Decades after his passing, Jack Kirby is still the undisputed King of comic books. Characters and concepts he created and helped create dominate pop culture to this day. To celebrate his life and works, we're looking back at the 10 best Jack Kirby creations - with the special mention that the King created few characters we wouldn't consider absolute classics in their own right.
10. The Uncanny X-Men
It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time they launched, the X-Men weren’t particularly a hit for Marvel Comics. Sure, they stuck around long enough to see a reinvention in the 70s that launched the franchise into the stratosphere, but their early adventures didn’t quite take hold with readers.
Still, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created a dynamite idea in the story of five teenagers with ingrained powers that set them apart from the rest of the world. Along with the five original X-Men and their mentor Professor X, Kirby’s all-too-brief tenure on Uncanny X-Men also included the creation of Magneto, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch – characters that have gone on to be mainstays of Marveldom in both comic books and film – as well as numerous other classic X-Men villains.
Now, the X-Men are in the midst of a high profile relaunch guided by writer Jonathan Hickman.
9. The Incredible Hulk
Jack Kirby's initial tenure on the Hulk was brief, but Kirby's commitment to integrating Hulk as one of the Marvel Universe's primary supporting characters and the perfect simplicity of the concept made the Hulk one of the flagship characters of Marvel Comics.
Created, as most of his Marvel characters were, alongside Stan Lee, the Hulk is the essence of Marvel's mythos boiled into one character: a brilliant scientist who gains power through an atomic tragedy, who must constantly balance heroics with internal strife. Hulk wasn't the first Marvel character, but he is one of the most emblematic of the Marvel Age, and one of Kirby's simplest yet most recognizable designs.
8. The Mighty Thor
Jack Kirby had a deeply-held fascination with the Norse myth cycle, the story of death and rebirth bolstered by larger than life characters and bold adventures. Though he explored this idea more in-depth with later creations such as the Eternals and his Fourth World, Thor marks Kirby’s first major exploration of this deific ideal.
Though Kirby and Stan Lee developed the idea of Thor together, Lee tasked his brother, Larry Lieber, with scripting many of Thor’s early adventures, leaving Kirby to mastermind much of Marvel’s vision of Asgard.
Thor’s cosmic corner of the Marvel U was populated by gods, monsters, living planets, epic heroes, and seemingly unstoppable threats, all anchored by Kirby’s unique interpretation of ancient myths. Thor was one of Marvel’s first tentpoles, with his enemies and supporting cast proliferating throughout the Marvel Universe from its earliest days.
The character is now one of the MCU's tentpoles as well, with the impending Thor: Love and Thunder marking the hero's fourth solo film.
7. Captain America
Jack Kirby’s early collaborator Joe Simon can be credited with the initial idea for Captain America, but Kirby’s electric take on the sentinel of liberty was essential for the character to take hold. From his first cover, punching Hitler in the jaw, Captain America captured a kind of adventure and patriotism that was and still is unmatched in the genre of star-spangled superheroes.
Though Simon designed the earliest version of Cap’s iconic costume, Simon and Kirby developed the character together. In fact, Kirby’s love for the character led to him blasting through the first issue’s art when it seemed a pair of other artists would instead take the assignment. Kirby also co-created the Red Skull, Cap’s most iconic villain.
In the 1960s, Kirby and his latter-day partner Stan Lee brought Captain America to the modern day, placing him on the Avengers and quickly elevating him to one of Marvel’s top heroes. Kirby took the opportunity to revise and expand on his earlier ideas, placing Captain America squarely in the sci-fi-fueled Silver Age Marvel Universe.
6. Black Panther
Black Panther was initially, as many of Kirby’s ideas were, a guest star created in the pages of Fantastic Four. However, Kirby and Stan Lee quickly saw the potential in a superhero who was also the monarch of a sovereign, secret, technologically-advanced nation and spun him into the larger Marvel Universe, leading to him becoming a primary Avenger. But more than just being a great idea, Black Panther was also the first mainstream major black superhero.
It took a few years for Black Panther to receive his own feature story in Jungle Action and even more time for him to get his name on the cover, but by that time he was already a mainstay of the Marvel Universe, and a linchpin for much of Marvel’s overarching mythology. He’s now also part of the Marvel movie universe, repeating history as the first black character to headline a movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - setting box office records in the process.
Though not as well known as Kirby’s biggest creations, Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth may represent Kirby at his most pure; unfettered by any kind of larger universe and allowed to let his ideas run rampant on the page. Kamandi was, as his title implied, the last human boy in a post-apocalyptic world of animalistic mutants and sci-fi technology. Throughout the series, he explored his connection to the world of the past – a world that Kirby slyly seeded in his Fourth World universe as part of contemporary DC Comics.
