Jack Kirby, the main creative force behind the Marvel universe and arguably the most influential superhero comics artist of all time, would have celebrated his 100th birthday this week. Since his passing in 1994, and in the last decade specifically, Kirby has only grown more beloved as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, based largely on his work, has exploded, zapped and stomped its way into cineplexes worldwide. It is often written that Kirby influenced everyone from George Lucas to Michael Chabon, a darling of pop culture low and high. As the New Republic’s Jeet [Heer writes, Kirby holds “almost oppressive sway over Hollywood.”]((https://newrepublic.com/article/144558/jack-kirby-unknown-king)
I agree with Heer; Kirby’s influence can be oppressive. There is a lot to love about him, but as an artist, he has some serious limitations that have been passed on to pop culture, which continues to boom and stomp about in his enormous shadow. A hundred years later, its worth reflecting not just on the greatness of Kirby, but on the parts of his legacy that are worth questioning.
First, the good stuff. Kirby’s artwork remains a joyful explosion of gargantuan goofiness. His work crackled with new ideas. World eaters, teleporting dogs, cosmic cubes, space hippies and planets nestled in basements—Kirby’s offhand ideas still bulge and strain against the edges of pop culture. Even his most familiar work is original and loopy enough that it can still catch you off guard and make you say, “Wait, a silver guy on a surfboard? What on infinite earths…!?”
More than his ideas, though, the greatness of Kirby is the art. He drew like no one else. Mighty cosmic machines bashed against rocky cosmic lumps, all thrusting through panel borders and illuminated by an energetic spark and fwoosh that just about obliterated visible forms. Kirby art resonates with uncontainable energy, so much so that at times his figures seem to turn into abstract bursts, a kind of hyper-charged Jackson Pollock but with awesome monsters instead of paint splotches.
Kirby’s explosiveness is his great strength but also his great limitation. There is not a lot of subtlety in a Kirby comic. Kirby draws magnificent monsters hitting each other, but monsters only hit each other at one (really loud) volume. The MCU’s comic action tone is not exactly derived from Kirby—verbal wit was not his forté—but the giant testosterone set pieces owe something to Jack. Robbed of Kirby’s visual genius, the Marvel Universe fights are often just big and loud, the Kirby sturm und drung without the Kirby crackle.
Kirby is great at delivering visceral, energizing messages: his most iconic image at this point may be his wonderful drawing of Captain America punching Hitler. (The cover has become a much-needed inspiration for anti-fascists.) But, at the same time, as with much of Kirby, the riveting frankness of the concept can also be read as a bit simplistic.
Fanlore says that Kirby and writer Joe Simon were using the cover to push for American intervention in World War II. Scholar Martin Lund, though, argues that Simon and Kirby’s imagery was in line with other comics and propaganda of the time, which encouraged Americans to root out Nazi infiltrators on the home front but didn’t actively advocate for entry into the war. Cathartic imagery of whupping the Nazi leader in one punch doesn’t necessarily provide tools for recognizing Nazis or for figuring out how to resist them once you have recognized them. The cover is fun, but it’s not deep, which is part of why it’s so easy to read back into it an edgy political commitment that wasn’t necessarily there.
Kirby fought in World War II and seems to have been a genuinely good person, much loved by his peers and coworkers. On the strength of these traits, he’s often credited with progressive political and moral vision. This is hard to discern when you read the actual comics, though.
Over time, the X-Men have been seen as a metaphor for marginalized people; creators have used them to comment on the civil rights movements and LGBT identity. Those themes aren’t present in the first Lee/Kirby comics, though, in which the X-Men defend military installations and Charles Xavier preaches the virtues of integration and hunting down any mutants who dare to disturb the human-imposed status quo. Nor was the Jewish Kirby especially interested in explicitly defying or challenging the anti-Semitism of his day in his comics. He didn’t create Jewish superheroes. Ben Grimm, the Thing, who Kirby modeled on himself to some degree, wasn’t made canonically Jewish until years after his creator left the character.
Kirby did create the Black Panther, the first black superhero (and one which black creators have both embraced and critiqued.) But in general, Kirby’s explosive adventurousness was more about the energy of his drawings than about daring philosophical or political content. William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, wanted to use his comics to bring about an erotic matriarchal utopia. Moto Hagio, a Japanese creator of sci-fi and romance comics in the ‘70s and '80s, explored the blurry lines between gender and identity, desire and self. Kirby’s work wasn’t animated by any such deep political, emotional or spiritual concerns. The best Jeet Heer can come up with as a overriding theme of Kirby’s work? “To triumph over evil, we have to come together.” That’s the banal message of just about every buddy cop film.
None of this is to say that Kirby fans shouldn’t like Kirby. Kirby is great. But, like Elvis, he isn’t the King. Or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that he is the King is not (as with monarchs in general) an unalloyed good. If our pop culture is obsessed with special effects and explosions at the expense of unexpected stories, that’s in part Kirby’s legacy. And if quantity of quirky ideas is seen as the hallmark of imagination, rather than depth of thought—well, that’s Kirby too.
That doesn’t mean we should leave Kirby behind. On the contrary, his most important lesson is barely honored. Kirby, to an extent matched by few creators, believed artists should create their own words. The best way to honor the master, then, is not to draw another monster, or pay money for another tired MCU film featuring characters Kirby made. It’s to make stories of which no one, including Kirby, ever would never have dreamed.