Jack Kirby: Creator Of The Marvel Universe

Our video profile of the most important figure in comic book history.

Jack Kirby is one of the most influential people who ever lived that many have never heard of. In the twenty-five years since his death, films based on his creations have generated over $20 billion dollars at the worldwide box office. With a little help from writer Neil Gaiman, this is our video salute to Jack Kirby, the King:

Born Jacob Kurtzberg to a pair of working-class Austrian Jewish immigrants in 1917, the self-taught artist from the Lower East Side of Manhattan honed his craft in the 1930s working on comic strips and cartoon animation. Jack was fast – you had to be back then – and the work and stories would flow through him. Eventually, while working for the company that would become Marvel Comics, he and his frequent collaborator Joe Simon created Captain America, his sidekick Bucky, and their Nazi archnemesis The Red Skull.

After fighting in World War II, Jack spent the remainder of the 1940s and 1950s working on Western, romance, and superhero comics for a number of publishers, leading to a collaboration with Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee. Together, in 1961, they introduced the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s answer to DC’s recently introduced Justice League of America.

From there, the men spent the sixties reinventing the art form. Together, they created the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, Silver Surfer, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Loki, Iron Man, Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Angel, Beast, Magneto, Ego the Living Planet, the Inhumans, the very first black superhero, Black Panther, and Marvel’s super-team, the Avengers.

Six decades later, it’s not 100% clear who came up what. That’s because of a streamlined process known as the Marvel Method. In the days when Stan Lee was Marvel’s primary writer, he’d send artists a synopsis rather than a full script. The artist would then draw the comic book pages and Stan would add in the captions and dialogue later. For a creative force like Jack, Stan often didn’t need to provide much in the way of plots. And according to Jack, often it was he who would tell Stan what the stories and characters would be.

But Stan was the Man. He was the guy who engaged with fans and became synonymous with the brand. He was also the one who got the bulk of the credit for Marvel’s superheroes, even when – according to Jack – Stan may have contributed very little. 

Debate still rages on this topic, but regardless – by 1970 Jack harbored a deep resentment towards Stan and Marvel Comics, and he left the company to head over to DC Comics, where he’d make better money and have more creative control. At DC he created what was called The Fourth World, a wild mythologically-inspired storyline that introduced a host of characters usually called The New Gods. Kirby's greatest DC creation was the supervillain Darkseid, a character that later influenced the look of Marvel’s Thanos and, possibly slash probably, Darth Vader.

Jack left DC in 1975 and returned to Marvel for a time, then he spent the last two decades of his life working in animation, working on his Fourth World characters for DC, and creating new characters and universes that he'd own himself. 

Kirby died in 1994 at the age of 76, but his legend has grown over the decades thanks to comic creators and fans celebrating him and his influence – and, of course, his creations have been seen by hundreds of millions of people in the Marvel films and in DC’s JUSTICE LEAGUE... and with the announcement of Ava DuVernay's NEW GODS and Marvel beginning to cast THE ETERNALS, this long-dead son of an immigrant who grew up in a tenement will be shaping our pop culture for years to come.