The Greatest Of All Time: A Birthday Tribute To The King Of Comics, Jack Kirby
Jack Kirby, born on this day in 1917 in New York, is the greatest comic book creator who ever lived.
That's not something that I consider to be up for debate. It's something that's self-evident every time that you sit down to read one of his comics — and, more than that, one of anyone's comics on the stands today — and have your mind blown by a driving energy and the limitless possibilities that have always marked superheroes and the medium they defined. The simple fact is that Kirby's work wasn't just great in and of itself, but that superhero comics as we know them quite simply would not exist without him.
It's not just the sheer volume of stories and characters that he created across six decades working in comics that makes him the greatest, although that's definitely a major part of it. He did, after all, create or co-create the vast majority of Marvel's major superheroes, from Thor to Iron Man to the Hulk, and villains like the Red Skull and Loki; and there are more than a handful of characters at DC that have his fingerprints on them, including Darkseid and the rest of the New Gods.
That roster of creations includes characters created 75 yeas ago, including one born from a very specific desire of two young people from New York in 1940 who wanted so badly for someone who represented the best of their country to burst through Hitler's doors and knock him out with a single punch. Captain America was created months before the United States formally entered the war; he remains vital and popular today because he represents something universal; a desire for someone to shield us from the horrors of the world.
And Kirby is not only the greatest because of his ability to tell stories on a grand scale, electrifying the imagination with endless possibilities that still felt real — though again, you can't deny that aspect of his achievements.
Kirby's stories were often cosmic in the truest sense of the word, built around endless conflicts between gods, or creatures from the depths of space, but they were also things we could all relate to. Kirby's villains were our villains; the horrors of war, the feeling that there was something out there that didn't hate us, but simply didn't care; that we were nothing in the eyes of a larger force of nature; that the most dangerous and deadly villain was really the selfish, bitter part of our own selves that let us justify our hatreds.
Kirby's stories were universal in nature to the point of being simple; tales of heroes and villains where every metaphor was stripped away to the literal, but tales that still held up to complex examination.
But again, that's not what makes him the greatest.
And it's not that his visual style was marked by an energy and a bombast that became almost a genre unto itself, full of heroic exaggeration, extreme close-ups, crackling bursts of color in space, and complicated machinery that felt like it could accomplish anything.
And it's not that the same energy bled into his writing, filled with bold pronouncements and "grabbers" that promised the biggest, wildest, grandest action of all — and delivered it. That he could combine those two elements into a creative force that no one else could match makes even his minor work notable and fascinating, and makes his major work unparalleled even today, over twenty years after his death.
It's not just that he was a pioneer of the medium, inventing entire genres like romance comics (alongside Joe Simon), and working with Stan Lee to combine soap operatic drama and over-the-top action to form the foundation of modern superhero storytelling.
And it's not any one of a dozen other attributes that he brought to the page, from constantly being on the side of the little guy, to possessing a drive that saw him creating "all those wonderful stories and horrible dreams" up to his death in 1993, even in an industry that he'd become disillusioned with time and time again. It's none of those things alone.
It's all of those things, and it's something else, too.
It's influence. It's inspiration. It's the fact that the people who read Kirby's comics were inspired to create fantastic works of their own, to stand on the shoulders of the greatest giant in the history of the medium and reach to push beyond him, to build on his character and ideas and add their own to the mix. That, all of that, is what makes Kirby the greatest of all time.
On a purely functional level, at the most reductive, we wouldn't have all the characters and concepts he created if he'd never picked up his pencil, but we also wouldn't have his spirit running through us whenever we see what he did, and what comics can do. He's a creative force, an inspiration in every way, and as long as we're reading comics, he's going to remain one.
There's no question he was the greatest. Long live the King.