Comic book fans, begin to get ready to make a road trip. Famed comics artist Jack Kirby (1917-1994), whose work launched The Avengers, X-Men, Captain America, and the Marvel Universe, is the focus of an exhibition at the California State University, Northridge Art Galleries (CSUN). Called the “King” of comic books, he, along with Stan Lee, is the best-known artist in superhero comics. His characters, concepts, and plots became the springboard of the Marvel Universe in comics, in film, and across media. Kirby designed and launched such iconic properties as The Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor, The Hulk, and Nick Fury; he co-created Captain America and The Black Panther, and helped launch other Marvel properties such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Daredevil.
While focusing on Kirby’s later work, from about 1965 on, the exhibition documents his entire career, which lasted more than half a century and involved almost every major publisher in comic books. The show is among the largest Kirby exhibitions ever held, and the first at a university. Comic Book Apocalypse contains over 100 pages of original Jack Kirby art – mostly later DC work (Kamandi, New Gods, Forever People, and Demon), but there will be examples of Kirby’s Marvel and Golden Age 40s and 50s works, too. One room will be devoted to the original art for the complete Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth #14 story, “Winner Take All!” with ink and lettering art by Mike Royer. The Kirby Museum provided three interactive iPad displays containing items from their digital archive that will be displayed throughout the exhibit, as well as other items and support.
In an interview with the Comics Reporter, Professor Charles Hatfield, who organized the show, explains the reasoning behind his choices for the exhibit: “In the end we did include some Kirby originals from the ’40s and ’50s, and a number of published comics from those days, so as to give everyone an overview of Kirby’s career — because it was important to me that newcomers understand what a comic book legend Jack was. Even if he had never touched a board again after 1960, he’d be one of the legendary comic book pioneers, and I wanted to get that across. But we’re still focusing on the 60s to mid-80s, with the bulk of the show representing the 70s — something I settled on early.
Another decision was to get published comic books into the show alongside the originals. I always wanted the history and public life of the work, so to speak, to be represented bu pulpy comic books, as originally published, even if they had to be under glass.”
Born Jacob Kurtzberg, Kirby grew up poor in New York City, and learned to draw cartoon figures by tracing characters from comic strips and editorial cartoons. He entered the nascent comics industry in the 1930s, drawing various comics features under different pen names, including Jack Curtiss, before ultimately settling on Jack Kirby. In 1940, he and writer-editor Joe Simon created the highly successful superhero character Captain America for Timely Comics, predecessor of Marvel Comics. During the 1940s, Kirby, generally teamed with Simon, created numerous characters for that company and for National Comics, later to become DC Comics.
After serving in World War II, Kirby produced work for a number of publishers, including DC, Harvey Comics, Hillman Periodicals. At Crestwood Publications he and Simon created the genre of romance comics and later founded their own short-lived comic company, Mainline Publications. Ultimately, Kirby found himself at Timely’s 1950s iteration, Atlas Comics, which in the next decade became Marvel. There, in the 1960s, Kirby and writer-editor Stan Lee co-created many of the company’s major characters, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk. The Lee-Kirby titles garnered high sales and critical acclaim, but in 1970, feeling he had been treated unfairly, Kirby left the company for rival DC.
At DC, Kirby created his Fourth World saga, which spanned several comics titles. While these series proved commercially unsuccessful and were canceled, the Fourth World’s New Gods have continued as a significant part of the DC Universe. Kirby returned to Marvel briefly in the mid-to-late 1970s. It was at Marvel collaborating with writer and editor-in-chief Lee that Kirby hit his stride once again in superhero comics, beginning with The Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961). The landmark series became a hit that revolutionized the industry with its comparative naturalism and, eventually, a cosmic purview informed by Kirby’s seemingly boundless imagination—one well-matched with the consciousness-expanding youth culture of the 1960s.
For almost a decade, Kirby provided Marvel’s house style, co-creating with Stan Lee many of the Marvel characters and designing their visual motifs. At Lee’s request, he often provided new-to-Marvel artists “breakdown” layouts, over which they would pencil in order to become acquainted with the Marvel look. As artist Gil Kane described:
“Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company … It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but … Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field … [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists … and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. … Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me … It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.” Gil Kane, speaking at a forum on July 6, 1985, at the Dallas Fantasy Fair.
Kirby then ventured into television animation and independent comics. In his later years, Kirby, who has been called “the William Blake of comics”,mbegan receiving great recognition in the mainstream press for his career accomplishments, and in 1987 he was one of the three inaugural inductees of the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.
The show runs through Oct. 10; a special public reception will be held at 4 p.m. Aug. 29. 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, csun.edu. A full color exhibition catalog accompanies the exhibition. The exhibition is supported by the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication and the College of Humanities and Instructionally Related Activities.