Jack Kirby: A ‘King-Sized’ 97th Birthday Tribute Spectacular, Part Two!
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.
This week would have been Kirby’s 97th birthday, so to celebrate, we asked some of our favorite creators and other comic pros to contribute their impressions of his characters, life, and legacy – and the response has been overwhelming. Yesterday, we posted the first set of these all-star tributes, and here's the second, even more expansive selection!
“THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED! The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the LAST day for them! An ancient era was PASSING in FIERY HOLOCAUST!”
- opening caption of Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1, 1971
You don’t need me explaining what Jack Kirby did.
Most everybody knows the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Captain America and Thor -- creations so strong they’ve long leapt off the comics page and fueled a multiple-billion-dollar media empire likely to exist much longer than they already have. You may not know his Fourth World, his newspaper strips, his westerns, his romance comics, his movie adaptations, and complete reimagining of characters long gone by, but they’re all still out there, largely amazing. In this relentless abundant creativity, he even crafted how the rest of us tell stories. It’s easy for anyone to go on about him. And on. And on. And on.
People will likely do so even more for his birthday. They’ll talk about their favorite Kirby characters (Doctor Doom), pages (New Gods #1, Page One), issues (2001: A Space Odyssey #5), arcs (Fantastic Four #57-60), series (Kamandi) and everything-in-between (his double page spreads). Then there are the people lucky enough to have met and worked with him, who know him well enough to share stories about the man behind the pencil.
However, in the end, nostalgically looking back at what he did doesn't do much for me, and worshipping his old gods is not the thing keeping me excited.
It's the promise Kirby’s work exponentially gave and perpetually has. It’s how he never rested on laurels well deserved, always looking forward, always asking what tomorrow might bring. Always trying something new.
I never thought that doing comics in the “Kirby Manner” was adding cosmic crackle or impossible-to-wear helmets on impossible-to-exist creatures – it always seemed like it was doing things your own way, looking forward to where you can go, instead of looking back on what you and others have already done. What you do may not always work, it may fail, but it’s something new, it’s something yours.
For the longest time, it was only from his work that I got this impression, in how once Thor was over he tore the world down to set up his pantheon of New Gods, and eventually took full ownership and said goodbye to their heirs in his own way when Captain Victory hit the scene.
It was a gut feeling that this guy just wanted to keep moving, never settle. I caught glimpses in interviews, but never one-on-one.
Luckily a friend did, and recently shared this story. It shed a lot of light.
Said friend knew Kirby well enough to be invited to his birthday party and, along with an artist buddy, labored over crafting an Orion-themed card for their all-time favorite creator. They were nervous upon delivery – this was the guy who inspired them to do what they’ve dedicated their lives to.
Kirby appeared immediately crestfallen.
My friend was immediately heartbroken.
After what I imagined seemed like years but truly barely lasted moments, Kirby explained his composure: “the card is great,” Kirby said to their relief, ”but I wish the character was one of yours.”
Kirby didn’t need them showing what he did.
He needed them to show what they'll do.
words by Joe Keatinge, writer/co-creator of Shutter
OMAC by Kris Anka, artist of Uncanny X-Men, cover artist of All-New X-Factor
Photos of Jack Kirby work in my studio right now:
Gary Panter, "Homage to Jack Kirby," The New Yorker, March 28, 1994.
Kirby references in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993).
The Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force (Pure Imagination, date unknown). Inks by Wally Wood.
The Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force (Pure Imagination, date unknown). Inks by Wally Wood.
Marvel Monster Masterworks (Marvel Entertainment Group, 1989)
Marvel Monster Masterworks (Marvel Entertainment Group, 1989) (click to enlarge)
Marvel Treasury Special- Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976), Marvel Treasury Special- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1976), Marvel Treasury Edition 10- The Mighty Thor (1976), Marvel Treasury Edition 2- The Fabulous Fantastic Four (1974), Marvel Treasury Edition 3- The Mighty Thor (1974)
Chris Pitzer gave me this.
