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.
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.
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!