The Comic Book King, Part 4

One of the Most Influential Creators in Comics History and the Relaunch of Marvel

The new infusion of ideas that began at Marvel in the fall of 1961 can be in great part to Jack Kirby. Prior to "The Marvel Explosion" the comic book field was, for all practical purposes, a washed-up industry dominated by just one company. Kirby had found work at that very company, National/DC Comics, writing and drawing Challengers of the Unknown, an entertaining title about a team of non-super troubleshooters.

In the spring of 1958 Kirby had a falling out with National and left the company for work at Classics Illustrated and for a last hurrah with his old partner Joe Simon at MLJ Comics (now Archie), working on The Fly (originally conceived of as "Spiderman"!) and The Double Life of Private Strong.The two books were the first super hero titles that Kirby had worked on in years, but the attempted resurrection of the genre was premature. After their cancellation, the famous fifteen-year partnership between the two men went on hiatus.

The only comics line left for Kirby to work for was Atlas Comics. Founded in 1950 by Martin Goodman, Atlas was barely hanging on due to the general pathetic state of the industry and the collapse of its distributor, American News. Somehow the company survived, but only just barely, down from 75 titles to only 16. To make matters worse, their new distributor, Independent News, arbitrarily limited the number of Atlas titles to a paltry eight a month.

Under those discouraging circumstances, Atlas editor Stan Lee soldiered on, reduced to using only a small core of freelancers-- who would later become the nucleus of the new Marvel Age. Kirby was one of those, joining with Don Heck, Steve Ditko, and John Guinta. The comics they worked on were a rather uninspiring mix of romance, adventure, and war titles, as well as some borderline science fiction magazines (Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales) that specialized in tales of oversized alien invaders with unlikely-sounding names ("Fin Fang Foom" being the classic example).

There's a story that Jack found Stan weeping alone at his desk and bucked up his spirits by promising to revitalize the company. (Lee vehemently denies this.) It's difficult to properly assign credit to that revitalization because both Lee and Kirby have a different account of those events. One thing is certain, however; the first impetus for change came about on the golf links. There Martin Goodman got a tip from golf buddy DC editor Jack Liebowitz that DC's Justice League of America was enjoying good sales. Subsequently, Goodman "suggested" to Lee that Atlas get its own team title.

And so the beginning of a new comic book renaissance was launched with The Fantastic Four #1, debuting in November 1961. (I wish I had taken better care of my copy, which is now worth $19,000 in near mint condition. But then, I thought the new Marvel was just a flash in the pan!)

Jack Kirby has said that his Challengers of the Unknown was a precursor and inspiration for The Fantastic Four, and there are similarities, but whatever the case, his claim illustrates the problem of assigning proper credit to whoever was the primary force behind the birth of "The House of Ideas." Kirby had considerable input on all of Marvel's new titles and designed many of the new characters and their costumes and attributes. On the other hand, the new Marvel technique of working up a story originated with Stan Lee, a process that involved Lee coming up with a characterization and rough plot and then turning over the concept to the artist who would take it from there. His method of eliminating the initial script freed artists from the old restrictions that might have otherwise hampered their creativity.

Lee and Kirby established a series of groundbreaking innovations with The Fantastic Four. The introduction of the flawed hero (Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm were always at each other's throats and Reed and Sue Richards had their flare-ups as well) marked a new era for the comics field, as well as reviving Marvel's fortunes.

After the success of The Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby came up with another victim of metamorphous, The Incredible Hulk, the most tragically flawed marvel super-hero of all (May 1962). Although the Hulk's first title only lasted six issues, the jolly green giant would make a comeback in Tales to Astonish #59 (August 1964).

With higher sales figures, Marvel was able to renegotiate a better deal with Independent News, their distributor. With no more limitation to the amount of titles that could be published, there followed an avalanche of characters and books. Within a few short years, Marvel's stable was expanded to include Iron Man, Ant-Man, The Avengers, Simon and Kirby's Captain America, The X-Men, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Silver Surfer, Galactus, The Inhumans, The Black Panther, and Spider-Man (which was drawn by Steve Ditko but based on a character Kirby had designed for his own old company, Mainline Comics).

Kirby, in designing many of these characters, helped Marvel climb to its supreme position in the comics field. The comics he helped create are hot collectors items.

Marvel also generated a considerable body of other collectible merchandise. Over 80 American companies are licensed the rights to produce Marvel memorabilia, from tee shirts to 14K chessboards. The problem with all this success, however, was that Jack Kirby, as a mere contractual worker, was sharing in very little of it. That, plus Marvel's insistence on retaining all of Kirby's originals, led Kirby to break with the company he had done so much for. In 1970 "The King" began working on his "Forth World" concept (The New Gods, The Forever People, Jimmy Olsen, and Mr. Miracle) for DC Comics. He would return to Marvel in the early nineteen eighties, but hardly with the same impact.

Next: Jack Kirby's Fourth World

--Steve Stiles