Among comic book fans, the legendary artist, writer, and designer Jack Kirby is appointed regal status: the King. And it’s easy to understand why. Before serving in World War II, he constructed Captain America with Joe Simon. Later, he and Stan Lee ushered in the “Marvel Age” of comics, creating the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, the Hulk, and assembling the Avengers alongside dozens more characters currently bounding across silver screens in multiplexes worldwide. Over at DC Comics — Marvel’s “Distinguished Competition” — he launched the Fourth World epic, sprawling out across titles like Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, The Forever People, The New Gods, and Mister Miracle.
His signature style, incorporating psychedelic imagery and pulsing with energy, helped comic books gain broader recognition as a form of pop art worthy of being taken seriously. But Kirby never lost touch with the glee and limitless action that drew readers to his books.
So it makes sense that his birthday, August 28, has become a holiday for comic fans. This Sunday, on what would have been Jack’s 99th, Phoenix comic creator Russ Kazmierczak Jr. (Amazing Arizona Comics) leads a massive homage to Kirby, one that's fittingly sprawling in scope, linking together a dramatic reading at the Torch Theater, live art at All About Books & Comics, and drink specials at new arcade bar Bonus Round.
“Kirby is, in my opinion, the architect of comics as we know them now,” Kazmierczak says. “Kirby helped shape the dynamic that makes superheroes a relevant thing to this day.”
It’s Kazmierczak’s second year offering tribute. At last year’s celebration, an open mic event was paired with a gallery show displaying original Kirby art on loan from comics creator and Valley resident Steve Rude (who won the Kirby Award for Best Artist in 1986). And it would have been easy enough to replicate that format again, but Kazmierczak says that wouldn’t be in keeping with Kirby’s desire to continually reinvent.
“On top of [superhero work], Kirby contributed to all the other genres of the day: romance comics, westerns, the big monster stories which became popular after superhero comics were accused of perpetuating perverted sexual agendas — he adapted and kept working to stay in the business,” Kazmierczak says.
That adaptability defined his career, which found him spilling over into new media like animation, where he contributed designs for Hanna-Barbera shows including Thundarr the Barbarian and Ruby-Spears’ The Centurions, and led to the creation of whole universes of Kirby-owned characters and stories for publishers like Pacific Comics and Topps Comics. (He got involved in lots of other far-out stuff, too. Google “Science Fiction Land amusement park” or “Lord of Light/Barry Geller” for a wild story which ties into the events on which Ben Affleck based his 2012 film Argo.)
In the spirit of Kirby’s audacity, Kazmierczak is staging a dramatic reading of New Gods issue two live on stage at the Torch Theater at noon, with local comedians, storytellers, and performers such as Tommy Cannon, Hattie Jean Hayes, JRC, Ernesto Moncada, Ashley Naftule, and artist Dave Beaty (artist of DC Comics' Batman Incorporated and the creator-owned webcomic Red Skirts) wrestling with Kirby’s famously over-the-top dialogue over live sound effects by Martin Scott.
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“I wanted to drop the audience right into the middle of the action,” Kazmierczak says of the decision to go with one of Kirby’s New Gods stories. “Plus, at the end, without spoiling anything, there’s a really a real poignant analogy to today’s media and political cycle, the way folks are influenced by entertainment and the things that they see. Any of Kirby’s stuff would be fun to perform, but [I think people] will walk away and say, ‘Wow, that was not what I expected — it’s not a 'Penguin robs a bank and Batman stops him' kind of story.”
Following the performance, the party moves up the street to comic shop All About Books & Comics, where Kirby issues will be on sale and Kazmierczak joins Beaty and Jan Marc “The Janimal” Quisumbing of Pronto Comics in providing sketches, with suggested donations benefiting the Hero Initiative. Founded in 2000, the organization is a nonprofit dedicated to offering financial assistance to comic book creators, whose work for major publishers often profits the publishers, but not the artists and writers. In 2012, Kirby’s granddaughter Jullian Kirby launched the Kirby4Heroes campaign in conjunction with the Hero Initiative to help raise awareness of Kirby’s contributions and the work ethic that drives many creators.
“That work ethic is inspiring, too,” Kazmierczak says. “Kirby didn’t just create a character and rest on his laurels … he was a guy who was continually creating something new, staying active at the drawing board, probably until the day he died. If there’s anybody in the history of comics that deserves to be recognized in a way that’s celebratory, it’s Kirby. We’re not mourning that he’s not with us anymore; we’re celebrating all this stuff he created — he packed so many lifetimes of creativity into his. There’s an inherent joy in that.”
Phoenix’s second annual Jack Kirby birthday celebration begins at noon on Sunday, August 28, at the Torch Theatre. Tickets are $5. Sketches begin at All About Books & Comics at 2 p.m., and Bonus Round also opens at 2 for a Kirby happy hour. Find more info at amazingarizonacomics.blogspot.com.