Jacob Kurtzberg was born in 1917 and he died in 1994, a shitty year for deaths – Charles Bukowski, Kurt Cobain and Jacob Kurtzberg. You’ve probably never even heard of Jacob Kurtzberg. But I bet you know who Jack Kirby was. Or do you?
He anglicized his name, the better to get work, such was the miasma of anti-Semitism in society in those days. He reinvented himself, you might say.
He had a partner, in the early days – no, not Stanley, Stanley was the fucking office boy. An annoying kid who played the ocarina and goofed off, when he wasn’t going out for coffee and sammiches and Roi-Tan cigars. No, Jack’s partner was Joe Simon (gee, I wonder if he anglicized his name, too?) and they both wrote and they both drew and they were GOOD. They were in demand. Together, they created Captain America.
[A BRIEF DISSERTATION ABOUT CAPTAIN AMERICA – He’s Marvel’s version of Superman. He’s a nakedly propagandistic figure but he stands for the best parts of America – her can-do spirit, her never-say-die ethos, her magnificent idea that a man can be whatever he wants to be in America, as long as he works hard enough and his heart is in the right place and he’s willing to be a human test subject in a government experiment. One day, I’ll tell you who Marvel’s Batman is and the answer will shock you.]
So far, so good. But Joe and Jack realized they weren’t happy and they were getting ripped off by Stanley’s uncle, Martin Goodman, who was not a good man. So they started thinking about jumping ship and going over to National (better known as DC). They made the mistake of telling Stanley and he ratted them out to his uncle. They left and indeed went to National but it didn’t last long because the war happened and Jack got drafted. So that was it. He married his sweet-heart Roz before he left and went off to war.
He ended up fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, among other places. He got frost-bite in a frozen shell-hole in the winter of ’44. Almost lost his legs. But he made it.
His C.O. once asked if anybody in the squad knew how to draw. Jack said “I created Captain America.” Everybody laughed and when they stopped laughing because he actually DID create Captain Fucking America, Jack got sent out in advance to sketch the enemy’s positions. It was a dangerous job but it probably saved a lot of lives.
Stanley also enlisted. You know how he spent the war? He was stationed at Fort Dix and he wrote funny captions for cartoons about v.d. I’m not even kidding.
So Jack comes back from the war and goes back to comics and superheroes are starting to wane. So he creates Western comics, Romance comics (girls got money, too, y’know!) and refines his style and in so doing, practically defines the whole language of comic books. He’s working small at first, doing genre work, monster stories, weird sci-fi but he had a hit with the Challengers of the Unknown. Four men living on borrowed time! Rocky, Red, Ace and the Prof.! They were the template of the Fantastic Four.
So he goes back to Marvel, willing to forget the past and re-invent himself AGAIN, because he had a family he had to provide for and so on. Stanley’s there, only now his name is Stan Lee and he’s now Jack’s boss, not the wretched office boy. Jack creates the Fantastic Four (it’s entirely possible that Stan was at least in the room when he did it) and it’s a fucking hit. He keeps cranking them out. He works with Steve Ditko on a concept he kinda came up with a few years ago and it’s another fucking hit. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Spider-Man.
Thor. Iron Man. The X-Men. Sgt. Fury. Dr. Doom. The Inhumans. Adam Warlock. Name a Marvel super-hero OR villain, chances are Jack created ‘em. Galactus. The Silver Surfer.
And therein lies another great Kirby story.
He was working for Will Eisner, way back in the day and this torpedo comes in to the office, trying to extort them. Think of a gangster in the early ‘40s – big guy, six feet, a nose that’s been broken before, cauliflower ear, a couple of scars on his face, fedora, pin-stripe suit, oily pencil-mustache, chewing on a match-stick. Black shirt, white tie. That kinda guy.
The guy said something about “You should use our towel service. Everybody in the building uses it. It keeps accidents to a minimum.” Jack (who I must mention was not a tall man) comes up and gets in the guy’s face and says “Is this sonnuvabitch bothering you, boss? Get the fuck outta here! We don’t want your goddamn towel service, asshole! Get out and never come back!” And y’know what? The guy scurried out of there and they never had any problems with the rackets ever again.
So Jack figured a cosmic (yeah, he also invented the concept of “cosmic”) big-wig like Galactus wouldn’t come knocking on your door like a celestial version of Walter White. He’d send a guy ahead of him. A herald. And surfing was popular so Jack said why the hell not. Stan was amazed to see these panels of some guy on a surfboard soaring through space towards Earth, towards an inevitable conflict with the First Family of Comics, in the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. “Who is he?” Stan asked. “The Silver Surfer”, Jack answered.
[A BRIEF DISSERTATION ABOUT THE SILVER SURFER- Norrin Radd sacrificed his life to spare his planet from Galactus, agreeing to roam the stars to find uninhabited worlds for the Great Devourer to feed upon. Eventually, Galactus’ hunger exhausted the uninhabited worlds and Radd found Earth. In the course of the battle, he realized that humans were as precious as his own world that he sacrificed himself to save so he defied Galactus and helped the FF chase him away but was exiled to Earth, free to roam the spaceways no more. The Silver Surfer is widely recognized as the coolest fucking super-hero ever. HE RIDES A SURFBOARD THRU SPACE. How cool is THAT?]
You know who else thought that was cool? Stan Lee. He made a rule that only he could ever write the Silver Surfer. That really stung.
Jack jumped ship to National again, the year I was born. Created the Fourth World of the New Gods. Kamandi. OMAC. The Demon. It didn’t work out. He went back to Marvel in 1975. There, he did the Black Panther (another character he created, the first black super-hero), Captain America, the wonderfully demented Devil Dinosaur. He did a weird “adaptation” of 2001 : A Space Odyssey, that had nothing whatsoever to do with the movie OR the book of the same name. Eventually, it became Machine Man.
He went to work in animation after that. Sick of the bullshit of comics. Remember Thundarr the Barbarian? That was him. You know that movie Argo, that won an Oscar or two a few years back? Yeah, that was based on his work. He saved a few lives, just by drawing some pictures.
Captain Victory and His Galactic Rangers. Silver Star (which he pitched as a film project, initially). Destroyer Duck (when he saw Steve Gerber getting screwed by Marvel over Howard the Duck, he was happy to lend a hand to punch them in the balls).
DC did the one decent thing in the history of their existence as a company when they gave him credit (and money) from his Fourth World creations when they released them as action figures. (Darkseid is a big influence on Darth Vader, did you know that?)
He died in 1994.
The next time you see Stan Lee, don’t believe a word he says.
There will never be another man like Jack Kirby.
I started this blog the day Leonard Nimoy died. This is my fiftieth issue so I figured I’d do something special for someone who gave me so much over the years. And to confess, that when I was a little kid, Kirby’s artwork scared the hell out of me. Weird blocky figures screaming at each other, unimaginable bombastic situations that were enough to blow your MIND! And I can’t exactly pin-point the moment that I began to like it and thus, re-invented myself.
Thanks, Jack. You’re the King.