Lists are fun, so I made a list of the best comics Jack Kirby worked on.
26.) Various Timely comics from 1940-1942 (Captain America Comics, Young Allies, etc.)
26.) Various Timely comics from 1940-1942 (Captain America Comics, Young Allies, etc.)
Comic books were young and so was Kirby. Kirby and Simon's art is kind of ugly in this era. There's a charm there; it's clearly better than a lot of other Golden Age garbage. Kirby's storytelling in this era is full of decorative flourishes that don't flow the way you expect a Jack Kirby comic to flow. This is simply not the Kirby you're looking for.
25.) Hulk stories from Tales to Astonish (1959) #68-84 by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Mike Esposito, Bill Everett, and more
These are Marvel by numbers. Nerdy guy experiences pressure from a superior while his alter ego is hounded by same superior? Check. Kirby's pencils are slowly phased out for finished art by Mike Esposito and later Bill Everett. Kirby's layouts keep everything clear but there's nothing here you couldn't get from another comic.
24.) X-men (1963) #1-16 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee with some assists from Alex Toth, Werner Roth, etc.
Kirby cranked out so much work in the 60s and it can't all be good. These comics suffer from inconsistent inking, odd word balloon placement, and Kirby's layouts being channeled through the hands of some less than sympathetic artists. It's a shame because the concepts and designs are really cool. Take the Juggernaut. That design is so weird and so Kirby! Yet the King didn't really produce a great Juggernaut story. Seeing Kirby and Toth's names credited on issue 12 and then reading the actual comic gave me whiplash. The Kirby/Toth/Colletta mix is hard to swallow.
23.) The early Spider-Man and The Human Torch team-ups (The Amazing Spider-Man #8 & Strange Tales Annual #2) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko
These aren't bad comics but I don't particularly like them either. Ditko inking Kirby is always fun and Kirby's macho off-model Spider-Man is novel. Ditko couldn't draw the Thing and Kirby couldn't draw Spider-Man. I guess that's a fair trade.
22.) The Incredible Hulk (1962) # 1-5 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee with Paul Reinman, Dick Ayers, and Steve Ditko
Like the earliest issues of Fantastic Four, these are a solid attempt at mining a continuing feature out of the monster comic tropes. Fantastic Four went beyond that material but Hulk never did. I'd rather read a one and done monster comic. Kirby would eventually make better Hulk comics with Hulk guest starring in other books.
21.) The Avengers (1963) #1-8 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (W) with Dick Ayers, Paul Reinman, George Roussos, and Chic Stone
The first issue, inked by Dick Ayers, is an ass kicking action comic showcasing a nice portion of the regular Marvel cast. The rest of these are just kind of okay. I know that Ayers trying to make sense of Kirby's abstractions doesn't appeal to everyone but I think it's quite nice.
20.) 1st Issue Special (1975) #5: Manhunter by Jack Kirby and D. Bruce Berry
I bought this in a dollar bin at a weird neighborhood toy store that I only ever saw open once. It's a shame Kirby never did more with this iteration of Manhunter because the theme of aging that this issue hints at is intriguing. The opening scene in the "Cave of Talking Heads" is some of the most wild and weird shit I've seen in a Kirby book.
19.) The Challengers of the Unknown stories from Showcase (1956) #6, 7, 11, 12 & Challengers of the Unknown (1958) #1-8 by Jack Kirby with Dave Wood, Wally Wood, France Herron, Roz Kirby, etc.
The "proto-Fantastic Four" talking point gets brought up all of the time so I won't dwell on it. The real notable thing about this work is how it bridges the gap between Kirby's earlier, more illustrative comics and the more visceral action of his comics from the 1960s and beyond.
18.) The Eternals (1976) #1-19 & Annual #1 by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and John Verpoorten
This series is a continuation of the themes of the Fourth World series, now mixed with Erich Von Däniken's theories from Chariots of the Gods. As I've said previously, Kirby is a great match for this kind of material. Unfortunately, this series does not maintain that momentum for it's whole run.
17.) The Forever People (1971) #1-11 by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and Vince Colletta
Like The Eternals, this series also starts strong but runs out of steam. The main cast is really delightful and I always found myself disappointed when they'd leave to let the Infinity Man fight. Their banter, particularly when they interact with squares is some of the funniest Kirby material I've read. This series unravels when Deadman joins the regular cast, a direction that was forced on Kirby.
16.) Devil Dinosar (1978) #1-9 by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer
The simple thrills of dinosaurs fighting. How could I not like this?
15.) Captain America (1968) #193-214, Annual #3, 4 & Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976) by Jack Kirby with Frank Giacoia, and more
I've heard Kirby's 70s return to Marvel dismissed as self-parody. I think that goes a bit far but it definitely isn't at the same level as his 70s DC comics. There's a similar density of information and panel design in these comics but it feels oddly decompressed. It's like three issues of this run of Captain America contain as much story as one issue of New Gods. These are still good comics. I'm struck by the fictional version of America's wealthy elite using media saturation to drive the populace to violence and paranoia. It's just like real life! At one point Captain America admits that his ancestors may have owned slaves and listens as he has his privilege explained to him. The Bicentennial Battles special explains how America's history is full of horrible war crimes(!) but we can work together for a better and more just future. It's crazy that these comics were drawn by an old white guy in the 1970s.
