Jack Kirby: Radio Interview: Sept. 18, 1974
Jerry Connelly: Let’s talk about Captain America, probably your most famous creation. Captain America was first published in March 1941, about eight months before the United States got into World War II. On the cover of that first issue, you showed Captain America slugging Adolph Hitler right in the chops. Was Captain America created specifically to fight World War II?
Jack KIRBY: Yes, I believe it was a spontaneous reaction on my part and my partner Joe Simon. We discussed it at the time. There was patriotic fervor everywhere. It was just the climate for that kind of thing. Captain America was a superhero of his own, specific type. There were many other superheroes that were being developed at the time, and Captain America was the first to have a patriotic theme. My style was particularly adaptable to that kind of superhero, and it went very well.
Connelly: How did Captain America’s powers differ froth those of Superman?
KIRBY: Captain America was a super acrobat. His powers weren’t that extreme. He couldn’t stop a locomotive, but he could certainly get out of the way fast enough [laughs]. And that did the trick for him. He was as dramatic as I could make him. If he got into a fight, it was with 50 guys. If he jumped from a roof, he just knew how to roll right and avoid injury. He was a man with super reflexes.
He couldn’t fly. He didn’t have any of the superpowers of the ultimate superhero. The ultimate superheroes had superpowers that were extraordinary. The only thing extraordinary about Captain America were his reflexes, his intuitiveness, and his incisive sizing up of the situation. His mind was very facile, and his muscles went right along with it.
Connelly: What was the origin story?
KIRBY: It was a scientific experiment in which a certain chemical caused physical changes that were necessary to change a subject that the scientists had selected. The subject, of course, was a 4F. [laughs] He was in pretty bad shape, which was perfect, because you had two extremes there. They were going to take a man in very poor physical shape and turn him into an extremely fine physical specimen. Which this chemical did. And, of course, there were dramatic consequences which developed the theme and the hero.
Connelly: What were your reasons for selecting the elements that made up Cap’s costume?
KIRBY: Of course, the American flag is unbeatable for color combination and appeal. So that was a must. The chainmail business was strictly the warrior theme carried to modern times. The wings suggested themselves because they indicated the speed with which he moved at all times. Everything on the costume was symbolic of the character himself. He was a patriotic character: a speedy, hardhitting type of hero.
Connelly: The costume itself could be concealed under his regular clothes except for those huge boots. Where did he keep the boots when he was in his street clothes?
KIRBY: [Laughs] We intimated that the costume was extremely strong but very, very flexible. It folded easily. And, of course, we took a little license with that kind of thing. We even gave him a flexible shield, which he hid on his back under his jacket.
Connelly: The shield started out as a triangular piece of metal in the first issue and afterward, it became round. Why?
KIRBY: I made it round because it would be easier for throwing. I knew that in some of the sequences, he’d have to throw the shield to get himself out of some tight spots, and a round shield would be a more rational object to devise for that kind of thing.
Connelly: He also used it for fending off bullets.
KIRBY: Yes, the shield was impervious to bullets.
Connelly: But it was also light and flexible. That’s terrific! What a great shield!
KIRBY: Yes. I always had the feeling that someday they would make clothes like that. We’d have armored clothes that could protect us in some way from harm.
Connelly: Tupperware underwear, for example.
KIRBY: Well, superheroes are called “underwear characters” in the trade. And, of course, that’s what they are. They’re long johns, and they’re built for action. You’ll never get fouled up with long johns. Acrobats are unencumbered by any kind of flapping material. I’ll never draw a superhero with material that might get in his way. I ways realized that a superhero has to extreme freedom of movement, so I’m not going to give him any flouncy costumes. He’s gonna have tightknit long johns that are gonna give him the best possible freedom to do what he has to do.
Connelly: It’s also more aesthetic, isn’t it, just simply as a picture? To have the limbs sharply defined in these tight costumes?
KIRBY: Aesthetically, it’s perfect. It gives you the chance to do the kind of figure you want. You can do the best possible things for the human figure when it’s unencumbered.
