Monday, February 8, 2010

Jack Kirby: The King of Comics

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“Every artist is the other artist’s teacher.”
--Jack Kirby, 1970

    Jack Kirby’s eloquence wasn’t through words, it was through raw and violent action, pictorally speaking the language of the rough Depression streets he grew up on. This barrel-chested, short man with an ever-present cigar has been immortalized as the apotheosis of the great cartoonist, a powder keg of dynamism and creativity.

    What can be written about Jack “The King” Kirby that hasn’t been said? That he could knock out a comic book in record time? That he defined more than just comics, but the pop culture that sprang out of them? That we all loved him, just for being Jack Kirby, whether we knew him or not?

    From people who knew him closely and intimately, or those trying to ride on the coat tails of Jack’s legacy, from biographies to fan magazines, his life is viewed as examples of both creative triumph and exploitation.

That action-paced thrill ride of a comic book? 
It was channeling Kirby.

Not given credit due for your work?
You were screwed over like Jack Kirby.

Jack’s childhood was a battle.

Born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, and given the childhood nickname Jakie, he grew up on Suffolk Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in a small tenement house. Jakie, like several kids, had to work just to help keep his family fed, including hawking newspapers on the streets. He joined a street gang, the Suffolk Street Gang to be exact, and took part in street warfare with neighboring gangs.

Kirby illustrates this violent life in Street Code, illustrated in pencil in the early ‘80s. As a kid, Jack fights a couple older kids in the elevator, tearing at one another’s skin as if it were rubber. Mobs of kids hoist the first throwable weapon up for an impending streetfight.

Luckily for little Jakie Kurtzberg, he had a world of fantasy on movie screens, comic strips, and pulp magazines to take him away from it all.

“In the last few years, I always said that inside Jack Kirby was The Hulk trying to get free of this little guy. Jack was a very feisty, lovable guy. I always liked him. He was a very simple and thrifty guy. He drew with a great deal of intensity, and he drew deftly and very quickly. He didn’t spend much time arranging compositions. He went right at it and knew exactly what he wanted, and he had a dynamism to his stuff: everything he did seemed to come right off the page at you. His imagination was centered around the action, movement, and theatrics, rather than the depth of the story.”
    -Will Eisner

These worlds opened up doors in this tenement kid’s mind, inspiring him to create new ones of his own on whatever he could draw. Dropping out of high school to pursue his art, Jack bounced around until landing a short gig doing animation work at the Fleischer Brothers Studio, the house that produced the Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Not happy with being a nameless cog in a machine, Jack didn’t last very long, moving over to an under-paying small syndicate, drawing several knock-off strips in his arsenal of different styles under an equally impressive assortment of pseudonyms. After that failed to pan out, Jack found himself at Universal Phoenix Syndicate in 1938, working for comics’ Boy Wonder Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit.
One story goes that, while at Phoenix, Eisner was leaned on to join a “towel service” which was, in actuality, a protection racket. When Jack and his nerve got thrown into the mix, the mobster was scared off. Once a tough guy, always a tough guy.

By 1940, Jack went on staff for Fox Comics, working for the colorful, hucksterish Victor Fox, the self-proclaimed “King of Comics”. Look under “Unscrupulous Publisher” in the dictionary, and there’s a picture of Fox, complete with black hair and cigar. Fox was notorious for not paying employees, was once sued by National/DC for a blatant Superman knock-off, and apparently went bankrupt four times in his career.

Fox hired a young editor, Joe Simon, another wunderkind creator, to run the bullpen of underpaid and overworked artists. Joe Simon was too savvy to remain pinned down at Fox, and he was soon moonlighting on a science fiction strip called Blue Bolt for Novelty Press. Jack was cranking out the Blue Beetle daily newspaper strip as Charles Nicholas, and also moonlighting with a strip called The Solar Legion for another publisher.  It wasn’t long before Simon recruited Kirby to help out on Blue Bolt, and a legendary creative team was born.

