The Man Behind the Marvel: Jack Kirby
When it premiered in 2011, Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger had no title credits. It was perhaps fitting, since one of its creators, Jack Kirby, was equally anonymous. By the late 1960’s, Jack Kirby was dubbed the King of Comics, one of the most prolific creative minds of the gold and silver age of comic books, and yet today is a relative unknown compared to his former assistant, Stan Lee. Jack Kirby’s journey to mastering his craft was full of twist and turns, both literal and emotional. Although his name isn’t necessarily recognized outside of the comic book industry, his characters have become part of everyday culture in movies, video games, and television.
The beginning of his apprenticeship was very much his own making. He fished out newspapers from his neighbors’ trashcans to read and copy the comic strips inside. When he wasn’t drawing or reading comics, Jack Kirby sat all day at the movies, going as far to say in his later years, “At times I felt like I was being raised by Jack Warner… Those scenes still appear in my work” (Evanier 2008, pg. 20). He was also quoted as saying “A balcony was my university,” referring to the old time movie balconies (Simon & Kirby, p 11).
In 1935, Kirby was forced to quit school to support his family. His passion for drawing cartoons did not fade, nor did his imagination. That same year, he joined the Max Fleischer animation studio, known for producing the cartoons that appeared between feature films.
In the book Mastery, Robert Greene describes the creative task as something can withstand the tedium and drudgery. “If you choose the wrong subject or problem to attack, you can run out of energy and interest. In such a case, all of your intellectual brilliance will lead to nothing” (Greene 2012, p. 178).
Jack Kirby discovered first hand that tedium and drudgery. Early animation studios were factories that churned out varying facsimiles of known characters from established artists. On the surface, it was a paying job in cartoons. Jack Kirby may have loved cartoons, but his creative task was not in animation. He had no desire to continue tracing Betty Boop and Popeye and was eager to escape the dull, factory atmosphere. Kirby could have waited his turn and been promoted internally after an appropriate length of time. Instead, he demanded an immediate promotion, making others think of him as pushy and overconfident (Simon & Kirby, p. 11). This is also an excellent example of how Jack Kirby fought complacency early in his career.
To escape the drudgery of animation, Kirby went as far as to take a pay cut to work on a syndicate that didn’t even sell to first-rate newspapers. His job was to knock off the popular cartoon strips of the day. There he labored day and night to create material, more content with the long hours and little pay (Evanier 2008, pg. 38). He was at least able to create his own work.
After leaving Fleischer’s studio, Jack Kirby’s star continued to climb with his work at Timely Publications, now known as Marvel Comics. He partnered with Joe Simon. Each of them took turns writing. Kirby penciled, and Simon inked.
Jack Kirby’s path to mastery could be defined as complete. His first big hit with Timely was Captain America in 1941. Kirby would say of his cartoon hero, “He symbolized the American Dream… Captain America was an outpouring of my own patriotism” (Wright 2008, pg. 76). However, Kirby penned only ten issues. His creative break though wouldn’t occur until much later, side tracked by a few emotional pitfalls and a world war.
While two of his most famous early works, his own Captain America and the first issue Captain Marvel, were huge financial successes for their publishers, Jack Kirby had yet to master his medium. Captain Marvel’s first appearance became the best selling single issue in the Golden Age of Comics. Hurried into production and moonlighting for another publisher, Jack Kirby’s work in Captain Marvel lasted only one issue. He had tried to streamline C.C. Beck’s initial art for Captain Marvel but was not at all pleased. Although the publishing company, Fawcett, allowed him, along with his writing partner Joe Simon, a front cover signature, he declined, famously thinking “this thing’s going to bomb” (Kidd & Spear, pg. 26). Captain Marvel historians admitted that neither the artistic style nor the characterizations were fully developed in this first issue in comparison with later Captain Marvel issues.
Captain America was a commercial success, but not for him. Secretly, he and Joe Simon negotiated a contract with D.C. Comics, hoping to get ahead. In his development towards mastery, Kirby stepped into two of Robert Greene’s emotional pitfalls. Kirby might not have been getting paid the royalties he deserved at Timely, but his decision to leave was ill thought out. Jack Kirby’s impatience to judge himself as a success and his ego convinced him that he was worth a bigger salary. Had he stayed at Timely, his name, instead of Stan Lee might have been synonymous with Marvel Comics? Instead, Jack Kirby spent the next sixteen years in a long journey to mastery. When he would return to Timely, his old assistant, Stan Lee, was the editor in chief.
