Category Archives: Charity & Outreach

Kirby at 99: Chasing the Mystery


Please continue to support Jillian Kirby and the Hero Initiative’s wonderful Kirby4Heroes campaign: a splendid way to honor Jack’s legacy and that of other veteran comic book creators. For more information about Kirby4Heroes, check out its Facebook page and website. And don’t forget #WakeUpAndDraw, the drawing challenge to benefit the Hero Initiative, which you can follow on Twitter.

Today would have been the 99th birthday of Jack Kirby, an artist and a man we know a lot about and yet who remains, to me, a mystery and a challenge. I expect he always will.

I wrote an academic book about Kirby. I curated an exhibition of his art, and co-edited the catalog which came out of that. I’ve written a handful of articles for The Jack Kirby Collector. In one way or another, I’ve been following Kirby and his work for most of my life, starting I don’t know when–sometime before I turned ten, which is about when he became my favorite comic book artist–and intensifying in my twenties, when I discovered comic shops and began to chase down Kirby books I had not seen as a kid. I’ve thought about and grappled with Kirby in waves, and can mark off certain phases of my life on the basis of how my view of Kirby changed. Sometimes he has been the very center of my interest in comics, and at other times a persistent background; the terms of my attention keep changing. Over the past ten years, though, as thinking about Kirby has turned into a program of academic work, my interest has been constant and especially intense.

You could say that I have Kirbymania. After all, a big part of my thinking and reading life orbits around the idea of Jack Kirby, and I don’t see that changing. Despite the rigors of working on the exhibition and catalog these past few years–a dream, a blur, a happy madness–I can’t help but feel that I’m not done with Kirby, and never will be. The truth is, he is still a mystery to me. There is so much to take in: the crushing hardships of his life, which he refused to be crushed by; his rare and intense gift for comics storytelling; the push and pull of contrary feelings and the gear-grinding clash of ideas in his work; his galloping imagination and yen for Big Things; above all, the great, unstinting generosity of his talent and temperament, which transformed deadline-crazy freelancing into an amazing outpouring of art that was, always, surplus to requirements. How can someone do that? How can that be possible, to wring, from a life steeped in the memory of poverty and violence, work so generous and vivid, so free of cynicism even when it ventured into the darkest places?

Kirby still has me baffled. I don’t think I’ll ever get him all figured out. Lord knows I’ve tried. It was Kirby who lured me into trying to figure out, in Hand of Fire, the whole strange business of cartooning: a mix of figuration, pictographic symbolism, and ecstatic handiwork, all driven toward to simplification and typification by narrative intent–but never merely reducible to a paraphrasable intent. It was Kirby who got me past analytical formalism, back to the wild sweep of the whole comics page. It was he who got me over my adolescent embarrassment at, hell disavowal of, things I really enjoyed and still enjoy: outrageous cartooning, grandstanding images, superhero yarns, space opera, Pop sublimity, plain reckless joy. It was Kirby who kicked me in the slats at age ten, and then again at age forty-plus, when I needed to take a post-tenure plunge into rediscovered pleasures, and needed to own them on a bigger stage. It was always Kirby. And I kept, keep, trying to figure him out. Talk about a glorious fool’s errand.

I keep coming back to the generosity of the work. Anyone who has studied Kirby has read stories about the generosity of the man, and knows that Jack Kirby was loved by many because he himself had love (not just fury) inside him. He was a good man from hard origins who worked in a pitiless, exploitive business, who endured and did hard things, but he was nonetheless a good man. What I’m thinking of, though, is the graphic generosity of the work. Kirby almost always looked at his art from a storyteller’s point of view–which is fair, because he was, as he said, a writer with pictures–but his refusal to stint on the drawing made his pages livelier and more beguiling than almost anyone else’s in the business, and made his head-spinning stories habitable, believable, and authentic somehow, in spite of the wild premises. That he gave so much of himself to drawing those stories helps explain the feeling of aliveness that they give off: a feeling of commitment.

