WHAT’S THE STORY?

TODAY is the centenary of the birth of Jack Kirby, the man who created or co-created some of the biggest and best characters in comic book history, including Captain America, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Thor, The X-Men and the Hulk among others.

Given that all of these characters have been transmitted to film and television screens, Kirby is arguably responsible for the look and culture of much of the modern adventure film genre.

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Such was his influence on comics that Kirby had two award schemes named after him, including the industry’s Hall of Fame. WHO WAS HE?

BORN Jacob Kurtzberg in New York on August 28, 1917, to Benjamin and Rose who were Jewish immigrants from Austria, Kirby adopted his pen name many years later when he was already an established illustrator. As a young boy he taught himself to draw by copying comic strips in newspapers and magazines, and his only vocational training lasted just one week — at 14, he enrolled at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn but found their emphasis on long-term work was not to his liking.

HOW DID HE START?

AS a teenager, Kirby drew cartoons for the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a “street government” run by fellow youngsters. By 19 he had graduated to the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate where he drew comic strips and cartoons, before moving to the Fleischer animation studio where he worked on Popeye cartoons.

He found his metier when he joined a comic book publisher, working on everything from westerns to science fiction adventures.

His first major success came when he joined Timely Comics, later to be known as Marvel. With his friend and colleague Joe Simon, Kirby co-created Captain America, his first superhero, and from the first publication in 1941, the captain swamped America, selling in the millions.

Kirby did the drawing and some of the storylines while Simon did words and editing. They were both poorly paid despite their success, and they duly moved to National Comics, later to become DC Comics, for more than three times the money.

The war intervened, however, though not until after he had married his teenaged sweetheart Roz Goldstein with whom he had four children.

Kirby was drafted in 1943 and after completing his training he was assigned to the 11th Infantry Regiment which could trace its history back to the time of the USA’s second president John Adams.

In July, 1944, Kirby and his colleagues landed in Normandy and were swiftly into action as part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Kirby’s artistic talents came into play as he became a scout who could draw enemy positions and placements. On one such mission, Kirby suffered frostbite and at one point it looked as though he might lose his lower legs, but he was taken to England and managed to recover.

After the war, Kirby returned to a new company, Harvey Comics, but still working with Simon. While there they invented the “romantic” comic genre, and again it was another huge success. The pair had their own company, Mainline Publications, but the relationship petered out and Simon went into advertising while Kirby joined Atlas Comics, shortly to become Marvel.

WHAT WERE HIS BEST CREATIONS?

IN the period 1961 to 1970, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee at Marvel between them created modern comic book culture, with superheroes flowing from their pens. With Lee also working with another artist, Steve Ditko, who drew the original Amazing Spiderman, Marvel produced hit after hit with the Fantastic Four being Kirby and Lee’s first major hit in 1961. Kirby’s visual style and eye for plot developments allied to Lee’s crisp writing and ear for contemporary dialogue gave life to such characters as Thor, the Hulk and the X-men, Magneto and Doctor Doom.

Kirby became unhappy at not getting the full credit — or cash rewards — for his work and left to join DC Comics in 1970. There he produced the extraordinary Fourth World series featuring the tyrant named Darkseid and a God-like power, the Source — Star Wars resemblance, anyone?

Comic book aficionados revere Kirby’s Fourth World and it is often hailed as the single most influential comic book series in the history of the genre.

BUT DIDN’T STAN LEE DO ALL THAT?

IN a story that’s been running for decades, there are pro-Lee fans who say he really did create all the Marvel universe and that Kirby and Ditko were merely artists drawing to his command. Kirby’s supporters say he did a lot more than just draw the comic books. The truth is probably somewhere in between, and Lee’s claims have probably been boosted by the fact that he is still alive at the age of 94, whereas Kirby died at the age of 76 in Calfornia in 1994.

DID KIRBY EVER GET HIS DUE REWARD?

STAN Lee frequently referred to Kirby as his co-creator, and when Marvel started their run of cinematic blockbusters, Kirby’s children and heirs decided to defend their right to an income from Kirby’s copyrighted works. The case was almost in the US Supreme Court in September, 2014, before Marvel settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Kirby’s genius lives on, and his family at last are getting some reward.