August 28, 2017 marks what would have been Jack Kirby's one-hundredth birthday. Surely the most important figure in American comics, Kirby passed away on February 6th, 1994, leaving behind massive and enduring body of work featuring a list of creations rivaling that of any other artist in the medium's history except, perhaps, The God of Manga, Osamu Tezuka.
This coming Saturday, August 26, All Star Comics is holding its Kirby 100 Event to celebrate.
Kirby's career is impossible to summarise and what follows here by me is likely one of the more meagre written tributes he will receive on his centennial. For a terrific, thorough read on Jack Kirby's life and work, Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics (newly repackaged and republished, I believe) comes with the highest possible recommendation.
Hail to The King.
COMICS OF THE WEEK : A SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY OF JACK KIRBY
What come to mind when you think of Jack Kirby?
For me, it's fists the size of cinder blocks impossibly bursting free from 2D panel space, the gaping mouths of everymen pedestrians shocked at the superheroic struggles they witness unfolding on their streets, the distinctively blocky tech, the almost Escher-on-LSD architecture, the insane splash page photo collages. The even more insane double page spreads, screaming bad guy faces with tombstone teeth that fill boxy panels in EXTREME extreme close-up, and last but absolutely not least, one of comics' most distinctive visual elements, the ubiquitous Kirby Krackle:
If you don't understand the Jack Kirby appeal outside of his long-lived creations, I do understand. Most Kirby acolytes do. You're not alone, all you need to do is scroll down for this week's video and you'll find that out within the first few minutes of viewing. My own experience first seeing Kirby's work was as a six year old (I swear to God I remember this) and was...unpleasant. It was an issue of Machine Man, not exactly Prime Kirby, sure, but not the worst of his output. Living in England, I was a child of The Beano, I was unprepared for full on Kirby dynamics. Eventually returning to Australia, I became a child of Byrne, of Cockrum, of Paul Smith and Romita Jr., those artists who took Kirby's dynamism and added a coat of sleekness to it. I bypassed The King completely.
I came to Kirby late and in all honesty, his work seemed hopelessly dated and melodramatic and expositional. The blockiness of his figures and rigid adherence to the panel grid were archaic to me even as a teen. It took me some time to figure out (a chance encounter with a second hand copy of The Eternals Annual #1) that, artistically at least, I had it all completely backward and that there was nobody who could cram more action into a 24 page illustrated pamphlet than Jack Kirby and that everybody else stole from him in one way or another. He was the visual bedrock of artists I loved back then and you and I probably love now. He was and still is the visual grammar of American comics in many ways, more so than even Will Eisner, or Steve Ditko, contemporaries similarly revered. He was an inexhaustible engine of creativity, always cranking out project after project, with a blue-collar work ethic and an energy that the very strict panel borders he employed could not contain. To this day, there's nothing quite like a Kirby double-page spread, even on titles that seem hastily produced, cranked out under probably crushing deadline pressure. Other artists may top Kirby for detail and finesse, but for sheer power, there's no one like him - his figures just explode off the page. The closest I can get to a rival is Philippe Druillet, but Druillet himself is obviously Kirby inspired.
Here's a sampling of Kirby unleashed:
The earliest of Kirby's two main writing collaborators was Joe Simon. Together, the duo created not just a slew of genre comics (many of which are available now in handsome oversized hardcovers from Titan Books), but also the patriotic hero we know as Captain America. Horror, SF, Westerns, there was nothing Kirby could not draw and Simon put his artist's prodigious talents to use. What may come as a surprise to some, however, is that the pair also created the romance comic. Debuting in 1947 was Young Romance, a comic that very quickly shifted millions of copies within its first few issues. Those who find the theatrics of the Lee-Kirby Marvel books too much to bear, or can't be bothered unpacking the densely cosmic conceits of much of Kirby's 1970s solo work should really consider picking up Fantagraphics' two lovingly restored Young Romance collections. Here is not just an artistically softer Kirby, the dimension-popping blockiness of his famed superhero style still decades away, but these torrid little post-war romance stories frequently throw a great deal of class discourse in with their heartbreakers, occasional noirish twists and soapy melodramatics ("David must never know about my background...I-I can't risk losing his love because of our difference in social positions..." --From "Shame," 1948).
Young Romance's title pages are also frequently terrific, pulpy affairs, attractively designed.
The Marvel cinematic universe, the cash cow of that brand, is built on Kirby's brains, his dynamic style and his incredible work ethic. Stan Lee, Marvel's other father, may remain the human face of the company to this very day and while his influence and creativity can not and should not be discounted, it's Kirby who did the heavy creative lifting during the foundational construction of Marvel Comics. Together, the pair created just about every single A-list character the company has (and, yes, this very likely also includes Spider-Man).
For those unsure of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby working dynamic, refer to the below, taken from
Stan would often would just phone in a suggestion and Jack would do the rest, delivering the pages for dialog to be added. For example, Stan said something like "this month have the Fantastic Four fight God" and Jack then created the Galactus saga, perhaps the greatest comic story ever. Famously, when Stan first saw the Silver Surfer he asked "who's this guy?"
"Very often," Lee has said, "I didn't know what the hell [Kirby] was going to give me. I’d get some pages of artwork, and I wrote the copy and turned it into whatever story I wanted it to be ... It was like doing a crossword puzzle. I would try to figure out what the illustrations meant and then I would put in the dialog and captions.”
Kirby would even add blue pencil notes for dialog. Stan would then add the actual dialog (which often contradicted what Jack wanted, but Jack seldom had time to read the finished comic).