Orion by Jung Hu Lee, writer/artist
A lot of people contributed to building Marvel Comics in its formative years. Jack Kirby contributed more than all the others put together, and his legacy still shapes American comics today.
text by Scott McCloud, author/illustrator of Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics
The Avengers (and Kirby crackle) by Christy Sawyer, letterer and illustrator
- image and text by J. David Spurlock, author of The Alluring Art Of Margaret Brundage, Director of the Wallace Wood Estate, founder of Vanguard Publishing
Jack's speech to aspiring creators at comic-con is the most inspiring thing I've ever read about making comics...
"Like I say, a tool is dead. A brush is a dead object. It’s in the man. If you want to do, you do it. If you think a man draws the type of hands that you want to draw, steal ‘em. Take those hands." [The full speech can be read here.]
The Silver Surfer (And Galactus) by Yehudi Mercado, writer-illustrator of Buffalo Speedway and Pantalones, TX / artist of The Amazing World Of Gumball / art director and writer of Guardians of the Galaxy: The Universal Weapon
Darkseid by Gabriel Hardman, artist and co-creator of Invisible Republic, creator of Kinski, artist of Agents Of Atlas and Savage Hulk
Jack Kirby changed so many people's lives through his incredible artwork and storytelling - it moved us so much to write this play and explore his tremendous life and ask how it could inspire and teach us today to fight to tell the stories we want to tell.
Captain America vs. Etrigan The Demon by Paolo Leandri, creator/artist of Nightworld
A few years ago, Steve Ellis and I were invited to work on The Demon for DC's emerging line of digital comics. I don't think there are enough words in the English language to describe what a tremendous honor it was following in the footsteps of Jack Kirby. I think there
are even fewer words to describe the tremendous power that he brought to every page. From Fantastic Four to Spirit World to Jimmy Olsen to Super Powers -- Jack Kirby told stories with such tremendous might and urgency that it was almost impossible to not get sucked in. Despite the severity of alien worlds, post-apocalyptic futures, or ancient uprisings -- you could tell that a Kirby hero would fight with a stride in their step, a smirk in their smile, and adventure in their heart. His legacy is indelible. Happy Birthday, Mr. Kirby -- thanks for everything!
“YOU’LL SAY IT’S IMPOSSIBLE! IT COULD NEVER HAPPEN! BUT IT DOES!”
– The best jacket text ever written.
The main thing I’ll always love about Jack Kirby is that so many of his comics are fun. In this seemingly unending era of dark, gritty, morally ambiguous heroes, it’s so refreshing to see a titan of the medium whose creativity was so vital and utterly unchained. His characters and designs are so aggressively otherworldly and imaginative, his settings and dialogue so steeped in bombast and exclamation. Even in a dead silence, reading a Jack Kirby comic is like watching a movie in a theater with such crisp picture and deafeningly beautiful sound, the greatest scientific minds on Earth have yet to conceive of it. The first issue of KAMANDI: THE LAST BOY ON EARTH illustrates my point quite nicely.
I’m sure many of you reading this know the cover quite well. It shows the titular hero paddling a raft through choppy waters, but what looms overhead? Oh, just AN IRRADIATED STATUE OF LIBERTY THAT HAS FALLEN CROOKED LIKE LIBERTY ITSELF! Just look at it. “Holy shit, I hope he fights dog people,” you’ll think.
One glance at that cover and you know it’s going to rule and rule hard. The hype text alone is priceless
“BEASTS THAT ACT LIKE MEN! MEN THAT ACT LIKE BEASTS! SEE THE WORLD OF… KAMANDI: THE LAST BOY ON EARTH!.
In the course of just the first issue, he fights platoons of mutated cat and dog people before meeting a man who has an atom smasher for a heart. Again, that’s in the FIRST ISSUE!
Reading Kamandi #1 is like the first time you saw the THX ad that preceded a movie when you were a kid, when your ears were a little too young to handle it. Except this time, the THX letters turn into a giant exclamation point, fly out of the screen, and beat up your dad.
I’d be willing to bet Kirby used more exclamation marks in one issue of Kamandi than all of Marvel and DC comics has in the last year. He just got it. He understood everything that comics could do that no other art form could and he rode that mind-bending, life-altering magic like a bulletproof atomic dragon straight through the hearts and minds of impressionable, soon-to-be-awesome kids the world over.
Sure, Jack Kirby’s responsible for probably half the Marvel Universe as we know it, but man, he got so much more fun after that.
Thanks for being a weirdo, Jack. I don’t know that comics would be much fun without you.
