HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE KING
“If there were a Mount Rushmore of American comic-book artists, Jack Kirby would sit front and center,” – Axel Alonso
In a month that celebrates the life and works of Jack Kirby, today – August 28th – is the zenith. Jack “The King” (as he was appropriately named by Stan “The Man” Lee) Kirby would be 100 years old today. Kirby’s work not only defined a generation and an entire era of comic book collecting but has also transcended those times to remain as relevant and as revered as it was the day the ink hit the paper.
Jacob Kurtzberg (who eventually adopted the pen name Jack Kirby because it phonetically reminded him of James Cagney) was born on August 28, 1917 and grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. It was not an easy childhood nor were those early days of his burgeoning career. Kirby learned how to draw by tracing comic strips and editorial cartoons from magazines and newspapers. He would work hard, long hours and even struggled to find his voice and his footing during the wildwest-esque days of comic strips and comic books. He bounced around as a freelancer among multiple publishers, eventually landing a gig with Timely Publications in 1940. It was here that he created arguably one of the most iconic and recognizable comic book characters ever: Captain America.
The cover of Captain America Comics #1 took America to battle the Axis of Evil and Adolf Hitler even before the United States itself joined the Allies in World War II. Kirby himself went to fight the Second World War; he served as PFC rank with the U.S. Army’s 11th Infantry Division in the European theater of war. Eventually, however; Kirby received and honorable discharge citing medical reasons (Frostbite).
Soon thereafter Kirby again found work in comics. Harvey Publications hired him to work on a title called Young Romance. He, along with Joe Simon, created the Fighting American as somewhat of an answer to the relaunch of Captain America with Atlas Publications.
As the company once known as Timely – and later Atlas evolved in to the Marvel Comics entity that we know today – Kirby found work again at the House of Ideas. Slotted right in the middle of this transition was a 30 month gap of time (where Timely ceased printings) that Kirby found work with D.C. Publications. With DC, and as a freelancer, it was then that he created Challengers of the Unknown.
But back with Marvel Comics, Kirby continued to push the boundaries of what was possible in the medium at the time. He created characters like Black Panther, The Hulk, Devil Dinosaur, Him / Adam Warlock, Loki, Peggy Carter, The Watcher, Super-Skrull, Thor, Medusa and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes. The power fields depicted in his works became synonymous with his name and adopted their own nickname: “Kirby Krackle”.
While continually creating iconic characters and epic, celestial worlds and galactic stories that sprawled in their scope and scale, Kirby continued to fight with the business side of Marvel Comics for appropriate credit on his works. What some have said was in direct retaliation to his fight for credits, Marvel Comics presented a renewed contract to The King that was less than favorable in compensation. Frustrated, he left Marvel Comics and signed on with a 3 year contract at D.C. Comics in 1971.
It was during this time that OMAC was created. New Gods like Darkseid, Big Barda, Metron and Orion came to life. Mark Moonrider, Serifan and Vykin of the Forever People sprung alive in the pages of 1971’s Forever People #1.
Kirby finally returned to Marvel Comics in 1975 until about 1978 when he – with Stan Lee – published The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience. This was published not through the main comics line but through the Marvel imprint Fireside; and is considered the first graphic novel to be published from Marvel. His last publication with D.C. Comics was in 1989’s Action Comics #638. His worked continued to hit shelves through the 1980s and early 1990s although this work, largely through Topps Comics was a licensing agreement for works like Night Glider and Bombast that he had created in the 1970s and these would create Kirbychrome and a new Kirby-verse.
It was in February of 1994, at the age of 76 that Jack “The King” Kirby passed away at his home in Thousand Oaks, California.
In these tumultuous days of a Hydra-turned Captain America and the world once more on the brink of disaster, we can turn to these seminal, exemplary examples of creativity and artistic perfection to find solace and to find a modicum of escape. The characters he created, the vast, cosmic worlds in which they live and – really – the story of the man; nay The King; himself live on and will continue to remain ever-relevant and ever-needed.
Thank you, Jack. And Happy Birthday.
For an audio/video tour of Jack Kirby’s life, please visit this link: