Monday, August 28, 2017

Kirby at 100 - a Fan's View

   It's been great to see so many tributes to artist / writer / comics creator Jack Kirby, on his 100th birthday.

   Rightly hailed the King of Comics (a title bestowed by the man who became the ultimate source for comics creator nicknames, Stan Lee), Kirby spent decades charting a new course for the industry, often working in complete (or near-complete) anonymity.

   I probably first encountered his work in the early '60s in one of those classic Marvel monster magazines, like Strange Tales or Tales of Suspense or Tales to Astonish, where he created special effect nightmares like Fin Fang Foom and Groot and Goom and dozens of others.

   And I have to admit, when I first ran into it, I wasn't crazy about his art. (Hey, I was a kid - what did I know?)

   I grew up on DC's slickest artists - Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson. Kirby's work seemed, well, crude by comparison.

   Then I encountered the Fantastic Four.

   I'm not sure which issue was the first, but one that really stands out in my memory is this encounter with Doctor Doom. After a back-and-forth battle, Doom traps the team in a room that features a special trap - the floor starts to open up a portal into outer space! It was a wild concept and downright terrifying to my young self - I was absolutely hooked!

   That was the point when I started moving away from DC and into Marvel's loving embrace. The stories were terrific, with wild action sequences, lots of heart, heroic stunts and characters who felt like real people.

   And I found that I was really starting to enjoy the art, too! It was dynamic, powerful and bristled with imagination and genius.

   It slowly dawned on me that the best comics - the ones I read over and over - were almost always the ones created by Stan and Jack. They managed an amazing balance between heart and humor and action.

   I don't pretend to know who did what on the comics they created - I wasn't there, and neither were you (unless you're Stan Lee). All I know is, they hit gold when they worked together. Maybe it was the freedom Kirby had to craft the stories to his liking, maybe it was Lee's wordcraft or humor or heartfelt touch that made the difference. Whatever it was, it worked (and how)!

   The natural evolution was to add another team of heroes to Marvel's lineup - so I grabbed the first issue of The Avengers I saw, issue #3, which featured a team-up of the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk taking on Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man and the Wasp!

   It was an amazing action romp, and I did my best to never miss another issue.

   The same team was also responsible for the solo adventures of the Mighty Thor, and each story seemed to get bigger from month to month, with wild concepts and cosmic menaces, from galactic conquerors to living planets and world-eaters.

   For almost a decade, all was well as Lee and Kirby continued to crank out stunning stories, amazing annuals - never missing deadlines, always entertaining.

   And then, shockingly, it ended.

   Comic artists had been known to change companies from time to time, but it was pretty rare. Infantino and Anderson worked at DC for decades, but Gil Kane did do work for Marvel and DC. And of course John Romita, John Buscema, Gene Colan and Don Heck (to name just a few) had all done work elsewhere - but I didn't know anything about that. I just thought Kirby would always be at Marvel.

   But as the '60s ended, Kirby took his creative genius and moved over to DC, where he created a brand new universe based around the New Gods. And once again, I have to admit that, at first, I wasn't crazy about it.

     Some of it was the art. Vince Colletta's inks, which worked well on the fantasy-based Thor, didn't seem a good match on the science fiction-based world of New Genesis. Mike Royer, who took over shortly after, didn't seem like an improvement - the pencils seemed more crude than before, though still powerful.

   I finally realized that this was raw Kirby art and I finally warmed to it. (Hey, I was a stupid teen - what did I know?)

   I still struggled with the dialogue. The stories had the old creative spark, but the dialogue was often clumsy - at least as compared to the comics written by Stan. Some of it was ingenious, but most of it was rough around the edges.

   It was obvious Kirby was playing on a big stage here, creating new characters and villains at a dizzying speed - Orion, Darkseid, the Forever People, the Infinity Man, Lightray, Mister Miracle, Big Barda - the list goes on and on.

   It was successful in that it brought me back to DC in a big way. I still mostly bought Marvel, but I was more likely to give DC's books a try from that point on.

   Sadly, either the sales didn't meet expectations or DC bungled the promotion - or perhaps the books were just a few years ahead of their time - but they didn't last and were canceled after a short run.

