Here’s a piece I wrote earlier today for Geeky Universe marking the occasion of Jack Kirby’s 96th birthday that I thought I’d share here —
It strikes me as being both strange and sad how disconnected today’s comics “culture” is from its roots. Case in point : today would have been Jack Kirby’s 96th birthday, and here at Geeky Universe there hasn’t been one mention of it yet (it’s nearly the end of the day). Now, maybe I’m just the old guy (42 at last count) in the room, but for a site ostensibly devoted, in large part, to comic books, you’d think Jack’s birthday would be big news. After all, there would be no “Marvel Universe” without him. I’m not criticizing anybody else for not marking this momentous occasion sooner, mind you, just remarking on the irony inherent in the fact that if the lead role in a new movie based on one of Jack’s characters had been announced today, you can bet it would have been the top story, while the birthday of the man who created the character Hugh Jackman/Ben Affleck/whoever it might be would ostensibly be playing in this hypothetical scenario doesn’t get a mention until the tail end of the evening.
Roll call of Kirby creations : the Fantastic Four. The Inhumans. Thor. Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk. The X-Men. The Avengers. The Silver Surfer. Captain America. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and for only one publisher : over at DC, Jack created the Challengers Of The Unknown; Kamandi; OMAC; The Demon; Darkseid, Orion, and the rest of the Fourth World characters — you get the picture.
No other creator in any medium — film, television, novels, video games, you name it — has left a creative footprint in his or her chosen field as large as Kirby’s. It’s no exaggeration to say that comics as we know them today would simply not exist without this man’s boundless creativity and singular imagination. The word “visionary” gets thrown around much too freely these days, and the reason I say “too freely” is entirely because of Jack Kirby. He was the very definition of a visionary, and left behind a body of work that will never be equaled because it can never be equaled. His legacy well and truly is the comic book as we know it. We wouldn’t have ’em without him.
I know the ever-evolving Marvel line has gone something like this over the years : first Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (along with Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Wally Wood, Carl Burgos, and Don Heck) all created the “Marvel Universe” together, working in tandem as one big, happy bullpen. Now, however, we’re told — both in Lee’s public statements and in court transcripts obtained from the lawsuit Jack Kirby’s heirs recently brought against Marvel and its parent company, Disney — that the entire Marvel Universe sprung whole-cloth from the incredible imagination of Stan Lee, and that Jack, Steve, Bill, Wally, Carl, and Don were just the guys the company hired to illustrate all these wonderful concept that literally poured out of the fertile and creative mind of “Stan The Man.”
Don’t buy it for a second. Stan Lee got in at Marvel (them Timely) because his uncle owned the company, and he had a dismal, two-decade-long track record of failure after failure until the services of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko fell into his lap after they found themselves on the outs with their former publishers. Of all the folks there at the beginning stages of the “Marvel Revolution,” it should be noted that it was Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Wally Wood, in particular, who had an established track record as creators of successful characters and series well before they ever met Stan Lee, and they went on to create memorable and lasting work without him. Lee, for his part, never had one idea that worked in 20 years in comics before teaming up with them, and when they both left Marvel, he soon got out of Dodge, as well. Quick — name me one memorable, or even good, single issue written by Stan after those two gentlemen left.
You can’t because there isn’t one.
But the point of this piece isn’t to “bash” Stan Lee so much as to show just how integral the contributions of Jack Kirby and the other artists there at the time were to making what we think of today as some of the greatest super-hero comics ever made. I humbly submit that somebody else could have written these books and the only difference would have been a more toned-down, less-self-congratulatory and sensationalist tone. No “Face Front, True Believers!” or any of that. But if somebody else had drawn them, then Marvel wouldn’t be around today, dominating both the comic shop racks and the box office.