Jack Kirby’s work at D.C. was short lived. Like the comic book hero he left behind at Timely, Jack Kirby was off to fight the Nazis. Joe Simon and Stan Lee would stay as cartoonists for the U.S. Armed Forces while Jack Kirby froze himself half to death as a rifleman at the Battle of the Bulge. In Mastery, Robert Greene identifies that luck has a great role in the Creative Breakthrough. Had Kirby been assigned with Simon and Lee, he wouldn’t have had the experiences of combat and warfare that are common themes throughout his post-war work.
During his war years, Jack Kirby also best displays what Robert Greene describes as the creative mind. Despite the fact that he was initially assigned to the Army as a jeep mechanic, Kirby continued drawing. As his military career took him to Europe, his letters home to his wife are full of illustrations, despite the harsh realities around him. Kirby is able to keep his disciplined mind, continuing to collect stories. It was said that Kirby gave the war two years of his life, and the war gave him twenty years worth of material (Evanier, 2008). His Army life may have given him plenty of stories, but it also gave him a bad case of frostbite that would haunt him for the rest of his life. The days that he was left freezing in the town of Bastogne fighting for his life certainly changed his perspective, but they did not destroy his disciplined mind.
Jack Kirby’s creative breakthrough finally came with Marvel Comics in 1961. His time at D.C. left him with none of the commercial success that he found earlier in his career, despite the fact that he produced books in almost every genre. Desperate for work, Kirby swallowed his pride and called Stan Lee. In the meantime, the Comic Code had changed how comics were being written.
When he arrived at Marvel, Kirby immediately went to work, creating the Avengers, and then Fantastic Four, X-men, and arguably even Spider-man. They were unlike the pre-code comic books that focused on adventure, crime, and out-of-this-world story lines. These new titles had a new and different feel. “Fantastic powers aside, most Marvel heroes were laden with typical problems plaguing the 1950s and spoke to the anxieties of a culture in an atomic age” (Genter, 2007). Kirby’s mastery development was finally complete. He had created a world of living breathing comic book heroes. Unlike the earlier Captain America, bullets didn’t always just bounce right off. For the first time, superheroes weren’t invincible.
Stan Lee took all the credit, saying later “So in 1961 we did The Fantastic Four. I tried to make the characters different in the sense that they had real emotions and problems” (Lacter, 2009). Stan Lee’s quote has been refuted by historians, citing artistic choices that could have only been Jack Kirby, and even implying that it was his vision for Spider-man (Evanier, 2010).
In his “Strategies for Creative-Active Phase”, Robert Greene discusses John Coltrane’s development of vocabulary in music much the same way that Jack Kirby developed such a vocabulary for story telling. Like John Coltrane, who spent years studying all types of music, Kirby spent much of his early adulthood studying every sort of graphic storytelling, stashing story ideas and concepts the way a musician learns scales and licks for later use.
Much like John Coltrane’s emotional connection to music, Jack Kirby used comic books to create an emotion. Jack Kirby’s ability to tell stories on the page was unprecedented. He was known for taking as much as a whole page to show one single emotion. In the book, Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics, Stan Lee uses page after page of Jack Kirby’s illustrations as textbook examples of action techniques. He introduces him as saying “certainly one of the best story-tellers in the whole history of comics was Jack “King” Kirby”(Lee, pg. 117). John Coltrane was, to music, one of the visionaries who developed would become the new jazz. In the same way, Jack Kirby defined the Comic Code era of comic books, saving them from total extinction.
Jack Kirby was the driving force behind some of the most popular comic books of all time. His storytelling ability and artistic talent breathed life into over two hundred and fifty characters just for Marvel Comics alone. His mastery of the art of storytelling is legendary, and yet Jack Kirby is a relative unknown compared to Stan Lee. Had he made slightly different choices in his path to mastery, it might be his name in the opening credits of Captain America.
Evanier, Mark (2008). Kirby: King of Comics. New York, NY: Abrams Books
Genter, R. (2007). “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”: Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics. Journal Of Popular Culture, 40(6), 953-978. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00480.x
Greene, Robert (2013). Mastery. New York, NY: Penguin Group
Kidd, Chip & Spear, Geoff (2010). The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal. New York, NY: Abram Books
Lacter, M. (2009). Stan Lee Marvel Comics. Inc, 31(9), 94-97.
Lee, Stan (2010). Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics. New York, NY: Watson-Guptill Publication
Simon, Joe & Kirby, Jack (2014). The Art of the Simon and Kirby Studio. New York, NY: Abram Books
Wright, Nicky (2000). The Classic Era of American Comics. London: Prion Books Limited