A Profile of Jack “The King” Kirby and His Key Role in Comic Book History

A comic artist and writer, Jack Kirby helped to create comic books as we know them today. His innovative comics make him a staple in the history of comics.


Lara Adamjee

Here is Jack Kirby’s childhood apartment on 147 Essex Street in Manhattan, where he first developed his unique art style.

The greatest comic artist of all time may be highly debatable, but I believe that the answer is obvious — Jack Kirby. Born in the Lower East Side on August 28th, 1917, Kirby dedicated forty-two years of his life to the comic industry. Just like his nickname Jack “The King” Kirby suggests, he is the King of Comics.

Kirby’s comics are widely known for his incorporation of politics and real-world events, and his influence on future comic artists. He never stopped working, creating hundreds of characters and always finding a new project to work on the second an old one was finished. Even though his artistic skills alone make him a cornerstone of the comic community, he has also gone above and beyond in his writing. 

While sometimes other writers may have done dialogue for his stories, he wrote the stories with the pictures,” said Mark Badger, a comic artist who is well-known for his work on Gargoyle, Abstract Kirby, and Martian Manhunter, when I interviewed him about Jack Kirby over e-mail. 

Jack Kirby’s first big hit was Captain America. Created in 1941 with Kirby’s long-time friend and fellow comic book artist, Joe Simon, Steve Rogers was one of the first explicitly political superheroes. Inspired by his childhood in the Lower East Side, Kirby created Captain America with his own experiences in mind. 

In an interview with Leonard Pitts Jr, Kirby asserted that he used Captain America as a way to fight the battles that he could not. The prejudice he faced as a Jewish immigrant growing up and the anger he felt towards the injustices committed in Europe were poured into Captain America

When the first issue of Captain America came out, the United States was on the verge of joining World War II. At this time only a little more than 52% of Americans wanted to join the fighting in Europe. Regardless, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon went through with publishing the first issue of Captain America with the iconic cover of Captain America punching Hitler in the face. 

Since comic books were hugely popular at the time, Captain America effectively spread pro-war propaganda. Comics were cheap, widely available, and entertaining. They inspired hope in soldiers and Americans who were concerned about the possibility of the war coming to America. After the creation of Captain America, the idea of World War II-centered characters and comics caught on quickly. Various characters were created in rapid succession, with Super-American and General Glory being two notable examples.

Ironically, Kirby’s most iconic character is the one that is most often erroneously credited to others. When the unreleased 1985 Captain America movie was announced, Cannon Studios released a poster with it. At first glance, the poster seems normal but if you take a closer look you can see that it states “based on Stan Lee’s Marvel comic strip character.” Contrary to what the posters state, Stan Lee was just an assistant when Captain America was created and had no input in the process. 

The same mistake happened in the comic Captain America: The End. This time, Jack Kirby was credited with creating the character. However, Joe Simon was replaced by Stan Lee.

In 1943, Jack Kirby took a break from inspiring the troops to join them. He was drafted into the combat infantry of the Army. After his lieutenant learned that he was the comic artist who created Captain America, Kirby was made a scout. Two years after being drafted, he was medically discharged due to hypothermia. 

In an interview with Gary Groth, Kirby mentioned that he disliked his time in the army, finding it too strict and restrictive for him. Not only was it an unenjoyable time for him, but it also set him back in the comic industry. By the time he got out of the army, he was only able to get smaller gigs and created minor, irrelevant characters.

After the end of the war, there was a downward trend of superhero comic readers. With the fear and paranoia that surrounded the war going away, so did the thrill and excitement of most superhero comics. Additionally, the relatable aspect of these superheroes actively fighting for the right thing and defeating bad guys was gone. 

This left a void in the comic book industry, giving Kirby the perfect opportunity to re-enter the industry in full force.

With the rise in teenage readership and the fame of Archie Comics, which occasionally featured romantic subplots, Kirby and recently discharged Joe Simon realized the potential of romance-centered comics. Subsequently, the first issue of “Young Romance” was released in 1947. 

It was a complete hit. It ran for 208 issues: 124 under Prize Imprint and 84 under DC Comics. For the majority of its run, the comic sold over 200,000 copies per issue, ultimately averaging over 100,000 copies sold per issue across the entire run.

The romance genre went strong for almost thirty years, with nearly every publishing company having its own “Young Romance”-esque comic. Unfortunately, due to the sexual revolution and Comic Code Authority, romance comics almost completely stopped selling by the 1970s. 

This decline in romance comics may be why Kirby’s arguably biggest contribution to the comic industry is often the most ignored. Modern-day comic readers have limited access to romance comics and less material in comparison to superhero comics.

However, Kirby’s work in the romance genre highlights what makes his art so unique. He makes his readers empathize with the characters and dramatizes his art in a way that leaves them on the edge of their seats. Badger said that, “In Jack’s comics not only do the actions of the characters as their drawn tell the story but each page the camera whirls thru the space with long shots, close up and three-quarter views. Each sequence is designed so your eye is focused on the emotional moment of power, not just the standard comic book drawing.” 

