This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, who is arguably the greatest comic book artist of all time. Ineed, it was Kirby who established the look of Marvel Comics during its early days of rapid expansion and creative growth, a look that was at odds with the staid style at competitor DC Comics. Kirby’s characters — and there are so many of them — are in a constant state of movement, adventurous in every panel, filled with energy and power. What Kirby’s creative partner, Stan Lee, accomplished with zippy dialogue, Kirby accomplished with images on the page, no, with images that practically leap off the page.
Like Lee, Kirby was hardly a newcomer to the world of comic books at the launch of the Marvel Age in 1961. Both had been around in the Golden Age of the war years. Marvel, then, was known as Timely Comics, and Kirby’s partner was the equally creative Joe Simon. Together they created Captain America. Kirby would return to Captain America when the hero was rescued from his icy tomb in 1964. He would return to him again, triumphantly at the top of his ever-developing style, in 1976. By then, after a short stint at DC, Kirby had grown into the title that Stan Lee had bestowed upon him. Kirby was King.
Marvel Year by Year: A Visual History is not the story of Jack Kirby, but it might as well be. Kirby, in person or by influence, is on nearly every page. It was at the very beginning of Timely Comics, in 1940, when Kirby joined the creative team. In March of 1941, he and Simon introduced Captain America to a world not yet at war. Kirby’s cover, in which Captain America punches Hitler in the jaw, is a classic. Though primitive by his later standards, it is Kirby at his purest. Timely Comics’ heroes may have never been as big as National’s (later DC’s) Superman or Fawcett’s Captain Marvel (who was actually bigger than Superman), but they were popular and influential, and none as much so as Kirby’s Captain America.
After the war years, the superhero comic dropped out of favor to be replaced by westerns, sci-fi, horror, and romance comics. Timely Comics became Atlas. For much of the next decade, Kirby and Simon worked on their own romance comics, now considered classics in the genre. Kirby also worked with Lee on giant monster comics at the soon-to-be Marvel Comics, but of course, the real break came in 1961 when Lee and Kirby introduced the world to the Fantastic Four. Comic books were never the same. Marvel Comics exploded with Lee and Kirby the driving force.
Kirby wasn’t around forever, of course. He and Lee had a falling out that led to Kirby’s jump to DC for a few years. He returned for a dazzling tenure on Captain America, Black Panther and a host of other comics. His covers were everywhere. When he left Marvel for the final time, his influence remained. His style was the Marvel style. Kirby was Marvel Comics. If there were times through the years when Marvel’s creativity and artistry declined, it was often because the company lost sight of that fact.
Marvel Year by Year: A Visual History is just what the title implies, a year-by-year and month-by-month look at Marvel Comics from 1940 to 2016. Reading this books makes it possible, once the Marvel Age kicks off in 1961, to follow along with both the in-universe and real-world history of these comic and characters. All of the important in-continuity events are here: the death of Gwen Stacy, the Kree-Skull War, the death of Jean Grey, Civil War.
The book, one of those large, glossy-paged, boxed editions that are a specialty of DK publishers, is filled with images from the last 70 plus years of Marvel. Cover images and details fill every page. Large two-page spreads are found throughout. The encyclopedic entries are concise but informative, perfect for dropping in and out or for reading straight through from beginning to end. (Though the book is so large it is best to read it at a table, fully alert and fully immersed.)
The boxed edition comes with two exclusive prints, suitable for framing, by Dan Panosian, each with more than a hint of Kirby’s influence.
Kirby, long gone but still celebrated, is still alive as the book comes to a close in 2016. Kirby’s superteams, the Avengers and the X-Men, are still going strong. His Black Panther is written by the acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Captain America is still a metaphor for our times.
The dynamic images in Marvel Year by Year tell the story of Marvel Comics in a way that Kirby would have surely enjoyed. His work, and the work of countless other talented Marvel artists, make the heroes leap from every page.