Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Century of Jack Kirby

You're going to see the names Jack Kirby and Jacob Kurtzberg a lot today.  Jack Kirby is the pen-name of the greatest comic artist and creator to grace this orb we call planet Earth.

Here, on the centennial of his birth (August 28th, 1917), it's possible to suggest that Jack Kirby may be one of the most important artistic and literary figures of the past 100 years.  The recognition came late, decades after his passing, and, still, his name is hardly a household word.  But the creations he unleashed upon popular culture from the 1940's to the 1990's would either be taken up directly by the public (at long last), becoming part of the parlance, or influence generations who could never produce that same spark of imagination, but built either directly or indirectly upon what he had done before.

There are Kirby bio sketches out there a-plenty (but no definitive monograph that I'm aware of), a magazine dedicated to the study and fan-splosion around his work, and Mark Evanier - who apprenticed under him - has become the living memory of his professional life while his grandchildren have taken up the cause of preserving the memory of the man.  Now there's a virtual museum (which deserves a physical location), and a charity it's worth considering giving to sometime.  And a slew of collections and books celebrating Kirby's influence and work.

Kirby was not first in when comics became a way for kids from the rougher neighborhoods of New York picked up a pencil or ink brush to start bringing in bread, but he was there really early.  He was a workman who put everything he had into the work, comic by comic, year by year, becoming better and better.  As they tell you in art-school, master the rules before you start breaking them - and that's what he did, finding his own unique style, his own way of creating action and drama, and eventually shattering what it meant to create a comics page.

Taking from mythology, from science-fiction, from films, from his colleagues and the bottomless well within, Kirby created whole universes, pockets within those universes, and held the lens to each character, bringing the internal life of gods, men and monsters to life.

I'm of the belief that understanding and engaging with Kirby is a gate you have to pass through in appreciating comics.  I'm aware that at first blush the art seems overwrought, the dialog maybe even tortured.  But I firmly believe that there's something in the gestalt of both Kirby's collaborative work and especially his work as both artist and scripter that has gone unparalleled in sheer imagination and vitality.  And that in another era, he would have spun his generations Beowulf or King Arthur or Gilgamesh  But instead he gave us a mythology on newsprint and one panel at a time.

Marvel Studios' films are the envy of everyone in entertainment, and feature a medley of Kirby's creations from Captain America to The Incredible Hulk to The Mighty Thor.  Coming to theaters soon, The Black Panther was one of his characters and mythologies.  He also co-created The Uncanny X-Men, the Fantastic Four and other Marvel properties beyond number.  And, depending what you want to believe, Kirby was also responsible for Spider-Man and maybe Iron Man, but didn't have time to draw *all* of Marvel's titles during that early 1960's explosion of new ideas.

Over at DC Comics, his influence included creation of The Guardian (a rough version of which appears on the CW's Supergirl), the Newsboy Legion, The Boy Commandos, and... most thrillingly and with breathtaking scope and imagination, the whole of The Fourth World characters and mythos, which sprung to life across four books running simultaneously starting in 1971.  While Darkseid and Co. aren't household names quite yet, we've got a Justice League movie coming in a few months that is using those characters as the Evil Empire invading Earth (which is kind of their bag, so, respect).

Kirby was a visual storyteller, enough so that he and Stan Lee created the Marvel-style of storytelling that was used for decades in-house.  He and Stan would plot a book, Jack would draw the comic and then Stan would return to drop in dialogue.

Of course he also created independent works in comics, maybe the most famous of which is Captain Victory.  But he also worked in animation at Ruby-Spears, where Thundarr the Barbarian just drips with Kirby-ness in every Krackle™.

While I casually understood that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were responsible for a lot of early Marvel, in college I came across some trades of Kirby's Fourth World work and that's when It all started to click for me.  Maybe if I'd been more of a Fantastic Four guy before then, it would have happened more quickly, but these cheaply printed, black and white on newsprint collections re-introduced me to characters I'd been aware of from appearances in Justice League and other books I'd read in a way that was...  well...  Kirby.

The thing about The Fourth World books at DC, his run on Captain America from a few years later and his eventual independent work, is that - without the polishing prose and dialog of Stan Lee and others, Kirby's vision for his comics went from amazing, dynamic art to the voice of more or less a single author.  No matter how much I may love other, individual takes on the New Gods (and if you've never read Morrison's JLA run, fix that), it's the mix of Kirby's off-kilter dialog with the spectacular visuals that makes it feel truly otherworldy.  Stan might have thought to imbue Thor with a sort of faux-Shakespearean dialect, but nothing compares to the constantly exclamatory world of The New Gods.

this is small talk in Kirby-town

I mean, he uses double-exclamation points.  This is a feature, not a bug.

I know I've referenced The Glory Boat before, but it's one of my single favorite things in comics (New Gods Vol. 1, No. 6).  But it contains one of the most guitar-solo-inducing moments in comics.  I get giddy just looking at this page.

