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Kirby, Jack

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Artist, Comics.

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Pseudonym of US comic-book illustrator Jacob Kurtzberg (1917-1994), who was known as Jack Kirby from about 1940, though he does not seem to have taken that name legally; other early pseudonyms include Jack Curtiss, Curt Davis, Ted Grey, Lance Kirby and Fred Sande. One of the giants in the Comics industry, he began his more than fifty-year career in 1936 working on newspaper comic strips for the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate; briefly, in 1939, he worked for Fleischer Studios (see Max Fleischer) doing in-betweener work (ie infilling gaps between moments of significant action) for Popeye. He then began to draw comic books, his first success being Blue Bolt (1940 10 issues) with Joe Simon, with whom he later created Captain America in 1941 for Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics); he also worked on Captain Marvel. Later standalone stories with Simon appeared in Black Cat Mystic 1957-1958, Alarming Tales 1957-1958, Race for the Moon 1958, and elsewhere. Much of his work with Simon has been assembled as The Simon and Kirby Library, at least one volume of which – Science Fiction (graph coll 2013) – is of direct sf interest.

His greatest interest for sf begins, however, with his work for Marvel Comics from 1960, by then under the direction of Stan Lee. In 1961 Lee and Kirby created The Fantastic Four (1961-2015 with breaks), about a familial group of Superheroes, one of the most popular series in the history of the genre. He also created, or helped create, dozens of other superheroes, including The Incredible Hulk (main iterations 1962-1963, 1968-1999) and X-Men, which propelled Marvel to the top of the business.

After vainly attempting to gain financial participation (beyond a relatively low work-for-hire income), Kirby left the Marvel organization in 1970, and for a while worked for DC Comics, where he was given greater creative freedom and produced an interesting group of four interconnected superhero comics, including New Gods (referred to as "Kirby's Fourth World") Although his attempts to create single-handed a pattern of interrelated comics were over-ambitious – their heroes were required constantly to fight each other or to cooperate, and their storylines were subject to constant juggling – it is very clearly his example during the two years (1970-1972) of the Fourth World multiply-cast war between Good and Evil gods and godlings that ultimately blossomed into sf Cinema's characteristically over-extended multi-Superhero enterprises, the most successful of them being the Marvel Cinematic Universe. During this particularly fertile time with DC, Kirby also created a Planet of the Apes-inspired Post-Holocaust series, Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth (1972).

Kirby returned to Marvel in 1975 for a relatively short period, during which he was able to write and draw his own titles. Creative highlights from this period include his return to Captain America, a new series about a secret race of Alien-bred superhumans known as The Eternals, and an astonishing (if otherwise forgotten) adaptation and expansion of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (which see); this spun off a comics series sequelling the events of 2001.

Seeking better working conditions (Marvel continued to think of Kirby as a freelancer, with no right to health insurance coverage), Kirby left again and spent the next few years working in film and animation. In 1979, he drew concept art for two proposed projects: a film adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel Lord of Light (1967) and a theme park, to be called Science Fiction Land. Neither project came to fruition, although in a strange twist of fate, the Central Intelligence Agency used some of this artwork in 1979 to aid its operatives to pose as movie location scouts and thus help them avoid being captured during the Iranian hostage crisis of that year.

Kirby returned to comics again in 1981, creating, for the first time, material for which he owned the trademark and copyright, an important step toward creator rights in the comic book field. At this time he created two more sf series, Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (1981-1984) and Silver Star (1983-1984), both published by San Diego-California-based Pacific Comics. His last major work was a Graphic Novel, The Hunger Dogs (graph 1985), a continuation and culmination of his New Gods series for DC Comics. See The Hunger Dogs for details.

Kirby's style is blocky but with an explosively dramatic sense of how to convey the kinetics of action that many other comics artists lack and frequently try to emulate. His use of motion-picture techniques (such as still-frame storytelling) and dramatic perspectives has influenced most of today's comics artists. Most importantly perhaps, his storylines were genuinely visionary: he gave a visual habitation for many artists and authors as they transformed the old Space Opera, whether drawn or written, into the baroque and exorbitant operatic performance medium that began to become familiar in the 1980s. His work is reproduced in Origins of Marvel Comics (1974), Son of Origins of Marvel Comics (1975) and Bring on the Bad Guys (1976), all edited by Stan Lee, and in many more recent and accessible collections, including many volumes of the Marvel Masterworks series (1986 onwards) and collections of his work for various publishers. The Jack Kirby Award for achievement in comic books was presented from 1985 to 1987, though thereafter replaced by the Eisner and Harvey awards for comics. After an extended lawsuit for the return of original artwork done for Marvel Comics, a small portion of his work was finally given back to the artist in 1987. [JG/RH/JC/JP]

Jacob Kurtzberg

born New York: 28 August 1917

died Thousand Oaks, California: 6 February 1994

works (selected)


The Simon and Kirby Library (selected)

  • Crime (London: Titan Books, 2011) with Joe Simon [coll: graph: first appeared in various Comics: The Simon and Kirby Library: hb/Jack Kirby]
  • Science Fiction (London: Titan Books, 2013) with Joe Simon [coll: graph: first appeared in various Comics 1940-1966: The Simon and Kirby Library: hb/Jack Kirby]
  • Horror (London: Titan Books, 2014) with Joe Simon [coll: graph: first appeared in various Comics: The Simon and Kirby Library: hb/Jack Kirby]

individual titles

further reading


previous versions of this entry

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