Jack Kirby is one of a trio of artists whom I consider geniuses of the comic book form. Harvey Kurtzman and Bernie Krigstein are the other two. Kirby was the oldest, born in 1917, and his career was the longest and the most productive.
He was born Jacob Kurtzberg and raised in New York's Bowery. His art was his ticket out - out of the slums and out of poverty. He got his first job drawing in 1935 at the Max Fleischer Studio where he worked as an "in-betweener" on animated cartoons. It was the depth of the Depression and any job was to be treasured. Yet, Kirby quit the animation business after two years. By 1937 he was drawing comic strips and single-panel cartoons for a small newspaper syndicate called Lincoln News.
At right is the cover for what is arguably his first comic work - a 24 page booklet published by HT Elmo of Lincoln News. It was meant as a bank giveaway with generic content (all by Kirby) inside and a space on the back cover for a specific bank or savings institution to print or stamp its name and address.
By age 20, he was a seasoned professional using different styles and different pen names on half a dozen different features. Some of those features found their way into the fledgling comic book market. Kirby quickly followed them.
It was at Fox Comics that he met Joe Simon, a freelance writer and artist. With Simon's business acumen and hustle and Kirby's skill and speed, the team of Simon & Kirby soon exploded onto the comic book scene. Their work appeared at Fox, Novelty and Timely/Marvel - often as the cover artist team. They started out with Simon doing layouts and Kirby finishing, but Kirby's understanding of the comic book medium helped to quickly reverse those roles.
Remember, in 1940 the comic book as a medium was only five years old and for half that time consisted entirely of newspaper strip reprints. The graphic language and techniques in play in 1940 were primarily those of the daily comic strips. Kirby was one of the very first to view the comic book page as a unique form and the first to fully comprehend its potential and solve its challenges.
In comic books, Kirby saw the differences from, not the similarities to, their comic strip antecedents. Action was not only possible, it was paramount. But, before Kirby, many early comic books had to rely on various guiding devices to lead the reader in the proper sequence through the more dynamic panels. Some simply numbered the panels to ensure that they were read in the proper order. Others used graphic arrows to point to the next one.
At right is a page from a Kirby comic story drawn in late 1940. It was taken from The Art of Jack Kirby. Notice the arrow that points from the first panel to the second. This is actually the most obvious transition on the entire page and the arrow is scarcely necessary. Now witness how Kirby leads you through the story with his drawings. Just follow the green line: the character in panel two is facing back toward panel three. He used this device throughout his career. He probably did it unconsciously, just as he often used a character facing or moving to the right in the first panel on the second tier. Note also how the path of the eye is drawn through the speech balloons. And when it's not, the eyes of the character point you in that direction (note the blue lines). The angles of the background and furniture also come into play to move you through the story in the manner he desires.
I believe Kirby invented this approach. He figured it out and implemented it almost from the very start: Don't draw something that leads the eye away from the story. The story is the driving force. Make sure the drawings move it forward. The composition of the page should keep the reader's eyes on the page until the last panel and then that panel should facilitate the turning of the page. Backgrounds should set the scene and indicate reading direction.
All this was completely intuitive to Jack. He saw the needs and built solutions into his style. The way he told a story was driven by the need to show you how to read it. And I'll bet he never really thought about it.
Getting back to what he did with his style...
Simon & Kirby's first big hit was Captain America, a character they created for Timely Comics. The image at left is from issue #2, published in April of 1941 and drawn nearly a year before America declared war on Germany. The comic books were never neutral.
After nearly a year producing Captain America, S&K left Timely to work for National Comics (DC) where they created their next big hit, Boy Commandos. Then came the real war and both men were drafted in 1943. After the war, comics were in the doldrums and Kirby took what work he could get. Always a scrapper and a professional, one of his first jobs was a one-page strip, "How to make your own Puppets" in Punch & Judy comics.
Kirby and Simon teamed up on two
new titles for Harvey, Stuntman and Boy Explorers,
but both were short-lived. Their work was still being used by
National and they were producing a wide variety of work for Hillman
(the Punch & Judy publisher). They did crime stories
for Real Clue, an aviation strip, Link Thorne, The
Flying Fool (at left) for Airboy, and a teen title,
My Date, but the prolific pair wanted more. What they wanted
was a share of the profits.
So they invented the Romance comic and sold the idea to Crestwood/Prize
Comics for a 50/50 cut of the profits. Young Romance,
Young Love, Western Love, Headline and Justice
Traps the Guilty were the main titles that the Simon &
Kirby team produced for Crestwood. They had a whole studio of
artists working for them and many were adept at approximating
Kirby's pencil style or Simon's inking. Still others had distinctive
styles of their own that were almost submerged in the S&K
style. Except Kirby. You could always tell a Kirby story. Just
follow the panels.
