Thursday, August 28, 2014

Happy 97th Birthday Jack Kirby! The Marvel story.

Jack Kirby (August 28, 1917 – February 6, 1994), born Jacob Kurtzberg, was one of the greatest comic creators ever. Not only did he create important comics and heroes of the Golden Age like Captain America but he revitalized the whole industry with his Marvel Comics creations of the 60's and influenced all the succeeding artist for decades afterwards.

Self portrait of Jack Kirby with many of his creations.

Kirby first came to Marvel Comics (then Atlas Comics) in December 1958 on one of their many monster or cowboy comics of that time.

Strange Worlds #1, Dec. 58, Kid Colt Outlaw #83, Mar 59, Gunsmoke Western #51, Mar 59, Tales to Astonish #1, Jan 59

He came up with many fanciful monsters for such comics as Tales to Astonish and Journey Into Mystery.

In a famous interview with Gary Groth in the Comics Journal #134 (February 1990), Kirby said, "I always enjoyed doing monster books. Monster books gave me the opportunity to draw things out of the ordinary. Monster books were a challenge — what kind of monster would fascinate people? I couldn’t draw anything that was too outlandish or too horrible. I never did that. What I did draw was something intriguing. There was something about this monster that you could live with. If you saw him you wouldn’t faint dead away. There was nothing disgusting in his demeanor. There was nothing about him that repelled you. My monsters were lovable monsters. [Laughter.] I gave them names — some were evil and some were good."

Then, a few years later, Marvel was in trouble. Kirby said, "Marvel was on its ass, literally, and when I came around, they were practically hauling out the furniture. They were literally moving out the furniture. They were beginning to move, and Stan Lee was sitting there crying. I told them to hold everything, and I pledged that I would give them the kind of books that would up their sales and keep them in business, and that was my big mistake."

Fantastic Four #1 came out in November 1961.

It revolutionized comics of that time and all time. It's natural characters and frank dialog were a glaring contrast to the campy comics that DC was making at the time.

Superman #148, Oct 61, Batman #141, Dec 61, Wonder Woman #124, Aug 61, Action Comics #283, Nov 61
While Kirby was creating the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom, the good people at DC were having there fearless heroes playing with imps and Wonder Tots. The Fantastic Four and other Marvel titles were a refreshing alternative to DC's campy books.

The Fantastic Four takes a more realistic approach to superheroes. They have issues like the fact that Ben Grimm is stuck in the body of a monster. It wasn't their crazy powers or fancy costumes that sold the books, it was the characters and their personalities.

From Fantastic Four #2 page 7 where Ben Grimm bemoans his fate being a monster and how the world is threatened by his appearance.
The Fantastic Four didn't even get their costumes until the 3rd issue of the series, that's how important they were to the book. It was a character driven book with compelling characters with problems that people could identify with.

GROTH: You turned out monster stories for two or three years I think. Then the first comic that rejuvenated superheroes that you did was The Fantastic four. Can you explain how that came about?
KIRBY: I had to do something different. The monster stories have their limitations — you can just do so many of them. And then it becomes a monster book month after month, so there had to be a switch because the times weren’t exactly conducive to good sales. So I felt the idea was to come up with new stuff all the time — in other words there had to be a blitz. And I came up with this blitz. I came up with The Fantastic Four, I came up with Thor (I knew the Thor legends very well), and the Hulk, the X-Men, and The Avengers. I revived what I could and came up with what I could. I tried to blitz the stands with new stuff. The new stuff seemed to gain momentum.

The Incredible Hulk #1, May 1962, Journey Into Mystery #81, Aug 1962, Avengers #1, Sep 1963, X-Men #1,  Sep 1963
Marvel would also bring back important Golden Age heroes like the Sub-Mariner and Captain America and create company wide cross-overs.
Fantastic Four #4 reintroduced the Sub-Mariner to the Marvel Universe. Avengers #4 reintroduced Captain America to the Marvel Universe. Fantastic Four #12 was the first big Marvel cross-over with the Hulk guest starring while Fantastic Four #25 had the Hulk plus the whole Avengers appear.
From the Fantastic Four would also spring such awesome creations as the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer and Galactus, and the Black Panther.