   Kirby kept creating new books, but it always felt like he was afraid to crank his creativity too high, so we got more mainstream efforts like Kamandi and the Demon - fun books, but Jack could do better.

   Just as surprisingly, after a few more years, Jack left DC and returned to Marvel, but not to work with Stan again (other than the excellent Silver Surfer graphic novel). Instead, Jack continued to write his own comics, and even though he was handling Captain America, all his comics avoided the rest of the Marvel characters - so he was off in his own corner with The Eternals and the Black Panther.

   Of course, I bought it all - even Jack's lesser efforts were well worth the price of admission.

   Eventually, he left again. He did work in animation, and when the so-called Independent market struggled to its feet, he was there with new and daring creations like Captain Victory and Silver Star.

   Eventually age took its toll and Jack left us in 1994. But thankfully, he lives on through the reprints of his amazing body of work, and in the work created by the artists and writers he inspired.

   And now, incredibly, his work can be seen on the big screen, influencing both the Marvel and DC cinematic worlds.

   I often wonder if, back in the early '60s when he was cranking out 100 pages of art and story every month for modest wages, reaching an audience of mostly very young readers, could even someone with Kirby's amazing imagination have pictured a time when fans around the world would anxiously await the next adventure? Could he have imagined that the franchises would be worth billions of dollars?

   Happily, he's now, finally getting the recognition he's long deserved. Tributes are raining in, his family has benefited from a (by all indications) generous endowment from Disney, he was recently named a Disney Legend, and the films and comics credit creations like The Avengers and Thor to Stan and Jack - and Captain America to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

   One can only hope that these things bring a smile to Jack in the afterlife, as he sits down to his heavenly drawing board to create new and exciting adventures for his ever-growing hordes of fans.

   Sorry I ever doubted you, Jack. What can I say?

   How about: Hail to the King!



Billy Hogan said...

What a nice tribute. My earliest exposure to Jack Kirby's art came from JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY 116 & 117. 116 was the TRIAL OF THE GODS story, where Thor and Loki went to an island where the gods tested themselves against the crazy environment on the island. Of course Loki cheated, thanks to some enchanted stones, and 117 was the story of Odin sending Thor to find them - in Vietnam. Around the same time I was first exposed to the Fantastic Four issues 39 and 41. 39 co-starred Daredevil and Dr. Doom was the villain. 41 was the issue where The Thing left the FF and was brainwashed by the Frightful Four, when Medusa was a member. Ever since the FF have been my favorite Marvel creation, with Spider-Man a close second.

Kevin Findley said...

I think people need a combination of child-like wonder and an adult-level appreciation of art to really understand and love Kirby. That's why so many of us look at him as old-fashioned in our teen years.

Fortunately, we do grow up.

El Vox said...

Good remembrance Chuck. I don't remember the first Kirby book I bought, but it had to have been the Fantastic Four. I remember reading how they came to be by going into space and changing by the rays, but I don't have the first book anymore if indeed I ever had it. I don't know if I read that in some recap later or where now. But I do still have some of the earlier comics like #19 with Rama-Tut, and #22 with the Mole Man. They are in tatters destroyed by childhood, but still amazingly readable.

I wasn't that focused as a youngster. I'd just buy whatever cover looked appealing, and there were a lot of those. I wish I had been more centered though, but I had a lack of funds. However, when I did have a little spending money I wish I had bought more comics.

You wondered if Kirby ever imagined his work would create such an empire as today, and he probably did. Mark Evanier wrote a little about that recently. It just needed the right treatment. Some of the early movies like Thor, Spider-Man, or Captain America didn't get that. I think some of those were made-for-TV or straight to VHS. I think he would have been amazed and proud of how popular they turned out today though.

Arlen Schumer has did a recent video on the career of Kirby and I'll post the link, as it has some other Jack Kirby discussion as well by Schumer. He's really great and has a treasure trove of knowledge on the subject and other comic creators. He had one on Joe Kubert too that's worth seeking out.

Kyle said...

Nice article Chuck, and great comments Billy and Kevin... I came into comics a little bit later than you folks I take it. My first actual memories of Kirby is the "What about Jack?" ads in the back of Eclipse Comics I think it was... probably mid-80's? I had no idea of who he was... I think my first comic introduction to him was picking up Captain Victory from the back issue bins. Man that really blew me away!