105 years ago tomorrow — August 28, 1917 — Jacob Kurtzberg was born at 147 Essex Street on NYC’s Lower East Side, the first native-born American in his family. His parents, Rose and Ben, were immigrants from Galicia, in what was then the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
“Jakie” grew up in the claustrophobic tenements of the Lower East Side, scrabbling for territory and opportunity like so many other kids around him. He ganged up with other kids. He fought with other kids. He read, soaked in movies like a sponge, made up stories in his head, and drew, drew, drew. He eventually drew himself and his family out of the Lower East Side.
As Jack Kirby, he turned the world of American comic books on its head. We continue to reap the harvest of his tameless imagination, furious narrative drawing, and huge, thrilling, absurd ideas. What a force.
I suspect that Kirby always bore the weight of his upbringing around with him, in his mind, and in his drawing. The above image seems to bear that out.
More than a quarter-century after his death, Jack Kirby (1917-1994) remains one of the most talked-about creators in the annals of the American comic book. Best known as the archetypal superhero artist and visual architect of the Marvel Universe, Kirby in fact went much further, creating diverse other comic books for many publishers as well as working in animation and comic strips and on sundry projects. An imaginative dynamo, he set a standard for the whole comic book industry. By now, Kirby studies is a thriving fan phenomenon: the source of unending books, articles, and commentary across social media. Despite this, Kirby has received little academic attention. This interdisciplinary collection of essays seeks to change that, and to expand the discussion of Kirby’s work beyond the familiar pathways of biography and homage.
Recent work in comics studies has questioned what gets valued in academia, and why. Inspired by that trend, this project aims to give Kirby’s work the critical study it so richly warrants. We seek to include a diversity of voices and approaches, and to move past the contentious claims to credit or ownership and anxieties about status that have preoccupied Kirby studies to date.
We recognize Kirby as both collaborator and distinctive author: a creator who wrote as well as drew stories throughout his long career. We take it as given that he did not simply illustrate but envisioned, designed, plotted, and often scripted work for Marvel and many other publishers. Kirby’s distinctive style and concerns are manifest across his entire body of work, from his early takes on familiar genres in the 1930s, through his romance, kid gang, superhero, and other comics of the 1940s and early 1950s, to his foundational work as writer, storyteller, designer, and house stylist for Marvel in the 1960s, to the auteurism of his late comics. We invite studies of Kirby as collaborator or sole author, as influence and idea.
We seek argument-driven, historically and theoretically informed work on topics such as, though not limited to:
Kirby and romance (one of the most popular genres in comic book history)
Kirby’s other genres: war, westerns, science fiction, crime, humor, superheroes, etc.
Gender and/or sexuality in Kirby’s work; Gender Studies and queer theory perspectives on Kirby
Race and ethnicity in Kirby’s work; perspectives from ethnic studies and critical race theory
Childhood or youth in Kirby’s work
Kirby vis-à-vis disability studies
Kirby vis-à-vis critical animal studies
Teaching Kirby: pedagogical perspectives
Other works of art in dialogue with Kirby (adaptation, homage, critique, or challenge)
Kirby and Kirbyism on screen
Posthumanism, transhumanism, and machine life in Kirby
Soldiers, super-soldiers, and militarism in Kirby
Religion or spirituality in Kirby
Simon & Kirby: the partnership, the shop, the brand
Collaborative processes across Kirby’s career
Kirby in newspapers: his neglected comic strip and panel-cartoon work
Aesthetic and formal dimensions of Kirby’s graphic storytelling
Kirby’s way with words, i.e., prose style, narrative voice, dialogue
Kirby as collagist
Kirby in the art gallery or museum
Kirby and/in cosplay or fan art
Anti-fans of Kirby: the social, ideological, or aesthetic logics behind aversion to his work
Kirby as meme; Kirby as character
We prefer contributions that engage with social and historical contexts and attend to visual and aesthetic as well as narrative and thematic dimensions. Proposals for work in alternate formats (beyond that of the academic essay) are welcomed. Again, we aim to include diverse voices and perspectives.
