On August 28, 1917, one Jacob Kurtzberg was born to a poor Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan.
Kurtzberg’s father was a struggling tailor. Kurtzberg’s future collaborator, Joe Simon, once joked that he came from a slightly more affluent background since his father could make both pants and suits.
You say you have never heard of Jacob Kurtzberg? Well, you might remember work he did under his under his pseudonym: Jack “King” Kirby.
Working with Joe Simon, Kirby created:
- Red Raven;
- The Vision;
- Captain America;
- The Young Allies;
- the re-booted second version of DC’s Sandman;
- Manhunter (Paul Kirk);
- The Boy Commandos;
- The Guardian and the Newsboy Legion;
- the entire genre of Romance Comics;
- Stunt Man;
- the well regarded western comic, Boys’ Ranch; and
- the legendary war comic, Foxhole.
Working with Stan Lee, Kirby created:
The Fantastic Four;
- The Hulk;
- Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos (1963) & Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (1965);
- The Avengers;
- The X-Men;
- The Inhumans; and
- The Black Panther, the first African superhero.
Working on his own, he created:
- The Challengers of the Unknown (possibly a development of something he had been working on with Joe Simon);
- The New Gods;
- The Forever People;
- Mister Miracle;
- The Demon;
- Kammandi, the Last Boy on Earth;
- The Eternals;
- Machine Man;
- Devil Dinosaur; and
- Captain Victory and his Galactic Rangers.
So, even if you have heard of neither Kurtzberg nor Kirby, you have heard of what he did.
How did a poor Jewish boy from the lower East Side, a product of the inter-ethnic gang wars of this part of New York City at this time per his own graphic memoir, Street Code, have this impact of American pop culture?
As he remembered it, one day he found a copy of an issue of the old Science Fiction pulp Wonder Stories floating is a storm sewer. It had a rocket ship on the cover and it fascinated him. He began to to draw, an interest that took him to Boys’ Republic, a settlement house, and (briefly) to the Pratt Institute. His professional career began as an “in-betweener” working on Popeye cartoons at the Fleischer Studios in Brooklyn. From there he did newspaper work for a newspaper syndicate: editorial cartoons; incidental drawings; and ultimately attempts to develop a newspaper comic strip, using a variety of pseudonyms (including Paul Curtis) until he found “Jack Kirby,” which stuck.
Despite the Irish-sounding pen name, Kirby was proud of his Jewishness. He was also proud of having come up the hard way and “Jack Kirby” was also something of a tribute to another Lower East Side kid made good, James Cagney, by movie-buff Kirby.
Kirby started working with Simon on a science fiction superhero comic book called Blue Bolt for publisher Victor Fox. Sion & Kirby did some early work of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, before landing at Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics (now Marvel Comics Group).
At Timely Comics, they did Red Raven, which lasted exactly one issue. But they then created one of the top selling characters of the period, Captain America. Their contract was work-for-hire, but it also gave them participation in the profits at a certain point. Suspicions of “creative accounting” (never confirmed) drove Simon and Kirby to National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics and still Marvel’s arch rival in the industry).
At DC, Simon & Kirby reinvented The Sandman (for the first time, but not the last) and created the Paul Kirk Manhunter, The Guardian and The Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos, which became so popular that it was given its own comic book after appear in Detective Comics.
All went well until 1943, when Simon & Kirby were drafted.
Joe Simon joined the Coast Guard, who used his artistic talent.
In contrast, Jack Kirby joined the Army as a draftee. He was assigned to the Infantry and sent to the 11th Infantry Regiment, part of the 5th Infantry Division. The Army also took notice of Kirby’s artistic skills . . . by assigning him as a Scout to an Intelligence & Reconnaissance (“I&R”) Platoon. Kirby was assigned to operate ahead of the main body of his unit, drawing sketches of the terrain to flesh out available maps and of enemy positions he observed.
Kirby served in the Ardennes Campaign, earning a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and a server case of frost bite that almost cost him his legs.
Coming back from the War, war would remain a theme in Kirby’s work. He and Simon created a war comic in the 1950s called Foxhole, which was purportedly written and drawn entirely by war veterans. In the 1960s, he and Stan Lee created SGT Fury and his Howling Commandos, the “war comic for people who don’t like war comics.” In the 1970s, he took over an existing DC Comics book called The Losers.