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Jack “The King” Kirby

Image form Jack Kirby: Story Teller (2007)

Known to the world as “The King,” Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28th 1917, in New York City. He would grow up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side which at the time was the home territory of renowned gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano. His childhood would be filled with memories of street fights, gangs, and conflicts; memories that would years later leak into the pages of his work.

“If you look at my characters, you will find me. No matter what kind of character you create or assume, a little of yourself must remain there.”

Kirby developed an interest in drawing at an early age. He was mostly self-taught as an artist, having started by studying newspaper artwork from comic strip artists and political cartoonists. He cited among his main influences comic strip artists Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, and Alex Raymond. At age 14, Kirby enrolled in Pratt Institute, a prestigious school for illustrators. He dropped out early, but by the the age of 17 years old Kirby had gained an artist job at Fleischer Studios where he hand-drew transitions for 2D animations such as Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop. He also began drawing for various comic books using the name Jack Kirby as well as Jack Curtiss, Ted Grey, Fred Sande, Curt Davis – varying the name depending on the comic book genre. Eventually he would settle on just Jack Kirby.

As 1940 rolled in Kirby teamed up with writer-editor Joe Simon to create a new superhero for Timely Comics (later to be Marvel Comics) named Captain America which became a huge hit. They also created multiple characters for National Comics Publications (later to be DC Comics). Despite the commercial success of Captain America, Kirby was not paid more than the average comic book artist of the time: 75 dollars per week. He and Simon continued working on the Captain America series until issue #10.

“My stories are very sincere, my stories are people’s stories, and there’s elements of my stories that are very very real, and it doesn’t matter what the subject is.”

During World War II Kirby was drafted into the Army on June 7th, 1943, and following training was assigned to Company F of the 11th Infantry Regiment. He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on August 23, 1944, two-and-a-half months after D-Day. Kirby recalled that a lieutenant, learning that comics artist Kirby was in his command, gave him the life-threatening job as a scout who would advance into towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures. Due to his work he suffered severe frostbite in the winter of 1944-1945 that resulted in his hospitalisation. Doctors feared Kirby’s feet would have to be amputated for him to survive. Luckily Kirby managed to recover with no amputation necessary. He was discharged from the Army in July, 1945, having been awarded medals for his service.

Following World War II, Simon got Kirby and himself work at Harvey Comics, where they created Boy Explorers Comics, Western Boys’ Ranch, Stuntman, and Captain 3-D. At this time, they also freelanced for Hillman Periodicals.

“The heroes represent the wholesome part of society. Society has a wholesome side and it has a downside. We know where those facets lie. They are common to all of us.”

The duo also created romance comics after Simon noted the success of Macfadden Publications’ romantic-confession magazine True Story. He discussed it with Kirby who created a first-issue mock-up of Young Romance. They presented this to Crestwood general manager Maurice Rosenfeld, Simon asked for 50% of the comic’s profits. Crestwood publishers Teddy Epstein and Mike Bleier agreed, stipulating that the creators would take no money up front.

Cover dated October 1947; Young Romance #1 was launched as a bi-monthly title. It became a huge hit, selling 92% of its initial print run! By the third issue their print run was tripled, and it soon became a monthly title. A spin-off Young Love launched not long after, and in no time at all both comics were selling two million copies per month. Later Young Brides and In Love were added to the comic line, and millions were flying off the shelves each month despite several other companies mimicking their formula.

“People think about war like they think about comics or think about Broadway plays. They don’t think that it’s serious, that it is reality. But it is. You gotta kill that guy.”

In November 1951 Atlas Comics emerged from Timely Comics and in 1954 published a new Captain America comic without Kirby and Simon’s involvement. This led to Kirby and Simon creating Fighting American in 1954 where Nelson Flagg, the unathletic younger brother of star athlete and war hero Johnny Flagg, works as a writer for his popular TV news commentator brother at station USA. Johnny is killed by one of the many enemies his commentary has earned him, leading Nelson to make a deathbed promise to hunt down his brother’s murderers. Suddenly Nelson is recruited for the U.S. military’s “Project Fighting American”, where his mind and life force are transferred to Johnny’s “revitalized and strengthened” corpse. Assuming Johnny’s identity, Nelson adopts the costumed alter ego Fighting American to battle Communist threats!

