Jack Kirby: The Forgotten Legend of Marvel Comics

By: JJ Ledewitz  |  October 24, 2023

By JJ Ledewitz, Staff Writer

Stan Lee. A name bearing the mental images of hundreds of popular superheroes. Yet, few recognize the man who arguably contributed even more to the world of comics – Jack Kirby. This is the story of how his industry-changing work was eternally undermined by someone obsessed with burying him in the past, and erasing his impact on their billion-dollar corporation.

Born Jacob Kurtzburg in 1917 to Jewish-Austrian parents in New York, Kirby struggled to find an outlet for his artistic passion until he joined the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate in 1936. There, he began his journey working specifically in creating comic books. It was a few years later, while writing and drawing for the comic book packager Eisner & Iger, that he adopted the name Jack Kirby, a name he viewed as more professional-sounding .

Kirby embarked on a brief tenure at comic book publisher Fox Feature Syndicate, where he crossed paths with editor Joe Simon. Their mutual admiration for each other’s work led them to a small pulp magazine called Timely Comics. Together, they created the patriotic superhero Captain America, whose inaugural issue sold out in days. Recognizing their talents, Timely editor Martin Goodman promoted them both. Despite this, Kirby and Simon were unhappy with their current pay, so they sought work at National Comics Publications. This comics group offered over 5 times Goodman’s pay. The job was supposed to stay secret, but many people knew, including the young Timely editorial assistant, Stanley Lieber. Goodman eventually learned the duo’s plan and fired them upon completion of Captain America Comics #10. Kirby was convinced it was Lieber who sold them out. This was the beginning of a tense relationship between the two of them.

The duo had trouble finding footing at National, but eventually reached success with two comic book “kid-gangs,” groups of vigilante teenagers, Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion. These titles skyrocketed them into the industry. But then World War II shook everything, and once it was over, they found themselves at the comic group Harvey Comics. Within this new creative environment, they demonstrated their adaptability by creating comics of the ever-changing trends of the era. From westerns, to 3-D media, to crime, and finally to romance. Their new comic book, Young Romance, proved to be an extraordinary success by selling millions of copies per month. This comic became the archetype for numerous imitations from smaller publishers, but none could rival Kirby and Simon. The duo worked together until they parted ways in 1957, with Simon going into advertising and Kirby returning to freelance comic writing.

Kirby returned to Timely Comics, which had transformed quite a bit. Former editorial assistant Stanley Lieber, now going by Stan Lee, had become Editor-In-Chief and changed the name to Marvel Comics. For the next few years, Kirby ping-ponged between Marvel and National Comics as a freelancer until 1961, when he temporarily cemented himself at Marvel and changed the comic-book industry forever.

Fantastic Four #1, the first issue of a collaborative series by Kirby and Lee, came out in November of 1961 and was an unexpected hit. This marked a departure from conventional superhero stories, by introducing a unique blend of family dynamics and superhuman elements that resonated with readers. This series brought  a sense of authenticity to the genre that had not been explored before. Their success was propelled by their pioneering “Marvel Method,” a process in which Lee would conceptualize the basics of a character. Kirby would then breathe life into them with designs, and Lee would provide his signature style of cheesy yet casual dialogue. The character origins and personalities are commonly attributed to Lee, but other Marvel writers and artists have stated that Kirby was actually the one to do it. Through the subsequent decade, the duo became a staple in the industry, with Kirby’s creative style for drawing energy particles becoming widely recognized as “Kirby Krackle.” Together, they co-created a multitude of iconic characters, including but not limited to the X-Men, Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor, Hulk, and all of their supporting casts. Most of the Marvel characters known in today’s culture originated from Kirby and Lee.

As the years progressed, Kirby’s appreciation of Lee gradually deteriorated. Lee had a habit of taking full credit for things Kirby worked hard on, ultimately establishing himself as the prominent public face of Marvel. In an interview, Kirby stated, “I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything . . . It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things – or old things for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories. Stan Lee was a guy that knew where the papers were or who was coming to visit that day.”  Kirby expressed his discontent with Lee’s actions, and Lee presented him with a lackluster contract that included antagonistic terms, such as Kirby being forbidden to take legal action. When Kirby sought clarification from Lee, he was met with a sobering realization: the public has been convinced Jack Kirby isn’t anything special and that Stan “The Man” Lee, is a creative genius who revolutionized the comic book landscape.

While Lee and Kirby had been turning Marvel into a comic book powerhouse, National Comics Publications went under a transformation as well, renaming itself to DC Comics and becoming Marvel’s primary competitor. Kirby spent two years negotiating a deal with DC, before embarking on a creative endeavor entirely his own, giving rise to a trio of DC Comic book series collectively known as “The Fourth World.” New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People, presented readers with an expansive space-epic narrative flowing with innovative artistry and a diverse array of characters. Among these characters, was the satirical entrepreneur known as Funky Flashman, a caricature of Stan Lee. Flashman’s continual attempts to rip off escape artist Mister Miracle, was made to mirror what Kirby experienced at Marvel. Lee did not like it, but that did not stop Kirby from attempting to transform DC just like he did with Marvel. Between 1971 and 1975, Kirby created many fan-favorite DC characters including Klarion the Witch Boy, Kamandi, Darkseid, and Etrigan the Demon. However, due to certain policies at DC, as well as smaller DC artists feeling undermined, Kirby put aside his past negative feelings for Stan Lee and returned to Marvel, with this return being announced at Marvelcon ‘75.

From 1975 through 1978, Kirby’s vast fanbase was gifted with his new work. He assumed both writing and artistic duties for some of his own creations, like Captain America and Black Panther. He also created new characters like Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, and the Eternals. Despite this, his negative feelings for Stan Lee resurfaced, and by 1979, Kirby did what he was used to doing, and left for good.

Over the following 15 years, Kirby lent his artistic talents not just to small comic book publishers, but also to animation, film concept art, and theme park projects. Sadly, this period was full of challenges. During these years, Kirby battled with Marvel over the ownership of his original page boards. Messy copyright claims caused Marvel to do whatever they desired with them, and after the Copyright Act of 1976, Marvel issued a release demanding Kirby declare his art was created for hire. Meaning Marvel would retain copyright and Kirby would get no future royalties. They offered him 88 pages (out of his estimated 10,000 – 13,000), if he signed the agreement, but if breached, Marvel would reclaim them. After Kirby publicly bashed Marvel and scared off the backlash, Marvel finally returned approximately 2,000 pages.

The impact Kirby had on the comics world, and arguably the other forms of media derived from it, have been drastically undermined by Marvel and, to a certain extent, Stan Lee. However, it is important to acknowledge that placing the entirety of the blame on Stan Lee would be overly simplistic. This was the beginning of the comics industry, and it was incredibly hard to stay successful. Lee became Marvel’s mascot, and especially after Kirby’s death in 1994, there was no way to change that or stop the increasing fame and money Lee acquired since then. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby build Marvel together, side by side. Without each other, none of these popular characters would exist.