Jack Kirby was born in 1917 and grew up in the slums of New York. He was short and had to fight. He was mad for movies and the comicstrips in newspapers and drew all the time. His first proper job was at the Max Fleischer Animation Studios in 1935 and he hated the boring, repetitive work. He got into comicbooks and worked in a sweat shop run by Victor Fox, a room full of men at drawing boards churning out rubbish as fast as possible. A chap called Joe Simon was hired as editor and soon noticed that Kirby was better and faster than the other guys. They teamed up.
It was probably the happiest time of his career. Jack did all the pencilling, while Joe inked and designed covers and took care of the business side of things. He was good at that. They created Captain America for Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman and were promised a share of the profits. When it became a bestseller, they saw very little money. Goodman’s accountant wrote off all the expenses of the company against the ‘Captain America’ profits, after which there wasn’t much left. They started moonlighting for other companies and made a deal to start with DC Comics once their contract expired. They were given the heave-ho early when Goodman found out. Did he hear about it from young Stan Lee who was an assistant in the Simon And Kirby Studio and a relative of the publisher? Stan always said he didn’t snitch. Jack forever believed he did.
More success at DC with ‘Boy Commando’s and ‘The Newsboy Legion’. World War II and frostbite under General Patton. Back to work with Joe Simon and more hits in the early 50s with crime and romance comics. Then the Senate decided comicbooks were evil and the business collapsed. Jack went to work for DC Comics as a hired hand. He created a newspaper strip ‘Sky Masters Of The Spaceways’ but DC editor Jack Schiff wanted a cut. Jack fell out with DC and had to go back working for Marvel at crappy page rates under Stan Lee, his old gopher.
Marvel wasn’t doing well in the early 60s and Goodman thought of closing down the comics line. Then the ‘Justice League Of America’ started selling and he decided that super-heroes were back in. Goodman told Stan to do a group. ‘The Fantastic Four’ launched the Marvel Age of Comics, which was mostly drawn by Jack Kirby. All created and written by Stan Lee? Ah, there’s the rub.
As the characters became successful, Jack thought he should have a share of the profits as co-creator. Goodman disagreed and kept paying him strictly for drawing by the page. Jack fled to DC and created ‘New Gods’, demanding control of both the script and the editing in his terms and conditions. Jack’s talent was visual not verbal and his dialogue was not what fans were used to, especially if they were accustomed to Stan’s. Whatever his flaws, Stan could write dialogue. The DC line failed and Jack went back to Marvel to bash out more ‘Captain America’ and a run on ‘Black Panther’. He also created ‘The Eternals’ and ‘Machine Man’. But the new generation of artists and writers weren’t impressed. His eyesight was failing and the art wasn’t what it used to be.
There was a kind of happy ending because he was hired by young admirers to work in animation, with health benefits. When he needed a heart bypass operation it was covered. The cost would have crippled the family finances if he had to pay himself. It was always the family finances that counted with Jack. He married in 1942 and had four children. His role was being a good provider, so he put in sixty hours or more every week at the drawing board to earn money. He created much but never had the business savvy to make the most of it. A second-rater like Bob Kane could land a fortune because he made a good deal. Will Eisner was both a great artist and a clever businessman, so he made money. Jack just sweated and sweated and sweated and made other men rich. He believed strongly in the American Dream that a man who worked hard could make it. His experience was the American Reality, that cheats prosper.
This version of ‘Kirby: King Of Comics’ is an updated paperback edition with an additional chapter entitled ‘Legacy.’ There’s more information about the famous court case where Kirby’s children tried to claim some copyright over characters, going up against the mighty Disney Corporation which had just bought Marvel. Stan Lee testified that he was the sole creator of all the characters. Cross-examined by the lawyer about all the times he had hailed Jack as co-creator he said this (Kirby fans of a sensitive disposition should look away now): ‘I tried to write these, knowing Jack would read them, I tried to write them to make it look as if he and I were just doing everything together, to make him feel good.’
Wasn’t that kind of Stan?
In the end, Kirby has the recognition he deserved and Stan Lee’s reputation amongst the comic savvy public and comic professionals is forever tainted. The general public who watch the movies and see his cameos may be vaguely aware that his name is plastered on as Executive Producer and he’s made plenty of money but there’s a regular magazine called ‘The Jack Kirby Collector’ which continues to keep Jack’s legacy going even after his death. Stan ain’t got that.
Despite the interesting text this is really a picture book and what glorious pictures they are! Well, the first three-quarters anyway. Kirby never went to art school and learned to draw ‘properly’ but sheer practice made him good and he developed techniques to show raw power that have never been matched. The poster-style art of this kind of book can’t show his true strength which was storytelling. He was always more interested in getting the story out than in creating pretty pictures. A great book and a must have for any Kirby fan.
(pub: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 240 page enlarged paperback. Price: £17.99 (UK), $24.99 (US), $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-41972-749-8)
check out website: www.abramsandchronicle.co.uk