Artist, illustrator, writer, and in a way Jack Kirby historian are a few of the titles that Arlen Schumer would claim for himself. The man of many talents is hard at work at this year’s San Diego Comic Fest, giving four “visualectures” throughout the convention weekend. Since SDCF is paying special tribute to the 100th birthday of the famous comic artist and writer Jack Kirby this year, it’s only fitting that one of Schumer’s lectures entirely revolves around Mr. Kirby.
The lecture was very comprehensive and chalked-full of Kirby history and facts. Before he began, Schumer apologized and said that to do Jack Kirby justice it would take more than the one-hour allotted time. In fact, the lecture ran to an hour and thirty minutes, where Schumer afterward admitted he still rushed through some parts. This indulgence was only permitted because Chairman of Comic Fest, Matt Dunford, was in the audience. “I’ll allow this,” said Dunford. “I’m the Chairman!”
“Fifty-years ago in the Fall of 1966, in Esquire Magazine, it was the first time a major magazine featured Jack Kirby’s Marvel characters,” says Schumer in his opening lines. “And [in the center] is Captain America, the character that Kirby most enjoyed drawing over his career.” What’s important about these lines, aside from that a majorly publicized magazine acknowledged a comic artist and his characters, is the fact that Captain America is front row and center in the image. In a large way, the character created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon embodies much of Jack Kirby’s early life and his hopes for this country.
Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, grew up in the lower-eastside of New York city, an educated son of Jewish immigrants. Early in his career, Kirby was a cartoonist for the black and white Popeye. Not satisfied with being an “in-between cell drawer,” Kirby sought to join the growing market of comics and began to contribute to the growing pool of “superheroes” after fledgling DC Comics debuted Superman. Jacob Kurtzberg and his partner Hymie Simon, who changed their names to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon respectively, began to produce their own “Superman knockoffs” as lecturer Schumer put it.
Their focus however was not entirely centered on the Superman clones. “They were more concerned with what was happening in Europe in the late 30’s and early 40’s,” points out Schumer. “They were two-young Jews who wanted to raise the consciousness of America, on what was happening. America didn’t want to fight Europe’s war; We were very isolationists… So what were two Jews to do? They created the most recognized American icon with Captain America.”
The “iconic-captain” became a sensation among readers in a time of war. Many kids and adults bought comics just so they could see the “evil-forces of Europe” getting their teeth knocked in. “Before you know it, punching Nazis’ and Hitler was a thing,” point out Schumer remarking on both the trend in copycat comics at the time surrounding the legendary image of Captain America punching Hitler, as well as the recent political and social climate within our own country at this moment.
After the war, comic books began to lull in their sales and content. “There were no more Nazis to punch,” pointed out Schumer. Jack Kirby had to work on projects that he wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about, ranging from romances, to mysteries, to westerns. Not only did the content become questionable, but Kirby was fighting some battles in his own career. He had left Marvel comics and jumped over to rival DC Comics, a startling change that upset many comic fans even to the point of giving up comics altogether. This was not permanent though, as Kirby jumped between the two companies a number of times over the span of a few decades.
What becomes a heated point in Schumer’s lecture is that of the “Stan Lee vs. Jack Kirby” debate. Schumer himself didn’t hide that he is entirely in Jack Kirby’s corner, which ultimately makes sense. As an artist, Schumer symptomizes and relates more with the legendary Kirby. Where I stand in the issue, which still continues to this day, I won’t remark because this article isn’t about me. What I will say is that I agree with Schumer in that Kirby deserved more credit (in a legal standpoint) with creations of very iconic Marvel characters. It may be the writer who gives the character a soul, but it’s the artist who gives them a body.
The remainder of the lecture surrounded that of Kirby’s influences in both comics and other popular media. Whether intentional or not, Kirby’s clean and highly intricate art style can be seen mirrored in comics that are to follow, one of which being the “Kirby Krackle” that has become a staple in the industry. In Disney fashion, Kirby designed and proposed a theme park that was to rival that of Disneyland, featuring in the proposed renderings large structures based on the many gods that lived in in the artist’s mind. When it was apparent that that idea wasn’t going to be, Kirby decided to take what he had already made and adapt it for a movie, a movie with a script that was to rival the then popular Starwars; it was called Argo. In an odd twist of fate, the movie was purchased by the U.S. government in a plot to rescue U.S. citizens during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. As made known in the 2012 movie also named Argo, the U.S. faked a mission to scout for proposed sites to film a movie using the real script and Jack Kirby’s renderings to help the fictitious story. Though they did help to save American lives, which I’m sure the Captain America creator would be proud of, sadly Kirby’s movie ideas would never see the silver screen.
I feel bad that I can’t fit everything that Schumer discussed into one article unless I want it to be the size of a novella. The one thing to ultimately take away from the lecture is that this legend among comic book artists stretched his hands into many fields, and though he passed more than two-decades ago his presence and memory still lingers in the world of comics and if you look close enough, the world at large. To read more in-depth comic history check out Arlen Schumer’s 2003 book, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art. Also, check out his website at www.arlenschumer.com