You probably have never heard of Jacob Kurtzberg, but you most definitely know his work. The man who would later go by the name of “Jack Kirby” was born on August 28, 1917 in the Lower East Side section of Manhattan in New York City. The child of Austrian Jewish immigrant parents, he later said that he learned art as a way to escape the world he grew up in.
Jack Kirby’s career has already been well covered, including here. His unique, dynamic art style which set him apart from his contemporaries has been the subject of retrospectives and reviews. But the impact he made on the industry and American pop culture is, perhaps, less appreciated. It is easily overshadowed by his writing and art, especially given the success of his creations in their on-screen blockbuster incarnations, but it is no less important.
It began with a punch
Although Kirby had been active in the comic illustration industry for some time, his career exploded thanks to a man in red, white and blue. In December 1940 (dated March 1941), Jack Kirby and partner Joe Simon launched Captain America. On the cover of Captain America Comics #1, the hero punched Adolph Hitler. At the time, America was still officially neutral in World War 2. The American public was still overwhelmingly in favor of neutrality. This did not change until a full year later when Hitler declared war on the US following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Captain America was one of the first superheroes to premier in a self-titled series. Batman and Superman first appeared in anthology titles, Detective Comics and Action Comics, respectively. Timely Comics, the publisher, received threats over the message that Captain America delivered. The NYPD provided protection and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, known as a fan of comic books, personally phoned to offer his support. The true tale can be seeing in the average of over a million copies of each issue being sold. This rivaled the print run for Time magazine and was the first hint that comic books could be a major industry.
Going off to War
From the beginning, Simon and Kirby intended their creation to be socially conscious. They both felt that war with Nazi Germany was inevitable. Simon wrote, “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” This extended into the war years.Cap and another Simon-Kirby creation, The Young Allies, took the fight overseas as well as at home. By contrast, DC kept its heroes out of the actual war zone. Batman and Superman fought saboteurs on the home front, or non-aligned supervillains. This social consciousness was reflected years later, with the notable example of Green Arrow confronting his sidekick, Speedy, over his drug addiction in 1971.
Simon and Kirby’s insistence on sending their characters off to war outlasted their time at Timely Publications. After issue 10 of Captain America, the duo left for DC comics. The artists and writers who took over continued to weave stories where Cap and friends took the war to the enemy. All-Star Comics and U.S.A. Comics were anthology titles which featured stories of the superheroes on the front lines.
Many of those boys who read the comics during the late 1940s and 1950s took their heroes with them when they went into battle in Vietnam. Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and Captain America joined pinup girls emblazoned on military vehicles. And, when they had some downtime, comic books from home were a welcome diversion. In a rather meta case of synergy, the slice-of-life comic The ‘Nam – a fictionalized soldier’s-eye view of the Vietnam War included an issue recounting how important those comic books were to the typical serviceman in-country. Marvel’s superheroes of the day made an appearance, but only in the minds of the soldiers.
Comic Life After WW2
After VE Day in 1945, readers’ tastes moved away from superheroes. After all, there had been plenty of real-life heroics. Kirby himself, had been drafted and assigned as a reconnaissance scout in Europe, eventually being discharged at the end of the War with a Bronze Star Medal. Upon teaming up again with Simon at Harvey Comics, the two branched out into Westerns, crime fiction, and through a freelance deal with publisher Crestwood Publications
they created romance comics. It was in this unlikely genre that the two again experienced huge success. Young Love was not the first title in this new subject, but it became one of the most popular with 2 million issues being sold. Young Brides and In Love also were created by the pair and other publishers copied them. Despite the competition, their titles sold well enough that Kirby was able to buy a house with room for a studio.
The popularity of these titles and comics in general made them a natural subject for the emerging pop artists. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had been integrating comic book art elements into their works, but Roy Lichtenstein took it to a whole new level with oversized illustrations created in the style (some would say copied directly from) comic books. Lichtenstein himself claimed that there was no difference between high art and popular art.
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
Stan Lieber, better known as Stan Lee, joined Simon and Kirby for issue number three of Captain America. It would be the start of a long – and frequently contentious collaboration. After Simon and Kirby had left Timely Publications for National Comics (predecessor of DC), Lee had remained and by 1955 it had been renamed Atlas Comics. Simon had decided to leave the comics industry and go into advertising and he and Kirby parted as friends. Lee offered Kirby freelance work which the latter accepted despite some lingering resentment form their time together in the 40s.
“I thought Stan Lee was a bother.”You know, he was the kind of kid that liked to fool around – open and close doors on you. Yeah, in fact, once I told Joe (Simon) to throw him out of the room. Yes, because he was a pest. Stan Lee was a pest. He liked to irk people and it was one thing I couldn’t take.”
For several years, Kirby did freelance work for both National and Atlas until the latter dropped numerous titles due to overhead. He left National after a lawsuit with its publisher and freelanced Atlas beginning in 1958. In 1961, Atlas became Marvel Comics. Through 1970, the duo of Kirby and Lee created a number of iconic characters and stories. They revitalized the largely dormant market for superhero comics Kirby provided the “Marvel Art Style” and taught new artists how to emulate it. This era is considered the Silver Age of comic books. Things began breaking down in 1968 when Simon sued Marvel for the rights to Captain America. This was a harbinger of things to come.
Fight for Respect
After a few years of increasingly strained relationship with Marvel, Kirby left for DC comics in 1971. There, he created Darkseid and other notable characters, but he clashed with others – some who felt threatened by his celebrity – and he returned to Marvel in 1975 only to leave again in 1978. Through this period, there was growing resentment by comic book artists that publishers were reaping the profits of their successful work, but the creators saw almost no financial benefit.
In 1981, independent comic book publisher Pacific Comics gave Kirby the first contract that established his rights to any characters he created. Slowly, over the next two decades, other publishers offered the same type of deals or artists formed their own publishing groups. In 1984, Kirby was able to tweak Marvel by creating Destroyer Duck, a parody comic of Howard the Duck to support fellow artist Steve Gerber in his fight to regain the rights to the character. Kirby was involved in his own fight for rights to profits from the characters and stories he created – echoing a similar campaign by the heirs of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who had created Superman.
In the mid 1980s, the campaign in support of the much beloved grandmaster spilled into the broader public eye. Advertisements calling upon Marvel to do right by the man who had created much of its cast of characters ran in numerous independent comic titles. In 2009, 15 years after his death, his children sued Marvel, Walt Disney Studioes and others to regain the rights. After a prolonged legal battle and numerous reverses, Disney settled out of court in 2014 to avoid entanglements with its purchase of Marvel. Marvel returned some 10-20,000 pages of Kirby’s orginal art out of an estimated 100,000 artboards he produced for the company. Most reside at the Kirby Museum. In the end, that settlement did not create a precedence for the rights of artists under work-for-hire contracts, but it along with the Siegel-Shuster case, emboldened artists to retain ownership of their works.
Beyond those comic book artists, Kirby also inspired artists and creators in other fields. A 1963 letter to Marvel by George R. Martin (before he added the second R) praised the story of Fantastic Four for the human failings of the heroes. Beyond that, there are marked similarities to numerous elements of Kirby’s Fourth World/New Gods works and a certain story set “A long time ago…” Perhaps it can be best said that Kirby’s combination of elements from westerns, romance, space opera, mystery, horror and more has given others license to create works of meta genre.