Interested authors should submit an abstract (500-1000 words) and a biography of no more than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org by February 11, 2022. Please note that submission of an abstract or paper does not guarantee publication. All applicants will be notified by April 8, 2022. Completed chapters of 6,000-8,000 words will be due by October 14, 2022, with the goal of publishing the volume by late 2023. The editors will pursue funding to bring contributors together for a Kirby studies symposium (virtual or in-person).
You may have heard about Douglas Wolk’s new book, All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told. Frankly, it’s a stunt: what if one reader actually read all of the comic books that make up the Marvel Comics universe, that is, the 27,000-plus comic books published since 1961 that together add up to Marvel’s superhero world? What discoveries or patterns might be gleaned by reading and taking stock of so much stuff? Academics these days might call this approach (after Franco Moretti) distant as opposed to close reading: an overview or sweeping interpretation of a massive set of texts rather than the minutely attentive reading of a small set—essentially, a macroscopic rather than microscopic approach. The thing is, “distant reading” is usually understood to be a matter of machine reading and computational methods (it’s a term much used in the digital humanities). Douglas Wolk is not a machine or array of machines, but one splendidly quirky, human reader. All of the Marvels may sound intimidatingly geeky, but it’s a loving, very personal project—a barnstorming exegetical feat fueled by sheer gushing enthusiasm. Even Marvel’s unloveliest excesses, its long dull stretches and occasionally mortifying missteps, cannot quench that feeling. The stunt turns out to be a delight.
Honestly, when I saw the PR for this book, I got skeptical. Billing Marvel’s piecemeal continuity as “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created” begs a lot of questions. To make one story out of Marvel’s corporate patchwork, the stuff of serial comics by an ever-shifting crowd of artists, writers, and editors for hire, spread out over decades, seems either too optimistic or a surrender to hype. Cynically, I can’t help but see Marvel’s “story” as an ever-expanding incoherence, driven by unending opportunism, impersonal editorial mandates, relentless deadlines, and the sort of artistic interchangeability that work for hire demands. My internal argument would go something like this: There is no singular creative intelligence or cohesive collaborative team, nor even a distinct series of deliberate teams, behind the sprawl of Marvel, and the supposed continuity between comics published in the 1960s and comics published now is simply a commercial requirement of the superhero genre, a matter of desperately imposing shape where there is none. Believing in Marvel’s “continuity” amounts to willfully ignoring its publishing history, indulging in a kind of kayfabe that tries to wave away the incoherence even though we all ought to know better. There’s no big story here, I would say, only an accumulation of disparate comics united by branding.
BUT. One of the wise things about Wolk’s book is that he acknowledges all this. He knows that the continuity he can read into the Marvel story “wasn’t molded intentionally, for the most part” (331), that it came about through reckless improvisation prodded by commercial imperatives. He knows that “Marvel” isn’t one thing. Reading Marvel as one story is a creative act, and Wolk does it his way, according to his interests and pleasures. He encourages his readers to do the same, to “stray from the path,” follow their own curiosity, and indulge their tastes (21). Wolk himself, being a great conversationalist, does a fine job of evangelizing for his tastes, but less in terms of what is “important” and more in terms of what’s cool. All of the Marvels is a record of aesthetic delectation. For Wolk, “Marvel” becomes an idiosyncratic reading practice that does not, thank goodness, require a plodding chronological march through sixty years of comics starting in 1961. Marvel is a pond to swim in. Whether to wade in the shallows or plunge into the deep end, or whether to dogpaddle or swim strict laps, is up to you. Acknowledging the discontinuity of Marvel Comics, but still building his own continuity out of it, Wolk remains interesting on his own terms from first to last. He is a remarkably affable and unstrict guide, cheerfully acknowledging Marvel’s shapelessness even as he imposes shape on it. Good for him.
