I’m taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to bring you something Timely. Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacob Kurtzberg, known to the world as Jack Kirby. This isn’t a technical analysis or a history lesson or a list of favorites, but a bit of everything. If you enjoy this (and Kirby’s art), it’s a love letter to him. If not, this is a rant between “proper” posts.
When Siegel and Shuster sold Superman to DC Comics for 130 dollars, they weren’t young idiots being taken advantage of by a large corporation (or at least it’s not that simple). They were both only 24 years old and figured they’d go on to bigger and better things. Superman would be the character that launched their careers. They assumed (hoped) that Superman had come so easily, of course they’d make other even better characters and concepts. Now, they are both known only for Superman. He was one of their only creations and their only successful one in decades-long careers (including his supporting cast). Still, Superman is a goddamn American treasure. Only creating Superman is like only creating Jaws or Godzilla or The Sistine Chapel.
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were similar to Siegel and Shuster, only 23 or 24 when they created Captain America for Timely Comics. Kirby was forced to leave comics shortly after creating Cap, to fight in World War II, but his career would last far longer. While Stan Lee wrote informational strips for the US Army in Florida, Jack Kirby was busy storming the beaches of Normandy. Captain America punched Nazis, and Kirby followed his own example and fought for America. Kirby’s career in comics spanned six decades, encompassing many more achievements after co-creating Captain America. 2017 alone has Kirby characters from four different decades appearing in multiple different superhero movies. Admittedly, I am only strongly versed in his 60s and 70s work. But that’s still thousands of pages of art and writing, and dozens of series.
Kirby and his work are truly larger than life. It’s difficult to not get lost in his grand vistas and characters and his monumental body of work. His work is awe-some in the classical sense, it’s fucking jaw dropping. His landscapes and characters draw on gods and mythology and it’s hard to talk about him without that language. Of all the blog posts I’ve written, my slim piece on Kirby’s Fourth World is the smallest in both length and focus. When I attempted to write about him, I found my focus narrowing further and further to avoid spiraling out of control. Hell, this post is already spiraling out of control a little bit.
In his superhero comics, there is no middle ground. There are no average people. This is why he was a perfect pairing against Steve Ditko to spearhead Marvel’s Silver Age revolution. Ditko’s Peter Parker is the ultimate average person. Every American comic creator and superhero artist and writer during or after Kirby’s lifetime is influenced by him, consciously or not. His work could be seen as archaic raw material for generations after him, especially if someone just looked at early awkward issues of Captain America, Thor, or Fantastic Four. Later comic creators took his characters and made them more realistic or natural or nuanced. This simple reading ignores how so much of Kirby’s work is an absolute acid trip. He never tried to be realistic or naturalistic in his art or writing, and he never was.
Here’s a laundry list of his technical highlights (to me) in both art and writing:
Strange dynamic anatomy
Surreal, labyrinthian architecture
Experimental use of photo collage
Simple effective layouts
Strong sense of character and costume design
Bombastic rhythmic narration
Dedication and respect for every project (including unpopular books like Jimmy Olsen, and licensed books like 2001 and Super Powers)
Ability to craft both long serialized stories and short form standalone stories
There have been many attempts to celebrate Kirby’s work from DC, Marvel, and IDW this year ranging from terrible to fantastic. It’s important to honor him and remember his role in creating characters, but we also must learn from his career and his struggles.
Even his real name, Jacob Kurtzberg, feels lost to history at times. Jack Kirby is punchier and simpler than Jacob Kurtzberg and it fits his work. But he was one of many Golden Age comics creators who changed their names to hide their Jewish heritage. Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow is filled with Golden Age comics professionals who had an ordinary “Jewish” name and a more sellable public gentile name.
Kirby’s ultimate lesson is his constant creation and invention. Most comic artists now struggle to put out an issue a month. Kirby often did two a month, often including writing and editing his books as well as drawing them. He not only created countless characters and superheroes, but he created whole genres of comics. He could appeal to any audience and for any purpose. Captain America was wartime and political propaganda of the best kind. His romance comics were often smart and subversive short stories for young adults, particularly girls, decades before the birth of “young adult” fiction. His later Marvel and DC books appealed to a superhero audience that was aging and becoming smarter. Is there any comic creator today who could appeal to such a diverse readership? Can comics even appeal to such a diverse readership today?
While I love books like Bug! or Mister Miracle, there’s a feeling that honoring Kirby means more than honoring his characters. It’s not about his creations themselves but about his God-like sense of creation. To truly honor Kirby would be to do something totally original, to invent new characters or series or even genres. Comics are barely more than 100 years old in their modern form, there’s still undiscovered frontiers all around us.
It’s possible to say that he was just positioned at the right place and the right time. But that excuse doesn’t explain how he reinvented the medium multiple times over. His characters and stories are all firmly in their specific time and decade, but also timeless. Captain America and Red Skull belong in 1941, just as Reed Richards and Ben Grimm belong to 1961, just as Beautiful Dreamer and the Forever People belong to 1971. Yet all of his characters still appeal to readers and movie-goers in 2017. Shakespeare is the only other creator I can think of with such a timeless appeal and massive body of stories and characters. Long live Jack Kirby, long live comics.