The Genius of Jack Kirby

“I went to Pratt a week.  I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted patient people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done. I did the best drawing I could, and it was very adequate — it had viability, it had flexibility. The people in the art class kind of sympathized with me, and yet they couldn’t abandon their own outlook toward art.”—Jack Kirby1

What Kirby is describing of his early experience here is a clear example of divergent thinking, one of the hallmarks of the creative genius personality (but more on that in a bit). Brent Staples, in an article titled “Jack Kirby, a Comic Book Genius, Is Finally Remembered” published in The New York Times on August 26, 2007 wrote “Mr. Kirby did a lot more than just draw. As the critic Gary Groth so ably put it in The Comics Journal Library, “He barreled like a freight train through the first 50 years of comic books like he owned the place.” He mastered and transformed all the genres, including romance, Westerns, science fiction and supernatural comics, before he landed at Marvel.

He created a new grammar of storytelling and a cinematic style of motion. Once-wooden characters cascaded from one frame to another — or even from page to page — threatening to fall right out of the book into the reader’s lap. The force of punches thrown was visibly and explosively evident. Even at rest, a Kirby character pulsed with tension and energy in a way that makes movie versions of the same characters seem static by comparison.

For the record I believe ‘genius’ is one of the most overused and therefore devalued words in the English language. Just Google “The Genius of…” and add any name that comes to mind and you’ll see what I mean. Kim Kardashian? The Situation? (life & style; and comedy; respectively). Perhaps this has the makings of a new parlor game.

While most agree that Albert Einstein fits the general conception of genius, when it comes to the creative arts there is no clear delineation. In the end it comes down to the definition of the word, which itself isn’t clear. One would think anyone with an IQ of over 160 would qualify for something other than Mensa membership, but that isn’t necessarily so. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition doesn’t even mention a specific IQ score.

Definition of GENIUS

  1. a plural genii : an attendant spirit of a person or place
    b plural usually genii : a person who influences another for good or bad
  2. a strong leaning or inclination : penchant
  3. a : a peculiar, distinctive, or identifying character or spirit
    b : the associations and traditions of a place
    c : a personification or embodiment especially of a quality or condition
  4. plural usually genii : spirit, jinni
  5. plural usually geniuses
    a : a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude <had a genius for getting along with   boys — Mary Ross>
    b : extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity
    c : a person endowed with transcendent mental superiority; especially : a person with a very high IQ.

And from the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:

Genius: Person of extraordinary intellectual power. The genius displays originality, creativity, and the ability to think and work in areas not previously explored. Though geniuses have usually left their unique mark in a particular field, studies have shown that the general intelligence of geniuses is also exceptionally high. Genius appears to be a function of both hereditary and environmental factors. See also gifted child.”

Our contemporary concept of genius comes mainly from the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his The Critique of Judgment (1790) during the Age of Enlightenment. Genius, Kant wrote, is “the exemplary originality of the natural endowments of an individual in the free employment of his cognitive faculties.”2

Still, the problem is, even the definition of “creative” is hard to quantify. It is that very individuality that helps us define genius, for it can thereafter be imitated.

“Before creativity, the psychoanalyst must lay down his arms.”— Sigmund Freud

During the mid- 20th century, psychologists began studying creativity for the first time.3 And not surprisingly, this research yielded little concrete evidence of a strict definition of what it means to be creative or how creative personalities are formed. To be a creative person you had either a strict or liberal upbringing, did well or poorly in school, had lots of friends or none.

However, some major personality traits were established for what defines a creative type.4 The key idea in the psychologist’s conception of creativity has been divergent thinking. By standard measures intelligent people are thought of as convergers, people who given a puzzle can figure it out. In contrast, creative people come up with many different associations, some of which are idiosyncratic and possibly unique.5

A representative study conducted by the Berkeley Institute of Personality Assessment did yield some conclusions: “Creative architects” as distinguished from their less creative peers, exhibited a greater incidence of such personality traits as independence, self-confidence, unconventionality, alertness, ready access to unconscious processes, ambition, and commitment to work.