All of the Marvels is refreshingly free of worry about the ever-controversial business of assigning credit for the “creation” of Marvel characters—instead, Wolk assumes creation to be an ongoing, massively collaborative process that can belong to no single person or single team. If that sounds like an ethical dodge, it isn’t—the book generously supplies creator credits, and Wolk delights in the distinctiveness of individual artists and writers. From the outset you can tell that, as he puts it, creators are at least as important as characters (34). All of the Marvels is not a paean to Marvel the company (after all, “a corporation can never love you back,” 328) but a way of remembering thousands of moments of pleasure provided by specific comics created by specific groups of people. In fact, Wolk spends a considerable amount of time on certain scriptwriters—not just Stan Lee, but Chris Claremont and Jonathan Hickman—and cartoonists, chief among them Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, whom he regularly credits with plotting and character creation or co-creation as well as splendid narrative art. Though the book’s perspective is, obviously, not auteurist, Wolk knows and loves creators, and regards the various Marvel stories as personal work (even as he admits their market-driven and often formulaic nature). Reconciling a creator-focused vision with a sweeping overview of the Marvel Universe is quite a feat—and Wolk pulls it off.
Simply put, All of the Marvels is a wonder. I envy Wolk’s genuinely charming voice and ability to hopscotch around the Marvel Universe so freely. He covers light years in a single bound. There is a lot of bounding around in the book, which makes its clarity and focus all the more impressive. Because Wolk is such a friendly narrator to hang with, and so emphatically underscores the importance of inclusivity and shared fun, he makes the crazy tangles of Marvel feel like diverting mental puzzles and invitations to sociability, rather than migraines. More than anything, I’m thankful for the way he makes this admittedly uptight auteurist and originalist—that’s me, honestly, a reader who has tended to bemoan rather than celebrate the endless rewriting of the Marvel Universe—see the virtues and pleasures of its continual revision.
Granted, there are times when Wolk doesn’t convince me, as when he works hard to find the good in prolonged and gimmicky storylines like Dark Reign or The Superior Spider-Man. His readings tend to be very optimistic: for example, he reads the history of Spider-Man as one of distinct “cycles,” each with a windup and a payoff, whereas I tend to read it merely as a history of repetitive imitation and diminishing returns. I found myself wanting to argue with Wolk at times—but I think that’s part of the pleasure he has to offer. He surely knows that readers, even the most enthusiastic readers, will pick arguments with him. Though All of the Marvels is a determinedly bright and optimistic book, it’s not pollyannish or blind. Wolk starts from the recognition that a great many Marvel comics are bad, and acknowledges that “there is cruelty and unfairness to creative geniuses stamped into every page” (27). He is able to find pleasure in the big patterns and the long haul, yet at the same time invites debate on a thousand points—indeed, the book practically begs for trash-talking, clubby exchanges with fellow fans. Criticism and debate, after all, are inevitable (and pleasurable) aspects of fandom. I don’t think Wolk would have it any other way.
Wolk can occasionally be quite critical. He despises the Punisher (“a wish-fulfillment figure for bloodthirsty creeps”), dislikes the original Secret Wars of 1984 (“superhero comics’ peak intersection of rapacity and artlessness”), and joins the chorus of those lamenting 1990s Marvel for opportunism and crassness (“increasingly incoherent exploits of wasp-waisted babes and muscle-bound men”). Yet he goes for a reparative reading whenever he can. Sometimes he notes troubling tendencies that he doesn’t bother to criticize, as when, for example, he cheerfully acknowledges the “nihilistic” (his word) ethos of Hickman et al.’s Secret Wars of 2015-2016 (I gotta admit, he does make me want to go read all of it). I wish he’d dig in more at moments like that. Also, he does some sleight of hand here and there, brandishing his artistic license, as it were, to keep the book focused: Notably, he personifies the Marvel story as a character with agency and a life of its own, as if it were a person living through interesting times. For example, regarding the nineties, he says, “the story has been looking back on itself—sometimes nostalgically, sometimes critically—and by 2004, it’s trying to shake off its repetitions” (347). This way, Marvel becomes a character that takes its knocks but keeps picking itself up and getting back in the race. This is a good strategy for making every fall a fortunate fall—perhaps that’s a little too convenient?