From the crazy perspective (Kirby didn't always bother with all the rules for how you're supposed to manage perspective, making his drawings sometimes off-kilter and weird), to the undeniable portrayal of raw energy to the Kirby Krackle™ to Kirby's manic narration in the caption to whatever the hell is going on here with Lightray in particular... the cumulative effect was mindbending.

Kirby's mythology felt absolutely fully formed within a few issues the four-title Fourth World saga (New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People and - weirdly - Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen).  The rules of the worlds were simple but buyable.  The New Gods lived on New Genesis in their super-techno city "Supertown", and Apokolips, the twin planet, was an industrial planet-wide ghetto, the populace completely subservient to Darkseid, a god-emperor, and his court of scheming lieutenants.  As if Kirby's dynamic visualization of the planets and their occupants wasn't enough to get the mind primed, the lords of Apokolips and New Genesis had concluded a costly war by exchanging their sons, allowing each to raise the child of the other.

By the time we arrive on the scene, the war has spilled over to Earth, and the children are now men, taking their place in the war.

Orion, son of Darkseid, his his true self to live uneasily upon New Genesis as the grim defender who would do what needed to be done, and Scott Free, left by Darkseid to be raised in the pitiable Orphange of Granny Goodness, who became a master of escape, eventually breaking free from Apokolips to try and find a new life on Earth (as Mister Miracle, Super Escape Artist).

While I found myself enthralled with New Gods, and to a lesser extent, Forever People (with one foot in 1970's youth counter-culture, it's a fascinating time capsule), Mister Miracle was the title that, ironically, wouldn't let me go.

All this led to my first foray into collecting a specific comic for the sake of completionism, and by 2004, I had a complete run of all three Mister Miracle books that had appeared to date.  Plus a lot of other appearances.  Then I collected New Gods.  Then Enemy Ace, but that's another story.

If New Gods provided visceral excitement (and it does, in spades) with one foot in cosmic battle, Mister Miracle was the cheekier book about a more familiar home and hearth.  If Spider-Man titles were showing how to portray a certain kind of young romance, Mister Miracle was showing the kids a completely different flavor of romantic partner than the standard issue girlfriend in the form of Big Barda, a photon-rod toting Amazon with a fighting spirit forged in the firepits of Apokolips but who joined the side of the angels when she and Scott fall for each other.

It is literally impossible not to idealize Big Barda and Scott Free's romance.  No less a writer than Michael Chabon discussed Barda as her own character and how that, in itself, created an ideal in his essay "A Woman of Valor".

that's a romance, y'all...
Kirby would adapt 2001: A Space Odyssey into a series of really weird comics.  And that series is on my hit-list for eventual collecting.

Others love what he did with Kamandi, others, OMAC.

Back at Marvel he created a sub-layer to the rich Marvel U by inventing The Eternals, who will never show up in the movies, not outright, but they should.  They absolutely should.

With comics seen as pop-art and Kirby given carte blanche at DC, he started bringing collage to the artwork (he may have done this earlier, elsewhere, but this is where I'm most familiar).  Here's an example from Jimmy Olsen.

yeah, I know!  "Jimmy Olsen"!

Kirby finally came to a point where he gave up working for others and went to work for himself by the 1980's and 90's, and while his ideas were no less dynamic, the houses he'd built at Marvel and DC continued to dominate the market.  For a long, long time, there was no way for both the general public and comics readers to connect the dots and understand how much influence Kirby truly had.

Kirby had always been a work-for-hire joe, producing his work for DC and Marvel the same way everyone else did.  They owned the comics and characters, he got paid for handing in pages, no matter what he threw at the page, no matter how many new ideas.

Sadly, Jack died in 1994 at the age of 76.

His creations have lived on, and - maybe more than any other artist or creator - his reputation has surfaced and become part of American folklore.

With the confluence of the internet making this campfire story-sharing possible outside of early-days comic conventions, the rise of Marvel as a movie studio (meaning a lot more money at play and people invested), and the purchase of Marvel by Disney - both DC and Marvel have been much better about acknowledging the creators of their characters.  Sure, it's mostly to avoid lawsuits and bad PR (we'll talk Siegel and Shuster and WB some other day), but written recognition and financial compensation are a pretty good start.  Even if I think WB and Disney could kick a few million the direction of the Kirby Museum and get it established in Los Angeles.

There's a ton I've left out here.  The conspiracy theories about how Lucas ripped off Kirby (which I can buy at some level), Kirby's fight against Nazis at home and abroad, his romance with his wife, Roz.  Plenty more.  But I suspect we'll have lots of tributes to Jack here this week, and I don't want to double-up too much.  So I encourage y'all to check out those posts and articles.

I made a bit of light kidding about how, when I pass beyond this veil of tears, how I'd love nothing better than for this recent image imagined by Alex Ross to greet me.  But, no, seriously.

Here's to Jack Kirby, King of Comics.  May his name be known by every schoolkid.  And may his works and all he brought the world be remembered on his birthday.

And now some of the Kirby stuff and Kirby-inspired stuff from The Fortress.  Most of my Kirby comics are safely tucked away, but here's some of what we've pulled together.

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