The release of the film The Avengers is a big deal in the
hybrid world of film and comic books. It
is an attempt to bring together multiple film franchises into one massive
adventure, and emulate the publishing pattern of the comic books these films
draw inspiration from. The Hulk,
Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man have all been turned into very successful
films, and one cannot doubt that bringing these elements together is a
sure-fire way for Hollywood to make hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition to being members of the Avengers,
these characters are also distinguished in that they were created in large part
by two guys: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Stan Lee has made a real name for himself and has
successfully capitalized on his involvement with Marvel Comics, expanding
recognition of his namesake beyond the insular world of the comic industry and
its fan base. Jack Kirby was perhaps
more reserved, and as a result is less of a household name outside the comic book world. That is a real
shame, because Kirby was (he passed away in 1994) one of the major driving
forces behind the comic book form since its inception in the late 1930s-early
1940s. Early in Kirby’s career, he was
partnered with Joe Simon, another artist and writer, and together they created
Captain America, which was a sensational character that fought the Nazis before
the United States even entered the Second World War! Afterwards, Simon and Kirby went on to expand
the comic form into every genre, from crime to romance to war, all of which was
done with a great deal of skill.
Simon and Kirby worked together throughout the 40s and 50s
with great success, until Kirby was drawn back toward superheroes in the early
1960s. It was during this period that
Kirby, in his dank little basement studio filled with cigar smoke, churned out
stories and artwork that would form the unshakeable base of Marvel Comics. Instead of Joe Simon, Kirby was partnered
with Stan Lee, and together they developed the concept of the flawed super
hero, reflecting the struggles of puberty with the struggles of super-powered
people learning how to use their gifts to help others. In essence, Lee and Kirby captured the young
adult experience like no other comic book creators before them, what the old
cliché calls catching ‘Lightning in a Bottle’.
Kirby was instrumental in creating the X-Men, the Fantastic Four,
Spider-Man (he did not illustrate the book, but was involved in his creation), the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man.
Eventually, Jack Kirby would part ways with Stan Lee and
Marvel Comics, and began to work for rival company DC Comics. At DC, he created a massive epic that would
become known as the Fourth World series.
Encompassing several ongoing series (all written and drawn by Kirby
himself), the Fourth World tells the story of the New Gods, beings possessing
amazing technology that are locked in planetary war and family feuds that rival
any work of great literature for thematic complexity. While the initial sales for Kirby’s Fourth
World books were low, the concepts would be harvested for the next few decades
by other creators, and would go on to inspire creators in other media as well. An example of this is the concept of an
all-powerful energy field that is harnessed by the characters in Kirby’s
universe to achieve amazing feats of strength.
Kirby called this “The Source”, which was tweaked by George Lucas for
Star Wars and called The Force. Also,
much of the drama of the Fourth World was driven by a father-son divide between
the evil Darkseid, ruler of the planet Apokolips, and his estranged son Orion,
who was a crusader of good. Strong
parallels can be drawn between how Kirby established this story, and how Lucas
developed the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
This explosion of ideas and slate of characters would go on
to net billions of dollars in revenue for Marvel and DC comics over the next
four decades, spanning massive amounts of merchandising, film, cartoons, and
various other titles. In contrast, Kirby
would struggle financially for the rest of his life, but never slow down his
output. To comic fans, Kirby was
recognized as an under-appreciated genius who was used and abused by the growing
corporate structure of mainstream comics publishing. He came to be referred to as The King of
Comics, a title that apparently made Kirby himself uncomfortable.
As time has passed and Kirby’s legacy lives on, much of his
work has been collected and reprinted numerous times. AVRL, as well as many other library regions,
have developed collections of Kirby’s work.
If you want to see how the modern comic came to be, or where the
successful film franchises of the past decade or so have come from, do a search
of our catalogue and check out the work of Jack Kirby in titles such as The Simon and Kirby Library. Crime
, The collected Jack Kirby collector
, or Captain America : the classic years
. The excitement of his artwork exploding off
the printed page, or the dazzling stream of ideas that he produced during his
lifetime of creating comics are there for all to discover.
Bruce Ross, Windsor Library