‘Captain America’ creator Jack Kirby’s work has new relevance

Aug 27, 2017
Captain America’s debut, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Contributed by Timely - Marvel Comics

Captain America. The X-Men and Magneto. Hulk. Iron Man. Thor as a clean-shaven blond. Black Panther. The Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom and Galactus. The Inhumans. Darkseid and the stunningly psychedelic cosmology known as the Fourth World.

To contemporary audiences, these characters are best known on the silver screen in movies such as “The Avengers” and “X-Men: First Class” and “Thor” and “Hulk,” their adventures generating billions of dollars around the world. They were all created or co-created by one dude — a small, tough, brilliant New Yorker named Jacob Kurtzberg, aka Jack Kirby, who was born Aug. 28, 1917.

There is no doubt in my mind, and the minds of others, that he is easily one of the most important artists of the 20th century, up there with Picasso, Louis Armstrong, Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beatles and Andy Warhol.

And in a world where actual white supremacists are given tacit approval from the highest offices in the land, his work — as inherently anti-fascist as it gets — feels as important as ever.

Let’s be real: The man basically invented punching Nazis in 1940.

The son of poor Austrian-Jewish immigrants, Kirby was a tough, scrappy dude who loved pulp science fiction and was determined to make a better life than New York’s Lower East Side garment district could provide. Essentially self-taught, he spent a little time at the Pratt Institute before drawing newspaper comics and some animation.

Kirby was all of 23 when he co-created Captain America in late 1940 with Joe Simon. The story tells of a skinny kid with the all-American name of Steve Rogers who so desperately wants to join the Army that he submits to an experiment to make him a super-soldier. It works, and he becomes Captain America, Hitler-puncher to the stars. The book sold millions when it was released in 1941. Kirby later revived the character in the 1960s, and he’s been an icon ever since.

Kirby was drafted in 1943, serving in the incredibly dangerous job of scout in the Army, witnessing the liberation of concentration camps and getting such severe frostbite that doctors considered amputating his legs. Spared that, Kirby left the Army in 1945 and returned to drawing comics. Superheroes having fallen out of fashion, Kirby drew romance, crime, monster, Western and adventure comics.

But it was from 1961 to 1970 or so that Kirby did the bulk of his most legendary work, inventing with writer Stan Lee the bulk of what became the Marvel Universe.

It’s hard to explain the impact these comics had — nobody else drew like Kirby. Nobody else had his eye for dynamism, his penchant for explosive action. Other people were making interesting, cool comics, but Kirby was known as “King” for a reason: There was nobody else remotely at his level.

Frustrated with what he saw as an uneven distribution of credit, Kirby headed to DC in 1970, where he created a near-religious mythology called the Fourth World, a group of interconnected comics that pitted the New Gods of the paradise of New Genesis against the forces of Darkseid, ruler of the hellish Apokolips.

Like many visual artists — like perhaps the very best visual artists — much of Kirby’s work was not completely appreciated in his own time. Kirby returned to Marvel in the late 1970s and did strong, weird work on “Black Panther” and “Captain America,” even creating “The Elementals,” a Marvel take on the Fourth World. But this work was increasingly seen as dated.

Kirby eventually became a symbol of the conflict around creators’ rights in comics. When it became known that Marvel was giving away much of Kirby’s original art, comics creators, fans and critics applied pressure for it to be returned. Eventually, Marvel returned about 2,000 pages to Kirby, which was (depending on various accounts) between 15 and 20 percent of that which he drew for Marvel.

Kirby died in 1994, worshiped by fans and pros but largely unknown to the general public, unlike his onetime partner, Lee, who remains one of the great self-promoters of his epoch.

In 2009, Kirby’s estate sued Disney, Fox, Universal, Paramount and Sony over their use in films of various characters Kirby co-created, then sued Marvel for termination of copyright. The estate lost both the initial decision and the appeal. An appeal to the Supreme Court resulted in a settlement.

Kirby never really saw the financial rewards of his labor. From “The Incredible Hulk” TV show in the late 1970s to the upcoming “Justice League” movie in which denizens of Apokolips look to be the main villains, properties that he created are worth quite literally tens of billions of dollars.

Did Kirby receive the compensation he was due in his lifetime? Nope. Will his descendants? It’s not looking good. But 100 years after his birth, we would do well to look on Kirby as one of the truly great artists of his age, not just in comics but in any medium. His work changed comics utterly, and it is impossible to imagine bedrocks of popular culture such as “Star Wars” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies without his explosive humanism, his psychedelia that somehow felt both fantastic and accessible. May we be talking about his work 100 years from now.

Long live the King.