Jack Kirby is The Most Important Artist You Might Not Have Heard Of

The artist who created so many of Marvel's superheroes cast a big shadow on the world we live in today

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Titan Books / AP

Jack Kirby, left, and Joe Simon, co-creators of the Captain America comic.

When I was a kid, I had pretty much decided — using the kind of kid logic that almost always turns out to be undone with age and common sense — that comic-book artist Jack Kirby wasn’t for me.

That I’d made such a decision at all was unusual. Sure, I was a voracious comic-book reader, but I wasn’t one who was particularly aware of who wrote or drew the comics I devoured at that time; that level of fandom was years in my future, as puberty took hold. ( Around the same time I started noticing the difference in the word balloons done John Costanza and Todd Klein—top-level “letterers” who added all the text to a comic book.) My very definite “dislike” of Kirby’s art was something else, a rejection of his very aesthetic as something that was ugly and misshapen and particularly dissonant to my young eyes; I probably couldn’t have named Kirby at that time, but I could have told you with particular emphasis that what he drew was not for me.

Of course, I wasn’t really aware of who Kirby was, at the time. I’m unsure whether or not that would have changed my mind; the idea that someone had actually co-created characters like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men or the Fantastic Four was, in itself, something that I would’ve had trouble unpicking in any appreciable way. Someone made these characters up? They weren’t just always there, somehow?

Even so, even if I had somehow grasped the idea that one man was responsible—or, at least, partly responsible—for so many of my then-favorite superheroes and villains (Doctor Doom! Galactus! Klaw, whose freakish look and strange teeth in particular weirded me out in the best way!), I’m unsure that it would have brought me around to the idea of Kirby as anything other than an old guy who proved that standards used to be much lower back in the day in any real way.

I’m unsure what changed first: My depth of knowledge of what Kirby brought to comic books—in terms of the visual language of the medium, as much as his endless creativity for new characters and concepts—or my appreciation of his actual aesthetic. Maybe they both changed together, with one informing the other. I can remember discovering characters that Kirby had come up with after that initial wave of Marvel Comics creations, and falling under their spell just as much as I had his earlier, simpler work.

It helped that sensationally-named characters like “Darkseid” (pronounced “Dark Side,” of course) and “Orion” seemed both familiar and particularly iconic through their similarity to George LucasStar Wars— a similarity that has led many (myself included, I admit) to become convinced that Lucas was inspired, to politely put it, by Kirby’s New Gods and “Fourth World” comic books when building out his own sci-fi epic. Kirby’s ideas, it seemed, were compelling to everyone.

And there were so many of them! Not only did he create or co-create pretty much the baseline Marvel superheroes that everyone has since come to love through the Avengers and X-Men movies—he was involved in Spider-Man’s creation too, apparently, but only tangentially—but he also was one of the people responsible for the entire genre of romance comics, tossed off while looking for work in the 1950s. As if his 1960s Marvel work wasn’t important enough, he basically re-wrote the rule book for the superhero genre both in terms of narrative tropes and visual language on Fantastic Four, and created a framework for combining the mythical and mundane in Thor that stands to this day, and has been co-opted by other media either consciously or otherwise.

As I grew older, I came to appreciate Kirby’s aesthetic more and more, to the point where he’s now one of my favorite artists of the 20th century—not just in terms of comic books, but visual art in general; things like Kirby Krackle or his particularly graphic stylization of technology have a particularly individual beauty and appeal that I’ve grown to appreciate, on top of his peerless storytelling chops (The way in which each individual panel leads the eye to the next is something few others have even attempted on such a consistent basis, never mind succeeded at) and unstoppable creativity.

At his peak, Kirby created popular culture as we know it today. So many of the ideas and characters that fill today have been shaped in some basic, important way by Kirby’s work. It didn’t matter that his work wasn’t slick enough for kids like me in the 1980s; Kirby transcended that kind of thing. It’s not just that quality will out, because he transcended that, as well. Decades earlier than they happened, Jack Kirby drew the 21st century.