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Jack Kirby:

The House That Jack Built

The Fumetto International Comics Festival at Lucerne, Switzerland hosts the exhibition Jack Kirby: The House That Jack Built, curated by Dan Nadel and myself. This exhibition is the first major retrospective of original art by Jack Kirby with over 160 works spanning from 1942 to 1985, as well featuring rare sketches and key pages from throughout Kirby’s career, which will be on display between 1 to 9 May, 2010.

You might wonder why the first city to stage a major fine art retrospective on the whole career of Jack Kirby is Lucerne in Switzerland. Since Kirby died in 1994, there have been several modest exhibits, including a small display I curated in 1994 at the Cartoon Art Trust in London, as well as the Masters of Comic Art show which began in Los Angeles and included Kirby as one of the fifteen creators spotlighted. But it has taken Lucerne to give over an entire three-storey building to the King of Comics. The picturesque lake-side Swiss resort, nestled beneath the Alps, like something out of Doctor Doom’s Latveria, is home of perhaps the world’s most progressive, arts-orientated comics festival, Fumetto. Always alert to the very latest in cutting-edge trends in comics and their interrelationships with contemporary art, Fumetto feels totally appropriate as the host of this show, because Kirby himself was constantly at the avant-garde of comic books, pushing the medium forward and inspiring popular culture, and his oeuvre continues to exert a palpable influence on numerous young innovators in comics and fine art to this day.

The idea to do the Kirby show here came from Dan Nadel of New York publishing house PictureBox, and was taken up by Lynn Kost, director of Fumetto. As one of judges on the Fumetto competition’s jury this year, I heard about the project and offered to help and was kindly invited to co-curate the show with Dan. We’ve made a great team, I feel, and we were lucky to locate a number of key connoisseurs in America and Europe willing to lend from their outstanding collections, as well as securing vital assistance from the Kirby Museum. The show’s concept and content began to be defined in part by the venue itself. Am-Rhyn Haus is a beautiful 16th-century townhouse with painted vaulted ceilings which until recently housed a Picasso museum. As an historic edifice, nothing can be fixed onto the original walls, so special wooden walls have to be constructed or frames must be hung on wires. The scale of the seven galleries (2 on the ground and top floor, 3 on the middle floor) is not like the cavernous aircraft-hangars in many modern art museums, in which comic art struggles to stand out, but is human, a lived-in space, elegant but not overly grandiose, perfect to showing smaller works.

A slideshow of every piece of art on display in the exhibition,
compiled by Tom Kraft.

To organise the show, we shifted from a possible thematic/genre strategy to assigning a period to each floor, charting Kirby’s work and life floor-by-floor as you ascend. In all, some 160 originals from 1942 to 1985 were elegantly presented, as well as some dazzling panel blow-ups, two of them wall-papered onto the staircase walls by our very own Paste-Pot Pete! The response from the public and media was hugely positive. It also felt good to see Jack himself and hear his voice within the show on a couple of video clips played on a monitor. Another buzz for me was meeting a young Danish comics artist, winner of one of the Fumetto competitions prizes, who had just discovered Kirby thanks to this show. Below you’ll find a few of the exhibition texts I wrote for the show, followed by some transcriptions of six wartime letters from Kirby to his wife. Some photos of the exhibition also appear here, there’s a 20-minute Panel Borders ipodcast about it on Resonance FM by Alex Fitch (starts from 18 mins.), and you can catch four YouTube mini-movies I shot for each floor to give you a feeling for the space and how the works were presented: Ground Floor; First Floor A; First Floor B; and Second Floor. Rand Hoppe has also posted his video of a 50-minute panel discussion at Fumetto, in which he, Dan Nadel and I discuss Kirby’s life and work, and Arte, the German arts channel, includes some coverage of the Kirby show in their short TV report. Below are my four YouTube video tours of the exhibition for your enjoyment:





