The Unmistakable Pop-Culture Influence of Jack Kirby

The comic book creator, born 100 years ago Monday, changed everything. No, really.
Jack Kirby/DC Entertainment

It isn't hyperbole to claim that it's impossible to imagine what the world of popular culture would look like today had Jack Kirby not lived.

The so-called "King of Comics" — a title he was too humble to claim for himself, but was gifted by the alliteration-loving Stan Lee (Jack "King" Kirby, get it?) — was born 100 years ago Monday, and it was less than two decades before he was working as a professional cartoonist under a variety of pseudonyms. ("Jack Kirby" was itself a fake name; he was born Jacob Kurtzberg, and Kirby was just one of many names he used professionally, alongside Jack Curtiss, Ted Grey and Fred Sande.) In a career that lasted almost 60 years, he didn't just revolutionize comics — more than once — he also came up with the building blocks of contemporary pop culture as it exists today.

That Marvel Studios wouldn't exist without Kirby is, of course, obvious. It's easier to name the Marvel Studios movies that aren't based on characters he co-created (for the record, those would be Guardians of the Galaxy, although Kirby was responsible for Groot, and Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming, both of which had Steve Ditko as the guiding light instead of Kirby), and even those movies contain concepts that Kirby was responsible for or build on Kirby's ideas. His influence extends further, though: Fox's Fantastic Four and X-Men? Kirby drew the first issues and co-created both franchises alongside Stan Lee. The villains of the upcoming Justice League (as teased in last year's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) are also, it turns out, Kirby's creations.

You can see Kirby's fingerprints outside of superhero movies as well. Although never officially acknowledged by George Lucas, it's long been speculated that Kirby's 1970s Fourth World Saga was a huge influence on Star Wars, whether it's the name of the cosmic force behind all things (Kirby's "The Source" versus Lucas' "The Force") or the father-son relationship between the villain and hero (Kirby's Darkseid and Orion, Lucas' Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker); even Lucas' use of the "Dark Side of the Force" is a homophone for Kirby's Fourth World villain Darkseid. (Less importantly but more directly, the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie is a Fourth World movie in all but name, but it would be difficult to argue that it was a culturally important movie — sorry, He-Man fans.)

More obliquely, much has been made of the influence of comic book storytelling on movies and television. With the sole exception of Will Eisner — creator of long-running newspaper strip The Spirit and credited by many as the man who invented the graphic novel format — Kirby is arguably the single most influential voice on creating the visual language of comics, from staging to pacing to iconographic details that you might not even have noticed as a kid. Those black dots that surrounded characters when they used their powers, for example? It's called "Kirby Krackle" by fans and creators alike for a reason.

Beyond all of that, there's the impossible to measure element of Kirby's influence on those who grew up reading comic books and went on to create — or consume — pop culture themselves. Kirby's work is the basis of the DNA of the majority of comics in the Western world, whether it's his superhero work or some of his lesser-known contributions to the medium (Kirby and creative partner Joe Simon invented the romance comics genre in the 1950s in an attempt to expand their reach, for example). Anyone who considers themselves inspired by comic books from their youth has, in some way, been touched by the influence of Kirby, either in the purest form or more indirectly.

Few artists can match the impact that Kirby has had on the world, even if that didn't reach its current strength until years after his death in 1994. That he was so prolific — working 12 to 14 hours a day, and producing multiple comic books per month — and so endlessly inventive, creating new characters and concepts throughout his entire career, means that there are entire genres of his work that have yet to be discovered by mainstream audiences, including war and sci-fi material perfectly primed for adaptation. 

(This would, perhaps, be the point to mention another unexpected influence Kirby had on the world: The fake movie used as a cover story for the CIA extraction of Americans from Tehran, as dramatized in 2012's Argo, used Kirby concept art for an unmade feature called Lord of Light. Really, Kirby is everywhere, even when you least expect him.)

Pop culture has already become unmistakably influenced by Jack Kirby, but there's so much more that he can bring to it yet. There are worse ways to celebrate a centennial birthday than by acknowledging that.

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