This willingness to experiment arises from a temperament that’s seeks arousal, from sheer pleasure in working with the medium, from a confidence in one’s own emerging powers, and from the relationship between the ease in own artistic medium and difficulties with standard scholastic practices. If one cannot succeed where they are supposed to, one may combat personal frustrations by blazing a trail in one’s area of strength.

Another study6 has shown that creative solutions to problems occur more often when individuals engage in an activity for its sheer pleasure than when they do so for possible external rewards. Indeed, knowledge that one will be judged on some criterion of “creativity” or “originality” tends to narrow the scope of what one can produce (leading to end products that are conventional). In contrast, the absence of an evaluation seemed to liberate creativity. In other words, you can excel where you have the freedom to.7

It has also been suggested that the most highly esteemed creators not only are more productive in general, but that they produce more “bad” works that have been long ignored as well as more “good” works that are esteemed by posterity.8

The quality of the early years is crucial. If, in early life, children have the opportunity to discover much about their world and to do so in a comfortable, exploring way, they will accumulate invaluable capital of creativity on which they can draw in later life. If, on the other hand, children are restrained from such discovering activities, pushed in only one direction, or burdened with the view that there is only one direction, or one correct answer or correct answers that must be meted out only by those in authority, then the chances that they will ever become creative adults are significantly reduced.

For every one child who decomposes music there are dozens who simply play as they are taught. Young musical performers, for example, often reveal their gift for composing by a constant effort to “rewrite a piece.” Often this adventurousness is interpreted as insubordination. There are individuals who overcome the intervention of authority to go on to become creative in spite of restrictions.

“Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something.”
—Thomas Edison

However, if one combines the definition of creative as a “divergent” thinking, someone who comes up with “idiosyncratic” solutions and combine that with the definition of genius, “a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude” and “displays originality, creativity, and the ability to think and work in areas not previously explored” I think one has a conclusion as to what comprises a “creative genius.”

According to The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979):

“Genius: The highest level of manifestation of man’s creative forces. The term “genius” is used both to indicate a man’s creative ability and to evaluate the results of his activities. Assuming an innate capability to productive endeavors in some field, genius, as opposed to talent, not only represents the highest degree of giftedness but also is connected with the creation of qualitatively new works and with the discovery of previously unknown creative methods. The activities of genius are achieved in a definite historical context of life in human society, on which genius draws for its creativity.”

I think key here is the notion that creative genius us beyond mere talent, or hard work. They go on to say, “Historical concepts of the nature of genius and its evaluation are related to a general understanding of the creative process. The ancients (Plato and, later, Neoplatonists) viewed genius as a type of irrational, “divine inspiration.” With the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci, G. Vasari, J. Scaliger) came the cult of genius as creative individuality, which reached its apogee in the romantic period, as exemplified by the preromantic Sturm und Drang in Germany, romanticism, and the theories, evolved from romanticism and characterized by the opposition of genius and the masses, of T. Carlyle and F. Nietzsche. The concept of genius in the contemporary meaning of the word developed in the 18th century. It became a fundamental aesthetic concept in A. Shaftesbury’s system: genius creates in a like manner to the forces of nature; its creations are original, in contrast to imitative artists. I. Kant also emphasized the originality and naturalness of creative genius: genius is the “natural endowment of the soul …. through which nature gives order to art” (Soch., vol. 5, Moscow, 1966, p. 323). F. Schiller described the nature of genius through the concept of naïveté as the instinctive following of artless nature and the ability to grasp the world spontaneously.”

Therefore, if one were to define genius as someone who diverged from a known path and transformed his or her field of expertise in the 20th century, my list would include, in no particular order:

  1. Pablo Picasso (art)
  2. Martha Graham (dance)
  3. Louis Armstrong (jazz)
  4. Lucien Bernhard (graphic design)
  5. Woody Guthrie (folk music)
  6. Orson Welles (film)
  7. James Joyce (writing)
  8. Bob Dylan (popular song)
  9. Albert Einstein (science)
  10. Jack Kirby (comics)

If a chart would be created of what came before and after, each would qualify. While we have no way of knowing how Jack Kirby would have scored on an IQ test, it doesn’t really matter. The fact is he transformed his field from the moment he entered it, and unlike many other accepted geniuses, continued to do so for the next 35 years. Consider that Einstein’s breakthroughs occurred when he was still in his 20s.

