Life & Culture

Jack Kirby and Will Eisner: Kings of the comic books

Two Jewish writers helped create a pantheon of comics characters that has come to dominate modern popular culture


One hundred years ago next Monday, Jack Kirby, one of the most influential men in the history of American comics, was born. The same year also saw the birth of another giant in the field, Will Eisner. These two Jews made their mark in very different ways.

Marvel, the publisher responsible for the characters from many of the most successful summer blockbusters of the past 15 years, would have a diminished library of characters without Kirby’s significant input, and even DC, home of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, has been influenced by Kirby’s contribution.

Working with Stan Lee, Kirby created enduring comics characters such as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk. Marvel would not be enjoying its current cultural and commercial dominance without Jack Kirby’s input.

Eisner started life as a mainstream comic artist running his own studio in the 1940s but garnered his reputation with his hugely popular character, The Spirit.

Later, he explored what it means to be Jewish in New York with a series of graphic novels including A Contract With God, The Building and A Life Force.

He was one of the first to create graphic novels. Without Eisner, later graphic novel creators such as Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware and Craig Thompson would not have been able to flourish.

His final graphic novel The Plot, unravelled the notorious hoax, the Protocols of The Elders of Zion. Another was entitled Fagin the Jew. Eisner’s Jewishness was at the core of his work.

Danny Fingeroth, former editor at Marvel Comics and writer about comics for over two decades now, explains why Jews dominated the early days of comics.

“New York, the centre of the comics industry for much of its existence, was also home to large numbers of children of eastern European Jewish immigrant families. Some of those kids were gifted with creative story-telling talents and were barred by prejudice from many facets of mainstream publishing, illustration and advertising, as well as from the world of syndicated comic strips.

“The Great Depression limited these young people’s options even more. The comic book industry had few such barriers of prejudice and was in need of large numbers of writers and artists, as well as ideas for new characters. These creative talents found themselves welcome in the world of comics, where ability was highly prized and desired.

“Their legacy is, of course, the fictional worlds and characters they created and, perhaps, also the tradition of stories with themes of justice, equality, and standing up for ‘the little guy’.”

Jewish New York-based cartoonist Dean Haspiel, who has worked for Marvel and DC, says he owes a great deal to both Kirby and Eisner. He has his own take on why Jews have always been such a major part of US comics.

“Historically, Jews were maligned, as were comic books. It was a natural fit for Jewish artists to tell their stories in a bastard art form already stigmatised as delinquent by society. I remember having to defend my passion for reading and making comic books in junior high school.

“I still can’t believe how popular the source material and characters have become in 2017.

“Kirby and Eisner were forefathers who created classic, Rosetta Stone-type work that proved comic books are original, magical and necessary. Jack Kirby ingeniously collapsed crime with science fiction and romance, helping re-invent the superhero genre we love today, while reaching for God.”

He suggests that Kirby’s post-Second World War comic book work is a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, where he confronted his demons in the pages of Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Losers, Thor, OMAC, The New Gods and The Eternals.

“Throughout his career, Kirby asked the universe a bunch of impossible questions and then dared to answer them,” says Haspiel.

Eisner, on the other hand, seemed concerned with characterising the city; bringing organic life to its structures in conjunction with the people he portrayed, says Haspiel.

“A concrete jungle that shared profound drama with its citizens. Everyone and everything mattered in a Will Eisner story. The streets shared a pulse with its people and the reader was made to feel like an engaged voyeur into the heart of humanity.”

Eisner’s attitude to the language of comics was groundbreaking, too, according to Fingeroth.

“Eisner helped create and develop the visual vocabulary of comics. He believed in comics as a serious storytelling and artistic form long before pretty much anyone else, and was instrumental in establishing the graphic novel as a legitimate literary form.”

Even now, 80 years since the idea of what the modern comic book was formed, Eisner and Kirby still cast a huge shadow over the contemporary comics industry.

“Will Eisner was instrumental in legitimising the comic book medium,” says Haspiel.

“Our industry’s greatest award, given out at the San Diego Comic Con, is named after him. He was a master of memoir that romanticised tragedy and hope.”

Comics began life as a medium started by Jews in New York and two of its greatest practitioners showed that they could transcend their humble beginnings.

It is testament to the skill of Eisner and Kirby that we are still talking about them many years after they have passed away. Comic books would not be the same without their contributions.

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