December 14, 2018

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

"The Avengers #4" from March 1964. Images from Wikipedia

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. 

‘Batman & Bill’ unmasks the dark secret behind the Dark Knight’s creation

Bill Finger, identified in this group photo, co-created the Batman character. Photo from YouTube

For a long time, the legendary character Batman harbored a secret darker than any of his comic book superhero counterparts: his true origin story.

In a New York apartment in 1939, Bob Kane and Bill Finger huddled over a drawing board and came up with what has become one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. But as author Marc Nobleman reveals in Hulu’s first original documentary, “Batman & Bill,” Kane went on to acquire fame and glory as Batman’s sole creator while Finger faded into obscurity, dying alone and penniless in 1974. As Nobleman says in the documentary, “Bill was Batman’s secret identity.”

“Batman & Bill” offers a compelling slice of pop culture history, charting  Nobleman’s journey as he researches material for his 2012 book, “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.”

Kane and Finger had similar backstories of their own. Both the sons of Jewish immigrants, they changed their names to guard against the anti-Semitism of 1930s New York, giving them a better chance in the job market — Robert Kahn became Bob Kane and Milton became Bill.

As “Batman & Bill” showcases through artfully nostalgic comic book panels, Kane and Finger attended the same high school (though they met later in life, at a party) and both aspired to be cartoonists. Their paths diverged during the height of the Great Depression, as the unassuming Finger set aside his dreams to take a job as a shoe salesman, and the more openly ambitious, bombastic Kane snagged work at DC Comics, then known as Detective Comics.

Goaded by the success of “Superman,” the brainchild of two other children of Jewish immigrants, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Kane decided to cash in with a comic book invention of his own. “Batman & Bill” reveals that in his original design, the “Bat-Man” wore a red bodysuit and goofy-looking detachable wings, until he called his friend Finger to help brainstorm the rest.

Finger developed most of the elements of the character that are so recognizable today: Batman’s real identity as Bruce Wayne, the honorific “the Dark Knight,” Batman’s two-page origin story and characters such as Robin, the Joker, the Riddler and police commissioner Gordon, plus the name Gotham City.

But Kane claimed all the credit for himself and there was no way for Finger to contest it — no contract or paper trail of any kind.

“It was one man’s word against the other,” Nobleman says in the documentary. “It was two guys in an apartment in the Bronx in 1939, when most people had much bigger things to worry about than who’s coming up with this guy dressing up as a bat.”

Nobleman, a longtime comic book aficionado, felt a moral calling to get Finger the credit he deserved. “It became a crusade,” he says. But to challenge the juggernaut DC Entertainment for a Finger credit line, Nobleman needed to find a living heir for a legal pathway to redress. Channeling Batman, Nobleman used his detective skills to uncover Finger’s sparse family history, and that eventually led him to Finger’s only grandchild, Athena.

Born in Portland, Ore., Athena Finger grew up in Boston with her mother and now resides near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with her son. She teaches math at the local college and produces oversized paintings on the side. “Just trying to be creative,” she said over the phone.

Athena’s parents separated when she was a baby, and she saw her father, Fred Finger, Bill’s only child, only on occasion before his death when she was 15.

“My dad would tell me about his father and what he did,” she said. “He would tell me about how his dad wrote all these great stories for Batman and how he created the character. He had fond memories of his dad writing.”

Though Fred and Bill’s relationship became strained when Fred came out as gay, Fred continuously strove to get his father public recognition as the co-creator of “Batman,” especially with the release of the 1989 Tim Burton film starring Michael Keaton.

But when Fred got sick, Athena explained, “he couldn’t spend energy trying to fight for something when he’d been told ‘no’ for so long. And that’s one of the reasons it took me so long to pursue getting him credit myself, because after my father passed away, I was told it was going to be extremely difficult and very consuming, [both] financially and emotionally.”

Growing up, Athena wasn’t involved in the comic book world, though she knew of her unique family history from her father and named her dog Bruce Wayne. Buoyed by Nobleman’s efforts and the fan support he had garnered, Athena reached out to the DC offices herself.

“Once Marc had approached me, I realized that there was actually a community of people who knew the truth,” she said. “And that was new for me.”

Several of these passionate and well-known fans are interviewed in “Batman & Bill,” such as filmmaker and podcaster Kevin Smith, producer Michael Uslan, pop culture psychologist Travis Langley and an array of comic book historians.

As a result of the collective efforts of the community of Batman fans, the morning of Sept. 18, 2015, brought some welcome news to Athena Finger and Marc Nobleman: DC resolved to add Finger’s name as co-creator of the original Batman character in the credits for the television show “Gotham” and any future Batman-based projects.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which opened in theaters four months later, was the first big-screen adaptation to carry the new credit line: “Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.” Asked how it felt to see her grandfather’s name in its rightful place, Athena paused. “How do you describe that?” she mused, and it’s clear that the moment is bittersweet.

“It was exciting,” she said, “but I wish there were other people here to see it.”

The moment came with mixed feelings, but it represented a triumphant moment for the underdog — and the successful pursuit of justice. Just the way Batman would have intended.

“Batman & Bill” debuts May 6 on Hulu.

Musicals: UCLA goes to Dogpatch, USA

Senior and middle-aged Angelenos who grew up on the wonderfully satirical “Li’l Abner” comic strip can get their nostalgia fix as the denizens of Dogpatch USA cavort on the stage of UCLA’s Freud Playhouse through Feb. 17.

For youngsters, “L’il Abner,” one of the most widely produced musicals in the world, will introduce the muscular hillbilly hero of the title, his amorous but perpetually frustrated Daisy Mae, Mammy and Pappy Yokum, evil capitalist Bullmoose, Appassionata Von Climax, and the statue of the town’s war hero, General Jubilation T. Cornpone.

The UCLA production, part of the annual Reprise series of Broadway classics, features lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Gene de Paul, book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, and some of Michael Kidd’s original choreography.

The man who populated Dogpatch with its characters was Al Capp, one of the Jewish comic strip creators of the 1930s and subsequent decades, who compensated for the nebbishness of their youth by fantasizing a world of strapping heroes.

Among their number were Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster (“Superman”), Bob Kane (“Batman”), Will Eisner (“The Spirit”) and Jack Kirby (“Captain America”).

Capp, born Alfred Gerald Caplin in New Haven, was arguably the most brilliant cartoonist of the lot, according to TV writer and comic strip historian Mark Evanier, whose book, “Kirby: King of Comics,” is due out next month.

Young Capp was early struck by personal misfortune when he lost a leg in a trolley car accident at age 9. He reached great fame and success — at its height “Li’l Abner” had 70 million readers out of a population of 180 million — but later fell into disrepute through a series of sex scandals and a growing obsession with right-wing demagogery.

“Al was a non practicing Jew who spoke a little Yiddish, but he expressed his background by giving a structure of Jewish family values to his cartoon creations,” Evanier said.

When Capp created the strip in the mid-1930s, it carried strong liberal undertones of compassion for the poor. But by the 1960s, with fame and wealth, Capp turned into an ultra-conservative speaker on television and college campuses who belittled the underdog.The musical performances are Tuesday-Sunday evenings, plus weekend matinees. Tickets are $70-$75, with student/senior rush tickets offered 15 minutes before showtime at $20.

For information, call (310) 825-2101 or visit