Creator Profile: Jack Kirby – The Godfather of Modern Comics

Modern comics exist thanks to work of three men, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, and Jack Kirby. Kirby’s work in comics extends beyond creating a majority of the popular characters. His style informed a generation, becoming the foundation for not only Marvel, but the medium as a whole. While the truth of how much he contributed will forever be at best hearsay, no one can deny that his imagination was boundless.

Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby

Kirby lead an incredible life that couldn’t be done justice here. There’s been plenty of biographies written, with one of the best being Kirby: King of Comics. Instead, his work and his legacy is what matters. Everything superhero, and comics for that matter, is thanks to Jack Kirby, regardless of medium.

Jack Kirby's Marvel Creations

Jack Kirby’s Marvel Creations

Two hallmarks set Kirby apart as an unparalleled creator, his self-taught definitive art style and boundless imagination. Kirby’s art transformed the industry. Working for Marvel Comics in the 1960s, having worked at the publishers previous incarnations, Atlas Comics and Timely Comics, Kirby was an industry veteran. Kirby became the in house style for Marvel, with all new artist learning how to ape his work. He was a machine, producing 10 pages a day. By comparison, artists today (bearing in mind art has evolved, becoming more detailed) produce 20-22 pages per month, with many struggling to keep even that schedule.

The Kirby Dot with his creation, Galactus

The Kirby Dot with his creation, Galactus

One of the most recognizable contributions of Kirby’s style is the Kirby Dot. The artist utilized black negative space to convey energy or explosions.

His first, and oldest creation is Captain America, which he co-created with Joe Simon at Timely Comics in 1940. Their partnership lasted years, with the two re-teaming after WWII. While there works were numerous, their next big hit came from Young Romance, a book about ‘true’ love stories. The title sold so well, they launched a second monthly book, Young Love. This quickly became the dominating genre, with these two books selling over 2 million copies a month. By comparison, the top selling comic of 2013 was The Walking Dead #115 at 329,300 issues.

Young Romance

Young Romance

Skipping forward a few years, the duo split, Kirby finding himself at Marvel with a new ( partner, Stan Lee (though this wasn’t the first time they worked together). Together, they created not only the foundation for Marvel Comics, but many of the most popular characters in the medium. Again, very contentious about who did what, with many feeling Kirby did most the work while Lee added his name. With two sides to the story, the truth likely lies somewhere in between. Between poor recording keeping and Kirby’s passing in 1994, we’ll never know.

Avengers #4 (1963)

Avengers #4 (1963)

While at Marvel, Kirby co-created Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, the Inhumans, Black Panther, the X-Men, Hulk, the Celestials,  and most importantly, the Fantastic Four. Given the teams popularity over the last few decades, it’s difficult to believe. Fantastic Four is Marvel’s foundation, with many characters and concepts stemming from their seminal 110 issue run. Of all of Kirby’s Marvel work, or entire bibliography, Fantastic Four is the best reading option. While the language of comics has changed, it’s worth reading to see how much of Marvel came from here.

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #135

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #135

Eventually, Kirby did a short stint at DC Comics where he was given full license to create. While his work here was less popular, it was by far his most imaginative. He started on Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, where most of his creations were first introduced. Most of it was eventually culled under the banner, “The Fourth World.” This detailed the origin and stories of the New Gods; Orion, Mister Miracle, Big Barada, the Forever People, and most famous of all, Darkseid (pronounced Darkside). Other creations include O.M.A.C. (One-Man Army Corp), Etrigan the Demon, and Kamandi. Again, less familiar but wildly creative.

Story Board for Argo

Story Board for Argo

While there was plenty of Kirby’s work spied outside of comics, one of the most interesting came from a movie storyboard. In January, 1980, C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez covertly rescued six diplomats from Tehran, Iran, after militants stormed the embassy. Mendez’s cover story involved a film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film, Argo. This is the plot for the 2012 film, Argo. To appear credible, the movie was actually put into production for a time, replete with storyboards, drawn by none other than Jack Kirby. After seeing the movie, artist and DC Comics Publisher Jim Lee tweeted one of these storyboards, thinking he owned original Kirby art, not realizing the historical significance.

Kirby passed in February, 1994. Since then his estate has battled Marvel Comics over unpaid wages for the characters he created. The problem came from Kirby only being hired as freelance, unlike Stan Lee who was full time. In September, 2014, days before the case was set to go before the Supreme Court, Marvel settled with Kirby’s estate. Something that was long overdue.

Kirby in TMNT (2003)

Kirby in TMNT (2003)

As a TMNT fan, I’d be remiss to not mention the episode of the 2003 show, “The King,” dedicated to Jack Kirby. Donatello meets an artist named Kirby, who after tying a magic crystal to his pencil, finds his works coming to life. This was a wonderful episode, paying close attention to detail, mimicking his style. This wasn’t the only time Kirby was memorialized on the small screen. In Superman: The Animated Series, during Dan Turpin’s funeral, a character modeled after Kirby, several characters, fans and friends where present in the original airing, but removed for the DVD release. In the photo, Nick Fury, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Bruce Timm can be spied.

Dan Turpin's Funeral in Superman: TAS

Dan Turpin’s Funeral in Superman: TAS

Jack Kirby is far and away the most influential creator in comics. His catalog is beyond staggering. With him, comics wouldn’t exist in the same form today, or perhaps even at all.

Essential Reading:

Kirby: King of Comics

The Fantastic Four Omnibus Volume 1

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume 1

Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics

What’s your favorite Kirby work? Creation? Comment below!

A lot of thought went into this.

11 responses to “Creator Profile: Jack Kirby – The Godfather of Modern Comics

  1. Alongside his great work on creating heroes, it’s often overlooked that Jack Kirby was a genius at creating villains. Just look at how many he created: the Red Skull, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Galactus, Loki, and Darkseid (not to mention the Hulk), and how little their appearance has changed in the decades since he first drew them.

    • Excellent point. I think more forgotten than that is everything he did that wasn’t Marvel, or DC for that matter. You’re right though, the appearance and design of those characters in particular, even the heroes, hasn’t changed. If anything, they look more busy.

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