It's worth noting here that the Galactus Saga mentioned above ran from Fantastic Four #48-#50 (1966) and is regarded as a high point of Marvel Comics' first decade. Many still consider it one of the finest comics stories ever made. There's little point here in covering the Lee-Kirby era further, as the team's resume simply speaks for itself, with their 104 issue Fantastic Four run remaining one of comics greatest ever collaborative runs.
As important as the early Marvel work is, for my money it's '70s Kirby, bound and determined to leverage as much creative control from his corporate contracts at possible, that's the most resonant and striking. As chiefly inked by Mike Royer, an artist who sought to enhance Kirby's pencils rather than input his own style over the top, such as Joe Sinnott during the FF days, or even cut corners, inking over pencilled detail, such as Vince Colletta, Kirby's real visual power appears unfettered, especially considering the comics' factory-style construction necessitated by a ridiculous schedule and deadline crunch of four monthly books for DC Comics. It's a shame Royer couldn't ink everything The King did during this period, but Kirby's pace was simply too much for him to keep up with.
Frustrated with a lack of recognition and compensation at Marvel, Kirby defected to DC, that other pillar of Western comics culture, in 1970. It was a place he had not drawn for since working on books like Challengers of the Unknown, Manhunter and Boy Commandos in his pre-Marvel days. Ensconced at DC once more, he began once again pumping out the content.
DC, like Marvel also owe some never-enduring gratitude to Kirby for the characters he created for them. Kirby may have largely been left to chisel out his own corners of the company's multiverse, suffering the ignominy of having other artists redraw the face of his Superman (it was too off the Curt Swan model) in the process, but he was largely in charge of his output and in Darkseid, he created the company's most enduring cosmic villain. From the moment Darkseid's Parademons appeared in DC's dodgy 2016 cinematic blockbuster, Batman v Superman, it was clear that Kirby's centrepiece DC villain was slated for a cinematic appearance of his own.
Darkseid is, of course, the notorious evil force at the heart of Kirby's grand DC epic The Fourth World Saga. From 1970-1973, The Fourth World Saga played out weekly over the course of four books, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle, Kirby dialled up the psychedelia and his admittedly overwrought dialogue and hurled concept after concept at his readers every week as the forces of New Genesis battled Darkseid, who seeks to master the Anti-Life equation, and his minions on Apokolips, with the conflict spilling over to Earth. Kirby, ever the veteran Nazi-fighter peppered numerous fascistic warnings into the books that ring especially true today, such as in The Forever People #3, which introduced the character of the evil Glorious Godfrey. "In a troubled, fearful world he faces his audience with his truth and fire," Kirby's opening narration tells us, as Godfrey proclaims Darkseid's apocalyptic glory to hypnotised masses, minions hands out "Justifier Helmets" the brainwashed will wear.
The Fourth World Saga failed at the time, which is perhaps unsurprising given how staggeringly odd it is. Kirby was eventually left to tack an epilogue onto his creation in 1985s graphic novel, "The Hunger Dogs." Failure at publication time, maybe, but The Fourth World saga's stature as true cosmic classic has only grown over the years, and continues to do so, now recognised as an unmissable, influential epic from the master creator. Following The Fourth World Saga, more grand DC "failures" followed: Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth (perhaps the most accessible book Kirby produced during the period), OMAC, The Demon, a stint on WWII book, The Losers, magazines In The Days of The Mob and the bafflingly weird Spirit World, and much more. Bold, varied books, all.
A return to Marvel followed the expiration of Kirby's DC contract, where runs on books like Captain America and Black Panther brought pages crackling with energy and startling new directions for the characters - Kirby kicked off his Black Panther run with a story about a brass frog that happened to be a time machine. Devil Dinosaur and The Eternals also spilled out of his head, along with a rippingly weird comics take on 2001: A Space Odyssey (tragically out of print). But all failed and failed again as his storytelling methods began to look antiquated and his audience diminished. How funny that now seems now in 2017, in the midst of a Kirby revival. He would spend some time working in animation, bouncing back into comics from time to time as the years passed, creating such indie books as Captain Victory, Destroyer Duck, Silver Star and more, with others continuing on with his creator owned concepts after his passing.
Jack Kirby was a literal fighter of Nazis. He was a key figure in the battle for creator rights in comics, a man with a staggering imagination and a profoundly individualistic artistic voice. He was an illustrator of profound importance to the 20th Century whose work was frequently and tragically shredded or thrown away by his employer. His characters endure. In fact, 2017's most buzzed about superhero title is The Fourth World Saga's Mister Miracle, brought back from publishing limbo by writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads. DC is even creating a special line of Kirby Centennial one-shots, featuring some of the King's best-loved DC creations. For their part, Marvel is releasing a range of Kirby "True Believer" comics, reprinting some solid gold hits Kirby produced for the House of Ideas, and with the Legacy initiative hoping to mine some much-missed Marvel nostalgia, Kirby's presence over both companies would seem to hover over them both more prominently than in quite some time.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : THE JACK KIRBY MUSEUM
Prepare to lose some time. From essays, to scans of original pencil art, to photos of the man's life and times, The Jack Kirby Museum is simply a click away. It's a wonderful resource for the Kirby novice and devotee alike.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK :
JACK KIRBY: STORYTELLERFULL DOCUMENTARY
Some greater focus on the DC days is all that’s really missing from this excellent hour-long Kirby documentary. There's so much to love about this, but the main take away is, perhaps, just how warm and loving the Kirby family were, welcoming in every strange fan and visitor to their home for extended periods of time, including a visit from members of a UFO cult wanting to whisk Jack away off and up to the stars. Thank God that never happened. Heaps of art, heaps of anecdotes from people who matter, this is perfect Kirby 100 viewing.
See you in two weeks. Love your comics.