How I discovered Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby is rightfully considered one of the all-time greatest creators to have ever worked in the comic book industry.  Born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, the man who came to be known as Jack Kirby was responsible for creating or co-creating a huge percentage of what we now know as the Marvel Comics universe, as well as a number of key characters over at DC Comics.  He also conceived a number of concepts for series that either came out through smaller companies which allowed him to retain ownership or that unfortunately never saw print in his lifetime.  I’ve blogged about Kirby before.  So today, on what would have been his 96th birthday, I am going to look back on how I personally came to be a fan of his work.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, from time to time I would see Jack Kirby’s name mentioned in various lettercols or editorial pages, usually referring to him in glowing terms as an exceptional artist and a brilliant designer of characters.  However, back in those days, trade paperback collections were few & far between, and back issues from the 1960s that he had worked on were typically well out of the budget of a ten year old.  It would be a few years before I would actually have the opportunity to see Kirby’s artwork with own eyes.  In hindsight, I now realize that selected panels from some of his early 1960s work appeared in the Marvel Saga series that was published in the mid-1980s.  But the first entire issue illustrated by him that I ever owned was Fantastic Four #74, which I picked out of the back issue bins of some comic shop or another around 1986, probably because it had a cool cover.

Fantastic Four 74 cover

I managed to buy that copy of FF #74 pretty cheap, for maybe $5.00 or so.  That’s because it was certainly not in mint condition, to say the least.  It must have changed hands at least a few times before I acquired it.  And at least one of the previous owners had decided to use a magic marker to trace the outlines of the figures in a few of the panels.  Eeeek!  Even at ten years old, I knew that was a no-no!  Nevertheless, most of the pages were left untouched, and I was able to appreciate the artwork of Kirby inked by Joe Sinnott.

FF #74 was a pretty cool comic book.  I haven’t looked at in a while, but as I recall the Silver Surfer, imprisoned on Earth by Galactus, is moping about the apartment of blind sculptress Alicia Masters.  Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, is none too thrilled that the Surfer is hanging out with his best gal, and doesn’t exactly offer a sympathetic ear to the former sentinel of the spaceways.  Next thing you know, the Surfer decides to lay a cosmic powered smack-down on the gruff Thing.  Before their grudge can proceed further, Galactus returns to Earth, hoping to re-enlist his former herald.  The devourer of worlds dispatches his servant the Punisher to retrieve the Surfer… no no no, not the guy with the skull on his chest who goes around shooting criminals full of holes.  This Punisher is a funny-looking robot dude who predates Frank Castle by almost a decade.  A big fight ensues between the FF and the Punisher.  Then, next thing you know, the story ends on a cliffhanger, and a ten year old Ben Herman threw up his hands in despair, wondering how he was ever going to find a copy of issue #75, and even if he did, would he even be able to afford it!?!

I believe that my next major look at Jack Kirby’s work was maybe three years later, in early 1989.  In the latest issues of Captain America, writer Mark Gruenwald had resurrected the diabolical Red Skull, in the process taking the opportunity to bring readers up to speed on the history of the crimson-masked fiend.  I was really curious to check out some of those past storylines Gruenwald had flashed back to in issue #350.  So once again, I dove into the back issue bins, pulling out a copy of Captain America #210, with its strikingly odd cover of the Red Skull’s metaphorical tentacles entrapping the book’s cast.

Captain America 210 cover

“Showdown Day” was written & penciled by Kirby, with inking by Mike Royer.  If I thought the cover was unusual, well, that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Picking up mid-story, this issue sees Cap and the lovely Donna Maria Puentes tussling with the ultra-bizarre, supremely twisted Nazi genetic engineer known as Arnim Zola, as well as his grotesque army of mutant creations.  Meanwhile, SHIELD agent Sharon Carter is investigating an eccentric millionaire recluse named Cyrus Fenton, who is actually none other than the Red Skull in disguise, funding Zola’s experiments from behind the scenes.  Oh, yeah, and the Falcon gets attacked by a giant bird.

