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The (Not So) Subtle Legacy of Jack Kirby

The (Not So) Subtle Legacy of Jack Kirby

You likely know the name of comic book writer and artist Jack Kirby, as well as his most legendary co-creations: Thor, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk and the original X-Men to name but a few. But who was the man who created them? And what about his legacy outside of these now household names?

Jack Kirby is one of the most important and prolific comic book creators of all time, crafting some of the most revered and respected superhero books ever. A scrappy kid raised in New York City’s Lower East Side, Kirby’s background greatly informed the sensibility, atmosphere and settings of his stories. He burst onto the comics scene in 1941 with Captain America Comics #1, created alongside Joe Simon for Timely Publications, which would later rename itself Atlas Comics before becoming the monolith that we know and love, Marvel Comics.

Kirby spent the next two decades telling an eclectic range of stories, spanning every genre from romance to western to sci-fi to monster tales. In 1961 he collaborated with Stan Lee to turn around Marvel’s dwindling fortunes with the Fantastic Four, a series which took its science fiction team-up cues from Challengers of the Unknown, a previous Kirby creation for National Comics, who you likely know nowadays as DC Comics.

Fantastic Four #1 changed everything for superhero books, revitalizing Marvel with massive sales and unintentionally popularizing the shared universe in cape comics, now the basic building block of nearly all superhero storytelling, whether on the page or screen. After the success of Marvel’s first family, Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee sought to expand his comic book line with Kirby as the crown jewel of his collaborators thanks to Jack’s innovative art, high output, and imaginative plotting abilities.

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Since Lee was essentially Marvel’s only writer in the early ’60s as well as Editor-in-Chief, and an unusual method of working developed in the company, something that’s created controversy around creator credits for decades: the Marvel Method. Artists like Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and other Marvel luminaries would work off of loose (or sometimes no) plots, unlike the full scripts used over at their Distinguished Competition. This meant that important storytelling decisions and pacing were regularly handled by artists like Kirby, often talented writers in their own right but rarely given writing credits on their books.

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Art Style and Impact

While Kirby’s conceptual creativity and strong plotting are inseparable from his accomplishments, his visual storytelling elevated him to the level of comic book superstar in the ’60s and secured his legacy as one of the medium’s premier artists. Kirby was not only a talented illustrator but also an innovator, finding new ways to tell sequential stories with methods that’ve become regular features of modern day comics. One of the most recognizable aspects of Kirby’s art is his use of foreshortening–placing part of a character’s body in the extreme foreground of an image to create depth of field–something that’s now in the toolbox of every comic book artist and Hollywood poster designer. His action-packed double page spreads popularized the now-common format, placing a single, continuous image across two facing pages full of rich detail to immerse the reader in the story.

Another hallmark of Kirby artwork is stylized technology, from Challengers of the Unknown, where he began to play with his intricate stacks of repeating shapes and snaking pipes, to Black Panther’s Wakanda, a highly advanced techno-jungle that stands in stark juxtaposition to the “savage” trope which was so prevalent when depicting African nations in Silver Age comics. Kirby’s detailed futurism was worlds away from the blunt simplicity of most science fiction of the time, influencing generations of creators. His innovation wasn’t just confined to his content but also exhibited in the way he created art, experimenting with mixed media and photo collages, giving his cosmic work a surreal, otherworldly, and often abstract feel.

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Kirby often spoke about his upbringing and how he regularly found himself in fights, whether it was with local kids in NYC or Nazis in World War II. These experiences translate to the page with a near autobiographical clarity, his action sequences always full of the aggression and power of the punches the heroes pack. One of the most famous of these fights is in Tale of Suspense #85, in which Cap trades blows with the acrobatic Batroc. The nine-panel page is completely free of dialogue, carrying only two small captions where Stan Lee claims he cannot do justice to this action sequence so he’ll just “shuteth up.” The dynamic action within the strict framework of the 3×3 grid is so powerful that it’s inspired some of the greatest works in comics history, notably Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen art, which is laid out almost entirely with nine panel pages.

