Most comic book fans know the name of Jack Kirby, one of American comics founding fathers and the co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Hulk. But rattling off his most famous superhero creations does Kirby a huge disservice as he was one of the fastest, most prolific artists of the twentieth century with a career that spanned forty-five years and saved the comic book industry at least twice. He was a war hero, a bad businessman and a helping hand to innumerable young creators trying to get a start. His door was always open and his family would share sandwiches with literally anyone who stopped by, including members of a UFO cult wanting to discuss his work.
In his home studio, really little more than a basement, he sat in a plain, wood, dining room chair from a set that the family no longer owned using a beat up wood drawing desk and would often talk with friends and family while continuing to draw. His supplies were not special or unique, but neither his humble beginnings nor common tools stopped him from creating some of the most widely known characters in world. Characters whose copyright are even today being hotly contested by his estate and have led to calls for a boycott of Marvel comics as recently as this past weekend.
We’ve gathered up 17 facts that we think will impress even the most jaded comic book fan. Let us know what you think in the comments.
1. Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917 and grew up in a tenement house on the Lower East Side in New York, the son of poor Austrian immigrants.
2. As a child, when he could not afford them Jacob would take newspapers from his neighbors’ trash to read comics and practice drawing on the paper.
3. Jack Kirby joked that as a child he wanted to be a crooked politician. “I was once smitten with the idea of being a crooked politician. It was in vogue. It was a natural way of things where I came from. The crooked politicians were having a great time. They were enjoying life. I watched them in the restaurants as I skated by. I told my mother many times I wanted to be a crooked politician and of course she’d never hear of that.”
4. Kirby was in a gang growing up called the Suffolk Street Gang and, according to Kirby, would get in lots of fights with other gangs of kids. Kirby would go on to create a number of kid gang comics including “Boy Commandos”, “Newsboy Legion” and “Young Allies” inspired by this experience. “I grew up on Suffolk Street. I went to P.S. 20. […] I imagine that become part of what you know, what you grow up with. What life hands to you. And you react that way. I’m glad in a way, later on in life I had to use that attitude in ways that probably saved my life.” Via.
5. When he was starting out, Jack Kirby amazed everyone with his prodigious drawing speed. At one point he was drawing three daily comic strips in three different genres under three different names.
6. Kirby had a very distinct way of talking, often pausing and changing the subject mid-sentence. Comics historian Mark Evanier attributes Kirby’s poor business negotiation skills in part to this this verbal idiosyncrasy.
7. While many comic book creators were able to take positions in the army making propaganda posters and instruction pamphlets, Kirby served in World War II as a combat Infantryman. He left the military with the rank of private first class and a Combat Infantry Badge as well as the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with a bronze battle star.
8. After World War II the superhero comics market faltered due to a decline in interest and an overabundance of superhero comics. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon then revolutionized the industry with “Young Romance” a wildly popular comic which sold “millions of copies” sparking a booming new comics genre.
9. After the Romance and Horror comic boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s, psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote “Seduction of the Innocent” which claimed that violent comics caused violent, criminal youths. The idea caught hold, there were comic book burnings and many comic publishers were brought before congress to account for themselves. The result was the self-implementation of the Comics Code Authority by the comic book industry effectively ending horror comics and severely restricting what comics could include. For example, comics could not show any subversive behavior towards authorities. Although it enraged him, Kirby was forced to pay editors kickbacks in order to get work.
10. “In the late 50s/early 60s it got to the point where he [Kirby] was so engrossed in creating the stories and the artwork he had to give up driving. He couldn’t drive anymore. Neal [Kirby] would tell me stories where he would get in the car with Jack and they’d end up on the curb or the sidewalk because he was thinking about the story.” Steve Sherman, Former Assistant to Jack Kirby
11. “Back then all the houses used to have basements and this particular studio was called the dungeon because it just tiny and cramped and full of his stuff piled up and no light. And that’s where he worked. It was quite and he didn’t really care about his surroundings that much.” Lisa Kirby
12. In 1961, after years of scraping by in the unstable, heavily censored comic book industry, Kirby was approached by Stan Lee about doing a superhero comic. Their collaboration was called “The Fantastic Four” and was quickly followed by the creation of The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Spider-Man (which included art from Steve Ditko). Both Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would claim to have first conceived of a number of these characters, foreshadowing future legal battles.
13. Kirby saw a number of the characters he created to be based on himself, most notably the Thing of the Fantastic Four.
14. “Kirby is so unique, he is the only person I know who in three decades was the top man in his field. He reinvented himself each time. The way he drew when he created Captain America was different than the way he drew when he created the romance comics and monster comics in the 50s. Then the way he drew at Marvel creating the FF, within a few years from 61-65, it was totally different and better every time. And this is 30 years down the line. For a guy to have that kind of intense creativity that long, that many pages into his career is unprecedented. ” Tim Sale, comic book artist.
15. The band Kirby Krackle’s name is a reference to the industry term for the distinct stylistic details Kirby would add to his drawings to indicate extreme energy.
16. Jack Kirby’s estate is currently seeking to terminate the copyright grants of 45 Marvel characters. Marvel countered with a claim that Kirby’s characters were “works for hire” and not subject to termination. Last Wednesday, July 27th, the courts decided in Marvel’s favor with the Kirby Estate lawyer vowing to appeal.
17. This past Saturday, July 30th, prominent comic artist Stephen Bissette made a passionate call to comic book fans to boycott Kirby’s Marvel creations to put financial pressure on Marvel to compensate Kirby’s estate. It is not yet clear what repercussions this call to action will have.