If Jack Kirby were still with us, he'd be celebrating his 96th birthday today. Unfortunately, Kirby died in 1994, robbing the comics world of one of its pioneers and most talented creators. A few years ago, comic fans created a web holiday, to be held on his birthday, to promote the reading of comics. Calling it Read Comics in Public Day and doing precisely that, these denizens of the web have prompted colleagues, friends, family, and passers-by to think – even if only briefly – about the comics medium and its existence in the twenty-first century.
It thus seems appropriate that we, the readers and fans of comics, take this opportunity to reflect on this yearly commemoration and its significance. The first point worthy of our consideration relates to the significance of the annual event. Why in the world should people take time out of their day to read comics in public? And what is it that would make comics readers emerge from the privacy and security of their homes to read their favorite comics and graphic novels openly and in the light of day?
Certainly one objective of the holiday is to challenge popular perceptions of comics as juvenile and immature. Comic books, in particular, have struggled against these sorts of prejudices from almost their first appearance in the 1930s. Comic books have matured and developed far beyond the confines of the superhero genre, and yet many non-readers hold views of the comics medium not all that different from their parents' (or grandparents') generation. The criticisms of comic books that circulated in the 1940s and 1950s, perhaps surprisingly, still linger in the popular consciousness. Confronting those around us with some of the complicated, mature, powerful, and diverse works of the modern comics industry is an admirable goal and one that might, in just a few cases, spark a conversation between readers and non-readers.
Perhaps another important aim of those reading their favorite comics in cafes, subways, and park benches today is to raise the profile of comics outside of its usual venues. The comics world over the past few decades has arguably become an increasingly insular place. Some of this undoubtedly comes from the rise of the direct market and specialty stores that cater to comics fans. As a result of this model, comics readers shop in comics stores and talk comics with other comics fans. Likewise, the complicated continuities of many books — reboots and other gimmicks aside — can make it daunting for the casual or non-reader to enter into the world that so many of us love and know so well. And thus taking comics out into the world and tempting — even forcing — those around us to talk about our passion might be considered a kind of outreach program.
A second – and just as important – issue for us to consider has to do with the date chosen by comics fans. Jack Kirby's life and career, in many ways, epitomizes the development of the American comic book industry in the twentieth century – socially, culturally, economically, and artistically. It is, therefore, fitting that it is on his birthday that comic book readers publicly demonstrate their passion for comics and at the same time express their appreciation for his contributions to the medium.
Kirby's genius is universally acknowledged and richly documented. He was renowned for his versatility; Kirby could do westerns, love stories, science fiction, and crime stories as well as the superhero book. Along with Joe Simon, he created Captain America, at a time when the United States had not yet abandoned its isolationist policies and entered the Second World War. Again with Simon, he helped give rise to a new genre of romance comics that proved hugely popular at a time when many thought the era of superheroes had passed. His work with Stan Lee, of course, brought about most of the pantheon of Marvel heroes in the 1960s including the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, and so many, many others. Later in his career, Kirby wrote and penciled his own saga, a series of titles collectively referred to as the Fourth World, which allowed him to explore the eternal conflict between good and evil through characters that he created on his own.
Indeed Kirby's artistic contributions to the comics medium are the stuff of legend. Less well known, however, is his personal story and how it reflects the history of American comics in the twentieth century. Kirby, born on the Lower East Side of New York City, was the son of immigrants who came to America looking for a better life. When asked why he changed his name from Jacob Kurtzberg to Jack Kirby, he answered simply that "he wanted to be an American." He was a working class kid who got into fights and accepted a variety of jobs as a young man to support his family. Kirby, like many of the early greats, also hailed from a Jewish family and began to hone his talents as a storyteller as a boy. Another experience Kirby shared with many of his fellow comics artists and writers was his perpetual struggle to make ends meet. So, too, did he join many other comics pioneers working in the early comics studios of the late 1930s as well as the animation industry. For a long time, Kirby saw his comics work as something other than a career. (Kirby in fact once told an interviewer that his real dream was to make movies.) Later, Kirby served his country in the Second World War and landed in Normandy a few months after D-Day. He was a patriotic citizen who also regarded his craft — comics — as intrinsically American. At the same time, when Kirby saw what he deemed to be political excesses, as he did during the McCarthy Hearings, he could use his art as a means to express criticism (perhaps most famously in the later issues of Fighting American published in the mid-1950s). For these reasons, and many more, the life and work of Jack Kirby encapsulates the development of the American comic book.
And so I'll be observing this holiday in my own special way this afternoon. There is a pleasant coffee shop on campus where one can enjoy a warm drink and a little peace and quiet. It is also a wonderful place to see and be seen. And that's the idea. I'll bring along one of my favorites – a dog-eared Marvel reprint collection that includes the Galactus Trilogy (Fantastic Four 48-50) – and curl up in a booth for an hour or so. What better way to express my love for comics and my respect for one of the true greats in the comics medium? And, if I'm lucky, someone will strike up a conversation, and hopefully we'll chat about comics, Kirby, and the world around us. Happy Read Comics in Public Day, everyone!
Brian M. Puaca is an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where he teaches a course on the history of comic books and American society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.