Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part Two)

With World War II underway, Editor – In-Chief Liebowitz antcipated that Kirby and his partner Joe Simon would be drafted, so both Kirby and Simon employed writers, inkers, letterers and colourists in a order to create a year’s worth of material. Kirby was drafted into the army on June 7, 1943. After basic training at Camp Stewart, near Atlanta, Georgia, he was assigned to Company F of the 11th Infantry. He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on August 23, 1944. two and a half months after D-Day though the man himself claimed to have arrived 10 days after. Kirby recalled that one lieutenant, upon learning that he had a comic artist under his command, assigned him the position of scout who would push forward the advance into new towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures. This means that Kirby was not just front line but beyond the front line – in potentially enemy heavy territory and completely exposed without heavy armed support. A job most would have expected to keep someone safe and sound had at this point put Kirby in one of the most dangerous positions in the world.

Kirby and his wife corresponded from Europe via V-mail (doubly secure method to communicate with soldiers abroad, known as Victory mail), with Roz sending him ‘a letter a day’ while she worked in a lingeries shop with her mother in Brooklyn. During the winter 1944, Kirby suffered severe frostbite on his lower extremities and was flown to hospital in London from the front line, for recovery. Doctor’s considered amputating Kirby’s legs, but Kirby pulled through and recovered fully from the frostbite. Finally, in January 1945, with the final push into Germany and with the Japanese conflict nearing, unexpectedly, a harrowing end, Kirby was returned to the United States. Assigned to Camp Butner in North Carolina, where he spent the last six months of his service as part of the motor pool. Kirby was honourably discharged as a Private First Class on July 20, 1945 having received a Combat Infantryman Badge and a European/ African / Middle Eastern Theatre ribbon with a bronze battle star.

After returning from the army and after the birth of his first daughter, Susan, born on December 6, 1945, Simon arranged for work and Kirby and himself at Harvey Comics. Throughout the early 195Os, the pair created titles such as the Boy Explorers Comics, the kid-gang Western Boy’s Ranch, the superhero comic, Stuntman and catching a ride on the first bout of 3-D movies, Captain 3-D. They also freelanced for Hillman periodicals(the crime fiction comic Real Clue Crime) and for Crestwood Publications (Justice Traps the Guilty). Simon and Kirby were naturals at identifying the next big things – or the current thing – and putting out books that appealed to the widest audience. They were commercial operators but were capable enough to convert this into exciting, entertaining and gripping story lines and innovative and original characters. That capacity to react and adjust kept them at the top of the game, competitive as it was, with so many publishers vying for a majority of the audience.

But it’s biggest success was with Romance comics, the ‘mature’ interpretation of MacFadden Publications’ Young Romance. Stipulating that they would take no money up front, Kirby and Simon made an agreement with Crestwood General Manager Maurice Rosenfield with the agreement of publishers Teddy Epstein and Mike Bleier agreed. Young Romance #1 (Oct 1947) ‘ became Joe and Jack’s biggest success in years’ selling 92% of it’s print run, encouraging Crestwood to increase the print run by a third by the third issue. Becoming monthly within a few issues, Young Romance spawned a spin-off, Young Love – together selling 2 million copies a month. Following this with Young Brides in Love, Simon and Kirby had struck it once again, this time featuring ‘full length romance stories.’ Publishers such as Timely, Fawcett, Quality and Fox Feature Syndicate followed suit with their own romance titles. In spite of the increased competition, the Simon & Kirby originals continued to sell millions of copies a month, which allowed Kirby to buy a house for his family in Mineola, Long Island New York.

Kirby’s second child, Neal, was born in May 1948. His third child, Barbara, was born in November 1952.
Bitter that Timely Comics’ 1950s iteration, Atlas Comics, had relaunched Captain America in a new series in 1954, Kirby and Simon created Fighting American. Simon recalled, “We thought we’d show them how to do Captain America”. While the comic book initially portrayed the protagonist as anti-Communist, Simon and Kirby turned the series into a superhero satire with the second issue, in the aftermath of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the public backlash against the Red-baiting McCarthy. But the initial formula proved too strong to compete with, Captain America continuing unabated. This still remained a feather in Simon and Kirby’s caps, effectively beaten by the strength of their own character design. Fighting American would prove too unoriginal to survive the ages.

Fighting American sniffs out a Commie - something quickly reversed in response to the anti-communist McCarthy Trials

At the urging of a Crestwood salesman – in a remarkably questionable move against his own firm that should’ve seen him fired – Kirby and Simon launched their own comics company, Mainline Publications – using a distribution deal with Leader News. In late 1953 / early 1954, using work space subletted from their friend Al Harvey of Harvey Publications they set about bringing out four titles; Western Bullseye: Western Scout, the war comic Foxhole; with the added benefit of being written by actual veterans; In Love; since their earlier comics in the same vein were so popular and the crime comic Police Trap. All infinitely cool to a specific audience, three out of four specifically male young men they had it tied up – looking as though they’d covered all the bases. Frankly books like those out now would see figures in a crowded market of superhero books begging for something different but at the time it was the formula that worked. However, it was only to last for little more than a year. Republishing reworked artwork from Crestwood, Crestwood refused to pay them. After a review of Crestwood’s finances, Kirby and Simon’s attorney made it clear that they were owed $130,000 over the past seven years. Crestwood capitualted and paid them $10,000 in addition to their recent delayed payments. Now, at the peak of their popularity as a creative team – the relationship was becoming strained. Simon left the industry for a career in advertising but Kirby never waivered from his original course. The loss of his writing partner was not enough to make him reconsider his role and he moved on with his usual friendly shrug. “He wanted to do other things and I stuck with comics,” Kirby recalled in 1971. “It was fine. There was no reason to continue the partnership and we parted friends.”

