Written by: Mark Evanier
Published by: Abrams Books
This past week was Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday. In honor of this, Abrams Books has re-released one of the best books on comics ever produced, Kirby: King of Comics! Originally released in 2008 in a hardcover edition, this new anniversary edition is now available in a more affordable soft cover version and features revised and expanded material. The 240-page book is filled with rare Kirby art, much of it unpublished or not seen in decades.
In the mid-1970s, Jack Kirby had returned to Marvel from DC Comics, where he had worked for the past half dozen years. He returned to the character he had helped create, Captain America, with issue #193. As a young and naïve comic fan I frankly could not understand the fuss. But my education on Kirby began when I gradually started putting a back issue collection of Silver Age comics. Reading Jack’s first Silver Surfer trilogy in Fantastic Four #48 – 50, was all it took and I was a Kirby fan!
The book spans Kirby’s entire career from the start of The Golden Age right through is final projects for Topps Comics in the 1990s. Through the course of the book, written by longtime Kirby friend and comic creator, Mark Evanier, I learned a lot more about the man than I had known previously. For example, did you know that Kirby worked on various syndicated newspaper strips prior to his career in comics? Using various aliases, Kirby worked on adventure strips like The Black Buccaneer and Cyclone Burke, and even the odd political cartoon. Working under the name Charles Nichols, Kirby even drew the Blue Beetle newspaper strip a year before coming to Timely and creating perhaps his most famous character Captain America with partner Joe Simon.
An undercurrent to the book is Kirby’s lifelong struggle for financial stability. Today, Jack would be set for life with about one-tenth of his accomplishments in comics. But in the forties, Jack and many other creators were at the mercy of often unscrupulous publishers who horded the profits for their own, leaving the creators to scrape by on the most modest of wages. It was a financial dispute with Timely publisher Martin Goodman that prompted Jack to leave Timely for DC. Kirby’s early work at DC is often overlooked but with Simon he helped create the Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion, and they revamped Manhunter and the Sandman.
After serving in World War II, he was now married to wife Roz and would soon be starting a family, prompting Kirby to take work wherever he could find it. Jack worked for Hillman Periodicals, Headline Comics, Harvey Comics, and Charlton Comics to name a few, and the book contains many rare Kirby covers and page art from publishers other than Marvel and DC. Jack returned to DC in the 50s but his work was constantly edited and redrawn so it looked like all the rest of DC’s banal, and often lifeless titles from the period, the house style that then DC Editor Mort Weisinger insisted upon.
Jack’s rise to stardom at Marvel (then Atlas Comics) did not come overnight. He labored on westerns, romance, monster, and sci-fi titles for years before he and Stan Lee would create the legendary Fantastic Four in 1961. The hits then came rapid fire: the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, the Avengers, Sgt. Fury, and the X-Men. Evanier unearthed rare and unpublished Kirby covers for Fantastic Four #20 and X-Men #10! There are also four simply incredible full pages sketches of The Inhumans that display Kirby’s work at its finest. Despite all the successes, Jack was justifiably scorned that Stan Lee was getting the lion’s share of the credit for Marvel’s success. Evanier relates a story of Marvel’s sale to a new company and nitwit lawyers who thought that Stan also drew the comics. It seems it was always an uphill battle for Kirby. Evanier covers the regretful situation of Marvel holding thousands of pages of Kirby’s art hostage in order to coerce him to sign an agreement that no other creator was asked to sign. Under pressure from industry pros and magazines like The Comics Journal, Marvel finally gave Jack some 2,100 pages of art. While it was a fraction of what he worked on it was reportedly more than he expected. The art would provide a nest egg for him and his wife for the rest of their lives.
Kirby’s influence and creations cannot be overstated. His work had a power and majesty and flair for the dramatic that many modern artists lack. Kirby’s art had personality, no matter what you thought of his style. He virtually invented cosmic, epic storylines. Kirby: King of Comics is like taking a guided tour through a Kirby museum. Unless you have read the earlier edition of the book you are going to see Kirby artwork that you have never seen before! There is so much beautiful art and so many wonderful stories to read, making this a must have not just for Kirby fans but for any comic book fan!