Over the decades, Jack Kirby set an impossible standard for comic books, showing how far a creator could go even without what should be the minimal assurances of creative ownership, editorial control, and financial security. And Jack wasn’t a martyr; often he was a great success,though he learned repeatedly what could happen to a success when the rug was pulled out from under him. He was a survivor, but more than a survivor, he was the very model of what it took to succeed against long odds. That he did succeed in shaping the lives and imaginations of so many–again, there’s the mystery.

Sometimes I think about how very different Kirby is from me: in upbringing, ethos, personality. After all, I’m an academic; I like theory, and live by analysis. Kirby, on the other hand, lived by storytelling. I’m aware that my life has been very different from his, that the intersection of his work and mine is a miraculous fluke. I wonder, how can something be so familiar to me and yet retain its power to surprise? His work does that: it manages to be lovable and uncanny at the same time. As I said, I can’t figure it out. But I am certain that the academic and the writer in me owe their opportunities to the electrifying example of Kirby and what he showed me.

Chasing the mystery of Kirby, of his genius for comics, is a lifelong pursuit. I’m so grateful to be doing it.

So: Happy 99th and profoundest thanks to Jack Kirby! And Happy KIRBY DAY to us all. How odd to think that I’m celebrating his birthday by celebrating the gift he gave to me–but what else is new, eh? May this coming year, between Jack’s 99th and his 100th, be a time of more and better and more widely-read work in Kirby studies. There is a depth and strangeness to Kirby’s work that will never give out–and will continue to be a goad and inspiration to our own work, in his orbit.

PS. I think my first exposure to Kirby’s Kamandi, certainly the first arc of Kamandi that I read, came with issues 22 to 24, inked and lettered by D. Bruce Berry, and published by DC in late-mid 1974. I didn’t buy these; they came in a box of comics gifted to me by a schoolmate whose family was getting ready to move (a short time later, I started buying Kamandi off the newsstand, with issue 32, published in mid-75). Those three issues made quite an impression on me:

Courtesy of Derek Langille’s Flickr photostream


Courtesy of Derek Langille’s Flickr photostream


Kirby Day Is Here!

Don’t forget to lend your support to the Kirby4Heroes Campaign! Give back to our veteran comic book creators! And watch artists volunteer their talents for the cause by following #WakeUpAndDraw on Twitter!

Above: a metaphor for what Kirby did for the comic book industry.

PS. Comic Book Apocalype: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby–opening reception tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 29, 4 to 7pm at Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles. Join a belated birthday celebration for the King and gaze at 107 Kirby originals!

Celebrate Kirby Day by lending a hand!

Tomorrow, August 28, is Kirby Day. it would have been the 98th birthday of Jack Kirby, who passed away twenty-one years ago—but didn’t, really, because a spirit like Kirby doesn’t pass away, as much as we may miss the lively presence of the living man.

As I said a year ago, I think Kirby Day ought to be a holiday for comics fans. It is for me! And more than a private celebration among fans, Kirby Day can be a way to give back to the comics creators whose dreams have populated ours:

Kirby4Heroes Facebook page--please lend your support!Jack’s family continues to celebrate his birthday by supporting veteran comic book creators through The Hero Initiative, a federally chartered, not-for-profit organization dedicated to honoring and helping creators in need. Since 2012, Jillian Kirby, Jack’s granddaughter, has led the Kirby4Heroes campaign to raise money for the Initiative on his birthday. With the kind of generosity that Kirby himself embodied, the Initiative seeks to provide (as its website says) “a financial safety net for yesterdays’ creators who may need emergency medical aid, financial support for essentials of life, and an avenue back into paying work.” Over the past three years Kirby4Heroes has raised about $30,000 for the Initiative, and this year Jillian has set the goal of $20,000. Please help here reach that goal!

On August 28, Kirby Day, select comic book shops across the country will be donating a portion of their sales to The Hero Initiative. Some stores will also be hosting special events. ComicsPRO, the professional organization of comic book retailers, has endorsed Kirby4Heroes, and many comics artists will be lending their time and talents as well. (Follow #WakeUpAndDraw on Twitter on Aug. 28th!)

