Jack “King” Kirby is one of, if not the most influential comic book illustrators of all time. If not, all time, certainly, his time. His work began in the Golden Age of Comics (c. 1938 – c. 1950) and concluded with the modern age (c. 1985 – present).
Jack has been credited with creating or co-creating some of the most recognizable characters in comic history.
- Black Panther
- Captain America
- Fantastic Four
- Iron Man
- And the list goes on
His work has heavily influenced generation after generation of illustrators. His work changed comics. From his bold figure drawings, page design, and compositions, his work is unrivalled. He had a unique gift to draw the reader’s eye across the page in a way that was natural. Reading a Kirby comic was like looking at the perfect sunset. The reader would become lost in its beauty, magnificence, and brilliance.
Jack began his career working for the Studio Eisner and Iger. Immediately, Eisner knew that he had hired someone special. It was here that Kirby’s drive and determination were first noticed.
From here, Kirby would work at Fox Feature’s Syndicate and it was here that Kirby would meet his longtime friend and future partner, Joe Simon. Like Eisner, Simon was immediately impressed by Kirby’s drive and determination. He was taken back by the speed at which he would work, but more importantly the precision of his work. He was a natural talent.
Simon would soon leave Fox to start his own company and at this time, implored Kirby to move with him. Unfortunately for Simon, this was the time of the ‘Depression’ and Kirby could not justify leaving for another company. He needed the steady stream of income that was coming from Fox.
Shortly thereafter, Simon met Martin Goodman (who had a brand of comics that was in some hot water). Goodman, understanding that comics were the ‘next big thing’ began his work on Marvel Comics #1, which would be put out as Marvel Tales under the name ‘Timely Comics’. Kirby would be hired by Goodman and Simon as their illustrator and given a full-time salary.
For the first little while of Timely Comics, they toiled away, creating miss after miss and they were in trouble. This changed when America decided to head for War. Kirby and Simon were continually trying to create the perfect villain and the war offered them the opportunity to capitalize on a real life villain; Adolf Hitler. Now with their villain in hand, the created what would become one of the most recognizable heroes in the history of comics; Captain America and began to get it to the stands as quickly as possible. Captain America #1 hit the stands in March of 1941 and it was a success.
During the time of Captain America, Kirby would befriend a man named Stanley Leiber.
The fairytale meeting would not last long. Believing that Goodman was short-changing them on their profits, Simon would secretly negotiate a deal that would see he and Kirby move to rival DC comics. Leiber, now known as Stan Lee, was said to be a part of the deal until Goodman found out. This ultimately led to Simon and Kirby being kicked out of Timely Comics.
During the second world war, Kirby became conflicted as to what he was to do. On one hand, he felt the need to serve his country, provide for his family and produce comics for DC. He was drafted by his country but was able to get a deferment because he was the sole provider for his family. The only solution in sight was to work to produce enough comics so that he would provide the necessary monies for his family while freeing up his time so that he may serve his country. He has stated that the goal, “was to get enough work backlogged that I go into the Army, kill Hitler and get back before the readers missed us.”
At the conclusion of the War, Kirby found himself unable to work at DC. DC has changed their rules and they no longer wanted anyone to be outside suppliers.
The good news is from here, Kirby (and Simon) went to work for their friend, Al Harvey. The bad news is comics were on the decline.
This would not be the only setback Kirby would encounter. Eventually, the Comics Code Authority was created and the content that was found within the pages of the sacred books would be monitored. Kirby was faced with another dilemma; either join the Comics Code Authority or face Zero Distribution. He reluctantly agreed.
Now in the late 50’s, Kirby found himself back at DC comics creating fantasy stories that would later become the backbone of “The Marvel Age” of comics. Eventually, Kirby frustrated by the lack of good writers at DC, rejoined Lee (who at the time was a premiere writer) at Timely, now called Atlas. It was in this run at Timely that Kirby, along with Lee created “The Marvel Age” of comics. During this period, many notable characters were created.
Kirbys’ Time would not last at Marvel. Kirby knew of his talents and influence and often found himself searching for a better deal. This time, the better deal would come back at DC comics. During this time with DC, he would be credited with creating/contributing to such characters as Darkseid, Etrigan, and The Demon.
In the late 1970’s Kirby would return to Marvel due to the consistent failure of book after book at DC. At this time, he would return to and take over one of the characters he helped create: Captain America as well as some “out there” titles. Given free reign may not have been such a good idea, however, as many believe that Kirby was best kept “in check” by an editor. It often took someone to dial Kirby in and as a result of this, he produced his best work. Because of his crazier themed comics, his time at Marvel would be cut short.
Given the numerous disappointments Kirby had recently faced, he would leave the comic industry to focus on others areas of cartoons, specifically animation. He would create work for Hanna-Barbera, and Ruby-Spears.
Within a few years, Kirby would be approached by Pacific Comics and be in the words of the Godfather, be “given an offer no man could refuse.” He would be given the chance at a creator-owned series. This move proved pivotal in the industry. At no point thus far did a creator have rights to any property they created while working for a publisher. If they created it while under contract, the creation belonged to the publisher.
Around the same time, Marvel Comics would finally give in and give back some of the artwork Kirby produced while working for them. While seen as a small victory, this opened the doors for artists all over.
Not only did Jack Kirby changed the way comics were made, he changed the way that the makers were treated. Jack Kirby is without a doubt the most influential comic book artist of the 20th century and may go down as the most influential artist of all time.
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