Every so often, some of the local comic creators, shop owners and geeky media types around the region where I live get together for breakfast at a neighborhood cafe. One of the topics of conversation at a recent meet-up was the late, great Jack Kirby, the cocreator of the Avengers, the X-Men and countless other iconic comic book characters.
At the time, the local comics crew was in the midst of organizing a fundraiser in honor of Kirby's birthday, and at one point some of the people present – possibly due to the obscene amount of coffee that had been consumed – began running through a checklist of characters created by the legendary creator known as “The King.” It became a game of sorts, with everyone naming off a Kirby-created character, one after another, circling around the table over and over again.
It went on like this for awhile – well beyond 100 characters' names and probably closer to 200 – before the caffeine-fueled Kirby IQ test showed signs of petering out. And as the names kept being rattled off, I couldn't help thinking about how much we owe Jack Kirby – especially when it comes to the current comic book movie landscape.
Along with cocreating Captain America and the rest of the Avengers, Kirby cocreated comics' most famous superhero family, the Fantastic Four, and the original team of mutants led by Professor X, the X-Men. Given all of that, it's no surprise that Kirby had a hand in creating either the lead or supporting characters in 10 of the 20 highest grossing superhero movies of all time.
In many cases, Kirby's creations have not only appeared as the headliner in various films, but the studios bringing these universes to the big screen have incorporated many of the supporting characters he created or cocreated over the years, too.
Villains like Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones in X-Men: The Last Stand), and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace in Guardians of the Galaxy) have all found their way into films, along with supporting characters like Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell in Captain America: The First Avenger), Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough in The First Avenger), and even S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández in Captain America: The Winter Soldier). And there's likely to be more on the way with rumored films in the works featuring Black Panther and the Inhumans – more characters cocreated by Kirby.
Heck, even some of Kirby's most unlikely big-screen heroes – like the sentient tree Groot, who helped save the universe in Guardians of the Galaxy – have found a warm welcome from comics lovers and mainstream audiences alike.
That's why it's such a shame that Kirby isn't around to see how much his creations have grown, making the leap from page to screen in ways far beyond the scope of the cartoons he helped animate in the later years of his career.
Of course, given all of the difficulty Kirby and his heirs have had gaining recognition for his work and compensation for his tremendous contributions to the medium, it's hard to imagine what would be going through his head upon seeing The Avengers become one of the highest grossing movies of all time. As recently as last month, the legal battle between Kirby's estate and Marvel raged on, with the two parties continuing to wrangle over ownership of many of the characters that have made Marvel's cinematic universe one of the most successful franchises in Hollywood history.
Got some time to kill? Watch a documentary on Jack Kirby below.
While the legal battle over ownership of the characters Kirby cocreated isn't likely to be settled anytime soon, that doesn't mean we can't honor the genre-defining legacy of Jack “The King” Kirby in other small but important ways. One such way is through supporting the “Kirby4Heroes” campaign.
Created in 2012 by Kirby's granddaughter Jillian Kirby, Kirby4Heroes is intended to honor the legacy of one of comics' greatest creators by helping writers and artists in need. The campaign currently encourages donations to Hero Initiative, the first ever, not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to helping aging comic creators who may not have the support structure that some of today's creators enjoy.
With so many of Kirby's creations bringing us as much joy in theaters as they have in comics, the week of his birthday seems like a good time to reflect on his legacy and do something to say “thank you” for Captain America, Ben Grimm, Jean Grey, Silver Surfer and so many other iconic characters. It can be as simple as spreading the word about him or making a donation to a charity he'd certainly support.
Because let's face it: The world of comics would be a far less exciting place without his contributions to it.
Hail to the King, indeed.
(Oh, and if you're around upstate New York later this week, drop by the “King Kirby” Birthday Fundraiser on August 28. I'll see you there!)
Question of the Week: What is your favorite Jack Kirby creation?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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