Jack Kirby : A Life In Comics

(I was honored to have been asked by the folks at Comic-Con International: San Diego to write a Jack Kirby biography for their convention program this year. I expended it slightly, and it forms the main narrative of the Kirby Museum’s “Jack Kirby: 100 Years” pop up in NYC. – Rand.)

Creator • Storyteller • Visionary • Artist

Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) created or co-created some of the most enduring characters and stories in comics (Captain America, Avengers, Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Darkseid, among hundreds of others). In addition to revolutionizing such comic book genres as crime, war and superheroes, Kirby also co-invented romance comics with his partner Joe Simon. Kirby’s 1960s work with Marvel’s Stan Lee (who dubbed Kirby “King”) may be his most well-known. Another Kirby legacy is that he almost single handedly defined the visual language of comic books with his dynamic page layouts portraying exaggerated anatomy, heartfelt emotion, explosive movement, and cosmic wonder. Kirby died in 1994 at age 76. Evidence of his work and influence surrounds us today, not only in comics, but also in television and movies

In The Beginning…

In August of 1917, Rose and Ben Kurtzberg, two immigrants from Galicia in what what is now Poland welcomed their first born, Jacob. In the early 20th century, New York City’s Lower East Side was the most densely populated two square miles on the planet. Ben sewed pants in sweatshops. Rose did piecework at home when not raising her sons.

Lower East Side kids played in the streets, and fighting was a favorite pastime. Kirby’s gang, the Jewish kids of Suffolk St. would take on the Italian kids from another block, or the African-American kids from yet another block. Jake was small in stature, and once had to rescue his younger brother David from an attack by a rival gang. Jake recalled it happening in slow-motion, as if choreographing the whole fight in his head. Jake loved fighting so much that he once took a long subway trip to the Bronx to see if they fought any differently there.

Rose’s extended family were storytellers. Jake grew up hearing stories about demi-gods, werewolves, and vampires, learning about them long before they appeared in the movie theaters that were everywhere on the Lower East Side.  At 14 Jake found a science fiction pulp magazine in a rain drenched gutter. The image on the cover changed him forever. He took the magazine home, read it, and it fueled his interest in drawing. The stories in the magazine reminded him of the tales his mother and her friends told, but with new, hopeful, futuristic trappings. He began reading as much as he could, something he had to hide from his buddies, and took how-to-draw  books out from the library.

Jake met his “second father” Harry Slonaker around this time. Slonaker graduated from the Boys’ Brotherhood Republic in Chicago and was assigned to New York City to start one there. The BBR helped boys in the worst neighborhoods learn responsibility and useful skills, and it had its own rules, government, and even media. Jake took up boxing and became the cartoonist on the BBR newspaper, which he signed with the name “Jack”.

While Jack’s mother wasn’t going to let him follow neighborhood hero, actor John Garfield (nee Jacob Garfinkle), to Hollywood, his time as an office boy in a newspaper cartoonist’s office  showed him there was another way out of the ghetto. Most of his pals saw careers as  policemen, a politicians, or gangsters in their future.

Jack stayed less than a week in an art class at the Pratt Institute. Not only wasn’t he the kind of artist they wanted – he worked fast – but his father lost his job, and Jack dropped out of school entirely to find work.

After a brief stint as a newsboy, Jack found work at the Fleischer Brothers animation studio, working on Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons as an inbetweener, filling in the necessary number of drawings to complete the illusion of movement. Jack’s steady work allowed the Kurtzbergs to move from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn.

Jack’s time with the Fleischers was short lived. The environment reminded him too much of the sweatshops where his father worked, and the studio was relocating to Florida. He found work with some small newspaper syndicates, preparing his strips (Socko The Seadog, Your Health Comes First) at home on the kitchen table. One series, “The Romance Of Money” didn’t get syndicated, but was collected as a small pamphlet for savings banks as a giveaway. Arguably, The Romance Of Money is Jack’s first comic book.

Kirby Comic Books Begin!

With the success of Superman in 1938, there was a tremendous demand for new, original comic book content. Jack found his way to the Eisner-Iger Studio, preparing stories in a similar fashion to the single pages appearing in Sunday newspapers. Soon, he and his boss Will Eisner realized they were working in an entirely new, multi page art form. Eisner recalled one incident where Jack got in the faces of mobsters who were shaking down the studio for a towel service payment. The goons left.

