So, Why Isn’t He a Household Name?
In most cases, calling someone the king of anything would be hyperbole, but for Jack Kirby, it’s an understatement. He didn’t just create or co-create some of the most famous fictional characters of all time; he helped define the comic book medium’s visual language. The fruits of his labor can be seen in comics even decades after he passed away. His work shaped the movies that millions of people love and has influenced countless artists and writers who have become influential in the medium and popular culture. So, why isn’t Jack Kirby a household name?
On August 28, 1917, Jack Kirby was born in the Lower East Side of New York City, but he wouldn’t take that name for many years. His birth name was Jacob Kurtzberg, and his parents, Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg, were Austrian-Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a garment factory worker.
Like a lot of kids who grow up in rough neighborhoods, Kirby used his imagination as a way to escape his surroundings. As a kid, Jack spent a lot of time drawing. It might be hard to believe, but he was mostly self-taught. Some of his influences were Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, among others. At the age of 14, Kirby enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but he left after a week.
“I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done” -Jack Kirby
During the 1930s, Kirby began working in the then-budding comic book industry. He illustrated various comics features using multiple pseudonyms. Never one to sit still, Kirby also worked in animation at the Fleischer studios. There he was an inbetweener. (The artist who fills in the action between major-movement frames.) However, he left the studio in 1937 because he didn’t find it artistically fulfilling. When looking back on this time in his life, Kirby described it as “a factory in a sense, like my father’s factory. They were manufacturing pictures.”
He soon began writing and drawing for the comic-book packager Eisner & Iger, a firm that created comics on demand for publishers. During this time, Kirby produced what he considered his first comic book work, Wild Boy Magazine. At the time, it was a widespread practice to use pseudonyms to avoid exclusive contracts. That’s why many artists worked under different names; Jack Kirby was no exception. He used the names Curt Davis, Fred Sande, Ted Grey, and many others. In 1939 was the first time he employed the last name, Kirby. He was credited as Lance Kirby on “Lone Rider.” Eventually, he chose the name Jack Kirby and stuck with it. He said it reminded him of the actor James Cagney of whom he was a big fan.
In 1940, Kirby began to work on the comic superhero strip, The Blue Beetle, for Fox Feature Syndicate. During this time, he met and began collaborating with the Fox editor and fellow cartoonist, Joe Simon. Their partnership would become one of the most important in comic book history. They soon moved to Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics, which would later become Marvel Comics. The two of them worked closely together for years, usually traveling to different publishers together.
In 1941, they released their most famous creation, Captain America, which was an instant smash, selling out the first issue. It was so popular that the second issue had a print run of over a million copies. The title’s success established Simon and Kirby as a force to be reckoned with. Simon, who was the editor at Timely, asked Kirby to join the staff as the company’s art director. However, this also led to something that would become a recurring theme in their careers, a company failing to compensate them adequately. The duo was promised a percentage of the Captain America profits, but Timely failed to hold up this end of the bargain. Thus, Simon and Kirby took their talents to National Comics, which would become DC Comics in the future.
One of their first assignments was to revamp the Sandman feature in adventure comics. During their time at National, they created titles such as the Boy commandos, which started as a feature but later received its own title and, at its peak, sold over a million copies a month. They also introduced the Newsboy legion.
However, Kirby’s career was put on hold when he was drafted into the US Army in 1943. After completing his basic training, he was assigned to Company F of the 11th infantry regiment. His artistic talents earned him the assignment of heading into towns ahead of the others to draw maps and pictures of the area.
Following the war, Simon and Kirby began working at Harvey Comics, where, together, they helped usher in the romance comics genre. Their comic book Young Romance #1 was a huge hit. The title became so successful that it went from being published bi-monthly to being released every month. It also inspired a spin-off title, Young Love, that was equally popular. Not only that, but it spawned a new comic book trend in romance comics. However, even among the sea of imitators, the work of Simon and Kirby stood out. Their books continued to sell millions of copies every month.
At one point, they started their own comic company, Mainline Publications, that lasted from 1954 to 1955. Over the next couple of years, the duo enjoyed varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, they weren’t always paid the money that was owed to them. Eventually, after growing frustrated, Simon left the industry for a career in advertising.
“It was fine. There was no reason to continue the partnership, and we parted friends.” Kirby recalled in 1971.
