On August 28, 1917, one Jacob Kurtzberg was born to a poor Austrian 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 his work 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;
- the satire of anti-communist paranoia (done in 1954!) Fighting American; 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 on 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 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 worked for a fly-by-night newspaper syndicate: editorial cartoons; incidental drawings; and ultimately unsuccessful 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 short, scrappy Lower East Side kid made good, James Cagney, by movie-buff Kirby.
Kirby started working with Simon on a science fiction superhero (in something of the Edgar Rice Burroughs planetary romance genre) comic book called Blue Bolt for publisher Victor Fox. Simon & Kirby did some early work on 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, Simon & Kirby's last professional work together, for DC in 1973, was yet another version of Sandman) 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 appearing as a back-up feature in Detective Comics.
All went well until 1943, when Simon & Kirby were drafted.
Joe Simon joined the Coast Guard, which 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. Kirby’s unit 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, a battle star for his ETO campaign ribbon and a severe 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. Kirby’s cover for a story called A Day At The Beach, is famous for its realistic and emotionally affecting depiction of war. 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. The second issue Kirby did of that book, depicted a minor battle in small town in the Ardennes, which probably reflected the confusion, the violence . . . and the low key heroism . . . Kirby saw in the War.
War would also be seen in other kinds of work Kirby did.
In issue number 7 of The New Gods, a series done by Kirby for DC in the early 1970s, Izaya the Inheritor, a leader of a superhumanly powerful alien race engaged in a “Techno-cosmic War” (a war which already cost him his wife’s life) with another powerful alien race from a neighboring planet, walks away from a battlefield of that war, stripping off his armor. He comes to a ruined building and begins to bang his weapon against the wall crying out, “Where is Izaya? If I am Izaya the Inheritor--what is my inheritance?"
It is a powerful graphic depiction of what Kirby’s generation would have called Battle Fatigue, which we now call PTSD.
Out of this experience, and through the intervention of a cosmic force called “The Source” Izaya makes peace by fostering his son with the leader of his opponents, Darkseid, while accepting Darkseid’s son, Orion, as his foster son (yes, The New Gods strongly influenced George Lucas’s Star Wars of a few years later . . . although Kirby did not sue).
This concept of a war of the gods had appeared in Kirby’s work for decades by 1972, when this story appeared.
In the first issue of Captain America in 1940, a back-up feature by Kirby appeared called Mercury, which concerned a war between the Olympian Pantheon and the chthonic god Pluto. In his super-hero, suspense, science-fiction and horror comics work in the 1940s through the 1950s, Kirby often depicted the Norse god Thor, whom Lee and Kirby would turn into a major character in the 1960s. In the later 1970s, Kirby revisited this theme in Marvel’s The Eternals. In the 1980s, Kirby returned to the concept in his creator-owned Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers, published through the short-lived publisher, Pacific Comics.
Part of the reason that Kirby revisited these themes with different characters, at different publishers, was that Kirby worked (as most creators did in the comic book industry) under “work for hire” contracts where he did not own his intellectual property, his publisher did.
Kirby’s legal struggle to get his art work returned by Marvel Comics took up much of the last 15 years of his life. Some of his last major work was on Destroyer Duck, a benefit comic done to support creator Steve Gerber’s (ultimately fruitless) attempt to get the rights to his character Howard The Duck back from Marvel Comics.
Kirby’s struggle set the example for later artists, like Colleen Doran (who has assiduously retained the rights to her A Distant Soil characters). Ultimately, almost 20 years after Kirby’s death in 1994, Marvel’s new owners, The Walt Disney Company, came to a settlement with Kirby’s heirs. Kirby was recently made a “Disney Hero,” which is probably a minimal compensation for the money earned by Kirby properties like The Avengers, Captain America and Thor.
In sum, Jack Kirby and his work is America at its best.
It is a demonstration of how a poor boy can make good by dint of talent, imagination, drive and no small amount of chutzpah. It is a warning that the corporations and the big bosses do not easily open their wallets. His life is also a reminder that the biggest limiting factor in the world is not capital (as hard as that is) but good ideas.