Supporting Kirby4Heroes is simple. Besides shopping at your local comics store on August 28, you can donate online or by mail. To donate online, visit The Hero Initiative at (and be sure to type “Kirby4Heroes” in the space for “special instructions”). To donate by mail, send a check to:

Kirby4Heroes Campaign
c/o The Hero Initiative
11301 Olympic Blvd., #587
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Be sure to make out your checks to The Hero Initiative!

The Hero Initiative

For more information about Kirby4Heroes, check out the Kirby4Heroes website and Facebook page, read this detailed and informative interview with Jillian by Jim Beard at (part of Marvel’s “Jack Kirby Week” celebration), or watch Jillian’s video about the campaign via YouTube, courtesy of the Nerdist Channel:

Sadly, I can’t embed the video here, but click through the link and you’ll see it. Here’s a screenshot:

Kirby 4 Heroes screen shot

Also, Kirby and comic book history buffs, check out Peter Sanderson’s discussion of Jack at the This Week in Marvel podcast. Nice to hear!

Can you help lend veteran creators a helping hand? What a way to celebrate Kirby Day! And… if you’re in Los Angeles, come see Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby at CSU Northridge!

Kirby Day: What a Blast!


Two days ago, Thursday, August 28, was Kirby Day—that is, Jack Kirby’s birthday. It brought a delightful outpouring of remembrance and appreciation that spilled over into Friday. The Kirby4Heroes campaign took the occasion to raise money for The Hero Initiative—I hope they were able to raise a lot!

It’s never too late to donate to The Hero Initiative.🙂

I was glad to contribute to Kirby Day in my own small way: with a posting at Acts of Geek (also run here on my blog), and by taking part in the big two-part (one, two) celebration over at Comics Alliance.

I went a little Twitter crazy on the 28th, tweeting links to online examples of top-notch Kirby scholarship, Kirby appreciation, and Kirbyana. For the record, here are the things I linked to (besides those mentioned above):

Requiem for Jack Kirby (2001)

Of course I also followed the #WakeUpAndDraw campaign on Twitter, which you see here:

(Dig this Hollywood Reporter article about #WakeUpAndDraw!)

Congratulations to Jillian Kirby and her family for leading the charge on Kirby Day! As far as I’m concerned, it’s now a genuine holiday.🙂


Kirby’s Second Act (in honor of Kirby Day)

Kirby self-portrait from DC

Tomorrow, Thursday, August 28, would have been the 97th birthday of the great Jack Kirby. I call August 28 Kirby Day because I believe Kirby’s birthday ought to be a holiday for comics fans!

When tomorrow comes, I hope my readers will celebrate Kirby Day by helping the Kirby4Heroes campaign raise funds for The Hero Initiative. You can read more about the campaign in my post of August 11, here. Supporting the Initiative means supporting veteran comic book creators in need—a cause Kirby himself would have championed.

In honor of Kirby Day, I’m posting the following mini-essay, which I’ve adapted from two different sources. One is my reading script for a panel I co-presented with my colleague Ben Saunders at the Emerald City Comicon in Seattle in 2013. The other is the script for a video presentation I contributed to the “Echoes of ’82” panel at Heroes Con 2012 organized by my colleagues Craig Fischer and Ben Towle. I was proud and happy to do both events!

(The cover images are courtesy of the Grand Comics Database. Aptly named!)

Kirby’s Second Act

Jack Kirby changed comic books more than once. If he hadn’t drawn another page of comics after 1950, he’d still be remembered as one of the great comic book artists of the medium’s founding era. If he’d put down his pencil and disappeared from the comic book racks at about age thirty, he’d still be known as one of the giants.

But he didn’t do that, of course. In the 1960s and 70s, when Kirby himself was in his forties and fifties, he picked up the medium by the scruff and carried it along (some more). He changed comics again. In this remarkable second act of his career, Kirby gave his all: an outpouring of generosity and energy that renewed the medium, nudging the foundering industry onward yet again.

Fantastic Four 47 cover

Starting in the 60s, Kirby gave comic books an expanded canvas. He gave them scope: a sense of larger possibilities. If the superhero comics of that era moved from an episodic to an epic structure—or maybe I should say an epic and episodic structure—Kirby did more to make that happen than any other creator. The fact that superhero comics now so often deal with the apocalyptic—with the revelation, potential destruction, and re-creation of worlds, whole worlds—is testimony to his influence, to his genius for the costumed hero, yet also his impatience with the genre as he found it.