After Simon left the industry, Kirby briefly returned to Timely Comics, which was at this point called Atlas Comics. Not long after, he co-created The Challengers of the Unknowns while freelancing for DC comics. It is said that Kirby drew more than 600 pages over 30 months. But he ultimately left due to contract disputes with Jack Schiff, who was an editor at the time.
Not long after this, he began freelancing for Atlas comics, working in just about every genre. In 1961, along with Stan Lee, he co-created the superhero team, Fantastic Four. That series’ first issue was not only a huge hit but a landmark moment for the medium and industry. The Fantastic Four revolutionized just about every aspect of comic books, and its impact can still be felt. Kirby’s work on that title would go on to influence countless future comic book artists. And Kirby himself would provide Marvel’s “house style” for almost a decade, often producing layouts for new Marvel artists to pencil over.
Over the years, the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby partnership became a lightning rod for controversy. While we may never know exactly how much each of them contributed, I believe it’s undeniable that Jack Kirby deserves more credit than he’s officially gotten. One thing that can’t be denied is that together, Lee and Kirby made amazing comics that are still beloved today. Together they created characters like The Avengers, The X-Men, Black Panther, Doctor Doom, Galactus, and many others. What is often referred to as their magnum opus was “The Galactus Trilogy” and it hit shelves in 1966. That story was a genre and medium defining epic whose influence is still felt today.
This was an undeniably, creatively fruitful period for Kirby. He pushed the medium’s boundaries and regularly redefined what comic books could be. Unfortunately, it was also a frustrating period for him professionally. His frustrations weren’t limited to financial compensation; he was also upset by the broken promises and that Marvel didn’t give him the credit he deserved. It seems almost inconceivable to think that any company wouldn’t thank the heavens for having Kirby in its employment. But at the time, they didn’t even return his original artwork to him.
Eventually, because of more contract disputes, Kirby left Marvel for DC Comics. During this time, Kirby produced what would be known as the “Fourth World” saga. Although it wasn’t initially a smashing success, these works have become highly influential. This saga introduced characters like Mister Miracle, Darkseid, and many others.
Aside from being highly influential, these comics were very personal for Jack Kirby. Many suggested that Mister Miracle, an escape artist, allowed Kirby to work out his frustrations of feeling trapped. His wife inspired Mister Miracle’s wife Big Barda, and the title even had a caricature of Stan Lee, called Funky Flashman.
In 1975, Kirby returned to Marvel, where he wrote and drew Captain America and created a series called The Eternals. This period also saw his last collaboration with Stan Lee called The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience. It was released in 1978 and is considered to be Marvel’s first graphic novel.
This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of Kirby’s work. Doing that would require a lot more than an article. But a great way to find a more thorough recounting of his works would be to check out Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier, who for a time worked as Jack Kirby’s assistant. That is a fantastic book worth picking up for any fan of Jack Kirby.
But even all of his work doesn’t fully convey the extent of what Jack Kirby contributed. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the most commercially successful film franchises of all time, and Kirby’s influence is all over it. Bruce Timm’s work on various DC animated series introduced these iconic characters to millions of people. And Timm’s work was strongly influenced by Kirby. Darwyn Cooke is another incredible artist whose style, Kirby deeply influenced. The cosmic scope of a lot of Grant Morrison’s writing is nothing if not Kirby-esque.
So, given how influential Jack Kirby’s work has been, he must clearly be a household name, right? Well, I certainly think he deserves to be known. In fact, if it were up to me, there would be a national holiday to honor him, kids would learn about him in school, and his name would be known to the millions of people who love the MCU movies. But that’s obviously not the case; why is that?
I still remember when I was first introduced to comic books. My mom brought home a collection of old Marvel Silver Age comics. I fell in love with comics the first time I opened that book. It had stories of the Hulk fighting the Thing, The Fantastic Four fighting Namor, and many other classics.
I also remember the first time I found out who Stan Lee was. I remember reading his “bullpen bulletins,” seeing him introduce the “Marvel Action Hour,” cameoing in the animated series, Spider-Man and many other places. More importantly, I remember knowing, not thinking but KNOWING that Stan Lee created everything I loved. I worshipped at the altar of the man.
However, as you get older, you realize that some of the things you grew up believing weren’t as real as you thought. I can’t remember exactly when I realized that Stan Lee wasn’t singlehandedly responsible for the Marvel Universe. It didn’t happen all at once because, frankly, I refused to believe it. I vaguely recall an exchange with the cashier at the only comic book store in the town I grew up. He scoffed when he overheard my cousin and me talking about how amazing Stan Lee was. He explained that Stan Lee didn’t create everything by himself. (He was probably a little more obscene) His words stung, but I knew it couldn’t be true. Besides, the comic book store guy was pretty gloomy in general. So. I just chalked it up to that. Over the years, that topic popped up regularly. But I still found myself writing it off. Part of me didn’t want to believe it. In a way, it was kind of like learning about Santa Clause.
When I got to college, I met other people who loved comics and were more knowledgeable than me. And the topic always seemed to rear its head. Then one day, I stopped wanting to hide from it. Instead, I wanted to learn the truth, finally. I watched documentaries, scoured the web, and read books about comics history. To be honest, it changed my perception of who Stan Lee was. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Stan hater by any means. I believe that if you could somehow find a way to give him the exact amount of credit he deserved, he would still comfortably have a place in the hall of fame. He would still merit being celebrated. But that isn’t all he took, is it?
Over the decades, many people have attempted to document the history of the comic book industry. Throughout all of it, one of the things that remain constant is that the artists and writers who created the characters and stories beloved by millions often get screwed over. The industry was built on the back of creators who were tossed aside and forgotten about. Books like Men of Tomorrow and Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, written by Gerard Jones and Sean Howe, respectively, are great resources for learning about the industry’s history. They attempt to draw back the curtain on many things that happened behind the scenes. They succeed to an extent, but the industry had very shady beginnings, and so much was left undocumented. Because of this, so many questions will never be fully answered.
However, in the history of comics, Stan Lee holds a very interesting position. The rise of Marvel Comics coincides with the rise of the counter culture of the 1960s. And Marvel comics was very smart to capitalize on that by courting college students. Stan Lee essentially became the spokesperson for Marvel. It was Stan Lee who visited college campuses and spoke directly to readers. Through the bullpen bulletins and “Stan’s soapbox,” he put himself on a first-name basis with the readers. Whenever a publication wrote about Marvel, they inevitably wrote about Stan Lee and credited him with almost everything. Meanwhile, people like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and many others worked in near anonymity.
When Stan Lee wasn’t taking credit that wasn’t his, he still didn’t correct others who attributed him with more than he deserved. And little by little, the idea that Stan Lee created the Marvel universe almost singlehandedly began to take shape. In the decades since, it has solidified into an undeniable fact to the point that even people who have never read a comic book know who Stan Lee is. Stan Lee’s position as Marvel’s “wunderkind” became deeply entrenched in society’s collective consciousness. When Martin Goodman sold Marvel Comics, the buyer demanded that Stan Lee be part of the deal. Everyone else was expendable, but Stan Lee had to be included.
I realize this might seem like I’m being overly harsh on Stan Lee, but that isn’t my intention. I believe you can appreciate someone’s work and even be a fan while still acknowledging their flaws. As a comic book reader, I will always be grateful for Stan Lee’s work and all the things he contributed to the medium and popular culture. But by that same token, I also want to see Jack Kirby receive the credit he deserves. He contributed just as much, and some would argue even more to the medium. Readers and moviegoers should know that. For decades, Marvel and DC profited greatly from Kirby’s work only to toss him aside when he spoke up.
“If in 1970, DC or Marvel had given Jack the exact same contract they give to newcomers in 1985, Jack would have been very happy. He would have gotten the credit and money he deserved, but in 1970, when he said, ‘well you know, I should have some sort of sales bonus in this thing,” they told him no. I don’t think any company treated him commensurable his worth or value to the company.” -Mark Evanier
They didn’t do right by him when he was alive. Maybe in death, they can at least honor his memory. Perhaps it’s time there were some Jack Kirby cameos in the MCU movies. It wouldn’t be the first time a movie used the digital likeness of someone who’s passed away. And there are so many other ways that Marvel and DC can acknowledge, honor, and compensate Jack Kirby and his family. If they are going to continue to profit off his work, they should also recognize his importance.
And if you’re thinking, “Well, what about Simon, Ditko, and all of the other creators?” Well, I agree with you. These companies have spent decades profiting off creators’ work, and it’s more than time that they — all of them — receive the credit and compensation they deserve.