Jack Kirby, often called the “King of Comics” was a self-taught artist who eventually became one of the comics world’s most prolific creators. From Captain America to the Fantastic Four, Kirby is partially responsible for much of the Marvel Universe. To celebrate Kirby’s birthday thisweek, here are a few lessons we can learn from how he got things done.
Jack Kirby was born in 1917, and worked for numerous comics publishers, including Marvel and DC Comics. He worked 12-14 hour days, and was one of the most prolific creators in his field at the time. He worked hard to get where he was and encountered plenty of challenges along the way. Nonetheless, he managed to create constantly. Here’s how he did it.
Teach Yourself The Skills You Need
We’re big fans of teaching yourself new skills and art is certainly one of those. Jack Kirby taught himself to draw and he started incredibly early. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Kirby describes just how early that was:
GROTH: Let’s talk about how you learned to draw, I understand that at age 11, you began getting how-to-draw books at a local library and started.
KIRBY: Yes I did. In fact, I was drawing for a small syndicate. I was drawing editorial cartoons for the syndicate, and I drew a thing called “Your Health Comes First.” I was called in once for drawing an editorial cartoon when Chamberlain made that pact with Hitler. “Where does a young squirt like you,” he says, “get the nerve to do an editorial cartoon on Chamberlain and Hitler?” And I told him I know a gangster when I see one, see? Hitler was gobbling up all of Europe.
GROTH: What actually started you drawing? What gave you the idea you could draw?
KIRBY: I wanted to. I felt that I could. I’d been drawing all along because I felt anybody could do that. All human beings have the capability of doing what they want, what they’re attracted to.
GROTH: Did you ever in your life think of taking any formal art training?
KIRBY: No. I tell young people that it’s advantageous to study art…
If you want to learn a new skill, you just have to practise, and dedicate time to doing it every day. Kirby thought of himself as a natural artist, but he also believed that anyone could do what he did if they just put the time into doing it. You might need to work a little to find out what works for you when actually learning those skills.
Learn When Perfection Isn’t Possible
When you’re working on creative projects it’s really easy to waste time tweaking and perfecting each little part for days on end. While that can work for some projects, most of us don’t have the luxury of an unlimited amount of time. Kirby was certainly aware of this, and since he was often churning out as many as 10 pages a day he couldn’t sit around worrying about every last detail. In a presentation given in 1970, Kirby describes his view of perfection:
The only thing I can say is: Caniff was my teacher, Alex Raymond was my teacher, even the guy who drew Toonerville Trolley was my teacher. Whatever he had stimulated me in some way. And I think that’s all you need. You need that stimulation. Stimulation to make you an individual. And the draftsmanship, hang it. If you can decently: learn to control what you can, learn to control what you have, learn to refine what you have. Damn perfection. You don’t have to be perfect. You are never going to do a Sistine Chapel, unless someone ties you to a ceiling. Damn perfection.
All a man has in this field is pressure. And I think the pressure supplies a stimulation. You have your own stresses, that will supply your own stimulation. If you want to do it, you’ll do it. And you’ll do it anyway you can.
If you’re chasing that perfection bug on every project then Kirby’s thoughts are a good reminder that it’s just not possible or necessary for everything. It’s also good to remember that for most of what we do, “done is better than perfect.”
Know How (And When) To Say “No”
While Kirby was willing to work long hours for little pay when he first started, he eventually reached a point where he had to learn to say “no” and pursue other career options. Comic artists in his era were often forced to work long hours and weren’t paid with money or respect. In fact, most didn’t own anything they created. Subsequently, Kirby eventually got fed up with it all and moved between publishers. It was always an uphill battle to get paid, but Kirby eventually learned when to just say no. Badass Digest describes Kirby’s situation with Marvel rather bluntly:
History, as always, repeated itself with Jack Kirby. He found himself once again unhappy with his situation. This time he began to resent the way Stan Lee hogged the spotlight, and the way that he didn’t get credit as a co-writer on stories (the ‘Marvel style’ of scripting usually went like this: Jack and Stan would hatch a concept, Stan would leave Jack with an outline or, later as Stan got busier, a vague idea, Jack would draw it and Stan would put in the words. That Stan’s collaborators DIDN’T get co-writer credit is a travesty). He didn’t like the direction Marvel was taking and wasn’t happy with his contract. So he left…
After Kirby left Marvel, he went on to create The Fourth World, a massive comics series that many acclaim as some of Kirby’s best work. Knowing when to quit is hard for all of us, but Kirby demonstrated that it’s beneficial to leave when the time is right.
Kirby became a poster child for the mistreatment of creators in the comic industry, and pushed for creator rights. Kirby also changed skill sets a bit toward the end of his career to give film and animation a try to keep himself creative.
Jack Kirby did a lot of work, and he did so primarily through grit and perseverance. Long days with low pay eventually let him to say “no” to a few contracts, but it taught him when it was important to walk away. He did a lot of work in the comics industry and he did the bulk of it under strict deadlines that most of us would buckle under. While there certainly wasn’t a comic drawing degree anywhere, he learned to draw on his own, and learned perspective and anatomy by just practising every day, which is something we can all do when we’re looking to learn a new skill.