The 13th Floor

Hail To The King: Celebrating 100 Years of Jack Kirby

Groups of men started hanging outside a specific building on Forty-Second Street in Manhattan. The appearance of these strangers was preceded by a fair amount of letters that had been showing up for a few weeks. It started with one or two letters at first, but by the second month, the office was getting dozens every week. Each letter was different, but they all pushed the same message; “death to the Jews”. Just before the men showed up came the phone calls. Again, each call was different, but the overall message was the same; “death to the Jews”.

Jack Kirby sat at his drawing board when one call came through. The person on the other end claimed to be in the lobby of the building, and he was looking to teach Kirby a lesson that could only be learned through violence. Kirby told the man he’s be right down.

When Kirby got to the lobby, the man was gone.

Jack Kirby,along with his friend and coworker Joe Simon, had made enemies with two groups that were prominent in America in 1941; the Nazi Party and the American Firsters. The sin that the two comic book creators had committed was debuting their newest character by showing him punching Adolf Hitler.

Jacob Kurtzberg came into the world on August 28, 1917. His parents, Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg, were Austrian Jewish immigrants who came to America and settled in New York looking for a better life. Ben worked in garment factories, making just enough to keep his family housed and fed. Growing up, Jacob dreamed of a better life and escaped reality through drawing. Unable to afford classes, jacob taught himself how to draw by studying his favorite comicstrip artists and the editorial cartoons of  Rollin Kirby. When he was 14, Jacob was accepted to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but he dropped out after a week; the lessons were too slow for Jacob; he wanted to draw as fast as the ideas came to him, and the teachers preached the importance of patience.

At 19 Jacob was drawing comic strips for the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate under the name Jack Curtiss, but he quickly left there to join the Fleischer Animation Studios working on the POPEYE cartoons. Working in animation reminded Jacob of his father’s work in the factories; repeating the same things over and over again without ever finishing.

Out of work, Jacob looked for work in a new booming medium, comics. He was hired by Eisner & Iger where he worked on a number of comics, including THE LONE RANGER. With each book, Jacob took on a different name, as comic artists often did at the time. A few of the ones Jacob used were Curt Davis, Fred Sande, Teddy, and Lance Kirby.

Jacob left Eisner & Iger for  Fox Feature Syndicate, who offered more money. It was there that he met Joe Simon who he would work with for the majority of the next twenty years. In 1940 they both left Fox Feature Syndicate for Timely Comics where Jacob quickly settled on the pseudonym Jack Kirby. Within a few months, CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 hit news stands. The book sold out in a few days, and the second issue was given a print run of over a million copies. The third issue included the first printed work of Stanley Lieber, better known today as Stan Lee.

With each issue, more death threats came in. At first Kirby and Simon laughed off the letters and calls, but when the strange men started loitering in the lobby of Timely Comics, the police were called in. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, an avid comic book fan, called Kirby and Simon, promising that the New York police would keep them safe. Officers patrolled the building in shifts, walking the halls and inspecting offices to ensure the safety of the Timely Comics staff.

With the tenth issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA, Kirby and Simon left Timely to join National Comics Publications. With Superman and Batman under their roof, National was the biggest comics publisher around, and they offered Kirby and Simon three times what Timely paid. While there, the duo created a slew of popular characters, including Manhunter, The Boy Commandos, and The Newsboy Legion.

Kirby was alone in a small eastern European town doing his best to go unnoticed by German soldiers. Drafted into World War II, Kirby’s artistic talents could have helped him get a position someplace far away from the fighting like so many of his comic book brethren, but he didn’t want to draw, he wanted to show the Nazis just what a Jewish kid from Brooklyn could do.

Still, his lieutenant wanted to use Kirby’s skills not only as an artist, but as one of the few men in the army who spoke Yiddish fluently. Kirby became a scout; he would sneak into German held territory and map out the defenses. Being a scout was highly dangerous, and Kirby found himself in more than one fire fight. In the winter of 1945, Kirby was trapped behind enemy lines. By the time he made it back to the Allied side, he had severe frostbite in both legs. The damage was so extensive that doctors considered amputating his legs. Luckily, Kirby recovered and spent the last six months of his service on a base in North Carolina.

Out of the Army, Kirby went back to work in comics. Superheroes had fallen out of style, and looking for something that would stand out on the newsstands littered with western and horror comics, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon decided to create something for an overlooked audience, girls. With the first issue of YOUNG ROMANCE, Kirby and Simon invented romance comics. The book was a hit, and a spin-off title, YOUNG LOVE, was created. The two comics sold a combined two million copies a month, with Kirby and Simon earning 50% of the profits.

By the mid 1950s, the working relationship between Kirby and Simon had become strained. There was no one thing that caused the strain, it was more that the two men felt that they had each gone about as far as they could together. In 1957, Joe Simon left comics to work in advertising. Kirby returned to working for Timely, now called Atlas, before landing back at National, which was now called Superman-DC. While at DC, Kirby co-created the Challengers of the Unknown and worked on several other books. Kirby took Green Arrow, a Batman knock-off, and turned him into a science fiction hero. The revamp of Green Arrow was a commercial success, but in the DC offices many of the staff, including Green Arrow creator Mort Weisinger, weren’t fans of Kirby. Other artists complained about Kirby’s art – pointing out problems with anatomy or lack of details. These issues didn’t bother readers – every book Kirby drew was a hit. It all came to an end when Kirby got into an argument with an editor over royalties.

Kirby returned to Atlas, which was trying to rebuild itself. The pay-rate was garbage, but Kirby made up for it by producing an insane amount of pages each day. Along with his quick turnaround time on pages, Kirby created a series of monsters unlike any that had appeared in comics before. His style turned Atlas’ fledgling monster books into their biggest seller. One of these monsters Kirby created during this time has become a worldwide sensation in recent years; his name is Groot.

