Jack Kirby: A ‘King-Sized’ 97th Birthday Tribute Spectacular, Part One!
Jack Kirby is very probably the single most influential figure in the history of American comics. He produced countless stories in a career that spanned seven decades, inventing and re-inventing genres and styles every step of the way. He inspired generations of artists and writers; created and co-created thousands of characters; defined the visual vocabulary of superheroes; and believed in the potential of comics to be both entertainment and art, long before most people imagined these stories would be remembered past the four weeks that they sat on newsstands.
Today would have been Kirby’s 97th birthday, and to mark the occasion we’ve assembled a series of posts commemorating the life and work of the man known to American comics fans as “The King.” For this piece, we asked some of our favorite creators and other comics pros to celebrate Jack Kirby with their impressions of his characters, life, and legacy – and we got so many responses, we’ll have another installment of all-star tributes tomorrow!
Everyone has a Jack Kirby story. As many people know a guy or gal who knew him, as met him themselves. No one who ever read a comic between the late 1930s and the early 1990s doesn’t feel like they knew him — and anyone who ever reads a comic will in some way be his friend.
I was sitting in a Comic-Con conference room one day as a kid in the late 1970s when Neal Adams was giving a talk on trying to form a comic creators’ guild. Somebody wondered if it was only maverick troublemakers like Adams who were interested, so he told us how he’d called up Kirby and the King told him, “If you form it I’ll be the first to join, and if you want I’ll bring a gun.”
Kirby was so larger than life that you can never run out of stories long after he left being part of daily life in this dimension. A steady procession of admirers would be welcomed through his and Roz’s California home, ready to worship, and find nothing in that studio but a man, and a man who was enough — survivor of the merciless streets of the early-20th century ethnic ghettos, of the surreal battlefields of World War II, of one crushing corporate raid on his creativity after another, who would keep creating, miracle after masterpiece, each year he worked, and keep drawing, every minute he was talking to the fans who came to pay homage and get a lifetime memory and in many cases a life’s course changed.
They all have a story, of his generous spirit, his wacky absentmindedness, his crazy war exploits, his pain about profits stolen and worry over credit erased. But Kirby would draw his images dark, fully rendered, in raw pencil on the page, and his mark shows through the whole Marvel cinematic universe, from the leviathan tech and battle ballets of the Avengers movie, to the mystic transistor armor of the space-god seen for a few glorious seconds in Guardians of the Galaxy, to most of the characters who populate all those movies.
His hand is un-erasable in every dynamic wide-angle page and coiled, cacophonous panel of a superhero story; in all daredevil wordplay and every visionary concept that adventurous pop writers undertake. Kirby’s bold visuals blasted open veins in the universe we never knew were there but always hoped might go on forever; the idea of worlds alongside worlds in a comic like The Multiversity is straight from the Kirby spectrum, a palette he meant everyone to add rainbow bands to. His chiseled, blocky physiques are like sculptures of gods and long-dead legends taking on life and walking among mortals, with the strange ridges and planes we might see when viewing beings from some higher dimension, converted optically to boxes like the ones we also watch his wondrous worlds through, panel after panel.
When I call a comic “Nightworld” or name a devilish weapon “the Pitchforce” or artist Paolo Leandri draws a stygian engine in the shape of a giant demon head with horns for its soul-fired fuel pumps, our synapses are extending a circuit with the bomb-fuse of Kirby’s sense of extra platforms of existence, his ear for magic-word punning, his eye for the symbolic, personified, god-scale shapes of all things if you widen the angle enough.
I know a lot of artists, including Paolo, who have gotten encouragement from Kirby in their dreams (in Paolo’s, the King was running a benevolent phantom pizza-place Paolo walked into). Kirby’s work ethic never stopped, and his influence never ends, so his presence is with all of us who try and explore those worlds he opened, and the ones that might be beyond.
Everyone got a story from Kirby — of Wakanda, Attilan, New Genesis, the trenches of WWII and the battlefields of creator dignity and working-class, family-man perseverance. And once he lit that fuse, we saw our way to the story that can keep us most alive — the one we tell that’s ours.
I’m sure that some of the well-wishers here will point out how Kirby’s creations are now bigger than all the old comics they sprang from. That is certainly a cause for celebration. We can see his characters and influence all over the big-budget Marvel blockbusters every summer. Kirby has become a significant, regular phenomena in commercial pop culture.
But this is old news.