14.) Boys' Ranch (1950) #1-6 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon with Mort Meskin, Bruno Premiani, Marvin Stein, and George Roussos
I've been wanting to read these for a long time and finally picked up a set of reprints. I first became aware of them in an essay by Mark Evanier. Evanier mentions that prior to The Pact from New Gods #7, Kirby considered Mother Delilah from the third issue of Boys' Ranch to be his finest work. I can see why he'd feel that way. There is an emotional depth that I haven't see from earlier Simon & Kirby comics. There are some issues with misogyny and some of the allusion is a little too on the nose but these are incredibly ambitious comic books for 1950. The aforementioned inelegance and the roughness of the execution hold these back but they're worth reading. These are a treat for any Kirby fan interested in his development.
13.) 46 Hours and 36 Minutes in the Life of Jack Ruby by Jack Kirby and Chic Stone
I only recently discovered this gem from a 1967 issue of Esquire and now I'm a little obsessed. It's short but dense at three pages with eleven to fifteen panels on each page. It serves as a timeline of the final two days of Jack Ruby's life but Kirby delivers it as a terse little noir story.
12.) Mister Miracle (1971) #1-18 by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and Vince Colletta
As a fan of stage magic I've always been a little disappointed by Kirby's depiction of prestidigitation and escape acts. I wouldn't want to downplay the physicality of those skills but Kirby leaves out the grace, flexibility, and mental aspects. Scott Free (the best secret identity name in superhero comics) uses willpower to push through every trap set for him. It's still entertaining stuff, even though it loses some steam after the other Fourth World books get cancelled around the eleventh issue.
11.) Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. from Strange Tales (1951) #135-153 by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, John Severin, Don Heck, Jim Steranko, John Buscema, Ogden Whitney, and more
Steranko took control and brought this feature to more adventurous places but it was already pretty damn fun before he came along. The bonus is seeing a motley crew of cult artists working over Kirby's layouts along the way, including John Severin and Ogden "Herbie" Whitney.
10.) Fighting American (1954) #1-7 & Fighting American (1966) #1 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
I only just read these this last week and they really surprised me. I knew this was Kirby and Simon's "Commie Smashing Hero" but there's so much more to this. According to the introduction to the collection I bought, they started work on this title thinking they could cash in on McCarthyism. That's pretty gross. When they realized how far McCarthy was going to go they said "fuck it" and decided to go all in on this absurd superhero satire instead. Whoa, these are some wild superhero comics. Fighting American's origin is twisted. Nelson Flagg, our protagonist, is the younger brother of Johnny Flagg, a war hero who walks on crutches. Nelson is jealous of the respect his brother gets as a war hero and now as a tv news anchor. Johnny is beaten to death by evil Communist opera singers and Nelson, feeling guilty swears revenge and the Army offers to help him get that revenge. They rebuild Johnny's body as a sort of superhuman Frankenstein's monster and Nelson's mind is placed in his resurrected body. Nelson assumes Johnny's identity and his job as a reporter, forgetting about his life as Nelson Flagg. As Fighting American he takes orders from random G-Men and fights grotesque communist villains in all sorts of slapstick plots. I think I'm in love.
9.) Marvel Western comics including Rawhide Kid (1960) #17-32 & Two-Gun Kid (1953) #60-62 by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Dick Ayers
For a New Yorker, Kirby drew awesome westerns. Boy's Ranch had more character depth but a rougher execution. These on the other hand are beautifully drawn and intensely physical. If you wanted to find more comic book gun fighting this exciting you'd have to go to Japan. The plots feature a lot of Marvel superhero tropes, some developed here and some lifted from the superhero titles. Oh yeah! I almost forgot but there's even a Kirby monster in one of the Rawhide Kid issues!
8.) The Demon (1972) #1-16 by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer
DC's 70s era pulp/horror informed superhero books are among my favorites in that company's history. I think a lot of people associate Kirby's art with weird future tech and forget that he's also really good at drawing gothic castles and medieval fantasy imagery. Jason Blood's allies and enemies are more archetypal than naturalistic but Kirby does archetypes better than most.
7.) The Marvel/Atlas Monster stories by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Dick Ayers
There's a certain thrill in picking up a classic Archie comic. If you can find joy in that sort of thing you'll enjoy any issue you pick up, whether it's drawn by Al Hartley or Dan DeCarlo. You'll know exactly what you're getting. The monster stories from Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, Journey Into Mystery, and Amazing Adventures are like that. There's a formula that repeats, there are storytelling beats that show up in every single one, and it always works.