Unfortunately, Jack came up against too much of that “sweatshop” approach again at Eisner-Iger, and soon found work as a staff artist in the office of Victor Fox, where he drew the first four weeks of the Blue Beetle newspaper strip. While at Fox, Jack hit it off with Joe Simon, and the two began collaborating on Blue Bolt. Simon & Kirby quickly produced Red Raven Comics for Martin Goodman at Timely, which contained a Comet Pierce story where Jack first signed his name as “Jack Kirby.”

Jack soon left Fox to work with Simon exclusively, and moved his family to a nicer apartment in Brooklyn. There, he met his upstairs neighbor, and future wife, Rosalind Goldstein.

Simon & Kirby produced Captain America, and the first cover featured the patriotic hero punching Adolf Hitler in the face. Published in late 1940, a year before the U.S.A. entered the war, the cover was a stark declaration of intent, and the book was a smash hit. Kirby’s choreographed action sequences were a main selling point. At one point, the Nazi-sympathizing group the American Bund were making threatening phone calls to the Simon & Kirby team. When they called again, Kirby went downstairs to confront them, but they weren’t there.

Also for Goodman, they took two superhero sidekicks, Bucky and Toro, teamed them with four non-super-powered kids and created the Young Allies, the first kid gang. While still on staff at Timely, Kirby, Simon, and several inkers produced Captain Marvel Adventures #1 for Fawcett, uncredited, over a weekend. It became one of the top sellers of its time.

The Simon & Kirby Team & WW2

The Simon & Kirby team had such success with Captain America and their Captain Marvel one-shot that when they discovered Goodman wasn’t paying them the agreed percentage of revenue, they quickly moved to National Comics, home of Superman. They revamped existing features Sandman and Manhunter, while Kirby’s youth inspired them to create the Boy Commandos and the Newsboy Legion. In 1942, the bickering Boy Commandos received their own title which was only outsold by National’s Superman and Batman comics. That same year, Jacob Kurtzberg legally changed his name to Jack Kirby, and married Rosalind.

In the midst of this success, World War II was looming. Jack was drafted into the infantry in June of 1943. In August 1944, Kirby arrived in Normandy, France and was sent to Verdun to join General Patton’s Army on its rapid offensive eastward. His division was sent to south of Metz to rid the area of German resistance. Taking advantage of Kirby’s drawing skill and his knowledge of the German dialect Yiddish, Kirby’s commander sent him into enemy territory to scout and draw up detailed maps.

Kirby’s war experiences were more brutal, horrifying, and violent than anything he experienced on the mean streets of the Lower East Side. His time in combat had a profound effect on him. Since storytelling was such a part of his personality, he shared war stories for the rest of his life. Eventually, Kirby contracted trench foot, and nearly needed both feet amputated. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Roz, at least, expressed that losing his drawing hand would have been much worse.

In January 1945, Kirby made his way back stateside to North Carolina and was honorably discharged in July with several honors including the Bronze Battle Star. In December 1945, Roz and Jack’s first child, Susan, was born.

After The War – The 1950s

With the war behind them, the Simon & Kirby team got back to work, producing the short-lived Stuntman and Boy Explorers for Al Harvey. But action heroes and kid gangs didn’t sell like they used to. Comic books had been popular with soldiers overseas, but now that they were home, they had more reading choices.

By 1947, the team was trying their hand at other genres; crime comics, funny animals, and teen humor. “True Romance” pulp magazines had been selling well to both teen and adult women for a while, so through Crestwood/Prize, Simon & Kirby’s Young Romance, the first romance comic, debuted that summer to great success. After two lucrative years producing romance comics and with growing families, the Kirbys and the Simons moved into houses across the street from each other in the suburbs of Long Island’s Nassau County.

In 1953, Simon & Kirby started their own publishing company – Mainline Comics. Unfortunately, the corrupt newsstand business was collapsing, and social forces that had been building for years came to a head with the publication of Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction Of The Innocent, which claimed comic books were corrupting America’s children. Subsequently, horror and crime comics were chased off the market, and comic book creators were stigmatized. Comic book quality experienced a sharp decline, with all offerings assuredly safe for the youngest kids.

