Widely recognized as one of the most influential, recognizable, and prolific artists in comics, Kirby was the co-creator of such enduring characters and popular culture icons as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Captain America, and hundreds of others stretching back to the earliest days of the medium. His most common nickname is "The King," and Kirby was inducted into comic books' Shazam Awards Hall of Fame in 1975. The Jack Kirby Award for achievement in comic books was named in his honor.
created a new grammar of storytelling and a cinematic style of motion. Once-wooden characters cascaded from one frame to another — or even from page to page — threatening to fall right out of the book into the reader’s lap. The force of punches thrown was visibly and explosively evident. Even at rest, a Kirby character pulsed with tension and energy in a way that makes movie versions of the same characters seem static by comparison.
His output was legendary, with one count estimating that he produced over 25,000 pages, as well as hundreds of comic strips and sketches. He also produced paintings, and worked on concept illustrations for a number of Hollywood films.
Essentially self-taught, Kirby cited among his influences the comic strip artists Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, and Alex Raymond, as well as such editorial cartoonists as C. H. Sykes, "Ding" Darling, and Rollin Kirby.
Per his own sometimes-unreliable memory, Kirby joined the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate in 1936, working there on newspaper comic strips and on single-panel advice cartoons such as Your Health Comes First (under the pseudonym "Jack Curtiss"). He remained until late 1939, then worked for the movie animation company Fleischer Studios as an "inbetweener" (an artist who fills in the action between major-movement frames) on Popeye cartoons. "I went from Lincoln to Fleischer," he recalled. "From Fleischer I had to get out in a hurry because I couldn't take that kind of thing," describing it as "a factory in a sense, like my father's factory. They were manufacturing pictures".
Around that time, the first American comic books appeared. Initially consisting solely of reprints of newspaper comic strips, these tabloid-size, 10-inch by publications soon began to include original material in comic-strip form. Kirby began writing and drawing for the comic-book packager Eisner & Iger, one of a handful of firms creating comics on demand for publishers. Through that company, Kirby did what he remembers as his first comic book work, for Wild Boy Magazine. This included such strips as the science fiction adventure The Diary of Dr. Hayward (under the pseudonym "Curt Davis"), the Western crimefighter strip Wilton of the West (as "Fred Sande"), the swashbuckler strip "The Count of Monte Cristo" (again as "Jack Curtiss"), and the humor strips Abdul Jones (as "Ted Grey)" and Socko the Seadog (as "Teddy"), all variously for Jumbo Comics and other Eisner-Iger clients. Kirby was also helpful beyond his artwork when he once frightened off a mobster who was strong-arming Eisner for their building's towel service.
Kirby moved on to comic-book publisher and newspaper syndicator Fox Feature Syndicate, earning a then-reasonable $15 a week salary. He began exploring superhero narrative with the comic strip The Blue Beetle (Jan.-March 1940), starring a character created by the pseudonymous Charles Nicholas, a house name that Kirby retained for the three-month-long strip.
I had a suit and Jack thought that was really nice. He'd never seen a comic book artist with a suit before. The reason I had a suit was that my father was a tailor. Jack's father was a tailor too, but he made pants! Anyway, I was doing freelance work and I had a little office in New York about ten blocks from DC's and Fox [Feature Syndicate]'s offices, and I was working on Blue Bolt for Funnies, Inc. So, of course, I loved Jack's work and the first time I saw it I couldn't believe what I was seeing. He asked if we could do some freelance work together. I was delighted and I took him over to my little office. We worked from the second issue of Blue Bolt...and remained a team across the next two decades. In the early 2000s, original art for an unpublished, five-page Simon & Kirby collaboration titled "Daring Disc", which may predate the duo's Blue Bolt, surfaced. Simon published the story in the 2003 updated edition of his autobiography, The Comic Book Makers.
After leaving Fox and landing at pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman's Timely Comics (the future Marvel Comics), the new Simon & Kirby team created the seminal patriotic hero Captain America in late 1940. Their dynamic perspectives, groundbreaking use of centerspreads, cinematic techniques and exaggerated sense of action made the title an immediate hit and rewrote the rules for comic book art.
Captain America became the first and largest of many hit characters the duo would produce. The Simon & Kirby name soon became synonymous with exciting superhero comics, and the two became industry stars whose readers followed them from title to title.
