I’ve always thought of comic books as primarily a visual medium. It’s a platform that doesn’t exist without the pencillers, inkers and colourists behind it who breathe life into the words handed to them. After all, what’s a comic book script without the art? Merely a book in a rough form. When it comes to the art of that industry, there’s a name that every artist looks up to: Jack “The King” Kirby.
Legendary for both his art and a workhorse personality that resulted in him pumping out pages upon pages of content at any given time, Kirby was and still is the gold standard for many an aspiring artist. Without Kirby co-creating the Silver Age of Marvel comics and some of the more bizarre concepts over at DC Comics during a messy divorce from the House of Ideas, iconic heroes and villains that we love and loathe today would have looked very very different.
Choosing ten examples of Kirby’s talent is like being asked to chuck a dart at the most ostentatious dartboard ever: No matter where it lands, it’ll strike gold. So here’s a brief look at the tip of an iceberg of talent, as the late king of comic book art would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year:
The Fantastic Four aren’t just a family of adventurers bathed in cosmic radiation to find themselves gifted (or cursed according to one ever-lovin’ blue-eyed thing) with strange new abilities. When this series first kicked off, Marvel’s premier super-team found themselves exploring the unknown and their humanity as they fought amongst each other just as often as they did with the hordes of the Mole Man or Annihilus of the Negative Zone.
“The World’s Greatest Comic Book Magazine” also introduced visual elements that were downright trippy at the time, pseudo-science years ahead of the curve lovingly rendered with artistic techniques that few professionals were brave enough to attempt. Kirby’s take on the family of scientists and explorers set an impossibly high standard at the time, leading the charge to create content which wasn’t disposable but actually cherished as he introduced dozens of new characters and locations. But also…
…The greatest comic book villain of all time. In an era where the concepts of morality were still divided along black and white lines, Doctor Doom was an enigmatic opponent whose vast intellect and might could easily match that of the Fantastic Four. Wanting to rule the world for the sake of creating a better future for humanity (Which according to co-creator Stan Lee isn’t actually illegal in its motive at all), Doctor Doom’s appearance matched his personality.
A noble scientist-mage with an ego the size of a planet (not that one), whose fatal flaw was a burning desire to prove himself the better of Reed Richards.
The Black Panther
The Fantastic Four was a comic book that was home to numerous guest stars who would quickly earn a devoted following over the years: The Inhumans, Galactus and far-out cosmic ideas to name a few. Perhaps one of the more important contributions in a turbulent racial history of America was the Black Panther, warrior-king of Wakanda and one of the very first mainstream black superheroes in an industry that was heavily hesitant to recognise people of other colours.
The Black Panther wasn’t just a throwaway a guest star either, but a character who would evolve to become one of the most important figures in the Marvel Universe as his technologically superior homeland provided a glimpse at the beauty and potential of Africa. A role that he still carries proudly to this day in his new adventures thanks to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s ideas at the time to introduce someone new and fresh to their universe.
The Silver Surfer
Nobility seemed to be a trait that echoed throughout most of Kirby’s work at Marvel. With the Fantastic Four introducing fans to a wider cosmos, Kirby expanded on those ideas with the herald of Galactus known as the Silver Surfer. An enigmatic figure who surfed the cosmic swells of worlds unknown, the Surfer was a sentinel of the spaceways who spent many an issue philosophically pondering life and his place inside of it.
The Incredible Hulk
If you crossed the fear of the atomic age with the classic story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, you’d have the Hulk. A rampaging engine of destruction, Kirby may not have spent too much time with Bruce Banner and the other guy, Kirby did help simplify the core concepts of the character alongside frequent co-plotter Stan Lee, juxtaposing science with rage and delivering yet another icon of the Silver Age.
The Mighty Thor
Norwegian mythology is fascinating, complex and downright weird. Perfect ingredients for Kirby to pick from, as he reimagined the gods of another culture as immortals stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth. While the content may have had a deirrific flavour to it, its key ingredient was humility in a galaxy populated by rogue gods and monsters from across the nine realms. Together with Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, Kirby created a higher universe with ideas that would be fleshed out even further when he jumped ship to DC Comics to handle the New Gods.
But the Mighty Thor? That’s a character that everyone can get behind We say thee yay.
The Uncanny X-Men
Born with incredible abilities, sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them…man if you thought it was tough being a child of the atom in the Uncanny X-Men then you clearly didn’t see the dismal sales figures that these comics were pulling in every month. Apparently doomed to failure, Kirby’s quick tour of duty with the X-Men still laid the groundwork for characters who resonated with the politically charged climate of the 1960s and the youth of America’s increasing aimlessness as they sought to forge an identity for themselves.
Alongside the introduction of the X-Men, Kirby also helped create their most iconic villains in the form of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, as Magneto, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch would battle the students of Charles Xavier frequently over the years.
It’s World War 2, the planet is caught up in a sequel to the greatest war ever fought and the public needs an icon to rally behind. Enter Captain America, whose intentions were clear from the very start: Upholding the age-old tradition of punching Nazis right in their stupid faces, as Captain America fed Adolf Hitler a taste of patriotic knuckles at express speed.
A few decades later, and Captain America was no longer on ice and ready to save America once again as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revived the hero for the Silver Age (That bit where he was a commie-hunting agent of the US government hellbent on continuing the red scare? NEVER HAPPENED!). It was a massive shift for the soldier of liberty as he found himself facing enemies far deadlier than the Third Reich, but a role he excelled at as he became the de-facto heart and soul of that universe. Well, until this year at least.
Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth
Ditching the House of Ideas after decades of service, Kirby’s next creations would perhaps prove to be too far ahead of the curve. One of the creations that would sink into obscurity? Kamandi, the final human survivor of the Great Disaster that saw mankind wiped out and replaced by a new race anthropomorphic animals who were hellbent on ascending up the food chain.
It was weird and wild stuff, as Kirby examined the links between the past and the future as he built a new mythology within DC Comics.
The New Gods
When it came to high-concept material however, you don’t get higher than Kirby’s work on The New Gods. Which coincidentally, is the perfect state of mind needed to enjoy this content. While the New Gods have consistently failed to find a regular audience within DC Comics, the ideas and themes that Kirby created have managed to live on in various other books.
The tales of Gods caught in an eternal stalemate, of heaven and hell warring against one another and the sacrifice of sons to end the grandest of conflicts. The Fourth World was Kirby at his most imaginative, as he explored beauty and cruelty while giving birth to the greatest evil in DC Comics history: Darkseid of Apokolips.
The grand lord of the hellpits would soon find himself joined by several other memorable characters, such as Big Barda, his wayward son Orion and the Jesus of escape artists known as Mister Miracle. The Fourth World on its own may not have had the fire to support itself indefinitely, but as a massive cog in the machinery of DC Comics it found a place and purpose, securing Kirby’s legacy for decades to come.
Last Updated: May 24, 2017