Jack Kirby in Germany
Homage to Kirby by Hendrik Dorgathen
Hendrik Dorgathen's homage to Kirby's Machine Man [1]
© Hendrik Dorgathen

Some time ago I watched the movie Crimson Tide. It tells the story of a US submarine on the way to Russia to prevent WW3. Tension on board boils so high that two junior officers cross swords because one asserts while the othethat "the Silver Surfer by Jack Kirby is the only true Silver Surfer", dares to say that "the Silver Surfer by Mibes (sic!) is actually better." The quarrel is commented by the sub's second-in-command with the words that "anybody who reads comics ...(long pause)...knows that the Silver Surfer by Jack Kirby is the only true Silver Surfer".

 I felt somewhat silly because I was the only one who laughed about the hilariously disfigured pronunciation of "Moebius". It was after all the German mathematician August Ferdinand Moebius whose name French Artist Jean Giraud adopted as pen-name. And then I noticed the blank faces around me as not even the reference to Jack Kirby had struck a chord with the audience.

The anecdote pretty much sums up the general importance of Jack Kirby in Germany: Outside the world of comic fandom pretty much non-existent, to say the least. Superheroes have always been of marginal interest on the German comic market. While the Micky Maus magazine (the German equivalent of Walt Disney's Comics And Stories) sells almost a million copies each week, the German edition of X-Men had to fold its wings due to poor sales. And there are absolutely no superheroes originally created in Germany.

Accordingly many of Jack Kirby`s works have never found their way to our neck of the woods. Of course we had editions of the Fantastic Four, of the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk and most of his other Marvel works, but few of his earlier works and simply none of his later DC-series - no Fourth World, no Demon, no Kamandi. Surprisingly Captain Victory has been published in Album format and Silver Star in digest format soon after their distribution in America, and both had a "created by Jack Kirby"-label on the cover.

But let us start at the beginning: In 1966 the Schweizer Bildschriftenverlag (BSV) began publishing Marvel titles in the weekly series Hit Comics, which featured a rotating cast of Marvel characters. It was printed in b/w with the typically German "pedagogical" typeset lettering (done with a simple typewriter as the punched out full stops prove).

In 1974 the Williams Verlag took over and published Marvels in color with a decent handlettering and a quite successful attempt to duplicate the boastful Stan Lee hype. Unfortunately they had to close their business in 1978 due to financial problems.

Since then Marvel comics (with some Kirby in between) have been published by the Condor Verlag mainly in digest format and again with typeset lettering (but today presumably because it is much cheaper to produce).

Nevertheless even Jack's most famous creations are relatively unknown to the general public. The mention of the Incredible Hulk might at best earn you a comment on Lou Ferrignos acting abilities in the TV-series. Thor is at least known from Northern mythology and from the week-day Donnerstag (engl. Thursday) as Thor is an alias of Donar (and the English thunder in German is Donner). The Fantastic Four might remind somebody of the popular music group Die Fantastischen Vier, who probably though of the Beatles - the Fab Four - when they chose the name. And does it really surprise anybody that Captain America did never gain much popularity in Germany? So when cartoonist Walter Moers rendered the Sentinel of Liberty, he could only have hoped for die-hard comic fans to appreciate the joke.

But there is always an exception to the rule and so there is one of Kirby's creations that gained a wider popularity in Europe than in America, namely the former herald of Galactus - the Silver Surfer (sometimes called Der Silberstürmer). Definitely NOT due to the fact that surfing is very popular on our side of the big drink (it surely isn't, as waves or are mostly just too small) but to the more melancholic and fatalistic European outlook on life and maybe our affinity for tragic love stories.

Captain America, ridiculed by Walter Moers
"Damn! Captain America and Captain Liechtenstein!"
Who needs Bucky Barnes? Cap's new sidekick strikes fear into the hearts of criminals, thanks to Cartoonist Walter Moers [4].    © Walter Moers, Eichborn Publ.