It was a real pleasure to meet Tom Morehouse and his wife Mary, and Tom Kraft, American collectors who were so supportive throughout, and Rand Hoppe from the Kirby Museum. Due to volcano worries, Jonathan Ross was unable to come over, as was Bernard Mahé from Galerie 9eme Art, Paris who he was at the Naples Comicon looking after a Will Eisner exhibit. The only other disappointments, I suppose, were the short duration of the show, only the ten days of the festival, and not being able to feature more of Kirby’s work. A much bigger show might have accommodated, for starters, such missing gems as:  Captain America, Sandman and Newsboy Legion from the Golden Age; the wonderful Boys Ranch, especially Mother Delilah; more of the pre-Code romance genre and the pre-Marvel monster era; pages showing Iron Man, Ant Man, The Silver Surfer and Galactus; more of his unique photo-collages; his adult crime magazine for DC, In The Days of the Mob, a personal favourite; Eternals and Black Panther from his return to Marvel; examples of his plentiful concept designs for Ruby-Spears animation; and his private personal drawings and paintings.

Nevertheless, the wonders we were able to show here prove undeniably that as well as a visionary auteur, Kirby stands up as one of the 20th century’s great artists. Now that Fumetto has paved the way, surely that bigger all-encompassing retrospective must come to fruition soon. So which arts institution, in America or maybe elsewhere, will take the initiative to bring this idea to the next stage? Or perhaps the planned Kirby Museum itself will go from online virtuality to bricks-and-mortar reality and be able to host this itself? There’s still time to make it all happen with seven years until Kirby’s centenary in 2017. Taaru!

Above is the limited edition silkscreen print produced for the Jack Kirby exhibition. 100 copies, 50 to be sold by the Kirby Museum, 50 to be sold at the Fumetto festival and based on the original artwork for the title panel of the complete 7-page Fighting American story, City of Ghouls, which is being exhibited at the show from the collection of Jonathan Ross.

Who is Jack Kirby? You may not know his name, but few people have never heard of the fantasy icons which he co-created, from Captain America, Thor and The Hulk to The Fantastic Four, The Silver Surfer and The X-Men. You may never have read any of his thousands of pages of comics, but you have probably experienced his imagination adapted into movies, television shows, animated cartoons or computer games. No other single creator has had such a powerful and long-term impact on 20th century American comic books as Jack Kirby. For almost fifty years, he innovated and reinvigorated entire genres and, individually and during two great partnerships with Joe Simon and Stan Lee, created a lasting legacy of colourful characters for the two biggest American comic book publishers. Marvel became known as the “House of Ideas” and stands today as one “House That Jack Built.” In many respects the other “House That Jack Built” is DC Comics, where his creations live on and underpin much of the company’s modern mythos. And as you will discover, he did so much more besides.

Panel after panel, page after page, of dynamic, enthralling visual and verbal narratives flew off his drawing board, almost all of it in detailed pencilled form, for other artists known as inkers to complete for reproduction. Kirby worked hard, above all to provide for his family, and he did much more than draw. He was as much a writer, storyteller, world-builder, universe-creator, in all a complete visionary, whose more than 21,000 pages for comic books truly unleashed their expressive potential. To a lesser extent, Kirby worked for a time in the more respectable field of newspaper strips, both at the start of his career and during later attempts at syndication, succeeding with Sky Masters of the Space Force from 1958 to 1961. He was also employed early on by animation studios and returned to them briefly in his latter years in 1979-1980. The majority of his output, however, was for the comic book industry, mainly in New York, and this is the exhibition’s primary focus.

Thanks to loans from generous connoisseurs, this is the most extensive exhibition of Kirby’s original artwork ever staged, over 150 pieces spanning from 1942 to 1985. It is especially important to show a number of key complete stories and issues, because Kirby always conceived his comics as multi-page compositions and whole narrative experiences. The rooms on these three floors of Am-Rhyn Haus allow you to follow Kirby’s extraordinary life and career from decade to decade, as you ascend storey-by-storey, story-by-story. Here on the ground floor, you can discover his early years and the growing success of Kirby’s collaborations with Joe Simon in the 1940s and 1950s at Marvel, DC and several other outfits. After Kirby splits with Simon, he eventually finds a vital new collaborator, writer Stan Lee. On the first floor, we swing into the 1960s and Lee and Kirby’s unprecedented outpouring of the Marvel Age of Comics. Then Kirby’s five-year solo revolution at DC takes us into the 1970s and up to the second and final floor. The journey winds down here with his short comebacks, first to Marvel and then DC, and his latter-day, creator-owned projects in the 1980s.