Truthfully, my first impression of Kirby’s artwork on this issue was that I thought it was really bizarre.  Even so, I had to admit that he drew an evil-looking Red Skull.  As for Donna Maria and Sharon, wow, both of them were really sexy babes who left a memorable impression on my 13 year old mind.  And, as for Kirby’s writing, setting aside the fact that Captain America is actually absent from the second half of the story, it was interesting.  Kirby deftly scripted the Red Skull as this icy schemer, really imbuing him with a palpable air of menace.

As with that Fantastic Four issue, Captain America #210 also ends with a “to be continued.”  Fortunately, most of Kirby’s mid-1970s Marvel work was both easier to find and cheaper to purchase than his comics from the previous decade, and within a few years I managed to track down the entire story arc.

And this brings me to my discovery of Kirby’s celebrated work at DC in the early 1970s, when he created the Fourth World.  By the time I was in high school, I had known about the tyrannical Darkseid and his evil followers from Apokolips for several years, first due to their inclusion in the Super Friends cartoons, and then their appearances in John Byrne’s run on the Superman books, plus the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries by Jim Starlin & Mike Mignola.  I really wanted to read the original Kirby issues but, again, they were both expensive and difficult to find.  Finally, in the early 1990s, at a comic con in Westchester, I was able to purchase Forever People #4 and #9 for relatively reasonable prices.

Forever People 4 cover

Eagerly pulling those two comics out of their bags, I read them and…. okay, once again, I’ll be honest.  The artwork was great, the writing not so much.  At least, that’s how I felt at the time.  From those two issues, I was left with the impression that Kirby may have been a brilliant artist, but he sure was a lousy writer.

So a couple of more years passed, and I managed to find a few more of the Fourth World books at inexpensive prices.  Specifically, I picked up New Gods #7 as well as Mister Miracle #9 and #18.  I don’t know, maybe I was slightly more mature, or maybe those were better stories, or maybe it was just a matter of having more realistic expectations.  Whatever the case, I liked those three issues a lot more.  And, of course, a few years later I learned that New Gods #7, “The Pact,” is considered by many to be one of the greatest single issues that Kirby ever created.

Finally in 1998 DC released an inexpensive black & white three volume set of trade paperbacks that reprinted the majority of his New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle issues.  I picked them up and fell in love with the material.  Able to read almost the entire run of stories from beginning to end, suddenly everything fell into place.  Also, by this point I had come to recognize that Kirby’s stylized scripting, the cadence of his dialogue, while it undoubtedly had its peculiarities, also possessed an appealing quality to it that suited the material.  Kirby had crafted an incredibly epic, poignant odyssey in his trilogy of titles which, sadly, was brought to much too premature an end.

New Gods trade paperback

And that is how I became a fan of Jack Kirby.  Nowadays, practically everything he worked on during his lifetime has been brought back into print.  Kirby envisioned the day when comic books would be read like full length novels.  That has come to pass, with trade paperbacks and graphic novels now an industry standard.

I’ve said this before, but I cannot help thinking Kirby died too young.  He passed away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76, and for the last dozen or so years of his life ill health had resulted in a decline in the quality of his artwork.  I wish that Kirby could have lived longer, retaining his vitality & drawing ability.  He dabbled in creator-owned work in the early 1980s, but between his health problems and the then relatively new, uncertain status of the direct market those series did not last long.  Imagine if Kirby had still been at the peak of his talents in the 1990s when Image Comics had exploded.  He could have taken some of his myriad unpublished, unrealized ideas for characters over to that company and created long-running titles that he held full creative control and ownership.

I know, I know… asking what if and if only and all that other hypothesizing is pointless.  What’s done is done.  I’m just sorry that Kirby isn’t here to see how much of an influence, an inspiration he has become to so many, how much enjoyment his work has brought to a legion of fans.

As I was writing this up, I recalled an anecdote that concerns either James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler.  Reputedly one of those two authors was once asked by a reporter if, in the course of his works being made into less-than-faithful movie adaptations by Hollywood, he felt that his books had been ruined.  And in response Cain (or perhaps it was Chandler) apparently led the questioner to a bookshelf in his study, pointed to it, and replied “They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.”  In a way, that applies here.  Jack Kirby, sadly, is no longer with us.  But his innumerable amazing works remain behind for us to continue to enjoy for many years to come.

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