The largest audience the late Jack Kirby could reach in the 1960s — back when he and Stan Lee created the comic book superhero the Black Panther — was at most 200,000 through circulation.
When the Marvel Studios film starring Chadwick Boseman opens this weekend, it will be seen by millions around the world.
Excitement and anticipation for the Ryan Coogler picture are at a boiling point. The film is projected to open to $100 million-$150 million and could become the biggest launch ever for a Marvel Cinematic Universe hero’s first standalone movie. Black Panther is already being heralded by those who have seen it as a cultural movement.
Kirby, who died in 1994, would be overcome with joy, and likely some shock, with how beloved his one-time risky character has become, his family tells Heat Vision.
“Fifty years ago, he could have never envisioned the statement that this movie is making and the way it is being embraced by everybody,” Kirby’s son, Neal, says of the legendary artist. “In terms of a message, that was always his intention, but he could have never envisioned reaching this size of an audience.”
Created in 1966 by Lee and Kirby, Black Panther was revolutionary as the first African superhero in mainstream comics. Considered by Kirby as one of his most important creations for its message, T’Challa (Black Panther) was a black man with brawn, brains, wealth and advanced technologies introduced in the middle of the civil rights movement.
Neal Kirby, a high school senior when Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four No. 52 in summer 1966, remembers his father talking to him about introducing the character.
“I recall during the winter or early spring he asked me what I would think of a black superhero in the comics. Of course he was very much for it, as we all were at the time,” Neal Kirby says. “My father was a very social liberal person. He would have been the Bernie Sanders of his day. He very much believed in social justice and equality, so he honestly thought it was time. Why shouldn’t African Americans have their own superhero?”
Kirby’s son says he believes his father purposely designed the character to rival white superheros.
“You had a character like Black Panther that not only has all the physical powers and a super suit, but he is certainly the intellectual equal to Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) of the Fantastic Four,” Neal Kirby says.
But such a character at that time was risky both creatively and for life and limb. However, the senior Kirby did not care, his son says. The comic book legend dealt with adversity before over another character, Captain America, who was portrayed as punching Adolph Hitler in the face in his 1941 first issue.
“I remember at one time he received a letter or something happened [over Black Panther] and he was a little concerned,” Neal Kirby says. “It kind of went back to his day when he and Joe Simon created Capitan America and they were receiving death treats from the American Nazi party in New York. And, as the story goes, Mayor [Fiorello H.] La Guardia put a police car outside their studio. So there was a little concern there (again). But it was a passing thing. I don’t think he ever expected blow back, like the KKK coming after him or anything like that.”
More than anything, the Kirby family is happy the elder Kirby is finally getting his due for creating numerous popular Marvel Characters with Lee. Both Lee and Kirby created their popular characters as work for hire, which meant Marvel retained the rights. But many fans have long felt Kirby received the short end of the stick compared to Lee, who for decades was the sole face of the brand. Kirby ultimately left for rival DC in 1970.
“It is not a big secret. My father was always very frustrated that recognition wasn’t there,” Neal says. “And that’s just natural for anyone. It was a difficult situation for years and years.”
Kirby’s children, Neal and three daughters, took Marvel to court over copyright claims on certain characters. The case was later settled. Neal Kirby says the family has a much better relationship with Marvel these days and they have been invited to all the Marvel film premieres.
“He would have just been thrilled regardless whether he saw his name up there or not,” Neal Kirby says of his father’s pride for his creations being turned into huge blockbusters. “To their credit, Marvel has been very good about [properly crediting Jack Kirby]. We have had a very good relationship with them for the past couple of years.”
The family is doing its part in carrying on Jack Kirby’s legacy and memory, too.
Neal Kirby’s, daughter, Jillian, spearheaded the Kirby 4 Heroes charity campaign and routinely shares stories about her grandfather on social media.
Although she never met him, Jillian Kirby says she is immensely proud of her grandfather’s work and his legacy.
“I do know that if he were alive today, my grandfather would be beaming, but not because of just seeing his creation on the screen, but for the message of pride, self-respect, dignity, hope and optimism it bears,” Jillian Kirby told Heat Vision. “A black superhero with both amazing mental as well as physical powers, from a technologically advanced society in Africa, sends as strong a message now as it did over fifty years ago. Today, my grandfather’s message will reach tens of millions of people of all races and nationalities, a concept my grandfather could never have conceived of.”
Kirby was posthumously named a Disney Legend with Lee for their co-creations last summer. During his speech, Lee said of his partner after a tribute video, “I have never been known as a man of few words, but I have to say, I was so thrilled to see that testimonial to Jack Kirby. So well deserved.”