Jack Kirby: Superhero Creator of the Lower East Side
The Fantastic Four on “Yancy Street” quite similar to DELANCY Street near where the comic’s creator Jack Kirby grew up
Did you know that Captain America is from the Lower East Side? It’s true. So are Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men. All of these characters were co-created by Lower East Side native, Jack Kirby, one of the most important and prolific storytellers of the 20th century.
Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg to Galician Jewish immigrants on Essex Street. Most of Jake’s childhood was spent on Suffolk Street, where he lived an external life with his buddies filled with handball and street fights, and an internal life filled with the Old World stories of his elders, newspaper comic strips, movies, science fiction pulp magazines, and drawing. You can see how all of these elements converged in his later comic book work.
Jack found a respite from the tough street life in the early 1930’s when he joined the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a local organization at 290 E 3rd St that put boys in charge of their own destiny. Instead of just hanging out on the streets, the boys learned boxing and other sports, published newspapers (of which Jake was an editor and cartoonist), maintained a government, and more. The BBR is now the Boys & Girls Republic, part of the Henry Street Settlement.
Jake changed his name to Jack Kirby just around the time he and his partner Joe Simon had their first great success with Captain America in early 1941. The cover of Captain America Comics #1 was somewhat controversial, as it featured an image of the Stars and Stripes clad hero punching Adolf Hitler in the face several months before Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. But Kirby’s dynamic fight scenes and action sequences brought a unique storytelling language to the new cartoon long form of comic books.
Soon, Simon & Kirby created two other successful comics, Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos. These stories drew on their youths, with Kirby’s experiences on Suffolk Street and in the BBR at the forefront. Both teams consisted of boys from diverse backgrounds who bickered among themselves while guided by an adult mentor. The Newsboy Legion had Suicide Slum as its base of operations, no doubt the L.E.S. was one of its inspirations.
Kirby didn’t think fondly of his youth on the Lower East Side. He felt it was dehumanizing and tough. In a 1983 interview with Gary Groth, Kirby said “I hated the place because I… Well, it was the atmosphere itself. It was the way people behaved. I got sick of chasing people all over rooftops and having them chase me over rooftops. I knew that there was something better.”
He never wanted to visit the LES after he’d left, but was probably inspired by the mentorship of Harry Slonaker at the BBR to be a mentor to many young artists and comic book fans. He and his wife Roz (nee Goldstein), maintained an open door policy, especially in the latter half of his life in Thousand Oaks, California. Fans were welcome to call and come by almost any time. Kirby was also instrumental in making key suggestions to the fans who created the convention that we now know as the San Diego Comic-Con, the largest pop culture gathering in the world.
But, it’s Kirby’s work for Marvel Comics’ editor-scriptor Stan Lee that stands tall to this day. Before they were billion dollar movies and pop culture sensations, Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the Avengers were all comic books that came from Jack Kirby’s drawing table. The character The Thing in the Fantastic Four even hailed from a neighborhood known as Yancy Street, and was comically bedeviled by a never-seen-on-the-page “Yancy Street Gang.” These larger than life characters were humanized with personal failings and romantic problems even as they fought off otherworldly menaces like monsters, aliens, and demons. Without Jack’s background on the Lower East Side, the dreams wouldn’t have been as big, the fights wouldn’t have been as engaging, the humanity wouldn’t have been as touching.
Jack Kirby died in 1994, leaving behind a legacy of work unmatched in popular culture. It’s possible that no single artist of the 20th century has had a more significant impact on entertainment than Jack Kirby, with characters that he created or co-created currently appearing in blockbuster movies, television shows, video games, and, of course, comics still published every month by Marvel and DC. All of this because he used his pencil and imagination to draw his way out of a rough neighborhood on the Lower East Side.