The second big wave of superheroes came between 1961 and 1963, when Marvel introduced The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Dr Strange, The Avengers and The X-Men. Those characters all reach their own 56th anniversaries between 2017 and 2019, and that's the window the Kirbys are aiming for. They've promised more actions will follow as other Kirby creations, such as March 1966's Silver Surfer, reach their own termination dates.
The fact that Kirby was central to creating so many of Marvel's key characters allows his family to cluster many different claims together into a single large case. Smaller characters may not be worth fighting for on their own, as the revenues at stake are unlikely to match the legal costs. Superman's always produced more than enough cash to make him worth fighting for on those grounds alone - a 1996 New York Times story already put his earnings at over $1bn - but for the families involved, these have always been very personal battles too.
Jack Kirby got his start in comics in 1935 when, aged just 18, he began work as an “in betweener” artist at Max Fleischer's animation studio, drawing the intermediate cells linking more experienced artists' work. He then drew newspaper comics for a while at the Lincoln Features Syndicate and had a spell at Will Eisner's Universal Phoenix studio, which created comics for various publishers.
In 1939, he met a young comics writer, artist and packager called Joe Simon, who took Kirby with him when he became editorial director at Martin Goodman's Timely Comics later that year. Soon, Kirby was Timely's art director, and Goodman supplied the two men with a 17-year-old dogsbody to fetch their coffee and do all the running about. He was Goodman's wife's cousin and his name was Stanley Lieber.
Watching Hitler's progress through Europe in 1940, Simon realised that this strutting, vain, little man would make a perfect comic book villain. Everyone was looking for a character who could duplicate Superman and Batman's success at the time, and Simon decided a super-patriot fighting Hitler might be the answer. He sketched out a muscular figure in a stars-and-stripes costume, added a shield, and named him Captain America. Goodman saw the character could be a big winner for Timely, and instantly agreed to give him his own monthly title. Simon, seeing the publisher's enthusiasm, insisted that he wanted a share of the profits from that book, and settled on a split which gave him 15% and Kirby 10%.
“I wrote the first issue of Captain America Comics with pencilled lettering right on the drawing boards, with very rough sketches for figures and backgrounds,” Simon adds. “Kirby did his thing, building the muscular anatomy, adding ideas and pepping up the action as only he could. Then he tightened up the pencilled drawings, adding detailed backgrounds, faces and figures.” (8)
The first issue of Captain America hit the news-stands in December 1940, exactly a year before Pearl Harbour brought American into WWII. Its Simon/Kirby cover showed Cap bursting into Nazi HQ and socking Hitler squarely on the jaw as German guards fired all around him. In the background, there's a monitor showing Nazi spies blowing up a US munitions works and a book labelled “Sabotage Plans for USA”. That first issue sold close to a million copies - even Time was then selling only 700,000 - and the book remained at that impressive level throughout Simon and Kirby's ten-issue run.
It couldn't last. By the end of 1941, the two men were convinced Goodman was cheating them of the profit share he'd agreed on Cap, so they went off to work for DC instead. There, they created hugely-successful characters like The Guardian, The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion, all of whom fought Hitler just as fiercely as Cap had. Suddenly left without his two key creators, Goodman was left with no choice but to recruit less talented contributors for Cap's book and promote young Lieber to Timely's editor. By then, Lieber was calling himself Stan Lee.
America entered the war in December 1941, and DC knew that meant its two new stars could be drafted at any moment. The company encouraged Simon and Kirby to stockpile as much material as they could before that happened, and they had a year's worth of unpublished DC work ready to go when Kirby joined the army in June 1943. He served with the 11th Infantry, where his lieutenant gave him the dangerous job of scouting ahead into enemy territory to draw reconnaissance maps there. After a bout with frostbite which nearly cost him his legs, Kirby returned to the US with a honourable discharge in 1945. He resumed his partnership with Simon the following year.
Superheroes were out of fashion by then, so instead they worked for Crestwood to launch the new genre of girls' romance comics. Simon and Kirby titles like Young Love, Young Romance and Young Brides sold almost as well as those early Captain America books had done. They dabbled also in crime and horror titles, with names like Headline Comics and Black Magic.
The scandal over EC's gory horror comics hit the comics industry hard in the mid-fifties, leading to a drastic watering-down of content and much lower sales for everyone. Simon began to withdraw from the industry to work in advertising instead, but Kirby continued as a freelance comics artist, spending close to three years with DC, where he helped create The Challengers of the Unknown, drew Green Arrow for a while and worked on titles like House of Mystery and House of Secrets. In 1959, he joined with Simon again to create The Fly for Red Circle Comics.
Aware as always of what an insecure business he was in, Kirby supplemented his work at DC with occasional freelancing for Timely, which now called itself Atlas. Tiring of DC in 1958 - partly because the company's editors kept criticising him for trivial historical inaccuracies in his work - he switched to full-time freelancing with Atlas. He worked on every genre of comics there, but was best known for monster anthologies like Amazing Adventures and Strange Tales. These books were drive-in movies put to paper, and starred huge, grotesque Kirby monsters like Fin Fang Foom, Groot or The Thing From Planet X. Many of them were written by Stan Lee.