This summer, millions of moviegoers will crowd into cinemas to see the latest incarnation of The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton. They have also recently been introduced to the less familiar but equally action-packed Iron Man, with Robert Downey Jr in the title role. Meanwhile, next year's studio slate includes spin-offs from X-Men and the Fantastic Four series, featuring Wolverine and the Silver Surfer. Yet all of these heroes, whom most of us now know as multimillion-dollar movie franchises, were once confined to the mind of one man: Jack Kirby.
Kirby and Stan Lee, his creative partner at the Marvel Comics company, were the Lennon and McCartney of the comic book business. Together, they helped to overhaul the industry, paving the way for generations of innovative artists and creators. Kirby died in 1994, but his pop cultural influence is everywhere. His disciples include not only leading graphic novelists such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, but also fine artists, film-makers and even novelists, all of them inspired by Kirby's groundbreaking artwork and storytelling flair.
Mark Evanier, comics historian and author of the first Kirby biography, appeared last month at the Institute of Contemporary Arts for a celebration of the artist's life and career. It would have been unthinkable, says Evanier, for such a distinguished institution to host a comic book event while Kirby was at his creative peak, from the 1940s through to the 1970s. "Comics have a new prestige," says Evanier. "And a lot of that is down to Jack, so I wish he were around to reap the benefits."
In 1941, nine months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kirby and writer Joe Simon provided Marvel (then known as Timely Comics) with its first major hit, Captain America. Two years later, Kirby himself would be drafted into the Army, landing on the beaches of Normandy 10 days after D-Day. His work was prescient: the cover of Captain America's first issue featured the title character socking none other than Adolf Hitler on the jaw. Kirby had announced his arrival in the signature style that later became an industry norm.
"A lot of people have made livings drawing like Jack," says Evanier. "He wanted his art to grab the readers, to leap out at them. So there's a lot of forced perspective to try and get an effect of things erupting out of the page. One of his stylistic innovations was the in-your-face feel of his work. He exaggerated action; he found ways to distort the human body and still make it credible, to create impact and excitement. Jack was the guy who, in a nice way, punched you in the face."
Kirby's influence elevated not just the comic book medium, but the entire industry. A child of Depression-era New York, Kirby was always aware that his work fed his family, and his colleagues' families. As such, he was always looking for ways to keep the business in rude health. "Jack was very ambitious. He wanted everyone around him to succeed," says Evanier. "A lot of people think he saved the comic book industry on several occasions."
Jonathan Ross developed a passion for Kirby's comics as a boy, after he came across copies of the Fantastic Four being sold in a local junk shop. Today the presenter boasts a considerable collection of original Kirby artwork. "He was one of the first comic book artists I was aware of as being a unique stylist," says Ross. "I started collecting comics around the same time as I noticed a difference between the comics that his artwork appeared in and others. Kirby's work was so immediate and impressive that I would seek it out whenever possible. He'd draw a knee twice as big as a head. He'd have a tiny face with a gigantic hand coming towards you. It was almost as if he was drawing a 3D drawing without the 3D glasses."
Fantastic Four is one of Kirby's greatest creations. Created with Lee, who was then Marvel's editor-in-chief, in 1961, FF was the Cold War tale of four Americans who acquire superpowers after exposure to solar rays on a space mission. In its early years it was revolutionary for its comparatively naturalistic approach to the superhero genre. Towards the end of the decade, the series broke new ground again by tackling the cosmic concerns that were a recurring Kirby motif, epitomised by the Silver Surfer. The Surfer was an intergalactic traveller with cosmic powers bestowed on him by Galactus, the terrifying consumer of worlds. Storylines that took his characters to other worlds, or brought alien beings to Earth, were Kirby's stock in trade.
He also had a passion for mythology. Another Kirby-Lee favourite was Thor, the Norse god of Thunder whom the pair made a superhero. Kirby turned Hercules into a comic book character, toyed with the idea of using Egyptian gods like Horus in his work, and even produced his own pantheon of deities for The New Gods, a title he created for DC Comics in 1971. Ross's favourite Kirby creation is The Demon, featuring Etrigan, a character fashioned by Kirby from Arthurian legend.
