Though he lacks Will Eisner’s urbane, insouciant spirit and Jack Cole’s sensuous, ever-surprising plasticity, comic-book artist Jack Kirby (1917–94) more than deserves the royal sobriquet with which he’s been crowned. King Kirby embodies the drama of his medium as well as the drama of its history—how, starting on the eve of World War II, a bunch of mainly working-class, first-generation Jewish kids created a garish, subliterary mythology of fantastic supermen. Kirby’s first such creature, created with Joe Simon, was Captain America: The premiere issue, which appeared nearly a year before Pearl Harbor, has the masked and star-spangled hero using his shield to deflect Nazi bullets even as he knocks Hitler off his feet with an explosive right hook to the kisser.
In a general sense, Kirby’s is the saga that Michael Chabon mythologized and made literary with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). In his author’s note, Chabon acknowledges his “deep debt” to Kirby, not just in this novel but in “everything else I’ve ever written.” Most likely, Chabon was thinking less of Kirby’s wartime comics than of the pop deities the artist drew and/or invented twenty years later for Marvel Comics—the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the uncanny X-Men, the Mighty Thor, and the Silver Surfer—or the even crazier characters that he would develop for Marvel’s rival DC in the early ’70s.
These hallucinations flowed from an unlikely source. A feisty five-foot-two-inch fireplug, the artist was born Jacob Kurtzberg in a Lower East Side tenement. Mark Evanier’s lavish celebration Kirby: King of Comics includes the late-in-life autobiographical story “Street Code,” a slum tale that erupts into monumental stasis with an epic two-page splash panel. The teeming masses and the pushcarts of the Suffolk Street universe are conjured in an impossibly busy, visually clamorous frozen moment. It’s the Kirby recipe: a lot of Fritz Lang, a dash of Tintoretto, and the underlying sense that this doggedly in-your-face artist’s preferred medium might have been imax 3D.
Jack Kirby’s presentation collage of Metron, 1969.
Kirby was self-taught (according to Evanier, he attended Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute for a single day), as well as self-named. But the apple did not fall far from tree: Like his tailor father, Kirby would bring home piecework (albeit to draw); nights were spent bent over the kitchen table, days were spent slaving in sweatshops for exploitative bosses who ripped off his ideas and profited on his mad productivity. (Evanier, himself the author of five hundred comic books and several hundred hours of television, is in awe of his subject’s dedication.) Dreading a return to the poverty of his childhood, Kirby was fantastically prolific—his career output has been estimated at twenty-five thousand published pages. He was also a fast worker who made no preliminary sketches, never erased, and could, when necessary, crank out an entire comic book over a weekend. Was ever a hack more driven?
In the catalogue Masters of American Comics, the novelist Glen David Gold writes that “Kirby’s process was less like drawing than calling forth existing images from a blank page.” This sense of liberating the sculpture latent within the stone is also evident in Kirby’s style. His figures are blocky, and the action strains to burst the confines of the panel, if not the page, and often does. The typical Kirby cover is a grotesque birth image, the hero catapulting into the fray—calves flexed, arms apishly extended, oversize hands clawing the air. Early on, Kirby established himself as the master of what comic artists called the slugfest. Not only were his heroes muscle-bound, so, too, was the trash-compacted chaos of the individual frame. Kirby put the pow! in powerful: It’s no coincidence that Roy Lichtenstein cribbed his 1963 Image Duplicator from a mega-close-up found in the first issue of The X-Men. But emphasizing the single frame also misses the point.
Kirby always saw the big picture. Evanier credits him as the first comic-book artist to design by the page rather than the panel, a development in comic language analogous to the invention of montage in the movies. And of course, Kirby dreamed big. Working with writer Stan Lee, he was instrumental in tilting Marvel toward epic sagas of cosmic struggle. Forget America, or planet Earth; in the greatest Kirby yarns, the fate of the whole friggin’ universe is at stake. In a multi-issue struggle that marked the acme of Marvel hubris, the Fantastic Four went up against God Almighty, tactfully given the name Galactus. A few years later, the Mighty Thor did as well. Even before he arrived at Marvel, Kirby was visualizing the end of existence. Their names suggesting the growls and hisses of a Michael McClure poem—Zzutak, Lo-karr, Googam Son of Goom—the world-devouring monsters Kirby drew in the ’50s for Atlas (arguably the cheesiest of comic-book publishers) are astounding representations of pure voraciousness: They suggest the abyss turned inside out.
Evanier, who knew Kirby for twenty-five years and worked as his assistant, treats him as a superhero in his own right—“he never lost heart; not for a second.” It’s the artist as angry, frustrated, mistreated workaholic. Just about the only thing Kirby wasn’t big on was emotional subtlety. (It’s hilarious that, among their other accomplishments, Kirby and Simon invented the romance comic: My Date made its debut soon after Kirby was mustered out of the infantry in 1945.) Any one of Carl Barks’s angst-ridden Disney ducks is more expressive than all the Marvel mutants combined. But far more than most comic-book artists, Kirby invested himself in his creations. He identified with the seething grievances nursed by misanthropic Marvel characters like the Incredible Hulk and, especially, the Thing. “If you’ll notice the way the Thing talks and acts, you’ll find that the Thing is really Jack Kirby” is how the artist once objectified himself.
Specifically, Kirby’s resented his editor and frequent collaborator. He battled Stan Lee for control of the Silver Surfer and lost. In 1970, Kirby left Marvel for DC, staid home of Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, Superdog, twelve varieties of kryptonite, and the Justice League of America. There, he elaborated his most extravagant mythology, the so-called Fourth World. Writing as well as drawing, Kirby created a cosmology of teenage divinities. Near lysergic, New Gods, The Forever People, and Mr. Miracle flirted with inexplicable abstraction. In a burst of bravado, Kirby also took on the venerable book Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen—the stories were indifferently drawn but bizarrely plotted. Several issues featured a cameo by another Jewish master of hostility, insult comedian Don Rickles. Nor was this Kirby’s sole brush with show business. Mr. Miracle’s zaftig consort, Big Barda, was famously inspired by a Playboy photo spread devoted to the singer Lainie Kazan. And as all Kirby true believers know, the premise and trajectory of the Fourth World anticipates that of Star Wars—George Lucas lining up behind Lee and the comic-book sweatshops of the early ’40s as Kirby rip-off artists.
The climax of “The Glory Boat,” from New Gods no. 6, December 1971.
DC canceled New Gods and the others in 1972, but Kirby persevered. His next book, Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, was a fanciful variation on Planet of the Apes. For a while, it seemed that he was introducing a new comic (and a new concept) every month, many last-ing only a single, collectible issue. One of the more successful, roughly coinciding with Watergate, was OMAC (One Man Army Corps), which, fueled by class rage, posited an outrageous oligarchic future in which billionaires might rent entire cities for their parties.
Eventually, Kirby returned to Marvel. One of his last projects was the adaptation, in 1975, of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. If Kirby was overawed, it hardly showed. He enlivened Kubrick’s creation with monster slugfests and outlandish creatures (Marak the Merciless! Vira, the She Demon!), twisting the space odyssey to suit himself: he sought to escape the FUTUREthe MONOLITH showed him the way!!” In a sense, Kirby brought it back home: One of the last issues has protagonist Harvey Norton assuming the role of the White Zero in the virtual-reality theme park Comicsville and then angrily abandoning it. “I don’t know what prompted me to take a fling at the Live-Action hero mill!” he broods as he leaves fantasyland for the massive housing project that is the New York of 2040. “At any rate, I wasn’t the only fool in the place.” Hardly.
J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice.