There are some names that rise to the mainstream and become almost as well-known as the characters and stories they created: Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, Alan Moore, Frank Miller. Then there are those who are known to the fans—the die-hards—but do not receive the wider recognition they deserve. Among that latter group creatives is Jack Kirby - the King of Comics. His contributions are manifold and in the DNA of the comics and films, but you might only see his name referenced in the back credits of modern comic book movies. Today marks what would have been Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday, and although the comic book pioneer passed away in 1994, he can arguably be credited with much of the success of both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe
It began in late-1940 when Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created Captain America for Timely Comics, which eventually re-branded itself as Marvel. Early on, Kirby and Simon produced the infamous comic that featured Captain America punching Adolf Hitler while the United States, to that point, was not yet involved in World War II. Captain America was indeed patriotic but stood for freedom rather than someone who would blindly follow what was regurgitated by the government, a fact that was abundantly clear in Marvel’s Civil War comic, and later, its cinematic adaptation as well.
Steve Rogers was a man who loved his country, but was not limited to one political party over another; rather, he was concerned with freedom and the people who were affected by the decisions of the politicians. Cap knew that the government wasn’t always right and it was in those early comics that the theme was established. His obsession with fighting Adolf Hitler was as much to do with his fascism as much as it was the Holocaust. Both Kirby and Simon served in World War II; Kirby was an advance scout who used his abilities as an artist to draw reconnaissance maps for his commanders.
These experiences bled over into the Captain America title upon their return. For Kirby and Simon, governments making the wrong decisions and governments with too much power galled them and therefore galled Rogers as much as anything else. This sentiment is echoed in both versions of Civil War. For Cap, the Registration Act provided the means of government to take control of something that belonged to the people, and government that can be corrupted by ideology and agenda. Cap preferred to keep such rights with the people. 2016’s Captain America: Civil War harkens back to the original thesis of the character: “I know we're not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.”
The concept of “people over politics” was something that was embraced by the day’s growing counterculture. Jack Kirby, though much older and not of that generation, was inspired by the movement and embraced it. Kirby’s ideas ventured out of the box, and his art became more experimental and "out there" as his characters and stories became larger in scope. Kirby created character profiles, design studies, and concepts for The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Ant-Man, Wasp, Silver Surfer, Thor, Iron Man (the first movie even utilized an updated origin derived from Kirby's version and designs), Black Panther, S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, The Inhumans and the Eternals. Kirby also said to have assisted Steve Ditko in creating Spider-Man, although the extent of it has always been unclear. All properties (minus the latter) have been a cornerstone of Marvel Comics’ move into television and film. The Fantastic Four and The X-Men were particularly important to Kirby’s legacy at Marvel, as they were along the arcing curve of Kirby’s great change as a creator. They encapsulated the psychedelically charged artwork that made the characters identifiable to fans and set them apart from DC’s more homogeneous (at the time) designs and the social cognizance of the stories that would become a mainstay of the rest of Kirby’s work in comics.
The Fantastic Four was a gateway to the cosmic aspects of Marvel. Kirby introduced Silver Surfer and Galactus when Stan Lee told Kirby he wanted the next Fantastic Four arc to feature the team “fighting God.” Fox’s first two films attempted to condense the original run Kirby and Lee had on the Fantastic Four series but were unable to adapt the sheer imagination and impossible-to-classify artwork that went into Kirby’s vision of space and God. Of course, the visuals were the least of the adaptation’s problems, but that’s neither here nor there.
The X-Men were developed as Kirby’s exploration of disaffected youth. The core cast were substantially younger than most heroes in comics, though the method of how these powerful kids obtained these powers flummoxed him. It was Lee who suggested “mutation,” and series went on from there, which worked for Kirby who desired their powers “be a natural occurrence.” Key elements such as Magneto’s origins as a Holocaust survivor, as well as the civil rights aspect present in the series came from Kirby’s experiences during World War II and his desire to satirize what was going on in America at the time.
The films that followed made numerous changes to the material, but find most of their success in exploring the Kirby-created elements of the original series. The most heartbreaking aspects of the films are the flashbacks to Magneto’s experiences in concentration camps, and the most startling involve the bigotry the X-Men face in everyday life. Deeply interested in social issues, Kirby designed Professor Xavier and Magneto as former friends who became rivals due to the former’s interest in peaceful coexistence and the latter’s more aggressive philosophy to race relations. The parallel was clearly based on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, something Kirby never denied.
By the early 70s, Jack Kirby left Marvel when the House of Ideas no longer wanted to pay Kirby for his. Joe Simon and Steve Ditko would leave under similar circumstances. They received credit for their work in print, but none received the royalties originally agreed upon. Kirby would later create the character Funky Flashman as a way of striking back against Stan Lee, whom he felt hogged the credit and financial gains.
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- Justice League (2017) release date: Nov 17, 2017