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.
Text by Adam McGovern, writer of Image Comics’ Nightworld / comics essayist on HiLoBrow.com