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Aug. 28 would have been the 98th birthday of Jack Kirby, forever known as the “King” of comics. It’s not a title that’s been bestowed upon the creator — who passed away in 1994 — lightly; in addition to being to co-creator of much of the Marvel Universe, Kirby was also responsible for a number of classic characters and comics for other publishers, including being one of the two men behind the origin of the romance comic genre.
With such an immense back catalog, it can seem daunting to know where to begin with Kirby’s work (As with many artists, there are distinct “eras” of his output, each with their own strengths and weaknesses). To that end, here are five choices intended to introduce newcomers to the comics of a man whose imagination and talent redefined comics for a number of generations.
Fantastic Four Nos. 44-67
Without doubt, the pinnacle of Kirby’s collaboration with Stan Lee, this two year run on Fantastic Four doesn’t just offer solid superhero action that remains fun and exciting half a century after it was originally published — it also offers the first appearances of the Inhumans, the Black Panther, Galactus and the Silver Surfer, characters and concepts that would go on to become bedrocks of Marvel’s publishing empire (and soon, its movie slate). Of special note, No. 51 is a one-off story called “This Man, This Monster!” that downplays the superheroics in favor of a morality tale of sorts that demonstrates the humanity at the heart of the Marvel formula.
Thor Nos. 160-162
Besides Fantastic Four, Kirby’s other true legacy at Marvel is undoubtedly Thor, the title after FF on which he served longest (He also co-created Iron Man, Avengers and X-Men, amongst other series, and spent two long runs on Captain America, a character he created in the 1940s with Joe Simon). Overall, Thor is a wonderfully enjoyable series rooted in a pop culture remix of Norse mythology and cod-Shakespearean dialogue, but these three issues — which take the hero into a sci-fi direction via the appearance of Fantastic Four villain Galactus — are an unexpected highlight, unlike almost everything else in the series and offering a genre-bending story that’s ridiculous in all the right ways.
The New Gods Nos. 6-8
By the 1970s, Kirby had fallen out with Marvel and moved to competitors DC — where he had previously worked earlier in his career, including creating proto-Fantastic Four strip Challengers of the Unknown in the 1950s — to come up with what is regarded by many as his magnum opus, the “Fourth World” stories. A massive modern mythology spread across four different series running concurrently (The New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People and Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen), the Fourth World stories reimagine gods for a contemporary audience, with the best issues — including the three suggested here — forgoing traditional superheroic slugfests to tell surprisingly human stories about loss, fear and inner turmoil on a massive scale.
OMAC No. 1
As the Fourth World was abandoned due to low sales, Kirby moved on to create a number of new concepts for DC, including OMAC — the One Man Army Corps, a genetically modified super soldier in a future where humanity is losing touch with itself due to an over-reliance on technology. This series, also, was doomed to failure (It only lasted six issues), but the debut installment is an almost-perfect science fiction story of loneliness and rejection in a dystopian world that feels even more realistic today than the era in which it was created. As the first issue put it, it’s “a startling look into the world that’s coming?”
Our Fighting Forces Nos. 151-162
A little-known mid-period run of Kirby’s, his 12 issues writing and drawing “The Losers” allowed him the chance to bring his own experiences from World War II to bear directly on his work, as opposed to through metaphor and allegory. The result is a series of deceptively complex stories about people in the world circumstances imaginable, with Kirby’s natural optimism and faith in his fellow man struggling against the genuine horror of what he experienced.
This is merely the beginning of what Kirby produced — from his sadly out-of-print comic book continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the independently produced Captain Victory and Silver Star, or Young Romance and his Demon for DC, there’s a Kirby book out there for almost any reader. (Don’t get me started on Dingbats of Danger Street or Devil Dinosaur!) If the above suggestions convince of Kirby’s talent, there are literal universes out there already waiting to be explored.
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