A financial dispute with Goodman led to their accepting an offer from Jack Liebowitz's National Comics, one of the precursors of DC Comics. Working on new ideas for National while still producing Captain America, the two left after finishing ten issues of that title, and moved to National fulltime. Given a lucrative contract at their new home (although initially National seemed unsure how best to utilise their talents), Simon & Kirby took over the Sandman in Adventure Comics, and scored their next hits with the "kid gang" teams the Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos (evoking their Sentinels of Liberty gang from Captain America), and the superhero Manhunter.
The couple would have four children: Susan (December 6, 1945 - ), Neal (May 1948 - ), Barbara (November 1952 - ) and Lisa (circa 1961-1962 - ). The same year that he married, he changed his name legally from Jacob Kurtzberg to Jack Kirby. The couple was living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, when Kirby was drafted into the U.S. Army on June 7, 1943. After basic training at Camp Stewart, near Atlanta, Georgia, he was assigned to Company F of the 11th Infantry and landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on August 23, 1944, two-and-a-half months D-Day, though Kirby's reminiscences would place his arrival just 10 days after. Kirby recalled that a lieutenant, learning that comics artist Kirby was in his command, made him a scout who would advance into towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures.
Kirby and his wife corresponded regularly by v-mail, with Roz sending "him a letter a day" while she worked in a lingerie shop and lived with her mother. During the winter of 1944, Kirby suffered severe frostbite on his lower extremities and was taken to a hospital in France for recovery. He returned to the United States in January 1945, assigned to Camp Butner in North Carolina, and was honorably discharged as a private first class on July 20, 1945, returning soon afterward to his prewar partnership with Joe Simon.
As superhero comics waned in popularity after the end of World War II, Kirby and his partner began producing stories in a variety of genre, initially for Harvey Comics. There through the early 1950s, the Simon & Kirby team created such titles as the the kid-gang adventure Boy Explorers Comics, the kid-gang Western Boys' Ranch, and the superhero comics Stuntman, and, in vogue with the fad for 3-D movies, Captain 3-D. The duo additionally freelanced for Hillman Periodicals (the crime fiction comic Real Clue Crime) and for Crestwood Publications. There they launched the crime-fiction comic Justice Traps the Guility, and more significantly, created comics' first romantic fiction title: Young Romance.
Simon, inspired by Macfadden Publications' romantic-confession magazine True Story, transplanted the idea to comic books and with Kirby created a first-issue mock-up of Young Romance. Showing it to Crestwood general manager Maurice Rosenfeld, Simon asked for 50% of the comic's profits. Crestwood publishers Teddy Epstein and Mike Bleier agreed, stipulating that the creators would take no money up front Young Romance #1 (Sept./Oct. 1947) "became Jack and Joe's biggest hit in years". Indeed, the pioneering title sold a staggering 92% of its print run inspiring Crestwood to increase the print run by the third issue to triple the initial number of copies. Initially published bimonthly, Young Romance quickly became a monthly title and produced the spin-off Young Love — together the two titles sold two million copies per month, according to Simon — later joined by Young Brides and In Love, the latter "featuring full-length romance stories". The initial two titles were eventually sold to DC Comics.
Romance comics would reinvigorate the comics industry and appeal to female audiences over the next few years. Young Romance spawned dozens of imitators from publishers such as "Timely, Fawcett, Quality, and even Fox Features Syndicate [who] delivered knockoffs like Love Confessions, Romance Tales, True Stories of Romance, and My Love Secret". Despite the glut, the Simon & Kirby romance titles continued to sell millions of copies a month, allowing the pair "to earn more than enough to buy their own homes". In addition, Kirby and Simon produced crime, horror (notably Black Magic), western and humor comics.
The Kirby & Simon partnership ended amicably in 1955 with the failure of their own Mainline Publications, due in large part to the anti-comics movement, which rallied around Dr. Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. Simon left the industry for a career in advertising, while Kirby continued to freelance. He was instrumental in the creation of Archie Comics' The Fly and The Double Life of Private Strong reuniting briefly with Joe Simon. He also drew some issues of Classics Illustrated.
For DC Comics, then known as National Comics, Kirby co-created with writers Dick and Dave Wood the non-superpowered adventuring quartet the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #6 (Feb. 1957), while also contributing to such anthologies as House of Mystery. During 30 months at DC, Kirby drew slightly more than 600 pages, which included 11 six-page Green Arrow stories in World's Finest Comics and Adventure Comics that, in a rarity, Kirby inked himself. Kirby recast the archer as a science-fiction hero, moving him away from his Batman-formula roots, but in the process alienating Green Arrow co-creator Mort Weisinger. He also began drawing a newspaper comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force, written by the Wood brothers and initially inked by the unrelated Wally Wood.