Eventually, Joe Simon left the team for more lucrative and secure work in advertising and marketing for political campaigns. Kirby brought the team’s Challengers of the Unknown to National (DC), and started working for Goodman (Atlas) again. He also worked up a number of comic strip proposals. Eventually, through a connection made by Jack Schiff, an editor at DC, Kirby, with writers Ed and Dave Wood, began a newspaper strip that capitalized on the nascent space race, Sky Masters Of The Space Force. With inking by Wallace Wood, the strips were beautiful.

Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding of the financial arrangement with Schiff, and what Schiff felt was Kirby’s using ideas from story conferences for Challengers Of The Unknown in Sky Masters, Schiff sued Kirby. Kirby lost. He continued the strip for a while, but the financial arrangement made it a losing proposition, so he quit. He’d also lost DC as a client.

Jack soon found more work under Atlas editor Stan Lee, mostly on monster and science fiction stories. Simon and Kirby teamed up briefly at Archie Comics on The Double Life of Private Strong and The Adventures of the Fly. Kirby even worked briefly for Classics Illustrated.

The Marvelous 1960s

Inspired by his success with starting Challengers Of The Unknown at DC, the slight success of the Archie heroes, and his son Neal’s interests, Kirby felt the time was again ripe for superheroes. Soon enough, Goodman and Lee saw what was happening at DC with the Justice League of America, and decided that Kirby was right. Lee had Kirby take one of his monster stories featuring some adventurers, and give them superpowers. Thus was born Marvel Comics as we know it, with The Fantastic Four.

Kirby’s vivid imagination, his heartfelt humanity, his love of science fiction and mythology, and his amazing dynamic visual storytelling all coalesced in his work for Lee and Marvel when he was in his 40s.

Kirby continued to pitch heroes. Lee had been publishing monster comics, so how about a monster as a lead character, the Hulk? A scientist from a previous story became Ant-Man. Mythology was one of Kirby’s favorites, so Norse god Thor came next. An urban hero who walked on walls came next, with Kirby bringing in a logo from the Simon & Kirby studio days in the early 1950s – Spiderman. Steve Ditko ended up with the assignment.

Next came Iron Man, with the origin drawn by Don Heck; Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, a grown up Boy Commandos; X-Men, a science fiction-based kid gang; and the Avengers, a bickering group of adult heroes. Kirby even had a hand in the creation of Daredevil, evoking his earlier Stuntman. In response to the assassination of President Kennedy, Lee and Kirby revived Captain America.

Marvel’s sales picked up. Lee’s snappy dialogue combined with Kirby’s stories, as well as the familiar, fan club-like tone of Marvel’s editorial copy kept the baby boomers reading comics into their teens and college years. Soon, Kirby was producing so many stories for Lee, that it became more expedient to eschew story conferences before the art was drawn. They’d briefly discuss the next issue, and Kirby would return with a fully drawn story, and describe to Lee what was happening. When even this became too time consuming, Kirby would include story notes on the edges of his artwork for Lee to use while preparing the dialogue script for the letterer.

In one notable example, Lee and Kirby had discussed having the antagonist be “The Big G” – a euphemism for God. Kirby knew that such a powerful, threatening force would be preceded by… a scout, whom he cosmically depicted as a surfer of the spaceways. Lee loved Kirby’s new character, and dubbed him the Silver Surfer. Audiences’ minds were blown.

Goodman started licensing Marvel characters out, which led  to Steve Ditko’s departure since Goodman wasn’t including him in licensing revenue. As a result, Lee tried to strengthen his relationship with Kirby, agreeing to a profile of he and Kirby by the NY Herald-Tribune. Unfortunately, the profile failed. The writer admired Lee’s P.T. Barnum-like chicanery, and denigrated Kirby’s appearance and manner. Upset, Kirby kept producing stories and characters for Lee, but not for long. On one Fantastic Four story where Kirby introduced a new character, Him, Lee ignored the notes, and changed Kirby’s theme. After that, Kirby only delivered stories containing already existing characters.

Full Rein

Kirby couldn’t stop creating new concepts, though. He just kept them to himself. When Goodman sold Marvel to Perfect Film, a more corporate entity, Kirby was stung by the new owner not wanting to negotiate a contract. Kirby felt the need to break out of his situation, so he moved his family to Southern California and began talking to Carmine Infantino at DC.

Infantino, a long ago Kirby protege who had successfully updated Batman for the readers brought in by the TV show, was rising in the editorial ranks. For DC to have an artist in the editorial office was unprecedented, and Infantino was looking to innovate. Once Jack Schiff retired, Infantino was free to bring Kirby aboard. Infantino had wanted Kirby to revamp Superman, but Kirby only took on the Jimmy Olsen series, adding an updated Newsboy Legion to the cast (Olsen was a newsboy, after all). Kirby pitched a new science fiction mythology that filled three ongoing series, but unlike his time at Marvel, he retained creative and editorial control, eventually bringing in California resident Mike Royer to provide inking and lettering.

The New Gods, Mister Miracle, and the Forever People, his “Fourth World” comics, were unfettered Kirby at the top of his game, making comics for everyone, not just kids or teenagers.

Unfortunately, the newsstand business was still corrupt, with distributors selling fan favorite comics like Kirby’s to comic dealers to sell at conventions without reporting those sales to the publishers. As a result, the sales reports for Kirby’s comics were disappointing. Infantino then asked Kirby for a horror comic, like the movies that were then in vogue, and a kids comic to capture the popularity of the Planet Of The Apes movie series. Jack delivered The Demon and Kamandi, The Last Boy On Earth. Kamandi became Jack’s longest running series for DC. But as the end of his DC contract neared, Kirby was unsatisfied with his prospects there.

A Return to Marvel and Cartoons

In 1976, Kirby returned to Marvel and Captain America. He also created the Eternals, Machine Man, the Black Panther, Devil Dinosaur, and an adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the end of his two year deal, he worked with Lee on a Silver Surfer graphic novel in the hopes it would be turned into a rock musical movie.

In 1978 Kirby was commissioned by producer Barry Ira Geller to design the sets for a movie based on Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel Lord Of Light. Geller’s idea was for the sets to act as a theme park called Science Fiction Land once shooting was complete. Royer inked the pieces to perfection. The movie and theme park weren’t to be

At this point. Kirby had enough of comic books, and found work in the production of television cartoons for children. He finished his contract with Marvel by storyboarding Fantastic Four cartoons. He designed characters, props, and situations for Ruby-Spears, sometimes for existing shows like the Kamandi-like Thundarr The Barbarian, but mostly for presentation pitches for new shows. Kirby made some of the best income of his life, and for the first time, even had health insurance benefits.

The Last Kirby Comic Books

In 1981, Kirby returned to comic books with the first issue of Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers. Published by Pacific Comics, Captain Victory and Silver Star were the first Kirby comics that bypassed newsstands for the comic book “Direct Market”.

In 1983, while having a dinner with publisher Richard Kyle, Roz encouraged Kirby to change the subject from WW2, and tell a story about growing up on the Lower East Side. Kyle commissioned Kirby to draw “Street Code”, Kirby’s only explicitly autobiographical work.

To raise money for writer Steve Gerber’s lawsuit against Marvel over the rights to Howard The Duck, Kirby drew Gerber’s Destroyer Duck story pro bono. The comic was so successful, Kirby and Gerber would produce four more issues. After the last issues of Captain Victory and Silver Star, Kirby returned to DC to provide covers and editorial material for a new edition of  New Gods. Among other things, he also produced the graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, bringing his Fourth World saga to a close.

In 1984, the comics publishers were realizing that it was in their best interest to return the original art they had been warehousing for years to the artists. Marvel sent a brief release for the artwork to all the artists except Kirby. To him, they sent a four page document with excessive stipulations. Kirby tried to negotiate, but to no avail. His situation gained serious notice in the comics community, who put significant pressure on Marvel to return Kirby’s art as they had to other artists. In 1987 Marvel complied.

Jack and Roz celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1992 surrounded by family and friends. Kirby died the morning of February 6th, 1994 in his hilltop home in Thousand Oaks, California.

All this time, throughout their life together, Jack and Roz attended comic book conventions and welcomed fans into their home. They loved their fellow fans of comics, science fiction, mythology, romance, and action, encouraged them to live their own lives to the fullest, and to tell their own stories. The high profile of comics in our culture today is a testament to the Kirbys’ positive energy, love, and commitment.

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