What I am submitting is that Kirby was a creative genius, one that changed the way comic storytelling was approached going forward.

The closest comparison I can draw is that of Louis Armstrong. While Armstrong did not create jazz, he was there as it emerged. Whilst he recorded in tandem with others throughout his career (King Oliver, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Teagarden, et al) his singularity always shown, and he managed to influence jazz and popular music for every decade from the ’20s till the ’60s.

Likewise Kirby influenced comics from the moment he hit the ground running and continued to do so for the next four decades. Beginning in early 1941 with Captain America, less than three short years after Superman landed on earth from Krypton, Cap wasn’t the first patriotic costumed hero (that honor belonged to The Shield), nor the first to rely less on superpowers than physical prowess (that would be Batman). Rather it was the dynamism of his advanced storytelling and page design that changed the way comic book stories were told. To continue the Louis Armstrong analogy, Captain America was Kirby’s “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven.”

As Gerard Jones describes in Men of Tomorrow, “What Kirby brought to comics was an opera of line and mass. The stories didn’t matter, so much drama did his anger bring to the figures bursting out of the panels, the bodies hurtling through space as fists and feet drove into them, the faces contort in passion, the camera angles swinging wildly and the panels stretched and bent by the needs of action. His hero’s anatomy made no sense. Kirby had never been able to afford life-drawing lessons; he was making it up.  But Captain America came to such life and moved so forcefully through a time and space that existed only because Kirby said they did that he became more real than the carefully drawn heroes of the art school graduates. Kirby celebrated the body, the male body, male sweat and muscles, not with the fetishism of bodybuilding but with savage joy. And countless boys at the brink of puberty loved him for it. Within two issues Captain America was selling a million copies a month. Suddenly every young artist was drawing action like Jack Kirby.”9

However, Kirby’s growing confidence went far beyond his drawing abilities, and in fact the stories did matter. His main interest was in telling stories, and he frequently wrote and plotted the tales he drew.  Ever the divergent thinker, even when given a script, according to former assistant and biographer Mark Evanier, Kirby (and partner Joe Simon) would make paper airplanes out of them. “They tried for a while to control us, but we knew how to do comics. Finally they let us do whatever we wanted,” recalled Kirby.10

Soon after Kirby and Simon introduced the kid gang to comics, early in 1942, with The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion, brought over from such popular films such as “Dead End” and Kirby’s own rough and tumble experience growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, leading the way for Charles Biro and others to follow. The kid gang would cross genres at Kirby’s hand in the early 50s with the Western Boys’ Ranch. Western comics are a comic category Kirby did not create, along with the Crime comic (that credit goes to Biro), still his influence was felt on such titles as Bulls EyeBlack RiderGunsmoke WesternTwo-Gun KidRawhide Kid and Justice Traps the GuiltyHeadline and Police Trap, respectively. Indeed, Kirby often cited his favorite story as “Mother Delilah,” in issue number 3 of Boys’ Ranch. Remarkably it manages to cross no less than three genres, the Western and kid gang with the raw emotion and pathos of a Romance comic.

According to Simon and Kirby Studio historian Harry Mendryk, Kirby’s greatest output between 1947 and 1959 was in Romance comics, another genre the team created.

In his Eisner winning 2011 book, Hand of Fire: The Comic Art of Jack Kirby, Charles Hatfield states that Romance comics “…shaped the celebrated superhero narratives that followed, with their emphasis on love, loss and anguish. Kirby never abandoned a genre, but rather reworked earlier genre conventions in new forms, splicing and adapting.”11

This dramatic breakthrough would become an intrinsic ingredient at Marvel in the early ’60s. According to Hatfield,  “It was under Kirby, though, that Marvel decisively latched onto the idea of unresolved, never-ending conflict between superpowered opposites, and revealingly, Kirby’s subsequent work often explores this kind of dualistic premise in distilled or exaggerated form. This sort of mirroring obviously appealed to him, as both a storyteller and a designer of characters.

