Jacob Kurtzberg was born in New York City, in a tenement house on Essex Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on August 28, 1917. His parents, Benjamin and Rosemary Kurtzberg had migrated to America from Austria around the the turn of the century. The alleged reason for the Kurtzberg's migration was dramatic, if unconfirmable: the story was that Benjamin had insulted a member of German aristocracy and the German, who was an expert marksman, challenged him to a duel. To escape almost certain death, Benjamin decided to move to America with his wife. Whether this tale is factual or a bit of familial fancy told by the Elder Kurtzberg to his family remains a mystery, but the drama of the tale undoubtedly left an impression on young Jacob. Benjamin was a tailor by trade, and like many immigrants from the Old Country, he found work from the New York garment factories. He worked long hours, but the family had still trouble to make ends meet. Kirby later said, that he had to work as soon as he was able to bring income for the family, he worked as a paper boy, delivery boy and sign painter. The little money he got for himself went to pay for pulp magazines, newspaper comics and local cinema. He later explained that "the pulps were my writing school. Movies and newspaper strips were my drawing school." Jack became a member in the Suffolk Street Gang, in an era when in New York's Lower East Side every street had its own gang and they often fought each other. The Yancy Street Gang that Ben Grimm, the "Thing" of the Fantastic Four, had problems with, was a reference to this part of Kirby´s childhood. The times that Jack did not use to read or fight, he would draw - on anything. He once doodled on a tenement floor and got himself beaten up by the janitor for it. Even though the family had little money, they started to buy Jack large pads of onionskin drawing paper, but young Jacob filled them so fast that his parents, every counting their available funds, were forced to ration them.
In the spring of 1935, Jack Kirby got his first drawing job. He answered newspaper ad and was employed by the Max Fleischer animation studio that produced Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. He started at the bottom, applying opaque paint to animation cels. The pay was poor and he did not get along with his bosses, who thought that he was too eager to move up on the ladder. He was persistent and tested for the better-paying position of in-betweening, which would have also made better use of his burgeoning talents, but despite successfully landing the promotion he left his job in 1937, the year before the Fleischer studio moved to Florida. His next employer was H.T. Elmo, owner of Lincoln News, a syndication company that offered lower-priced knock-offs of popular syndicated strips to newspapers that could not afford the real things. For example, Kirby produced a note-for-note imitation of E.C. Segar's POPEYE strip called SOCKO THE SEA DOG, in an amusing backslide to an earlier phase --his time at Fleischer Studios, producers of the Popeye theatrical cartoons-- of his still-young career. Kirby produced staggering amounts of material in different styles for Lincoln, which published them under many different artist's names. Most of these named-artists never actually existed, being instead company placeholders to put under the title of a strip no matter who was actually doing the drawing (and a practice later used by many of the lower-end comic book publishers for whom Kirby would soon be producing). Kirby did everything from political cartoons to westerns to humor strips. But once again, the pay was so poor that it was hard for Jack to make a living, (a living which included supporting his entire family on the Lower East Side at the time) and when Lincoln downsized he once more started to search for a new job.
And that new job he found...in comics.
In the late thirties, comics were mostly collected newspaper strips published in color. In 1938 when he got a job from Will Eisner and Jerry Iger of the Eisner & Iger studio, the first issue of Action Comics had just hit the stands. Eisner & Inger packaged comic book material for many publishers, some overseas. Eisner and Kirby felt mutual respect for each other. Eisner for Kirby´s determination and workmanship, and Kirby for Eisner´s ability to run the company and editing skills. While working for Eisner & Inger, Kirby also pitched for other houses and sometimes he got work this way, but not always getting paid - at least once he was swindled. Kirby found work for Victor Fox's Fox Features Syndicate. Fox, who fancied himself the "king of the comics," had been a bookkeeper for National Periodical Publications (publisher of an obscure comic book called Superman) and had seen that there was money to be made --for HIM, at least-- in the comics business, and was running a comic book sweatshop that managed to be churning out mediocre comics creations by some of the then-brightest lights in the burgeoning comics business, names like Will Eisner and Lou Fine. While Fox´s wages were low, he paid them in time, so Kirby labored sixty hour workweeks for months at Fox's company, where he met his future partner, Joe Simon, who had been hired as editor supervising artists and writers after Fox parted ways with Will Eisner. Simon was impressed with young Kirby's work --he was not only fast, he was fast and good, unlike so many other young artists of the period who had to hack out work just to make a living-- and Simon asked if Kirby was interested in extra work, since Simon needed help with a comic concept that he had created and sold to Novelty Press, called The Blue Bolt. This began their long partnership and Kirby finally adopted "Jack Kirby" as his full-time work alias (Simon would later speculate that Jacob Kurtzberg would adopt the Kirby pseudonym so Victor Fox wouldn't know he was freelancing).