Though this overview can present only a fraction of Kirby’s total oeuvre, it will hopefully help you discover the wonders that can be created in one lifetime by one man with a pencil and a passionate imagination for storytelling in words and pictures.

L to R: Tom Kraft, Rand Hoppe and Tom Morehouse
next to Morehouse’s collage of Kirby’s characters.

Kirby: The Early Years

Life did not start out easy for Jack Kirby in the crowded, noisy tenement slums on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28th 1917, the first son of Jewish immigrants Benjamin and Rose Kurtzberg. His father came from a well-to-do family from Galicia in Eastern Europe, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but ended up having to toil in a New York textile factory. Young Jacob sold newspapers to buy comics, pulps and movie tickets, and was also raised on the European folktales of his mother Rose. “She was full of legends, she used to write herself, she used to dramatize everything, she had a wonderful imagination… I think my style in comics directly relates from her form of delivery.” He would go on to invent some of the most compelling legends of the 20th century.

Jacob was always a “little guy”, short and stocky, no more than 5 foot 7 inches (1.7 metres) in shoes, so among the street ruffians he had to learn to stand up for himself and his blond curly-haired brother, five years his junior. At age nine Jacob barely survived double pneumonia. He could so easily have grown up into another unskilled teenager with few prospects, drifting into crime, trapped in dead-end jobs and poverty like his parents. Luckily, when he was 16, he joined the Boys’ Brotherhood Republic, a local club founded in 1930. Part of their programme was to let the boys run their own newspaper, to which Jacob contributed a comic strip, K’s Konceptions, as well as articles, political cartoons and caricatures. These and other activities encouraged youngsters away from delinquency by instilling skills, discipline and self-esteem. Jacob came to realise that his love of drawing might be his way to escape his troubled background.

Because money was always tight, Jacob as the family’s elder son quit High School in his senior year to earn some cash and never graduated. Among his early jobs were daily strips and editorial illustrations for Lincoln Newspaper Features, and “in-betweening”, or filling in the stages of a character’s movements between key moments, on Popeye, Betty Boop and other cartoon films at Max Fleischer’s studio. Animation was good training and he got promotion, but it was too much like his father’s daily grind in the factory, a fate he was determined to avoid.

Fifties classics cover the romance, horror, crime and western genres.

By the age of 21, Jacob was in another kind of sweatshop, for the new and growing comic book industry, anxious to hold onto his steady but meagre salary of $15 a week from Fox Publications. So far his attempts to secure extra freelance work on the side had failed, until he teamed up with Joe Simon, four years older and nine inches taller than him, a writer, artist and editor-in-chief at Fox on $85 a week. Joe convinced Jacob to “moonlight” with him on evenings and weekends in a tiny studio for other better-paying publishers. Comic books were booming in 1939 and within three months of each other, first Joe and then Jacob left Fox behind and their partnership took off.

A week later, Jacob Kurtzberg legally changed his name. For some time, he had been signing his work with assorted aliases, partly to make his name sound more English, but also to prevent Fox Publications discovering his secret output for rival companies. One of these pen-names was Jack Kirby, which sounded suitably rugged and Irish. Reinventing himself, the New York kid from humble origins was putting into action his belief that, “Everybody has the ability to transcend themselves.” Of all Jacob Kurtzberg’s creations, his greatest was Jack Kirby.

Private Jack Kirby: World War II

Here are the affectionate, intimate texts transcribed from five hand-written “V Mail” letters and one second page of a letter on “borrowed” stationery from the Schenker company in Alsace, which Private Jack Kirby sent home to his wife Rosalind in Brooklyn in 1944 from the frontlines of the Second World War in Europe and later from hospital recovering from trench foot, an infection of the feet caused by cold, wet and insanitary conditions. The Kirby Museum kindly provided scans to display in the introductory gallery of the exhibition. Each of these letters includes at the bottom left a revealing self-portrait. Note the assorted charming ways Kirby addresses his wife and his special signature, “Jackson”.

