One hundred years ago today, Jacob Kurtzberg was born to Jewish immigrant parents in New York’s Lower East Side. As Jack Kirby, he would help establish the art form and industry of American comic books, create the characters and stories at the foundation of multi-billion dollar superhero franchises, and inspire people around the world with the power of his imagination. Yet for much of his career, Kirby was just looking for steady work to put food on the table.
Kirby’s journey from respected artisan to revered creative genius was hard-won and not completed in his lifetime. And even though Disney has acknowledged his co-creation of the Marvel pantheon, Kirby’s fame has not travelled as far outside the circles of comics fandom as his creations. Today as the pop culture world Kirby helped to build celebrates his centenary, it’s worth looking at why it took so long for the man Stan Lee called “King” to get his crown.
Kirby, King of the Comics
Jack Kirby was the most influential storyteller in the history of American superhero comics. His overpowering, dynamic art style set the visual template for the genre as early as 1941, when he and partner Joe Simon launched Captain America by showing the hero slugging Hitler on the cover of the first issue. After the war, Simon and Kirby took comics into new genres like romance, crime, horror, science fiction and adventure. But all that was just an opening act for what he would do in the 1960s at Marvel Comics, working with writer/editor Stan Lee.
In an unprecedented burst of creativity between 1961 and 1966, Kirby and Lee debuted the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD, The Inhumans, the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer and other major characters. That work formed the basis for the Marvel entertainment universe that dominates the 21st century media landscape.
Kirby continued to do powerful, visionary work through the 70s and 80s, including a memorable stint at DC that included the creation of DCEU big-bad Darkseid and his minions from Apocalypse. However the comics audience was moving in different directions. Kirby remained an intermittently productive creator and beloved elder statesman until his death in 1994, but never had the same commercial impact as he did in that mid-60s peak.
The Struggle for Respect.
Kirby was a consummate artist, passionate storyteller and genuine visionary, but he worked in comics to feed his family, not his ego. He was as surprised as anyone when college students, serious critics and figures in the entertainment industry like Frederico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick started taking notice of the work he was doing at Marvel. However, he became resentful when the more gregarious Stan Lee, who wrote the dialogue and contributed some story ideas, started posing in the press as the primary creative influence at Marvel while Kirby was simply “the illustrator.” Given how Lee ran the creative process known as the “Marvel Method,” where the artist made many of the design, pacing and storytelling decisions, Kirby had a strong case.
Credit wasn’t the only issue. Kirby worked for Marvel as a freelancer, not a staff artist. Under the terms of his deal, he did not participate in revenues from licensing on properties he created, or receive royalties when his work was reprinted. He did not even get his original artwork back after it had been published, even though that was the practice in other fields of commercial art and illustration. He was willing to overlook those slights to maintain good relationships with his employers, but it soon became obvious that everyone was making millions off Kirby’s work except for Kirby.