It’s Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday today, and this should be a national holiday, but sadly people just aren’t hip enough for Kirby Day yet. If you’re in New York, there is a pop up Museum downtown, sort of nearish where Kirby was born, and I’ll be making a visit there later today.
Monday, August 28th
One Art Space, 23 Warren St, NYC
Open from Noon until 7pm – Birthday Celebration All Day
All profits from T-shirt sales today will go to the Kirby4Heroes campaign for the Hero initiative
6pm – “Jack Kirby – 100 years” talk by Rand Hoppe
Online there are many tributes, including Tom Spurgoen’s annual art post.
— Kevin Feige (@Kevfeige) August 28, 2017
— Mike Mignola (@artofmmignola) August 28, 2017
And the #100Kirbys art project available via hashtag.
Even Marvel Comics has gotten into the act with a Kirby 100 landing page with links to the Kirby comics you can get on Marvel Unlimited.
Comics-Con International, which still celebrates Kirby every year at the Eisner Awards (which were originally the Kirby Awards) has made the tribute section from this year’s program available to read for free.
As the above photo shows, Kirby is a cartoonist’s cartoonist to anyone who was working prior to the 90s. When I was living in SoCal in the 80s, it’s hard to overstate the reverence that the comics community there had for Jack. (The SDCC tributes are a remnant of that.) Kirby was not known to the world at large, but the cartoonists around him knew that and tried to make up for it with respect.
There was also an ugly matter at the time, where Kirby’s artwork had been stolen from Marvel Comics. It was stored shoddily in a closet next to an elevator and someone made off with it over the years. Kirby wanted what was left of it back, saying it was his. Marvel disagreed and battles were fought. This was a rallying cry for the creators rights movement of the decade and cemented his place in their hearts. And he did get it back eventually.
Like anyone on the scene, I met Kirby many times. With the hubris of my youth I wasn’t a huge fan, but I knew of his importance and treated him with respect, I hope. I recall hazily one occasion when he and I were guests on a cable tv comic book awards show sponsored by the Golden Apple. When I will never forget is going next door to grab a sandwich while they set up the studio. It was me, Jack, Roz and at least two of the following: Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin and Bill Sienkiewicz. No one in particular. I wish I remembered something that was said that night, but I don’t. I do remember that Jack picked up the bill, allowing me to forever say that “Jack Kirby bought me a sandwich.”
But Jack and Roz loved their fans. Fans who learned of Kirby’s greatness were sometimes greeted with cookies and milk at his house and similar tales of kindness were common.
Of course, Jack also had a temper when he thought he’s been wronged. And that was often, sadly. My impression of Kirby (looking back as an adult) was that he was one of those insanely focused geniuses whose main belief in his own work is that it was better than his contemporaries and it paid the bills for his family. Oh don’t get me wrong, with the Fourth World Stuff and his Marvel philosophizing, The Eternals, 2001 and so on, Kirby was putting his world view out there and it was one he was proud of. He was proud of the literary and artistic merit of his comics. But he had also been at it so long – and created so much of the industry as it existed – that it would always be a business to him.
And the insane workload – during the early astoundingly fertile early days of the Marvel Universe he drew four books a month, all of them epochal works that are among the greatest comics of their day or any time – was driven by the need to be a good provider for his family, to make sure they had what they needed.
The Jack Kirby: The King of Comics FB page run by his grandson Jeremy has many amazing photos of Kirby. I’d love to steal them all but I’ll restrict myself to a few. (Jeremy Kirby is working on a books of family photos.)
From his young days as a veteran coming back to a very changed world, through his endless hours at the drawing board, to a family snapshot with his grandson, it’s obvious that Kirby had swagger and charisma. He might not have had Stan’s gift of gab and chameleon-like survival instincts, but if Kirby had lived into the modern era of comics supremacy he would have been right at home, and absorbed the adulation he deserved with pride, and then reflected it right back. A mind and vision that great had to be a little bit larger than life.
