It was the year of Jack “King” Kirby.
In celebration of the comic artist and storyteller’s 1917 birth, a number of art shows highlighting his works were held across the U.S., including one hosted by the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Centre.
His work helped create new mythology and new ways of telling stories, of expressing action and emotion through what was once seen as “kids’ stuff.” It’s no longer kids’ stuff, as comic books are now seen as another way to tell a story.
Kirby was known for intricate and powerful works that exploded across panels and pages, his covers jumped and stories ranged from soap opera to science fiction.
But he never lost sight that the medium could be used as journalism, or as a way to explore issues of interest, to wit, In the Days of the Mob, a comic exploring organized crime in America, and the character The Hate Monger, who first appeared in Fantastic Four 21, reminding readers in the 1960s that we’re just one bad person away from another Hitler.
Kirby’s work was enhanced by two of his partners, Joe Simon (together they created Captain America and the romance comics genre) or Stan Lee (almost in the Silver Age Marvel Universe, and that’s not much of an exaggeration). The impact Kirby still musters in today’s pop culture is reflected by the Marvel movie and television craze the world is currently riding on.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg into poverty in the tough Lower East Side of Manhattan, Kirby joined the ranks of piecework comic drawing in the 1940s. He would link up with Simon and move about from company to company. Along the way, they would co-create Captain America and draw the iconic cover to the first issue where Cap punches Hitler.
At DC Comics after being fired by Marvel, some of his and Simon’s creations, the Newsboy Legion and Kid Commandos, combos that smacks with the aura of the Bowery Boys and reflected Kirby’s childhood days of belonging to a gang.
But while the list of accomplishments during the Golden and Atomic Ages is long, it is his inventiveness and energy in the 1960s at Marvel, the so-called House of Ideas that he is being celebrated for by many. His creations and co-creations continue to anchor Marvel.
Many fans would say Kirby surged ahead of the times during in the 1970s when he moved again to DC Comics with the creation of the Fourth World and its interconnecting comic stories about the battle between Good and Evil among the Forever People, the New Gods, and Mister Miracle. His dystopian masterpiece Kamandi was recognized as such after it was cancelled.
The CIA used Kirby’s fantastic conceptual artwork in 1979 for a planned film adaptation of a Roger Zelazny novel as a cover for Operation Argo, where agents pretending to be movie crews entered Iran to rescue American Embassy personnel during the revolution. Details of that came out since his death in 1994.
If anything, the man was prolific in both production and ideas. There’s much discussion, both friendly and heated, among fans on Facebook pages devoted to him, comic websites and blogs as to how much Marvel owes him in acknowledging his creativity. Court cases were recently settled between Kirby’s heirs and Marvel. It would be fair to argue that Marvel’s significant contribution to the American superhero mythos was focused on a burst of creative energy in the early ’60s.
That’s when Kirby and Lee launched the Fantastic Four followed by Ant-Man, which led to the Incredible Hulk, followed by Thor, then Iron Man, and then Sgt. Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Wasp, the Avengers and the X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Black Panther, Galactus and the Inhumans.
There are arguments, both pro and con, as to whether Kirby and Simon had a role in the development of Spider-Man.
Amid that Big Bang of Imagination between 1961 and 1966, other creators in comparison came up with Dr. Strange and Daredevil, along with a plethora of supporting characters.
The Marvel Universe has been living on those original ideas, with additions by others added along the way, like Wolverine and Deadpool, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, the Punisher and Nova.
DC is hinting that it may do something with Kirby’s Fourth World characters on the screen, to wit the addition of Steppenwolf from New Gods 7 — which has zoomed up in value — in the recent Justice League movie.
As the world moves from Kirby’s centenary to those of other comic artists, like Plastic Man’s creator Jack Cole, in 2018, it would have been cool to celebrate the King’s centenary with a set of U.S. stamps. No new artwork was necessary.
For those who have never been introduced to Kirby, a quick jaunt to the public library to find some collections of his works is an idea.
Every collector knows an original comic drawn by Kirby is something special and always commands a market. Antique dealers who come across books he’s drawn should set them aside, package them properly, and grade and price accordingly.
It’s pretty certain they’ll fly.