Jack Kirby is probably the single most important figure in the development of American comic books. His career spanned seven decades, and though he is best-known for his work on super-hero titles, he defied simple categorization and worked in nearly every style of comic: horror, science fiction, romance, comedy, fantasy, funny animal, crime, war, western, and probably some others that I’m forgetting.
He didn’t just define a single genre: he constantly defined (and re-defined) the entire comics medium, right up until his death in 1994. So in honor of his 96th birthday, we here at MTV Geek have assembled A Week Of Jack Kirby, a series of posts celebrating the life, work and inspiration of the man that Stan Lee dubbed simply ’The King’.
Today is Jack Kirby’s 96th birthday, and more than a quarter-century after his first published work, his spirit permeates every corner of the comic industry. He possessed a seemingly unlimited imagination, creating new characters, concepts, and genres with every stroke of his pencil. And today, a truly staggering cross-section of the comics community have joined us to offer words and pictures that give an idea of what this one man, and his work, have meant to them. In fact, there were so many people contributing, we’ve had to break things up into several posts – for the entire series, click here.
And now, here’s more Kirby love!
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“The most remarkable thing to me was that Jack Kirby was a hard working regular guy. I had a memorable dinner sponsored by DC Comics with him in the mid 1980’s, in Chicago, at a 1920’s speakeasy themed restaurant. This triggered a slew of wonderful stories about his childhood in New York City and gangsters that held us all mesmerized, and laughing as well. He was a great storyteller, not just an artist. That was his legacy.”
–Jerry Ordway, artist of Superman, Tom Strong, The Avengers, and The Power Of Shazam!, co-creator of WildStar
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“Jack Kirby is a symbol for so many things–unmatched talent, endless imagination, the ongoing struggle for creators rights–but every time I see or hear his name, I immediately see a row of Celestials. It’s not even for the obvious reason that they were world creators and so was he–it’s that Kirby’s Celestials, especially from a visual standpoint, have fascinated and haunted me more than perhaps any other creation in comics. Their design, history and sheer enormity looms over fictional universes in a way that I don’t quite understand and don’t really want to–and when they turn up in a book, I stare at them for longer than absolutely anything else. I have a longstanding desire to see them interpreted by animator Hayao Miyazaki, where I have a gut feeling their magical terror would come fully to life. That’s what Kirby’s creations do–give fuel to imagine them in endless other ways–which I think is the true meaning of great art.”
–Evie Nagy, Music Editor for Billboard Magazine and co-host of the Awesomed By Comics Podcast
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“Obviously, Jack Kirby was and remains a giant of the industry. Growing up, I was only vaguely aware of him and his influence over modern comics. I only truly came to appreciate the man and his work post-college, marveling (heh) at his craftsmanship and the sheer breadth of his work. I had Toth to look back to for elegance in design and storytelling. I have Kirby to look to for pomp and circumstance – a bold and unbridled sense of fun, coupled with a childlike talent for invention.”
–Joe Quinones, artist of Batman ’66, FF, and many other titles
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“We live on Planet Kirby. We have handheld mini-computers, not unlike his fictional mother box. We play videogames where we re-enact his comics. In a struggling movie industry, the only guaranteed winners are the movies that feature retellings of his stories. Chances are you’ve worn a Halloween costume patterned after a Kirby design.
It’s staggering that one imagination can so profoundly dominate the popular culture. His stories found their way into the world via the medium he mastered, the comic book, but he always envisioned them as having applications beyond that.
Avengers? Captain America? Hulk? Iron Man? Thor? X-Men? All Kirby co-creations.
As soon as Warner Brothers gets their act together we can see the other half of Kirby’s great works infiltrate the multiplex, although Kirby’s New Gods and Kamandi have been a growing presence in TV cartoons for the past two decades.
We can count Argo, too. According to the movie’s plot, [spoiler alert] it was Jack’s drawings that distracted the authorities just long enough for the plane to get off the ground.”
–Tom Scioli, creator of Mystery Object, Final Frontier, Satan’s Soldier, American Barbarian, co-creator of Godland
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“My friends Daniel and Amber Levitch got married a few years ago, and I was stumped as what to get them for a wedding present. What do you give to a superhero couple? Daniel is a multi-talented writer, director, and owner of his own publishing company Ancient Squid Media, and Daniel and Amber both love comics, so I decided to “draw” some inspiration from the one and only KING of comics: Jack Kirby! I doctored an old Kirby-era Fantastic Four comic cover and illustrated Daniel & Amber as their superhero alter egos: Multiple Lass™ & Squid Fingered Dude™! (Note the wedding band on one of Daniel’s Squid fingers.) I now need to update the image, as they’ve since had a baby… And in the meantime, Daniel and I are getting ready to launch ’Epilogue’, our own comic series about post-apocalyptic roaches – which is exactly the sort of crazy idea that comes out of a friendship built on a shared love of Kirby comics!”
