Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917 on the Lower East Side of New York City to Austrian-Jewish immigrants. He grew up in a hard-knocks neighborhood where fighting in the streets was not uncommon. Even later, joining a Suffolk Street gang, Kurtzberg nonetheless liked (in secret) to read, and especially draw.
Kurtzberg began his career working in cartoon animation, and moved from there to political strip cartooning. He also worked for legendary artist Will Eisner on weekly comic strips, where he first drew westerns. All of this work was produced under a various list of pseudonyms.
Next, Kurtzberg went to work for Victor Fox’s Fox Studios doing his first superhero work alongside another future-legend Bill Everett. He also met one of the two men with whom collaboration would be epic – editor Joe Simon.
Together, Simon and Kurtzberg produced massive amounts of comic book work. Along the way, they actually invented the Romance genre. In 1940, after joining Timely Comics (which would later become Marvel Comics), they unleashed their greatest creation – Captain America. For this undertaking, Kurtzberg adopted the pen name that he would keep for the rest of his life – Jack Kirby.
In 1942, Kirby married Rosalind Goldstein to whom he remained espoused for the rest of his life, producing four children in the process. He also enlisted in the Army, and was shipped to Europe to fight in World War II. He returned stateside in 1945, finishing out his tour of duty at Camp Butner, North Carolina.
He was honorably discharged and went right back to work creating comics with Joe Simon. Over the years, due to the waxing and waning of the comics industry, Simon and Kirby moved from company to company and eventually ended their partnership, with Kirby landing at DC Comics. They re-teamed briefly at Archie Comics in the late 50s before ending their legendary collaboration for good.
By 1959, Kirby was working at Atlas Comics, which was previously Timely. There, he did romance and western comics, and eventually settled into the giant-monster-of-the-month episodes in anthology comics such as Journey into Mystery and Tales of Suspense.Writing for Kirby on these was the man who would prove to be his greatest collaborator – Stan Lee.
By 1961, a renewed interest in superhero comics prompted Timely publisher martin Goodman to order Lee to come up with a superhero team to compete with the successful The Justice League of America comic being produced by DC Comics, which was made up of several of their most popular characters.
Lee enlisted Kirby’s aid, and instead of uniting some of Timely’s popular older superhero characters from the 40s and 50s, Lee, prompted by his wife, Joan, to “just, for once, do a comic the way you want to do it,” decided to go in a different direction.
Being a true creative force, Lee listed all the things he felt he would do differently in a superhero team comic – the team would be a family, they would argue and have problems like normal people, they wouldn’t keep their identities secret, they wouldn’t all be beautifully perfect with heroic features and chiseled physiques, the female lead would be part of the team and not a damsel in distress.
He and Kirby discussed this concept. Unlike the traditional comic creative process where an artist is presented with a detailed script for exactly how to lay out the story or even a detailed story itself, Lee and Kirby discussed their ideas, Lee gave Kirby a typed two-page synopsis, and Kirby went off and drew the entire story, essentially ‘directing’ the movie of the ‘treatment’ that Lee had produced. Working in this way, Kirby had much more input into the story than artists normally had. This method of creating comics eventually came to be called the Marvel Method.
Lee released the comic under the newly christened Marvel Comics Group banner, and The Fantastic Four was a smash hit. Surprisingly, it was popular with college-aged readers and not just the usual pre-teen audience that normally bought comics.
This success enlivened the duo, and they followed up with hit after hit – The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, the Invincible Iron Man, Ant Man, The Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes, The Silver Surfer, The Black Panther, The Inhumans.
Lee developed the habit of assigning catchy nicknames to the bullpen staff. He referred to Kirby periodically as ‘Jolly’ Jack Kirby. But the name that became synonymous with Kirby, and one that was used independently of his name in referring to him was – ‘The King’.
Kirby soon moved to California because the climate was better for his daughter’s asthma. He would mail his penciled pages across the country to Marvel.
Kirby left Marvel in 1970 when he couldn’t get Martin Goodman to agree to give him a cut of the profits earned from his creations. He went to work for DC Comics where he produced characters that still feature in their works to this day.
But in 1975, when his DC contract was up, Roy Thomas, Stan Lee’s protégé and new editor at Marvel convinced Kirby to return to Marvel once more. Lee gave Kirby editorial and artistic control over his projects. He returned to his golden-age creation, Captain America, and began a new Black Panther series. He also produced new series of his own creations – The Eternals, Machine Man, and Devil Dinosaur. He also produced one last collaboration with Stan Lee – Marvel’s first graphic novel which starred his creation The Silver Surfer.
He left Marvel once more, and for good, in 1978 for the animation field. He also worked for various independent comics publishers, finishing with Topp’s Comics, where many of his old Marvel peers had gone to work.
On February 6th, 1994, at the age of 76, Jack Kirby passed away from heart failure. He was more than an artist. He was a storyteller and an innovator, pioneering techniques that would be mimicked by other great artists who followed in his footsteps up to the present. He was the primary artistic force behind the comic renaissance that was The Marvel Silver Age, an opus that has overtaken ‘the western’ as America’s primary mythology.
COMPREHENSIVE LIST OF KIRBY’S WORK FOR MARVEL
- Journey into Mystery #51-52, 54-58 (1959-1962); (starringThor) #83-89, 93, 97-125, Annual #1 (1962-1966)
- Strange Tales #67-70, 72-100 (1959-1962); (starring The Human Torch): #101-105, 108-109, 114, 120, Annual #2 (1962-1964); (starring Nick Fury): #135, 141-142 (full pencils), 136-140, 143-153 (layouts only, pencils by John Severin. Jim Steranko and others) (1965-1967)
- Tales of Suspense #2-4, 7-35 (1959-1962); (starring Iron Man): #41, 43 (1963); (starring Captain America): #59-68, 78-86, 92-99 (full pencils), 69-75, 77 (layouts) (1964-1968)
- Fantastic Four #1-102, 108, Annual #1-6 (1961-1971)
- Tales to Astonish #1, 5-34; (starring Ant Man): #35-40, 44, 49-51 (1962-1964); (starring The Incredible Hulk): #68-72 (full pencils), #73-84 (layouts only, pencils by Bill Everett and others) (1965-1966)
- Avengers #1-8 (full pencils), #14-17 (layouts only, pencils by Don Heck) (1963-1965)
- X-Men #1-11 (full pencils), #12-17 (layouts only, pencils by Alex Toth and Werner Roth) (1963-1965)
- Thor #126-177, Annual #2 (1966-1970)
- Captain America #100-109, 112 (1968-1969), #193-214, Annual #3-4 (1976-1977)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey #1-10 (1976-1977)
- Eternals #1-19, Annual #1 (1976-1978)
- Black Panther #1-12 (1977-1978)
- Devil Dinosaur #1-12 (1978)
- Machine Man #1-9 (1978)