6.) Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen (1954) #133-139 & 141-148 by Jack Kirby, Vince Colletta, and Mike Royer with alterations on Superman and Jimmy Olsen by Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson
It's rare to see Kirby working with characters created by someone else. That's not what I'd normally want from Kirby but this time it worked. It makes sense that Kirby would mix nicely with the utopian science fiction concepts associated with DC's Silver Age characters. In the first story arc of this run Kirby pushes those concepts further than they'd ever been pushed before. Jimmy Olsen befriends a society of highly advanced hippie scientists who live in a utopian separatist community. They produce some of the most beautiful and bizarre looking Kirby tech we've ever seen. I'm also going to go on the record saying that I sort of like the extremely on-model Superman and Jimmy Olsen interacting with these crazy Kirby settings and characters.
5.) 2001: A Space Odyssey Treasury Special (1976) & 2001: A Space Odyssey (1977) #1-10 by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and Frank Giacoia
The idea that there was a licensed comic book based upon 2001, and an ongoing series at that, is absurd. The fact that they're actually good is sublime. The Treasury Special is a movie adaptation but the series itself is like a Jack Kirby tone poem about cavemen, astronauts, robots, and more. I loved the movie when I was a kid but these days I'd rather read Kirby riffing on the same themes.
4.) Fantastic Four (1961) #1-102 & Annual #1-6 by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Joe Sinnott, and others
When I was younger the consensus seemed to be that this was Jack Kirby's defining work. The trouble is that this run is huge and hasn't always been accessible. The omnibus collections are too damn big to read. The Marvel Masterworks collections were too expensive, especially considering what a long series it was. So for the longest time I, and I think a lot of comics fans, were best acquainted with the most famous issues of this series. Those would be the very earliest issues, the Galactus trilogy, and This Man, This Monster. I've read a few of the final issues when I found some cheap coverless copies. Now I'm trying to fill the gaps. I'm making my way through this run and I still have a ways to go. It's great, and I'm not surprised by that. Still, this ranking is based upon an incomplete reading of this material. I'm trying to pace myself, reading an issue here and there. When all is said and done I might rank this differently but for now, I feel pretty good about it at number 4.
3.) New Gods (1971) #1-11, New Gods (1984) #6, and The Hunger Dogs (1985) by Jack Kirby with Mike Royer, Vince Colletta, Greg Theakston, D. Bruce Berry and more
I feel as if I've lived with these characters longer than most of Jack Kirby's creations but only in my most recent reading did these comics make a real impression on me. I wrote about them here.
2.) Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (1972) #1-40 by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and D. Bruce Berry
For a long time this was my favorite series Kirby had created. In an era when I was interested in Jack Kirby but his work was not extensively reprinted I found that these back issues were more affordable than the series I heard more about like Fantastic Four and New Gods. This has breakneck action, double page spreads that flesh out the setting, and plenty of far out imagery. It also has some of Kirby's most somber imagery and story beats. If you want to look for it, you can find a concern about dehumanization that is closely linked to Kirby's experience viewing the holocaust as a Jewish American soldier in World War II. The sixth issue is up there with The Pact as one of Kirby's best stand alone stories.
1.) O.M.A.C. (1974) #1-8 by Jack Kirby,D. Bruce Berry, and Mike Royer
This is probably Kirby's most radical work, mixing his utopian visions, dystopian concerns, and a Philip K. Dick-esque post-modernism. Similar to my renewed love of New Gods, I revisited these comics a couple years ago and was blown away. Now these are the comics I point to as Jack Kirby's best work.
But there's still so much more. Kirby was insanely prolific, as I'm assuming anyone reading this already knows. I only have so much time to read comics and contrary to what you may think I actually read comics by other cartoonists as well.
I haven't really read any of his romance comics, his war comics, or his long run on Thor. I'm sure I'll make my way through that material eventually. I've read one issue of Silver Star and I really liked it but I haven't run into the others when digging through back issue bins. I guess I could look harder and maybe one day I'll decide to buy a complete set.
Perhaps I'll find more gems where I didn't expect them. There's an incredible Newsboy Legion story reprinted in one of those 70s DC 100 page comics. I had long written off Kirby's comics of the 40s because I didn't like the Timely stuff but this piqued my interest. The story is titled The House Where Time Stood Still. The Legion runs into danger when they attempt to sell War Bonds to a pair of hermits who appear to have been based upon the Collyer Brothers. The hermit's home is taken over by Nazi spies and the Guardian is forced to save them. The plot itself isn't a revelation but I'm curious about the setting. Suicide Slum appears to be a mythologized version of the Lower East Side where Kirby grew up. It made me think of the neighborhood legends we passed around when I was a kid.
Jack Kirby isn't my favorite cartoonist but I can't think of anyone else in comics with a body of work this large and very few whose works are this rewarding. Taking regular trips to Kirby's worlds have served as a redemptive escapism for me and writing a bunch of silly blog posts has been an attempt at paying him back for that. Happy Birthday Jack, thanks for the comics!