Those who follow these things will know that Marvel’s way of “thanking” the man to whom they owe their entire existence as a company was to freeze him out at the end of his career, refuse to give him back his own original art pages (like they started doing for everybody else in 1978), and to deny, with the assistance of a veritable army of high-priced lawyers at their beck and call, any and all claims of intellectual propriety and ownership brought forth both by Jack himself, while he was living, and his children, since he passed away.
So far, sadly, it’s worked. Jack barely got a mention as a “co”-creator at the end of the credits for Marvel’s The Avengers, a movie that raked in over a billion dollars worldwide based on concepts and stories that came right from the limitless Kirby imagination. Classy move there, guys. And they continue, in the press and in courts of law (aided and abetted by their most famous stooge, Stan Lee) to promulgate the idea that all Jack amounted to was a talented draftsman who was able to put down on paper ideas that were in Stan ‘s head — even though the very concept of having writers knock out a one-page synopsis and then turn it over to the artist to plot, pace, and illustrate the entire story (you know, the so-called “Marvel Method”), a practice that continues at the “House of (stolen) Ideas” to this day — came about as a direct result of the Kirby-Lee partnership. How does it even logically follow that a creative process that leaves that much of the storytelling responsibility to the artist was the brainchild of a writer who thought up everything we see on the page himself?
Of course, literally billions of dollars are at stake now — Jack’s four-color creations are all one color now, green, and Disney/Marvel are going to keep fighting tooth and claw to make sure that for every billion-dollar movie they base on a Kirby concept, his kids don’t get so much as one thin dime. And as the years go by, they will belittle Jack’s contribution more and more until they whittle it down to almost nothing — but only if we let them get away with it.
I humbly suggest, in honor of the birthday of the man who is rightly called “The King,” that we redouble our efforts within the fan community to make sure that his legacy is never minimized and that his posthumous legal battle can continue. Go to heroinitiative.org and donate to the “Kirby 4 Heroes” campaign to help destitute former artists and writers who were also screwed over by the so-called “work for hire” system. “Like” the Jack Kirby Museum facebook page and help spread the word about their efforts to get an actual, brick-and-mortar building to house and showcase Kirby’s work for future generations. And if you really want to go the extra mile, even consider skipping any future Marvel movies and stop buying their comics until they finally treat Jack’s memory with dignity and respect rather than issuing nothing but sunny — and ultimately hollow — platitudes when it’s convenient for them to do so. I know that’s a tough thing to ask of many fans, but if we hit ’em in the pocketbook in large enough numbers maybe they’ll finally listen. No sound is louder to a corporation’s ears than empty cash registers.
And while we’re going on about this serious business, please — let’s remember to have some fun. Dig out your old Kirby books or your collected reprint editions (it’s worth noting here that at least DC pays sliding-scale royalties based on sales of their Kirby books ; it ain’t much, but Marvel doesn’t cough up a penny) and soak that stuff in. This is work that still has just as much power to “wow” you the 1,000th time you’ve seen it as it did the first. Know that as long as we keep our our own awe and wonder of Jack’s awesome and wonderful work alive, it can never really die no matter how badly Marvel wishes it would. Celebrate the life, legacy, and work of Jack Kirby every chance you get, by all means. Blog about about how much you love Jack’s work and why. Show your Kirby books to your friends. Tell new comic fans all about him. Read Kirby comics on the bus or train and strike up conversation with the guy who (and it will happen, trust me) tells you “hey, ya know, I think I used to have that one.” Jack created this stuff to be enjoyed forever, so make sure you do just that — and promote that enjoyment to others, as well, while you’re at it.
But please, always remember — that’s only half the story. The fun part. The easy part. The part we all want to do. But if you care about Jack’s legacy in any kind of “real-world” sense, beyond the printed page, then never give up the fight, either. He wouldn’t have, and those of us who owe so many of our fondest childhood memories to his work owe him at least that much.
Jack Kirby’s body of work is the comic book industry’s greatest triumph, and the treatment he received — and continues to receive — its greatest shame. Let’s all work together to see what we can do to correct that, shall we?