Kirby left National Comics due largely to a contractual dispute in which editor Jack Schiff, who had been involved in getting Kirby and the Wood brothers the Sky Masters contract, claimed he was due royalties from Kirby's share of the strip's profits. Schiff sued Kirby and was successful at trial. Some DC editors also had criticized him over art details, such as not drawing "the shoelaces on a cavalry-man's boots" and showing a Native American "mounting his horse from the wrong side".
Kirby returned to work with Stan Lee on the cusp of the company's evolution from its 1950s incarnation as Atlas Comics (previously Timely Comics) to become Marvel. Inker Frank Giacoia approached Lee for work, but when informed that Atlas artists inked their own pencils, suggested he could "get Kirby back here to pencil some stuff". Kirby was still working on DC's Challengers of the Unknown, but also searching for work from other publishers, with little success. Continuing with DC on such titles as House of Mystery and House of Secrets, he drew occasional stories for Atlas, including the Lone Ranger-like Black Rider and the Fu Manchu stand-in Yellow Claw.
After being sued by DC editor Jack Schiff over the comic strip Sky Masters (see above), Kirby returned full-time as an Atlas freelancer, with his first published work being the cover of and the seven-page story "I Discovered the Secret of the Flying Saucers" in Strange Worlds #1 (Dec. 1958). Initially with Christopher Rule as his regular inker, and later Dick Ayers, Kirby drew across all genres, from romance to war comics, crime stories to Westerns, but made his mark primarily with a series of supernatural-fantasy and science fiction stories featuring giant, drive-in movie-style monsters with names like Groot, the Thing from Planet X; Grottu, King of the Insects; and Fin Fang Foom for the company's many anthology series, such as Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and World of Fantasy. His bizarre designs of powerful, unearthly creatures proved a hit with readers.
Then, with Marvel editor-in-chief Lee, Kirby began working on superhero comics again, beginning with The Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961). The landmark series became a hit that revolutionized the industry with its comparative naturalism and, eventually, a cosmic purview informed by Kirby's seemingly boundless imagination — one coincidentally well-matched with the consciousness-expanding youth culture of the 1960s.
For almost a decade, Kirby provided Marvel's house style, co-creating with Stan Lee many of the Marvel characters and designing their visual motifs. At Lee's request, he often provided new-to-Marvel artists "breakdown" layouts , over which they would pencil in order to become acquainted with the Marvel look. As artist Gil Kane described,
...Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel's fortunes from the time he rejoined the company.... It wasn't merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but ... Jack's point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field... [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists ... and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. ... Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That's what was told to me.... It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.
Highlights besides the Fantastic Four include Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, The Watcher, Magneto, Ego the Living Planet, the Inhumans and their hidden city of Attilan, and the Black Panther — comics' first known Black superhero — and his African nation of Wakanda. Simon & Kirby's Captain America was also incorporated into Marvel's continuity.
In 1968 and 1969, Joe Simon was involved in litigation with Marvel Comics over the ownership of Captain America, initiated by Marvel after Simon registered the copyright renewal for Captain America in his own name. According to Simon, Kirby agreed to support the company in the litigation and, as part of a deal Kirby made with publisher Martin Goodman, signed over to Marvel any rights he might have had to the character.
Kirby continued to expand the medium's boundaries, devising photo-collage covers and interiors, developing new drawing techniques such as the method for depicting energy fields now known as "Kirby Dots," and other experiments. Yet he grew increasingly dissatisfied with working at Marvel. There have been a number of reasons given for this dissatisfaction, including resentment over Stan Lee's increasing media prominence, a lack of full creative control, anger over breaches of perceived promises by publisher Martin Goodman, and frustration over Marvel's failure to credit him specifically for his story plotting and for his character creations and co-creations. He began to both script and draw some secondary features for Marvel, such as "The Inhumans" in Amazing Adventures and horror stories for the anthology title Chamber of Darkness, and received full credit for doing so; but he eventually left the company in 1970 for rival DC Comics, under editorial director Carmine Infantino.
