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Jack Kirby and the Hero Initiative

on Wed, 08/28/2013 - 00:00

Jack Kirby
We may take it for granted today, but there was a time when the Marvel Universe did not exist. No Iron Man, no Thor, no Hulk. No X-Men or Captain America. Before The Avengers could amass over $600 million at the domestic box office, those characters had to first be imagined and created. While former Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee deserves his share of the credit, there was another person who helped bring the Marvel Universe to graphic life on the comic book pages of the 1960s as well—Jack Kirby.

In honor of Kirby’s contributions to the industry, the Hero Initiative organized an annual Kirby4Heroes Campaign in 2012 that coincides with Jack Kirby’s birth date of August 28th. Throughout the day, comic book artists around the country create special birthday cards for the proclaimed “King of Comics” and post them on various social media outlets. The resulting artwork is then auctioned off, with the proceeds benefiting the Hero Initiative, a charity organization dedicated to assisting veteran comic creators in need of medical and financial assistance.

It is a fitting way to remember Jack Kirby, and in more ways than one. As Mark Evanier notes in his book Kirby: The King of Comics (Abrams, 2008), the defining characteristic of Jack Kirby was his determination to earn a living and provide for his family. When his father lost his job as a tailor in New York City, for instance, Jack Kirby dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and found a meager series of employment opportunities in order to help with the family’s financial troubles.

It was a struggle then, and a struggle throughout the majority of Kirby’s life. Despite being one of the singular artistic talents that helped define the look and feel of the comic book genre, Kirby never reaped the financial rewards that his craft generated for others.

The comic book industry was different in its early days, an emerging medium that experienced its fair share of highs and lows, successes and failures. And Jack Kirby was there from the very beginning. He first honed his craft under the tutelage of such legends as Will Eisner and Joe Simon while working for upstart publishers as well as the twin giants of DC and Marvel.

By all accounts, he was an honest and hardworking man—and maybe a little too trusting. At one point in his career, he drafted page-after-page for companies that promised a forthcoming paycheck, only to find their offices closed and vacant the next day. Promises of profit-sharing from Captain America, which Kirby co-created with Joe Simon, were negated by creative bookkeeping that exaggerated the expenses associated with publishing the book and left little profit to be shared. The list of letdowns goes on.

Jack Kirby was still determined to persevere, however, if for no other reason than to put food on the table for his wife and children. It was this continuing quest for steady employment that inevitably led him to the right place at the right time. The comic book industry was suffering by the end of the 1950s, and the superhero craze had greatly subsided when Marvel released the first issue of The Fantastic Four in 1961.

Reed Richards and his colleagues were a different type of superhero—ordinary people who suddenly found themselves with extraordinary powers by accident. They didn’t ask to be superheroes, struggled with their identities both in-and-out of costume, and in turn were more readily relatable than the superheroes that came before them. Shortly after the Fantastic Four made their debut, the Hulk appeared on the scene. Then Thor, Iron Man and a resurrected Captain America. Suffice it to say that pop culture would never be the same.

As a work-for-hire employee of Marvel, Jack Kirby never got to share in the financial bounty of his efforts. Furthermore, the bulk of the praise fell at the feet of Stan Lee, who was not only editor-in-chief but the “face” of Marvel Comics as well. While which of the two was more instrumental in the creation of these iconic characters has been debated for decades, the fact remains that both Kirby and Lee left an indelible mark on modern day America that continues to resonate in the Twenty First Century. Maybe none of those characters would have existed without Stan Lee, but they also never would have existed without Jack Kirby.

The comic book industry was not always kind to the original architects of the medium. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were paid a mere $130 for Superman, then kicked to the curb by DC shortly thereafter and even briefly had their names expunged from all references to the world’s first superhero. It was fifteen years after his death, meanwhile, that comic book writer Bill Finger was finally recognized as the co-creator of Batman by Bob Kane.

Jack Kirby himself often feared that history would solely remember Stan Lee as the creator of the Marvel Universe. He need not have worried, as his place in history is still both safe and secure over fifty years since the first appearance of the Fantastic Four.

“It’s fair to say that the comic book industry as we know it simply would not exist without the contributions of Jack Kirby,” Wayne Wise of Phantom of the Attic, a comic book store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, explains. “If you draw comics, especially superhero comics, you have been influenced by Kirby whether you realize it or not. More than any other single artist in the business Kirby created the visual language of comic book storytelling. The sheer breadth of his imagination is staggering and most of the characters we most associate with comics—particularly Marvel Comics—found their initial genesis in his fertile imagination.”

More importantly, as Wise points out, Jack Kirby’s career is not solely about the Marvel Years. “What many people don’t realize is that Jack had had a prolific career for twenty years before the birth of the Marvel Universe,” Wayne Wise continues. “While for the modern fan he is most associated with his epic cosmic sagas, typified by his Fourth World comics for DC, during his lifetime he drew everything. He drew Crime Comics when this was a huge part of the comics industry. Westerns like Boys Ranch and Bullseye were popular during the 50s. Along with writer and regular collaborator Joe Simon, he was responsible for the very first Romance Comic, Young Romance, launching a genre that would eventually comprise about 25 percent of total comic book sales in the late 1940s. His contribution to comics simply cannot be overstated.”

The Hero Initiative is dedicated to helping the “unsung” Jack Kirbys of the comic book industry whose efforts were just as important but have often been forgotten. It is only fitting that the birthday of the “King of Comics” is a day that not only celebrates Jack Kirby but benefits the Hero Initiative as well—and Jack Kirby himself would no doubt be the first to applaud the effort.

Anthony Letizia

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