Jack Kirby, known as the “King of Comics,” brings a visual dynamic to the duo of iconic figures I’m celebrating for their influence on my life. Kirby, who would have been 95 today, is one of the founding fathers of the comics industry and one of the art form’s greatest masters. He defined the graphic vocabulary of depicting superhero action, was instrumental in building the world’s biggest comics publishing empire, and his seemingly limitless imagination introduced generations of readers to countless worlds of awe-inspiring visual majesty and wonder. Unfortunately, unlike social justice icon Howard Zinn, I never got to meet Kirby, but his lifelong passion for graphic storytelling was crucial in kindling my own.
The Cosmic King
The man who would be King was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents were Austrian Jewish immigrants, and his father earned a living as a garment factory worker. The young Kirby drew as a way of escaping from the impoverished conditions of his neighborhood (he sometimes used the hallway walls of the tenement building his family lived in as a sketch pad). Essentially self-taught, in late 1939 he began working for the movie animation company Fleischer Studios, and then, as the Golden Age of comic books took off, he began writing and drawing for the comic-book packager, Eisner & Iger Studio. Working in all comic book genres under a variety of pseudonyms, in 1942 he legally changed his name to Jack Kirby because it reminded him of actor James Cagney (and not, as some people claimed, to hide his Jewish heritage). This was the same year that Kirby married Rosalind Goldstein, with whom he would eventually raise four children (another coincidental similarity between Kirby and fellow New Yorker and son of Jewish immigrants Howard Zinn, was that both men married women who went by the name “Roz”).
One of Kirby’s earliest and most famous contributions to comics history was creating Captain America in 1941, with partner Joe Simon, for the company that would one day be known as Marvel Comics. Simon and Kirby soon moved to DC Comics, where they produced the kid gang comics Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion and eventually went on to create the romance comic genre. In 1958, Kirby (without Simon) returned to Marvel Comics, where he drew everything from westerns to giant monster stories (which were one of my early childhood favorites). Then, starting in 1961, Kirby and Marvel editor Stan Lee began a nearly 10-year creative collaboration that is widely regarded as the most significant and successful in comics history. During this period, Kirby co-created characters and groups including the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer and Nick Fury (in his roles as both leader of the Howling Commandos and as a later agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.). But despite Kirby’s contributions to the success of Marvel Comics, which became known as “The House That Jack Built,” he left the company for the second time in 1970 to work again for DC Comics, due to disputes over creative control, credit, compensation and ownership of his original artwork.
This is where I come in. At eight years old, 1971 was my first full year as a comic book reader, so my first exposure to Kirby was the amazing array of comics he began writing and drawing for DC at the time. These included his epic Fourth World saga, which chronicled the conflict between the super-powered celestial beings of New Genesis and the demonic denizens of Apokolips, led by the evil Darkseid. Consisting of New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle, these titles were Kirby’s attempt to create a modern mythology that would present primordial archetypes with superhero style.
Over the next year, Kirby also introduced readers to a centuries-old Arthurian demon doing battle in the present with equally ancient witches and warlocks; the last boy on a post-apocalyptic earth ruled by mutated anthropomorphic animals; a meek everyman in a soul-numbing future utopia who is transformed into a One Man Army Corps by a sentient satellite; and a superheroic master of Dreams protecting sleeping children from marauding nightmares. This was unfettered Kirby unleashing the full force of his imagination on impressionable young eyes and minds like mine in images so full of energy that they could barely be contained on the page.
Despite this outpouring of ideas at DC, in 1975 Stan Lee coaxed Kirby back to Marvel. In addition to working on his superhero creations Captain America and Black Panther, Kirby explored more cosmic concepts in series based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, ancient astronaut theories, and anachronistic prehistory. But perhaps predictably, after just three years, Kirby’s continued dissatisfaction with Marvel’s treatment of him, including the company’s refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, caused him to leave the publishing house that he built for the third and last time (See the Comics Reporter for an impressive sampling of Kirby’s art throughout his career).
Since Kirby’s death in 1994, DC and Marvel have continued to profit from the characters and worlds he created. Although neither of the two comic book publishing giants ever gave Kirby the compensation he deserved, his mistreatment by Marvel, which I described in a previous post, is legendary. Adding insult to injury, over the past 12 years, movies based on characters and stories Kirby created with Stan Lee have grossed $6.5 billion worldwide. Marvel and its parent company, Disney Studios, have fought Kirby’s heirs in court to prevent them from receiving one cent of that money and, perhaps worse, to deny their father’s contributions to the original works that generated all this wealth.
One of the biggest disappointments over Marvel/Disney’s actions for me as a comic book fan, and the greatest betrayal to Kirby and his family, has been the credit his longtime collaborator Stan Lee has taken as the primary architect of the Marvel Universe. Immediately after the big bang that started it all in 1961, and during the years of expansion that followed, Lee was explicit about Kirby’s role in Marvel’s success. In a 1968 interview, Lee admitted:
Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean I’ll just say to Jack, “Let’s let the next villain be Doctor Doom” . . . or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing . . . I may tell him that he’s gone too far in one direction or another. Of course, occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things.
But when he testified on Marvel’s behalf during the copyright lawsuit, which the Kirby heirs lost, he made it seem like he was the captain directing every element of story production:
STAN LEE: Well, it was my job to dream up new characters or to continue with the characters we had and to pick the best artists and the best writers unless I wrote something my — I had the privilege, which now that I think back, it was rare, but I could either write stories myself or I could hire writers. I couldn’t write everything. And it was my job to hire the artists to draw the stories. And I did that for quite a number of years.
Q. And did you give instructions to the artists as to how you wanted the story to go?
STAN LEE: Oh, yes. That was my job as Art Director.
Q. So in addition to writing, you were also the Art Director?
STAN LEE: Yes.
More shocking to me were statements Lee made during an interview this year to promote both The Avengers and an autobiographical documentary released by Lee’s own production company. After expressing confusion as to why Kirby’s name should appear in the movie credits for The Avengers, Lee tried to pass the buck, saying that (despite his status as Editor Emeritus of Marvel Comics and Executive Producer on every Marvel Studios film) he had nothing to do with deciding who got credits in the movie. Then he complained that he thought he was going to be asked about his documentary, ironically titled, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.
This title is taken from Lee’s most quoted line as a comic book writer (from the 1962 first appearance of Spider-Man), “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.” Lee enjoys the adoration of millions of comics fans, international fame as a pop cultural icon, and millions of dollars on Disney’s payroll. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to risk losing all that by speaking out against the House of the Mouse in Kirby’s defense. But Lee would have none of those things in the first place if not for Jack Kirby. Lee is the only person who can set the record straight about Kirby’s co-authorship of the Marvel Universe and help his heirs get at least some fraction of the recognition and compensation that the King never got during his earthly reign. I just hope that Lee finds the power to live up to that responsibility, before it’s too late.