A legend among comics fans, Jack Kirby was the gifted, overworked illustrator who made Marvel Comics possible. Two recent exhibitions reveal his artwork as an inventive “side-channel” within pictorial modernism.
The world of traditional comics is a zone of unfettered rhetoric—of superpowers, alliterative epithets and triple exclamation points. So non-comics people might look skeptically at the grandiose claims made for Jack Kirby (1917-1994), the prolific draftsman behind the rise of Marvel Comics. Fans often call Kirby the “Picasso of comic books.” Was he also, as Charles Hatfield, the curator of a recent Kirby retrospective, puts it, “one of the chief architects of the contemporary American imagination”?1 Hatfield may have been thinking partly about Kirby’s posthumous film legacy—including recent blockbusters like The Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Thor. Their breathtaking effects and billion-dollar box office receipts have turned Kirby’s inventions of the 1960s into the global face of American culture. But Hatfield’s exhibition, “Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby,” focused squarely on Kirby’s actual pencil and ink drawings. And last winter, a highly praised show at the Rhode Island School of Design included Kirby images alongside paintings by established figures like Elizabeth Murray and Jim Nutt.2 The curator, Dan Nadel, describes Kirby as a “visionary” who has “never received his proper due as an American artist.”3 Together, Hatfield’s and Nadel’s exhibitions may mark the beginning of a wider appreciation of Kirby’s achievement.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg on the (then) squalid streets of New York’s Lower East Side, Kirby was a James Cagney-ish figure—a short, tough, talented kid who never finished high school. In his early 20s, Kirby turned bitter memories of ethnic street fights into the idealistic anti-Nazi pugilism of Captain America, his first comic book success.4Only a few years later, he was drafted and sent to battle actual Nazis in France. After the war, Kirby weathered the ups and downs of the comics industry, finally triumphing in the glory years of the early 1960s, when he and writer/editor Stan Lee created a string of wildly imaginative characters and plots—the Marvel superhero universe. Kirby was the main force in the collaboration, but he worked as a freelancer, without royalties. Upstaged and underpaid, Kirby finally left Marvel for DC Comics, where he was given free rein to write and draw his magnum opus, four interwoven comics that outlined a dazzling quasi-biblical science-fiction epic. Beloved by aficionados, Kirby’s “Fourth World” tetralogy did something unexpected at the newsstands: it flopped. Undaunted, Kirby continued to invent new titles, but the caliber of his work gradually changed. His drawings grew coarser, his stories and dialogue more oddly preadolescent. In his later years, Kirby became, as Jonathan Lethem has described him, a kind of “primitivist genius,” 5 sadly out of step with the field he had once dominated. The Kirby story is something of a melodrama, and it’s easy to see why it has inspired essays, biographies, at least two plays and a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Meanwhile, there is a vast online universe of Kirbyana, including a digital archive, the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center, which is methodically collecting thousands of pages of his original drawings.
But importing Kirby into the actual museum world is a tricky proposition. Like all comics artists, Kirby worked for reproduction. His penciled drawings were overdrawn by inkers, letterers and colorists. What survives today are either sketches or commercial teamwork. Worse, Kirby’s terrain was kids’ stuff: superhero and science fiction stories—some of them lovably preposterous, some just preposterous. Possibly worst of all, Kirby was, as Hatfield delicately puts it, “a consummate jobber,” in other words, a hack. Kirby’s estimated 35,000 lifetime pages make him possibly the most prolific draftsman in the history of our species. Many of those pages are visibly rushed, and it’s fair to wonder whether his lean, impatient style reflects the looming deadlines that governed his week. Some of the most basic things we expect from artists—freedom, touch, fevered concentration on single images—do not apply to Kirby.