Jack "The King" Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg, August 28, 1917 February 6, 1994) is, quite simply, one of the most important and influential artists and writers ever in American comics. This is the man who created or co-created dozens of classic characters for DC and Marvel, and he is universally considered one of the masters of the medium, on par with Osamu Tezuka, Will Eisner or Mbius.
His incredibly unique art style and bombastic storytelling made him one of the most imitated creators in western comics history. Kirby Dots are named after the artist's distinctive rendering of Battle Auras, also nicknamed, "the Kirby Krackle". He died of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 76, or at least that's what Galactus wants us to believe. Due to his speed in creating well-received comics, there exists something called the "Kirby Barrier"; breaking the barrier means that you've created a quality comic in under a week, a surprisingly difficult feat.
In the Marvel Universe, God looks like Jack Kirby. Or, did in one story. (Not to mention, he and Stan Lee also exist there as normal people who write comics based on the 'actual' adventures of the superheroes.)
Before working with Lee, he had a ridiculously creative partnership with Joe Simon, starting in the 1940s. Among other things, the two co-created Captain America and the entire genre of romance comics. Eventually, comic books went through their 1950s rough patch and the team amicably split for their separate paths. Kirby note then spent much of the late 50s working on Atlas Comics' monster stories with Stan Lee, co-creating characters who would eventually become Marvel mainstays, including Fin Fang Foom and Groot.
After this came the famous early Marvel period, where the Lee-and-Kirby team, with some help as well from Steve Ditko in key areas, built the Marvel Universe from the ground up. However, towards the end of the 60s, the increased prominence of natural showman Lee and unfavourable working conditions led Kirby to become disillusioned with the company and leave. After Kirby left Marvel, he went to DC Comics and created "The Fourth World" series, New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle as well as insisting on taking over Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen which didn't have an assigned art team so he wouldn't cause anyone to lose their job. In those titles, Kirby created a grand cosmic mythos he planned to have reprinted into bound volumes for resale. Unfortunately, this idea was around 15 years ahead of its time and DC's publisher, Carmine Infantino, pulled the plug before Kirby could see the project through. New Gods was reportedly his favourite of his works, and is commonly regarded by Kirby fans and scholars as his greatest achievement.
Kirby remained with DC writing individual titles like The Demon, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth and O.M.A.C. and even returned to Marvel for a time to single-handedly write and draw Captain America, Black Panther and new titles like The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur, before his work rate finally started to slow down.
Ironically, his most satisfying work at this point was in animation where he worked as a production designer with designs for most famously Thundarr the Barbarian. Furthermore, he had a good experience in the toy business as such creating the designs for Kenner's famous Super Powers toy series where he finally got direct compensation working on the classic DC Comics characters. In the Eighties he also became one of the first major creators to write creator-owned comics for the Direct Market, writing Silver Star and Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers.
Kirby is also well known (alongside Siegel and Shuster) as the poster boy for the creators' rights movements of The '70s and The '80s. An embodiment of how talented artists were treated by the companies which became multibillion dollar industries because of their creations, while leaving the original creators with pittance on the basis of dubious "work for hire" contract policies by which artists were paid for no more than the "page rate" for the comics that they drew. Consequently, despite their characters becoming iconic, Kirby and the other artists of his generation made absolutely no royalties of any kind and were denied any chance to share in the successes of their creations. Also, he was the center of the art controversy during the mid 1980s when Marvel's image was tarnished by their shameful claim that he and the other artists had no rights to their own original artwork. Public pressure eventually forced Marvel into coughing up a pension for his widow, and the Kirby estate attempted to regain Kirby's share of the copyright on his Marvel Comics characters, an effort which ended with a 2014 settlement. The settlement was reached the business day before the Supreme Court was set to hear the case and the details have never been disclosed.
Partial list of his creations/co-creations:
- For Marvel Comics:
- For DC Comics:
- Young Romance (Both the influential comic series, and arguably - definitively, according to The Other Wiki - the entire genre of romance comics).
- Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star, which might not have been successes for Pacific Comics, but helped create precedent for the creator-owned comic (see Kirby's travails with Marvel and DC, above).
- More aliens and monsters than you can shake a xenomorph at.
- Pretty much created the Monster Modesty trope.