Connelly: What kind of a man was The Red Skull?
KIRBY: The Red Skull was typical of the amoral man. He, of course, felt that he had his own virtues. And he was ruthless in following up whatever he planned. He was the type of man who would become a Nazi. He was the type of man who would carry out a Nazi type of situation. In short, The Red Skull was a Nazi.
Essentially, he was a universal crook. He could be used in situations where, if Fu Manchu had to go about in mufti, he’d still act like Fu Manchu. And The Red Skull was himself at all times. The Red Skull was a purist. In other words, he was a villain dedicated to villainy.
And, of course, that was a virtue to him. He was a thorough professional and he could be just as dangerous as the hero. So you always had these antagonists who created the kind of drama you wanted by being their own extreme selves.
Connelly: Worthy of the hero.
KIRBY: Yes, the clash was more pronounced, if the opposing characters were more extreme.
Connelly: The Red Skull’s facial accoutrements: Was that a mask or was it him?
KIRBY: No, it was a mask. But, of course, it was symbolic of the man himself. It became the man when the man was in action or when the man was involved in some kind of a scheme. The mask reflected his own facial expressions.
And I believe that in itself is a kind of truism: Our clothes are a reflection of ourselves. Our clothes become what we are, by the colors we pick, by the fashions we pick, by the things we wear. They reflect our own personalities. If I’m a bland person, I’ll probably wear bland material. If I’m an outgoing personality, of course, my material might be a little more flashy. And it might be a little more in fashion, too. Being the conservative guy I am, I wear no clothes at all.
Connelly: [Laughing] Yes, I thought you had a blue suit on, but you’re just cold.
Was Captain America successful right away, or did it take a while for him to catch on?
KIRBY: Instantaneously. Somehow, he had the appeal of all the elements that go into making a successful thing in any venture. All the elements were there, and they operated beautifully. We were just elated, because we had a vehicle for ourselves. I’m talking about Joe Simon and myself. We had a vehicle with which we could work and operate and we had a wonderful time with Captain America. He was suitable for any kind of story. We had subjects ranging from crime to witchcraft to spy stories. It was an extremely flexible character, and we had a fine time with him.
Connelly: Did Captain America’s success set off a wave of flagrant imitations?
KIRBY: The industry abounded with superheroes. There were all types of superheroes at that time. The superhero thing itself was new, and there were new types of superheroes created in every publishing house.
Yes, Captain America had his imitators. There was a Mr. Justice. There was even a feminine imitator called Liberty Belle, which followed the same pattern except that it was a female character. When the war came, there were many patriotic superheroes being drawn. But Captain America had a strong image, and he was well out in front, I can tell you.
Connelly: The publishers of Captain America, Timely Publications, were so incensed about the wave of imitations of Captain America that they published in one of their comics a warning that they would sue any imitators. Did they mean to carry that out?
KIRBY: Well, yes, that kind of thing was carried out. If a thing got close enough to your own format, I suppose there was a clash of interests. It was strictly out of my hands. That kind of thing was always up to the publisher, if the publisher felt that the rival publishing house was encroaching too finely on the character. In other words, the competitive character would have to do the same things, get involved in the same situations, have a costume that’s similar, just another step from your own why, then you began to worry about it because it might be mistaken for the same character on the newsstands, and the reader might be buying the other magazine instead of yours.
So the publisher always had to be wary of that kind of thing. He’d make threats from time to time, and it kept the competition from getting too close to the kind of thing he had.
Connelly: Wasn’t the feature copyrighted?
KIRBY: Of course. All of the new characters were copyrighted. But copyrights notwithstanding, a rival publisher could come pretty close to the type of thing you had and maybe make more money than you do.
Connelly: And the change only has to be very slight to get around the copyright law.
KIRBY: Yes, there are many ways not to bend that law and not to skirt it, either, but to not be affected by it.
Connelly: In his book The History of Comics Volume One, Jim Steranko wrote: “Captain America was not an embodiment of human characteristics, but a pure idea. He was not a man, but all men. Not a being, but a cumulative god that symbolized the inner reality of man. He was the American truth.” How do you feel about that statement?