“Anyway, here I was doing this freelance work after hours. I was very young, 24, I think. Kirby was even younger, and was working at the bullpen at Fox. He found out that I was doing this extra work, and asked if he could come over and work with me. I said ‘Sure,’ since I had more than I could handle. I had to get letterers and inkers to help me meet my schedule.
    -Joe Simon

The tall and lanky Simon was an odd visual pairing with the short and stocky Kirby; their personalities were a bit on the opposite side as well, with Simon the business-minded one, and Kirby the passionate one. Simon pulled more than his fair share of creative weight with Jack, and the two complemented one another in a balancing act of skill and originality.

Simon and Kirby didn’t just produce comics – they created comics, pushing genres such as crime and horror, and eventually romance. Simon and Kirby panels went widescreen with action, characters punching one another beyond panel borders and into page gutters, legs spread wide apart as fists flailed with deadly accuracy. To read a Simon and Kirby comic was to be immersed in an epic battle in a world where everything was an adventure.

Their smash hit came with Captain America Comics in 1941; Cap wasn’t the first patriotic-themed hero (MLJ’s The Shield beat Cap to the punch), but Captain America was the first one that was completely immersed in the burgeoning Second World War and packed a wallop his red, white and blue predecessor lacked. After Simon and Kirby found themselves shortchanged by their publisher (who charged office expenses on Captain America Comics royalties), Timely Comics (the future Marvel), they set out feelers to competitor National Comics (now DC Comics), and soon defected to the land of Superman and Batman.
While at National they turned the superhero genre on its ear with their version of Sandman , invented the “kid gang” with Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos. When a formula ceased to work, they just created a new one and moved on with it.

The real World War II caught up with Simon and Kirby, and they enlisted an army of talent to crank out a surplus of stories for printing in their absence.

“I was recommended to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, and the assignment was that they were both going into the army later that year, and they had a quota to meet with their contract with DC.
    “They had a studio in the city and I went to work copying their stuff, penciling for them, and then they would do the splash page and get somebody to ink the stuff. All I was doing at 16 was copying the material, shot for shot. Up until the time, Joe Simon went in first, and I kept working with Jack. When Jack gave up the studio and started working at DC, I would meet him at DC.”
    --Gil Kane in 1998

When 1943 came around, Simon was off to the Coast Guard stateside, while Jack made his way to an army base in Atlanta, Georgia. Jack was sent off to Europe the next year, and lived the real war he’d only known in his comic stories. The horrors of war would permeate Jack’s future work, from The Losers
to The New Gods, trading the war of his neighborhood for the even more horrific one that belonged to the world.

    Simon and Kirby did some of their best work after the war, experimenting and succeeding in new genres like crime (Justice Traps the Guilty), romance (Young Love, a surprising hit for the pair), horror (Black Magic), and they even rejoined the kid gang with Boys’ Ranch. By 1954, they formed their own company, Mainline, and produced four books – the western Bullseye, war comic Foxhole, romance book In Love, and crime book Police Trap. It was an ill-timed venture, as the ambitious Senator Estes Kefauver and misguided psychiatrist Frederick Wertham went after comic books as the apparent cause of juvenile delinquency, inspiring crusades against comic books and burnings in towns all over America.

    The comic book publishers, in order to save themselves, formed the Comics Code censorship board, which not only killed crime and horror, but virtually castrated adventure comics into a vanilla impotence.

    Jack and Joe broke up the partnership, but worked together whenever Joe, now an editor at Harvey, had a cover or story for Jack.
“The only stories I can tell was that it was an absolute pleasure [and] delight to be working with him. He was so great at his artwork; whatever he drew was wonderful, but more than that, I would tell him what I wanted in a story. I never wrote a script, sometimes I would write a page outline, but most of the time we just discussed it. He would go home and he would draw his twenty or twenty-two pages based on what we had talked about. He would send the pages in, and inevitably, there were things that Jack would have added that we never discussed, which were all wonderful. 

