The man who shaped huge vistas of the modern imagination died 20 years ago this week.
Comics artist, writer and psychedelic visionary Jack Kirby, who passed away on 6 February 1994, laid the foundations of Marvel’s lucrative movie universe.
This self-taught Lower East Side kid created the look – and much more – of icons like Captain America, the X-Men, Thor, the Fantastic Four and Iron Man.
But shady practices in the business meant that Kirby earned a comparative pittance from his billion-dollar children. Here’s what you need to know about the four-colour prophet that contemporary star scriptwriter Grant Morrison called “the William Blake of comics”.
1. Kirby gave us our modern idea of the cosmic
Before Jack, the unknown meant a 50s vision of clunky spaceships and green Martians. Through the 60s Kirby took the Fantastic Four on an unprecedented voyage into pop art psychedelia, turning humble comic books into 10¢ cosmic grimoires much as The Beatles did with pop records. It’s impossible to imagine the interstellar gigantism of Star Wars without Kirby’s epic visions. And Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 could only play catch-up to Kirby – see his comics adaptation of the movie for a real mind-blower.
2. Kirby was a self-taught, blue-collar genius
Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, this son of two Austrian Jewish immigrants dreamed of drawing his way out of his poor New York neighbourhood. He drew pirates, funnies, mysteries, crime and early superheroes for the sweatshop comics business, using a variety of pseudonyms and settling on Jack Kirby because it sounded like James Cagney. The Lower East Side would always be with him in the stubbly bums and street melées that populated his stories.
3. With Captain America, he put the USA’s conscience in a superhero suit
Co-created by Kirby and Joe Simon in 1940, Cap isn’t just the superhero archetype – the quiet guy transformed by science into a champion of justice. He’s isolation-era America in one man, the peaceful individual who accepts that sometimes you just have to fight, and a hero for American Jews like Kirby and Simon in particular. On the cover of his very first issue, Cap socks Hitler on the jaw, a scene cleverly homaged in the 2011 movie.
4. Kirby served in WWII and brought the imagery of battle back to his comics
Kirby was drafted in 1943 and landed on Omaha Beach ten weeks after D-Day. As an artist he was assigned to forward reconnaissance, drawing towns and targets, and almost lost his legs to frostbite in winter 1944. His wartime experiences fed into comics as offbeat as Boy Commandos, Sgt Fury & His Howling Commandos (Nick Fury’s debut) and later The Losers, where Kirby’s outlandish anatomies and wild battles turned WWII into a bizarre fantasia.
5. He changed the look and feel of comics forever
Kirby brought a savage dynamism to comics that blew away the stilted compositions of old. “Muscles stretched magically, foreshortened shockingly… Legs were never less than four feet apart when a punch was thrown,” writes Jules Feiffer in The Great Comics Heroes. “Every panel was a population explosion – casts of thousands, all fighting, leaping, falling, crawling… Speed was the thing: rocking, uproarious speed.” He’s the reason comics look the way they do.
6. He and Stan Lee were the Lennon and McCartney of comics
The tale of Marvel comics partners “Smilin’” Stan and “Jolly” Jack is a triumph and a tragedy. Together they created believable, vulnerable three-dimensional characters who stood the test of time and made Marvel billions. Their revolutionary comic the Fantastic Four began as a family adventure and evolved into a transcendental sci-fi odyssey. Far more than just an illustrator, Kirby plotted entire stories. But the savvy Lee grabbed most of the credit and Kirby, wounded, left Marvel for rivals DC in 1970.
7. Freed from superheroes he created an entire new mythology
DC let Kirby go wild in the early 70s and the result was a new cosmology full of religious intensity, with a hidden Kabbalist subtext – the New Gods. “It was his masterpiece,” writer Grant Morrison told The Guardian, “an epic cosmic war between evil gods and good gods…It was the first time that comics came with a cosmic dimension. They actually started to feel biblical in scale.”
8. His influence ranged far beyond comics
Kirby had fans in high places. His comics helped Paul McCartney get through the monotony of recording the Wings album ‘Venus And Mars’ in Jamaica, and Macca had Kirby draw a stage backdrop for his tour. (Kirby later presented McCartney with a hilariously Marvelesque drawing of him and Linda). Weirdly, the artist became close friends with LA neighbour and fellow drug-free visionary Frank Zappa. And director James Cameron acknowledges that Kirby influenced the look of ‘Aliens’.
9. The King of Comics owned little of his best work
The early comics business was a cut-throat game and Kirby produced his best work for tough publishers who paid by the page. It rankled that he owned no part of characters who built the Marvel empire. In 2009 the Kirby Estate tried to reassert copyright in Spider-Man, The Avengers, Sgt Fury and others but finally lost the case in 2013. The ownership issue has left a nasty taste for decades. “When I look at a superhero,” said comics writer Alan Moore in 2008, “All I can see is a queue of cheated ghosts.”
10. His story is immortalised in the pulitzer-winning novel ‘The Amazing Adventure Of Kavalier & Clay’
Novelist Michael Chabon grew up on Kirby and his book folds the story of Kirby, Lee and their contemporaries into a heartfelt tribute to early comics. “What I loved about Kirby then, and continue to admire about him now,” said the author, “was that sense of the inexhaustibility of his imagination.” Kirby’s biographer Mark Evanier put it more simply: “Jack Kirby didn’t invent the comic book. It just seems that way.”
Picture credits: Copyright 2014 Jack Kirby Estate. All rights reserved
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