Friday, February 26, 2010

A Tribute To The King: Jack "The King" Kirby

Jacob Kurtzberg (August 28, 1917 – February 6, 1994),[2] better known by the pen name Jack Kirby, was an American comic book artist, writer and editor. Growing up poor in New York City, Kurtzberg entered the nascent comics industry in the 1930s. He drew various comic strips under different pseudonyms, ultimately settling on Jack Kirby. In 1941, Kirby and writer Joe Simon created the highly successful superhero character Captain America for Timely Comics. During the 1940s, Kirby would create a number of comics for various publishers, often teamed with Simon.

Kirby was born in August 1917 in New York City. His father was an Austrian Jewish immigrant who earned a living as a garment-factory worker. Growing up on Suffolk Street, Kirby was often involved in street fights with other kids, he later said that "fighting became second nature. I began to like it." Through his youth Kirby desired to escape his neighborhood. He liked to draw and sought out places he could learn more about art.[3] Essentially self-taught,[4] Kirby cited among his influences the comic strip artists Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, and Alex Raymond, as well as such editorial cartoonists as C. H. Sykes, "Ding" Darling, and Rollin Kirby.[4] He was rejected by the Educational Alliance because he "[drew] too fast with charcoal", according to Kirby. He later found an outlet for his skills by drawing cartoons for the newspaper of the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a "miniature city" on East 3rd Street where street kids ran their own government.[5]

Kirby enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, at what he said was age 14, leaving 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".[6]

Partnership with Joe Simon (1941–1942)

Kirby moved on to comic-book publisher and newspaper syndicator Fox Feature Syndicate, earning a then-reasonable $15 a week salary. He began exploring superhero narrative with the comic strip The Blue Beetle (January-March 1940), starring a character created by the pseudonymous Charles Nicholas, a house name that Kirby retained for the three-month-long strip. During this time, Kirby met and began collaborating with cartoonist and Fox editor Joe Simon, who in addition to his staff work continued to freelance. Simon recalled in 1988, "I loved Jack's work and the first time I saw it I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He asked if we could do some freelance work together. I was delighted and I took him over to my little office. We worked from the second issue of Blue Bolt..."[12]

After leaving Fox and landing at pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman's Timely Comics (the future Marvel Comics), Simon and Kirby created the patriotic superhero Captain America in late 1940. Simon cut a deal with Goodman that gave him and Kirby 15 percent of the profits from the strip as well as salaried positions as the company's editor and art director, respectively. The first issue of Captain America Comics, released in early 1941, sold out in days, and the second issue's print run was set at over a million copies. The title's success established the team as a notable creative force in the industry.[13] After the first issue was published, Simon asked Kirby to join the Timely staff as the company's art director.[14]

Despite the success of the Captain America character, Simon felt that Goodman was not paying the pair the promised percentage of profits, and so sought work for the two of them at National Comics (later named DC Comics).[15] Kirby and Simon negotiated a deal that would pay them a combined $500 a week, as opposed to the $75 and $85 they respectively earned at Timely.[16] Fearing that Goodman would not pay them if he found out they were moving to National, the pair kept the deal a secret while they continued producing work for the company. Eventually the staff at Timely (most of whom were relatives of Goodman) found out, so Kirby and Simon left after they completed their work on Captain America Comics.[17]

Kirby and Simon spent their first weeks at National trying to come up with characters while the company attempted to find out how to use the pair.[18] After a few failed editor-assigned ghosting assignments, National's Jack Liebowitz told them to "just do what you want" since they were being paid anyway. The pair then revamped the Sandman strip in Adventure Comics and created the superhero Manhunter.[19] In July 1942 they began the Boy Commandos strip. The ongoing Boy Commandos series, launched later that same year, sold over a million copies a month, becoming National's third best-selling title.[20]

After Simon (1956–1957)

At the urging of a Crestwood/Prize salesman, Kirby and Simon launched their own comics company, Mainline Publications.[37] Titles included Bullseye: Western Scout, Foxhole, In Love, and Police Trap. After the duo rearranged and republished artwork from an old Crestwood story in In Love, Crestwood refused to pay Simon and Kirby.[38] After reviewing Crestwood's finances, the pair's attorney's stated that the company owed them $130,000 over the past seven years. Crestwood paid them $10,000 in addition to their recent delayed payments. However, the partnership between Kirby and Simon had become strained.[39] Simon left the industry for a career in advertising, while Kirby continued to freelance. He was instrumental in the creation of Archie Comics' The Fly and The Double Life of Private Strong, reuniting briefly with Joe Simon. He also drew some issues of Classics Illustrated.

For DC Comics, then known as National Comics, Kirby co-created with writers Dick and Dave Wood the non-superpowered adventuring quartet, the Challengers of the Unknown, in Showcase #6 (Feb. 1957), while also contributing to such anthologies as House of Mystery. During 30 months at DC, Kirby drew slightly more than 600 pages, which included 11 six-page Green Arrow stories in World's Finest Comics and Adventure Comics that, in a rarity, Kirby inked himself.[40] Kirby recast the archer as a science-fiction hero, moving him away from his Batman-formula roots, but in the process alienating Green Arrow co-creator Mort Weisinger.[41] He also began drawing a newspaper comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force, written by the Wood brothers and initially inked by the unrelated Wally Wood.[42]

Kirby left National Comics due largely to a contractual dispute in which editor Jack Schiff, who had been involved in getting Kirby and the Wood brothers the Sky Masters contract, claimed he was due royalties from Kirby's share of the strip's profits. Schiff successfully sued Kirby.[43] Some DC editors also had criticized him over art details, such as not drawing "the shoelaces on a cavalryman's boots" and showing a Native American "mounting his horse from the wrong side."[44]

Marvel Comics in the Silver Age (1958 – 1970)

Kirby returned to work with Stan Lee on the cusp of the company's evolution from its 1950s incarnation as Atlas Comics (previously Timely Comics) to become Marvel. Inker Frank Giacoia approached Lee for work, but when informed that Atlas artists inked their own pencils, suggested he could "get Kirby back here to pencil some stuff."[45] Kirby was still working on DC's Challengers of the Unknown, but also searching for work from other publishers, with little success. Continuing with DC on such titles as House of Mystery and House of Secrets, Kirby drew occasional stories for Atlas, including the Lone Ranger-like Black Rider and the Fu Manchu stand-in Yellow Claw.[46]

Several months later, after his split with DC, Kirby began freelancing regularly for Atlas. Because of the poor page rates, Kirby would spend 12 to 14 hours daily at his drawing table at home, producing eight to ten pages of artwork a day.[47] His first published work at Atlas was the cover of and the seven-page story "I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers" in Strange Worlds #1 (December 1958). Initially with Christopher Rule as his regular inker, and later Dick Ayers, Kirby drew across all genres, from romance to war comics, crime stories to Westerns, but made his mark primarily with a series of supernatural-fantasy and science fiction stories featuring giant, drive-in movie-style monsters with names like Groot, the Thing from Planet X; Grottu, King of the Insects; and Fin Fang Foom for the company's many anthology series, such as Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and World of Fantasy. His bizarre designs of powerful, unearthly creatures proved a hit with readers.

With Marvel editor-in-chief Lee, Kirby began working on superhero comics again, beginning with The Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961). The landmark series became a hit that revolutionized the industry with its comparative naturalism and, eventually, a cosmic purview informed by Kirby's seemingly boundless imagination — one well-matched with the consciousness-expanding youth culture of the 1960s.

For almost a decade, Kirby provided Marvel's house style, co-creating with Stan Lee many of the Marvel characters and designing their visual motifs. At Lee's request, he often provided new-to-Marvel artists "breakdown" layouts, over which they would pencil in order to become acquainted with the Marvel look. As artist Gil Kane described:

". . . Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel's fortunes from the time he rejoined the company ... It wasn't merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but ... Jack's point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field ... [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists ... and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. ... Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That's what was told to me ... It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view."[48]

Highlights other than the Fantastic Four include: Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Uatu the Watcher, Magneto, Ego the Living Planet, the Inhumans and their hidden city of Attilan, and the Black Panther — comics' first known black superhero — and his African nation of Wakanda. Simon and Kirby's Captain America was also incorporated into Marvel's continuity with Kirby approving Lee's idea[citation needed] of partially remaking the character as a man out of his time and regretting the death of his sidekick.

In 1968 and 1969, Joe Simon was involved in litigation with Marvel Comics over the ownership of Captain America, initiated by Marvel after Simon registered the copyright renewal for Captain America in his own name. According to Simon, Kirby agreed to support the company in the litigation and, as part of a deal Kirby made with publisher Martin Goodman, signed over to Marvel any rights he might have had to the character.[49]

Kirby continued to expand the medium's boundaries, devising photo-collage covers and interiors, developing new drawing techniques such as the method for depicting energy fields now known as "Kirby Dots," and other experiments.[50] Yet he grew increasingly dissatisfied with working at Marvel. There have been a number of reasons given for this dissatisfaction, including resentment over Stan Lee's increasing media prominence, a lack of full creative control, anger over breaches of perceived promises by publisher Martin Goodman, and frustration over Marvel's failure to credit him specifically for his story plotting and for his character creations and co-creations.[51][52]

He began to both script and draw some secondary features for Marvel, such as "The Inhumans" in Amazing Adventures and horror stories for the anthology title Chamber of Darkness, and received full credit for doing so; but he eventually left the company in 1970 for rival DC Comics, under editorial director Carmine Infantino.

DC Comics and the Fourth World saga (1971–1975)

Kirby spent nearly two years negotiating a deal to move to DC Comics.[53] Kirby returned to DC in late 1970, signing a three-year contract with an option for two additional years.[54] He produced a series of inter-linked titles under the blanket sobriquet "The Fourth World" including a trilogy of new titles, New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People, as well as the Superman title, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Kirby picked the latter book because the series was without a stable creative team and he did not want to cost anyone a job.[55] The central villain of the Fourth World series, Darkseid, and some of the Fourth World concepts, appeared in Jimmy Olsen before the launch of the other Fourth World books, giving the new titles greater exposure to potential buyers.

Kirby later produced other DC titles such as OMAC, Kamandi, The Demon, Kobra and, together with former partner Joe Simon for one last time, a new incarnation of the Sandman.

Return to Marvel (1976–1978)Kirby then returned to Marvel Comics where he both wrote and drew Captain America and created the series The Eternals, which featured a race of inscrutable alien giants, the Celestials, whose behind-the-scenes intervention influenced the evolution of life on Earth. Kirby’s other Marvel creations in this period include Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and an adaptation and expansion of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as an abortive attempt to do the same for the classic television series, The Prisoner.[56] He also wrote and drew Black Panther and did numerous covers across the line.

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