“I had the fun of putting in the dialogue and captions; it was so easy to write the copy for anything Jack drew, because you just would look at his drawing and it would inspire me to write some good dialogue because the characters looked as though they were saying things that mattered. It’s hard to explain, but it was just such a pleasure to write stories based on the artwork that Jack had done.”

-- Stan Lee

    Jack Kirby found himself back at Timely Comics, working under the office boy from his Captain America days: Stan Lee. While Jack bounced around like a pinball for a few  years – Challengers of the Unknown for DC, an ill-fated science fiction strip called Sky Masters (which ended in a payment dispute and a lost lawsuit for Jack),  The Fly and Private Strong for Archie (with old cohort Joe) – but eventually wound back up on Stan’s doorstep after burning his last bridge at DC.

At the former Timely, now known as Atlas Comics, Stan used Jack on a bit of everything, but primarily on the company’s monster/sci-fi pastiche books. Jack drew great monsters in his trademark bombastic style, complemented by Stan’s equally bombastic dialogue. Stan had always wanted to be an author with a capital “A”, but wound up stuck as Editor/Writer/Jack of All Trades at his Uncle Martin’s company. He made the best of things, churning out script after script, and sometimes relegating them to his brother Larry Lieber.

Overloaded with books to manage and scripts to hack out, Stan developed what later became known as the “Marvel Method” of comic book-making: Stan came up with a plot, often acting it out to his artist, and they’d go home and draw the story out. Stan would then, pages in hand, add dialogue and captions to the artwork. With a natural storyteller like Kirby, the Marvel Method resulted in a crazy narrative synergy where people were always poised, rushing, fighting, hurling, screaming, and moving through the plot. Every word spoken was blurted out in desperation and urgency, in Lee and Kirby’s world of drama on a colossal scale, of extreme close-ups and the end of the world at stake.

Groot, Tim Boo Ba, Glop, The Blip, Kraa the Unhuman, Fin Fang Foom, X the Thing that Lived – all wood, swamp, goop, electric, reptilian, dragon monsters were designed by Kirby and slapped with B-movie monster names by Lee. The Lee/Kirby monster comics are as high art as Roger Corman flicks in their ridiculousness, or maybe they are high art because of their absurdity and other-worldliness.

It was all a prologue to the comic book that would define the Lee and Kirby team – a comic book that combined monster comics with superhero with romance. Fantastic Four #1 struck in late 1961 and paved the way for Timely/Atlas/Marvel to become the Marvel Comics line.

Story has it that Marvel publisher Goodman was playing golf with DC Comics’ honcho Jack Liebowitz and learned how DC’s superhero team Justice League of America was selling well. So Martin, catching onto the sales craze, tapped Stan to create a superhero book.

Fantastic Four was made great by the dysfunctional nature of the quartet: Johnny the Human Torch and Ben the Thing bickered like siblings, while Sue the Invisible Girl pined away for Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), who was too busy being the stern pipe-smoking scientist leader-type to be able to reciprocate. They often fought one another as much as they did their villains.

And Jack’s art? From the get-go, full of dramatic monsters, rushing crowds, weirdly powered people, and the unknown-ness of outer space. Stan’s exclamation mark-ridden dialogue was the glue that bound it all together, giving Jack’s melodramatic characters enough grounding to make them even more believable.
After Fantastic Four, the floodgates opened for Marvel’s new line of superheroes, flawed characters who were far hipper than the competition’s whitebread line. Not only did other Marvel artist Steve Ditko and Stan come up with Spider-Man, but the Stan and Jack machine churned out hero after hero – Norse God Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Ant Man, The X-Men, Silver Surfer, The Inhumans – and all of their vile villains – Doctor Doom, The Fearsome Five, Magneto the Master of Magnetism, Loki, Absorbing Man – in a clash of Jack’s titans and Stan’s trademark alliteration and exclamation points.

As Jack had everywhere from the real-life backdrop of New York City to the mythical land of Asgard to draw his new breed of superhumans battling it out, he now had a wider canvas to spread the bombastic conflict and violence. Jack Kirby never made the four-panel-a-page grid boring in Fantastic Four; any other artist would remain stagnant on paper with identically shaped panels, but he packed each one full of such power that the fancy layouts of his ‘40s work didn’t matter anymore.

