I’m writing this on the eve of what would’ve been Jack Kirby’s 100th birthday. This week the Internet will likely be crowded with commemorative pieces on Kirby that analyze his historical importance, the power of his storytelling, and the poor treatment he received from the comics industry. Those are all great things to talk about, but I’m going to leave them to others who know Kirby’s work better than I. Because I want to talk about something different.
This piece is personal.
Growing up, I was never much of a Kirby fan. Oh, I gained an “appreciation” for him during some misspent hours in grad school, researching comics when I was supposed to be working on other stuff. But what I gained then was only an intellectual appreciation. I could’ve written an essay on why Kirby was important, blah, blah, blah. But I still didn’t really connect with his work. There were always other, cooler comics creators to admire.
But lately, something’s changed. Earlier this year, for reasons I never fully grasped, I found myself reading through the entire Lee and Kirby “Tales of Asgard” stories. And more recently, I’ve been diving into some of his less heralded work like The Eternals and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Given Kirby’s stature, the fact that I’m reading these pieces isn’t unusual. What’s unusual is that I’m enjoying them—really drinking them in. It’s hard for me to explain why, but there’s something about Kirby’s stubbornly hard-charging and occasionally ham-fisted approach to comics that I’m finding oddly … comforting.
Like a lot of people, I’ve found the months since November 8 to be draining emotionally. The recent events surrounding Charlottesville are only the latest episode in what feels like the final season of a bad TV show about America—one that officially jumped the shark last fall. Since then, we’ve seen consensus-based notions of decency, law, and ethics discarded by a person for whom fame makes money, money makes might, and might makes right.
Which brings me back to Jack Kirby. In times of stress, many of us look to the arts to help fill our emotional wells after they’ve gone dry. And right now, for me, Kirby is like some kind of magical mountain spring.
And it’s not just me. It’s not a coincidence that over the past few months, Kirby’s legendary cover for Captain America #1, where Cap punches Adolf Hitler in the face, has gone viral. Some have complained that the image celebrates violence, but what stands out in that iconic picture is not violence. At least not to me. No one looks at that cover and speculates about the amount of dental damage done to Hitler or whether such a blow might’ve broken his jaw. The picture’s not really about the violence.
Instead, when Cap punches Hitler, the image makes a symbolic declaration of what decent people stand for. Rejecting fascism and bigotry isn’t political—it’s human. And Kirby’s Captain America serves as a unifying icon to say loudly and in no uncertain terms that we are against this. Period.
That old-fashioned idea of universality, the sense of there being a common cause, seems largely missing from our political conversation today, but those ideas jump off almost every page of a Kirby comic. In image after image, there is a sense of conviction behind the picture. Looking at those melodramatic Kirby faces—faces that could’ve been ripped from the final act of some Italian opera—one senses Kirby’s own combative spirit. All the characters seemed locked into a perpetual crouch with their knees bent and their center of gravity low. While such postures might suggest the potential for action, what I see are characters with their feet planted firmly on the ground, rooting themselves into the earth in order to do what’s right.
As someone who was raised on Postmodernism and irony, I know that what I’m describing sounds rather quaint and ideologically flawed. But as we drift towards a new national ethos where white supremacy and fascism are becoming mainstream and where many of the cornerstones of Western Civilization—logic, decency, pragmatism—are giving way to the cult of personality, decadence, and blind ideology, the unironic Jack Kirby is making a lot of sense to me. His pictures are like runestones, carrying images of a lost moral vision. Not the pat moralism of a Charles Perrault fairy tale, but rather a moral sensibility that has been earned—in Kirby’s case by a short Jewish kid who scrapped his way through the streets of the Lower East Side in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
None of this is to say I’m giving up on irony. As a way of processing the world and communicating with others about it, irony is hardwired into my brain. But I’m reminded of that great lyric Dooley Wilson sang in Casablanca, the idea that “The fundamental things apply / As time goes by.”
And as I watch our culture treat serious, life- and planet-altering events like they are merely exhibits in some demented art installation project designed by a crazed despot, I’m going to keep reading Jack Kirby. And if you haven’t lately, you might give it a try too. Feels like we could all use a collective moral reboot.
 I should clarify—Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is unheralded by almost everyone besides Julian Darius who has actually written a small book on the series, an act of scholarly obsession almost as mad as Kirby’s own demented attempt to transform the Clarke/Kubrick story into a monthly action comic book. The world could use more of such madness–both in our comics and our scholarship.