Early Marvel Years
Simon soon left Fox and started his own studio. He tried to convince Kirby to join him, but this was still the Depression era and young Jack needed the reliably steady checks that working for Fox was providing. (not long afterwards, Fox would become notorious for welching on payments due his artists) But then Simon had started to work for a publisher named Martin Goodman. Goodman had a line of pulp magazines that was in both financial and legal troubles, and hearing that comics were the next big thing, he issued Marvel Comics #1, using the name of a relatively popular pulp they had put out, Marvel Tales (which would feature Kirby spot illustrations) under the company name Timely Comics. Goodman soon hired Simon with a deal that gave him percentage of the profits on new comic book launches that were successful. Simon then convinced Goodman to hire Kirby and give him regular salary. Kirby and Simon had varied success with their first early creations, but then they hit the jackpot. America was heading for war, and since Kirby and Simon were always trying to create good villains, when they decided that the best possible villain was Adolf Hitler, the next natural step was to come up with a hero to punch the Führer in the nose. That character was, of course, Captain America. They pitched their st
ar-spangled hero to Goodman who thought that a patriotic superhero was a good idea. MLJ's The Shield had appeared earlier and Simon's initial character sketch of the new superhero could arguably seem to have been superficially influenced by the design, but there were significant and dynamic differences. Goodman liked what Simon and Kirby presented and made the bold move of giving Captain America his own title, and he wanted it to the stands as fast as possible while the public had still patriotic sentiments. Kirby convinced both Goodman and Simon that he could draw the whole comic by himself. Simon helped him with some of the penciling and with other artist staff they inked (Kirby never liked inking) the comic, and on December 20, 1940 Captain America #1 hit the stands, dated March 1941. It was during this period that Simon and Kirby first met and worked with Stanley Leiber whom would later go on to be known as " Stan Lee ." Leiber worked as an assistant to Kirby and Simon, both men liked the young ambitious wanna-be writer whose initial job was to gopher coffee, cigars and ink for Kirby and Simon. And the famous alias "Stan Lee" got its first comic writing credit appearance for a text story in Captain America Comics #3. Kirby and Simon eventually came to the conclusion that Goodman was swindling them out of their share of Captain America`s profits, with the sort of creative accounting that large corporations can exert over their employees. As an example, Goodman would claim most office expenditures as an expense to be charged against the profits brought in by the Captain America title, thus decreasing the overall net income from which Simon & Kirby would derive their percentage. Simon & Kirby wanted out, and Simon negotiated with Jack Liebowitz in a secret deal for them to move to DC Comics. It was the richest deal at the time ever given to what had been until then the largely nameless mass of guys who wrote and drew comics. Stan Lee was promised being included in the venture later on and was sworn to the secret. Nevertheless Goodman found out about the deal and kicked Kirby and Simon out. Kirby and Simon were sure that Stan Lee had ratted them out, an accusation he denied. After Kirby and Simon were out, Lee was soon the editor.
Early DC Years
DC Comics was happy to have Kirby and Simon, but not everyone at DC welcomed them with open arms. This was especially true of an editor named Mort Weisinger, who was their vocal opponent. Weisinger wanted to have hands-on editorial powers on everything that the company published, and he did not like the special treatment Kirby and Simon were enjoying, allowed as they were to run their own studio, hire artists and writers and produce the stories to the company as outside suppliers. Weisinger brought scripts for Kirby and Simon to draw, and they made paper airplanes out of them. Kirby later said: "They tried for a while to control us, but we knew how to make comics. Finally, they let us do whatever we wanted. They were thrilled with everything we did, and the readers were thrilled. Weisinger was the only one not thrilled."
The most popular early creation by Kirby and Simon at DC was the Boy Commandos, a fighting squadron of four teenagers gathered from around the world - England, Netherlands, France and Brooklyn - by adult military man named Rip Carter. The Commandos were a success.
