Thursday, August 28, 2014

Happy Birthday to Jack "The King" Kirby!

Today marks what would be the 97th birthday of Jacob Kurtzberg a.k.a. Jack "The King" Kirby. For the few of you who don't know, Jack Kirby is one of the most important artists in the history of comic books and the co-creator of such superhero stalwarts as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, the Avengers, Silver Surfer and Galactus, and so many, many more.

Jack Kirby in 1993, shortly before his passing. Photo by Suzy Skaar. 
Born August 28, 1917 in Lower East Side Manhattan, Jack was the son of Jewish immigrants from Austria. At an early age he found himself to be a gifted artist and this eventually led to a job working on comic strips and graphic images at a newspaper company. Shortly afterwards, he found work drawing parts for film animation and then moved to the Fox Feature Syndicate where he met writer/editor Joe Simon. From there, the pair moved on to Martin Goodman's Timely Comics where Joe and Jack created the iconic Captain America in late 1940, almost a full year before Japanese bombs sunk the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. 

Private Jack Kirby home safe and sound after the Second World War. 
Jack himself would go on to serve in the 11th Infantry Regiment and would land at Normandy, although not during the D-Day invasion. With entertainment options limited in the theatre of war and comic books easy to carry and pass around a barracks, there are stories of soldiers reading Captain America during reprieves in the fighting, often at complete unawares that Cap's co-creator was on the base close by. Jack returned state-side in early 1945 after honourable service in the US Army, perhaps most notably at the Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive of that dreadful war. 

Marvel's Fantastic Four #48 (March 1966) which featured Silver Surfer and Galactus.
Once back in the states, Jack returned to his true calling: art. But when the bottom fell out of superhero comics in the late 1940s, Kirby took to other versions of the funny books. Indeed, after they had reunited, Simon and Kirby created romance comics, a forerunner to young adult-themed cultural phenomena that could even include television programs like Friends or How I Met Your Mother. Kirby's work with Simon would come to an end when the latter moved to advertising, but Jack soon made the move back to Atlas (formerly Timely) Comics and when the Silver Age dawned with the publishing of DC's of Showcase #4 in 1956, Kirby was well-situated to reconnect with his former colleague Stan Lee and create a new group of superheroes. 

Image from Marvel's Fantastic Four #91 (October 1969) This art is classic Jack Kirby. 
"Stan and Jack" would go on populate the Marvel Universe with the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers and many more, with the duo becoming some of the most prolific story-tellers in the history of the medium. They were also the gold standard too, with their tales featuring galactic adventures, large-than-life heroes, god-like villains, a resurrected Captain America and Marvel's calling card of the Silver Age: teen angst. Jack Kirby stayed with Marvel until the early 1970s when he was enticed to cross the street and move to DC. While at the "Distinguished Competition" Jack took the reigns of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen (a poor selling book so he wouldn't take anyone's job) and created the highly serialized and archetype-rich science-fiction epic Jack Kirby's Fourth World as well as characters OMAC and Kamandi. In the mid 1970s Jack returned to Marvel for a short, final time where he created fan favourites The Eternals, among a few others.

Kirby art in Pacific Comics' Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers #3 (March 1982).
After a brief stint in animation in the late 1970s where he worked on such awesome stories as Thundaar The Barbarian, Jack returned to the funny books once again to do work that we would now label "creator owned". This choice of phrase is both apt and ironic due to on-going legal issues relating to the ownership of Kirby's co-creations at Marvel, issues that may yet be heard before the Supreme Court of the United States. But that is a sordid tale for another blog entry (or even a book).

Jack Kirby's self-portrait. It features many characters he co-created and developed at Marvel Comics. 
Jack Kirby passed away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76. When your humble blogger became re-acquainted with comic books after a decade-plus hiatus, it the re-discovery of Jack Kirby's art that drew me in and indirectly led to the creation and naming of this blog. WGTB loves Kirby's larger-than-life characters, his legendary "Kirby Krackle" and the dynamism of almost any page he has ever drawn. So happy birthday, King! You're well and truly missed and have legions of supporters and fans who will ensure your name is never forgotten.

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