The X-Men series, launched in 1963, is the keystone example. It introduced the germ of the idea that was to emerge full blown in may of Kirby’s later creations: that of superhuman heroes and villains springing from a common origin, vying with each other like rival gods in some epically dysfunctional family. Humankind, of course, was caught in the middle.”12 As Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon noted, “I don’t think it’s any accident that… the entire Marvel universe and the entire DC universe are all pinned or rooted on Kirby’s concepts.”

It was not Kirby who introduced mythological or cosmic elements to comics, rather it was the grand scale and sweep of these elements that resonated throughout the industry, beginning at Marvel and exploding the following decade in his Fourth World magnum opus.

Once at DC, on titles such as The New GodsThe Forever PeopleMr. MiracleThe DemonThe Losers and others, Kirby brought a synchronicity to the art and storytelling that few in the industry have achieved, while still working in a highly commercial venue. Artist James Romberger observes, “I do tend to value Kirby’s picture-making skills the highest on the genius scale, I guess….that he is able to do those huge spreads with multiple figures in deep space, all with astounding weight and presence and even more, of tremendous impact, of movement within that space. No other cartoonist has this level of skill and vision. Then I rate his writing and art in tandem from the best of his 4th World books at his peak and there simply is no parallel for how deep and humane and resonant these works are…”

One example of divergent thinking is Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth. Reportedly suggested by publisher Carmine Infantino as a Planet of the Apes knockoff, Kirby riffed on the theme in such inventive ways as to render the source immaterial, as far a field as Charlie Parker’s bebop “Ornithology” is from the jazz standard  “How High the Moon,” over which it is written. Kamandi lasted over 40 issues, Kirby’s second longest running title. He returned to Marvel in the mid-seventies and to earlier characters such as Captain America and Black Panther but also explored grander schemes once again in The Eternals and 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film, used as a launching pad for an exploration of the human spirit and follies throughout history and into the future.

In the ‘80s his comic tales took a more personal turn, with Captain Victory and “Street Code”, and while his influence over the comics filed began to wane, Silver Star stands as a coda to an illustrious career, a dark inversion, colored by his World War II experience when compared to that other creative genius’ last hurrah, Satchmo’s “What A Wonderful World.”

Kirby left us in 1994. In the 21st century, with the advent of CGI, his creations have exploded onto the silver screen. Moviegoers who most likely would not recognize his name have spent billions worldwide to watch them in wide screen 3D.

Kirby fits all the definitions of “creative genius:” someone who’s “creations are original,” who had “ability to grasp the world spontaneously,” who “represents the highest degree of giftedness but also is connected with the creation of qualitatively new works and with the discovery of previously unknown creative methods,” someone who’s “originality, creativity, and the ability to think and work in areas not previously explored” and finally as someone who left his unique mark in his particular field, and our culture as well.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”—Albert Einstein


Special thanks to Norris Burroughs, Randolph Hoppe, and James Romberger for their help and guidance.


Endnotes:

  1. Comics Journal Interview #134, with Gary Groth,  February 1990.
  2. The Critique of Judgment by Immanuel Kant, page 181.
  3. J. P. Guilford, Study of Human Intelligence, According to Guilford’s Structure of Intellect (SI) theory, an individual’s performance on intelligence tests can be traced back to the underlying mental abilities or factors of intelligence. SI theory comprises up to 150 different intellectual abilities organized along three dimensions—Operations, Content, and Products.
  4. Carl Jung, Psychological Types , 1921.
  5. Joy Paul Guilford, Study of Human Intelligence.
  6. American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology, Considering Creativity, Dean Keith Simonton, University of California, Davis, Volume 34, No. 10 November 2003.
  7. Dr. Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School. Her 30 year research has studied how the work environment can influence creativity and motivation has yielded a theory of creativity and innovation.
  8. Creating Minds: An Anatomy Of Creativity As Seen Through The Lives Of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, And Gandhi by Howard Gardner, Basic Books, 1994.
  9. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones,  pages 200-201.
  10. Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier, page 60.
  11. Hand of Fire by Charles Hatfield, page 22.
  12. Hand of Fire, page 130.

