly as a writer and penciller, and occasionally as an inker. He contributed stories for characters such as the Green Arrow and the Yellow Claw, though he did not create any major characters of his own. His take on Green Arrow was considered controversial, as Kirby included more science-fiction themes in the stories and was trying to revamp the character. Green Arrow co-creator Mort Weisinger reportedly hated Kirby's concept for the character.
In addition to comic books, Kirby co-created a comic strip called "Sky Masters of the Space Force" (1958). It was a science fiction comic book set in the near-future. It was a minor hit but got Kirby in a legal dispute with Jack Schiff, editor of DC. Schiff had helped bring Kirby in contact with his collaborators for the comic strip. He claimed that Kirby owed him a share of the strip's profits. The matter was settled in court and Schiff won the trial. This helped severe Kirby's relations with DC and he in time quit the comic strip as well.
In late 1958, Kirby started producing more work for Atlas Comics (Marvel Comics). For various reasons Atlas had lost much of its creative personnel and there was a need for the remaining staff to increase its productivity. Kirby decided he could use some extra money and started mass producing art for Atlas. He became arguably the most prolific artist of the company, with his artwork appearing in almost any ongoing title. His best-remembered production from this time involved anthology stories for Atlas' series of supernatural-fantasy and science fiction titles. They were minor hits of their time and considered classics by later Marvel artists and readers. Most of his creations were supposed to be one-shot characters, but some of his characters have been revived and have made appearances in several works by other creators. They include characters such as Fin Fang Foom, Groot, and Grottu.
Kirby still did not work exclusively for Atlas. He collaborated with Joe Simon to create two more superheroes for Archie Comics. They were the Fly (1959) and a new incarnation of the Shield, called Lancelot Strong (1959). He also worked for the "Classics Illustrated" comic book series by The Gilberton Company, Inc. .
In 1961, Atlas/Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee wanted to create a new superhero team to compete with DC's Justice League of America, which was turning out to be a hit. He decided to collaborate with Kirby in creating the team, the result being the Fantastic Four. For the first story of the new team, Lee created a synopsis of what he wanted the story to be like. Kirby then incorporated his own ideas and drew the whole story. Then Lee added his own dialogue to the finished artwork and narrative captions. The finished story was then offered for further inking, coloring, and eventual publication. This was the so-called "Marvel Method" of producing stories, where both co-creators had considerable influence on what was being created.
In later years, both Kirby and Lee would argue over who was the true creator of the Fantastic Four and the driving force behind the series. They both claimed that they came up with most of the concepts and that their collaborator only added relatively insignificant details. A number of comic book historians have tried to determine which version was true, though no definite evidence can be produced. Historian Mark Evanier, who has written a biography of Kirby, has argued that none of the two versions were true. He has argued that the two men were equal collaborators and that the credit for the series belongs to both of them.
The Fantastic Four title became a commercial hit and Kirby was its main artist for the first 102 issues (November, 1961-September, 1970). Atlas/Marvel soon launched a new line of titles, with Kirby serving as an artist for most of them. Besides contributing artwork and plots, Kirby was asked to train other Marvel artists in how to draw the characters. He provided "breakdown" layouts and the other artists would learn to draw based on them. Before long, Kirby's style had become Marvel's new house style. This did not prevent his personal style from further evolving by incorporating new drawing techniques and other experiments.
In the 1960s, Kirby created or co-created hundreds of major and minor characters for Marvel Comics. Among his major creations were Doctor Doom (1962), the Hulk (1962), Thor (1962), Iron Man (1963), Magneto (1963), Uatu the Watcher (1963), the original X-Men (1963), the Inhumans (1965), the Black Panther (1966), Ego the Living Planet (1966), Galactus (1966), and the Silver Surfer (1966). For some of them he only contributed their debut stories, for others entire runs of featured stories. He also helped revive older characters, such as Captain America, Namor, and Ka-Zar (who was given an entirely different setting and backstory).
By the early 1970s, Kirby felt increasingly dissatisfied with his working relationship with Marvel. He was paid much better than before, earning about 35,000 dollars per year. But he felt that he was not given adequate credit for his own creations, that his plot contributions went mostly uncredited, and that Marvel was earning much more money from characters that he had created. He consequently left Marvel. He was hired by DC Comics, as the result of a deal with editorial director Carmine Infantino.
Kirby's contract with DC, produced in 1970, gave him essentially a free reign as writer and penciller in whatever title he worked on. He soon worked in four inter-connected titles. They were the already established (but low-selling) title Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen (which had no one assigned to it so Kirby could take it over without having someone lose their job) and the new titles New Gods, Mister Miracle, and the Forever People. The concept of the titles became known as Jack Kirby's Fourth World.