Evanier was present at Etrigan's birth. "In 1972, DC decided that the new trend in comics would be demons, monsters and other ghastly creatures," he recalls. "Jack got a call from DC around four in the afternoon, and that evening I went to dinner with the family at a Howard Johnson's restaurant. We ordered, and then Jack sat quietly thinking while the rest of us talked around him. By the time they brought him his hot turkey sandwich he said: 'I've got it!' and he started telling us the story of the Demon. He'd figured it all out in about half an hour and plotted the whole first issue in his head."
Despite his boundless imagination, many of the themes that run through Kirby's work were shaped by his own very earthly life experiences. He created many physically unappealing characters, like the Incredible Hulk, or the Thing (a member of the Fantastic Four), who were redeemed by the love of a good woman. Evanier believes those characters were autobiographical. "The Thing is how Jack thought people saw him. Jack was short but physically very strong and powerful. His incredible energy and output had a lot to do with his physical strength as a human being. And I think he draws like a strong person, too – his characters have mass and bulk. He had a wonderful wife, Roz, who was utterly devoted to him. In 52 years they were apart for about four days. And Jack was fierce about protecting her."
The self-made man who had struggled into the working world at the end of the Great Depression was a great believer in taking responsibility for others. Many of his characters are motivated by a simple wish to make the world a better place. Like those superheroes, Kirby was a modest man with an unremarkable exterior, beneath which was hidden an extraordinary talent.
Ross is just one of many who felt an affinity with Kirby's characters. "As a young boy I had all the issues that young boys have," he says. "Feeling sidelined, lacking in power, lacking in physical presence, nervous about the world. Jack's comic books tapped into that; they bristled with remarkable energy, with an aggressive, muscular power that leaps right out of the page."
Kirby left Marvel to begin work for DC Comics – the home of Batman and Superman – in the early 1970s. Familiar Kirby themes continued to appear in his work long after he parted company with Lee, which leads many to suspect that he was often the senior partner in the creative process. "The way Marvel house style worked was that Stan Lee was the main writer," Ross explains, "but no one could write that many comics, so the artists would come to see him and they would sketch out a rough plot together. Stan would generally be credited for the story, but it was actually much more of a collaboration than that. Stan admits that when Jack went in to see him, Stan would sometimes say no more than: 'Let's make Doctor Doom the main villain of the next issue.' Then Kirby would go off to draw, pace and structure a 20- or 21-page story. Many of the key developments in Marvel comics came courtesy of the best artists – and the most prolific of all was Kirby."
During Kirby's career, comics changed from an entertainment for less well educated adults into an almost exclusively youth-focused medium. This, many believe, was the industry's own fault. "In the 1940s a comic was 10 cents, as was Life magazine," explains Ross. "If you fast-forward to the late Sixties, Life magazine had gone up to $2, but comic books were still 10 cents. They limited their audience to kids by not selling them at a higher price and making them seem like they were for adults."
Kirby himself, despite his huge popular following, never earned much financially for his troubles. It was a sore spot that saw him fall out with Marvel, and eventually fall out of love with the industry. Today, however, comic books, and especially those in the longer, graphic novel form, are highly regarded creations, with a diversity that the artists of comics' golden age could only dream of. "Nowadays," says Evanier, "if you create a brand new comic for Marvel, even as a beginner, you'll get the deal they never gave Jack as an established creator there. They now see the financial wisdom in encouraging new ideas."
Yet, Evanier maintains, Kirby foresaw today's thriving comic book industry, in which iconoclastic artists like Miller (creator of Sin City), Moore (Watchmen) and Mike Mignola (Hellboy) can have not only the publishing industry, but the movie industry, dancing to their tune.
Some prefer not to. Moore famously detests the films of his work – V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell, for example. Evanier, meanwhile, can't bear to watch the movie adaptations of Kirby's creations, "because it bothers me to see Jack's work making millions for people who had nothing to do with it. I went to see X-Men and didn't care for the film. I would have walked out, but I was sitting next to Stan Lee."
Ross, meanwhile, has a job that requires him to see such films. "Comics are continuing sagas of heroism and escapist adventure," he says, "which is just what big popcorn movies have become. So it's interesting to see Hollywood going back and pillaging these ideas, but doing them less well than a man like Kirby, who was working on his own in a small office for next to no money, with poor healthcare benefits, and not enjoying many of the profits of his labour – to an extent that we today would find alarming."
'Iron Man' is out now; 'The Incredible Hulk' opens on 13 June; 'Kirby: King of Comics' by Mark Evanier is published by Harry N Abrams, priced £21