Jack Kirby at 100: an epic career in one epic panel

August 28 marked the 100th birthday of probably the most important creator in superhero comics history, Jack Kirby. Born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, Kirby had a decades-long career in comics and animation, starting in the 1930s and ending only in the years before his death in 1994. Perhaps no other artist has had a more far-reaching influence. Marvel and DC marked the centenary with special events, creators everywhere posted their own tributes, and Kirby even made it into the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Fitting tributes to the artist the industry calls the King.

It would be hard to overstate Jack Kirby’s influence on the world of modern comics — indeed, on modern media in general. After all, Kirby created or co-created (deep breath): Captain America, Groot, Fin Fang Foom, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Mighty Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Inhumans, Black Panther, the New Gods, OMAC, Kamandi, the Demon, the Eternals, Machine Man, and Devil Dinosaur, not to mention their various villains and supporting characters. We’re talking about the guy who created Doctor Doom, Magneto, Galactus, and Darkseid.

Kirby’s work is so important, so definitive, that it would be impossible to encompass it all in one go. So let’s not try. Instead, let’s take a look at just one instance of Kirby’s greatness: a single panel. But what a panel!

The image we’ll be discussing comes from 1972’s New Gods #6. In this issue, New Gods Orion and Lightray have been battling aquatic villains The Deep Six. Trapped on a boat with two human castaways and their dead son, Orion and Lightray come up with a desperate escape plan … or something …

… look, we’re not saying Jack Kirby’s plots always make a lot of sense at a detailed level, but check out this mighty full-page splash.

This is full-power Cosmic Kirby, a direct blast of visual imagery that combines science fiction, mythology and just plain old superheroics into a single page that encapsulates everything great about comic books. Does it make any sense? Not necessarily. Was the King a little too fond of quotation marks? Perhaps. But this page is even more impressive and dynamic when you put it into the context of a story that is simultaneously about a family torn apart by the generational conflicts of the era and some superheroes fighting fish-men with a terrible pun name. More than anyone else, Kirby’s mythological stuff seemed to move effortlessly between these different levels of interpretation, now a cosmic opera, now a straightforward superhero adventure, in a way that’s inspired generations of later creators.

One of the great things about Jack Kirby is that you don’t have to just appreciate the mad mythological stuff to think of him as a great creator. Most critics think of Fantastic Four #51’s “This Man … This Monster!” — co-created with Stan Lee — as Kirby’s pinnacle. This type of story exemplifies the Lee-Kirby collaboration, mixing far-out science-fiction adventure with a more personal focus on the emotions and dynamics of a family. It’s rightly regarded as one of the great comic stories.

But superhero soap opera or cosmic myth, whichever kind of superhero comics you’re into — or whichever kind of superhero movie, TV show, video game, action figure or lunchbox you enjoy — you owe a good part of it to Jack Kirby.

And although August 28 has come and gone, how can you confine the celebration of a career like the King’s to a single day? After all, much of the modern comics industry is basically a celebration of Kirby. So make 2017 the year you read that Kirby run you always meant to or at least spend an evening kicking back with an old favourite. You’ll be glad you did.

About James Holloway

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