Jack “The King” Kirby and the Silver Age of Comics

The Silver Age of Comics had been underway for nearly eight years before I became a serious reader (this is assuming we regard the re-appearance of The Flash in DC Comics’ Showcase #4 in 1956 as the legitimate starting point of the era). At the time of my fledgling interest in comics there were essentially two comic book companies, DC and Everyone Else. DC held the distinction of being THE COMIC BOOK COMPANY as the decade of the ’60s opened by virtue of reviving several established Golden Age superheroes principally, Superman, Batman, the already mentioned Flash, the Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman and starting this new resurgence in superhero interest.

Then there were the other companies. Harvey with its stable of characters such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Dot, Little Lulu, and Baby Huey. These were cutsie comics aimed at the very young, like me at the time. Gold Key, with one of my favorite characters, Turok, Son of Stone (I was a unabashed dinosaur fan as most young boys are). Archie Comics. Dell. Carlton. Fawcett. Classics Illustrated. (Some of these companies were hard to keep track of, Gold Key broke off from Dell. Fawcett, which published Captain Marvel and was sued by National [DC] for copyright infringement, folded, and sold it’s characters to Carlton.)

And then there was the struggling Atlas (formerly Timely). Atlas in the ‘50s was the top selling comic publisher, according to one source, but then in one fell swoop all of that went away. They lost their distributor and went from publishing 75 titles one month to none the next. Things looked grim, according to some stories, and yet something happened that changed their name, and fortunes, to Marvel. By the mid-60s, they were the up and coming comics publisher about the time I was old enough to appreciate comics (read: too old for Casper).

Still, it was hard to draw me away from characters like The Atom (first Silver Age appearance, 1961), the Justice League of America (appeared in 1960), and the Legion of Superheroes (appearing originally in 1958), which was the first Silver Age superhero group and in my mind one of the best with some of the most interesting characters ever created: Mon-El (sort of a reverse Superboy with lead as his nemesis instead of kryptonite), Ultraboy, Bouncing Boy, Lighting Lad, Cosmic Lad, Triplicate Girl, Phantom Girl (who I had a secret crush on in grade school—there was just something about a skin-tight white jumpsuit), Brainiac 5, and of course, Superboy. I’d be hard pressed to name any comic that I enjoyed as much or followed as closely as the Legion.

Marvel, too, had its denizens from the Golden Age. A superhero revival back in the early ’50s however failed and Timely/Atlas went on to other comic genres, such as horror, westerns, and romance. It wasn’t until DC’s own revival toward the end of the decade of superheroes succeeded that Timely/Atlas, now named Marvel, decided to give superheroes one more try.

The year was 1961, and the newly formed team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced a comic book that would change the face of comics forever.

The introduction of the Fantastic Four was very well received. Here were heroes who didn’t have secret identities, they often bickered, and one member was essentially a deformed monster. These weren’t your father’s superheroes, by gum! Marvel then struck gold again with the release of other anti-, or out of the ordinary, heroes, such as The X-Men, The Hulk, and the ever-lovin’ Spiderman.

With these successes, Marvel was able to reintroduce it’s Golden Age heroes, Captain America, Namor, the Sub-Mariner, (the Human Torch, Timely’s first ever hero — which oddly enough was an android, despite the name — had already been incorporated into the character Johnny Storm [aka Human Torch] as a member of the Fantastic Four), and the Tarzan-like character Ka-Zar.

And they continued to create new legends. Iron Man. Thor. Dr. Strange. And Nick Fury (who starred in two different books, as a WWII soldier in Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos, and as a secret agent type in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.E.I.L.D.).

But what was it about these characters that differentiated Marvel from the other DC-wannabes? Were these heroes all that much better than the ones Harvey or Gold Key were attempting? Were they better than those from rival DC?

Well, yes, the Marvel heroes differed from nearly every other superhero offering by being human. They had lives. Oh, sure Superman was Clark Kent and he’d be Clark Kent when it was convenient. And Batman became Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy. But none of them had pimples. They didn’t really have girl problems. And they certainly didn’t have homework or even job problems. There was no angst.

Marvel made their characters realistic and plausible. They were ordinary people with ordinary problems (and a super power or two). Essentially, they had created an additional layer of human interest n their stories and Marvel became popular on college campuses across the country.

But, true believers, there was something else that Marvel had that no one else had going for them. What was it? The title of this blog post should have given it away by now. Marvel had the one thing that put them immediately head and shoulders above the competition. In their bullpen they had the person many consider to have been the greatest comic illustrator of all time! Jack “The King” Kirby.

Jack Kirby created Captain America back in the Golden Age, along with many other characters and now at Marvel he was part of one of the most prolific writer/artist teams in comics history, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It’s hard to separate the two and say who was responsible for what (mainly because Kirby is dead and Lee is a self-promoting blowhard – and I mean that in the nicest possible way), but suffice to say that like Lennon and McCartney, they were the best at what they did for the decade of the ’60s and produced some of the greatest “hits” of all time.

Together they created the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the Inhumans, Nick Fury, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Annihilus, The Watcher, Doctor Doom, Dr. Droom (a precursor of sorts to Dr. Strange), Magneto, the X-Men, Black Panther, and the Avengers to name just a few.