The idea for the so-called New Gods had reportedly come to Kirby a few years earlier, while he was working on the "Tales of Asgard" sub-series for Marvel's "Thor" title. He wanted to produce a story about two planets at war with each other and the grand finale would be the Ragnarok ("Twilight of the Gods"), the battle that ends the gods at the finale of Norse mythology. Marvel never allowed him to work on such a story, DC on the other hand did. Kirby came up with the idea of the New Gods born out of the death of the old ones. He soon developed an entirely new mythology for his creations, combining disparate ideas from multiple sources. The scope was epic.
Kirby at first intended to tell a finite story about the New Gods. It would have a start, several chapters, and a definite conclusion. But the titles initially sold too well and DC argued against the idea, wanting the tales to continue indefinitely. Kirby was forced to compromise and the story continued, though sales soon dropped. "New Gods" and the Forever people were cancelled in 1972. Mister Miracle continued under Kirby until 1974, though the stories became a bit more conventional.
Though Kirby's take on the New Gods and associated characters was considered a bit too weird for mainstream comics, DC never completely lost interest in the characters. They were revived by later creators, reused for decades, and a few like Darkseid went on to play prominent roles in the wider DC multiverse. Meanwhile Kirby went on to work in other series.
The other 1970s DC characters created or co-created by Kirby included Etrigan the Demon (1972), Kamandi (1972), OMAC (1974), a new version of Sandman (1974), Atlas (1975), a new version of Manhunter (1975), the Dingbats of Danger Street (1975) and Kobra (1976). All these characters were considered as series protagonists, and some of them did receive their own title. However, none of them enjoyed long-term success.
In 1975, Marvel Comics announced that Kirby would return to work with them. He was soon producing new runs as sole writer and penciller of "Black Panther" and "Captain America". His most enduring work, however, was in the creation of new series and characters. His best known work was "The Eternals" (1976-1978), a 19-issue series about immortal gods active on modern Earth. It was very similar in concept to the New Gods. The human-looking gods were called Eternals, their demonic looking counterparts were the Deviants, and they were both inferior to the mysterious space gods called the Celestials. The series was never a best-seller but has its dedicated fans. The characters and concepts have been incorporated to the wider Marvel multiverse, with several other creators adding to them over the decades.
Somewhat less ambitious were the rest of the Kirby creations of the 1970s for Marvel. They included Machine Man (1977) and Devil Dinosaur (1978). Each held its own short-lived series, but enduring success eludes them. They still have enough fans to warrant several revivals over the following decades.
Kirby left Marvel in 1978 to return to the field of animation, after an absence of nearly 40 years. He spend much of the late 1970s and 1980s working on television animated series such as "Thundarr the Barbarian" and "The Centurions". Futhermore, Kirby found the experience much more satisfying considering he was in a senior creative post as production designer and worked with young employees who did the more laborious work of animation and treated him with far more respect than in the comic book industry.
Never satisfied with his lack of creative control over his older creations, Kirby briefly returned to comic books with the creator-owned series "Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers" (1981-1984). It was intended as his own sequel to the New Gods. The title character, Captain Victory, was implied to be the son and heir of Orion. His supposed grandfather "Blackmaas" was a look-alike of Darkseid.
In the mid-1980s, when the Kenner toy company judged his New Gods villains like Darkseid ideal antagonists for the Super Powers Collection toyline, DC asked Kirby to design the action figure versions for character. He received royalties for the use of his character designs, the only time he was so compensated. He also returned to his characters in the DC graphic novel called The Hunger Dogs!.
In the early 1990s, Kirby licensed his creator owned-characters to Topps Comics. Existing characters and unused Kirby-produced concepts from earlier decades were used for the so-called Kirbyverse line of comic books. Kirby himself did not contribute new work to Topps. He attempted to make a comeback to the comic book medium with a comic book series called "Phantom Force", but died in 1994 before its publication.
Some of Kirby's unpublished work has seen posthumous publication. His creator-owned characters were inherited by his family and have continued to appear in new works by various publishers. The Kirby family has repeatedly attempted to claim partial ownership over Jack Kirby's Marvel creations, though their legal efforts have so far been unsuccessful. The Kirby family has not disputed the ownership of his DC creations.
- Jack Kirby/Editor
- Jack Kirby/Writer
- Jack Kirby/Penciler
- Jack Kirby/Inker
- Jack Kirby/Cover Artist
- Jack Kirby/Colourist
- Jack Kirby/Letterer
- Jack Kirby/Creations
- Jack Kirby's Images as a Penciler
- Jack Kirby's Images as an Inker
- Jack Kirby's Images as a Cover Artist
- Jack Kirby's Images as a Letterer
Links and References
- Wikipedia's article on Jack Kirby
- Don Markstein's toonopedia provides articles on Jack Kirby creations.