KIRBY: It’s absolutely true. He had to symbolize every American virtue. He was typical of the kind of people we are. He was forthright. He was quick to enforce his own convictions.
Connelly: At the time you were creating Captain America, did you think you were creating a metaphor for “the American truth” or were you just creating a comic book character?
KIRBY: Oh, I was too young to think in those complex terms. I felt I had a good character. I myself thought in black and white. A man was either all good or all bad. Not having the full experience of maturity, I didn’t think in complex terms. I made the character in as wholesome an image as I could envisage.
Connelly: How old were you when you created Captain America?
KIRBY: I was 22.
Connelly: And you had already been in the business for a number of years, hadn’t you?
KIRBY: I got my first professional job at 17. I was with the Max Fleischer Studios doing the Popeye animated cartoons. That would have been about 1937, 1938. Possibly around then, maybe earlier. I was animating Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy.
Connelly: Did that have any bearing on your later depiction of action in your characters?
KIRBY: It’s bound to. It’s bound to make you want to make your characters move. It becomes an instinctive thing. It’s impossible to draw a stilted character after you’ve done animation. I basically made my figures ready to move at all times and to move from various points of view. My experience in animation, I believe, helped me put the kind of action in Captain America that it demanded.
Connelly: Captain America was a super patriot in those super patriotic days of World War II. How do you think the original Captain America would fit into today’s [1974’s] political and social climate?
KIRBY: He would fit in it like any other American. He would reflect the consensus, whatever that is.
Connelly: There doesn’t seem to be a consensus today.
KIRBY: Well, I don’t know what it is. But I think Captain America is symbolic of all Americans would think like all Americans. He might be mixed up, for all I know, and he might be trying to find a consensus.
Connelly: In those days, Captain America had no difficulty knowing “where he was at.”
KIRBY: That’s true. Nobody did.
Connelly: But the issues were more clearcut.
KIRBY: Yes, they were.
Connelly: You said you created Captain America while working with Joe Simon, and the two of you continued working together over the years, creating dozens of other successful characters and working on many other characters that had been created by other people. The byline was always “Simon and Kirby,” and it was a familiar one to young comic book fans of the time.
How did you and Joe Simon get together?
KIRBY: We met when the comic book field was young. The field was just developing. There were various artists working at various publishing houses, and there were no contracts at the time, so we’d be working at one publishing house and then working at another. The artists who were working in the field began to meet each other, and Joe and I got together. Joe, of course, was older than I am and bigger than I am, and he kinda cowed me in a way, which every big guy did. That’s how we got the “Simon and Kirby thing going.
Connelly: That’s why he got his name first.
KIRBY: [Laughing] Yes, that’s right. At that time, I respected size and age. In deference to Joe, I was glad to work with him because he’s an extremely competent man.
Connelly: Did he help out on the art or did he do the scripts and the stories, and did you do all the art?
KIRBY: Joe did the inking and he did the lettering. Joe was an editor in his time. He had journalism experience; he was with the Syracuse Journal.
Joe was an accomplished man in his trade certainly much more than I at the time so I was glad to be associated with him. It gave me a lot of experience that I needed and it brought me into the atmosphere where competent people circulated. I was fortunate to make the association and I did well at it.
Connelly: When did the Simon and Kirby partnership end?
KIRBY: It ended in the late ‘50s. Like a lot of other things, things come to a point where a parting was probably the best thing to do. And we did it, that’s all.
Connelly: Captain America lasted well. Cap’s arch nemesis, The Red Skull, made Comics #1 past World War II but ended up fighting monsters and being sort of a front man for other characters. And he finally disappeared completely in 1949. What was responsible for the end of such a popular and imaginative character?
KIRBY: The audience got older and it faded, and the strip was ready for a new audience.
Which it got.
Captain America was revived, and it’s thriving today.
Connelly: Were you doing the strip in 49?