Nevertheless the King left his marks even on the German comic market as many of today's comic pros found their way to the two-dimensional world through the works of Jack Kirby. One who holds Kirby's graphic abilities in high regards is the illustrator and comic book artist HENDRIK DORGATHEN, whose homage to Jack Kirby's Machine Man graced the official posters of the 5th International Comic Salon Erlangen, the biggest German comic convention, in 1992.

Original Kirby art and prints receive premium prices and I remember the signed edition Déesse-print (see TJKC 4 p. 4) going for DM 900.00 ($ 650.00) on a convention. And sometimes you stumble upon a swiped Kirby drawing on posters advertising a band's concert - especially his pre-Marvel monsters seem to be very well suited for this purpose.

To put it in a nutshell: Regarding the appreciation of Jack Kirby's works Germany is still deepest province. We might at least take some pride in the fact that German director Fritz Lang through his masterpiece Metropolis was an early important influence on the young Kirby. A very cinematic approach to comics and his breathtaking futuristic cityscapes have after all become Kirby's trademarks.

So how did this reader happen to get a true follower of the King? When I was in elementary school I placed my greedy little eyes on some back-issues of Die Ruhmreichen Rächer (The Avengers) and Der Mächtige Thor, which a local second-hand bookseller offered in his display. But I did not dare to buy any because I thought they were for adults (!) - They looked so mature, important and serious. In my early teens I finally managed to get hold of some issues and liked them very much, but I had to read them in digest size and out of sequence so their full impact was lost on me. After some time of swallowing up every comic within reach I gave up comics for several years and tried to grow up. And back into my life entered Jack Kirby: In a bookshop I discovered a copy of New Gods #6 (the Baxter reprint). I do not know how the issue had gotten there, as the store had never carried original US comics before and did not ever after. Presumably it had been planted there by divine providence. Needless to say that I was blown away and hooked for life. The New Gods had all I had ever looked for in comics: The larger-than-life characters, the cosmic conflicts and the heroic grandeur. Now - several years and some thousand comics later - I can truthfully testify: "Without Jack Kirby I wouldn't be who I am now! And though we never met he will always have a special place in my heart."

Other Voices:

FUCHS and REITBERGER in Comics - Anatomie eines Massenmediums (1973): "Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did so well in updating Thor and the Tales of Asgard that American Marvel readers are much more familiar with terms like Ragnarok, Yggdrasil and Bifrost than the actual descendants of the old Teutons."

DRECHSEL, FUNHOFF and HOFFMANN in Massenzeichenware: Die gesellschaftliche und ideologische Funktion der Comics (1975): "The Fantastic Four and other series are innovative because of the perfection Marvel's comic-technicians (sic!) employ to rejuvenate the supermotif and to intensify the contact with the readers."

RAINER CLODIUS in Comixene #17 (1978): "Thus we see that in spite of their high artistic quality Kirby's comics could never break free from the conditions of their production."

Featured Artists:

HENDRIK DORGATHEN is an illustrator and comic artist. He was awarded the Max-und-Moritz-Preis as "Best German Comic Artist" in 1994.

[1] Machine Man is available as a signed & limited four-color print, 25" x 35", DM 80.00 ($ 56.00)

[2] Space Dog, Rowohlt Publ. 1993, HC, 64p., ISBN 3-498-01295-9, DM 42.00 ($ 30.00). Without any words it tells the adventures of a dog in space.

WALTER MOERS is a cartoonist and author of children's books. He was awarded the Max-und-Moritz-Preis in 1993. His very popular Little Asshole-series takes humor far beyond the boundaries of good taste - not for the mild-mannered but genuinely funny.

[3] Little Asshole (engl. ed.), Eichborn Publ. 1991, HC, ISBN 3-8218-2998-2

[4] Der Alte Sack, Ein Kleines Arschloch und andere Höhepunkte des Kapitalismus, Eichborn Publ. 1993, HC, 56 p., ISBN 3-8218-2987-7

All items are highly recommended.

Silver Surfer by Kirby
HIT Comics 81 from 1969 featured Kirby's Fantastic Four at their best.
© Marvel, Bildschriftenverlag GmbH

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© Cord Wiljes, last updated 06/07/97