Thursday would have been late comic book artist Jack Kirby's 97th birthday. He's the man who co-created classic Marvel Comics characters including Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk, as well as numerous influential characters for DC Comics. He drew in a kinetic style, from war action scenes informed by his own time serving in the military to universe-spanning cosmic vistas.
Here's a look at six lesser-known facts about Jack "King" Kirby, considered by many the greatest comic book artist of all time.
1. Kirby created the Guardians of the Galaxy's Groot
Groot became a big part of the emotional heart in this summer's blockbuster "Guardians of the Galaxy," but before he was a spacefaring hero, he was a 1960 monster created by Kirby for the comic "Tales to Astonish." That book's cover called him "The monster from Planet X!" Groot was also more verbose at the time, before his language was cut down to simply "I am Groot."
2. Kirby did the storyboards for the fake sci-fi film depicted in the movie "Argo"
Kirby had been hired to draw concept art for a movie of the science fiction novel "Lord of Light," as well as for a science fiction amusement park. The movie never happened, but the CIA ended up using the drawings as part of a fake film production to help free Americans trapped in Iran during the Iran hostage crisis. The story was told in the Ben Affleck film "Argo," and someone playing Kirby is shown in the film, though not referred to by name.
3. Kirby was credited as an artist, but plotted many of the stories himself
While Stan Lee gets much of the credit for the creation of Marvel's classic characters, those characters not only got their visual identities from artists like Kirby, Lee also didn't actually write the books in the way that most of us would think about it. Lee developed a style he called the Marvel Way — Lee would come up with a basic plot, which the artist would then draw, and Lee would fill in the word balloons afterward. It let Lee create more books without having to come up with a full script first, but also led to numerous disputes with artists who felt they weren't given enough credit for their contributions.
Lee described the process like this: "The artist goes home, or wherever he goes, and he draws the thing out, brings it back, and I put the copy in after he’s drawn the story based on the plot I’ve given him." Lee added that Kirby had even more editorial freedom. "Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, ‘Let’s make the next villain be Dr. Doom’… or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it."
Lee even credited Kirby's writing. "He’s good at plots. I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing," Lee said. "Of course, occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things."
4. "Jack Kirby" wasn't even his real name
Kirby was born "Jacob Kurtzberg" and originally worked under a variety of different names before settling on the pen name "Jack Kirby." He told the Comics Journal that he wanted something close to his own name, but that sounded more classically American.
5. Kirby helped create one of the biggest post-World War II comics genres: Romance comics
Kirby worked with Joe Simon, with whom he co-created Captain America, to develop "Young Romance," the first romance comic. The Kirby/Simon romance comics would go on to sell millions of copies a month for years, and Kirby credited those romance comics with letting him buy a house for his family.
6. Kirby created the character who inspired Avengers villain Thanos
Comic fans long noticed the similarity between Thanos (who entered the popular consciousness recently in both "Avengers" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" films) and a certain Jack Kirby creation: Darkseid, whom Kirby created after leaving Marvel for DC Comics for several years. The similarity wasn't unintentional: Writer/artist Jim Starlin has admitted that he was encouraged to rip off Darkseid when creating Thanos. There's more to each character, but Kirby's Darkseid was the original.
On his 97th birthday, one of the ways in which Kirby's being celebrated: Comic book artist Phil Hester is doing 97 sketches of Jack Kirby characters for charity.
Take a peek at Hester's process:
Other artists have also used the occasion to pay tribute to Kirby:
Watch Jack Kirby draw Doctor Doom:
And learn more about Kirby in this documentary: