The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, the Avengers and countless more sprang to life through the dynamic pencils of Jack ‘King’ Kirby.
To celebrate what would have been the 100th anniversary of his birth last week, his ex-assistant Mark Evanier has re-released his classic book, Kirby: King of Comics.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg to Jewish immigrants from Austria, young Jack’s life is a classic example of the American dream. He grew up in a tiny apartment with a shared toilet on New York’s rough Lower East Side, where he learned to let his fists and corn-on-the-cob fight his battles.
In the midst of the drudgery and toil, the young boy was always drawing:
Most of the time, Jack wound up drawing at home at the Kurtzberg family flat, working on the kitchen table as his mother scurried around him, cooking and cleaning. Often she’d be urging him to clear the table so she could set it for dinner, and he’d be pleading for another five minutes so he could finish one more panel … The kitchen seat seems to have been a source of comfort to him. In later years, when he could easily have afforded a more conventional artist’s setup, he often opted for a straight-backed wooden chair, not unlike those from his mother’s kitchen.
From this penury, Jack grew to become the pre-eminent artist in the history of American comics, a man whose creations are now known all over the world. Alas, the tragedy of Kirby’s career was that he did his best and most creative work when he was being paid a page rate for no royalties (at Marvel).
When he was given full creative control, he often failed to make the breakthrough with the characters that would have made him rich. As he said after jumping from Marvel to DC,
he’d … fled a slave ship only to wind up on the Titanic
This has created an oft-repeated narrative of how Kirby’s life was one of an artist who was locked out of the big money by his former employers, a narrative which I think has now become overdone.
Concentrating on Kirby’s battles over creative rights is important but it’s not the only way that we should remember his career (especially as those struggles have come to a happy ending in recent years).
Kirby was an incredible creative force. With a lot of people, you can track their influences back into the past (e.g. Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth from Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth). However, Kirby seems to have been able to create new and astonishing worlds just sitting at his drawing board. He literally came up with ideas from nowhere.
Looking at creations like Doctor Doom or Magneto, there are no precursors. His great collaborator, writer Stan Lee realised this, and gave Kirby free-reign to let his imagination roam. They would chat together about plots, which Kirby would draw up however he liked, and then Lee would add his characteristic snappy dialogue afterwards.
The results were spectacular. Here is Lee on the creation of their mutual favourite, the Silver Surfer:
The … [penicilled pages] came back and I could hardly wait to start writing the copy. All of a sudden, as I’m looking through the drawings, I see this nut on a surfboard flying through the air. And I thought, ‘Jack, this time you’ve gone too far’.
What many people may not realise is how old both Lee and Kirby were when they set about creating the Marvel Universe. When the first comic, Fantastic Four #1, appeared in November 1961, Kirby was 44 and Lee was on the cusp of 40.
They each had decades of experience behind them. Evanier’s biography shows how much work the artist had done before the resurgence of superheroes in the 1960s that made his name. Kirby did war comics, horror, romance, Westerns and lots of lots of science fiction, so Kirby: King of Comics is also a trip through the little-known world of Golden Age comic books.
It also has wonderful art in a neat, lay-flat binding that allows us to see how good Kirby really was at composing a scene and telling a story.
This kid from a tenement block in Manhattan influenced everybody who came after. Marvel may have been famed for its over-the-top hyperbole, but Jack Kirby really was, and is, the King of Comics.