Second World War
In the late 1942 and early 1943, Kirby was a man torn apart by his conflicting obligations he needed to meet: to serve his country, provide for his family that needed more money than his military pay would be and to produce comics for DC. He had received a draft notice, but had gotten a deferment as the sole supporter of his family. The only way to solve the dilemma was to produce enough comics pages so that he could go into service knowing that his two other obligations were fulfilled. Simon and Kirby worked as fast as they could. Kirby later commented on the frenzied pace of this period: "(Our goal) ...was to get enough work backlogged that I go into the Army, kill Hitler, and get back before the readers missed us." Simon enlisted in the Coast Guard in early ´43. Kirby reported for duty on June 21 of that year. Though Kirby & Simon had moved to DC for the opportunity to create and produce a number of their own comics features --including The Boy Commandos, The Newsboy Legion, The Sandman and Manhunter, Kirby had stopped working in comics for a time during the forties for the same reason a lot of young men did: to serve in the armed forces and do his patriotic duty in the fight against the Axis. Kirby saw action in the European Theater of Combat and the experience profoundly affected his life, influencing much of his later work in comics. For some reason the Army wanted to make a auto mechanic out of Kirby who was a lousy and accident prone driver. Cars and Kirby were not a good match, and he was reclassified as a rifleman. On August 17, 1944 he was assigned to the European Theater as a part of Company F of the 11th Infantry, led by the larger than life General George S. Patton. Kirby fought in the brutal battle for Bastogne under harsh weather conditions, and by the time his unit was withdrawn he had severe case of frostbite on his lower extremities. In a hospital at France, the doctors were contemplating about amputating one or both of his legs. Fortunately he recovered and was able to keep the use of his legs. Kirby left the Army as a private first class, decorated with the Combat Infantry Badge and bronze battle star. War was traumatic experience for Kirby, and he saw nightmares about it for the rest of his life. Some of those nightmarish images doubtless found their way into Kirby's later gritty if fanciful portrayals of mud-covered WWII comics misadventures. When the war ended he returned home and returned to comics working for several companies over the next dozen or so years. Most notably pioneering the Romance genre for Prize comics during a post-war dearth in the interest in superheroes.
Harvey and Mainline
After the war, things had changed in DC Comics, they no longer wanted to let anyone be outside suppliers any longer and editors had power to go through everything Kirby did. When Simon was discharged form the Coast Guard they decided to leave DC and go work for their old friend, Al Harvey, now Captain Alfred Harvey. Kirby and Simon were in a peak of their creativity, but it was a bad time for comics. "Newsstands were glutted with product, and the new books were returned in their wire bundles, unopened and unpurchased.", Simon later commented on the situation. The popular selling trend was crime comics, and the duo did some fine examples for titles such as Headline Comics and Justice Traps The Guilty. Never satisfied to coast too long, they then invented a whole new genre: the romance comic. The germ of the idea began with My Date, a light and humorous take on the growing "youth culture" of post-war America, and likely inspired by the Archie Comics of John Goldwater that had appeared a few years earlier. It got Kirby and Simon thinking about doing something more serious in the same vein, less of a "teen humor" title and more of a book invoking the intense emotions of deeply felt romance, told in the straightforward melodramatic style of those same stories in other venues of popular culture of the day. As a result, their title Young Romance was created, "Designed for the more Adult Reader of Comics," as the caption on the first cover read. And so it was: Betrayal, Heartbreak, Tears and Redemption, all delineated by Simon and Kirby in their bold and clear style, with all the wallop of a soap opera.
Looking at these earliest Romance comics, a reader weaned on superheroes might not think they would work, but in the hands of Jack Kirby, even a casual conversation could have all the weight and drama of Shakespeare, even if the narrative couldn't reach the same heights as Kirby's art and storytelling. It grabbed readers right away, and held them.
It was a huge smash hit and Kirby and Simon got their hit-maker status back. They also got something that at the time was unheard-of in the notoriously cheapskate industry: a share of the profits. They had their own studio running again, bigger than before the War, and later they started and briefly ran their own comic company, Mainline Comics. One of the comics Mainline published was Foxhole, a war comic that was drawn and written by men who had been in the War - meaning mainly Kirby who signed his work on Foxhole "P.F.C. Jack Kirby, 5th Division, 3rd Army".
But the time for new comics and comic book companies was bad, the crusade against comics had begun. When the the Comics Code Authority was created, Kirby and Simon were late to submit to it, and were hurt because of it. Eventually, after they were told that they either joined up, or did not get distributed, they signed up. When E.C. Comics went under, they took with them their distributor, Leader News, which happened to also be Mainline´s distributor, and it also put Mainline out of business. It also meant the end of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon as a team. Simon went to edit comics for Harvey and Kirby was back where he´d started, pounding the pavement, freelancing.
IN the late 50's he spent time back at DC, creating early fantasy stories for DC's House of Mystery and House of Secrets that would later, at Marvel, be the precursors to the dynamic storytelling of The Marvel Age. Kirby gave DC's Green Arrow a more fantasy-and-SF-oriented twist. He also co-created, with writer Dave & Dick Wood, The Challengers of the Unknown, which in hindsight looks a lot like a trial run for a super-powered foursome that Kirby would create a few years later at Marvel. Some of these few issues feature inking by Wally Wood, late of EC, whose inks gave a unique look to Kirby's dynamic pencils. He did intermittent work for other publishers, including obscurities like From Here To Insanity #11, a rare example of an entire book of humor entirely by Kirby, produced for the notoriously low-end publisher Charlton Comics.
