Today marks the 100th birthday of Jack Kirby, the legendary comics creator and artist responsible for the most popular characters in the medium. Alongside Stan Lee, Kirby co-founded such superhero institutions as The Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men at Marvel, before crafting the Fourth World, a sci-fi opera inspired by the Christian Bible, at DC. Veteran cartoonist Walter Simonson is one of the few auteurs capable of channeling Kirby’s unrelenting energy and drama, as seen on sterling runs for Thor, Fantastic Four, Manhunter and Orion. In honor of The King of Comics, Simonson offers the story of how he discovered the man who helped create our generation’s most salient myths.
When I was a kid, I read comic books. I loved ‘em. Mostly, I bought them with my own allowance, although my parents would occasionally spring for one if we were out having dinner at the local mall. I read pretty much everything I could find. Superheroes, Classic Illustrated, TV spinoffs, movie adaptations, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Little Lulu and Little Iodine, SF comics, Turok: Son of Stone and on and on. My folks gave me a corner of the toy shelf in the dining room as a place to put my comics. Over time, the stack grew to be a couple feet high. I reread everything multiple times and can still remember panels and lines of dialogue that are now 60 or more years old. (By contrast, I can’t remember stuff I wrote last month!)
When I was old enough, I went off to college. Naturally, when I came home one day for some vacation or other, I discovered that my mom had tossed out my comic books. That really was a mom’s job back in the day. I told her I was cool with it. At that point in my life, I was a geology major in college, and the idea of working in comics professionally was still a ways off. This was before we all knew that eventually, we would pretty much be able to find any published comic book in some back issue store or online somewhere. So as far as I could tell right then, my little collection of comics had been consigned to the dustbin of history. I was a bit disappointed but I didn’t let on to my mom. What would have been the point?
In the fullness of time, I went back eventually and replaced a couple of the comics I had really liked (Frank Thorne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick movie adaptations) and let the rest go. And, I got into comics professionally. (In fairness to my mom, she did eventually tell me how sorry she was that she had tossed out my comic books, and I reassured her that it was fine. And it was.)
There was, however, one comic that I don’t believe I ever replaced. And yet it sticks in my memory as though it were yesterday and I was still rereading it occasionally. It was a copy of Strange Tales #92, a comic that came out around the end of 1961. The cover, rather unusually, featured three sequential panels of a man being hunted and found by an alien. The clear implication is that the man is in deep trouble.
The fact that I had the comic at all was odd. Atlas Comics, the forerunners of Marvel Comics, were not distributed widely where I lived in Maryland. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing an Atlas Comic when I was growing up except when we were visiting faraway relatives. And I don’t remember buying this one. But somehow, it ended up in my collection, a unique example of that company’s imprint.
Jack Kirby was the principal artist in the issue. The comic was an anthology of several short stories and Jack drew two of them, the cover feature and one other. That lead story is the one I remember, “The Thing Hunts for Me!” A man sees an alien craft landing on Earth, the alien sees him as well, and the hunt is on as the man tries to escape before the alien can catch and destroy him.
Jack drew a relentless hunt. Jack’s aliens did not look like anyone else’s aliens. They were dangerous with “alieness.” His characters in general, alien or human, posed with drama. There was something alive, almost sinister, about the locations he drew, whether it was the swamp where the alien craft first landed, or the boarding house where the chase finally ended. Even the coloring was strange, full of raw hues and knockouts where one color was washed over most of a panel, like a raw spotlight shining on the scene. Most of all, the work was vital, bursting with energy even in those panels where characters were merely standing around. And if they were in motion, they moved with authority. It was like no other comic book I had ever seen.
In microcosm, that was the genius of Jack Kirby. He was like no other artist who worked in comics, a uniquely gifted individual who brought a new sensibility and a fire to the art and storytelling of American comic books, a fire that burns to this day. I’m happy to say I’m still learning from him.
Happy birthday, Jack.
New York 2017