But, thanks to Wolk, I can now read or reread Marvel comics with greater enjoyment, even in cases where I think they’re rigged or derivative. That is, I take a new pleasure in the sense of belonging and possibility that All of the Marvels so happily promotes. There are gems scattered throughout the book, from the brief interchapter on pop musicians appearing in Marvel comics, to the ambivalent yet loving chapter on, of all things, Master of Kung Fu, to the beautiful final chapter about passing along his love of Marvel to his young son. A real highlight for me is the interchapter “March 1965,” which is another instance of the kind of up-close cultural history Wolk does so well in his book James Brown’s Live at the Apollo (with its focus on just a few days in October 1962). Every reader will have their own set of highlights, I expect.
No lie—this book is a tonic. Speaking personally, I owe Wolk a lot: This past year, living under lockdown, in the shadow of COVID, and knowing that Wolk’s book would be coming out in late 2021, I did what I had never done before—I got my money’s worth out of the Marvel Unlimited service by reading back and forth between the 1960s and the 21st century. That is, I started on the longest sustained binge-reading of Marvel Comics I’ve ever done (outside of research). This had the effect of naturalizing, for me, digital tablet reading of comic books—a bridge I’d been hoping to cross for years. Armed with the idea that I would get something out of Wolk’s book, and the thought that I might eventually design and teach a new Marvel-themed course, I got over my resistance to screen-reading Marvel comics. As a result, I’ve read some good comics and quite a few lousy comics, plus reread a few old faves, and put them all into new contexts. The arrival of All of the Marvels has made this process, well, not complete (never complete!), but even more enjoyable. Wolk’s tome, this insanely ambitious tour guide, suggests diverse new entryways into, and so many different possibilities for teaching, whatever it is that Marvel has become and keeps on becoming.
So, wow. Do yourself a favor and read this book, if you haven’t already!
PS. I took in part of the book through the audiobook version, read by Wolk himself. It’s a delightful commuting companion. 🙂
JACK KIRBY (b. Jacob Kurtzberg, 1917-1994) would have been 104 years old tomorrow, August 28.
If you’re visiting this site, you probably don’t need to be persuaded that Kirby was one of twentieth-century America’s most influential artists and storytellers and continues to inspire new work in comics and across media. I’ll simply note thatthe Marvel Universe of comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe alike testify to Kirby’s impact (and that Eternals, Chloe Zao’s film adaptation of his mid-1970s comic, is slated for release in a couple of months). FYI, Comic-Con International celebrated Kirby’s centennial in 2017 with a special tribute section in its annual souvenir book, and you can still access that for free in PDF at:
This PDF makes for a fine primer on Kirby. I’m proud to have contributed an essay to it (and must once again thank CCI and Gary Sassaman for that!).
As I often say, I don’t expect ever to be “done” thinking and writing about Kirby. For this year’s Kirby Day, I’d like to alert my readers to a great event that the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center is putting on tomorrow, Saturday, August 28, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. NYC time (EDT): a walking tour of New York’s Lower East Side, including Kirby’s birthplace and boyhood home. According to the Museum’s website,
The tour will be livestreamed to our usual venues on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch, with Kirby-centric video clips streamed out while we are walking.
Note that the Museum’s YouTube channel can be accessed at https://youtube.com/c/JackKirbyMuseum and that its Twitter handle is @JackKirbyMuseum (Museum organizers Rand Hoppe and Tom Kraft always take pains to reach out via multiple platforms).
For my own pleasure, and to remind myself of the scope of Jack Kirby’s work on this, his 104th birthday, I’ve selected 104 comic book covers penciled by Kirby between 1941 and 1983. See the slideshow below! These are covers that can confidently be attributed to Kirby as designer or co-designer and principal artist and that stand out to me because they’re dramatic, compositionally dynamic, vividly colored, weird, revealing, alarming, and/or funny. Some of them may even be, dare I say, cringey or dated in ways that make us sit up and take notice, but all of them are delightful or strange and are burned into my brain.