Kirby was involved with nearly every Marvel creation of the ’60s in some capacity, whether it was illustrating whole books, creating covers, or simply providing layouts for other artists to draw over. He not only was Marvel’s House of Style, it is not hard to say that Kirby WAS Marvel for much of the ’60s. In fact, one might say that without Kirby there would have been no Marvel revolution at all.

Even Steve Ditko’s output, Marvel’s other celebrated workhorse (credited with creating Spiderman and Dr. Strange), was at best half of what Jack Kirby produced.

The King’s output was simply phenomenal. It is said that when Jim Steranko took over the reins of Captain America he, for some reason, missed a deadline and Kirby produced issue #112 over a weekend. This was in the middle of Steranko’s “Death of Captain America” and Kirby’s issue was a retrospective look at the Star Spangled Avenger’s storied career, which seemed apropos since Kirby had created the character during the Golden Age.

What was it about Jack Kirby’s artwork that was so special? In a word, it was dynamic. His characters seem to leap from the pages. They were robust and full of life. Other artists at the start of the Silver Age drew characters that simply stood there, like mannequins. Oh, the artwork was competent enough; some of it artistically superb, but it just didn’t have the kinetic energy of Kirby’s drawings. In contrast, even a standing Kirby figure seemed ready to explode into action at any moment.

Even starting in the Golden Age, Kirby was an innovator. Other comic book artists back in the ’30s took the familiar newspaper comic panels and simply transferred them to comic books. In other words, every page was set up as a series of frames that told the story. Few artists at that time exploited the fact that they were now telling stories on pages instead of in strips.

Kirby, on the other hand, broke those frames down. Gone were the atypical rectangles. His pages were formed from all sorts of shapes with characters spilling over from one frame into the next. His storytelling style was as dynamic as were his characters.

By the time of Marvel’s resurrection, Kirby was a seasoned professional just reaching his stride as an illustrator and storyteller.

In the ’60s he continued to experiment and began the use of photo-collages in his storytelling. He’d use real photographs on the covers or interior pages and illustrate over it, giving the scene a surrealistic, almost three-dimensional, feel. The images of the Fantastic Four drawn over photos of space were often breathtaking.

Another innovation that Kirby is credited with, and only recently did I learn that it had a name, was “Kirby Dots” or “Kirby Krackle.” This was a way of using black space or dots to create depictions of energy and smoke. I think our friends at Wikipedia can describe it much better than I can. Just come back when you’ve finished. Click here to go to Kirby Dots.

Then, in a move that shocked many of us who were loyal subjects of the King, he defected to join rival DC where he created characters that have since become staples in the DC universe: New Gods, Mr. Miracle, the Demon, and Darkseid.

Many of us Kirbyites were, of course, heartbroken. It was like when the star athlete of your home team becomes a free agent and goes to play for your most bitter rival. We didn’t understand anything about money, creative control of intellectual property, or rights. We just knew that Kirby had left us for the enemy and it hurt.

Oh, I tried to follow his creations. I picked up Kirby’s comics, but I felt dirty, betrayed somehow. It wasn’t the same. It was like we had lost our innocence. The Silver Age was drawing to a close and Kirby’s move seemed to have accelerated that process. Marvel, once the four color version of Camelot, was without its King.

Kirby’s shadow loomed large over the comic book landscape. He was there at the very beginning of the Golden Age. He was involved with nearly every major milestone and innovation in comic books throughout the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and into the Modern Era. He influenced generations of illustrators and thrilled generations of readers. Kirby was the heart and soul of comic books and when he died in 1994, many have said and I agree, that he took the comic book industry with him.

The recent death of Captain America, Kirby’s ultimate creation, seems like a backhanded insult to the man who left such a large footprint on the history of comic books and single-handedly raised Marvel out of the quagmire of mediocrity. One can’t help but wonder if Captain America’s death has Kirby spinning in his grave.

Information culled from various sources including Wikipedia, POVOnline, and Jack Kirby Biography.

Disclaimer: The previous is based entirely on how I recall the ’60s and might have absolutely nothing to do with reality. Please read it with that in mind and simply enjoy my oftimes illogical flights of fancy.



8 thoughts on “Jack “The King” Kirby and the Silver Age of Comics

  1. Wonderful article, Ed. It’s my childhood you’re talking about here.

    I bothered Ed and e-mailed him and suggested we do a two-parter comics article. This is his part. Now I have to settle down (tomorrow, tomorrow) and write my article, about the other greats he doesn’t mention in detail. And I will do so with the depressing knowledge that my article will pale in comparison with his, which is terrifically done.

  2. Wonderful article, Ed. It’s my childhood you’re talking about here.I bothered Ed and e-mailed him and suggested we do a two-parter comics article. This is his part. Now I have to settle down (tomorrow, tomorrow) and write my article, about the other greats he doesn’t mention in detail. And I will do so with the depressing knowledge that my article will pale in comparison with his, which is terrifically done.

  3. No, not really. I’ll grant you, comics do nothing for me – but I honestly do appreciate the market, and the deep sentiment they hold with those who enjoy them.

    I’ve always worked with guys who are/were/are seriously into comics, and I mean as deeply as you pair are. I wanted to contribute my appreciation for your appreciation, ‘sall 😀

  4. No, not really. I’ll grant you, comics do nothing for me – but I honestly do appreciate the market, and the deep sentiment they hold with those who enjoy them.I’ve always worked with guys who are/were/are seriously into comics, and I mean as deeply as you pair are. I wanted to contribute my appreciation for your appreciation, ‘sall 😀

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