It’s Jack Kirby‘s 94th birthday. Quite a lot of people will be remembering him, but arguably fewer than his long career might suggest. His major involvement in the development of the 1960s Marvel Comics line—a period that resulted in characters that have become multi-million dollar franchises—has still not received full recognition. Marvel’s then-editor Stan Lee took all the creative credit, and continues to do so.
The 1960s were a significant period of artistic growth for Kirby… but, the development/success of the line did a few (negative) things to him: (1) it forever typecast him as the “King” of superheroes and POW! BAM! action; (2) it cemented perceptions of Kirby as an “artist” more than a creative writer-artist (cartoonist), thanks to Stan’s most creative work—the credits on the books; (3) it put him in a straightjacket for ten years, where his ideas were restrained by mannerisms of a genre he was to some degree pulling away from.
Of the latter, a few examples suffice. In the Thor book, which initially was intended to be a rather lame Marvel version of Superman (note the costume colours, the nerdy alter-ego, the female co-worker he loves but who seems to love the hero more, etc), clearly it was Kirby who pushed it towards heavier mythological & SF ideas, but note how following an impressive stream of wonderful, other-wordly fantasy ideas—including Ego the Living Planet and the High Evolutionary (#129-135)—the book quickly thuds back to earth with a comparatively tedious run of standard superhero books… I’ve no doubt Lee asked Kirby to bring it back down a bit, keep it ‘on-formula’, thereby weakening the books and diluting Kirby’s ideas. Likewise, when Kirby had an idea for radically revamping the book—bringing in a wave of ‘New Gods’ and reworking existing characters (including Thor himself, presumably), an idea which would surely have brought it even closer to the mythological core that so interested him—the concept was vetoed.
In Fantastic Four, too, Kirby dragged the title increasingly towards SF, notably in introducing the Inhumans, Galactus and the Silver Surfer (#45-50). He saw the Surfer, herald of the ‘devourer of worlds’, as a pure creation of the godlike Galactus. Lee saw it differently and moved the character to a solo book with artist John Buscema, which revealed him to be an inhabitant of a world Galactus formerly attacked (i.e. basically a human being in a silver suit) who sacrifices himself to save his race—cue much angst & mourning the loss of his lover & corny philosophising. Kirby was not happy. In FF #66-67, Kirby did a story about a humanoid creation (“Him”) which he conceived as an examination of scientific ethics—the scientists were so absorbed in their work they didn’t consider the moral questions. Lee disliked the angle and made the scientists into standard villain types, castrating the whole point of the story by removing its deeper themes.
(It’s interesting to note that when Kirby again waded into the area of scientific ‘creation’—artificial life, cloning, etc—in his reluctant work on DC’s Jimmy Olsen title, he did not bother addressing moral questions to any great extent. He still remembered Lee’s editorialising; he gave the company the pap he assumed they wanted. Brilliantly imaginative pap it might have been, but compared to the work he was doing concurrently on his own books—the ‘proper’ Fourth World books, New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle—it was completely shallow and disposable.)
Today Kirby is not widely regarded as a writer of any merit, yet Stan Lee is. Stan Lee, who gave the Gods in Thor that painful, embarrassing quasi-16th Century English speak, who had his characters spout high melodrama that would’ve seemed too purple for a cheap daytime soap opera, who often balked at anything resembling ‘deep’ content for the stories in favour of the obvious, who seemed most at home writing cheap wisecracks that were, at best, mildly amusing. Yes, Stan Lee, who struggled to come up with ideas and plots of his own and who devised the brilliant ‘Marvel Method’—which involved letting the ‘artists’ do all the work for him.
Kirby pales next to this? Maybe for the people who say Kirby’s writing is ‘awkward and stilted’ because it doesn’t read like Stan Lee’s scripting. Don’t get me wrong. Kirby was human. As a writer, and as an artist, he screwed-up as we all do. But the best of his writing, alongside the overshadowing quality of his visuals, is remarkable—powerful and unique, unlike anything else.
I don’t see the Marvel period, then, as Kirby’s peak. The best of the work he did before Marvel, in the ’40s and ’50s—romance stories such as “Different”, “Mother Delilah” from Boys’ Ranch #3—stories he wrote and drew himself—tower above almost anything he did at Marvel. The seeds of his focus on myth and science fiction, in ’50s DC mystery titles and Harvey’s Alarming Tales, further show a maturing and development that would happen with or without the Marvel years. Kirby actually read the old myths, and Shakespeare, and devoured science journals, as well as being a huge fan of movies and television. He was a sponge, endlessly interested in all kinds of material. He seldom produced superhero concepts per se on his own terms, and increasingly the slam-bam action aspects become less important. Creatively, the Marvel period did nothing for him. Financially, he was screwed. And the credits were largely a fantasy.
For me, Kirby’s peak was 1970-83. Until 1981, he remained stuck within the formula of the Big Two (Marvel and DC), but at least was able to negotiate some leeway that permitted relative freedom—and a wealth of beautiful work came out of it. In 1981, he finally was able to do independent, creator-owned works. Marred by erratic schedules and poor inking & production, Captain Victory and Silver Star nonetheless have much to offer—including some of Kirby’s finest writing and countless unforgettable images. Sadly, this opportunity came a little late in the day. Kirby’s tired hands were getting shaky and, following more creative frustration and restraint at DC (albeit for good money), he retired from comics in 1985.
Kirby is my favourite cartoonist—WRITER-artist. What he achieved was remarkable in itself, but also an indictment of an industry, in terms of how poorly regarded he was as a cartoonist per se, the scandals of the credit & money situations, the thwarted ideas and possibilities. In Europe, Kirby would’ve been cherished and his pure, unique vision would’ve been given a chance to soar… without lesser hands stealing (and mutilating/diluting) his thunder.
Let’s remember Jack Kirby, then—the AUTEUR.