Unexpected Comic Strip Creators: Jack Kirby

Sometimes researching a creator is difficult, not because of the lack of information, but because of the overwhelming wealth of it. Over his lifetime, Jack Kirby produced an incredibly large body of work, which includes co-creating most of the well-known Marvel Comics characters, such as Captain America, the Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the X-Men, as well as quite a few not nearly as well known DC Comics characters, including The Guardian, the Newsboy Legion, The Demon, and all the New Gods characters of the Fourth World. Because of this, there has been quite a bit written over the years about the man and his work, and it takes quite a long time to sort through. It's especially difficult when what you're looking for is information about his lesser-known work in newspaper comic strips, and when much of that was work for an obscure syndicate called Lincoln Newspaper Features that we'd probably know absolutely nothing about had Kirby not worked for them. This information is important, however, because his work in newspapers directly led to him meeting people he would co-create the aforementioned famous characters with, as well as dictating who he would create those characters for.

Kirby grew up in the golden age of newspaper comics, and not only enjoyed reading them, but from an early age began drawing his own. He never had any formal training, but merely developed a style patterned after that of artists such as Chester Gould on Dick Tracy, Hal Foster on Prince Valiant, and especially Alex Raymond on Flash Gordon. Interestingly, the popularity of these action and adventure comic strips, among others, was the driving force behind the eventual publication of comic books, which Kirby would be best known for.

His first job as a newspaper cartoonist, in 1932, was actually at a paper run by the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a boys club in New York run for boys and by boys, and dedicated to getting them off the streets and doing something useful. The boys themselves published a weekly newspaper, and Kirby contributed small gag cartoons to the publication. While not really a paying job, it was his first bit of published art.

In 1935, he worked as an in-betweener for a short time at Fleischer Animation Studios, whose most famous character, Popeye, originally appeared in comic strip form. He didn't like the work, and quit after not too long. Still, it was useful resume material, and in 1936 he decided to try to find work at a newspaper syndicate.

What he found was work at the aforementioned Lincoln Newspaper Features, run by H. T. Elmo. Elmo began his career as a newspaper cartoonist himself, drawing a Ripley's Believe It Or Not ripoff called Did You Know That. He started Lincoln Features in 1935, and, perhaps inspired by his former work, began producing other comic strip ripoffs such as Facts You Never Knew, which again ripped off Ripley's, Dash Dixon which ripped off Flash Gordon, and Detective Riley which ripped off Dick Tracy. Kirby worked on these features, among many others for Lincoln, because Elmo could only match the salary he was getting at Fleischer Studios if he had a significant enough output. It's difficult to know which features he worked on and for how long, as a number of artists at Lincoln shared the same pen name for particular features, and often Elmo's name was signed whether he'd contributed to the work or not. Often the only way to tell who worked on what is by the style of artwork, but quite a bit from Lincoln is attributed to Kirby. The Jack Kirby Collector lists him as working on several informational and Ripley's style strips, such as Facts You Never Knew, Hollywood Tid-Bits, Your Health Comes First (later retitled Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise), Curiosities and Oddities, The Romance of Money, and Laughs from the Day's News. It also lists a few adventure style strips, such as Socko the Seadog, a Popeye ripoff, Cyclone Burke, a Buck Rogers ripoff, The Black Buccaneer, a Captain Blood ripoff, and the previously mentioned Detective Riley. In addition, he also contributed a few editorial cartoons, as well as a puzzle feature Our Puzzle Corner.

It's really no wonder that Lincoln never became a very large venture, given Elmo's penchant for offering things that other, larger syndicates were already offering at a higher quality, despite Kirby's own stellar work. While he enjoyed what he was doing, the pay was not nearly enough, and he had to find additional work. In 1938, he joined up with Will Eisner and Jerry Iger's Universal Phoenix Features, drawing comics for magazine features, and learning quite a bit from Eisner about the craft. He was only there for a short time, but it had quite an impact on him. He was still working at Lincoln Features, and applied many of the things he learned from Eisner in his work. The same year, he developed a new strip for them, called Abdul Jones, though it's not known whether it actually ran in any newspaper. Stil, it was the first time at Lincoln that he'd worked on something substantial of his own creation, and it definitely inspired him to go further.

In November of that year, he began work at Associated Features Syndicate, drawing a short-lived Lone Ranger ripoff Lightnin' and the Lone Rider. At this point, he began signing his name "Lance Kirby." He had earlier begun signing his name "Jack Curtiss" for much of his Lincoln work, and it seems he was on the search for just the right pen name to use, but he hadn't quite found it yet. He only knew that his real name, Jacob Kurtzberg, sounded far too Jewish, and he wanted something less conspicuous.

Kirby also appears to have ghost drawn some Scorchy Smith strips for Associated Features, but not much else, and the syndicate closed shortly thereafter. Its head, Robert Farrell, teamed up with Victor Fox to form Fox Features, who were known chiefly for their comic books. Their most popular character by far was The Blue Beetle. It's unclear whether Kirby had been working at Fox prior to this or not, but in 1939 he was hired by them to draw a newspaper comic adaptation of the character. This was good, as Lincoln Features also closed up shop the same year.

