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Kirby: king of comics, by Mark Evanier; Superheroes!, by Roz Kaveney

The hero earns zero

In the Sixties "Silver Age" of comics, the self-styled "Smilin'" Stan Lee, editor, main writer and salesman for Marvel Comics, used to hype the New York publisher as "The House of Ideas". The majority of those ideas were jointly created by Lee with artist-collaborator Jack Kirby in an unparalleled imaginative outpouring, germinating first in 1961 with the Fantastic Four. A second-string outfit at the time, Marvel under Lee and Kirby wove a new tapestry of superheroes with super-problems. They would threaten and then outstrip Superman, Batman and others at the more sedate rivals, DC Comics. The duopoly has competed fiercely ever since, both headhunting Kirby's genius.

Ideas can truly be gold dust, and many of Kirby's blossomed into licences to print money from lunchboxes to blockbusters, such as this summer's Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The problem is that none of that income went to Kirby. Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, the son of a struggling Jewish tailor, Kirby always worked hard to escape tenement poverty and provide for his family. Admirable as this was, it meant that he sold all his characters outright to Marvel and DC, the only deal on offer then, and so had to keep on producing more.

His biographer, former assistant and friend, Mark Evanier relates how it was only in 1978, after some 40 years in comics, that Kirby finally enjoyed better wages and health insurance when hired by animation studios. Latterly, a new regime at DC paid him some royalties and Marvel were pressured into returning a fraction of his original artwork, but this was meagre compensation for properties reaping millions. Lee may have nicknamed him Jack "King" Kirby, but his crown was made of only pulpy newsprint.

Lee and Kirby's revolutionary approach was to locate their heroes and villains in the same "universe", so that every adventure mattered and built cumulatively into a never-ending "continuity". DC would adopt a similar strategy. These "crossovers" started as transparent ploys to drive fans to buy more, but when Kirby rejoined DC in 1970, the concept took on a grander vision. He wrote and drew four related books, a prototype graphic novel, telling different aspects of one monumental war between New Gods played out on our world. Continuities began simply enough but over time their profusion of characters and stories came to encompass two distinct "multiverses", dizzy with alternate versions, timelines and Earths.

As one of thousands of youngsters entranced by these complex arcana, Roz Kaveney was prompted to re-examine their modern forms more closely when a friend observed that "these two continuities were the largest narrative constructions in human culture". Kaveney is astute in judging the results, month after month, over 40-plus years of The X-Men or 70 years of Superman, that accrue into these "collective works of art". Her analyses of "thick texts" such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen or Frank Miller's Dark Knight reveal the genre's increasing sophistication in questioning the roles of superheroes as vigilantes, psychopaths, government lackeys or independent women. Kaveney also distinguishes between the "revision of canon" by radical but respectful writers and the callous murders and personality shifts, the cavalier "strip-mining" of continuity, by profit-driven editorial policy.

Kirby rarely looked back and brought his best to whatever he did, elevating a corporate instruction to plagiarise Planet of the Apes into the refreshing Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth. Today it is noticeable how central Kirby's contributions to both Marvel and DC, even minor ones, have become to each mythos, and how few significant protagonists anyone else has introduced. Marvel without Kirby may remain a "House of Ideas" of sorts, and DC too, although these days the ideas are less about originating than elaborating the existing pantheons – which were only part of Kirby's exemplary but exploited life of creation.

Paul Gravett's 'Great British Comics' is published by Aurum