Obituary: Jack Kirby

Denis Gifford
Friday 11 February 1994 01:02

Jacob Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby), cartoonist: born New York City 1917; married (one son, three daughters); died Thousand Oaks, California 6 February 1994.

'THE KING' is dead - the King of the comics, that is. Jack Kirby, cartoonist and creator of dozens of four-colour comic-book heroes from Socko the Sea Dog to Captain America, 'Living Legend of World War Two', died last Sunday in California at the age of 76. He was dubbed with several nicknames during his career at Marvel Comics by his genial editor and co-writer, 'Stunnin' ' Stan Lee, but after some years as 'Jolly Jack', it was as 'King' Kirby that he became revered by every true comic-book buff. Kirby's trademarks were obvious to all: incredibly overblown muscles limned with a black, blobby brush, and heroes leaping out of his covers so stereoscopically that no special glasses were required to make the reader duck.

The artist who became Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917 in a New York East Side tenement, son of a pieceworker in the garment industry. The Sunday comic supplement to his father's newspaper was his art school. 'I loved all the comics,' he reminisced, 'Polly and her Pals, Dumb Dora, Gasoline Alley.' By the age of 11 he was caricaturing the neighbours for pennies, and reading everything he could lay his hands on. On the back page of a pulp magazine he saw an advertisement for the Langdon School of Cartooning. 'I got a little money from somewhere . . . and subscribed. It taught me the fundamentals before my subscription ran out. Then it was back to the comics.' Young Jacob found he learnt more by copying the newspaper strip characters. He learnt fluid body motion from Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon', and the blending of comic style with realism from Milton Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates'.

Kurtzberg's first cartoons were published in his school newspaper. Leaving school at 16 he joined the Max Fleischer Studios, then located in New York, as a trainee animator and 'in-betweener' on cartoon films starring Popeye and Betty Boop. When Fleischer moved his studio to Florida to make his first feature, Gulliver's Travels, Kurtzberg stayed in New York. 'I really didn't enjoy animation,' he said, 'It was too much like working in a factory. I wanted to take full responsibility for my work.'

Kurtzberg's work on the Popeye cartoons came in handy: he applied for a drawing job at a small syndicate, Lincoln Features, who were looking for a cartoonist to take over a rip-off strip they had started called 'Sockeye the Sea Dog'. In no time he was drawing himself silly using all manner of newspaper strip styles. Lincoln Features supplied weekly strips, half-pages, full pages, cartoon panels and topical cartoons to 70 small-town papers all over the States, and he had a go at them all, each under a different pen-name. He was 'Jack Davis', 'Jack Kurtz', 'Jack Cortez' and 'Jack Curtiss' to name but a few, and his strips included, Socko apart, 'Cyclone Burke', 'The Black Buccaneer', and 'The Lone Rider', which he signed Lance Kirby: his final name was but one step away.

He joined another agency, this time one working for both weekly papers (as Universal Phoenix Features) and comic books, although he never knew about the latter. The comic was called Wags, and it was never published in the United States. Issued weekly in Britain, from January 1937, Wags was made up of regular coloured American Sunday strips, plus a smattering of black-and-white pages from Universal Phoenix. Kirby drew 'Wilton of the West', 'The Diary of Dr Hayward' and 'The Count of Monte Cristo', all of which were eventually reprinted in an outsize American comic-book called Jumbo, which began in 1938.

Jack Kirby now joined Fox Features as a full-time cartoonist, salary dollars 15 a week. Victor Fox was pushing into the expanding world of comic-book publishing. His supervising artist was the legendary Will Eisner, and Kirby took on his first super-hero, 'The Blue Beetle'.

At Fox, Kirby had his first encounter with Joseph Simon, cartoonist, scriptwriter and editor. To save time the two men devised a system of drawing together, and as Simon & Kirby they formed as formidable a team as Siegel and Schuster, the creators of 'Superman'. For Curtis, the publishers of Saturday Evening Post, the pair created 'Blue Bolt', another costumed super-hero, and in 1940 introduced topical action with Hitler and Mussolini as villains.

Together they now moved to Funnies Inc, where the editor-in-chief Lloyd Jacquet not only produced comic-books, but also pulp magazines complete with coloured covers and illustrations. One such had just started its career for Timely Publications, and from No 2 Simon & Kirby drew all the pictures for Marvel Science Fiction. This led to the taking on of Timely's proposed series of comic-books, and with Martin Goodman as publisher, Simon as editor, and Kirby as top artist, Marvel Mystery Comics was duly launched. Although no great success, it was the comic on which the whole publishing 'universe' of Marvel Comics Inc was founded.

Ever since Superman's birth, super-heroes had been the dominant force in the comics world, and now Simon & Kirby settled down to create an even more superpowered version of their own. Given the special edge of Kirby's dynamic style, Captain America was born, the first hero to be given a comic of his own name. 'I saw Cap as the modern version of Uncle Sam,' said Kirby. Hitting a patriotic nerve among the youngsters of the US, the Cap was an instant hit, and easily survived his creators' move to Marvel's mightiest rival, DC Comics, publishers of Superman.

After 20 years in comics together, during which time they virtually created comics for women (Young Romance, 1947) and horror comics (Black Magic, 1950), the partners parted and Kirby returned to Marvel. Here his former office boy, Stan Lee, was now in charge as chief editor and writer, and together they launched a raft of monster comics featuring 'Goom the Thing from Planet X', 'Mummex King of the Mummies', and 'Zzutak the Worst Menace the World has Ever Known]' When horrors had their day, the undaunted creators went back to super-heroes and launched the Second Marvel Age. Beginning with the extraordinary team of super-beings known as The Fantastic Four (1961), followed by The Mighty Thor (1962), and finally a rebirth of Captain America (1964), the Silver Age of Super Heroes was truly upon the comic-buying world. Kirby, finally disgruntled beyond measure with Stan Lee's continual claims to creativity, left Marvel for DC Comics once again, where he evolved a remarkable series of linked comics known as 'The Fourth World' series.

The vast body of Kirby's comic work, much collected, may never be assembled, but studied even in part it shows one artist's growth from the simple syndicated strips of the 1930s to the sophisticated adult comic-books of the 1990s.

(Illustration omitted)

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