Fantastic Four #46, Jan 66, would introduce the Inhumans. Fantastic Four #49, Apr 66, would be the debut of the Silver Surfer. Fantastic Four #52, July 66, would be the introduction of the first black hero, the Black Panther.
Marvel would receive awards in the 60's for their work like -
  • 1964: Best New Strip or Book - "Captain America", by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, in Tales of Suspense

  • 1965: Best Short Story - "The Origin of the Red Skull", by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Tales of Suspense #66
  • 1966: Best Professional Work, Regular Short Feature - "Tales of Asgard" by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, in Thor

  • 1968: Best Professional Work, Best Regular Short Feature - "Tales of the Inhumans", by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, in Thor

    There's a big controversy as to who really created the Marvel Universe. Jack would claim he did everything, "Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. I used to write the stories just like I always did."
    While Stan would say In the 60s, the ideas for the new characters originated with me because that was my responsibility. "He went on to say that, "Martin Goodman said, “I understand that National Comics,” which later changed its name to DC, “but I understand that National Comics has a book called The Justice League. And it’s selling very well. I want you to come up with a team of superheroes. Let’s do something like that. So it was my responsibility to come up with such a team. And I dreamed up the Fantastic Four, and I wrote a brief outline. And at that time, you know, I gave that to Jack Kirby, who did a wonderful job on it.”
    In the Comics Journal interview Gary Groth asks, "Who came up with the name Fantastic Four?"
    KIRBY answers, "I did. All right? I came up with all those names. I came up with Thor because I’ve always been a history buff. I know all about Thor and Balder and Mjolnir, the hammer. Nobody ever bothered with that stuff except me. I loved it in high school and I loved it in my pre-high school days. It was the thing that kept my mind off the general poverty in the area. When I went to school that’s what kept me in school — it wasn’t mathematics and it wasn’t geography; it was history."
    Other creators have accused Stan Lee of stealing other people's work like Wally Wood -Stanley and Jack have a conference, then Jack goes home, and after a couple of month’s gestation, a new book is born. Stanley gets all the money and all the credit… And all poor old Jack gets is a sore ass hole.”
    Stan Goldberg said of working with Stan Lee, "Stan would drive me home and we’d plot our stories in the car. I’d say to Stan,”How’s this? Millie loses her job.” He’d say,”Great! Give me 25 pages.” And that took him off the hook. One time I was in Stan’s office and I told him, “I don’t have another plot.” Stan got out of his chair and walked over to me, looked me in the face, and said very seriously, “I don’t ever want to hear you say you can’t think of another plot.” Then he walked back and sat doen in his chair. He didn’t think he needed to tell me anything more.”
    The fact that many of the characters like the Thing, the Hulk and Thor look and sound the way I imagine Jack did makes me think that there is more truth to Jack's claim than Stan'sJack said, "Well, they associated me with Ben Grimm. I suppose I must be a lot like Ben Grimm. I never duck out of a fight; I don’t care what the hell the odds are, and I’m rough at times, but I try to be a decent guy all the time."

    Jack also went on to say that he was the one that came up with the idea for Spider-man. "I created Spider-Man. We decided to give it to Steve Ditko. I drew the first Spider-Man cover. I created the character. I created the costume. I created all those books, but I couldn’t do them all. We decided to give the book to Steve Ditko who was the right man for the job. He did a wonderful job on that."

    Though this seems like a hyperbolic claim at first considering he didn't draw it but there is some actual evidence that supports his claim. In 1959, the very first year Jack worked at Marvel, he and his long time partner, Joe Simon, worked on a book called the Fly, another insect-based hero who's alter ego, Tommy Troy, (TT rather than PP, Peter Parker) like Parker, was an orphaned teen.

    The Fly #1, Aug 1959. Notice the spider-like villain?
    One can only speculate to the truth of the matter but one thing is for sure, Jack was a huge talent and a prolific creator who revitalized the comic book industry and inspired creators and fans alike for generations. Though his 60's Marvel's work is his most famous, it wasn't the end of his creativity. He would go on to create numerous books and Universes like the Fourth World Universe for DC in the early 70's, the Eternals in the late 70's, Captain Victory Universe for Pacific Comics in the early 80's and Captain Glory Universe for Topp's Comics in the early 90's just to name a very few things he created. On the other hand, Stan Lee never really did create anything of significance afterward. The evidence kind of speaks for itself.

    You can see a break-down of who did what on the Great American Novel: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - who did what?

    You can read the full interview with Gary Groth on TCJ ARCHIVE - The Kirby interview

    You can read what Stan Lee had to say about creating the Marvel Universe on the Stan Lee deposition on the origins of the Marvel Universe

    1 comment:

    1. Great post! Just what "The King" deserves :-)