To Mrs Rosalind Kirby, 2820 Brighton 7th Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.
from Pvt. J. Kirby 329966619

Dear Hunya,
I’m off again. Somehow, I get a great comfort in writing to you. There are times when the distance between us make itself felt - so I just dash me off another letter to you to dispel said feeling. Thought I’d add a cartoon this time to give it a twist. Got me another box of cigars to last me when we get to “X”.  - ditto a box of Hersheys. Was father confessor to a harried medic who had to get some bitching off his chest. Left him enlightened, somewhat calmer but his problem like some problems was laid in the lap of time which is the only other substitute for John J. Anthony [popular problem counselor on the radio]. However, my problem is returning to you - which, with a little effort and luck, I can accomplish. Love you, Jackson.

Hello Beautiful,
Guess I’m confused on dates again. If youse get two letters with identical dates, why, chalk it up to conditions on this end… Times is just a matter of guard - relief - sleep - chow and more guard. Got hold of a Readers Digest, an overseas edition of the New Yorker and the Omnibook [a Reader Digest-style magazine], a very novel little mag. Am avidly consuming all three during momentary free perods. Spend most of my time of guard thinking about you. Sort of makes the situation a bit less rugged/sugged? and the future I’m planning a bit closer. Had a good chow again today. The company cooks are pretty good. Better’n they were at “Stewarts”. Frankly the old bean bag has fared pretty well. Love you more than ever, Jackson.

...what kind of terrain or conditions, they always appear impressive to the observant eye. Last night was murky, chilly and wet. The fields were barely discernible in the weak, bluish light from the coin-sized moon overhead. Along the vast horizon, a long, thin line of men advanced thru the light drizzle - formless, slow-moving objects under their heavy clothing and equipment. The ranks ahead were lost in the gloom, - took plenty of puffing and wheezing to keep ‘em in sight. Kept pac with the machine gun section with whom the Lieutenant and I travel in advance of our mortar squads. This’ll give ya a pretty sketchy but general idea of the bunch on the move. Featured, the guy you’re most concerned with.

November 22 1944
Surprise! Am in merrie ole H’england again with my gazoola still resting ‘neath comfortable sheets and my brogans [feet] stuck daringly out in the ozone to defrost in gradual stages. Nice enough place - chow is good and attendance pleasantly given. Have certainly made the rounds since I last wrote you and am still uncertain as to the extent of this amazing situation… However, with the exception of a dull numbness in the tootsies and a rheumy draining in the joints am still intact and functioning. Love you more’n ever. Hope you’re not worrying, Please don’t, honey. Jackson.

November 25 1944
Dear Long Limbed and Lovely,
My brogans may be frozen, but my glands are steaming to a rapid high in farhenheit [sic]. Have reams of gorgeous Petty and Varga girls plus numerous other streamlined sirens preening themselves enticingly in the mags about me. Being a very virile type of individual, I’m afraid this contact with these captivating hussies is gonna be one to beware of biologically. You needn’t start running till I get home one of these days. Love you. Jackson

November 29 1944
Hello Stuff,
Still daydreamin’ aboutcha. Still gotcha on my mind. Put in for some drawing paper when the Red Cross lassie came around to see to our needs. Wangled me a cigar in a cut-throat deal in which my throat was the one that was cut. What the hell - a cigar jump in value when you need it. Love you enough to blow a ventricle (that’s in the heart.) Jack.

The Marvel Age Of Comics

Entering his Forties, Kirby was fired up in 1958, because finally, after many failed attempts to sell a daily strip, his Sky Masters of the Space Force was accepted and being syndicated to newspapers. On top of the seven strips a week, he had managed to land a few assignments at top-paying publishers DC and created a rare hit book for them, another science-based action adventure, Challengers of the Unknown. The future looked rosy, but Kirby, never the greatest businessman, soon found himself embroiled in an unfortunate and costly lawsuit. His DC editor Jack Schiff had helped him secure the Sky Masters strip and claimed that a disputed contract entitled him to a share of its profits. Kirby lost the case, lost any future work at DC, at least until Schiff’s departure, and lost the strip too when it was cancelled in 1961.