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Impact on the larger comic book industry

As the ’70s began, Kirby’s creativity could barely be contained at Marvel. Stan emerged as the public face of the publisher–regularly speaking to fans through the pages of the books, speaking across the US in universities, and taking any and all interviews about Marvel Comics–and that relegated Kirby to the simple role of “artist.” Though comics are a visual medium, historically artists have been left behind when it comes to credit and celebration, and Jack felt that his potential for telling stories and creating worlds was being stifled at the House of Ideas. Taking a job at DC Comics, he began working on what would essentially become the first creator imprint at a large comics publisher.

Jack developed a series of titles set in the “Fourth World” that consisted of Mister Miracle, The New Gods, and The Forever People. Here he introduced characters such as Darkseid, Big Barda, Metron, Orion, and many others who’d all become integral parts of the DC Universe. This was an extension of Kirby’s previous explorations into mythology, religion, and the cosmic expanse that populated the pages of Thor and the Fantastic Four. The Fourth World epic added complex layers to the world of superhero comics, which would continue to be thematically explored by creators such as Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and Jim Starlin for decades to come.

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Though his freedom was greater at DC, it wasn’t easy for Kirby to tell his stories as he wanted to tell them. He eventually found himself back at Marvel in the mid ’70s, now allowed to write and draw books such as The Eternals, Black Panther, and Captain America. His struggle for adequate compensation and fair treatment became one of the most well-known fights for creator rights. He was even denied the return of his original artwork, souring Lee and Kirby’s creative collaboration as Kirby felt that both original art and royalties were being kept from him. This influenced a generation of creators who took their beginnings with the Big Two and turned them into thriving careers independent of either Marvel and DC, the most notorious of those being the founders of Image Comics.

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Impact on Marvel and DC Movies

Though Kirby was finished with the Big Two by the ’80s, they weren’t finished with him. As Stan Lee spent more time in Hollywood studios rather than Marvel’s New York offices, it was often the work of Kirby that found its way into the celluloid adaptations of Marvel Comics. Beginning with the iconic Incredible Hulk TV show, a generation’s version of Kirby’s classic co-creation, and expanding into the worlds of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Expanded Universe, Kirby’s impact on the filmic world of comics cannot be understated.

The flagship movie of DC’s shared universe, Justice League, seems like it will be taking from Kirby’s ideas and using them as the building blocks for their entire franchise. In 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice we’re introduced to what looks to be the series’ MacGuffin when we see Cyborg brought to life by a strange pulsating silver cube called a Motherbox. Eagle eyed comic book fans will know this strays from Cyborg’s comic book origins, instead introducing us to a cornerstone of Fourth World technology. The omega symbol which appears in one of the film’s frequent dream sequences directly alludes to the involvement of Kirby’s cosmic supervillain, Darkseid, potentially being positioned much like Thanos has been in the MCU.

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That’s no coincidence as Jim Starlin’s Thanos in the comics was clearly “inspired” by Kirby’s Darkseid, which now seems fairly ironic seeing as the DCEU appears to be inspired by the MCU and its shared universe. Kirby’s influence on the Marvel movies certainly doesn’t stop there though. From creating characters like Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Ant-Man, and Black Panther to inspiring the visual world they live in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it would likely not exist without Kirby and his creations.

As with so much of his work, Jack’s influence and impact goes far deeper than just the roster of the Avengers. The immersive science fiction vision of Guardians of the Galaxy often looks like a Kirby page come to life. The expansive mythos of Thor, Asgard, and the Nine Realms would have had a hard time escaping the comics if not for Kirby’s exploratory groundwork. The cultural and political relevance of Captain America: The Winter Soldier–though an adaptation of the ’00s run by Brubaker, Epting, Perkins, and Lark–has its DNA rooted in Kirby’s own politically infused storytelling which often reflected his own beliefs. Kirby once notoriously left the Marvel offices to fight Nazis out on the street who were incensed at Captain America’s anti-fascism message.

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Amazingly this only scratches the surface of what Jack Kirby has contributed to superhero comics, their adaptations, and the visual storytelling landscape as a whole. On this, the hundred year anniversary of his birth, we’re still discovering new magic in Kirby’s comics, which will undoubtedly influence generations to come.

So how will you pay homage to Jack Kirby’s legacy? By (re)discovering one of his books? Maybe by punching a Nazi? Or by making that comic you’ve had in your head all these years? Let us know in the comments!

Images: DC Comics, Warner Brothers, Marvel Comics, The Jack Kirby Museum

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