But beyond the fantastic and epic, where Thing would clobber monsters or the revived Captain America waded through Red Skull’s cannon fodder, beyond the display of utter violence on each page – there was a tenderness. For every panel of Ben Grimm the Thing causing the sidewalk to crumble from the weight of his power, there was an equal panel of Invisible Girl holding her infant son with a love only seen in real life. Chances are it all came from Jack’s experiences as a father and a husband, a well-deserved peace after the tumult of his upbringing in streets and war zones.

Jack also began experimenting with collage in Fantastic Four: whenever Reed Richards traveled to an alien dimension, it was comprised of odd shapes and textures, mashed together in a work of pop art that belonged as much on a gallery wall as a comics page. Had Kirby realized the power of his own work in comics, he could’ve had a successful career alongside “pop artists” who made a career appropriating his work in the first place.

“Kirby was dynamic. When I inked Kirby, Stan would bawl me out and say ‘What are you doing? You’re drawing a real nose, it’s not supposed to be a real nose! They’re two little holes.’ 

“I was taking things too literally, and was trying to draw a real nose, but that was not Kirby.

“Frank Giacoia came by one day and said ‘Mike, just paint by number.’

“Frank inked all that stuff. He said ‘Don’t try to create your own look, just follow the lines, and it will all fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle.’ He was right. You don’t draw on top of Jack Kirby, because it won’t work.”
    --Mike Esposito in 2000

Part of what made Marvel work was Stan’s bombastic personality, sent out through his distinctive editorial voice, never telling but always narrating. Stan was viewed as the idea man at Marvel; chances are he didn’t want to relinquish too much to his collaborators in the name of the ‘company line’. Whatever the reason, Stan became viewed Marvel’s creative powerhouse and media darling, while Jack was viewed as merely an artist of the successful line of books.

Jack’s later days at Marvel were rife with more and more frustrations, as Stan took more and more credit, and Kirby saw characters like the Silver Surfer (fully created by him and only dialogued by Lee in issues of Fantastic Four) taken over by Lee and artist John Buscema for a new comic book. There was even more heaped upon Jack when Marvel was purchased a new company, Perfect Film, who appreciated him even less than he may have been under Martin Goodman’s ownership. They tried to force him to sign a contract that would take away any rights he had as a creator or employee.

Jack Kirby unsurprisingly left Marvel in 1970, jumping ship to rival DC Comics.

    Listening to audio of Jack from the 1970 San Diego Convention, he almost sounds like a heavy from a Warner Brothers movie, first dropping an Edward G. Robinson-like “…see?” every few words, his accent punctuating his monologue-like rambling thoughts, a mix of self-deprecation and wonder. He’s honest and humble, sounding more like a journeyman than an “Artist” with a capital “A”. An utter gentleman to the end, he cites his leaving Marvel as something he had to do, refusing to go into details.

    Comic book artist Carmine Infantino had risen in the ranks of DC Comics as Editor-in-Chief, and was savvy enough to lure Jack Kirby over from Marvel. Jack first wrote and drew Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, taking the ho-hum spin-off comic book about the cub reporter and turning it into a disjointed mash-up of clones, monsters, and aliens.

When all is said and done, DC (and Infantino) allowed Jack to experiment with the comics format more than he was allowed to in his early Marvel days.

Jack’s style became even more stripped-down at this point, made more apparent by Mike Royer’s loyal inking job, and he continued the inclusion of his collages. In some ways, Jack Kirby was an underground artist working in the mainstream he himself helped create.

    In 1971, Kirby launched his Fourth World books, which are collective examples of what happens when a creative powerhouse goes untethered.

    The Fourth World was an umbrella branding for three connected books, fully produced and edited by Jack himself – The New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle – and the war between the hellish Apokolips and heavenly New Genesis.
    The Fourth World books were concept-heavy and full of action. It’s as if the cork keeping all of Jack’s own ideas dating back to Marvel had popped off and spilled out onto the pages. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it was powerful!