KIRBY: No, I had just come back from the service. Captain America had been done by other artists while I was in the service, and, when I came back, I was no longer with that particular publishing house; I was working for another. In fact, I was still doing The Boy Commandos at National. I was waiting for Joe to get out of the service so we could continue the partnership. I worked very well with him. And, when he did come out, we went to work for another firm.
Connelly: Did you and Simon, as creators, benefit from any sort of royalties while you were not working on the strip?
KIRBY: Yes, there were benefits, and we got the advantage of them. I have no beefs about our association with the publishers. They treated us nicely, and I can say no more about it.
Connelly: Did you have anything to do with the revival of Captain America in the ‘60s?
KIRBY: Yes, I did. I went back to Marvel, I got them to revive it, and the character did very well. We made a transitional strip, and it seemed to work. It was a kind of adjustment from the past to the present. We made it smooth, and the character went right on living again.
Connelly: Captain America had a boy companion named Bucky. Batman had Robin, Green Arrow had Speedy, and The Human Torch had Toro. Most of the first appearances, such as in Captain America, comic book heroes had a boy companion or assistant. Why was that?
KIRBY: Speaking for myself, I’ve always missed having a big brother. I’ve always missed the kind of a brother that would protect me and I’ve always missed the kind of companionship which would make reality of the fantasies I had. And I believe that’s what the superheroes did for their younger partners. They gave them an association with the kind of fantasies that went on in their minds. And the younger people responded to it. They related to it, and it kind of gave a dimension to the superhero himself. Because he had to respond to that relationship and he responded in a wholesome way. It made the relationship between the superhero and the younger character a wholesome merger, which could broaden the adventure. You were able to split up a situation in which one character could come to the aid of another. So you added to the context of your story.
Connelly: Did the movies have any influence on you and other comic book artists?
KIRBY: Yes, of course. I believe that my generation was brought up by Warner Brothers. I know that I’d see movies maybe six, seven times a day. My mother would go from movie house to movie house trying to find me. I suppose it becomes part of your thinking and I injected that kind of thing into the comics. A comic book is nothing more to me than a frozen movie.
Connelly: What were some of the movies that influenced you the most?
KIRBY: Not any in particular. All the movies influenced me. I like movies in general. Movies reflected the same kind of themes that comics had. They were simple themes. You had the gangster movies of the time, which were certainly very popular. You had the westerns which were very popular> I never thought one was any better than the other. They all had the kind of appeal that certainly drew my attention. I didn’t know a kid on my block who didn’t go to the movies.
Connelly: Would you appropriate things like camera angles and composition from the movies and use them in your own work?
KIRBY: All the time. I’d try to do that in my comics. It creates a nice balance in the strip, because it eliminates monotony. A prime hazard in comics is creating monotony so the reader’s eye can become detached from the story. What the artist tries to do is balance out his page with a variety of angles so the eye is completely engaged at all times. It keeps the reader on the story, keeps the thread of the story from breaking, and it delivers the kind of entertainment you’re there to expedite.
Connelly: What other comic strip artists influenced you in your early days?
KIRBY: The masters in comics, certainly, are the ones in the newspaper field: Milton Caniff with Terry and the Pirates and Alex Raymond, who did Flash Gordon. There were the fellows who did the funny strips, too. They all influenced me because their product had such appeal.
Connelly: How about Will Eisner, who created The Spirit and whom you worked for, for a while. What did you learn from him?
KIRBY: Well, from Bill I learned storytelling. He had a good storytelling quality in his stuff, and I gained a lot from him in that respect. Bill himself certainly is an articulate man. He knew his trade, and I learned a lot of the trade from Bill. He’s an older man than I am and he certainly had more experience in the field, and I gained from him a lot in that respect.
Connelly: In dialogue in comic books, the sentences always ended with an exclamation point instead of a period. Why was that?