Kamandi was, in many ways, the culmination of many of Kirby’s creative ideals, from crazy high concepts, to mythic storytelling, to a human protagonist beset by inhuman problems. Though it’s somewhat unsung among modern fans, for Kirby fanatics Kamandi is a treasure trove.
4. Silver Surfer
Among all the characters created by Jack Kirby for the larger Fantastic Four mythos, Silver Surfer may be one of the most special. Kirby’s Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee loved the character so much, he immediately latched onto him and, in a contentious move, spun him into his own series that Kirby didn’t draw. Still, the Silver Surfer was Kirby’s design and idea, created as a companion to Galactus, the massive, world-eating villain that apocryphally was created as an answer to Lee asking Kirby “What if the Fantastic Four met God?”
The Silver Surfer was the Marvel Universe’s first true cosmic hero, a sentinel of the spaceways dedicated to exploring the farthest reaches of the Marvel Universe, and accompanying his travails with philosophical musings.
3. The Avengers
It may seem a little silly to lump the Avengers into one entry; after all, many of the characters included in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original line-up for the team have already been discussed on this list. However, the Avengers did elevate several lesser-known characters – and characters in whose creation Kirby was only partially involved – and as a concept, it’s become the central franchise of the Marvel Universe.
The initial Avengers line-up consisted entirely of Kirby’s creations, including Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Iron Man (whose inclusion is only a technicality – Kirby designed his original armor and did many covers with the character, only did a handful of Iron Man stories), and was brought together by another Kirby creation, Loki. As with many Marvel titles, Kirby drew a significant chunk of the early issues, creating numerous villains and characters that still resonate in Avengers mythology today.
The Avengers have become Marvel’s flagship franchise. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the team is the hub around which the rest of the ever expanding world is built, even functioning as a vehicle to incorporate Kirby’s other Marvel creations such as Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.
2. The New Gods
Though Jack Kirby is known primarily as one of the main architects of Marvel Comics, in the long term, his creations have also had a massive impact on the DC Universe as well. After leaving Marvel in the 70s due to dissatisfaction with his treatment as a creator, Kirby developed the concept of the Fourth World, the ultimate culmination of his fascination with the mythic cycle of death and rebirth. Populated by the heroic New Gods of New Genesis and their villainous counterparts on Apokolips, the Fourth World brought Kirby’s unique fusion of fantasy and sci-fi to the DC Universe, connecting to the publisher’s larger world through Superman and Metropolis.
Among Kirby’s Fourth World creations are mainstays such as Mister Miracle, Big Barda, and Orion, major elements of the Superman mythos such as Intergang, the Guardian, Project Cadmus, and “Terrible” Turpin, and the villain that has become DC’s primary cosmic threat, Darkseid.
Kirby’s Fourth World has become a linchpin of the DC Universe, with characters and ideas from the saga still driving stories at DC Comics, and director Ava Duvernay's New Gods movie moving forward in development - with none other than Mister Miracle writer Tom King co-writing the script.
1. The Fantastic Four
Of all Jack Kirby’s creations, none are as palpably groundbreaking, as diversely ingenious, or as electrically innovative as the Fantastic Four. Created by Kirby and Stan Lee as a response to the success of the Justice League, the Fantastic Four took DC’s Silver Age superhero aesthetic and pushed it to new heights, bringing a humanity to the page that superheroes had never possessed.
The Fantastic Four weren’t just a team, they were a family... and though they were, well, fantastic, they squabbled, sweated, and fretted in an all-too-human fashion. The Fantastic Four’s core cast included the acerbic genius Mister Fantastic, his supportive (if somewhat underused) paramour the Invisible Girl, the daring, dashing Human Torch, and arguably Kirby’s most loved creation the Everlovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing. But the magic of the Fantastic Four wasn’t just about the team themselves, it was also about their enemies, their supporting cast, and the concepts that they explored.
In the pages of The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine, Kirby and Lee launched the entire Marvel Universe, from the FF’s greatest foe (and arguably Marvel’s greatest villain) Doctor Doom, to the Inhumans, the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer and Galactus, the Negative Zone, the return of Namor, and so on. Listing everything that Kirby designed and created in Fantastic Four would be nearly impossible.
Beyond that, Fantastic Four was where Jack Kirby redefined modern comic book art, giving us the structure, pacing, and design elements that still define comic books to this day.