Portrayals of Kirby in fiction
- Argo: played by actor Michael Parks. Based on the real life story of Kirby drawing the storyboards for the sci-fi movie cover story used to smuggle 6 Americans out of Iran after the revolution. Though he didn't know about the true nature of the story as it wasn't declassified until 2007, 13 years after his death. note
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a one-off character in the original Mirage comics named Kirby King, who used a magic crystal to bring his drawings to life. He travels with Donatello to another world where he uses his artistic talent to defeat the monsters threatening it, but remains trapped there as the portal shrinks with only enough time for Donatello to get through. This story was also adapted to a children's picture book as well as the 2003 series, the episode being called "The King" after the real Kirby's nickname. Notably, the original comic was approved by Jack Kirby himself, and the character's Last Words were one of his famous quotes, "Life at best is bittersweet." This took on new meaning in the 2003 series since it aired after his death.
Tropes Demonstrated in his Works:
- Art Shift: Kirby was innovative in using collages from magazine and science-fiction covers and others in his panels to add depth and texture. The famous ones are especially, Mr. Fantastic in the Negative Zone◊ and Ego the Living Planet◊.
- Author Appeal: Ancient Astronauts, the Reluctant Warrior, ugly looking heroes, complicated machines (with tiny spherical dots laid on top) and kid gangs are the clearest examples.
- Author Avatar:
- Kirby included Stan Lee and himself as guests of the marriage of Reed Richards and Sue Storm. Nick Fury did not allow them to pass.
- The One-Above-All, the omnipotent but mostly unseen creator God of the entire Marvel Omniverse, is widely believed to be an avatar of Kirby.
- According to his biographer Mark Evanier, the character Kirby most identified with himself was Ben Grimm / The Thing from Fantastic Four, even giving him his distinctive New York speech pattern.
- DC-side, it's pretty common to render Dan "Terrible" Turpin like this, though it's unclear if Kirby intended such.
- Bold Inflation: One of the trademarks of his lettering! It contributed greatly to the "epic" tone of his work.
- Cosmic Entity: He was especially influential for introducing a majorly advanced cosmic sensibility to superhero comics. Aliens with Blue-and-Orange Morality, Godlike beings and bizarre interstellar travelers much of which really codified superhero science-fiction and was a major advance on Golden Age rather old-fashioned approach. A small list of his creations: Galactus, Silver Surfer, the Skrulls, Ego the Living Planet, Darkseid, Metron, the New Gods and many others.
- Happily Married: Scott Free and Big Barda, the protagonists of Mister Miracle. This relationship is a partial recreation of the happy marriage between Kirby and his wife, Roz.
- Hidden Elf Village: He had a fondness for them, Wakanda and Attilan to name the two most well known.
- Kirby Dots: Trope namer and originator for his way of showing energy radiating. He especially loved doing this for Battle Auras.
- Mayincatec: Kirby was an early Trope Codifier for this. For instance he modeled the design of the Sentinels on the famous Olmec Head, the design of Galactus on Aztec and Mayan costumes and likewise drew on the same lore for The Eternals.
- Mix and Match:
- Kirby was fond of reimagining occult and magical concepts with technological and science-fiction flourishes. Dr. Doom's costume simultaneously has a medieval and modern motif (a Renaissance-hood, cape, gold clasps for both, a green surcoat, and a medieval belt covering over absolutely modern robotic armor) and according to Kirby was intended to make him look like the Grim Reaper.
- Magneto likewise has a pulp fiction leotard and cape number but has a helmet with a Dark Ages-style horn, that makes him look like a feudal baron straight from the feudal era (this was Pre-Claremont, where Magneto was still an obnoxious asshole).
- The Norse Gods are simultaneously Sufficiently Advanced Alien and High Fantasy beings, Wakanda is likewise a traditional African community and a modern science-fiction utopia, and the Fourth World of Apokolips and New Genesis takes this to the zenith, with everything have a techno-occult motif.
- Only Six Faces: Most of his characters' faces look a lot alike aside from paraphernalia like helmets and hairstyles. Those that are actually distinctive facially (Darkseid, Desaad, Orion without his helmet, Dan Turpin) are usually hideous.
- Pen Name: As was the case with many of the early comic-book men, "Jack Kirby" was a nom de plume. He was born Jacob Kurtzberg.
- Splash Panel: Kirby was possibly the king of the splash page. Many of his stories start with a trademark one-two punch of a title page close-up splash to establish tension, followed by a double-page splash of something huge happening. The openings of New Gods or O.M.A.C. are probably the most well-known. Chris Sims, provider of our page quote, dubbed it "Kirbyvision".
- Take That!: A famous one in New Gods, where Funky Flashman, his angry take on Stan Lee, lives in a crumbling house with a sycophantic manservant based on Roy Thomas, and gets his meagre cash by rooting around in a container shaped like Jack's head. Oh, and he wears a toupée.note
- Technology Porn: James Cameron himself said that nobody drew machines better than Kirby.