Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part 1)
Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, in New York City. His parents, Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg, were Austrian Jewish immigrants, and his father earned a living as a garment factory worker. Growing up on Suffolk Street, Kirby was often involved in street fights with other kids, later saying that “fighting became second nature. I began to like it.”
Throughout his youth, Kirby wanted to get out of his neighbourhood. Knowing how to draw he sought out places to learn more about art. Essentially self taught from a very young age, Kirby was by comic strip artists Milton Cariff, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond as well as editorial cartoonists such as C.H. Sykes, ‘Ding’ Darling and Rollin Kirby, the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. In the shadow of the depression, people had found the capacity to improve their circumstances and those who looked were beginning to find them again. It was the American Dream certainly. But it was Kirby’s dream too.
Kirby claims he was rejected by the Educational Alliance because he drew ‘ to fast with charcoal’. He eventually found an outlet for his skills by drawing cartoons for the newspaper of the Boys Brotherhood Republic, an astonishing sounding ‘miniature city’ on East 3rd Street where kids ran their own government. This no doubt inspired the Newsboy Legion, a hustle of likely kids that have been repeated several times by both Jon Bogdanove in Superman for DC and Grant Morrison in the Seven Soldiers crossover event in 2009.
Kirby enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, one of the leading undergraduate art schools in the United States today, at what he says was the age of 14. He left after a week, dismissing the factory line nature of the teaching at the time. Speaking about that time Kirby said, “I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done.”
According to Kirby’s occasionally unreliable memory, Kirby joined the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate in 1936, working on comic strips and single-panel advice cartoons such as Your Health Comes First!! This he did under the pseudonym Jack Curtiss, the first of a great many name changes throughout his career. Kirby reacted angrily at any suggestion that it was an attempt to cover up his Jewish heritage throughout his career. He began to work for movie animation company Fleischer Studios as an inbetweener (an artist who fills in the action between major-movement frames) on Popeye cartoons. This was something Kirby couldn’t tolerate, seeing at understandably as a menial job. “I went from Lincoln to Fleischer,” he recalled. “From Fleischer I had to get out in a hurry because I couldn’t take that kind of thing,” describing it as “a factory in a sense, like my father’s factory. They were manufacturing pictures.”
At the time the comics industry was booming. Today the sales figures of the early 90s are considered impressive if they hit 500,000. In the late 1930s and early 1940s companies could expect sales figures in their millions. This was the industry Kirby stepped into as young man, starting at Eisner & Iger, one of a handful of firms creating comics on demand to publishers. It was here that Kirby remembered as his first comic book work, for Wild Boy Magazine. Wild boy, Jumbo Comics and other Eisner-Iger clients gave Kirby the chance to work on numerous titles something we can only assume he achieved admirably. He used the various strips to test out any number of pseudonyms such as ‘Curt Davis’ for The Diary of Dr Hayward, or as ‘Fred Sande’ for the western crime fighter strip Wilton of the West, he returned to ‘Jack Curtiss’ for the swashbuckling Count of Monte Cristo and for the humour strips Abdul Jones he drew as ‘Ted Grey’ and with Socko the Dog simply as ‘Teddy’. Ultimately though, he settle on the pen name Jack Kirby because it reminded him of actor James Cagney.
In the summer of 1940, Kirby and his family moved to Brooklyn. There, Kirby met Rosalind “Roz” Goldstein, who lived in his family’s apartment building. The pair began dating soon afterward. Kirby proposed to Goldstein on her eighteenth birthday, and the two became engaged. However, there was one other partnership that Kirby would enter into that would change the face of popular comic books forever and provide the world with one of it’s most iconic figures.
