“I see that story first. I feel that story first. I know those people first. When I put them down they’ve already lived” – Jack Kirby, 1987.
The comic book industry is home to a host of names of people who made and still continue to make their mark in a business that is dedicated to pure imagination and wonderment. No name stands out more and stands more proudly then that of Jack Kirby, the acclaimed “King of Comics”, who was responsible for giving comics some of its most enduring and fantastic characters ever.
It’s hard to believe that on this day back in 1917, Jack Kirby, the man who would help craft so much of the Marvel Universe and bring into this world some very memorable characters for DC Comics, not to mention having such a profound impact on the overall comic book industry and community, was born. Today marks his 100th birthday and even though he is no longer with us, fans young and old of his work can take a certain solace in the fact that his work and legacy are still impacting comics even to this day.
Jack was a self-taught man, who never had any kind of formal schooling aside from a very brief enrollment at New York’s Pratt Institute at the age of 14. He took his cues and inspirations from some of the comic strip greats of the classic comic strip era; from Hal Foster, Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond. These inspirations coupled with Jack’s aptitude for art would lead to his career at Marvel, his longest, most creatively successful place of employment during his 58 years in comics.
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Jack’s influence on comics is still felt even into the modern era. His finest work was the writing, drawing and inking of superhero comics (though he was also successful in other genres including westerns, monsters and creating alongside longtime collaborator Joe Simon, the romance comics genre). Superhero comics were where Kirby’s storytelling and art style flourished, especially during the Silver Age at Marvel and the Bronze Age at DC.
Jack Kirby at Marvel in the Silver Age
Marvel Comics Era
To fans of Marvel Comics and various movies based off the properties, Jack is a celebrated name. He is responsible for the crafting and creating (or co-creating) of some of the companies most noted superheroes including Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, Ant Man and Wasp, superhero teams the Avengers and the X-Men, not to mention countless villains (Red Skull, Baron Zemo, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Galactus etc.) and numerous supporting characters. Marvel is the crown jewel of Jack’s crown as King of Comics, a shining gem so bright and fantastic, it will keep shining out years from now.
Jack’s tenure at Marvel during the Silver Age was one of innovation, invention and creative impact. The stories and art developed during that time period are still some of the most talked about and remembered to this day, with landmarks like the revival of Captain America in the pages of Avengers #4 or the creation of the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots in X-Men #14. His tackling of tough topics like the generation gap felt at the time with Captain America’s return, or racism endured by the X-Men and other members of the mutant community, showcased that Jack was not afraid to interweave prevalent social issues into the pages of his work, bringing the real world and the fantasy of comics close together.
Recently, Roy Thomas, former Marvel Comics writer and editor-in-chief spoke about Jack during the years before he left Marvel in 1970:
“Well I didn’t work with Jack much, Stan was mostly doing that. But I did meet him a number of times or I dialogued a couple of stories he wrote. But we never really worked together in that period. Jack was just a nice guy, he’d come in mostly on Fridays, Friday afternoon or so or early morning, a bunch of us would go out to lunch, sometimes with Stan, John Romita, couple others of us, we’d go out and they’d talk about old times and I’d just sit there and listen. Course’ I was in awe of Jack because I considered him like the best superhero artist of all time and obviously you know one of the two main forces behind Marvel along with Stan. So I was, you know, just an honor to be able to sit around and listen to him. He was one of the best superhero artists of all time and I’m glad I got to know him at least a little bit during those five years or so before he moved to LA.” – Roy Thomas, IndyPopCon 2017.
Kirby Krackle in action
In addition to the various characters and stories Jack developed during his Marvel years, an artistic innovation was that of the “Kirby Krackle” or Kirby Dots, which was used to depict negative space around energy from explosions, smoke, ray gun blasts, cosmic energy and various outer space elements. The Kirby Krackle is used by all manner of comics working professionals and fan artists to this day, a fine example of the artistic impact Jack Kirby still has on comics today.
Panel from New Gods #6
DC Comics Era
After leaving Marvel in 1970, Jack went over to DC Comics, where he created during the period of 1971-1975, some of its most strange and beloved characters. OMAC the One Man Army Corps, Kamandi the Last Boy, Etrigan the Demon, and of course, the heroes and villains of the Fourth World. Orion, Highfather, Lightray, Mister Miracle, Big Barda, Granny Goodness and Darkseid (to name only a few), all of these cosmic beings occupy a whole different level of importance in the DC Universe, one that has lead to many high level stories and crisis tales for the comics giant.
Machine Man #1 Devil Dinosaur #1
The Prodigal Son Returns
Faced with increasing pressure creatively from the company, as well as competitive resentment from other DC artists due to his previous tenure at Marvel, Jack left for Marvel again in 1975 for a brief period, during which time he wrote and drew the monthly Captain America series, and produced an adapted and expanded comic of the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Two brand new characters created during this brief stay at Marvel were that of Machine Man and Devil Dinosaur, along with his final collaboration with Stan Lee; Marvel’s first ever graphic novel Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience.
After his final departure from Marvel in 1978, Jack continued to work both within comics as well as pursuing artistic ventures in the field of animation, with work on classic Hanna-Barbera series’ Turbo Teen and Thundarr the Barbarian (among other programs). For comics, Jack produced a variety of work for companies like Pacific Comics and Topps Comics, and working on and off again for DC, spearheading revivals of his Fourth World series in 1984 and 1985.
Jack Kirby at San Diego Comic Con 1993
Sadly, like every great story of creativity and genius, Jack’s came to an end in 1994, when he passed away from heart failure at his home in California. And so passed from this Earth was a master comic book writer and artist, who has left his mark upon the entirety of the industry and community, not to mention pop culture itself. He earned the title of “King of Comics” over and over again due to his tireless work as a driving creative force.
To Jack, happy 100th birthday, know that your name is enshrined forever in the hearts and minds of readers and professionals everywhere and your legacy is etched in the comics and characters you brought to life during your career.
To see more about the wonderful work of Jack Kirby, head over to the Jack Kirby Museum