‘Eternals’ adds another blockbuster to Jack Kirby’s Marvel-ous legacy

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) – Stan Lee became the face of Marvel Comics, and up to his death in 2018, an enthusiastic goodwill ambassador for the comic-book industry. But most of his signature heroes were birthed with artist Jack Kirby, who many have seen as an unsung hero in a creative explosion compared to another famous ’60s writing duo, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

With the release of the movie “Eternals,” actually one of Kirby’s less-heralded solo creations, and the impact of the writer-artist’s “New Gods” on DC’s cinematic universe, Kirby and his legacy might be receiving the attention and credit that he chafed about later in his career and that prompted his temporary departure from Marvel in the 1970s.

Working together, Lee and Kirby launched the landmark comic “Fantastic Four” 60 years ago, followed by the Avengers (and individual members Thor, the Hulk and Ant-Man/the Wasp), X-Men and more.

They also pioneered a unique collaborative style, known as the “Marvel method,” where Lee blocked out a broad outline, Kirby then illustrated the story with Lee subsequently added the words/dialogue.

The system enabled the pair to churn out pages at a dizzying clip each month (Kirby was famously speedy compared to most artists), while Lee separately teamed with Steve Ditko on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

Yet as Lee became a media darling, Kirby’s contribution was sometimes overlooked. Kirby also got into a contractual dispute with Marvel that prompted him to leave for DC, where he was promised creative freedom.

According to Mark Evanier, a writer and former Kirby assistant who wrote the biography “Kirby: King of Comics,” new ownership at Marvel presented Kirby with an onerous contract, believing that the artists who worked there were “interchangeable.”

“You can’t get your due from employers who don’t understand what you’ve given them,” Evanier told CNN, adding, “I don’t think he was ever in his lifetime fully appreciated.”

Kirby responded by delivering DC his “Fourth World” opus, an interlocking series of comics that introduced the villainous Darkseid and his planet Apokolips, which found its way into Zack Snyder’s “Justice League.”

Although widely admired later for the epic qualities, those comics didn’t sell particularly well at the time, and Kirby returned to Marvel. He created “Eternals” in 1976, about a race of immortals protecting the Earth, another title that didn’t generate blockbuster sales.

Lee’s fame grew when Marvel began its box-office assault with “Iron Man” in 2008, with the irrepressible Lee — a self-described “ham” and “creative giant” — appearing in cameos in the studio’s movies.

Kirby, whose work dated back to co-creating Captain America in 1941 (Marvel revived him in the ’60s), died in 1994 at age 76, before that infusion of interest in all things Marvel. But Kirby’s admirers have sought to preserve his memory, with Evanier hosting an annual panel celebrating him at Comic-Con in San Diego.

Kirby didn’t live to bask in the attention showered on Marvel during the 21st century, but according to Evanier, he saw the cinematic possibilities for comics that were largely untapped or poorly adapted during his life.

“He said this would happen. He said, ‘Every one of these comic books I’m doing is a screenplay,'” Evanier recalled.

Evanier added that Kirby “wanted two things in life: He wanted credit for what he had done, and he wanted his family to be financially secure.”

Compensation to the Kirby family came in 2014, when Marvel — after being acquired by the Walt Disney Co. — ended years of litigation by settling a lawsuit brought by his estate over rights to the characters. Financial terms weren’t disclosed, but the agreement included co-creator credit for Kirby on multiple properties.

Evanier called that “a happy ending,” while noting that Kirby’s work has never been more popular, with both Marvel and DC publishing reprint collections of it.

As a solo work, “Eternals” might add another building block to recognition of Kirby’s legacy. Despite the acclaim showered on him by his comic-book contemporaries, Kirby fans have long felt the spotlight was too squarely trained on Lee in a way that shortchanged his role in building the industry.

“Your sense of justice kicks in at some point,” Evanier said. “If you’re reared reading comic books, you want to see heroism and truth prevail. It was not prevailing in this case.”

Marvel’s “Eternals” opens Nov. 5 in US theaters.

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