As one door closes, others open. After an absence of nearly twenty years, Kirby had been hired back at the now-floundering Marvel. Shrewd Marvel publisher Martin Goodman liked to keep the business in the family and had appointed his wife’s cousin Stanley Lieber as editor and chief writer in 1941. Not that the ambitious Lieber saw his future in humble comic books. He was saving his real name for his serious writing career, and so adopted the snappier pseudonym Stan Lee to produce mostly standard yarns imitating and saturating whatever genre seemed popular. Kirby teamed up with Lee, five years younger than him, on westerns, war, mystery, romance, and a horde of giant B-movie monsters, but by 1961 nothing was reversing their declining sales. Goodman relied on being a follower rather than maker of trends, and as soon as he heard that a new team of superheroes was proving a success for rivals DC, he instructed Lee to come up with one. According to Lee, he was all set to quit but resolved that, before he went, he would take this opportunity to script a different kind of comic book, the way he wanted to, which he would modestly bill as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”. Kirby would assert that the Fantastic Four and other Marvel characters burst forth complete from his drawing-board: “I did presentations. I’m not gonna wait around for conferences. I said, ‘This is what you have to do.’ I came in with Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. I didn’t fool around. I said ‘You’ve got to do superheroes.’”

Lee and Kirby are not the only ones to disagree about who originated the Fantastic Four, but there is no dispute that they broke so many of the superhero genre’s “rules”, it would never be the same again. They threw out the masks, capes, secret identities and above all the one-dimensional, boy-scout personalities. The FF’s origin was torn straight off the front pages, conceived most likely during the escalating space race, after the Russians shot cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin into orbit on April 12th 1961. The tale reflected fears about the side-effects of the Van Allen Belt’s radiation on America’s first astronaut Alan Shepard who was to follow Gargarin 23 days later into space. In his footsteps follow Reed Richards, brother and sister Johnny and Sue Storm and Ben Grimm who find their bodies nightmarishly transformed by cosmic rays into the elastic Mr Fantastic, the inflammable Human Torch, the vanishing Invisible Girl and the orange-skinned monstrosity The Thing. These were no “superheroes”, jubilant about their newfound abilities, but vulnerable misfits who through adversity bond into less of a bland military-style league, and more of a unpredictable, semi-functional family. No matter how fantastic these four characters’ lives might become, underlying them was a surprisingly believable humanity.

In an unprecedented, sustained burst of co-creativity, Kirby and Lee unleashed The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man, The Avengers, X-Men, Sergeant Fury and others. Kirby had used the Norse God of Thunder several times before, but this long-haired, proto-hippy heroic Thor brought with him a whole pantheon of Asgardians. After the Human Torch, Kirby and Lee also revived the company’s other two Forties best-sellers, Sub-Mariner and Kirby’s co-creation with Joe Simon, Captain America, by thawing out the World War Two supersoldier from an iceberg. With Lee as main writer and overall editor, it became possible to interweave all of Marvel’s new characters into a close-knit, soap-opera tapestry set in the real city of New York, whose every episode had consequences. Kirby became the workhorse and blueprint for the Marvel Age of Comics, kicking off most characters’ foundational issues and continuing to draw most covers and layout later stories for others to finish. Inevitably, toiling long hours in his basement studio at home, Kirby further refined his pencilling and storytelling, dropping DC’s sedate precision and channelling a renewed energy and enthusiasm.

Over time, however, the working relationship between Kirby and Lee altered and grew strained. Increasingly, Kirby would take the barest bones of Lee’s plot and flesh it out himself into a fully-drawn story, conceiving characters such as The Silver Surfer out of the blue and adding notes in the outside margins to help Lee flll in the captions and balloons. Kirby grew frustrated with the lack of proper credit or payment for this crucial extra role and Lee’s boasts that he was writing everything. As Lee took The Silver Surfer and other concepts away from Kirby and made them his own, Kirby would punch holes through the hollow-wood doors of his home in anger. Kirby began keeping his best ideas to himself and developing fresh characters, some as potential updatings of the Marvel heroes, others totally new. In the end, Kirby parted ways with Lee and Marvel in 1970 and rejoined DC on the promise of better payment and the chance to write and draw in his own name.

The Fourth World

This “Gods” presentation piece opens the Fourth World gallery.