A look at some of Kirby's work for DC in this period is revealing; his art, often inked by Kirby himself and not-infrequently assisted by his wife Roz Kirby, is as bold and powerful as it had ever been, but, even before the special chemistry that came to typify the creative output he enjoyed with Stan Lee in just a few years, the writing typified in these DC efforts seems weak if not downright wretched, especially after the hard-hitting and smart work for the crime, romance and mystery titles Kirby and Simon had produced together in the years before. Some, like "The Stone Sentinels of Giant Island!" from 1959's House of Mystery #85, which DC does not credit to any writer, leading one to think that Kirby scripted it as well, may clearly be read as precursors to his later, better --if nonetheless minor-- efforts for the pre-hero Marvel era, in this case "I Was Trapped by the Things on Easter Island " in Tales to Astonish #5 later that same year, produced shortly after his return to Marvel. Say what you will about how well Lee's scripting has aged --or not-- in the intervening years, the stories in the Atlas-era Marvel books read like Classic Literature compared with the clumsy wordage of second-string DC titles from the period, such as the ones Kirby lent his considerable talents to.
After another bitter falling-out with an editor, DC's Jack Schiff, over contractual (and monetary) disputes involving the Sky Masters of the Space Force strip, (Co-creator Dave Wood has promised DC Editor Schiff a monetary stake in the Sky Masters strip, syndicated by the George Matthew Adams Syndicate, after a rep from the Adams Service had asked Schiff for a space-oriented newspaper strip to cash in on the burgeoning space-race craze sweeping the nation. Kirby had understood the pay-out to Schiff to be a one-time thing, while Schiff expected an ongoing stake in the strip's profits) Kirby dropped his DC contracts and returned to the former Timely Comics, now generally known as Atlas Comics, the name publisher Martin Goodman had given his in-house Distribution Company. It was on the many titles Atlas produced-- flooding the market with titles of whatever subject became popular, sucking the life out of any trend they could-- that Kirby began his collaborative partnership with Stan Lee. Kirby had been named "Editor" at Timely after Simon and Kirby left, and their relationship was resurrected again with much more fruitful results. Westerns, Romance, Bug-eyed Monster Comics, all were churned out by Lee & Kirby in ever-greater volume, laying the foundation of the work for which he would come to be remembered most. It is obvious that Kirby and Lee worked closely, and while there will forever more be contention as to the true "creator" of what would come to be known as "the Marvel Age of Comics," Kirby obviously had tremendous --if not in fact SINGULAR-- input into the creation of the majority of the Ideas that would be typical of "The House of Ideas." A survey of the books Kirby produced before "The Marvel Age" reveals him trying out varying flavors of the concepts for characters and situations that would emerge full-grown once the superhero floodgates opened. As well, in an obvious back-handed slap at his former editors at DC (see above) , Kirby lifted wholesale several concepts (and cover designs) he created for DC in the years before returning to Marvel. He designed and/or created many of Marvel's most famous and recognizable characters including the Fantastic Four, Dr.Doom, Silver Surfer, Nick Fury, Black Panther, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Inhumans, Thor and the Asgardians, Hercules, the Eternals as well as the Celestials. When Lee co-created Galactus in a three story arc of Fantastic Four, without telling Stan, Kirby created and designed the Silver Surfer and included him as the first of Galactus's heralds.
Kirby did not stay with Marvel, though, eventually moving on to other comic companies, always in search of a better deal. His first and most notable stop was at DC Comics where then-publisher Carmine Infantino encouraged him to come back to the company. His contributions to the DC Comics Universe include Darkseid, Etrigan The Demon, The New Gods, The Forever People, O.M.A.C.and Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, and others. Kirby claimed to have based the appearance of Big Barda of the New Gods on a 1970 photo spread of the actress and singer Lainie Kazan in Playboy, while basing her personality on that of his beloved wife Roz. He returned to Marvel in the late 70's after the failure of book after book at DC, and was given relatively free-reign at the comic book company he helped to create, taking the reigns on Captain America in time for the Bicentennial, and creating new books such as The Eternals, 2001: A Space Odyssey (a treasure edition and a series), Mister Machine, and an odd but interesting take on his earlier creation The Black Panther. Stories would later circulate that the young talent at "the bullpen" at Marvel looked with disdain on the new work Kirby was creating, and the feeling was that his time at Marvel was due to come to an end rather quickly, which turned out to be true. Arguably, Marvel may have given Kirby too much freedom, since there has been some debate whether the helpful hand of a strong Editor might have helped focus King Kirby's wilder ideas into something more easily digestible by the masses at the time. Kirby may have fancied himself (and actually been) a comics "auteur," but all he'd ever wanted to do was sell as many copies as his considerable talents might facilitate. Some conjecture that the free-reign Kirby was given was self-defeating intentionally, and while in his later career Kirby would let increasing levels of bitterness color his recollections of the earlier collaboration between himself and Stan Lee, no one else had the facility to take Kirby's far-reaching narratives, laid out as they were in the margins of the comics pages he spun forth at his usual dizzying pace, and polish the storytelling through dialogue like Stan Lee was able to. Among the tragedies of Kirby's career is the unavoidable fact that as his career progressed, he was less able to focus properly to reach the heights of glory he truly was capable of achieving.
