Hey Kids!! Comics: Jack “King” Kirby Pt. 1: “The King and I”

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Let me fully disclose something, if it weren’t for Jack “King” Kirby I wouldn’t know when my wife’s birthday is.

Not that I easily remember his birthday either, it’s just a happy coincidence that they share the same day. I know its in late August and if I am put on the spot out comes my phone and I Google: “Jack Kirby.”

Considering myself something of an “armchair comics scholar” I make no claims that this is “journal worthy” material. What it is is my impressions of someone I never met but has influenced and shaped how I view life. I view a lot of life through the lense of American comic books and in particular the superhero genre.

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From the Kirby Museum

Jacob Kurtzberg, the son of Austrian Jewish immigrants, was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on August 28, 1917. In his lifetime he more or less created the MARVEL AGE of comics from scratch, changed how DC Comics approached their stories and villains and defined the visual language of comics in a no less than Einsteinian parallel.

Full Disclosure: I think the only other person who comes close to that much influence on the medium would be Will Eisner and his work on The Spirit.

Is that hyperbole? Not at all. In Einstein’s Theory of Relativity quantum mechanics seemed a “throwaway” hypothesis that has proven to be true, his work is still being examined and reinforced today. Kirby drew with power and a natural golden ratio of composition that rivals masters of fine art, and it continues to influence comic creators today.

Einstein = Kirby, Kirby = Einstein.

I could stop there but of course I won’t.

My first exposure to Kirby came in a roundabout way; it seems I had always been reading comic book but I finally started getting a few titles on a monthly basis. These were the first titles I started seeking out at the spinner racks: The New Adventures of Superboy, The Amazing Spider-Man, Team America (I had the Marauder toy!) and Fantastic Four.

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Fantastic Four, Vol. 1, Issue 245 by John Byrne; my first FF comic book

There have been a few “runs” on FF that have been phenomenal, John Byrne’s work on the title is one of them, others have been Walt Simonson, Mark Waid, Jonathan Hickman and a notable, if short-ish run by Marv Wolfman. What makes these runs so well regarded is how close they try and come to the cosmic powered sublime storytelling of The Creators: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

I was reading Byrne and discovered late 70’s reprints of the Kirby run in Marvel’s Greatest Comics. The only reason that I read them is that it was Fantastic Four and my thought process was, “Who are these guys doing FF? This isn’t Byrne!”

The next time Kirby really came onto my radar was the toy tie-in mini-series Super Powers. He plotted the thing, drew the covers and drew the last issue and there was something about this that got my attention. Maybe it was partly to do with having some of the Super Powers toys myself. There was the sequel of the same name and then time Jack drew the whole thing. There is a great consensus among Kirby fans and scholars that his work on this series is by far Not His Best and it kind of isn’t.

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DC house ad by Kirby and Royer, some of it looks like Steve “The Dude” Rude

The plot is simple, it under uses or misuses characters, the coloring is garish as it was the early days of a disastrous coloring experiment at DC and it just isn’t All There for some people.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in some respects.

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Original art, Super Powers Vol. 2, Issue 1 by Jack Kirby and Greg Theakston inking

The plot is simple because it should be, it’s a toy tie-in (using Kirby characters and concepts) and Kirby was running with that and was aiming it towards the target audience. You know, “Hey Kid!! Comics!” Simple doesn’t mean bad though, it was a classic good vs. evil superhero story. By time the sequel came around Jack seemed to be up to drawing all of it and yes he was not at the height of his powers, which to me still made him above everyone else. It. And then what does the King do? He publishes The Hunger Dogs. I bought it off the rack at a magazine stand/bookstore in Lebanon, Indiana and I was damn lucky to find it.

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A house ad using the cover art to the book. I used this as it shows the detail of the canvas it was painted on.

I have always maintained that Kirby never got the credit he deserved for creating the MARVEL Age in the 60s, I also think that many if not most of the plots had more to do with Kirby than we were let in on, that said our King wasn’t much of a dialogue guy. That is when people like Stan Lee (and Joe Simon) shined when collaborating with him. Stan “the Man” is a silver tongued devil and he could make those fantastic plots really pop. I’ll go into more of my theories about that in a later blog.

The plot to The Hunger Dogs is a sublime tale; it is the other side of the Book of Revelation, Ragnarok: The Morning After, D:Day plus infinity, the Mayan End of the World that has a payoff, it is the end of the beginning of the end.

And it’s really hard to follow, but is it gorgeous!

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Kirby tied it into the second Super Powers series and it was meant to be the culmination of his aborted New Gods epic. There is a rather ingenious portrayal of Darkseid ruminating nostalgic for the “good old days” of war, death and destruction. Orion, Darkseid’s son, finally coming to accept who he is. The “tired, poor, huddled masses” of the Hunger Dogs that the book is named for finally throwing off the chains of tyranny. And no less than the destruction of Heaven/Asgard/Olympus when New Genesis blows up.

It would have flowed better with someone to guide his genius, I hate to say “editor” as Jack had been burned by them and he didn’t much care for them. I’d like to think of more like a music producer; a George Martin to his half of the Lennon/McCartney dynamic.

But. The. Art.

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The destruction of New Genesis. Do you see the Star Wars bits?

Painted Kirby pages, a double page spread of one of his famous collages (see above), larger than standard comic book dimensions of the time, unparalleled panel composition and page layout, wonderful production on the printing of the book. This is Kirby returned to his prime and getting the respect he deserve; Kirby telling his own personal Ragnarok, the twilight of a “comics” god.

THAT is my first experience with Jack “King” Kirby. Our King wasn’t perfect but he was good, the best and we love him for it.

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