Working with comic-book publisher and newspaper syndicator Fox Feature Syndicate, earning a then-reasonable $15 a week salary, Kirby began to investigate the superhero narrative with the comic book Blue Beetle, published January to March 1940, starring a character created by the pseudonymous Charles Nicholas, a house name that Kirby retained for the full three month strip. During this period, Kirby met and began collaborating with cartoonist and Fox editor Joe Simon, who worked freelance as well as his staff work. In 1988, Simon recalled, “I loved Jack’s work and the first time I saw it I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He asked if we could do some freelance work together. I was delighted and I took him over to my little office. We worked from the second issue of Blue Bolt…”
It was then that Kirby and Simon met what-would-be Marvel Comics, then Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics. Joe Simon had concieved the idea of Captain America and made a sketch, writing the name ‘Super American’ at the bottom of the page. Simon felt there were too many ‘Supers’ around but very few Captains. Presenting it to Martin Goodman the go-ahead was given but trying to fill a full comic with primarily one character’s stories, Simon did not believe that his regular creative partner, Kirby, could handle the workload alone. Two young artists from Conneticut had made a strong impression, Al Avison and Al Gabriele having worked together regularly and proven they could adapt to each others styles.
Simon recalled, ‘The two Als were eager to join in on the new Captain America book, but Jack Kirby was visibly upset. ‘You’re still number one, Jack,’ I assured him. ‘It’s just a matter of a quick deadline for the first issue.’
‘I’ll make the deadline,’ Jack promised. ‘I’ll pencil it [all] myself and make the deadline.’ I hadn’t expected this kind of reaction … but I acceded to Kirby’s wishes and, it turned out, was lucky that I did. There might have been two Als, but there was only one Jack Kirby.’
You can imagine the dull thunder of New York outside somewhere as the image of Captain America was formed at the hands of Jack Kirby, the bombs of the War in Europe also audible to him. A full year before Pearl Harbour was attacked both Kirby and Simon were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II and felt war was inevitable: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organised. We wanted to have our say too.”
Aware that he was creating a political figure, Kirby generated an iconic figure, broad shouldered and powerful, incorporating the red, white and blue, the stars and stripes, the eagle wings (however small) and the bright red boots that have survived almost unaltered for 70 years. The first Captain America comic in early 1941 saw him punching Hitler squarely in the jaw at the heart of a Nazi headquarters.
Simon negotiated 15% of profits for both he and Kirby as well as salaried positions as the company’s editor and art director, respectively. The first issue sold out in days, the second print run set at over 1 million copies. This enormous success established this creative team as a formidable creative force in the industry. After the first issue, Simon asked Kirby to join the staff as Art Director.
With the success of Captain America, Simon felt that Goodman wasn’t paying them the promised percentage of profits and so found work for them both at the National Comics (later to be called DC). Kirby and Simon negotiated a deal that would secure them $500 a week, compared to the $75 and $85 they respectively earned at Timely. Keeping the deal secret, fearing that Goodman wouldn’t pay them what was owed if he discovered their approach to National, both Kirby and Simon continued to work on Captain America. Goodman in fact did become aware of their plans and both of them left after Captain America #10. Kirby and Simon were leaving behind the highlight of their partnership, though Captain America wouldn’t return fully for some years yet.
The first few weeks at National were spent trying to devise new characters while the company sought to figure out how to utilise the pair. After a few failed editor-assigned ghosting assignments, National’s Jack Leibowitz simply told them to ‘just do what you want’. The pair then revamped the Sandman figure in Adventure Comics and created the superhero Manhunter. Not the Martian Manhunter, Kirby and Simon created a character that became adapted, represented by numerous alter egos and finally depersonified throughout the decades, Kirby’s original design returned nearly completely unaltered with the Manhunters, creations of the Guardians of the Universe as a forerunner to the Green Lantern Corps, most prominent in the recent Blackest Night saga. The ongoing ‘kid gang’ series Boy Commandos was to be their biggest hit, launched in the same year to become a national feature, selling more than a million copies a month and becoming National’s third best- selling title. They also scored a hit with the homefront kid-gang, the Newsboy Legion in Star Spangled Comics.
Kirby married Roz Goldstein on May 23, 1942. The same year that he married, he changed his name legally from Jacob Kurtzberg to Jack Kirby.
The war had been brought to American shores. Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japan and the US, after several years of tacit support to Britain through supply could no longer remove itself from armed conflict. Jack Kirby was going to war.