December 10, 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. 

You Don’t Know Jack

Jack Kirby was so influential a comic book creator that in July, Comic-Con International, the industry’s largest convention, commemorated the artist’s two greatest creations — the 60th anniversary of “Captain America” and the 40th anniversary of “The Fantastic Four. ”

Unfortunately, the cartoonist did not live to enjoy this summer’s double honor. Kirby, who would have turned 84 on Aug. 28, died Feb. 6, 1994. While Kirby’s prolific legacy garners an international following, many may not realize that “The King of Comics,” who spent his last 24 years in Thousand Oaks, had a connection to his Judaism that permeated his life and work.

Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, Kirby, of Austrian descent, grew up on the mean streets of New York’s Lower East Side. (A childhood friend was Leon Klinghoffer, the Achille Lauro hostage killed in 1985 by PLO terrorists.) Kirby’s mother, a vivid storyteller, filled her son’s head with tales of vampires, nymphs and other folk legends from Austria’s mountainous regions.

Breakthroughs marked each decade of Kirby’s career. In the 1940s and 1950s, Kirby created “Captain America” and wholesale genres, such as romance and boy-team comics. In the 1960s, Kirby’s career peaked when he and Stan Lee resuscitated the struggling Marvel Comics and an ailing comic book industry with titles such as “The X-Men,” “Avengers” and “The Mighty Thor.”

Lillian Morlee, a cousin of Kirby’s wife, Rosalind (Roz), remembers the Kirbys as a couple very much in love. While relatives say that the cartoonist was not religious, the Kirbys were active members of Temple Etz Chaim.

“He supported the temple,” said Shimon Paskow, rabbi emeritus of the Thousand Oaks synagogue, where Kirby’s name is on the wall. “He was a very proud Jew. I used to have members read the Torah portion. He always showed up. He took it very seriously.”

During their 50-year marriage, the Kirbys shared four children and three grandchildren. Their Sapra Street residence was alive with Jewish-themed artwork that Kirby did for himself.

“He did a whole biblical sequence in pencil,” Robert Katz, Kirby’s nephew and estate trustee, told The Journal. “Joshua at the battle of Jericho, science fiction-style.”

The Golem was an archetypal story for the cartoonist. Kirby connected with the Jewish folktale’s central themes — a hero created to protect the downtrodden and the persecuted (i.e., “Captain America”) or the cautionary warning of man playing God with science (“The Incredible Hulk.”) Issue 134 (“A Golem Walks Among Us”) put The Hulk into the role of savior of a Jewish village.

Biblical subtexts also inspired the Silver Surfer’s tense Moses-like relationship with his maker, Galactus. Discrimination and persecution were central themes of “X-Men” and “Machine Man.”

“He told me that when he did his comics, he always let the good guys win,” Paskow said. “He was so proud of Israel because he was harassed as a kid and in the army for being Jewish.”

“Jack fought in the front lines of Patton’s army in World War II,” Katz said. “His life and art was very much created by that war experience. He saw the world as black and white and had an incredible sense of righteousness.”

Kirby expressed generosity through his talent, giving Temple Etz Chaim kids sketches and comics. A drawing of The Hulk, wearing a tallit and kippah, hangs in the room of Katz’s son.

“He drew a picture of me flying with a [tallit] and called me ‘Super Rabbi,'” Paskow said. “I asked him to draw a Jewish wedding. He drew Lois Lane and Clark Kent under a chuppah.”

Paskow presided over Kirby’s colorful funeral, attended by an eclectic assortment of cartoonists, bikers and bohemians. He also led a three-week group visit to Israel that became a highlight of Kirby’s final years.

“He always wanted to see the [Western]Wall,” Roz Kirby said before her death on Dec. 22, 1997. “He put a note in the Wall, so I said to him, ‘What did you write?’ He says, ‘Thanks for the vacation.’ We had a great time. I’m glad that, before he passed on, he got to go on that trip.”