When I was ten, I read this comic book, which was written and drawn by Jack Kirby:
Then I bought and read and pored over this one, delighting in the world it revealed to me:
I’m sure these weren’t the first Kirby comics I read, but something about them… clicked. Soon I would buy and read many other comics by Jack Kirby. I’d reread them, and stare, and daydream over them. His work galvanized my imagination.
When you tapped into Kirby, wow, you tapped into something electric—a live current. That’s because Kirby himself was tapping something deep: an exhaustible reservoir of ideas, grand, even scary ideas, brought to life by some of the most vital and dynamic cartooning ever seen in comic books.
When I was ten, Jack Kirby took off the top of my head.
Of course I wasn’t alone in that, not by a long shot. I knew just enough about comics back then to know that Kirby had been around for a while—I knew he was famous in the field. But I didn’t yet realize that Kirby was one of the most imitated and revered artists in the history of the medium. Legions of readers had also had the tops of their heads blown off by Jack Kirby.
In my book, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, I try to explain just how and why Kirby has affected so many readers that way. I’m glad I did that book; it’s my pride and delight. Yet the fundamental mystery of Kirby’s grand and generous talent remains just that. How on earth did he do what he did?
Kirby changed the comic book field several times. Most famously, he defined the graphic and narrative style of Marvel Comics in the 1960s. Working with Stan Lee, he created the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, the Silver Surfer, and a horde of other marquee characters. His earlier collaboration with Joe Simon, back in the 1940s and 50s, has its own claim to history: Simon and Kirby created Captain America, kid gang comics, and the hugely popular romance comics genre. They broke open the formerly staid and predictable comic book page. They established one of the most successful studies in the field. What they did was big news.
But in the '60s and '70s, after his time with Simon, after a lot of hard knocks and desperate losses—wow again. Kirby’s career went into overdrive. He reinvented himself, first at Marvel, and then with his mind-blowing creations of the early 70s at DC. (That’s where I found him, when I was a kid.)
Kirby’s distinctive narrative drawing, his way of combining narrative with boldly abstract art, and his creation of complex, conflicted heroes and huge, epic stories mark him as one of the most influential creators in comics. Yet he’s also rightly seen as an outsider artist and intuitive genius who appeals to avant-garde as well as mainstream tastes. Scads of comics lovers who agree about nothing else agree on their love of Kirby!
It’s been my great pleasure to write about the development of Kirby’s style, the recurring themes in his stories, the conditions of his working life—before, during, and after Marvel—and what I consider his career-crowning work of the late '60s and early '70s. But there’s so much more to research, so much more to do. Kirby is a bottomless topic. He gave so prodigally to comic books that I can’t see “Kirby studies” subsiding, or my own interest waning, anytime.
Thank you, Jack, for the inexhaustible gift of your life’s work. To me, that work is the quintessence of comics.
- text by Charles Hatfield, author of Hand Of Fire: The Comics Art Of Jack Kirby, co-editor of The Superhero Reader, Professor of English at California State University, Northridge
By age 18 I still hadn't read a Jack Kirby comic. When a friend of mine gave me Silver Star one day, I figured it was as good of a place to start as any so I started reading it and it opened with a blonde girl, possibly a ghost, in a red dress with a white guitar singing a song about a soldier dying in the Vietnam war and turning into a god. That's a pretty audacious introduction and by the end of that book the same soldier battles and defeats the literal angel of Death. The absolute raddest thing about Jack Kirby is not that he would think this stuff and be bold enough to commit to these ideas, but that in the greater context of his work, that's not even so outlandish. It was a hell of an introduction.
- text and Silver Star art by Ramon Villalobos, artist of Original Sins and What If: Age Of Ultron
Atlas by Andy Kuhn, artist of Mars Attacks and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / co-creator of Firebreather
"Sometimes I look at Jack Kirby's career much in the same way I would consider the big bang: Just one big ass explosion of creativity from which all matter and momentum still flows to this very day. (You know, not to overstate the importance of the big bang or anything.) Happy birthday, King. BOOM!"
Jack Kirby and his creations by Justin Sane, illustrator / creator of Bloody Dreadful, co-creator of The Woodland Welfare Manifesto
(All quotes and images in this post are exclusive to ComicsAlliance, and © their respective creators.)