Kirby jacked up the threat level in superhero comics. He broadened the range and scale of the threats. He introduced to the genre a sense of discovery, of secret history, mythic origins, and eschatology—a sense of endings, and new beginnings—making costumed heroics an entryway into larger themes. Kirby’s superheroes addressed the grand, mind-rattling themes of epic fantasy. The fact that so many superhero comics today work at the level of the whole world or universe (or multiverse) is a testament to Kirby’s peculiar gift. Comic books drawn and plotted out by him, such as The Fantastic Four and Thor, and, later, comics entirely written and drawn by him, such as The New Gods and The Eternals, made the superhero genre a bridge between high and low fantasy: the grand and cataclysmic on the one hand, the low mimetic, comical, or absurd on the other; the cosmic and the urban; the epic and the crime story; the sublime vista and the lowly, grotesque caricature. Kirby knitted it all together, crazily, vitally, giving the superhero genre an infusion of energy that enabled it to survive and seduce further generations of fans.

Thor 154 cover

An important thing to remember about Kirby is that he was not an illustrator but a cartoonist—meaning an artist who developed stories and characters through the act of drawing. It was Kirby’s narrative drawing that made Marvel Comics work: he was Marvel’s busiest cartoonist, and its visual guide. He gave Marvel its momentum. He dreamed up and designed more concepts for the company than any other artist. Besides the comics that Kirby penciled himself—which he typically plotted, in effect co-wrote—he also laid out and plotted stories for many other artists, guiding and inspiring them. Most of Marvel’s other artists were urged to follow his lead.

In a great, mad rush between 1961 and the mid-decade, Kirby laid the foundations of what we now call the Marvel Universe. His drive and design chops provided most of the raw material for this new world. And now, half a century later—about 53 years after the launch of The Fantastic Four, about 51 after the launch of The Avengers—Marvel Entertainment is reaping the spectacular harvest of that effort. Graphically and conceptually, the foundation of Marvel’s success (in comics and movies) was laid in the basement of the Kirby family’s Long Island home between 1961 and 1966; yet, incredibly, during that period, in fact throughout the 60s, Kirby was only a freelancer for Marvel. During all the time he designed so many properties and spun so many stories for Marvel, he didn’t have a solid contract there. He didn’t have a contract at all.

The gap between what Kirby gave Marvel and what he got in return was enormous. He produced all these wild new concepts for a flat page rate; he had no salary, no security, no benefits, no assurances of long-term well-being. He just drew, drew, and drew, dreaming up new characters and ideas for Marvel several times a month for years on end. He worked unbelievably hard. When Marvel was sold to a new owner in 1968, Kirby sought a fair contract with the company that would take care of his family, but couldn’t get one. The new owners put faith in Stan Lee’s editorial savvy but did not understand Kirby’s vital role.

Of course Kirby got angry and angrier, and lost heart; he began to resent how much he’d given to the company with such slight return. He began to offer Marvel less and less, in terms of new ideas. After all, he couldn’t continue to work himself to the bone for such meager reward; the workload was draining, the situation maddening. So he left, hoping for greater recognition and editorial freedom elsewhere. He left to create the bizarre and visionary Fourth World and other comics for DC in the early 70s, where his imagination once again took flight and fans were able to see less diluted Kirby comics, comics “edited, written, and drawn” by Jack.


There’s nothing in the annals of so-called work-for-hire that can compare with Kirby’s run at Marvel in the 1960s—or for the richness of Kirby’s barnstorming second act. There’s nothing about comic book business-as-usual that can account for that miraculous outpouring. “Work-for-hire” does not begin to describe the indispensable, seminal, endlessly inspiring contribution that Kirby made to Marvel. Jack Kirby was the co-author of the Marvel Universe, and ought to be officially recognized as such. Further, Marvel Entertainment ought to establish a healthy relationship with Kirby’s estate by compensating his family and contributing to the study and appreciation of Kirby’s work. ’Nuff said!