Although some may not find stories in the romance genre to be as thrilling as superhero or horror stories, they still appeal to readers through passion.

Kirby and Simons disbanded in 1954. A little after that, Kirby started working again for Marvel Comics — known as Atlas Comics at the time — which is where his memorable partnership with Stan Lee began.

Kirby and Lee were the most iconic comic book duo of their time. According to a poll conducted by Game, they created three of the ten most famous comic characters: Iron Man, The Hulk, and Thor. If we include Spider-Man and Captain America, it means that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee have collectively created a significant portion of the most popular superheroes in the world. 

Arguably, their biggest achievement is the creation of the Fantastic Four. As the Comic Code Authority became more influential, many comic book companies began cutting down on violence, crime, and other mature topics. This meant that comic writers and artists had to get a little more creative in addressing certain topics and even creating stories. 

Thus began the rise of the Silver Age of comics. Even though the exact beginning of the Silver Age is often debated, most fans agree that it was with the Flash in DC Showcase #4. However, for Marvel, the Fantastic Four #1 is considered the first of their Silver Age comics. 

It’s the model for everything that came after it I think,” Badger said after stating that the Fantastic Four is Kirby’s most influential comic.

The Fantastic Four was not only the first Marvel superhero team but they were Marvel’s first superhero family. With Sue Storm dealing with her hot-headed little brother, Reed Richards and Ben Grimm’s nerd/jock friendship, and Reed and Sue’s iconic romance the Fantastic Four was relatable to everyone.

Despite being a staple of the Silver Age, The Fantastic Four still has a strong fan base. Just earlier this year Fantastic Four #1 from 1961 was sold for $1.5 million.

But, even with all that Kirby and Lee accomplished, many fans highly criticized their partnership.

In all of their Fantastic Four comics, Lee is credited as the writer while Kirby is credited as the artist. Lee has stated that he and Kirby followed what’s dubbed the Marvel Method. The Marvel Method is when the writer comes up with a general idea for a plot and the artist then fills in the details and does all the art. 

However, after Kirby left Marvel in 1978, he started doing interviews in which he would claim that most of the time, Lee was busy with other projects and barely had a hand in the entire process. 

Lee stated that he came up with them before he and Kirby even began working on the first issue and then Kirby later contributed many ideas to it (Comics Interview #5 (1983)). Kirby contradicted this statement by saying that he created the Fantastic Four to raise awareness about the current radiation issues.

Jack Kirby’s claim does have some evidence to back it up. In the first issue of the Fantastic Four, the ending shown by the art versus the story shown by the speech bubbles and captions is wildly different. 

The villain at the end of the issue, Mole Man, is defeated by the fantastic four because Johnny Storm seals the entrance to the tunnels in which Mole Man and his army of Moloids dwell. Then, Mole Man blows up the island above said tunnels. The second part seems unnecessary because either way Mole Man is sealed underground forever. Also, it is out of character for the man whose entire goal is to conquer the planet and create a home for his people above ground to decide to keep himself underground.

When you remove the dialogue, however, it looks like Johnny Storm just blew up the island, sealing Mole Man inside. This removes the second explosion and makes a lot more sense. But, there is no known reason behind why Lee would want to add Mole Man blowing up the island instead of Johnny Storm, so his plan may have been the original one all along.

Following his leave from Marvel, Kirby continued to do freelance work until 1987, when he officially retired. He passed away seven years later on February 6th, 1994 due to heart failure.

Even twenty-eight years past his death, Jack Kirby’s art lives on. 

Badger puts it best. When I asked him if Jack Kirby inspired any of his work, he said that, “When I was first doing superhero comics, a monthly book reading Jack’s work was the essential manual on how to set up a narrative, pick shots, and pick a full page splash to hook you into the story.” Kirby’s work has set the basis for comic art everywhere.

There are also numerous tributes to Kirby’s work, one of which is when Mark Waid took some of Kirby’s old Captain America artwork and created a whole new story in Captain America #700. Another is Badger’s Abstract Kirby series which highlights a commonly overlooked form of comic art that Kirby used.

If you aren’t into reading comics and just want to know more about his revolutionary artwork check out Jeremy Kirby’s Instagram account which is dedicated to sharing his grandfather’s work or the Jack Kirby online museum that contains a digital archive of thousands of pages of Kirby’s work.

“In Jack’s comics, not only do the actions of the characters as their drawn tell the story but each page the camera whirls thru the space with long shots, close up and three-quarter views. Each sequence is designed so your eye is focused on the emotional moment of power, not just the standard comic book drawing,” said Mark Badger, a comic artist who is well-known for his work on Gargoyle, Abstract Kirby, and Martian Manhunter.