–Jeaux Janovsky, cartoonist, co-creator of ’Epilogue’
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“When I first started reading comics as a kid, what fascinated me most about the characters was the fact that I was clearly walking in on the middle of their stories. I immediately HAD TO KNOW where these characters came from. Luckily, I soon stumbled upon a copy of SON OF ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS (a title that absolutely baffled me), and then ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS. And then, during a rare family vacation to Michigan, I stumbled across a Pocket Books volume that collected the first several issues of the Lee/Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR, in glorious, bright, flat color. That little book was the true gateway to comics for me, and it was seeing Jack Kirby’s concepts evolve over the course of a few issues that really hooked me. And I loved that damn bathtub-shaped Fantasticar.
Despite the fact that Kirby was almost completely absent from comics at the time (this was just prior to CAPTAIN VICTORY launching), he immediately became a favorite artist. Reprints of the first few issues of THE X-MEN became prized possessions, and the Pocket Books CAPTAIN AMERICA book, which reprinted the first few adventures of Cap after his reappearance in AVENGERS #4, because another victim of repeated, obsessive reading. The gangs of bad guys, the crazy little technological touches, the Red Skull, the way Kirby drew Cap bending and twisting as he flung his shield around…there was something so visceral about it all, even twenty years after the stories first appeared.
Of course, I eventually learned about Kirby’s true legacy, stretching back to the beginning of comic books as a viable commercial medium. The Simon & Kirby kid gangs fascinated me, as did one of the first “revamps” in superhero history, as Simon & Kirby had reinvented the Sandman in the heart of the Golden Age. The discover of his DC work (first and second tenures) simply opened more doors.
As I grew older, and as I embarked on a career as a comic book writer, I truly began to appreciate the astonishing range of Kirby’s creative vision…the obvious desire to keep pursuing new concepts, to keep probing new corners of the market (virtually creating romance comics and publishing some of the earliest horror comics)…and, mainly, to insert his vision into the worlds he created.
Kirby’s influence on me, personally, is like a broad plane that intersects with every step of comics creation. Stubborn dedication to personal perspective, a restless drive to communicate new ideas, and a devotion to getting the work done without letting the reader down.
I’m a fan.”
–B. Clay Moore, co-creator of Hawaiian Dick, JSA The Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull, Bad Karma, and many other things.
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“You’d think this man was on some mind-altering substance when you looked at his drawings. They twisted, curved, and came out at you like some kind of 3-D lense on steroids. The power alone made you feel the impact of his art, whether his characters were fighting for their lives in a wood-splintering brawl, or merely sipping milk at the kitchen table. For Jack Kirby and his trusty H-B pencil, keeping things alive on the comic’s page was his monthly, 24-page gift to us fans for 40 years.”
–Steve Rude, co-creator of Nexus and The Moth
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“Standing by Carol Fein’s desk at DC as she pulled the pencils for an early issue of NEW GODS out of its mailing envelope to show me when I was a 14 year old fanzine editor made me a Kirby fan for life. The Fourth World books recreated the rules of comics, setting up so many of the principles the field still runs by today. Jack had been a partner in such paradigm shifts before, but this one was all his…and if the titles didn’t run as long as some of his other creations, the concepts and storytelling structures sure did.
Jack–and his inestimably important life partner Roz–were unfailingly gracious, from when we first met at NY’s comic con, to the cover art for my final fanzine, hanging still on my living room wall, through the professional contacts keeping work and checks flowing smoothly to them from DC, or working with them and Kenner on bringing the New Gods to miniature plastic life a decade before action figures of comic characters became automatic.
And the story that I’m best remembered for as a writer, 30 years after I wrote it, is both dedicated to Jack and draws it strength from the power of his creations.
Happy birthday to the scrappy kid from Essex Street! Thanks for your gifts to me as a reader, fan, writer and publisher.”
–Paul Levitz, writer of Legion Of Superheroes, author of 75 Years Of DC Comics: The Art Of Modern Mythmaking
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“Any time I’ve got a punishing deadline in front of me I remember this story about how Jack drew the first issue of Captain America and it pulls me through. Kirby is my hero.”
