Today marks the birthday of one of the greatest, most influential, and innovative comic book artists of all time, the late Jack Kirby, responsible for creating and co-creating some of comicdom’s most well known and gold standard characters in the history of the genre – Captain America, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and The X-Men, to name a few.
The New York Times, who had written about Kirby 10 years after his death on February 1994, by which time he had amassed a portfolio of work almost tantamount to the works of Picasso or Michelangelo in his respective field, summed up the style of the man’s art this way:
He created a new grammar of storytelling and a cinematic style of motion. Once-wooden characters cascaded from one frame to another—or even from page to page—threatening to fall right out of the book into the reader’s lap. The force of punches thrown was visibly and explosively evident. Even at rest, a Kirby character pulsed with tension and energy in a way that makes movie versions of the same characters seem static by comparison.
Vivid and perfectly applied words indeed to the master. Jack Kirby was a breathtaking legend in his execution of what he put on the comic page or the many memorable covers he illustrated, a quick glance at the covers of The Fantastic Four’s 1st issue, Hulk, Iron Man, and Avengers covers during the Marvel Silver Age during the 1960s are a simple visual tell tale of the stunning power of Kirby’s work.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917 in poor surroundings in New York City, Kirby got his start working on newspaper cartoons by the mid 1930s, then assisting on Max Fleischer’s Popeye cartoons in 1939. Kirby then partnered with Fox Features Editor Joe Simon to create Captain America in late 1940. The first issue, released early the following year by Timely Comics, was a sell-out million seller. Feeling they were chiseled on profits from Captain America, by the time the 10th issue was released they left Timely Comics to join National Comics, which eventually became known by its more high profile and memorable name of DC Comics. Kirby then served in World War II where he almost lost his legs to frostbite, but managed to recover miraculously. In his post-war comic art career, he illustrated romance comics, again partnering up with Joe Simon.
By the mid-1950s, he returned sans Joe Simon to Timely Comics, which was now known as Atlas Comics, and soon was to become known as the archetypal Marvel Comics. By the 1960s, he became a crucial asset to the company by that point, which was still mired in a sort of identity crisis with their content output. Kirby came up with the “house style,” the basic template in which other illustrators were to adhere to. He also gave budding illustrators of the company “breakdown layouts,” over which they would meticulously pencil in to get the style and feel of what was to be known as the “Marvel Look.” Fellow artist and penciler at the time Gil Kane described it this way about Kirby’s influence and importance at Marvel Comics during that era:
Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company … It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but … Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field … [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists … and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. … Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me … It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.
By the time the new decade rolled in, Kirby became dissatisfied with his stint at Marvel and moved to rival DC Comics. He tooled around there for awhile and even went back to Marvel Comics by mid-decade also to limited success, but the legend was there, and his mark was already firmly made on gargantuan block of granite in the comic universe vis-a-vis his contributions and his importance. Kirby’s final work consisted of gigs at lesser known independent comic companies, and a few more stints at DC. He died at the age of 76 on February 6, 1994, leaving a legacy as rich and storied and colorfully influential as many of the characters he vividly manifested from his ink wells.
The legacy of Jack Kirby cannot be denied. The power of his work lives on and stretches miles upon miles wide. He was a living legend in the later years of his life, and remains a figurehead for a certain kind of criterion of comic book development by way of illustration, power, emotion, and dazzling wonderment. Dig out those old reprints (or if you have the originals, lucky you!) and curl up with some of the best the world of comics had to offer.