But despite the Boom Tubes and the Source, and the Parademons and Highfathers, the prophecies and Anti-Life Equation, the New Gods wasn’t the success they’d hoped for. The problem may have been in Jack’s being given so much free reign; it created a mythologically rich world that is still being strip-mined by DC writers and artists today, but the narrative thread frayed off in several directions. Jack may have needed a Joe Simon or a Stan Lee to keep him in check, just as Joe and Stan needed a Jack Kirby to make their work more grandiose.

“I read something on the web where someone was grousing about some storyline that was recently run involving some of Jack’s characters, because they thought it was ‘not what Jack would have done,’ and ‘every time you do a story with the New Gods, you have to ask yourself ‘Would Jack have done this?’’ 

“I think that’s probably the wrong way to go about working on this material. I certainly will do my damnedest to be as true to Jack’s work as I possibly can. At that same time, I can’t ask Jack what he thinks about the stuff I’m doing. I knew Jack very casually. I was a huge admirer, and am a huge fan of his. 

“But in the end, the best I can be is a really good Walt Simonson, I can’t be a good second-rate Jack Kirby.”
--Walt Simonson on writing and drawing Orion, 1999

Jack’s post-Fourth World world was equally distinct – from the post-apocalypse of OMAC: One Man Army Corps and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, to his brief return with Simon on a new Sandman, or the fantastic darkness of The Demon, or even Jack’s semi-autobiographical spin on World War II group The Losers – and all bold and different. Sure, OMAC may have been a breezy and inconsistent read but, like all of his other work, it featured distinctive concepts and strong visuals that stick in your mind like the best dreams or worst nightmares: OMAC’s faceless superiors of the Global Protection Agency, the superpowered-granting Brother Eye satellite, or the lifelike robot assassin Psuedo-People were haunting and grotesque images of a future world gone wrong.

Jack’s DC tenure wound up short-lived, as he boomeranged back to Marvel to create his new title The Eternals (another New Gods-type book, but one that married the Greco-Roman gods with an alien race), and also for another stint on Captain America. From there on, Jack’s career took him all over the place: working on animation for Hanna Barbera on a Fantastic Four cartoon, cranking out concepts for Ruby Spears animated cartoons like Turbo Teen and Thundarr the Barbarian, and creating his own books Silver Star and Captain Victory for new creator-owned publisher Pacific Comics.

Kirby had a brief return to DC with a revival of The New Gods, as well as a chance to earn royalties on the new Super Powers toy line and accompanying cartoon. The inclusion of New Gods characters such as Darkseid and Orion introduced Jack’s characters to a new audience.

No longer a presence at Marvel, as he was also fighting to get his artwork returned. By 1987, he finally regained most of his artwork from the publisher he’d helped build

When Jack died of heart failure on February 6, 1994, he left behind an influence on all artists since, and an indelible impression on generations of fans. Jack Kirby didn’t just steer the birth of comics: he also steered the direction of pop culture.

Have you ever been in love with someone, so much that you see bits of them in everything around you? Maybe someone has a bit of a smile like them, or a lilt to their voice that sounds like the loved ones? Maybe an actor or actress makes you think of them every time they come onscreen.

Jack Kirby’s work is the same way: once you fall in love with it, you notice it everywhere, from Star Wars (which clearly borrows more from New Gods and Jack's Marvel Comics work than George Lucas admits) to the animated work of Bruce Timm or Gendy Tartovsky.

But once you fall in love with Kirby’s work, no matter how many times you see the same extreme close-up panel of a character’s eyebrows or that classic stock punch pose of his, you never, ever, fall out of love with it.

For the definitive Jack Kirby biography, Graphic NYC recommends Kirby: King of Comics, by comics historian extraordinaire and Kirby friend Mark Evanier. Also recommended is Titan Books' excellent The Best of Simon and Kirby hardcover, as well as an online visit to The Kirby Museum.