The Industry as a whole knew the power of King Kirby, even if it seemed management didn't, and Kirby was paid tribute to-- or ripped off-- in the lovingly drawn swipes -or Homages-- of his work on many varied Marvel titles, and in odd examples of other media like Superman: The Animated Series' "Apokolips... Now! Part 2" and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' "The King".
Kirby seemed to lose his taste for comics after countless disappointments at the hands of insensitive management, and found a new career where he had began so many decades before, in animation. He did some work briefly for Hanna-Barbera, ironically including working on the studio's misguided 1978 "Fantastic Four" series (the one featuring H.E.R.B.I.E., the robot, introduced as a substitute for The Human Torch, a character who was in development at another studio -- Universal-- and who therefore could not be used, or was considered too expensive and complex to animate --"All that fire, moving all the time! Too many drawings!"-- or, it was feared, would inspire little children to set themselves on fire.) and then in 1980 went to work for Ruby-Spears, an animation company founded by two former Hanna Barbera sound editors. Kirby began by designed characters and backgrounds for the studio's "Thundarr the Barbarian." and executing concept designs for many proposed animated series' throughout the 1980's.
In one of the oddest turns of events in his long and storied career, but one that nevertheless seems entirely appropriate, Kirby was approached to do concept design for a big-budget motion picture adaptation of SF Novelist Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. After doing a series of breathtaking drawings, inked with his usual verve by Mike Royer and colored by Kirby himself, of scenic designs for the film that was to be adapted into a theme park, the project languished and then died in development. In 1979, however, Kirby's artwork for the film was used as part of a massive con-job by the CIA that freed six American hostages held in Iran after the Iranian Revolution. The Kirby presentation for the film was used to legitimize a group of operatives posing as Canadian location-scouts for the film that facilitated the escape of half-a-dozen American government officials who had slipped out of the U.S. Embassy when it was taken over by militants. These events are depicted in the film Argo. Kirby receives no acknowledgement in the film, nor was his work used in the motion picture.
Soon Kirby would be approached by Pacific Comics with an offer no artist at the time could refuse; a creator-owned series. This innovative arrangement saw the beginning of a huge movement for all comic artists in the industry and helped to constitute their rights to the properties they created. Things were only looking up for Kirby as he would also soon find himself being inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame along with fellow legends Will Eisner and Carl Barks. This would also be the year Marvel would finally relent and return some of Kirby's original artwork from his time spent with the company to its creator. A small personal victory for sure.
In his final years Topps Comics would take many of his unused conceptual work and create a series of comics based in what would be called the Kirbyverse. This project would see such huge talents as Steve Ditko, Kurt Busiek and Dick Ayers toiling away at its pages. These same characters and others were slated to appear in a new series from Dynamite by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.
Kirby's work spans the history of comics and crosses the borders of countless different and widely varied genres, all done perfectly and with the distinct boldness of figurative drawing and amazing dynamic compositions and page design that came to typify a Kirby page. Kirby's pages were brilliantly designed, subtly but inescapably leading a reader's eye across the page, into the action and through the narrative via his graphic design which nonetheless never got in the way of keeping the story clear and readable. Most distinctively, where more and more artists seem to want to imitate reality in their drawing and page design, often looking like storyboards for a live action motion picture, (or worse, cluttering a page with graphic flurries and drawing tricks, all sound and fury signifying nothing) Kirby's pages exhibited a design and dynamic that could ONLY exist on a comic book page; sequences and action that might look ridiculous in another medium or at the hand of another artist seemed not only serious but believably dramatic and even glowingly transcendent at the masterful pencil point of Jack "King" Kirby.
Jack Kirby passed away from heart failure in 1994.