Before he was "Fantastic": Jack Kirby's Artistic Path to the Marvel Age of Comic Books

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Over the course of a decade-plus, Jack Kirby redefined visual storytelling in comic books. The King created an eventual multi-billion-dollar universe through his 1960s Marvel work, and even topped off that decade of brilliance with a smaller (but beloved) pocket universe within DC.

The 1960s and early-1970s were unquestionably the pinnacle of Jack’s creativity and skill, but there’s also more to the man’s 50-year career than just that relatively short span of time.

In fact, the artist put in a good great two decades of work prior to birthing the Marvel Age of comics. Romance comics, monster magazines, and the Challengers of the Unknown may not be as influential on today’s pop culture landscape as the Avengers and the X-Men are, but they helped define a style that would eventually lead to those iconic creations.

Starting off Strong

Kirby floated from newspaper comic strips, to animation, and eventually to freelance comic book work over the first several years of his career. Kirby’s big break came when he and collaborator, Joe Simon, came over to Timely Comics (or, Marvel Comics, as it’s now known). There, they co-created a character who would largely define World War II’s relationship with comic books.

In 1941, Simon and Kirby introduced Captain America to the world in Captain America Comics #1. In examining Kirby’s evolution as an artist, this is both a terrible place and the only place to start. That’s because Simon and Kirby collaborated so heavily in these days, that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

By Kirby’s career standards, the work is honestly a bit crude, occasionally jagged or rough. But there’s no denying the energy that flows through even his earliest pages. There’s a palpable exuberance in Kirby's work that brings it all crackling to life, leaping off the page.

Crude or not, the stories proved to outlive their era. Even in Kirby’s earliest days, he was co-creating and designing looks that would remain iconic and foundational for decades to come. Captain America has seen his fair share of tweaks and revamps through the years, but they've all been true to that classic Kirby/Simon design.

A year later, the pair would move on from Timely to go work for National Comics Publications (which eventually became DC Comics) where they created the Newsboy Legion. Their run at the publisher was relatively short-lived, as Kirby was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943.

 

Creating a Genre

Jack Kirby came back from war to find the superhero genre all but dead (or, at the very least, dying out). So, instead of simply resigning themselves to a lost cause, the duo decided to do something proactive. In 1947, they launched Young Romance through Crestwood Publications and, in doing so, created the romance comic book
genre.

As important as Kirby’s early-career superhero work was in defining how he would eventually innovate for Marvel, this period of romance comics is arguably just as important. If the Marvel Age is defined by one aspect more than any other, it just might be for its drama. Kirby’s characters are as known for emoting as they are for brawling. It’s that flair for the dramatic that would later make Kirby’s dynamic characters such a perfect match for Stan Lee’s bombastic and angst-ridden characterization.

All of that began here, as Kirby perfected his craft for emoting (and I would affectionately add, over-emoting) over the course of his career on romance comics. It’s often loud, but it’s powerful. It draws you in. It’s a visceral style that is exactly what his comic books call for. And it’s all balanced by just the right pinch of nuance and subtly sprinkled in throughout.

 

Unleash the Monsters

Finally, we arrive at the third cornerstone of Jack’s Marvel formula – the monsters. After Simon left comic books for advertising, Jack forged a path for himself as an individual. In 1957, he co-created the Challengers of the Unknown. The four-person team bares something of a surface level resemblance to the Fantastic Four, as action-heavy explorers of the surreal.

These powerless explorers came across all manner of interesting alien life in their adventures. This book allowed Kirby to finally start unleashing the full force of his creativity on the page.

In books like this, along with his immediately pre-Fantastic Four Marvel work in monster comics ranging from Amazing Adventures to Tales of Suspense, Kirby found his calling as an imaginaut. All of the skill and experience in the world (of which, Kirby had more than enough for an army of creators) meant nothing compared to the sheer imagination Kirby brings to his work.

Kirby left DC and the Challengers behind, and returned to Marvel in 1958. That’s when he started work on the previously-mentioned monster comics.

With over two decades of professional experience, Jack Kirby became a more well-rounded creator. He took the lessons of superhero design and storytelling from his and Simon's Captain America Comics and National Comics runs. He fine-tuned his character acting throughout his various romance comics. Then he tied those skills together and allowed himself the freedom to unleash his limitless creativity with his monster books.

And so, The King was born, and that’s what brings us up-to-date with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, and the birth of the Marvel Universe.

- Levi Hunt