Jack Kirby at 100: Celebrating the king of comic books

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This year marks the centenary of two world-changing events: the Russian Revolution and the birth of comic-book artist Jack Kirby. But while Soviet communism has all but vanished from the planet 100 years after the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, Kirby’s influence still permeates pop culture. He helped create the pantheon of superheroes — Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men — who continue to fill our comic books and soar across our screens. Marvel Comics maestro Stan Lee may have given the heroes voice and humor, but it was Kirby who made them move and fight and live; even now, CGI can barely capture the fury of his battles and the splendor of his dreamscapes.

“Jack Kirby is comics,” says Mitch Gerads, who’s currently illustrating a DC Comics reboot of Kirby’s Mister Miracle. “Everything we love about comics, from the line art to the writing, you can’t have it without Jack Kirby.”

Tom King, who’s writing the series, adds: “Jack Kirby has that utterly American story — child of immigrants, born with nothing, went overseas to fight in a war, and then came back and invented, and then reinvented, a genre. He’s the Louis Armstrong of American comics.”

Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, spent his New York City childhood in crowded tenements, and he found escape in movies, pulp novels, and science fiction. Soon he was scribbling his own take on fantastic characters and faraway worlds. One of his first comic jobs was at the sweatshop run by Victor Fox, where he met fellow artist Joe Simon.

Their first collaboration, a comic featuring a space hero called Blue Bolt, was where Kurtzberg officially started signing his name as Jack Kirby, which he thought sounded more like a famous artist. At 6-foot-3, Simon’s tall, thin frame was quite a contrast with the much shorter Kirby’s. In fact, a photograph of the two inspired Michael Chabon’s prize-winning novel about the golden age of comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Just as the fictional Kavalier and Clay hit the creative jackpot with their superhero the Escapist, Simon and Kirby dreamed up a superhero who endures to this day: Captain America, who made his debut delivering a nasty right hook to Adolf Hitler on the comic’s cover.

Not long after Captain America’s debut, Kirby was drafted to fight overseas in World War II; he would later mine his frontline combat experience for the epic battles in his comics. As renowned comic artist Geof Darrow tells EW, explosive action is one of the major hallmarks of a Kirby comic, which makes sense — from his tenement childhood to the battlefields of Europe, Kirby saw a lot of fighting firsthand.

“Some guys would draw a superhero stopping a car, but Kirby would draw him stopping a car with the engine flying out the back of the vehicle,” Darrow, the imaginative artist behind comics like Hard Boiled and Shaolin Cowboy, tells EW. “If you’re gonna do that stuff, take it over the top. You can’t really make it realistic, so why not make it as nuts as possible?”

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After returning home from the war, Kirby teamed up with Stan Lee and Marvel owner Martin Goodman, and together they came up with the Fantastic Four—and birthed the Marvel Universe as we know it. The Fantastic Four encountered several Lee/Kirby characters who eventually grew into Marvel stars in their own right, like Silver Surfer and Black Panther. Other heroes soon followed, including the Hulk (who had roots in the monster comics Kirby drew just before the superheroes took off) and Thor (a version of the gods-walking-the-earth trope that Kirby returned to again and again). And today, many filmmakers and comic creators relish the chance to play in Lee and Kirby’s sandbox.

“There’s such a power and a majesty behind all these characters,” says Marvel writer Dan Slott, who recently wrapped a Silver Surfer run with artist Michael Allred. “To be working on a character like Surfer during the 100th year with an artist like Mike Allred, who clearly loves and is inspired by Kirby, I can’t think of a sweeter spot to be in. At one point we did a sequence where the Surfer surfs a moon into Galactus, and it was just one giant wet floppy kiss to Kirby.”

Unfortunately, the Marvel magic did not last forever. In order to handle their massive workload, Lee developed a system that would come to be known as the “Marvel Method.” An artist like Kirby would plan out stories and draw layouts, then send them back to Lee to fill in the dialogue and contours of the story. This made it possible for the Marvel crew to keep pumping out many stories for many characters, but it also made the question of determining authorship very difficult.

“Jack frequently did not get credit for his contributions as a writer, because he wasn’t writing the final draft of dialogue. That becomes problematic,” says Kirby’s biographer, Mark Evanier. “For some people, figuring out what happens on every page is not writing. I think it’s writing. I think every element that goes into the pacing and plot and the telling of the story is writing.”

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Eventually, the arrangement became so unsatisfactory for Kirby that he left Marvel altogether in 1970 for its rival publisher, DC Comics. Here, Kirby was able to unleash his full creativity in a series of comics (New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People) that came to be known as the “Fourth World,” a psychedelic magnum opus that envisioned a cosmic war between the heavenly planet New Genesis and its hellish opposite Apokolips, ruled by the evil Darkseid (who, beneath his rocky exterior, seemed to embody the kind of fascist authoritarians Kirby had fought against in World War II). After all the Marvel characters and concepts he had helped create, Kirby still managed to make a whole other living, breathing superhero universe — one that will soon come to the big screen itself, at least in part, when Darkseid’s general Steppenwolf takes the stage as the villain of next month’s Justice League.

“What keeps his work important is the inexhaustibility of his imagination,” Chabon says of Kirby, who died in 1994. “In almost every issue of Fantastic Four or Thor that he did when he was at his peak, he would have 10 different characters, concepts, and ideas. Any other writer or artist would have taken just one of those and milked it for all it was worth, but he would move on to the next issue, and there’d be 10 more. I find that a very inspiring model.”

Though it was canceled before Kirby could complete his intended story, the Fourth World has the distinction of being one of the few science-fiction works to accurately predict key elements of modern technology. The Mother Box, for instance, was a personal device that helps fulfill both the technical and emotional needs of its user — basically a smartphone, as designed by gods. The god Metron, who from the vantage point of his Mobius Chair is able to access almost any point in history for his own pursuit of knowledge, resembles the modern internet user. These weren’t Kirby’s only accurate predictions. Though he didn’t always know how to monetize them, friends like Evanier suggest he had an idea of where culture was going.

“One of the stories I tell people over and over, and I have witnesses for this, is around the time when San Diego Comic Con first started and was just a couple hundred people and looked like it would stay in that realm, Jack’s the one who said ‘Comic Con is going to take over this entire city, it’ll be the place Hollywood comes each year to sell the movies they made last year and to find out what they’re going to make next year.’ He said that in like 1972,” Evanier says. “We kind of all nodded and said ‘yeah sure Jack,’ to humor him. And then one day it took over the city. People never saw possibilities, but he saw them and it frustrated him that they thought small.”

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But aside from Kirby’s creativity and precognition, it’s his personal warmth and generosity that sticks with people who met him. Jon B. Cooke, a journalist and longtime Kirby collector, recently teamed with editor Jon Morrow to put together Kirby 100, a collection of artists commenting on their favorite Kirby images. Cooke met Kirby once at a convention as a young fan and recalls he had the same advice for everyone.

“When a kid or another artist would come up and show him some very Kirby-esque drawings, he was always gracious,” Cooke says. “But he would put the art down, and he’d look at the person, and he’d say, ‘Well, it’s all really good, but you should really do things your way.’ That was the message: ‘I want to serve as an example, not just be somebody for you to copy.’”

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