“Kirby Is Coming!”, “Kirby Is Here!”, ran the advertisements in DC Comics. Their new publisher, artist Carmine Infantino, knew it was quite a coup to headhunt their competitor’s greatest artist. The Kirby family had moved in 1967 to California and the West Coast vibes and hippy revolution would come through in Kirby’s next project, building on those concepts he had developed while still at Marvel. To the surprise of many, Kirby’s first assignment back at DC was Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, a poor-selling title whose creative team had just quit. To join the cub reporter, Kirby brought back his 1940s creation with Joe Simon, The Newsboy Legion and The Guardian, adding a new black member. Jimmy’s group became mixed up in outlandish scenarios about The Hairies, a high-tech biker community, genetic experiments and the first skirmishes in what grew to be an intergalactic conflict fought on Earth.

Gods were walking among us, as the evil Darkseid and his minions from Apokolips began waging war with the peaceful New Genesis. Kirby developed three new titles along with Jimmy Olsen to interlock as a daring tetralogy known as The Fourth World. New Gods charted the fierce Orion’s destiny, while the five Forever People represented youth’s promise and Mister Miracle honed his escapology skills. For a man in his early Fifties, Kirby was in his prime, soaring solo, and dreaming up more mind-expanding ideas with each new issue, from the cruel Desaad and Granny Goodness to Big Barda and her Female Furies. From the start of his DC return, Kirby began grabbing the reader’s attention and plunging them into the action by opening with a dramatic double-page spread. His pencil artwork also hugely benefitted from the arrival of Mike Royer, one of his finest inkers.

The Fourth World was challenging and remarkable but apparently its sales were taking too long to meet DC’s exaggerated expectations and so Kirby had to drop all four series. He would eventually wrap up his saga during a later comeback to DC though not entirely successfully.

Kamandi & Other DC Projects

The whole of Kamandi 6, “Flower”, displayed in a glass vitrine.

After The Fourth World, Kirby came up with several separate, more accessible concepts for DC Comics, such as the supernatural anti-hero The Demon and Kamandi The Last Boy of Earth, giving an unsold newspaper strip a wholly original spin on the popular Planet of the Apes movies. On Earth A.D. (“After Disaster”), Kamandi encounters all kinds of animals, from tiger slave-traders to British bulldogs, who now rule the remnants of mankind. In “Flower”, shown in its entirety here, Kirby instils heartfelt pathos as the lone boy forms a bond with an innocent girl survivor. Much-loved, Kamandi became Kirby’s longest-running DC series. Another short-lived title, OMAC One Man Army Corp, delivered some prophetic visions of a technological dystopia, ahead of their time, while on The Losers, Kirby returned to his life-changing experiences of World War Two.

Back To Marvel, Back To DC

Giant wallpaper blow-up of Devil Dinosaur spread being pasted up.

Kirby’s next step in 1976 was a return to Marvel. By then, Stan Lee was not greatly involved in writing comics and apart from a special Silver Surfer original graphic novel, the Lee and Kirby partnership was well and truly over. The mood at Marvel, however, and the tastes among the fans were not entirely favourable at the time towards Kirby’s largely unedited writing and drawing on his own books. As well as returning to his co-creations Captain America and Black Panther, he ushered in fresh series such as Devil Dinosaur, The Eternals and a unique spin-off from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. Now regarded more positively, this last Marvel period proves that even as he hit sixty, Kirby was an unstoppable storytelling force.

Once his Marvel contract expired, Kirby jumped ship and wound up once more at DC, where he now enjoyed greater respect, and even some extra payments from the use of some of his characters in a new line of Super Powers toys. It was during his time there that Kirby got the chance to conclude his Fourth World epic, with mixed results due partly to editorial tampering. Departing the comics industry’s two biggest players, he found better opportunities and health benefits within the animation industry as a concept designer. Comics would tempt him back however in the Eighties but this time for young, independent companies such as Eclipse and Pacific who offered royalties and creator ownership.

Below is the link to a video recording of a more-than-one-hour discussion of Kirby’s work and life at Fumetto, with Dan Nadel, Rand Hoppe and myself - enjoy!


Posted: May 2, 2010


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My Books

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing