The Comic Book King, Part 1
Jack "King" Kirby, The Father of the Action Hero, A look at one of the most influential creators in comic book history

All the superlatives I might come up with somehow seem inadequate when it comes to summing up the impact Jack Kirby has had on the comics field. The list of his accomplishments might easily go beyond the space allotted for this feature. Suffice it to say, nobody has done more for comics than Jack Kirby, with the result that everyone working in the field today is reaping the benefits of the groundbreaking innovations he established.

Jack Kirby was born Jack Kurtzberg on August 28 1917 in New York City's Lower East Side. While growing up in his rough and tumble tenement neighborhood, Kirby eagerly digested science fiction pulps and the fantasy worlds of Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.G. Wells, as well as studying such illustrator greats like Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and Howard Pyle. His one stab at a formal art education, attending New York's Pratt Institute, was cut short when his father lost his job, forcing the young Kirby to help support his family by hawking newspapers on the city streets. The Depression didn't stop his interest in art or story telling, however, and by the age of 18 he had landed a job at the Max Fleischer studios (Betty Boop, Popeye).

The job proved invaluable as Jack worked as an animation "inbetweener," completing the action between one motion and the next. It was a learning experience that would serve him well in the years to come. When the Fleischer studio moved to Florida, Kirby got a job with the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate, creating a variety of comic strips (Cyclone Burke, Solar Legion, Abdul Jones) under a number of pseudonyms.

By 1938 Kirby was ready for his first break in comics, working on a science fiction series and an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo for Fiction House's Jumbo Comics #1, an oversized comic produced by the Will Eisner/S.M. Iger studio. This followed by a stint on one of comics' earliest super heroes, The Blue Beetle, for Fox syndicate.

It was at Fox that Kirby first met the man with whom he would form a partnership that would add up to a major force in the comics field, Joe Simon. Together they produced The Blue Bolt for Fox and, in 1941, Captain Marvel Adventures for Fawcett.

Simon switched over to Timely Comics (now Marvel) and Kirby soon followed, teaming up to produce Marvel Boy, The Fiery Mask, and Captain Daring in Marvel Mystery. Kirby's output was awesome. "The production pressure was overwhelming," Kirby later recalled, "I had to draw faster and faster, and the figures began to show it. Arms got longer, legs bent to the action, torsos twisted with exaggerated speed. My pace created distortions. I discovered the figures had to be extreme to have impact."

The result of that prodigious effort was Kirby's development of a kind of action short-hand that packed a maximum of action in a minimum of space and time. A style developing into the kind of comics story telling that would influence generations of future comics creators.

1941 was the break-through year for the Simon-Kirby team. It was also the year when war was threatening in the Pacific and it didn't take the gift of clairvoyance to realize that it was only a matter of time before the United States would enter the Second World War. Comics publishers realized that comics readers needed a patriotic hero. Nine months before Pearl Harbor Simon and Kirby came up with their "Star-Spangled Avenger," who punched Hitler in the mouth in Captain America #1, April 1941.

Just as the timing was perfect for a super hero called Captain America, Jack Kirby was the perfect artist for his flag-draped creation. Few could match the maximum excitement Kirby was capable of injecting in each panel, nor could they equal his handling of motion and form in his masterfully choreographed battles. Simon and Kirby created a total of 35 Captain America stories for Timely, highly sought-after collector's items today (a near mint copy of the first issue is valued at $56,000 in Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide).

While at Timely, Simon and Kirby are credited with creating the kid gang genre with The Young Allies in the summer of 1941, followed by The Tough Kids Squad in March 1942. Then, due to a financial dispute, the two moved to National Comics where they introduced a back-up feature, The Boy Commandos Starring Rip Carter in Detective Comics #64, June 1942. Each of the Boy Commandos represented a nation fighting the Axis, a multi-national group of kids serving as operatives and mascots for U.S. Army Captain Rip Carter. The new Nazi-fighting series proved so popular that it quickly gained its own title, Boy Commandos #1, Winter 1942.

Kirby continued to develop as an artist on the series, employing cinematic techniques he had picked up while spending boyhood hours in local movie theaters, picking up an education in story telling from directors like Howard Hawks, Victor Fleming, and John Ford.

This experimentation came to an end when Kirby and Simon were drafted in 1942. After their discharges in 1945, the two returned to comics only to discover that the Golden Age of comics had ended with the finish of the Second World War.

(Next: The Pre-Marvel Years.)

--Steve Stiles