Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, one of the great comic creators of all time – someone whose imagination has shaped huge swathes of the culture we live in in ways that are hard to comprehend. To give a silly example from my own life, when I was eleven or twelve, I was a fierce partisan for DC Comics over Marvel, and one of the reasons was because DC had wonderful creations like Darkseid, Etrigan the Demon, Kamandi, and Mister Miracle, all of whom were among my favourites. And I used to say “one reason DC is so much better is because they had Jack Kirby and Marvel didn’t.”
This was because I had little knowledge of the comics industry, but I could read credits, and at that time DC were better at crediting the creators of their characters than Marvel. So I was simply not aware that Kirby had created or co-created the Hulk, Iron Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Silver Surfer, Galactus and (depending on which version of the story you believe) Spider-Man. I was a massive admirer of Kirby and his work even though I was completely unaware that he had done the work he’s best known for. It really is like the old joke about not knowing that McCartney was in a band before Wings.
And yet that work itself wasn’t even his most popular work at the time it was created. Before doing most of his Marvel work, Kirby basically invented (with Joe Simon) the romance comic genre, and many of his comics in that field sold multiple millions of copies a month.
Many people get credited as creative geniuses for what turns out to have been team efforts in which they were not even the most important person. People like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, and Kirby’s sometime collaborator Stan Lee have been given plaudits for work where they were, at best, the most important member of a large team. Kirby was different. He did work with collaborators – most notably Lee and Joe Simon – but he was more than capable of doing everything himself, and in what is to my mind his best work, that’s exactly what he did.
Because to me, the stuff I fell in love with as a child is still Kirby’s best work. His work for DC in the 1970s produced more great concepts than anyone else ever has. And that’s what Kirby was best at – concepts. His dialogue, plotting, or anatomy weren’t always the best by modern standards (they were more than good enough given the general standards of the time, of course, but tastes change and styles fall in and out of fashion), but I don’t believe the man ever drew a page – that he was ever capable of drawing a page – that wasn’t full of new concepts and ideas. And they were great ideas.
There’s a reason, for example, why when Grant Morrison and his artistic collaborators were working on Seven Soldiers they chose to include Mister Miracle and the rest of the New Gods, Klarion the Witch Boy, and the Guardian among the characters they revamped. Those revamped versions were very different from the versions created by Kirby, but they retained the core ideas, the core concepts. Kirby created so many great ideas, threw them so casually into the mix of his work, that there are seeds in almost every issue that could become the basis of decades worth of comics.
Which is not to say that they necessarily should. There’s the famous story about Kirby being told that John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four in the spirit of Kirby, and replying “if he was doing it in the spirit of Kirby he’d be creating his own characters” – and that discussion continues to this day. Earlier today on Twitter there was a mini-spat between various comic creators (most of whom I respect on both sides) as to whether or not it was appropriate to create Kirby fan-art as a tribute to him, or whether one should create totally original work as a tribute.
Of course, the answer to that isn’t as clear-cut as anyone would like to make out. Because it is perfectly possible to do something creative and new using elements of someone else’s work – indeed all creation involves repurposing other people’s ideas. And certainly Kirby did so himself on occasion. Some of his most imaginative work came in his adaptation and continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he drew a comic based on The Prisoner which would have been wonderful had it been completed, and Kamandi owes more than a little to Planet of the Apes. Those works were clearly personal to him, even as they were also working with others’ creations.
But Kirby’s real uniqueness was in the way he combined the mythic and archetypal with the science-fictional. Kirby’s universe is filled with gods and wonders, with extrusions into the physical world of immaterial concepts, of personifications of ideas, but given a science-fictional rather than a fantastic aesthetic. Every science fiction film from Star Wars onwards is in debt to Kirby.
It’s ridiculous really…Kirby did so much great work that it’s almost impossible to explain why he was so great. If he’d just done the Galactus saga, or the New Gods, or Captain America punching Hitler, he’d be a comic creator who deserved recognition and respect. But while he wasn’t entirely responsible for the development of the comics medium in the USA, he was…the closest analogy I can think of is if Elvis had also been in the Beatles. And had been in the Glenn Miller Orchestra before his solo career. It’s fair to say that every significant superhero comic – and a large chunk of the worthwhile art comics – of the last fifty years has been either expansion and elaboration on Kirby’s work (what Andrew Rilstone memorably described as “midrash on Rabbi Jack”) or reaction against it. And there’s been precious little of the latter that’s stuck.
To explain how great he was, you’d need to have the ability to capture a superhuman character who could change the course of entire planets with a couple of pencil strokes, and put that character on to a page. And the only man who could do that died in 1994.
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