Following working for several companies, Kirby returned to Atlas Comics in 1958. His first published work was called “I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers” which appeared in Strange Worlds #1 (Dec. 1958). He would then create a number of monsters that appeared in the various anthology titles of the time including Fing Fang Foom, Groot, Grotti, King of the Insects and The Thing from Planet X.

“I try to make my characters human. Whether we consider them evil, or whether we consider them good. Even my heroes have human qualities. My superheroes have human qualities.”

Kirby did not work exclusively for Atlas though, he collaborated with Joe Simon to create two more superheroes for Archie Comics. They were the Fly (1959) and a new incarnation of the Shield, called Lancelot Strong (1959). He also worked for the “Classics Illustrated” comic book series by The Gilberton Company, Inc.

In 1961 Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics and the Marvel Age was seen in with The Fantastic Four which was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kirby would also help create Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, Magneto, Doctor Doom, Uatu the Watcher, Ego the Living Planet, The Inhumans, Black Panther, The Avengers, Galactus, and The Silver Surfer amongst others.

Kirby’s time at Marvel became more frustrating as it went on. Arguments over being credited for his work, arguments over who created what with Stan Lee, as well as Lee’s growing media presence caused huge rifts, as did what Kirby viewed as broken promises from publisher Martin Goodman. Soon Kirby began drawing secondary features such as The Inhumans and Chamber of Darkness – whilst they were secondary features, he did receive full credit.

“I wrote my own stories. Nobody ever wrote a story for me. I told in every story what was really inside my gut, and it came out that way.”

All this came to a head in 1970 when Kirby was offered a contract from Marvel that included unfavourable terms such as a prohibition against legal retaliation. Kirby immediately told them what they could do with that contract, but Marvel management refused to negotiate any contract change. This resulted in Kirby walking away from the Marvel house he helped build into the arms of DC Comics working for editorial director Carmine Infantino on a three year contract with an option for two additional years.

Upon his arrival at DC, Kirby began working on “The Fourth World” – including the titles New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People. The Mister Miracle book was where Funky Flashman appeared. Flashman often attempts to cash in on the talents of Mister Miracle and/or rip him off. The reason Flashman turned heads was because he was a very clear caricature of Stan Lee, whilst his servant Houseroy was clearly Roy Thomas. These depictions hurt Lee and Thomas’ feelings. When Thomas later spoke to Kirby about them, and he downplayed the insults. Kirby would later suggest The Fourth World stories be compiled and released as books, DC would not act on this but decades later this would become an industry standard with trades becoming the norm.

Also at that time, Kirby also chose to work on the title Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen – mainly because it did not have a steady creative team and he did not want to have anyone lose their job because of him.

Through his time at DC Kirby also worked on OMAC, Kamandi, The Demon, Kobra, Our Fighting Forces. 1st Issue Special,  Atlas the Great, Manhunter (Mark Shaw), the Dingbats of Danger Street, and created a new Sandman alongside Joe Simon.

“I know I’ve done quite a bit. I know that in my hunger for making a living, I might have created a few monsters. Maybe that’s natural. I don’t know. But I can tell you that Marvel was my making, and I can tell you that DC never lost anything from any of my work.”

Reports indicate that Kirby’s time at DC were not the easiest with him often being made to work on characters he had no interest in. There was also conflict with other DC artists who either were jealous of Kirby or maintained bad blood with him over previous company battles. Kirby also found his work was redesigned at times and he was powerless to stop it as he sent his work to DC’s New York office from California.

“My characters relationship with the reader, is my own relationship. I love people in general, and that’s reflected in my characters. My characters are very human, and the next guy recognizes himself in any character I draw.”

At Marvelcon ’75, Stan Lee announced Kirby’s return to Marvel. His return would see him work on Captain America, Black Panther, contribute numerous front covers, create The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and adapt The Prisoner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kirby’s final comics collaboration with Stan Lee came in 1978 and was called The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience. It was part of the Marvel Fireside Books series and is considered Marvel’s first graphic novel.

Kirby left Marvel to work in animation for Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears Productions. This would see him design Turbo Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian, The New Shmoo, The New Fantastic Four, The World’s Greatest SuperFriends, Space Stars, Goldie Gold and Action Jack, Mister T, Centurions, Rambo, Lazer Tag Academy, Sectaurs, and Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos.

“I never had stock endings. I didn’t believe in stock endings. To make the reader happy was not my objective, but to make the reader say, “Yeah, that’s what would happen” – that was my objective. I knew the reader was never happy all the time. You take the Thing, he’d knock out 50 guys at a time and win – then maybe he’d sit down and kind of reflect on it: “Maybe I hurt somebody or maybe we could have done it some other way” like a human being would think, not like a monster.”

Back on the page, Kirby illustrated an adaptation of the Walt Disney movie The Black Hole for Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales syndicated comic strip in 1979–80 and he also drew concept art for film producer Barry Geller’s script treatment adapting Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light.

Kirby teamed with Pacific Comics in the early 1980s, signing one of the first ever creator-owned deal that resulted in Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and the six-issue miniseries Silver Star. In 1983, Richard Kyle commissioned Kirby to create a 10-page autobiographical strip, “Street Code.” In 1984 Kirby returned to DC Comics for a brief revival of his “Fourth World” saga. He followed this up with the 1985 Super Powers miniseries and the graphic novel The Hunger Dogs. The Super Powers miniseries had an accompanying action figure toy line which Kirby also designed. He received royalties for the use of his character designs – making it the only time he was so compensated.

A lot of Kirby’s later years were spent in legal battles with Marvel both over creator rights and the fact he wanted his original artwork returned to him. Kirby also had many public blow ups with Stan Lee over who was the true creator of the Fantastic Four. They both claimed that they came up with most of the concepts and that their collaborator only added relatively insignificant details. Several comic book historians have tried to determine which version was true, though no definite evidence can be produced. Historian Mark Evanier, who has written a biography of Kirby, has argued that none of the two versions were true. He has argued that the two men were equal collaborators and that the credit for the series belongs to both.

“For comics to be effective they have to mirror life in some way. You’ve got to make them high drama. You gotta make them – not fictional, but you’ve got to dramatize, like what you see in Captain America.”

As the 1990’s rolled in Kirby found himself creating concept art for Charles Band’s Doctor Mortalis and Mindmasterwhich would be released as Doctor Mordrid in 1992 and Mandroid in 1993.

In 1993 Topps Comics launched “The Kirbyverse”. These titles were derived mainly from designs and concepts Kirby had kept in his files. As part of the deal, Kirby maintained creative ownership of the the properties. We were soon introduced to the “Jack Kirby’s Secret City Saga.”

“I saw my villains not as villains. I knew villains had to come from somewhere and they came from people. My villains were people that developed problems.”

Sadly Jack Kirby passed away in his Thousand Oaks, California, home on February 6th 1994 at the age of 76 years old due to heart failure. He was buried at Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California. Phantom Force was the last comic book Kirby worked on before his death. The story was co-written by Kirby with Michael Thibodeaux and Richard French. It was based on an eight-page pitch for an unused Bruce Lee comic in 1978. Thibodeaux provided the art for the remaining issues of the series after Kirby died.

“I think the greatest contribution I made to comics, is the fact that I helped to build up readership.”

Since his death, much of Kirby’s unpublished work has seen posthumous publication. His creator-owned characters were inherited by his family and have continued to appear in new works by various publishers. The Kirby family has repeatedly attempted to claim partial ownership over Jack Kirby’s Marvel creations, though their legal efforts have so far been unsuccessful. The Kirby family has not disputed the ownership of his DC creations.

“I think there’s something about comics and good storytelling that’s a marriage, and they (the fans) realize that. That’s the wonderful thing about comics: It puts the idea of published storytelling in the hands of the ordinary guy.”

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