Their comics were a major success. Artists like Mort Meskin, Bill Draut, Marvin Stein and Bruno Premiani were on staff and produced hundreds of stories each over the years. They must have treated them well - not surprising considering that the men in charge were working artists, just like them.
Young Love 1949
|More titles flowed from the creative duo. For Crestwood, they created Black Magic, The Strange World of Your Dreams, Charlie Chan, and Young Brides. In 1951, for Harvey, they came up with Boys' Ranch, a marvelous western comic hearkening back to Boy Commandos.|
|In 1954, back at Crestwood, they released their pièce de résistance, Fighting American, a parody of the then dormant superhero genre (see right).|
The next step was to become publishers themselves. In 1954, as the rest of the industry was retrenching due to the public furor over comics and juvenile delinquency, Simon and Kirby launched Mainline Comics, to minimal fanfare and mediocre sales. With titles like In Love, Foxhole, Police Trap and Bulls-Eye, they had all the popular genres covered. They were the most successful and well-known creators in comics history. And they failed miserably. Most titles lasted only four issues.
With the failure, the team split up to make each his own way in the new, post Comics Code, comic book landscape. Romance comics survived. Kirby did lots of strips for Harvey. (Simon and Kirby are listed as editors of some of the Prize/Crestwood romance books through 1957. Then it's just Simon - who also returned to drawing stories about 1960. Simon also went on to create Sick Magazine, a long-running Mad imitation.)
Kirby returned to the strong publishers for work. He did mystery stories and Challengers of the Unknown for National/DC, a few mysteries and westerns for Atlas (once Timely) comics. He continued to produce romance stories for Young Love and Young Romance at Prize, and he found work at Harvey as well. He achieved the goal of most comic artists - he landed a newspaper strip.
Sky Masters of the Space Force was penciled by Kirby from September 1958 through February 1961. Wally Wood did the inking for the first eight months and their combined styles built strength upon strength. The results, one panel above, were breathtaking. Dick Ayers did a masterful job on the rest of the run, but nothing since has matched the Kirby/Wood team up.
Here's where I stumble into conflicting versions of history.
What happened next has been discussed and debated for 40 years
and I certainly wasn't there to observe it. The condensed version
is that Jack Kirby, in late 1958, went to work for Stan Lee at
Timely/Atlas/Marvel (call it what you will) Comics and together
they rejuvenated a company and revitalized the entire industry
with characters such as The Hulk and Spider-Man.
What I DO have, that others might not be able to bring to the story, is a fairly thorough knowledge of Atlas Comics - the name that was used by Timely/Marvel during most of the 1950s. Not to brag, but I'm generally acknowledged as being a leading expert on the company. In early 1957, Atlas was the largest comic book company in existence. They published 75 titles and thousands of comic stories each year. For reasons too complex to go into here, that suddenly stopped around May or June. For one month they published nothing, and then they returned, publishing only eight comics a month. They had lost their distributor and were forced to sign up with another one. The new distributor was owned by the second biggest comic book company of the time, National/DC, and the onerous conditions were the price Atlas had to pay to get any distribution at all.
Now at five stories per comic (at the time), times 75 titles, times only two week's inventory, we're talking about well over 150 stories in-house at the time of the "implosion." Divide that by the eight titles per month and you've got yourself well over 18 months inventory. Stan Lee, the editor at Atlas, was buying few stories from anyone. The comics industry was suddenly overrun with out-of-work artists and writers, and sales of Atlas comics (now sans the Atlas logo) plummeted.
Now come the conflicting stories. Toward the end of 1958, Kirby recalls visiting the Atlas offices and finding the company ready to close the doors. The inventory was running out and there didn't seem much chance of surviving on eight titles a month. Kirby says he used a non-stop creative spiel on what they could do to talk Lee into continuing the company. Together they visited the publisher, Martin Goodman, and convinced him to give them a chance to execute some of Jack's ideas.
Lee, who was at Timely when Simon and Kirby were working on Captain America, has a different take on it. Lee's version is that while things were slow, they weren't dire. He says that seeing the great Jack Kirby walk into the offices spurred him on to suggesting things they could do together and they ended up confronting Goodman with their ideas.
I believe Kirby. Lee, who is still alive, is notorious for genial self-aggrandizing and Kirby's story puts him in a bad light, just as it emphasizes Kirby's creative role in the success that Marvel Comics was to realize. I take nothing away from Lee. His contributions channeled Jack's energies as they'd never been before and magic happened. But, historically, left to his own devices, Lee has failed to create many lasting characters in his 20 years in the biz. Jack never seemed to run out of them.
It started out slowly, with Jack doing mystery, sf, western and romance comics - the legacy of the Atlas years. Jack did an inordinate amount of the art and stories. But even that wasn't sufficient to use up his creative energies. He teamed with Joe Simon for a few comics over at Harvey, and even moonlighted a bit on some Classics Illustrated jobs. But even that was about to change.
In 1961, in response to positive sales figures on a DC super hero team comic, Lee and Kirby created The Fantastic Four. Immodestly billing itself as "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine," it quickly laid a very legitimate claim to the title. Within the next few years, Marvel Comics released The Hulk, Iron-Man, Thor, The X-Men, another team-up book called The Avengers that quickly revived Captain America as a leading member, and many more. In 1962, the most prolific year of his career, he produced 1,158 pages of art. If you do the math, that's over three pages a day! Or, with 23 pages of art plus covers on a comic, Kirby was a one-man company, producing over half the art for the eight titles.
Others, like Steve Ditko and Don Heck, were heavily involved and deserve every credit, but no one approached even half the output of Jack Kirby. Only Ditko can be credited with actually coming up with memorable characters in the way that Kirby could.
As the company grew and prospered, Marvel again became a major comic book force. The dynamic Kirby approach to comics became the Marvel "house style" and many artists would continue using it long after Kirby left the company. Unfortunately, most would adopt the dynamism without the controls that Kirby injected into his work. The lessons they learned from Jack were superficial and their lack of understanding of the underpinnings of his work would lead to a lessening of the comic craft just as production values were increasing for the first time in the history of the medium.
At Marvel, as sales escalated, Jack wanted his share of the credit and profits but they weren't forthcoming. So, in 1970, he accepted an offer from DC to edit, draw and write his own books for the company. The epic "Fourth World" saga was the result with all new Kirby characters and three new titles, New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle (at right). Coupled with the existing Jimmy Olsen title, Jack was totally in charge and charging ahead.
Into another brick wall.
New Gods and Forever People lasted eleven issues each; Mister Miracle managed 18. As creative and dynamic as the massive work was, the rambling interwoven story lines seemed unfocused and it became obvious, to me at least, that Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel stories had been crucial to their success. Kirby was simply too creative and couldn't rein in that exuberance in service to the story. Or, perhaps, the story was just too complex and extended to be told at any speed other than "full tilt." Whatever the reason, the general comic-buying public didn't flock to the titles. His loyal fans provided a base level of sales, but they weren't sufficient to support the continued publication of the books.
He had better luck with Kamandi, a post-apocalypse title that ran 40 issues, but other efforts like OMAC and The Demon lasted for relatively short runs. He even returned to Marvel from 1976-1978, but with a 1978 graphic novel featuring the Silver Surfer, he bade goodbye to the medium he helped create.
The Silver Surfer was a character Kirby had created in the mid-Sixties for The Fantastic Four comic book. In a marketing decision I still question to this day, the new book was released in both hardcover and softcover format with a cover painting by Earl Norem. Kirby, who had probably done more comic book covers than anyone in the history of the medium, simply wasn't considered good enough to recreate his own character for the "real" book market. The cover painting is credited as being based on "a sketch by Jack Kirby."
He returned to a much earlier career, animation, in an entirely different role. His exuberance and creativity were harnessed for character designs for Saturday morning cartoon fare. He remained in the industry through 1987. It was the kind of work that he could do in his sleep and his creativity kept popping up in comic books created for the "direct market" - a place where he could own all of the rights to his characters and be certain of getting his original artwork returned. In 1981, he released two titles, Captain Victory and Silver Star, through Pacific Comics. Lasting 13 and six issues, respectively, both sank with barely a ripple in the burgeoning comic book market. Kirby's art style was passé (in all fairness, these last titles had very perfunctory Kirby art that was almost a pastiche of his earlier work). The tastes of the comic buying public were moving away from his "antiquated" style to more "sophisticated" renderings done by artists who learned from artists who'd learned from Kirby. The distillation process usually resulted in a lot of flash with very little concern with storytelling. We were back to requiring arrows to help us read the story.
During the last years of his life, Jack was revered as comics' elder statesman. A short, stocky, pugnacious-looking man with white hair and omni-present cigar, he never had an unkind word to say about anyone. When he died in 1994, the industry outpouring was unprecedented. Even today, magazines are still being published about him. The Jack Kirby Collector has reached its 52nd issue and the Kirby Checklist has gone through at least two editions.
I can't think of another person about whom this can be said, but I believe that without Jack Kirby we would not have comic books today. I, for one, wouldn't like that.
|The Art of Jack Kirby||Ray Wyman, Jr. Blue Rose Press, 1992|
|The Jack Kirby Checklist||(various), Two-Morrows, 1997|
|The Complete Jack Kirby||Greg Theakston, Pure Imagination, 1997|
|The Jack Kirby Collector||John Morrow, Two-Morrows, 2001|
|Kirby: King of Comics||Mark Evanier, Abrams, 2008|
|The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge||Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2001|
Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page written, designed & © 2001 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.