KIRBY: As I said, comics is a frozen movie. It can’t move. But everything in a comic has to make it move, even the dialogue. The exclamation point is handy in that way, because it lends emphasis and movement to what you’re trying to portray.The character not only has to be extreme in his movement, but the dialogue has to be curt so it can come across quickly. You have to make your point quickly, and that adds to the movement of the story. It’s a short thing, really, in itself, but it has to make sense, it has to have sub crawling.” Why did you concentrate on anatomy and action? That was the Kirby style, wasn’t it?
KIRBY: Yes. It’s the kind of thing I have an affinity for. I can’t draw anything that doesn’t have a crowd in it. I never do a panel that doesn’t have a battle scene in it. I just draw crowds of people in the picture because it’s the natural thing for me to do. I don’t know why I do this. I’m not qualified to analyze it, but I love doing it. It seems to me that the world is full of people; I have to draw those people.
Connelly: But you try to get them all into one panel.
KIRBY: Yes, I try to get them all into one panel. I wish I could simplify this type of thing, because then I could take a vacation once in a while. But I never seem to be able to do it.
Connelly: Would you describe the process that a comic book story goes through to get from the idea stage to the printed fourcolor page? It starts with a script right? Written by somebody, not necessarily the artist.
KIRBY: Well, speaking for myself, I create my own script. I draw the story from the subject that I have in mind. I have enough experience to break down the story into segments, each segment leading to a climax, and each climax leading to a conclusion. I draw this. I do it in pencil.
When the pencils are complete, I send these completed pages to a man who inks them in black ink. When these inks are completed, it’s returned to me. I check them as editor of the magazine, I check them for grammatical mistakes, I check them for technical mistakes. When this process is completed, I send them back to the office.
At the office, they’re sent to the engravers. It goes through a technical process which is kind of complex to describe, but I can only say that they’re photographed. From these photographs, plates are made. These plates are sent to the printer. The printer runs these plates off on large rolls of paper, just like a newspaper. Color masks are made, which eliminate certain colors and add others, and the color is put on from color guides which are given to the printer.
Connelly: Do you have any control of the color in your work?
KIRBY: I can if I want to, but it’s the kind of thing that these people have so much experience with that I just leave it to them. They’re extremely competent and they’ve been coloring comic books for years, so I just eliminate that from my schedule. They put in the color, the printer completes the book, he binds the book, and the book is shipped from the printer to the distributor.
Connelly: Today you write all your own stories.
Connelly: Did you write them all and draw them all you and Joe Simon in the days of Captain America’s infancy?
KIRBY: Yes, I wrote them then, too, except I’d talk them over with Joe, and Joe would inject some of his ideas into the story. I would just put them down on paper and break the synopsis down, break the theme down, and come out with a refined product which I pencilled out.
Connelly: What does the script look like? Does it describe the action and also give the dialogue?
KIRBY: Yes, they’re very similar to movie scripts or even radio scripts. The characters are described, the situation is described. Each panel has its own action, and that action is described. The atmosphere of course, you have to have that. You’ve got to give the reader some image of where he is or where the character is. There are many strips where the atmosphere, the background is eliminated. They might have one or two panels which reflect the location where the action is taking place, but it’s good enough to give a more rounded image to the reader, and he’s able to visualize the story better.
Connelly: You and Simon came up with at least two comics series about kids’ gangs that were published one right after the other: The Newsboy Legion in April 1942 and The Boy Commandos in June 1942, both for the same publisher: National. Why did you do two similar stories so close together?
KIRBY: Because they became popular.
[Laughing] I don’t know what the lifestyles are today, but where I came from, that was a very common lifestyle. The kids were always out on the street. They would always band together. Different types would circulate within their own groups. Having come from that kind of an atmosphere, I knew the kids that I drew. They reflected very, very common types and, of course, whoever read them, related to them. I was one of them. In that respect, I lived what I drew.
Connelly: So you drew on your own boyhood experiences on the streets of New York for The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion.
KIRBY: Yes, I did, right.
Connelly: Speaking of boyhood, how did you get interested in drawing?
KIRBY: Comics at that time had an appeal for me. Comics was a new medium, and it was very, very attractive to me. Somehow, I felt that I’d like to do comics. I saw an ad for a correspondence course in
comics and I asked my father if he might be interested in financing a couple lessons. I got a rather curt reply [laughs].
