On what would have been his 100th birthday, we celebrate the indispensable contribution Jack Kirby had on the Marvel Universe.
In less than ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has unleashed sixteen interconnected movies with one more right around the corner, another seven planned through 2019, and no conceivable end in sight. For a fanboy like myself, it’s heaven. For cineastes trapped in the dream of yesterday’s New Hollywood, it’s a nightmare. I have no time or energy to fight you. I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid nearly my whole life and I’m ecstatic when a newcomer steps up to the goblet for a fresh sip. So often though, while I am thrilled when the theater audience around me cheers at the latest Stan Lee cameo, I find myself taking on the fight for Jack Kirby (and Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr, Gene Colan, etc). Not to take away from the contributions of Marvel’s Generalissimo, but his tried and tested Marvel Method of storytelling has resulted in the abolition of credit to the artists who supplied more than just drawings.
If you think Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, The Avengers, Spider-Man and all the rest, well, you’re wrong. Partially, yeah, certainly. However, the only way Stan Lee was able to rattle off as many titles as he did was because The Marvel Method required only the briefest of outlines (sometimes just a single paragraph), and it was up to artists such as Jack Kirby to plot the entire stories. Lee would come in after the pages were completed and fill in the captions and word balloons.
Today marks what would have been Jack Kirby’s 100th Birthday. Across the internet, you’ll find hundreds of artists paying tribute to The King by dishing up their incarnations of Kirby’s creations. Both Marvel and DC have decorated their sites with birthday celebrations and have even planned special publications around his classic work. Run to your local comic book shop and you’ll find “True Believers” re-releases of titles like The Eternals, Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Thor vs. Hulk, and Devil Dinosaur for just $1. It’s a delight. One that I never thought I would see, especially before the rather contentious civil suit between Marvel Entertainment and the Kirby estate was settled in 2014. After decades of noncommittal admiration for Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics has plastered the backs of these comics with a loving acknowledgment:
“Jacob Kurtzberg, born August 28, 1917, was known professionally as Jack Kirby and “the King” to fans and True Believers. From Captain America to the Inhumans, Kirby’s dynamic action and out-of-this-world concepts helped build the foundations for the Marvel Universe. In Celebration of 100 years of “the King,” Marvel presents some of his greatest works in these special issues.”
From the horse’s mouth, I actually get a little teary reading that.
When commemorating Jack Kirby you have to start with Captain America. While Stan Lee may have unfrozen the Capsicle in 1964’s The Avengers #4, scrawny Steve Rogers was actually the creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for publisher Martin Goodman at Timely Comics (soon to be rechristened Marvel Comics). Conceived and published nearly a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the first issue’s cover, depicting Captain America smashing Hitler square in the face, was a cathartic howl of rage from the cartooning duo. Still, in the early days of their partnership, Simon & Kirby were already cranking out a variety of heroes for various studios, but Cap was their first sensation. A political creation from two Jewish kids mentally prepping themselves for the draft, Captain America brought the war to Europe in anticipation of the impending global conflict.
Being intrinsically tied to WW2, the good war established Cap as America’s champion. While spandexed crusaders like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel (aka Shazam) were recruited into toppling the Axis, they could and ultimately would leave The American Way when stories suited them. Cap bled red, white, and blue. He was not a beaming boy scout, but a soldier looking to end an apocalypse looming on our horizon. Simon & Kirby would complete the first ten issues of Captain America before a dispute over the profits sent them across the street to National Comics (now known as DC Comics). In 1943, both men were drafted. Simon joined the Coast Guard and wrote comic books for their Public Relations Unit. Kirby found himself in the U.S. Army, landed on Omaha Beach three months after D-Day, and saw serious combat in the European theater.
I just keep going back to that image of Captain America socking Adolf in the jaw. In recent weeks, it’s come to epitomize a nation’s disgust at the organized hatred experienced in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, that cover kept appearing over and over and over again, as did the Alex Ross variation, the Ms. Marvel vs. Trump fan art, and a dozen other variables. It’s an iconic image that’s nearly as essential to the character as any other element, and while it screamed the outrage and strengths of its creators, it also came to mirror our own. As absurd as it seemed, the genius of Kevin Feige and the MCU machine was further proved when they found room to cram that iconic moment into Cap’s touring USO show at the center of Captain America: The First Avenger.
