This week, on Issue at Hand! We explore space — or, at least, the space setting in superhero comics, and why it’s so different from a lot of other modern science fiction.
And in our space explorations, I touch on one creator whose career charted the boundaries of every superhero universe he worked in. When we talk about the artists and creators who built the foundations of our modern superhero universes, it’s often the case that their most notable work is for either Marvel or DC. Jack Kirby is the rare example of a creator who was there at the very beginning of the genre — co-creating one of the titans of superhero comics, Captain America — and also went on to have a huge effect on both of the two dominant superhero settings in American comics.
So, as this week’s supplemental reading for Issue at Hand, let’s talk about Jack “the King” Kirby.
Like a lot of creatives in the same time and place, Kirby and longtime partner Joe Simon immediately attempted to negotiate for better pay and more respect from their publisher, without success. But unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they were able to use the success of their biggest creation, Captain America, to leave that publisher and easily land a new, better paying job. Within a couple years of Captain America’s creation, the two had left Timely Comics (which would later become Atlas, and then Marvel, Comics) for National Comics Publications (which would later become DC Comics).
After serving in World War II, and after essentially creating the incredibly popular post-war sub-genre of American romance comics and after co-founding his own comic publisher, Kirby freelanced for both Atlas Comics and National Comics Publications for the rest of his comics career, moving from Marvel to DC and back again, when he butted heads with the publishers over contract negotiations.
In the ‘60s, after inventing a few of Marvel’s little-known but still incredibly long-lived monstrous characters, like Groot and Fin Fang Foom, Kirby teamed with Stan Lee to take on the small task of creating the modern superhero as we know it. He spent the first half of the ‘70s at DC, and the latter back at Marvel, creating the foundation of each universe’s cosmic cosmology.
At the age of 54, Kirby crafted the New Gods for DC, a series of characters embodying his most well-trod themes. Two planets, at constant war, one light and one dark, each populated by a cast of characters who called themselves gods — but were more powerful than they ever seemed strictly divine. The ruler of the dark planet Apokolips, a titanic figure known as Darkseid, would become one of Superman’s most powerful foes.
In his final spate of work for Marvel Comics, when he was nearing his 60s, Kirby was still creating characters that would be sewn into the foundations of the company’s universe. The Eternals and the Celestials, a race of varied immortals whose adventures secretly inspired the whole of human mythology and a titanic species of alien figures who crafted the evolution of early man, respectively, both came from his pen.
Between them, Stan Lee and Kirby created the Fantastic Four, the original X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk and Black Panther, invented the Avengers and revitalized Captain America, creating much of the Marvel universe from whole cloth. And I do mean between them — Lee would provide a minimal synopsis to the Marvel artists he worked with, in a process known as The Marvel Method. The artist would then pencil the entire issue, including coming up with the actual details of the plot, before the pages would be returned to Lee so he could fill in the dialogue.
Lee’s focus on flawed heroes is often brought up when explaining how a decades-younger superhero universe caught on with readers to the same extent as the already fully-fledged DC Comics setting. But Kirby’s penchant for the cosmic — stories that spanned dimensions, that looked into fantastic realms beyond the reach of science, that pulled up the rug on the mundane world to reveal the strange gods that set the path of the cosmos — was equally a part of Marvel’s magic. And Kirby’s approach to the dynamism of figure drawing, of panel layouts, of emphasizing action, expression and the illusion of movement, became the house style that all Marvel artists were asked to study, if not outright imitate.
So we owe Jack Kirby a lot, if we enjoy superhero comics or superhero films (add up the gross box office take from films based on Kirby’s work, and you get a number that exceeds $5,000,000,000) — but we especially owe him for contributing so much to the epic, cosmic underpinnings of those universes. Once you learn to recognize his design style and his favorite tropes, discovering the cosmology of DC and Marvel’s universes feels a little like being able to see the Matrix. Like being able to see the hand of the creator in the gods of the superhero world.