Jack Kirby is the father of modern mythology with a list of creator credits second only to the big bang. Born in 1917 in New York’s lower east side, he began working to support his family as a teenager, and did so mostly working in the relatively new field of Comic books, managing along the way to become the single most important artist in the form. He would have been 99 today. He pulled a disappearing act worthy of Mr. Miracle in 1994, and is several dimensions above us now, as always, lightyears ahead of us all.
“We couldn’t feed off the genius of Jack Kirby forever. The King is dead, and he has no successor. We will not see his like again. No single artist can replace him. No art form can be expected to be gifted with more than one talent as brilliant as his.”
The history of comics and sequential art, from cave paintings to the stands this week, breaks down simply into two basic periods, before Jack Kirby, and after. Jack didn’t invent comics, he didn’t invent the superman, and he didn’t invent visual storytelling. But he invented them all as we understand them today. He worked to keep the lights on at home, with his parent’s meager income, and continued to work tirelessly to provide for his own wife and children, and grand children, almost until the very end. And still Jack took great joy in his work, it was his livelihood, but instead of cheap disposable entertainment, He saw an infinite canvas from which he could explore the boundless frontiers of his imagination. He elevated a medium of entertainment aimed at poor children into an art form. In 1940, before America joined the War, Jack created a comic about a poor Jewish kid (disguised as a poor Irish kid) from the lower east side who becomes a super soldier via new science from the old world, and on the cover of the first issue, punches out Hitler. Four Years later Jack landed in Normandy to do his own fighting. In a famous apocryphal story , Jack recounted meeting his commanding officer and asking what he could do.
“You draw Captain America, right? So you’re an artist?”
“Great. Tonight I want you to crawl out into no man’s land, and wherever you see a tank, draw a circle on this map.”
While Stan Lee helped the war effort from a desk stateside, Jack Kirby killed Nazis. He fought a war, and when he came back, instead of slowly withdrawing from life and his family and drinking himself to death over the coming decades like many veterans, he raised his kids, loved his wife, and made comics. First he saved the industry during the Wertham Witch hunts in the 50’s (look up Neal Adam’s accounts of this, it’s a story he loves to tell) and then he reinvented them.
He talked about war, death, corruption, racism, religious fanaticism, God, fascism, and the Watts riots, in four color superhero comics aimed at children in the 60’s. He was a rare voice for diversity, creating characters left and right who were Black, Asian, Jewish, Indian, and God bless him, Female. He believed that comics had a potential to be a singularly transformative art form because it was in his words, an art form for the people. Disguised as disposable media and cranked out for mass consumption, it reached out to the common man. It spoke to men and women of all ages and socioeconomic spheres all over the world. He didn’t think Captain America was any less important a figure than Paul Bunyan or Hercules, not out of pride, but because he understood that our world and our history is shaped by our art, and the stories we tell.
There is more on him than I can possibly fit in this article, and absolutely none of it would do him justice, so I will leave you with his artwork, which speaks for itself. Click on them for a full screen view, it begs to be shown on the largest possible canvas.
Long Live The King.