At this point in the mid-1950s, Kirby made a temporary return to the former Timely Comics, now known as Atlas Comics, the direct predecessor of Marvel Comics. Inker Frank Giacoia had approached editor-in-chief Stan Lee for work and suggested he could “get Kirby back here to pencil some stuff.” While also freelancing for National Comics, the future DC Comics, Kirby drew 20 stories for Atlas from 1956 to 1957: Beginning with the five-page “Mine Field” in Battleground #14 (Nov.1956), Kirby penciled and in some cases also inked (with his wife, Roz) and wrote stories of the Western hero Black Rider, the Fu Manchu-like Yellow Claw, and more. But in 1957, distribution troubles caused the “Atlas implosion” that resulted in several series being dropped and no new material being assigned for many months. It would be the following year before Kirby returned to the nascent Marvel.

An unusual punishment for a villain in Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown

For DC around this time, Kirby co-created with writers Dick and Dave Wood the non-superpowered adventuring quartet the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #6 (Feb. 1957), while also contributing to such anthologies as House of Mystery. During 30 months freelancing for DC, Kirby drew slightly more than 600 pages, which included 11 six-page Green Arrow stories in World’s Finest Comics and Adventure Comics that, in a rarity, Kirby inked himself. Kirby recast the archer as a science-fiction hero, moving him away from his Batman-formula roots, but in the process alienating Green Arrow co-creator Mort Weisinger.

He also began drawing a newspaper comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force, written by the Wood brothers and initially inked by the unrelated Wally Wood. Kirby left National Comics due largely to a contractual dispute in which editor Jack Schiff, who had been involved in getting Kirby and the Wood brothers the Sky Masters contract, claimed he was due royalties from Kirby’s share of the strip’s profits. Schiff successfully sued Kirby. Some DC editors also had criticized him over art details, such as not drawing “the shoelaces on a cavalryman’s boots” and showing a Native American “mounting his horse from the wrong side.”

Kirby was demonstrating his incredible capacity to churn out enormous bodies of work. The criticism levelled at him was never stylistic, his style proving opiates to the waiting masses. As he drew it they were being snapped up. While there are lessons to be learned from Kirby it is a very different industry now. But the requirement for precision and composition has never moved. While books have become more naturalistic and austere in their approaches in recent years – taking such enormous pride in their production, perhaps at the cost of their accessability – there has always been a basic principle that Kirby understood. Story telling. A child on the streets of New York, Chicago or London was never fussed about a cheek bone out of place or the referencing of an engine being incorrect. Most readers of an age to truly enjoy comics as they were intended at the time wanted images that’d bounce them from panel to the next, ping ponging their eyeballs with clear, effecting and memorably indelible feats of strength, magic and wonder. Kirby was effectively a creative machine at this stage – almost the factory robot he had tried not to be at Fleischer, though, perhaps with the greater autonomy that he would never have had there. The rate at which he was working was phenomenal. Modern artists should take note (myself included) on the level of ficus and drive needed to keep hat going and strike deadlines time after time after time.

Having left DC Comics, Kirby began freelancing with Atlas. Because of the poor pay rates, Kirby would sit for hours daily at his drawing table at home, producing eight to ten pages of work a day. His first published work at Atlas was a cover and complete seven page story ‘I discovered the secret of Flying Saucers’ in Strange Worlds #1 (Dec. 1958). Initially working now with Christopher Rule as his regular inker, and later Dick Ayers, drew continued to work across genres, romance comics to war comics, crime stories to westerns but began to make his mark specifically on a series of Super-natural fantasy and science fiction stories featuring giant, drive-in-movie style monsters such as Groot (who made a shock reappearence in Erik Larsen’s Revenge of the Sinister Six in the early nineties in Spider-man, the Thing from Planet X; Grottu, King of the Insects and most famously Fin Fang Foom, Alien hybrid space dragon adapted into the Iron Man canon and now famous as Marvel’s classic beast of beasts. Rarely seen, Fin Fang Foom was last seen in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s madcap non-continuity-made-continuity escapade Nextwave in 2006. Through the titles such as Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and World of Fantasy, Kirby was now unbeknownst to him generating waves of creativity that he would carry on into the future. The sheer number of characters, scenarios and adventures he was bringing to life were incredible. The standard of these at such a rate would be questionable at best if it not were for one thing…

After freelancing even for Archie Comics, reuniting himself with Joe Simon to help develop the series The Fly and The Double Life of Private Strong (even drawing some issues of Classics Illustrated it was with Marvel Comics, with writer and editor-in-chief Stan Lee that Kirby would get into his stride with Superhero comics. Kirby was about to introduce the world to the most popular and consistently successful set of comic book characters the world had ever seen.

Fantastic Four #1 was only a few weeks away….

Next: The Age of Marvels Begins.

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