Today is Jack Kirby's birthday. If he were still alive, he would be turning 97. Instead he has been gone more than twenty years. During his 76 years on earth he proved to be one of the most influential creators, not only in comics, but also the 20th Century. If comic fans ought to know one name, one story, out of all those people who helped to form the comics medium, then it is Jack Kirby's.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917 in New York City to Austrian Jewish immigrant parents, he was raised in a poor household situated in a rough area of the lower East Side. He was interested in art at a very young age, drawing on wallpaper with charcoal, but never received any formal education. He spent only one week at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before deciding he needed to work at a faster pace than they desired.
Kirby began professionally working on cartoons and comics early in life, starting at the Fleischer studios (famous for Popeye) at the age of 18. He moved between various studios and projects, before landing at Timely Comics run by publisher Martin Goodman. Timely would become a much more popular publisher years later under a new name: Marvel Comics. There he met his long-time friend and collaborator Joe Simon. Together they created Captain America, who socked Hitler in the jaw before America’s entry into World War II.
Both Kirby and Simon were drafted as soldiers in WWII, putting their careers on hold. While Simon and other comic creators like Stan Lee and Bill Everett (who had already created Namor, The Sub-Mariner) were able to find work away from the front lines, Kirby was often used as a scout in the European theater, one of the most dangerous assignments in the war.
Kirby married the love of his life, Roz Goldstein, only a few months before he left for his combat assignment. When he returned, they started a family. Their first child, Susan, was born in 1945. Their only son, Neal, would follow in 1948 and their final child, Barbara, was born in 1952. With families to feed and rent to pay, Kirby and Simon resumed their partnership.
Together they worked on a variety of projects, including the founding of romance comics as one of the most popular genres of the 1950’s. After more than a decade of work together, Simon decided to move on to other things in 1956 (working in advertising and the satirical magazine, Sick), while Kirby stuck to his work in comics. Less than five years later, he would help to create many of the most enduring characters in popular culture.
Kirby resumed working for Timely Comics, now called Atlas, in 1958 under the editorial leadership of Stanley Lieber (better known as Stan Lee). He began working on monster stories, drawing upwards of eight pages per day. However, Atlas was in dire financial straits by 1961, forcing Lee to fire every writer on staff. Furniture was being removed from the offices when Kirby created the idea that would make Marvel Comics one of the largest publisher’s of all time: The Fantastic Four.
Fantastic Four #1 was published in November 1961. In the following years Kirby would also create characters like The Hulk, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Thor, Nick Fury, Iron Man, The X-Men, Doctor Doom, The Inhumans, The Silver Surfer, and the first African-American superhero – The Black Panther! Kirby ostensibly created the foundation of the Marvel universe alongside Bill Everett (Daredevil), Don Heck (Iron Man), Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange), and Stan Lee. Marvel Comics was transformed in less than a year from a failure to the second most popular provider of superhero comics.
It was also at this time that Kirby helped to establish the “Marvel method” of writing comics. Kirby would talk with Lee, often by telephone for five minutes or less, about a given issue of Fantastic Four or any of his other titles, then plot, design, and draw the entire issue. He would even include dialogue suggestions in the margin. All of these pages were created at his home on Long Island, and were later delivered to the Marvel offices where Lee would write the dialogue.
Kirby left Marvel Comics in 1970 to begin work at rival publisher, DC Comics. His move was prompted by a variety of factors. His creations had helped to make Marvel a success, but he continued to work as a freelance artist. Contracts for future creations provided him with no additional stake in the characters or ability to profit from their ongoing publication. The flamboyant Lee had also taken his toll on Kirby. Despite providing him with the nickname “The King”, Lee received much of the credit for the creations at Marvel. He spent his time touring college campuses and providing interviews, while Kirby worked from home. He labeled himself writer on books entirely plotted by Kirby. In a 1966 The Herald Tribune article, Lee was characterized as the father of Marvel Comics, while Kirby was only mentioned in the final paragraphs, compared to the assistant foreman at a griddle factory.
While at DC Comics, Kirby created a new batch of astounding characters, most of which existed in his Fourth World Saga. Comprised of four books (Jimmy Olsen, The Forever People, The New Gods, and Mister Miracle), all written, drawn, and edited by Kirby on a monthly basis, this story would comprise Kirby’s proudest and most auteur-like comic. He also created Kamandi, OMAC, Etrigan the Demon, The Losers, and The Challengers of the Unknown for the company.
Kirby continued to work regularly in comics until 1980, including a brief return to Marvel where he wrote and illustrated Captain America. This was followed by time spent in Hollywood, fulfilling a childhood dream of working around movies. He spent the final years of his life with his wife Roz in California painting and attending comic conventions, including the earliest iterations of San Diego Comic-Con. He died of heart failure on February 6th, 1994.
Jack Kirby’s greatest legacy will always be his family: a loving son, husband, and father who doted upon those he held dearest. He worked his entire life and prided himself upon providing for his family, raising them with more than he had ever hoped for in a New York ghetto.
Yet he managed to provide a legacy not just for his own children, but for children (and those young at heart) all over the world. In his stories of super heroes, adventurers, lovers, and soldiers, he helped to form a unique medium in the American comic book. The characters he created more than fifty years ago continue to inspire children and adults alike today. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk were once ideas in Jack Kirby’s head. He had the courage to give them life and meaning.
Not only do his creations still entertain us both on bookshelves and in movie theaters, but they also provide us with important lessons. His life serves as a lesson that we should all pay heed. From the humblest of beginnings, with nothing more than imagination, one man changed the world. Today, his creations are seen the world over by millions of children and adults, teaching them of the importance of family, friends, and fighting for what is right.
Jack Kirby did not invent the superhero though. He didn’t need to. He was one.
The King is dead. Long live The King.
I would like to thank Sean Howe (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story), The Kirby Museum, and Gary Groth and Robert Steibel of The Comics Journal. Without their incredible research and writing, I could never have hoped to compile this short biography of Jack Kirby. It is through their dedication and passion that Jack Kirby’s legacy is secured and his proper place in history established.