100 Years Of Two Comic Industry Titans
♦2017 is the centenary of the birth of two of the most important comic creators of all time, Will Eisner, best known as a champion of creator rights and writer/ artist of such acclaimed graphic novels as A Contract With God, The Dreamer and The Building, and Jack Kirby the man who co-created much of the Marvel universe including Thor, Fantastic Four and who also created many of DC’s most memorable bronze age characters like Darkseid and Mister Miracle. Tripwire’s Senior Editor ANDREW COLMAN took a look at their history and their career in the first of a two part feature…
If one had to pick a “best of” list of comic creators and artists (and which fan or message board hasn’t done this), it would be a virtual consensus as to who would be the top two in the pantheon – Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, two names so synonymous with the comic medium that it seems redundant to point it out. And yet it’s still worth repeating – these two men gave more to comics than any other, almost providing their essence throughout the decades from the industry’s inception. Both men have reached the centenary of their birth this year, and they also shared similar backgrounds, upbringings and aspirations, with the comic strip in their blood from a very early age. But despite the longevity of their respective tenures as contemporaries in the comic business, they led very divergent careers that only overlapped at a very early stage in their development. The parallels and considerable differences between their paths represent the two key strands of how the medium developed, and indeed how the two men fared in what was a nascent, deregulated marketplace that offered little creator respect, especially in its Golden Age.
Both men were born into relative poverty, on the mean streets of New York – Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, was mainly located on Manhattan’s then very rough Lower East Side, while Eisner grew up in nearby Brooklyn. Kirby, diminutive though he was, was more of a street fighter than Eisner (Ben Grimm is basically him), with both experiencing anti-semitism at school. What they had in common was a need to escape, and an obsession with the pop culture that was burgeoning around them. Both wanted to be artists on their terms, with Kirby eschewing formal training, preferring, as many did at the time, to learn as he went along. Each were also influenced by the legendary cartoonists of the pre-Golden Age era – Milton Caniff, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, although their influence is more noticeable in Eisner’s work, especially when he found his artistic identity with The Spirit.
Both artists entered the comics industry at the same time, in the late 1930s, having honed their skills enough to be superior creators in what was a hothouse field brimming with opportunity. It was in 1939 that the pair found themselves in the same office for the only sustained time in their lives, if at all. It was self-evident even then that despite each artist’s primal need to make both a name for himself as well as a career, it would be Eisner who would navigate the increasingly choppy waters of this new corner of pop culture with far more assurance and deftness. Eisner exhibited an entrepreneurial streak almost from his entry into the business, teaming up with an editor, Jerry Iger, that he had worked with on a previous strip, to form the Eisner Iger Studio, which provided inventory for most of the recently founded publishers of the time.
Kirby, working at this newly formed company, had considerable respect for his then-colleague, in awe of his and Iger’s professionalism and the fact that “they seemed to know what they were doing”. Kirby stated in an interview that “Eisner was always more mature than me through the years”. He realized that there was a lot he could learn at the studio from his peers, such as Eisner and Lou Fine, and as a man keen to “not go back to that ghetto again” worked relentlessly and diligently. Eisner for his part stated that Kirby was very serious about his profession, and arrived with an already formed, distinctive style. He also admired his dynamism and dedication to avoiding mediocrity, borne, as Kirby mentioned, of a fear of failure. Both men were still finding themselves as creators, and despite the brevity of their collaboration they established a good rapport with one another.
One of the companies who were the recipients of Eisner and Iger’s work was Fox Features, set up by former Timely associate Victor Fox. For a brief period the Studio supplied some excellent (and highly prized) pulpish covers as well as art to the publisher, along with Wonder Man, a Superman analogue that quickly resulted in a lawsuit and the termination of business between Eisner and Fox. Not long after, in 1940, Kirby began working at the same company with his first effort in the super-hero market, Blue Beetle, and more importantly, met his creative partner for the next 15 years, Joe Simon. Their time at Fox was relatively brief however, and in what was to become a pattern in Kirby’s career, he moved to Timely (later Atlas, and then Marvel) with Simon, this time as art director and editor respectively.
The move to Timely meant another super-powered property, and with patriotic heroes heavily in vogue after the arrival of MLJ’s The Shield, the duo created their most lasting and iconic character, Captain America. Joe Simon acknowledged later that this was when the pair became established as a going concern, barely a year or so after they met. The series was a massive hit, selling a million copies an issue with some dynamic art and composition, especially for the time. However Simon quickly learned that Timely publisher Martin Goodman, who had agreed a percentage of the profits on all sales of the title, was not adhering to terms, and rather than negotiate sought work elsewhere – a situation which came to a head when Goodman discovered this arrangement and dismissed them. After a mere ten issues of this celebrated book, the pair, unknowingly ceding ownership of their creation to Goodman, were on their way to a company that later would be Marvel’s only real competition twenty years later – National, later known as DC Comics. The movement back and forth between these two publishers, amongst others, would become a staple in Kirby’s career.
