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Jack Kirby: Comics' Greatest Storyteller

 How is it that the work of Jack Kirby, which contains some of the most colorful characters and influential mythology of the last century, still manages to feel so personal? Comic books are now known at least as much as source material for exciting movies as they are for being currently published graphic stories. Kirby’s work has been adapted into roughly a dozen of the most successful feature films of recent years, with more on the way all the time.

Jack Kirby may primarily be known as a great and influential comic book creator, but above all else, he was a storyteller. He understood the powerful impact that stories, any stories, could have. His mother and other elders told stories that enraptured him as a boy. The stories in the newspaper comics and in the movie theaters did the same.

Jack drew as a child, he drew as a teen, he drew as a young man, and he drew well into his old age. Kirby learned that he, his pencil, and a piece of paper could engage the mind and emotion of the audience as much as his own mind had been engaged. He learned that science fiction could serve the same function in the present as mythology had in the past. He knew, from his time spent with his gang of buddies in New York City’s toughest ghetto, the Lower East Side, his fellow soldiers on the battlefields of Europe during World War Two, and the life-long love he shared with his wife Roz, how we all used drama and myth to help cope with the best and the worst of times.

Early on, Kirby’s drawings became more than just lines on a page, they became the raw material for stories. Jack Kirby was there at the beginning of the comic book as it is known in America.

Comics were the perfect place for his distinctive stories, and through his career he drew literally thousands of pages of them, often at the almost superhuman rate of four pages a day. He helped shape what was initially considered disposable entertainment into the enduring art form we know today. Jack, along with his one-time boss, Will Eisner, his partner Joe Simon, and Jack “Plastic Man” Cole, learned the new creature of the comic book was a unique, valid narrative art form. They took comic books seriously, and it showed. It was no surprise that Jack would later put that seriousness to work in epic tales like “Mother Delilah” in the pages of Boys’ Ranch, “The Galactus Trilogy” in The Fantastic Four, or “The Glory Boat” in The New Gods.

Between the comic book boom of the early ‘40s (where, in addition to superhero work like Captain America, the Simon & Kirby team developed the Young Allies, the Boy Commandos, and the Newsboy Legion, setting the stage for other, better known bickering teams of adventure comics characters), his distinguished service in combat during World War II, and the superhero renaissance of the jet age, the S&K team invented the incredibly successful genre of romance comics during the late 1940s.

And that was only the beginning.

In case you’re one of the uninitiated, let me give you an idea of the sheer scope of Kirby’s work as a comic book writer and artist over his fifty year career. Get ready, because this reads like a greatest hits collection of some of the most recognizable characters in popular fiction…

Jack was there at the birth of Marvel Comics as we know it and helped bring Captain America into existence. He created or co-created (with Stan Lee) future box-office sensations like The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, The Avengers, Nick Fury, and the X-Men. Groot began life as a Kirby-drawn short story long before he became a beloved supporting character in Guardians of the Galaxy, and if you look closely, you can even spot one of Kirby’s cosmic Eternals in an easter egg in that film. You’ll be seeing Black Panther and The Inhumans on the silver screen soon enough. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Before detailed credits in comics became the norm, many young readers would still recognize Kirby’s stories. The art pulled them in like no other. Readers recognized the eyes, the hands, the staging, the action. When creator credits proliferated in the 1960s, Kirby’s name became associated with dynamic action, compelling drama, and mind-blowing concepts. No one did comics at the level Kirby did.

When DC lured Jack away from Marvel, which seemed like an unthinkable creative coup, the cover of his first issue of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (which had previously been a rather milquetoast tertiary Superman title before Jack imbued it with a psychedelic energy and dynamic storytelling that the normally staid DC wasn’t known for at the time) proudly proclaimed that “Kirby is here!” In 1970, comics companies didn’t engage in that kind of promotion, but such was the power and influence of Kirby’s work at the time.

At DC, an entirely new mythology sprang from his pencil. His Fourth World comics brought a host of characters and concepts that DC Comics and Warner Bros. continue to use to this day. These concepts became a cornerstone of DC’s own cosmic mythology, an element that had been sorely lacking in their books until that time. Perhaps his most memorable contribution to DC lore was cosmic warlord Darkseid, a character with power-levels that could match Superman, but whose motivations were far more layered than merely using his strength to cause destruction.

Darkseid and the New Gods made their way into action figure lines and animated series, and their influence can be seen reflected in pop culture titans from Star Wars to Masters of the Universe. The villainous Steppenwolf will face off against the Justice League in their big screen debut this November. Darkseid and The New Gods probably won’t be far behind.

So, yes… Jack Kirby helped bring many of your favorite superheroes to life, and they are the current lifeblood of blockbuster cinema. But decades before dystopian futures were a sub-genre of their own in Hollywood, Jack produced OMAC and Kamandi for DC Comics. He explored themes of ancient aliens back at Marvel in The Eternals. Even his lesser known latter-day creations like Captain Victory are brimming with the kind of mythic interpersonal sci-fi dynamism Kirby brought to all his work.

Jack Kirby was a storyteller above all else. Science-fiction, action-adventure, mythology, romance…he put himself into all of those stories. It just so happened that when he told his stories, many of these characters became the superheroes we know and love.

***

The Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center currently has a special, limited engagement event celebrating the 100th birthday of Jack Kirby at One Art Space in New York City. Please come out and celebrate the King of Comics!

Visit kirbymuseum.org for information on how you can support our future efforts. 

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of Den of Geek Magazine.

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