When I first tread into the world of big two superhero comics, I had plenty to wrap my head around. Time lines, crossover events, reboots, 5,000 different Batman stories, decades of history. Comic books are intense and a touch intimidating in that way. But that wasn’t all. It absolutely blew my mind – and still does – that though dozens and dozens of creators have left their marks on characters over the years, several of the iconic heroes and villains we know and love or hate began in the brains of a handful of people.
Jack Kirby is one of those. His fingerprints are all over many of the characters we’re watching on big screens today.
People who haven’t been lucky enough to live and breathe comics for all their lives have no idea. I didn’t. This is just a sampling of the characters Kirby had a hand in bringing to life: Darkseid, Doctor Doom, the original X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, the New Gods, Thor, Nick Fury, Silver Surfer, Hulk, and The Avengers. Think about how many of those names are still strong and profitable today. You can lay down a path between Kirby and the Marvel movies you’re watching today.
Sure, plenty of names and stories Kirby and co. came up with didn’t stick around for decades. I imagine an office where Kirby and Stan Lee sat around and just filled index cards with different names and origin stories and threw them around in the air like wads of money. In a numbers game like that, some are bound to fail. However, so many succeeded and it’s absolutely stunning. Especially considering the sheer volume of work. In current times, it’s not uncommon for artists or writers to be late on the single monthly title they have – Kirby was working on multiple ones at a time and being late wasn’t really an option. He and others delivered and kept the quality where it needed to be.
I know that to so many of you, this isn’t news. But. There are still plenty of people like me who didn’t grow up with comics, who didn’t experience fill-in issues because books couldn’t be late, and who are still learning how deep the roots are and who planted the trees. For me, it’s thrilling to see how the foundation was built and never ceases to amaze.
Though Kirby made a significant impact on big name superhero tales, he also wasn’t afraid to step off that well-flown path. He took on runs or a few issues in such stories as The Losers, Destroyer Duck, the adaptation of 2001 Space Odyssey, and Devil Dinosaur among so many others. And whatever he did, whatever the readership, he gave it his all. You only have to flip through comics with Kirby’s art or books such as Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics to see the dynamic energy poured into each panel. Even art where no one is moving feels important. I’m probably creating some of that in my head but not all of it. His influence on the style of comics is immeasurable.
No matter how much we read or hear about the era of creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Joe Simon, and more, I don’t think we can fully understand what it was like to be there. Fantastic and prolific writers and artists absolutely exist in the field today, but a large portion of them are writing new stories about old characters. Sure, creator-owned comics and new stories are on the upswing, but it’s difficult to picture a lot of them lasting sixty plus years. It’s not bad, but times are different.
I don’t know that we’ll ever experience a renaissance quite like what happened back then. Such an occurrence would require the alignment of all the stars in all the universes. The creative and retail environments just aren’t the same. Sales are happening in the comics industry, but even with the increase in digital, more widely-available titles, it’s not enough to swing the world back to the place it used to be.
That said, it’s still fun to fantasize about another creative and talented creator such as Jack Kirby in the middle of it all developing stories and adventures that generations of fangirls and fanboys will enjoy in the decades to come. If that never happens though, we can still enjoy all the characters he helped put on the funny pages.