For the next few years, Kirby worked on Fox's comic books and newspaper tabloid inserts, under editor Joe Simon. Kirby also continued to work on Blue Beetle, and Simon found several freelance comic book projects for him as well. The two ended up collaborating on one of the projects, which eventually became Captain America. This led to quite a few comic book collaborations between the two, and Kirby wouldn't return to the newspaper for many more years.

In 1940, he and Simon began working for National Comics (which became DC Comics) creating characters such as Manhunter, The Guardian, the Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos. Kirby was drafted into the army in 1943, and returned in 1945, to his same job. Simon got him another lucrative deal with Harvey Comics, where they created Stuntman, but the post-war years saw superhero comics becoming less and less popular. Because of this, Simon and Kirby worked in every other genre imaginable, including horror, westerns, and romance comics, but very little for the newspaper. The Kirby Collector states that, according to Simon, Kirby ghosted on a couple of newspaper comics for King Features, but there isn't much evidence to back that up that I could find. It wouldn't be until 1958 that Kirby would truly return to newspaper comics, and it would do much to determine the direction of his career.

Through the 50s, Simon and Kirby continued to work for DC, as well as freelancing for other comic publishers. At one point, they even began their own publishing company, Mainline Publications, but it failed to make much of an impact. Afterwards, Simon decided he was finished with the comics business, and went into advertising, while Kirby continued at DC, as well as doing some jobs on the side for Timely Comics (later Atlas Comics, and even later Marvel Comics). With DC, he worked on anthology series such as House of Mystery, Adventure Comics, and Showcase Presents, where he helped to create the science fiction team Challengers of the Unknown, with Dave and Dick Wood, under editor Jack Schiff.

During almost this entire decade, though he'd had quite a bit of comic book work, he'd come up with many ideas for a newspaper strips that he'd submitted to syndicates, but had never gotten picked up. While at National Comics, he and the Wood brothers had come up with an idea called Space Busters that also failed to get picked up. It was around this time, however, that Harry Elmlark from the George Matthew Adams Service, a relatively small newspaper syndicate, came to Jack Schiff asking if they had a science fiction style comic book that could be adapted into a newspaper comic. Schiff knew that Kirby and the Woods had been developing one, and while neither Schiff nor Elmlark liked Space Busters, they asked them to develop something else along those same lines. What they came up with was called Sky Masters of the Space Force, written by Dave and Dick Wood, pencilled by Kirby, and inked by Wally Wood (no relation to the two other Wood brothers). Dick Ayers would later pick up inking duties when Wally Wood left. The strip debuted in 1958, but difficulties began almost immediately.

Schiff believed that he wasn't getting his proper share of the profits from the strip, and only three months after it debuted he sued Kirby and the Woods. He believed that, since he set up the deal with the syndicate, he was owed more than he was getting. Kirby disagreed, and countersued. Schiff stated that Kirby had agreed, by contract, to pay him 4% of the money, while Kirby stated that Schiff was never involved with any negotiations with the syndicate, that he and the Woods had communicated with Elmlark directly, and that after negotiations were over, Schiff demanded a percentage and threatened to drastically cut their amount of assignments if he didn't get one. Kirby stated that he'd agreed to pay Schiff only under duress, and only as a gratuity, not by contract. The court sided with Schiff, and ordered Kirby to pay the 4%. Kirby continued on Sky Masters until 1961, but by then had had enough of newspaper syndicates as well as National/DC Comics. He went to work for Atlas/Marvel comics full time, and wouldn't return to DC Comics until 1970, after Schiff retired. He was so upset by the whole situation that, according to Joe Simon, he said he'd never do another newspaper strip again.

That wasn't entirely true, as he did do one newspaper strip after that. The Disney Company has had a long history of newspaper comics, and between 1952 and 1987 ran Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales on Sundays. Each series of strips adapted a different Disney movie into comic strip form, though near the end of its run included original stories with popular Disney characters. In 1979, Kirby was called upon to adapt The Black Hole, the Disney space opera film. His willingness to do another newspaper strip seems to have mostly been in response to prodding by inker Mike Royer, who Kirby had collaborated with heavily, and who worked for Disney at the time. The strip is by all accounts far superior to the movie, though both are quite hard to find and experience.

For (much) more information:

Jack Kirby at Lambiek Comiclopedia, which includes some samples of his newspaper work.

Looking For The Awesome, Stan Taylor's biography of Jack Kirby, which will eventually be posted in full at the Jack Kirby Museum website.

The Comic Strip Jack Kirby at The Stripper's Guide, about the compilation book by Greg Theakson, chronicling much of Kirby's Lincoln Features work.

"Facts You Never Knew!!!" from The Comics Journal, with lots of samples of Kirby comic strips from Greg Theakson's book.

Detective Riley at The Stripper's Guide, with information on H.T. Elmo and Lincoln Features.

Sky Masters of the Space Force at Don Markstein's Toonopedia.

The Story Behind Sky Masters, from Jack Kirby Collector #15, at TwoMorrows Publishing.

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