Connelly: In the negative?
KIRBY: Yes, in the negative. We fought it out and I finally got one lesson, which I worked on for years. I never got the rest of the lessons. [Kirby studied art at the Pratt Institute.]
Connelly: That one lesson must have been a lulu, because you’ve done pretty well in your profession.
KIRBY: Well, it was a stimulant and it kept me interested in the subject.
I think that’s what it takes. It takes a sustained interest in whatever kind of thing you’re trying to do. In my own case, I had a sustained interest in comics. I just wanted to do ‘em. I liked to do ‘em and I did ‘em.
Of course, it didn’t help me with my parents much. They wanted me to be an auto mechanic. They felt an auto mechanic in those days had status, and an artist never really amounted to much. But I suppose in those days we were at loggerheads with our parents, as the children are today.
Connelly: As they always have been. Did you read a lot when you were a kid?
KIRBY: Yes, I did. I read pulp magazines. I was an avid reader of pulps, which are very much like comics.
Connelly: The comics came out of the pulps.
KIRBY: Yes they did, and I felt that comics were kind of a reaction to pulps. The adventure comics of that day, I felt, were a reaction to pulps, because it was an attempt at visualizing what the pulps were printing.
Connelly: And the comics were geared to a younger readership. The pulps were more for adults.
KIRBY: No, not necessarily. I remember reading pulps at 13. When science fiction first came out, I was reading science fiction. I didn’t dare to tell people about it, because science fiction was in disrepute at the time. They kind of made you the village Idiot if they found you reading one.
Connelly: It certainly paid off. Did you read any of the classics?
KIRBY: I read the classics, but I somehow didn’t understand them as well as I do today. I just didn’t have the insight. If you don’t have the insight into a thing, I pink you don’t enjoy it as much. I didn’t enjoy
Connelly: Jack, what are you working on today, in 1974?
KIRBY: I’m working on Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, which is a variation on the doomsday theme; I’ve got Omac, the One Man Army, which is a projection of what may happen with the problems that we have today.
Connelly: He fights the establishment?
KIRBY: He doesn’t fight the establishment. He tries to be an answer to a lot of the things that may be bugging us today.
Connelly: How are the comic book heroes of today different from, say, the comic book heroes of the Golden Age in the ‘40s?
KIRBY: The comic book heroes of today are living in complex times and run into complex situations. These complex problems are reflected in their adventures. Their adventures involve, not only relevance, but dramatic projections of the type of problems we live with. Actually, the hero has a tougher job today than he did then. There are no clearcut issues, nothing is in black and white. It’s got to have a more mature approach, which we try to inject into the characters and stories.
Connelly: Does the hero have to be more human?
KIRBY: Yes, he’s got to be more human, he’s got to be more dimensional. You’ve got to know him better. He’s got to have a little more fallibility. I feel that people today know a little more about themselves, and that kind of thing has to be part of the superhero, too.
Connelly: Are the villains still just “bad guys” or are they more human, as well?
KIRBY: The villains today are more human, too. Villains, after all, are a reflection of people gone bad, people with distorted motives. The reader demands to know what those motives are why he is like he is, what made him the way he is. Of course, the villain can’t see that, but the reader wants to see that because the reader has to judge him. He has to know why we have to either stop him or restrict him or eliminate him. So the motives have to be clearcut. The artist has a big responsibility on his hands in defining the villain.
Connelly: So in his own mind, the villain is actually doing the right thing, as far as he’s concerned?
KIRBY: I think villains always have thought they’ve been doing the right thing.
Connelly: You always liked comic books. You never looked down on them.
KIRBY: No, I never have. And I’ve tried to do it as effectively as a professional can.
Connelly: Well, I’ve read a number of books on the history of comic books and you and Joe Simon are always mentioned with great admiration as two of the outstanding practitioners of comic book art. That’s another reason it was really great to have one of the top guys in comic books on the show tonight.
KIRBY: Thank you for that, too.