And what a vision. It’s just not possible to overstate his influence on comics. Not just in America, but as seen around the world. He invented the vocabulary of superhero comics and did it so perfectly that no one has ever been better. I’ll refer you again to my post about Kirby v Jaime Hernandez, and it’s a comparison of equals. Had Kirby been inspired to seek work as a designer earlier in his career he would have created vistas unimagined and probably unproduceable. Kevin Feige’s tweet papers over the legal battles between Disney and the Kirby Estate, (a battle which I understand some at Disney wanted to settle much earlier, though) but he’s right about the Thor movies being pure Kirby, from Loki’s helmet to the Destroyer to the feeling of Asgard. It’s not as good as real Kirby but it’s a nice tribute.
I think it’s safe to say that Kirby had a sense of social justice that has shined through the years. As a scrappy Jewish kid who grew up on the Lower East Side, his entry into the European theater, fighting real Nazis, was a point of pride the rest of his life, and his work has a rough egalitarianism that is rare in his contemporaries. (There are a few exceptions which I hope to examine in a later piece.) Kirby seemed to believe in the heroic potential in everyone. That Mister Miracle, one of his most idiosyncratic creations, has just been resurrected in a new version that draws from Kirby’s concept strongly is no surprise.
Anyway, Jack was one of a kind, never to be copied or equalled or surpassed. He was a pure fountain of imagination and storytelling who influenced everything that came after, and a good man. It is good that we celebrate him today, and I hope we will celebrate him forever.
Some more stories and links:
If he were still with us, Jack Kirby would have been one hundred years old today…but of course, an awful lot of Jack is still with us. Hundreds of characters he created or co-created are still appearing, many of them in hit movies that have made them more famous than ever. Back in the sixties, Jack predicted that there would someday be highly-successful, big budget motion pictures of Thor, Captain America, et al. He told me that when I first met him in 1969.
This case of mistaken identity, one of the many large and small humiliations that bedeviled Kirby’s life, is emblematic of the cartoonist’s curious status as an artist who changed the world while living in obscurity. Born 100 years ago today, Kirby was one of the most influential creators of the twentieth century. He’s as central to the genre of the superhero as Walt Disney is to animated cartoons, Agatha Christie is to detective fiction, Alfred Hitchcock is to film thrillers, or H.G. Wells is to science fiction.
The superhero stories Kirby created or inspired have dominated American comic books for nearly 75 years and now hold almost oppressive sway over Hollywood. Kirby’s creations are front and center in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but his fingerprints are all over the DC Cinematic Universe too, where the master plot he created—the cosmic villain Darkseid invading earth—still looms large. It was Kirby who took the superhero genre away from its roots in 1930s vigilante stories and turned it into a canvas for galaxy-spanning space operas, a shift that not only changed comics but also prepared the way for the likes of the Star Wars franchise. Outside of comics, hints of Kirby pop up in unexpected places, such as the narrative approaches of Guillermo del Toro, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Lethem.
Walt Simonson, one of Kirby’s purest acolytes, at Paste:
Jack drew a relentless hunt. Jack’s aliens did not look like anyone else’s aliens. They were dangerous with “alieness.” His characters in general, alien or human, posed with drama. There was something alive, almost sinister, about the locations he drew, whether it was the swamp where the alien craft first landed, or the boarding house where the chase finally ended. Even the coloring was strange, full of raw hues and knockouts where one color was washed over most of a panel, like a raw spotlight shining on the scene. Most of all, the work was vital, bursting with energy even in those panels where characters were merely standing around. And if they were in motion, they moved with authority. It was like no other comic book I had ever seen.
And finally if you do not know Kirby, I suggest spending $2 on the digital edition of Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles.,which is goofy and dynamic Kirby at its most typical . The art was drawn to the treasury size, and if you can find one of the original, you’ll enjoy it more, but here’s a preview. Oh and lots more digital Kirby.
Happy birthday, Jack.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.