– Ryan Dunlavey, co-creator of The Comic Book History Of Comics – image from The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey
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“Jack Kirby was not my favorite artist as a kid. In fact, I really didn’t care for his work at all, though I did have a few issues of his 70’s Sandman book from DC, which I thought were weird and cool. Also, I owned his giant sized Bicentennial Battles book, which was cool to me on several levels (I was lucky enough to later purchase one of the pin-ups from the back of that book, featuring a George Washington-esque Cap and the Red Skull as a Nazi). But once I actually started working as a professional comic artist at the ripe age of 20 (drawing the monthly Captain America title that Kirby co-created), I realized what an amazing guy he really was. Not just a terrific artist and masterful storyteller, which he was, but his incredible imagination was unparalleled, in my estimation. As a professional artist of any sort, you come to realize that even the worst garbage requires a great deal of effort and time to accomplish. But to actually create things of lasting importance and power is incredibly difficult to do just once, or a handful of times if you’re very lucky. Kirby tossed off more amazing, awe-inspiring stuff on his worst days than most of us ever achieve at the top of our game. And having met him briefly once before he passed, I can truly say he was the humblest great man I’ve ever met. God bless him, and thanks for keeping his spirit alive.”
–Kieron Dwyer, co-creator of XXXombies, Black Heart Billy, Night Mary, Last of the Independents, Remains, artist of The Avengers and Captain America
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–Jeff Stokely, artist of Six-Gun Gorilla
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“I only ever talked to Jack Kirby twice.
Once was at a San Diego Con, when Neil Vokes and I were working on TEENAGENTS for Topps, and we got our picture taken with Kirby. I was a little too starstruck to say much more than that I loved his work, and he was very nice, but it wasn’t any sort of in-depth conversation.
The other time was also TEENAGENTS-related, but wound up having an effect on a lot more than just that one project.
When I started out working on the series, Neil and I didn’t have much to go on — Kirby had done a single drawing of the Teenagents, and we didn’t know what plans he’d had for them, so for a lot of it, we were making it up on our own. But I didn’t want to do it “wrong” — I wanted to know as much as possible about what he’d had in mind, so I wasn’t completely screwing it up or anything. My editor, Jim Salicrup, said, “Why don’t you call him and ask?”
I think my answer was, “Uh.”
Once he got it through my skull that I could in fact call up Jack Kirby, that I was working on a project licensed from Kirby and he was going to be the owner of the result, so he had at least some interest in making sure we didn’t fall flat on our faces, I mustered up the courage to call.
And we had a very pleasant conversation. He didn’t remember much about what plans he’d had for the Teenagents, when he’d first sketched them out, years earlier. But I told him the rough outlines of what we had in mind, and he said it sounded just fine.
And he added, “Look, don’t be afraid to do something different. It doesn’t matter how cosmic you get, or how far-out — if your characters react to what’s happening, whatever it is, the way real people would react, well, the audience will follow you anywhere.”
[That’s not an exact quote, it’s my memory, 20 years back now. But it’s more or less accurate, and it’s definitely the point he was making.]
And he’s right. Write a story about giant armored doom-bringers from space, and have people react to them like they would if it were actually happening, and the story will work, the audience will believe in it, for at least as long as they’re reading. Write a story about a lawyer having a discussion in a boardroom, and if the characters don’t react the way real people would act, then it doesn’t matter that it’s mundane stuff. The audience won’t buy it. Readers need a place to stand, they need something they understand and can comprehend. If you use that as their way into something wild and fantastic, they’ll buy into it. Because they’ll have the right kind of perspective, they’ll believe in the reactions, and that’ll sell the bizarre part.
I’ve taken this in different directions than Kirby did, in MARVELS, ASTRO CITY and more, but it’s always stuck with me. Whenever I’m having trouble making a story work, I step back and ask myself whether the characters are reacting the way real people would. If they aren’t, I fix that, and the story starts working again.
So thanks, Jack. I appreciate the advice. And like so many others, over the decades…I’d follow you anywhere.”
-Kurt Busiek, writer/co-creator of Astro City
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–Jeff Smith, creator of Bone and Rasl, founder of Cartoon Books
That wraps up our all-star Jack Kirby Birthday posts for today! Check out the other three installments (as well as MTV Geek’s other exclusive ’Week Of Jack Kirby’ content) here, and check back tomorrow for more thrillingly Kirbytastic posts in MTV Geek’s A Week Of Jack Kirby series!
(All words and pictures in this post are © their respective creators.)