Despite the acrimony of their departure from Timely, Simon and Kirby found themselves in a feted position at National, with far higher salaries and complete creative freedom. Kirby, already considered a powerhouse by Simon and his peers even then, developed classic characters such as Sandman and Manhunter for Adventure Comics, along with The Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion. Despite the dated nature of these “boys gang” series (based in fact on Kirby’s formative years in such groups), they were staggeringly popular, aimed as they were at a younger than usual demographic. This was a high watermark for Simon and Kirby as far as super-heroes were concerned, but regardless of their position in the hierarchy they were still work for hire, producing stories that may have been ambitious in their execution but were never meant to be more than throwaway entertainment. Eisner, on the other hand, had his eye on the main chance, with an artistic ideal that involved transcending four color conventions.
In 1939, Everett “Busy” Arnold, publisher of Quality Comics (a company that would be responsible for classic golden age fare such as Police Comics, Hit Comics and Plastic Man) approached Eisner regarding the possibility of doubling up a new strip for his comics, which would also be serialized in newspapers across the country. Never one to not spot provenance when it came knocking, Eisner immediately agreed his terms regarding the new strip, which included outright ownership in perpetuity. Such canniness was to serve the still very young Eisner very well – he had designs on the medium, making the lead character a conduit for all varieties of storytelling that would both innovate and entertain. The strip was of course The Spirit, a series that would elevate Eisner to the level of his forebears and ensure the remuneration that would provide complete financial independence.
Eisner sold his share in the lucrative Eisner Iger Studio (which itself continued well into the pre-code era) and focused solely on The Spirit, a series that would last until 1952. With America’s entry into World War 2, both artists were to experience a hiatus in their careers that in Kirby’s case would see him leave National upon his return to the industry after the conflict. Both Eisner and Kirby had been asked to provide extra inventory for their publishers – with Eisner, however, he was happy to let his strip be ghost written by such luminaries as former Fox and Fiction House collaborator Lou Fine, Plastic Man creator Jack Cole and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, amongst others. While in the army, he considerably enhanced his skills as an artist, working on manuals and educational comic strips for the military. Jack Kirby’s time in the army was far more fraught, working as an artist in reconnaissance and spending time close to the field. When Eisner returned from the war, he went straight back to The Spirit. After his discharge, Kirby however moved on again, this time to Harvey Comics.
Eisner reached his late ‘40s zenith with The Spirit, imbuing the strip and his non-hero with noir, expressionist and outre filmic elements. By this point his confidence in what he and his co-workers on the strip could achieve meant that the lead character could be but one of an ensemble, sometimes being on the periphery of a story where the accent was more on delineating the city and its inhabitants. There was no end to the inspiration on the page, with mood, symbolism, subtext, pathos and sophisticated characterization very much to the fore – and very much a separate entity to the glut of four color pamphlets that were to dominate the newsstand more than ever in the ensuing decade. By 1952, with Eisner by now only supervising other artists and writers (notably such talents as future E.C. stalwart Wally Wood and DC war artist Jerry Grandenetti) he decided to shut the strip down, clearly aware that things had run their course and that it was time to move on.
Moving on in Eisner’s case meant leaving the industry and continuing with army manuals such as The Preventative Maintenance Monthly. Aside from a few reprint series of The Spirit, Eisner was absent from the comics industry throughout the tumultuous Atom Age and revivalist Silver Age – although these anthologies, courtesy of Harvey, Warren and later Kitchen Sink, kept Eisner and his legacy alive within fandom. Very few artists working in the industry during this period namechecked him as an influence – although later on many would.
Kirby of course had no recourse or options to leave the business, his partnership with Simon still very much intact as he began the next chapter of his career. With super-heroes dramatically fading after the war, it was very much a case of adaptability with the two creators – their breakthrough being Crestwood’s Young Romance, the first romance title in the industry, which proved to be a major success and progenitor of many imitators, many of whom were kept afloat for several more years by this emerging new genre. The duo also worked on western, crime and adventure series for other publishers. When the pre-code era, with its market leader E.C., arrived at the beginning of the 1950s, Simon and Kirby co-created two very oddball horror titles, Black Magic and Strange World Of Your Dreams. And with war comics doing so well at chief rival Atlas, they also produced the highly emotive Foxhole.
However once again Kirby was forced into regrouping – in the mid -1950s Crestwood folded, owing Simon and Kirby a huge amount of back pay. Despite the eventual settling of debts, Joe Simon had had enough of the industry and left to work in advertising. The split was amicable, but Kirby was back to freelancing, in what were relative wilderness years for him.
During the mid-1950s, Kirby worked for both DC and Atlas, his initial stint at the latter involving art duties on war books and esoteric minor series, although he was not commissioned to draw covers during this phase. At roughly the same time, he worked on Green Arrow for Adventure Comics and Challengers Of The Unknown (a prototype for the Fantastic Four) before a contract dispute forced him back to Atlas, a year after it had seen its line drastically reduced by the Implosion. Despite his heavy workload at a company that looked to be on the verge of folding, Kirby had no option but to stay and try to build from the ground up once again.
END OF PART ONE