More than a few years ago, Steve (not the comic strip cartoonist) Pastis approached our booth at a convention to tell us he interviewed Jack Kirby in late 1993, and if he finds a copy, he’ll send it to us. A few years later, victory was his (and ours)! –he sent us our own copy of the free Happening Magazine from November 1993 for our archive. Many thanks, Steve! – Rand
“If you read my stories, I think you’ll find that the people in them are very real,” said Jack Kirby, talking about a concept he pioneered.
“I never do fairy tale people, I do people just as they are.”
Kirby has always created characters which have human weaknesses and frailties. He often has had his superheroes fighting amongst themselves, because that is what people do. “Superheroes may be superhuman in stature but inside they’re human beings and they act and react as human beings,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing legendary characters like Hercules or modern characters, you’ll find that humans are humans and they’ll react the same way in certain situations.”
Kirby is considered by many to be America’s leading comic book artist. Many of his characters have become part of the American culture and his influence is evident in the evolution of the comic book, as well as in the American hero. His 53-year career is celebrated in a new book, The Art of Jack Kirby, written by Ray Wyman, Jr., and co-researched by Catherine Hohlfeld.
The book, which documents Kirby’s life and contains hundreds of color photos of his work, offers some amazing statistics about his prolific career. According to the numbers compiled by Wyman and and that Hohlfeld, Kirby created a total of 20,318 of art and 1,385 covers in his career. He published 1,158 pages in 1962 alone.
When asked what the greatest accomplishment was in his career, Kirby responded modestly, “The fact could sell magazines.” He then turned from the financial aspect to the creative side of his business, saying, “I’m proud of all my characters.”
Captain America, Kirby’s first popular character, was created shortly after meeting and becoming partners with Joe Simon in 1939. “Captain America was my earliest and I was very fond of him because he generated a lot of action scenes. I initially loved action very much.
“Captain America was a product of the way I felt at the time. I come from New York City and – especially on the block where I lived – there was plenty of action. There were fights and people would come from the next block and we would fight and either win or lose. That would be the routine. I grew up with that type of activity and I accepted it in my professional work.
“I believe it was also the times in general. Hitler was in power. The world was immersed in a general atmosphere of war. The war was coming and so there was a lot of turbulence. It was a very turbulent period and people reacted in a turbulent fashion. When I met partner Joe Simon, we immediately got our heads together and came up with Captain America who was typical of times. He was a patriot. He was a fighter. We were Americans and, in our plu cial minds, we were winners. Captain America was a winner. And sales were phenomenal,”
Kirby’s characters, being a very diverse bunch, have been created from very different inspirations.
“Thor is a legendary hero and I love the legends. Thor was the perfect for a comic book hero. Silver Surfer, of course, was a product of California. I opened the paper one day in New York and there were these surfers riding these waves. It seems incredible to me now that I conceived of Silver as surfing around the universe.
“The Incredible Hulk I got from a woman. One night in New York City, I saw this child crawling out from under the fender of a parked car. Suddenly, there was a scream and this woman comes running out. She lifts up the entire rear of this touring car — and this was no small car – So this youngster can crawl out on the sidewalk. It struck me that, in tense situations, human beings can transcend their own strength and do things that they don’t ordinarily think they can do.”
Kirby had more creative ideas for the character he was creating, however, “I put the gamma rays,” he recalled. “These kinds of things were very saleable.” the gamma rays,”
Born in 1917, Kirby gained an interest in storytelling from hearing his mother tell Eastern European folk tales. He was also inspired by authors such as Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. His first job in publishing was for a newspaper as a cartoonist and writer. After a brief period working for Max Fleischer Studios on cartoons such as *Popeye,” he found work with newspaper strip syndicates.
His partnership with Simon led to success with “Boy Commandos” comics, which inspired National Periodical Publications to put the two on contract. Kirby earned a Bronze Star in France during World War II and returned home in 1945 to find a new boom in the comics industry.
By 1950, the Kirby/Simon partnership was considered the most respected comics producing team. Unfortunately, their venture Mainline Comics was soon closed during an era where many comic book publishers fell victim to government censorship. The two turned their efforts to create romance comics and eventually went their separate ways. Kirby once again found himself with National Periodicals, which had since become DC Comics.
Unhappy with his editors, Kirby moved to Marvel Comics in 1959 where he collaborated with Stan Lee on new characters and revived old ones. Over the next decade, characters such as the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men and Silver Surfer were created. Captain America “came out of retirement” to join a super hero team called “The Avengers.” His early years at Marvel were perhaps his most creative.
“This was a period when we were experimenting with the atom bomb,” he recalled. “People were wondering what the effects would be. Everybody worried ‘Would we all become mutants? We played around with this ‘mutation thing’ and I came up with the X-Men, who were associated with radiation and its effects on humanity.”
In 1970, Kirby left Marvel and rejoined DC Comics in an arrangement which allowed him to work for the New York publisher from his California home. There he created “The Fourth World,” “Mister Miracle” and “The New Gods.” Since then, he has worked for animation studios such as DePatie-Freling and Hanna-Barbera. He is currently overseeing several projects which will carry his name.
Through the years, articles have reported on a feud between Kirby and Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee. When asked to set the record straight on this relationship, Kirby made every effort to offer kind comments about his former boss.
“We always had a good relationship,” he said. “He was an editor and I would simply bring my artwork. I would write the story at home. Stan Lee was involved in a lot of things. He’s a talented man and he was very busy. I did my thing and he did his.
“Stan Lee is a very friendly guy and I’ve always found him to be very congenial. We get along very well. Things are always blown out of proportion by other people. It becomes one thing then another.” For whatever reason, however, Kirby acknowledged that the two comic book legends haven’t spoken to each other in a long time.
His biographer, Wyman, explained the relationship between Kirby and Lee. “At first apparently it worked well. When the relationship initially started, they were doing monster books, they were having a good time. But I think somewhere after the first couple of years or so, the personalities started wearing on each other. Stan was never really close to Jack like Joe (Simon) was. Joe and Jack worked very well. They became friends and there was a lot of interaction. I don’t think that ever happened in the Lee/Kirby relationship.”
However, Wyman found that the two men have great respect for each other. When Lee felt that “something wasn’t right” with the way Spider-man was created, he had Jack Kirby to do the cover. The same thing happened when Iron Man was created; Kirby was again brought in on the original creative stages of a character. Kirby became Marvel Comics’ “touchstone of style,” according to Wyman,
“One of Stan Lee’s comments about Jack was “I can’t get over this guy,” recalled Wyman. “He creates 100 villains at a sitting and then kills off half of them. Any one of these villains I can make a million off of.”