Jack Kirby is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century

Saturday, November 6th, 2021

The new Eternals film is a reminder that, while he may not be widely recognized as such, Jack Kirby is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century:

His signature style — a fusion of pivotal artistic movements such as cubism, expressionism, surrealism, avant-garde, op art, indigenous South American, midcentury commercial and futurism, blended into a visual language all his own — and innovation in composition, dynamism and design, can be found today in virtually all forms of visual media and art, from film to advertising to photography.

Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917 to Jewish immigrants from Austria who lived in New York’s Lower East Side tenements and eked out a living in a garment factory. A Pratt Institute dropout at 14, he found success early on when he and studio partner Joe Simon created Captain America for Timely Comics in 1941, reportedly selling almost a million copies a month. His hyperkinetic, hyper-stylized, hyper-everything art seemed barely contained by the page, helping define the nascent art form and establish the superhero genre and comic book industry.

When superheroes’ popularity waned after the war, the versatile Kirby made an indelible mark on a variety of other genres, including western, horror, space adventure and giant monsters. His rampaging behemoths paralleled the rise of creature features like “Them!” in the US and kaiju films like “Godzilla” in Japan, helping make them a lasting genre. But it was teen romance, of all things, that he influenced the most; together with Simon he created “Young Romance” for Prize Comics in 1947, a runaway hit that surpassed a million copies monthly and inspired nearly a hundred copycat series. Breaking with the Archie Comics mold, it introduced Shakespearean melodrama to youth entertainment, a revolution that’s evident in today’s numerous teen shows on TV.

Just as Kirby helped define superhero comics in the 1940s, he helped redefine them in the 1960s. Timely was now called Marvel, and his and Simon’s former office assistant was now the editor-in-chief and head writer, Stan Lee. Lee brought Kirby on for what became an unprecedented, and unsurpassed by either, period of manic creativity. They created together the Fantastic Four (1961), the Hulk (1962), Thor (1962), Ant-Man (1962), Iron Man (1963), Avengers (1963), X-Men (1963), Silver Surfer (1966), Black Panther (1966) and hundreds of other heroes, villains, cast and concepts. Kirby also played a role in the creation of Spider-Man in 1962 and Daredevil in 1964 and auteured solo properties like the Eternals.

More than just a new pantheon, they created a whole new approach. They recast monsters as outcast heroes and added the drama of teen romance, appealing more to high school and college readers. Their stories had greater realism and deeper characterization, featuring heroes with relatable faults and action informed by Kirby’s youth in a street gang and combat experience as an infantry scout in France, for which he received the Bronze Star. Marvel came to be known as “The House of Ideas,” Lee as “Stan the Man” and Kirby as “King of Comics.”

Kirby also created much of the mythology for the other big publisher in comics, DC. His radical “Fourth World” saga, a magnum opus spinning off Superman into four series from 1970 to 1973, was a grand space opera about warring alien gods. It introduced Darkseid (pronounced “dark side”), a towering, imperious villain who commands the mechanized war planet of Apokolips in a quest for galactic conquest. Opposing him is his own son Orion, raised by the noble gods to be their champion, who struggles with his dark heritage and nature. Their religion and source of power is a metaphysical life force called, simply, “the Source.”

Four years later “Star Wars” was released, featuring strikingly similar concepts like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, the Dark Side, the Death Star, and the Force. Vader also resembles Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom, who hides his horrific burn scars under high-tech armor.


In 1979, he was commissioned to create concept art for a big-screen adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, “Lord of Light” (ironically, spurred by the success of “Star Wars”).

The same producer also hired him to design an entire theme park in Colorado called Science Fiction Land. Neither would come to fruition, but Kirby’s art found an even better purpose. The CIA used it for its mock production of the film “Argo,” a now-famous covert operation for the rescue of US embassy members from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.

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