Jack Kirby: One and Only King of Comics

In the last five years or so, Marvel Comics has experienced resurgence in its popularity. Thanks to the widescreen versions of the X-Men, The Hulk, Daredevil and The Fantastic Four, the adventures of these 4-color comic creations are known throughout the world. And also thanks to these films, most of the world recognizes the name of Stan Lee as well. Publisher and Co-creator during the 1960’s and early 70’s when the majority of Marvel’s most popular creations were invented, Lee’s name had the distinction of being on virtually every comic produced by Marvel. In fact it was impossible to open a comic book and not see Lee’s name splashed across the page saying “Stan Lee presents”. Love him or hate him, the man knew how to market both himself and Marvel Comics.

This practice continued long after Lee stopped writing. But by then, Lee’s name had been repeated, pushed and crammed down the throats of the comic-buying public for so long that Stan Lee became the lone image associated with Marvel. It’s akin to the policy of Walt Disney Productions during its golden age. Most of Disney’s classic cartoons simply said “Walt Disney Presents”. Forget the fact that there were dozens of artists toiling away creating the actual art! Walt Disney was getting all the credit.

But in terms of Marvel Comics and just who created what, some light is finally being shined on the artist/writer who created or co-created (along with Stan Lee) virtually the entire Marvel Comics line-up that has continued to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the company. His name is Jack Kirby and he may not have been comfortable with the nickname placed upon his brow, but he really was (and is still considered) the “King of Comics”.

Up until 1961 or so, Marvel was publishing an array of comics featuring generic monsters and cowboys. But when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee illustrated and wrote Fantastic Four #1 in 1961 – the comics industry got rocked to its core. Profits went up in a way they hadn’t since the 1940’s. And in quick succession, Kirby and Lee co-created a score of other winners. Perhaps you’ve heard of the X-Men, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Daredevil, The Silver Surfer and others. Kirby even had a hand in the somewhat convoluted creation of Spider-Man. But with the exception of the Fantastic Four (which Kirby illustrated and plotted for 102 issues), and Thor and Captain America (which Kirby signed off on for similarly long runs), Kirby would typically create a concept and produce the first dozen or so issues before handing it off to someone else. But he had his hands in the creation of virtually every character. Creating the ‘template” for these characters that are so well-known today.

It would almost be compliment enough to say that Jack Kirby re-created Marvel Comics from the ground up. But Kirby had been involved in comics since their inception in the 1930’s. With Joe Simon he co-created the Boy Commando’s, Captain America and other concepts that in their heyday sold a million copies or more every month. He attacked the medium with a vengeance. There may have been other artists who had a better grasp of anatomy or a slicker style, but none could match Kirby’s output: a career total of over 25,000 pages of comic book art and story. Jack left Marvel in 1970 and had a similar impact on floundering DC Comics where he created his epic series The New Gods, Mister Miracle, Kamandi, The Demon, Forever People, OMAC and others. All – at one time or another – still being produced by other artists and writers. Keep your eyes open, because chances are you’ll probably see some of these characters on the big screen as well.

Kirby returned to Marvel Comics in 1975 and pretty much picked up where he left off, working for Marvel until 1978. he retired from comics for good in the early 1980’s, and then switched over to animation where he spent several years doing storyboards and creating presentation art. And incredible 50 year career. The “King of Comics”..? You bet!

So here we are at the tail end of 2005. Films based on Marvel Comics characters are raking in millions. X-Men III is right around the corner; Fantastic Four II just got approved. So why don’t more people know who Jack Kirby is? Why does only Stan Lee’s name get circulated and get all the credit (and money)?

Well, for one thing, Jack Kirby was an “artist for hire”. As a freelancer he produced 20 pages of comic book art and received a check. On the back of each check was a release that stated he had produced the work for Marvel Comics and was entitled to nothing other than the check he was about to cash. Fair business? Nope. But Kirby wasn’t the only one. The creators of Superman had the same deal. Matter of fact ALL comics creators – with the exceptions of a few – worked under these conditions.

Kirby spent the remainder of his life and career (he passed away in 1994) and most of his resources trying to get co-creator credit for his efforts, and also get back his original artwork. Ultimately he got just tiny bit of each. Only about 2500 pages of art from his most famous creations were returned (A lot of it destroyed. A lot more apparently stolen from Marvel’s storage facility) and even then he pretty much had to relinquish his rights. In the meantime, because Kirby was only an artist-for-hire, he (and now his estate) received nothing. Marvel on the other hand continues to re-package his artwork and stories and print them in different formats.

But ever-so-slowly, the comics atmosphere regarding Jack Kirby has changed in Jack’s favor. In addition to a constant stream of reprints from Marvel and DC comics (that keep Jack Kirby’s name circulating) A select handful of industry creators and publishers have devoted themselves to keeping Kirby’s name alive. Foremost among them:

– John Morrow, publisher of the Jack Kirby Collector for the last 10 years,
Morrow has collaborated with the Kirby estate to produce this quarterly
magazine that shines a spotlight on Jack Kirby; the man and artist, and
reprints dozens of pages of original artwork in the process.

– Famed comics historian Mark Evanier has been working for years on a massive soon-to-be-published
biography of Jack Kirby that will apparently lay to rest any questions about exactly who did what at Marvel
Comics and other comics publishing houses.

– A “Special Edition” Fantastic Four DVD is slated for Spring 2006 and will have an “Art & Times of Jack Kirby”
bonus feature, in addition to the usual deleted scenes and storyboards.

– And last, but not least, the estate of Jack Kirby with the help of others has created the virtual “Jack Kirby Museum
and Research Center” which debuted on the internet in August 2005 – on what would have been Kirby’s 88th
birthday. The virtual museum will have an archive of Kirby artwork, photo’s, virtual exhibits and more.

It’s been a long time coming. But it looks like Jack Kirby may finally get his due. Compensation in the form of money and official credit from Marvel Comics would certainly be nice. But the real legacy is that Jack Kirby’s name is remembered when all those Marvel Comics creations flash upon the silver screen.

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