December 17, 2018

On the centennial of Jack Kirby’s birth, his superheroes still pack a punch

He is known, quite simply, as the “King of Comics.”

Born Jacob Kurtzberg, artist and writer Jack Kirby, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 28, was a driving, creative force during the Golden Age of comics in the 1940s, and he revolutionized the comics industry again during its Silver Age in the 1960s.

Kirby was the co-creator of such comic book icons as the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Black Panther, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and, most notably, Captain America and the Avengers. It was Captain America’s initial appearance that put Kirby on the map as a dynamic and provocative storyteller — especially since that appearance featured America’s First Avenger punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw, a full year before the United States entered World War II.

Kirby’s controversial drawing made a splash at the time, but his prolific, creative output from that point on proved that he was no one-hit wonder.

Artistically, Kirby injected comic books for Marvel, DC and others with a much-needed boost of energy. His vivacious, explosive illustrations are often described as too big for the page, imbuing the images with buoyant grandiosity. Kirby also became known for humanizing his superheroes, bestowing them with moral failings, romantic entanglements and petty grudges as a means of infusing them with more down-to-earth relatability. The Fantastic Four, co-created with Stan Lee in 1961, signifies this shift toward realism.

The son of Austrian immigrants, Kirby grew up poor on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In a lengthy interview with The Comics Journal in 1990, four years before his death, he painted an image of Depression-infested tenements, daily street fights and anti-Semitism. Kirby hated the Lower East Side and longed to graduate to the glitzy Midtown newspaper offices of the writers and editors he admired. But Kirby was always quite the maverick: At age 14 he enrolled in New York’s esteemed Pratt Institute, but dropped out after a week because he “didn’t like places with rules.”

In his late teens and early 20s, Kirby freelanced for several different comic strips before a brief stint in animation. He then began to collaborate with Joe Simon, a Rochester, N.Y., cartoonist who proved to be the more business-savvy of the two. The pair finally burst onto the burgeoning comic book scene with the memorable, Nazi-bashing “Captain America Issue #1.”

Jack Kirby

Like many of his creative contemporaries — including Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and Stan Lee himself — Kirby and Simon were Jewish.

Although Kirby attended Hebrew school as a boy and grew up in a Conservative household, he used pseudonyms as a freelancer and eventually changed his name permanently to Jack Kirby because, as he explained in his interview with The Comics Journal, “I wanted to be American.” For these young men who craved success in the secular world and sought an escape from their poor neighborhoods, assimilation was less a vindictive act than a straightforward means of increasing their chance for success.

In fact, Kirby always believed in his faith and enjoyed reading the Bible, his wife Roz (née Goldstein) confirmed in a 1995 interview. And it is evident that Kirby drew from Jewish mythology for inspiration for some of his characters and storylines: Kirby’s “New Gods” series for DC Comics features a character formerly known as Izaya the Inheritor, whose encounter with the Source is similar to the biblical story of Moses and the burning bush.

Jewish folklore also played a part in constructing the characters of the Hulk and Fantastic Four’s the Thing, both of whom share physical attributes with the Golem. And although X-Men villain Magneto was only later reimagined as a Holocaust survivor, the parallels between antimutant sentiments in the X-Men universe and anti-Semitism in ours are self-evident.

Kirby’s backstory for the Thing’s alter ego, Benjamin Grimm, reflects Kirby’s own childhood as well. Like Kirby, Grimm grew up poor and Jewish on the Lower East Side, getting into scraps and street fights with
other neighborhood kids. Steve Rogers, the scrawny son of Irish immigrants who would go on to become Captain America, had a similar upbringing.

Although Kirby eventually would serve in the U.S. Army during World War II after he was drafted in 1943, “Captain America Issue #1” allowed him and Simon to express their displeasure with the moral repugnance of Hitler’s Third Reich even before the United States formally declared war. This espousal of big-picture ideals, patriotism and strong personal ethics is precisely what has made the character of Captain America so beloved to comic book fans and so enduring in American culture, especially now, given current tensions over white supremacist groups and neo-Nazis.

It is not only through Captain America that Kirby’s legacy lives on. At Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim in July, Kirby was named a “Disney Legend” for his lasting work with Marvel Comics. The Jack Kirby tribute panel is an annual feature of the famous Comic-Con International: San Diego, and the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center in Hoboken, N.J., provides and supports educational programming to commemorate the comic book legend’s legacy.

This year, a century after Jack Kirby’s birth, the X-Men, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers loom larger than ever in the cultural zeitgeist. When Kirby died in his home in Thousand Oaks in 1994, the headline of his obituary in The New York Times described him as having “created comic book superheroes.”

Thanks to the revolutionary imagination of this scrappy kid from the Lower East Side, Kirby is not just the creator of comic book superheroes — he’s the king.