Kirby returned to DC in late 1970, on a "five-year deal... a three year contract with an option for two more", with an arrangement that gave him full creative control as editor, writer and artist. He produced a series of inter-linked titles under the blanket sobriquet "The Fourth World" including a trilogy of new titles, New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People, as well as the Superman title, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Kirby picked the latter book because the series was without a stable creative team and he did not want to cost anyone a job. The central villain of the Fourth World series, Darkseid, and some of the Fourth World concepts, appeared in Jimmy Olsen before the launch of the other Fourth World books, giving the new titles greater exposure to potential buyers.
Kirby later produced other DC titles such as OMAC, Kamandi, The Demon, and, together with former partner Joe Simon for one last time, a new incarnation of the Sandman. Several characters from this period have since become fixtures in the DC Universe, including the demon Etrigan and his human counterpart Jason Blood; Scott Free (Mister Miracle), and the cosmic villain Darkseid.
In 1979, Kirby drew concept art for film producer Barry Geller's script treatment adapting Roger Zelazny's science fiction novel, Lord of Light, for which Geller had purchased the rights. Geller, who additionally imagined using Kirby's set designs for a Colorado theme park to be called Science Fiction Land, announced his plans at a November press conference attended by Kirby, former NFL American football star and prospective cast-member Rosey Grier, and others. While the film did not come to fruition, Kirby's drawings were used for the C.I.A.'s "Canadian caper", in which some members of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, who had avoided capture in the Iran hostage crisis, were able to escape the country posing as members of a movie location-scouting crew.
In the early 1980s, Pacific Comics, a new, non-newsstand comic book publisher, made a then-groundbreaking deal with Kirby to publish his series Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers: Kirby would retain copyright over his creation and receive royalties on it. This, together with similar actions by other independent comics publishers as Eclipse Comics where he co-created Destroyer Duck to help Steve Gerber fight in his case versus Marvel, helped establish a precedent to end the monopoly of the work for hire system, wherein comics creators, even freelancers, had owned no rights to characters they created.
Kirby also retained ownership of characters used by Topps Comics beginning in 1993, for a set of series in what the company dubbed "The Kirbyverse". These titles were derived mainly from designs and concepts that Kirby had kept in his files, some intended initially for the by-then-defunct Pacific Comics, and then licensed to Topps for what would become the "Jack Kirby's Secret City Saga" mythos.
Kirby died at age 76 of heart failure in his Thousand Oaks, California home.
Kirby won a Shazam Award for Special Achievement by an Individual in 1971 for his "Fourth World" series in Forever People, New Gods, Mister Miracle, and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen. He was inducted into the Shazam Awards Hall of Fame in 1975.
His work was honored posthumously with the 1998 Harvey Award for Best Domestic Reprint Project, for Jack Kirby's New Gods by Jack Kirby, edited by Bob Kahan.
The Jack Kirby Awards and Jack Kirby Hall of Fame were named in his honor.
With Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman, Gary Panter and Chris Ware, Kirby was among the artists honored in the exhibition "Masters of American Comics" at the Jewish Museum in New York City, New York, from Sept. 16, 2006 to Jan. 28, 2007.
The most imitated aspect of Kirby's work has been his exaggerated perspectives and dynamic energy. Less easy to imitate have been the expressive body language of his characters, who embrace each other and charge into everything from battle to pancakes with unselfconscious exuberance; and such constantly forward-looking innovations as the then cutting-edge photomontages he often used. The "Kirby Crackle" is the often imitated technique of visually depicting crackling energy using an arrangement of black dots. He (along with fellow Marvel creator Steve Ditko) pioneered the use of visible minority characters in comic books, and Kirby co-created the first black superhero at Marvel (the African prince the Black Panther) and created DC's first two black superheroes: Vykin the Black in The Forever People #1 (March 1971) and the Black Racer in The New Gods #3 (July 1971).
Kirby’s daughter, Lisa Kirby, announced in early 2006 that she and co-writer Steve Robertson, with artist Mike Thibodeaux, plan to publish via the Marvel Comics Icon imprint, a six-issue miniseries, Jack Kirby’s Galactic Bounty Hunters, featuring characters and concepts created by her father. The series has been reprinted in both hardcover and paperback.
Several Kirby images are among those on the "Marvel Super Heroes" set of commemorative stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service on 27 July 2007. Ten of the stamps are portraits of individual Marvel characters and the other 10 stamps depict individual Marvel Comic book covers. According to the credits printed on the back of the pane, Jack Kirby's artwork is featured on: Captain America, The Thing, Silver Surfer, Amazing Spider-Man #1, The Incredible Hulk #1, Captain America #100, X-Men #1, and Fantastic Four #3.