When Enjoying ‘Quantumania,’ Let’s Not Forget The King Of Comics Who Helped Create It
The latest installment of the Marvel Comics Cinematic Universe is getting underway this month with “Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” and as usual, some of the media is paying token attention to the late Stan Lee, the Marvel icon who not only acted as the front-facing personality of the company for decades, but became a cool character of his own with his various cameos in each of the Marvel pictures.
But there’s another figure, who rarely gets mentioned by the media in any of their stories, who deserves almost as much credit for the birthing of these characters who populate the wonderful Marvel Universe.
The King of Comics.
It was almost three decades ago, February of 1994, that this legend left this mortal plane.
He left behind a legacy that still remains, not only in the characters that populate the big screen, but in the love of comics that he instilled in so many of us who grew up as comics fans.
It was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when my matted hair cloaked a face painted with football dirt, and my breath was tinged with strawberry Pez. It was grade school, and every Tuesday I observed a sacred ritual.
At 3 p.m. the bell screamed salvation. I grabbed my coat, book bag and Starsky and Hutch lunchbox and began the trip. Striding with purpose and a heart overflowing with carbonated adrenaline, my brother and I approached the Day and Nite store and dismantled our allowances.
After all, the new comic books were in.
It was time to escape from the mundane existence offered by Catholic school and a home sliding toward divorce. It was time to be caught in the crossfire of an atom bomb of fantasy, miraculously surviving, not only intact, but imbued with powers to overcome any of these gray concerns.
It was during one of these journeys into the unknown that I first encountered Jack Kirby.
I was propped up on a stack of Chicago Tribunes, searching for the new X-Men, when I saw the cool guy with the mohawk named OMAC — One Man Army Corps. There he was, bursting from an all-white cover, hurtling a creature of obvious evil through space.
“Wow, look at this,” I said to my brother.
“De-cent!” was his reply as we both grabbed a copy.
Little did I know who I was stumbling upon. Little did I know, as I flipped through the action-packed, power-pulsating pages, that this was the King, this was Kirby, this was the guy who, along with Stan Lee, created the characters that I now knew under different ownership.
But I soon found out.
Through the world of reprint books and comics I was able to piece together the Kirby influence that had unfolded years before I was even born, and what an incredible legacy it was! Here was the man who helped revolutionize comics. He and Joe Simon created not only Captain America, but also the first romance comic, “My Date,” in the 1940s. He toiled on countless monster comics in the 1950s that brought that genre to a bold new plateau. But it was in the 1960s that Kirby helped change the face of comics forever. It was then that he conceived the new brand of superhero.
Kirby either created or co-created The Hulk, Thor, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers and the character that would later become one of my favorites, the Silver Surfer.
The Surfer was a spectacular creation who seemed to cultivate a special curiosity in comics fans. He was a dynamic loner, an extraterrestrial James Dean of unimaginable power who was doomed to use that power to glorify destruction as the herald for the planet-devouring Galactus. Eventually the Surfer broke free of Galactus’ hold, but he was still locked to his past, condemned to travel the galaxy alone.
In many ways, he represented Kirby. Kirby was in part a loner whose greatest productions were intertwined with others. He painted a glorious and heroic picture of destruction. It was Kirby’s work, chock-full of detail and expressionistic gesture, that most greatly heralded the amazing success of action comics today. And that success has threatened to devour every other genre in the comics market at many junctures. Like the Surfer, Kirby broke free of a monolithic giant, Marvel Comics, to go out on his own, but he was always best known for his earliest work.
It was that early work, with writer Stan Lee, that sowed the seeds of Marvel’s success.
Lee and Kirby conceptualized a new breed of hero, one who had the same type of faults and foibles that we all have. Kirby brought that vision to life, giving us dynamic figures that weren’t the usual straight-jawed leading men of the comics pages. He wasn’t afraid to make a character ugly the Hulk, the Thing or unusual looking OMAC, the Surfer because he knew that the character’s inner self and actions would win readers over.
Kirby was also the first artist to break the barriers of comics panels and ignite action that exploded across the page. Before Kirby, comics companies wanted to cram as many panels on a page as possible, and when a Nazi or some bad guy got his due, it was in the form of an anemic punch to the jaw.
Not in Kirby’s comics. He often unleashed a behemoth of violent energy, with one panel covering an entire page — or, when the rage couldn’t be contained, two pages! People were sent crashing and hurtling through the panels, sprawling with the expansive verve that Kirby brought to all of his work.
Reading a Kirby book was a rush; it was a way of centering all the troubles in your life that you couldn’t understand or control and — BLAM! — sending them sailing into the background as you surfed into a world of unreality that made the real world a bit more bearable.
Kirby was never regarded as one of the more highbrow comic artists. He never reached the literary sophistication of later artists such as Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore. But to compare his work to them is unfair; it’s like comparing a great action picture to a more sober work.
His work had a beauty and a style all its own. It was everything a comic book should be. It was brilliant storytelling. It was mythology. It was power. It was a kid’s dream, a kid’s escape from the reality captured so bittersweetly in the “adult” comics. It was a four-color transcendence of reality that fit so perfectly into the imagination not yet sold out for grown-up concerns.
In many people’s minds, the images that Jack Kirby created will be forever entwined with their childhoods. The influence that Kirby had will be felt not only in the comics field he helped give birth to, but in a popular culture that collected his images and recycled them into the subconscious.
When Kirby died, several of us returned to our place of initiation. Countless people, comics fans present and past, remembered the time when we first came upon the fantastic characters that Kirby helped breathe to life, and remembered the life events those images are indelibly tattooed onto. Those, and the memories and fantasies that Kirby’s creations will continue to spawn, will be his greatest legacy.
That legacy continues today, three decades later, with every new movie that comes out featuring a character beholden to Kirby for its inception.
The King is dead, long live the King.