By the start of the 1960s, DC comics had found a way to reinvigorate their superhero characters for a new generation of readers. While Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had never gone away, most every other superhero had disappeared from the newsstand years ago. With the reimagining of Flash in SHOWCASE #4, the Silver Age of superheroes began. Martin Goodman Atlas Comics publisher, instructed Stan Lee to create a superhero team like the Justice League, which had become a huge success for DC. Stan Lee had grown tired of comics; he wanted to write real books, books that people would respect, and that wasn’t going to happen at Atlas. Still, Lee decided that if he was going to quit comics, he should give this superhero team idea a go first.

Lee didn’t want to just do a take on the Justice League. He wanted his team to have a wide range of personalities. He wanted them to argue and be more human than the heroes at DC. Lee wrote up a synopsis of what the comic would be and, as the editor-in-chief of the company, chose Jack Kirby to draw the book. Lee named the team The Fantastic Four, and when they hit newsstands on November 8, 1961, the Marvel Universe was born.

Over the next decade, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would create a seemingly endless series of classic characters including Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Inhumans, Galactus, and Black Panther. They also reintroduced old Timely and Atlas characters like Namor the Sub-Mariner, Ka-Zar, and Captain America.

During this period, Kirby pushed his style to a new level. He experimented with using  photo-collages for covers and some interiors and created what is now called the “Kirby Krackle”

As Marvel’s comics became more and more popular, Stan Lee became more and more famous, and Kirby rightly felt that the company wasn’t giving him the credit he deserved. In 1970, Marvel presented Kirby with a new contract that, among other unfair aspects, prohibited Kirby from seeking legal retaliation against Marvel if ever he felt he was not properly paid for his work. Having seen so many artists and writers in the industry be screwed out of royalties, most famously Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Kirby refused to sign the contract and left Marvel for DC.

At DC, Kirby created what many consider to be his opus; the Fourth World. Kirby worked on four titles, three of them, NEW GODS, MISTER MIRACLE, and THE FOREVER PEOPLE he created, and the fourth, SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN, he took over. Through these four series, Kirby wove the tale of the New Gods of New Genesis and Apokolips. Darkseid, the greatest evil in the universe, searches for the Anti-Life Equation which will allow him to control every living being. Battling against him are Highfather, leader of New Genesis, and Orion, Darkseid’s own son.

Kirby had planned the Fourth World as a miniseries; he had a definitive end and was working to reach it from the start but the books proved to be immensely popular and DC, which had tight control on what Kirby could and couldn’t do, demanded that he keep the titles running. Along with not allowing Kirby to tell his story as he intended, they forced him to cross the characters over with other DC books like DEADMAN, as Kirby’s then assistant and later biographer Mark Evanier would later explain in COMICS INTERVIEW:

So Kirby had this novel he was forever stuck in the middle of – he could never get to the last chapter. … You can spot the issues where Jack kind of gave up trying to advance the story of Darkseid and Orion and was marking time. If those books had been intended from the start to run indefinitely, they would have been done very differently.

Kirby, under contract, continued to work at DC and created more iconic character for them, including Etrigan the Demon, OMAC, and Kamandi. When his contract ended in 1975, Kirby chose not to renew. Kirby returned to Marvel in 1976 where he created among other now classic characters, the Eternals, the Celestials, and Devil Dinosaur. He also adapted 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY into an amazing comic.

Kirby left Marvel for the last time in 1978, moving over to animation with Hanna-Barbera where he helped on designs for cartoons like THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN and FANTASTIC FOUR. Kirby was hired by film producer Barry Geller to create concept art for a film based on Roger Zelazny’s novel, LORD OF LIGHT. While the movie was never made, Kirby’s art was used by the CIA when they entered Iran under the guise of a film crew scouting locations in order to help US citizens escape the country during the Iran hostage crisis.

Kirby returned to comics in the early 1980s, coming out with CAPTAIN VICTORY AND THE GALACTIC RANGERS, a series he owned. He also worked with DC on new Fourth World books, including THE HUNGER DOGS, a graphic novel that allowed Kirby to finally end his Fourth World saga while letting DC continue to use the characters in other books.

Kirby continued to work through the 80s and early 1990s. In 1993, Kirby worked with Topps Comics to create the Secret City Saga. Kirby’s last work would appear in SATAN’S SIX, one of the Secret City Saga books.

On February 6, 1994, Jack Kirby died of heart failure in his home.

It is impossible to imagine the world without Jack Kirby. His art influenced just about every comic artist that came after him, and his creations fill up comic book shelves, TV screens and movie theaters every year. There’s a high probability that at some point in your life you have owned something with Kirby’s art on it. From t-shirts to postage stamps, his work has shown up everywhere.

James Cameron has spoken openly about Kirby’s influence on ALIENS saying that it was “not intentional in the sense I sat down and looked at all my favorite comics and studied them for this film, but, yeah, Kirby’s work was definitely in my subconscious programming. The guy was a visionary. Absolutely. And he could draw machines like nobody’s business”.

Lately, Jack Kirby’s name has been making the rounds online in political discussions; namely the punching of white supremacist Richard Spencer. As the endlessly entertaining gif of Spencer getting hit made the rounds on Twitter, a debate broke out on the question of punching white supremacists. The image of Captain America punching Hitler on the cover of CAPTAIN AMERICA #1 became a symbol of the “yes, punch Nazis” side and with that symbol came the question of what Jack Kirby would have done. I think the story that I started this piece with makes it clear where he stood.

*All Photos: Jack Kirby; Marvel Comics