Growing up, I met Kirby’s work on the screen way before the actual comics page. Though it was a smaller screen, on Saturday mornings at 10am, I watched what I thought to be the greatest story ever told.
Thundarr the Barbarian.
An awesome ’80s amalgamation of Conan and Star Wars, Thundarr was created by Steve Gerber and designed by Alex Toth, but its look — and feel — was all Kirby homage. When Kirby was later hired to work on backgrounds and characters for Thundarr, he was entering into a world that was somehow already his. The floating sky cities, the giant bald heads, and the scary Darkseid-like Gemini (with his “super-science!”) was Kirby before I knew what to call it. It was Kamandi, it was New Gods; it was great. Thundarr was genre that refused to be defined by it.
Years later, when I finally read that Kirby had worked on Thundarr, it was one of those facts that you felt like you already knew. Like where you left your keys, Kirby worked on Thundarr? Of course he did.
So Happy Birthday to Jack “Earth is reborn!” Kirby.
Text by Brad Ricca, author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Chris Peterson (with Marissa Louise)
Happy Birthday, Jack Kirby! You are the King of comics and Darkseid is the king baddie! Darkseid is so evil, that he makes every hero look that much more heroic!
Sami the Samurai Squirrel vs. Darkseid by Scoot McMahon, creator of Sami The Samurai Squirrel
Kirby-inspired cosmic insanity by Alexis Ziritt, professional doodler / creator of Mekano Turbo
Ryan Penagos AKA Agent M
There’s a reason we call Jack Kirby the King. Think of all the amazing characters and worlds he designed; the incredible ideas, concepts and experiences he brought to the pages he worked on. From Captain America, to the Fantastic Four, to Black Panther and on and on…it’d be impossible for me to pick one specific Marvel character or title of Kirby’s that’s my favorite. And while I’m certainly a Mighty Marvelite through and through, I also absolutely LOVE what he did over at our Distinguished Competition. Happy 97th, Jack!
Text by Ryan Penagos AKA Agent M, Executive Editorial Director of Marvel Digital Media
The Original X-Men by Turner Lange, storyboard artist / author and illustrator of The Adventures of Wally Fresh
Mr. Miracle by Riley Rossmo, co-creator of Proof, Green Wake, Drumhellar, and Rasputin
Kyle Stevens of Kirby Krackle
Jack Kirby paved the way for how comics and storytelling are used today and his work still serves as the blueprint for the modern comic book industry. When Kirby Krackle debuted in 2009, we took our name in tribute to Jack and as inspiration for paving our own way in creating the genre of “nerd-rock”. We always try to deliver our music with the freshness and enthusiasm he brought to the medium we love, and in that pay our on-going tribute to The King every time we take the stage.
Captain America by Chris Raimo, Illustrator and creator of The Barrington Brothers
Big Barda and a Mother Box by Mach Yeager, illustrator, creator of Digger Jones: Adventurer
Separate from all the wonderful work he did and characters he created, when I was first starting out in the comics business, Jack Kirby was one of only two or three top professional artists who actually cared enough, and took the time, not just to explain certain things about comic art but, to actually give me demonstrations and draw it out for me!
I never really understood, or even think I liked Kirby until I got my hands on his Black Panther stuff. I don’t know what it was about it that really stood out. Maybe it was the first time I had seen him inked by Mike Royer, or just that I had never seen the Black Panther look so cool, but whatever it was, I have been in love with the man ever since! (This is a panel I really like, that I copied for your viewing pleasure.)
Now in its third year, the Kirby4Heroes campaign headed up by Jack Kirby’s granddaughter, Jilian Kirby, is setting its sights a little higher.
It’s increasing its fundraising goal, which benefits comics creator non-profit group the Hero Initiative, from $10,000 to $15,000, and is aiming to get even more artists and comics shops involved in the effort. It’s also been endorsed by ComicsPRO, the trade organization for comic retailers, according to the LA Times’ Hero Complex.
On August 28, the day that would have been Jack Kirby’s 97th birthday, retailers around the country (a list of 15 stores that are participating is available on the Kirby4Heroes website) will donate a portion of their proceeds to the Hero Initiative, which aims to provide something of a financial safety net for comic creators who often work as contractors, which means they get no insurance or retirement benefits. Stores have also agreed to hold birthday celebrations for “The King” of comics with raffles, artist events, and more.
(All quotes and images in this post are exclusive to ComicsAlliance, and © their respective creators.)