Kirby was a machine where it came to deadlines. Never one to turn away or deny himself a paycheck, he treated comic books like any other day job. Day and night. Working around the clock was a skill he cultivated when he was slinging newspapers on the streets of New York. His tenacity for output would win him bids over others and made it easier for water to pass under the bridge. When he returned to Timely Comics (again, contract disputes with DC sent him storming) in the early 1960s, he found a dissatisfied Stan Lee on the verge of quits.
Capes and underwear on the outside were losing their appeal for Stan the Man. Taking some advice from his wife Joan, Lee figured he’d write his last comic book the way he wanted. Marvel’s First Family, the Fantastic Four would hold the melodrama of paying bills and heartache as high as diabolical doctors and underground mole men. As awesome as The Thing’s “It’s Clobbering Time!” battle cry was, the Fantastic Four’s readers were just as engrossed with Ben Grimm’s hunchback-like self-loathing.
Fantastic Four has a lot of parallels to his previous run on Challengers of the Unknown for DC Comics (four friends who survive a plane crash only to dedicate their lives to the rescue of the helples , and speaks to the strong influence of Kirby on the scripting of the Marvel narrative. Depending on the day or the interview, Kirby claimed to ignore most of what Stan Lee wrote. Meanwhile Stan, practically bragging about his own atrocious memory, refuses to point to what he crafted versus what Kirby concocted.
Reading the birth of the Marvel Universe from the distance of 2017, the endless Stan Lee thought balloons can definitely overwhelm. As revelatory as his embracing of the internal monologue was for the comic book super hero, his exclamations firmly plant these stories in their era. However, strip the text from any of these initial FF issues and Jack Kirby’s bold dynamism electrifies the eye. Within Fantastic Four, Kirby established the entire Marvel cosmic universe. From his pen sprung The Inhumans, The Watcher, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer. Whatever comes after Thanos and his Infinity War, I’m crossing my fingers that it’s strongly tied to Jack Kirby’s time with “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine.” Come on Sony, you got deals to make.
Looking back on the creation of the MCU, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was a key building block to the expansion of the franchise. Even in the realm of comics, The Mighty Thor is a weird character to sell to an audience already quenched on elastic and gamma-roided scientists. Magic hammers, magic belts, rainbow bridges, and…Mangog? If you can buy into this silly nonsense then Marvel has you hooked for life.
For the majority of his early adventures, Thor’s journey into mystery was little more than an earthbound adventure that used Mjolnir like Shazam’s magic word, transforming mild-mannered Donald Blake into the God of Thunder. Kirby wasn’t truly set loose until his “Tales of Asgard” backup stories became the driving narrative behind the character. Once again, Kirby was allowed to go cosmic, bringing the Thunder God into contact with mind-bending celestial beings like Galactus and Ego the Living Planet. In space the “Kirby Krackle” ripples through the panels of each issue, dark matter explosions peppered with abstract shapes that give the impression of crackling energy. It’s a trademark stamp that many have imitated but only one perfected. While we have not yet seen this artistic device represented cinematically, trailers for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok climax with a Kirby Krackle title card.
Thor: Ragnarok looks to deliver on many Kirby promises (as well as those followed by heir apparent Walt Simonson). Taika Waititi and crew have absorbed a lot of background details from Kirby’s panels, borrowing not just the Kirby Krackle, but also his statue designs, his very particular mechanized gears, and that unmistakable celestial costuming. The third Thor film appears to finally be waving its freak flag high, reveling in its deep space extravaganza just as Marvel Comics once allowed Kirby to explore in those “Tales of Asgard” backups. As usual, the MCU may be pulling from multiple plotlines and a myriad of artists, but in unashamedly embracing the joyously weird world of comic books, they are succeeding where other studios are still pathetically scrambling. That’s why fandom loves them so fervently.
100 years after his birth, and 76 years after his first contribution to the Marvel Universe, Jack Kirby remains an incredibly vibrant and utterly readable contributor to the art form. While I’m still waiting for adaptations of some of his even crazier work (The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man), I am in awe whenever I see the realization of his work on screen. We should probably take the versus out of the Stan Lee vs. Jack Kirby debate and add an ampersand. Stan & Jack. There would be no Marvel Universe without them. Celebrate them both as titanic contributors to our pop culture.