Bibliography

Alter Ego, Roy Thomas, editor, Bill Shelly and Jim Amash, co-editors, et al, TwoMorrows, Raleigh, NC.

American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology, Considering Creativity, Volume 34, No. 10 November 2003.

Berkeley Institute of Personality Assessment, http://ipsr.berkeley.edu/about.html

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, http://www.britannica.com

Evanier, Mark, Kirby: King of Comics, Abrams, New York, NY, 2008.

Gagne, Michel, Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics, Fantagraphics,  Seattle, WA, 2012.

Gardner, Howard, Creating Minds: An Anatomy Of Creativity As Seen Through The Lives Of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, And Gandhi; Basic Books, New York, 1994.

Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Macmillan, Inc., New York, NY, 1979.

Hatfield, Charles, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

Jack Kirby Quarterly, Chrissie Harper, editor, Quality Communications, London, UK.

Jones, Gerard, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, Basic Books, New York, 2004.

Jung, Carl, Psychological Types, Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.6, Princeton University Press; Princeton, NJ, 1976

Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Judgment, Germany, 1790

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurushttp://www.merriam-webster.com.

Mendryk, Harry, Simon and Kirby (blog), http://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/simonandkirby

Theakston Greg, Comic Strip KirbyThe Complete Jack Kirby, volume 1–5; Jack Kirby Reader, volume 1–2, Pure Imagination, New York.

The Comics Journal, Gary Groth, editor, Kim Thompson, Eric Reynolds, co-editors, et al, Seattle, WA.

The Jack Kirby Collector, John Morrow, editor, TwoMorrows, Raleigh, NC.

Thorpe, Scott, How to Think Like Einstein: Simple Ways to Break the Rules and Discover Your Hidden Genius; Sourcebooks, Inc, Naperville, IL, 2000.

Wyman, Ray, The Art of Jack Kirby, The Blue Rose Press, Orange, CA 1994.


Steven Brower is an award-winning former Creative Director for Print, a former art director at The New York Times and The Nation, co-author and designer of Woody Guthrie Artworks (Rizzoli, 2005), author of Satchmo: The Wonderful Art and World of Louis Armstrong (Abrams, 2009), and author of two books on Kirby associate Mort Meskin for Fantagraphics. He is on the faculty of Marywood University in Scranton, PA, and The School of Visual Arts in New York City. What an appropriate entry on what would have been Kirby’s 95th birthday! Thanks, Steven. — Rand.

6 thoughts on “The Genius of Jack Kirby

  1. rob allan falls

    loved this article on the genius of jack kirby by steven brower.along with picasso,the beatles,jimi hendrix,or beethoven.jack kirby was simply the genius of comics,and it’s greatest,most prolific innovator.his imagination was unequaled by anyone in the field and up there with the greatest of creators like davinchi.the man who created/brought us the x-men,the hulk,captain america,the avengers,thor,the fantastic four,rawhide kid,two gun kid,nick fury,doctor doom,magneto,the demon,kamandi,the new gods,the forever people,mr. miracle,and all tohse great monsters like goom,groot and fin fang foom, just to name a few.everyone keeps saying the two things kirby brought imagination and power.how about beauty?which to me is the highest calling in art.his drawings/art were very beautiful to look at.put jack up with the greatest creators/geniuses of the twentieth century.comics hasn’t been the same since he left.he was always an inspiration to me and made my childhood one of wonder-long live kirby!he’s an immortal like the thunder god-thor!

    Reply
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  4. patrick ford

    Nice tribute Steve. The Einstein quote is the best measure of Kirby.

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”—Albert Einstein

    The craft part of anything can be learned and honed through hard work. People like Kirby have qualities that you can’t teach. Kirby often said it was the questions which interested him not the answers. In Kirby’s mind questions didn’t end with an answer; instead questions resulted in more questions. He was always looking ahead, not for some kind of end.

    Reply
  5. Norris Burroughs

    Great to see an carefully researched argument in favor of something that should be obvious to anyone viewing the man’s contributions to the culture.

    Reply

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