Jack Kirby co-created some of the most enduring characters that Marvel Comics, or its predecessors Timely or Atlas, has published. Not satisfied with co-creating Captain America, one of the most popular and enduring wartime comics characters of 1941 with Joe Simon, Kirby went on to co-create The Fantastic Four with Stan Lee twenty years later. Following that, the Kirby/Lee partnership spawned the creation of several other popular Marvel properties, like Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and the Black Panther to name a few. But what about the years in between? With kudos to wikipedia and the hardcovers I borrowed from my friend, let’s check it out.
Leaving Captain America Comics to Al Avison and Syd Shores after just ten issues, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon left Timely and joined the ranks at National Comics (which eventually became DC). There they notably did some work on Sandman and Manhunter.
Jack Kirby: The War and Romance … Comics, That Is!
While working with National, Kirby was drafted into military service during the second World War. Called upon by one of his commanding officers to draw reconnaissance maps of enemy-held towns, Kirby was lucky to make it through the war alive. Honourably discharged in 1944 after suffering extreme frostbite, Kirby went back to work with Joe Simon at Harvey Comics, also turning in work for Crestwood and Hillman.
Although Simon and Kirby published some adventure stories during this time, their big seller was romance comics. Although not really my thing, these stories of betrayal and teenage lust sold pretty dang well in the early ’50s. But, luckily for superhero fans everywhere, you can take the superhero away from the artist but you can’t take the artist away from the superhero.
After a brief stint at Atlas Comics, Kirby did some of his most memorable work of the time as a freelancer for National. This included the co-creation of the Challengers of the Unknown and a great deal of work on House of Mystery, House of Secrets, My Greatest Adventure, Tales of the Unexpected, and a revamp of the Green Lantern in World’s Finest and Adventure Comics.
Jack Kirby: Challengers of the Unknown
Although not strictly superheroes since they’re without special powers, the Challengers of the Unknown, which Kirby co-created with Dave Wood, represent a kind of prototypical version of two of the most popular teams Kirby co-created, the X-Men and the Howling Commandos. Each of the five Challengers has his own defined personality and expertise: Ace Morgan the air force pilot, Professor Haley the brainy undersea explorer, Red Ryan the daredevil, and Rocky Davis the Olympic wrestling champion.
After surviving a plane crash that should have killed them, these four men make a pact to live life to its fullest. Convinced that they’re living on borrowed time, each man engages in a string of death-defying pursuits until the news is filled with headlines about their exploits. Having seemingly conquered death, the four men decide to create a team dedicated to taking on whatever risky venture they’re offered. The Challengers of the Unknown are born.
Although the Challengers don’t represent a novel idea, they’re basically just a team of adventurous guys much like Doc Savage’s team of stalwart companions, they provide a vehicle for Kirby to engage with far-out ideas that give way to some excellent art.
One such far-out idea involves the Challengers dealing with a giant, sentient robot named “Ultivac.” Fans of Isaac Asimov will notice a marked similarity between this giant robot’s name and that of the giant, sentient computer Multivac, a recurring character in several of Asimov’s stories.
Jack Kirby: House of Mystery, House of Secrets, & Tales of the Unexpected
Aside from his unique penciling style and excellent choice of creative partners, Jack Kirby was also a workhorse. In April of 1957, Kirby had stories published in House of Secrets, House of Mystery, Tales of the Unexpected, and a 20-page Challengers of the Unknown story in Showcase. This means that for the month of April 1957 alone, Kirby, working as a freelancer, had at least forty-one pages of art published by National Comics. Kirby kept this pace or improved upon it for the majority of his professional life, but after a year of freelancing with National Kirby eventually returned to Atlas where he would revolutionize the American comics scene three years later with his string of Marvel Age co-creations with Stan Lee.
It’s impossible to say which publisher Kirby preferred working for or which one he had the greater effect on. Kirby’s creations for Timely/Atlas/Marvel certainly stood the test of time. Captain America is in the movies nearly 80 years after his creation in 1941. And although the same can’t be said for the Challengers of the Unknown, they continue to enjoy popularity enough to warrant repeated revamps, including a New 52 reboot in DC Universe Presents back in 2012.
So, whether you’re a Marvel-ous comics fan or a Decidedly Comparable comics fan, you can’t deny King Kirby’s legacy. And though some of his creations were superior to others—Fighting American and X-51 being examples of his lesser-known work—they all have an undefinable quality that makes them memorable and unique. So, hail to the King and his entourage of collaborators, and let’s hope an X-51 movie is close at hand.