Note that I sourced these images through the aptly named Grand Comics Database (comics.org), which is, no exaggeration, a godsend, one of my constant go-to places for comics info. Please consider supporting the GCD by donating either funds or your own hard work! (BTW, the GCD lists more than 1600 original, not reprinted, comic book covers penciled by Kirby.)
Finally, following the example of Kirby’s granddaughter Jillian, why not take the occasion of Kirby’s birthday to donate to The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to helping comics creators in need? They do really important, needful work, and I can’t think of a more fitting way to signal one’s gratitude for Jack’s glorious, life-enhancing art.
PS. It should take just over five minutes for the slideshow to play through on autoplay. I recommend switching to full screen if you can to see bigger images!
I was sorry to learn that Steve Sherman — puppeteer, writer, artist, designer, and all-around creator — died last week on June 24. He was 72 years old. My deepest condolences to his loved ones, colleagues, and admirers.
Steve Sherman had a long and interesting career in film and television, on stage, and in comic books, including stints working for Filmation, Sid & Marty Krofft, Hanna-Barbera, and toy design firm Fred Adickes Associates. In the mid 1980s, he and fellow puppeteer Greg Williams cofounded Puppet Studio, a partnership that lasted for decades and included work for theme parks, cruise ships, and pop music tours as well as television (for example, ABC Weekend Specials, Beakman’s World, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse) and movies (such as Mighty Joe Young and the first two Men in Black films). Together Sherman and Williams worked with, among others, Jim Henson’s Muppets and legendary makeup artist Rick Baker, and in the mid-80s they created characters and stories for Mattel.
Me, I came to know Steve Sherman through comic books. Specifically, I learned his name through reading Jack Kirby’s comics for publisher DC in the early to mid 1970s. I saw Sherman’s byline a lot in the letter columns of comics like Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earthand OMAC. I would also see another name, Mark Evanier, in some of those comics. What I didn’t quite realize was that Sherman and Evanier were Kirby’s two assistants, having been hired out of comic book fandom to help Jack with production and editorial duties on his DC books. They were also good friends. Evanier and Sherman had met in the late 60s through the Los Angeles Comic Book Club (which Evanier presided over), then worked together at the ill-fated Marvelmania (c. 1969-1970). Kirby, who did some work for Marvelmania, hired the two at about the time he was launching his grand Fourth World project for DC and envisioning a larger production outfit that could include other writers and artists under his editorship (a vision that never came to pass).
Text articles and letter columns by Sherman and Evanier began appearing with the second issues of Kirby’s titles Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle, which went on sale in February and March of 1971. Sherman would have been twenty-one then (and Evanier just going on nineteen). Essentially, Sherman and Evanier had a ringside seat for the creation of one of the most exciting projects in American mainstream comic books of that era.
Evanier and Sherman have described their work for Kirby as minimal, since Kirby did all his own writing and drawing and held the editorial reins of most of his DC titles. But they were key parts of a team and community that afforded Kirby greater creative freedom than he had enjoyed for many years. Sherman supplied Kirby with the premise of Kamandi #29 (May 1975) and co-created the character Kobra with him. In the late 70s, Sherman and Kirby also collaborated on two treatments for SF movies that went unfilmed but later resulted in Kirby’s independent comic book projects for Pacific Comics, Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers(1981-1984) and Silver Star(1983-1984). Both Sherman and Evanier became good friends of Jack Kirby’s family and important figures in his career story.
I believe I met Steve Sherman at more than one Kirby-themed convention event organized by Mark Evanier. I know that together Evanier, Sherman, Paul S. Levine, and I did the Kirby tribute panel at WonderCon in 2016, which I greatly enjoyed. Steve was gracious, unassuming, and friendly. Getting to talk to him then was a gift. I wish I had known him better.
Mark Evanier has a fine tribute to Steve up on his blog. Also, Mark and Steve got together for a video chat last summer that you can watch on YouTube; it’s a lovely stroll down memory lane, and a treasure trove for anyone who wants to know more about L.A. fandom in the 1960s or Kirby’s amazing early-70s period.