Lee, Kirby and the Cosmic Imagination

Between the end of the 1950s and 1970, a creative explosion took place in comics. As has been previously discussed, Stan Lee, becoming frustrated in his career as a comic book editor, decided to write stories the way he had always wanted to write them. At around the same time, legendary artist Jack Kirby arrived back at Marvel Comics. Kirby was known for being prolific, partly because of the poor pay rates for artists at that time: he would often spend 12 to 14 hours a day at his drawing table at home, producing eight to twelve pages of artwork, drawing all genres, from romance to war to Western to crime and especially in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, appearing in titles like Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense. This was in addition to large amounts of freelance work for others.

But it was at Marvel that the creative forces met with huge success. Collaborating with writer and editor-in-chief Lee, Kirby produced The Fantastic Four #1, released in November 1961, a series which revolutionised the entire industry with Lee’s relatively life-like characters and banter coupled with Kirby’s cosmic imagination, which captured the youth culture of the 1960s.

Artist Gil Kane, speaking at a forum on July 6, 1985 recalled:

Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel's fortunes from the time he rejoined the company ... It wasn't merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but ... Jack's point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field… Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation.

Hugely successful Lee/Kirby collaborations and character creations included the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, Doctor Doom, Uatu the Watcher, Magneto, the Inhumans and the Black Panther, comics' first known black superhero, and many others - but perhaps the height of a particular kind of imagination was reached with Thor, especially between issues 158 and 162. Lee and Kirby had introduced the cosmic being Galactus to the world through issues 48 to 51 of The Fantastic Four, and comics historian Les Daniels noted in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics that ‘[t]he mystical and metaphysical elements that took over the saga were perfectly suited to the tastes of young readers in the 1960s’. Perhaps when Lee discovered that the story was a favourite on college campuses, he was inspired to re-introduce the planet-consuming threat in Thor.