The Predecessor to Marvel Comics
To date, Marvel Comics, the publishers of comic books starring Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and many other well-known superheroes, has published close to 40,000 different comic books since the company first started in 1939. But back then, Marvel was not called Marvel. It was Timely Comics, the creation of publisher Martin Goodman, who started the company in 1933 to sell racy pulp magazines with titles like Complete War Novels, American Sky Devils, and Best Love Magazine.
By the 1940s, however, Timely was primarily in the business of producing and selling comic books, and one of the most prolific artists for the company, both at the time and in the 1960s, was Jack Kirby, often referred to as the "King of Comics." (Coincidentally, that was a moniker that drew some ire from the great comedian and talk-show host Johnny Carson, who misunderstood the nature of the title before the record was set straight on an episode of The Tonight Show). Kirby was justly dubbed the King after his efforts in co-creating characters like the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the Silver Surfer cemented the validity of the title, but it took dozens of years and thousands of pages of printed art before Kirby would get there.
The Streetwise Lead-Slinger
Jack Kirby was born in 1917 to Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg, Austrain Jewish immigrants who lived in the Lower East Side of New York City. His given name was Jacob Kurtzberg, and even as a young man, Jack wanted a way out of the neighborhood he grew up in, where his father was a factory laborer and neighborhood gangs roamed the streets. In order to survive in this environment, Kirby was frequently involved in actual street fights, something that may have informed his astounding ability to choreograph and illustrate some of the most action-packed comics that have ever been published.
As a kid, some of Kirby's greatest influences including the famous comic strip artists of the time, such as Alex Raymond (the creator of Flash Gordon), Hal Foster (the man responsible for Prince Valiant), and Milton Caniff (the creator of Terry and the Pirates). Using these artists and others as inspirational springboards, Kirby taught himself how to draw comics, and he did so with uncanny speed. In fact, his pace was so quick, There were rare times when Kirby was able to complete as many as ten pages of comic book pencil work in a single weekend. Compare that to the speed of his contemporaries and successors, most of whom are lucky to do that much work in two weeks, if not an entire month!
Kirby's speed with a pencil did hinder him somewhat in pursuing an advanced art education. He quit his studies at the New York Pratt Institute after a week because, as he said, "They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn't want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done."
Kirby Goes to Work
Getting Things Done at Timely
Although he did not stay long in academia, Kirby's restless talent aided him in quickly finding professional work as an artist. His first job was as an in-betweener on Popeye cartoons, followed by stints as a political cartoonist and comic strip artist for Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate, before he started getting work for the type of adventure serial that would eventually earn him so many accolades: the superhero.
Kirby was drawing the superhero Blue Beetle newspaper comic strip in 1939, which caught the eye of Joe Simon, the in-house editor for Goodman's Timely Comics. Timely hired Kirby as its first staff artist in 1940, and it soon became clear to both Simon and Goodman that Kirby was an absolute force of nature in the field of comic book illustration. Kirby's first work for the company was Red Raven Comics issue no. 1 (August 1940), but he was drawing so quickly that there simply were not enough assignments at the company to keep Kirby's pencil satisfied.
Simply put, Kirby produced more comic pages for Timely than any other artist could hope to achieve, and the line would have to expand further.
Kirby's Lurid Imagery
Kirby continued working on a variety of titles for Timely in 1940 and 1941, and not just comics. He also did more than 50 pulp illustrations to accompany stories in titles such as Marvel Stories, Complete Detective Cases, and Detective Short Stories. It was in these illustrations that Kirby developed an even more refined energy perfect for the content of the pulps. This included skull-faced specters, lurid females, and grotesque monsters and aliens.
Kirby worked alone and also, at times, in conjunction with Joe Simon, who contributed a more design-oriented approach to their illustrations. The two worked together so well, they eventually developed a comic book character of their own, a patriotic superhero that is still well-known to this day.
Simon and Kirby's Patriotic Superhero
Captain America debuted in 1941, the branchild of Kirby and Simon. Using techniques developed in the production of pulp illustrations, such as the double-page spread, Kirby took all that he had learned in the industry so far, and used his knowledge to create a character that remains popular even today.
Unfortunately, the initial run of Captain America comics was cut short, as Simon and Kirby had a falling out with Goodman. Although Goodman had agreed to pay the creators a specific royalty from the comic book, the two learned that many of the company's costs were being foisted onto the title's account, and Simon and Kirby were not being paid what they were worth. The duo knew that if they wanted a fair shake, they would have to look somewhere else to get it.
Leaving the Pulps
A Move to DC
While Simon and Kirby were working on the tenth issue of Captain America Comics, they were also finalizing a deal to begin with Goodman's competition, DC Comics. When Goodman found out, he fired them. And although it would be many years before it happened, Kirby would eventually return to work for Goodman's comic book publishing enterprise, although at that point, it would be known by the name it is today: Marvel Comics.