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'The King' of comic book artists

  • Story Highlights
  • Jack Kirby helped create many famed superheroes
  • Kirby's energetic drawing style influenced generations of comic book artists
  • The incredibly prolific Kirby is now considered a towering figure in comic books
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- The nickname was meant as a joke, a little needle from Marvel Comics mainstay Stan Lee to artist Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby drew himself surrounded by his creations, including Captain America and the Fantastic Four.

But more than a decade after Kirby's death, the name still fits: He is "The King."

Consider some of the heroes Kirby helped create, many of which now pervade pop culture: The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America.

His distinctive action-packed style became the model for many comic-book artists. When he died in 1994, artist Gary Panter did a two-page spread in The New Yorker as a tribute. Michael Chabon dedicated his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about two comic book creators, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," to Kirby.

Not bad for a guy whose chosen medium was looked down upon for decades.

"Jack ... was a brilliant man and an incredibly hard-working man," said Mark Evanier, author of the new "Kirby: King of Comics" (Abrams), a lavishly illustrated biography of the artist. "He produced an incredible volume of work." Photo Gallery: The work of Jack Kirby »

It's not surprising that Marvel's art -- and those it influenced -- would start to look distinctly Kirby-esque, Marvel artist Herb Trimpe said at a Kirby panel in February.

"Everyone was so influenced by him -- his work was so powerful and unique -- that it was inevitable."

Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg in New York and grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where his adventures with gangs would later filter into many of his heroes. In particular, the rough-and-tumble Ben Grimm, also known as the Thing of the Fantastic Four, was a self-caricature, Evanier observes.

After short stints at a newspaper syndicate and as an animator, he ended up at Marvel's predecessor, Timely Comics, where he and partner Joe Simon created Captain America, a huge hit during World War II.

With Captain America came some of Kirby's comic book innovations, Evanier says. Comic books, which had started as reprints of newspaper comic strips, had adhered to that form's look of repetitious boxes. Kirby and Simon used different-sized panels, varying shapes, even full pages.

"They kind of invented things that made comic books different than strips," Evanier said. They realized they "had the whole page to play with. ... They'd take three or four pages for a single action scene."

Simon and Kirby went to Timely rival DC and then formed their own studio after serving in World War II. The popular genres then were crime and horror comics, and Simon-Kirby created a handful, including the dramatically named "Justice Traps the Guilty." They also pioneered the romance genre, juxtaposing Kirby's innately thrilling style with primly dressed women and men in neat suits and sweaters.

But while competitors like E.C. Comics dangled severed heads on their covers, Kirby and Simon opted for a lower key. "They kept it tamer, deliberately," Evanier said. "Jack didn't like the gory stuff."

Ironically, the one area in which Kirby was willing to draw blood, so to speak, was with war comics: The cover of a 1954 title, "The Guys in the Foxhole," pictures a heavily bandaged soldier writing a letter home, with the obvious aftermath of a battle behind him.

"The Guys in the Foxhole" wasn't the kind of comic to be approved by the Comics Code Authority, the organization set up to placate authorities railing against the crime and horror comics, and soon it -- and dozens of other titles -- were out of business.

Kirby bounced around for a few years. Then, back at the company soon to be named Marvel, he and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four in 1961.

As Evanier writes, the heroic quartet "had uncommon depth and personality" for comic book personalities. That kind of humanity would become the mainstay of the Lee-Kirby work and what many still think of as a golden age of comics created by them and other Marvel talents, including Steve Ditko and John Romita.

Heroes were born one after another: Thor (1962), Spider-Man (1962), Iron Man (1963), the X-Men (1963), Daredevil (1964). In "Kirby: King of Comics," Evanier notes that from 1962 to 1964 alone, Kirby drew more than 3,000 pages and 285 covers. He was a workhorse, and he was becoming famous, but he wasn't becoming rich.

"Jack was not a good businessman," Evanier said. "He didn't take a week off; he was a Depression-era kid. And he was terrified of not having a weekly paycheck."

When Evanier met Kirby in 1970 -- he served as Kirby's assistant for two years -- "he was as successful as you could be in comics, but he wasn't particularly well-paid."

Kirby left Marvel in 1970, not long after the company was sold. (The garrulous Stan Lee, who was assumed by the new owners to be the company's creative genius, stayed on.) Kirby went to DC for a few years, but the company "didn't give him much better terms," Evanier said.

But as new generations discovered comic books, they discovered Jack Kirby, defending him amid the corporate takeovers and boosting his spirits. He got some of his work back -- rights issues plagued him -- and he never lost his creative power. (However, with great power comes great responsibility: Kirby didn't drive a car, Evanier said, "because with his mind going, he'd run off the road. Most people's minds go from A to B to C; Jack's mind went from A to K to W.")

Kirby was matter-of-fact about his talent; he loved to draw, and he tried to treat his readers with respect. "I don't think the average reader believes in fairy tales, and I've never given them fairy tales," Kirby once said. "Yes, I've given them fictionalized drama, but this is drama that is enacted by real people."

Fourteen years after his death, his power continues to radiate.

"When I go to comics conventions, I walk around, and there's Kirby everywhere," Evanier said. "And I'm constantly encountering people who tell me what Jack meant to them."

Though he didn't leave his widow with a fortune, as he had hoped, he left a reputation as a good man and a great artist.

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He may even, Evanier says, have had a little bit of the superhero about him.

"He took the comic book to a different level," the author said. "There was a very positive force of energy around him." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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