Paying Tribute To Jack Kirby On His 99th Birthday
On August 28th, 1917 Jacob Kurtzburg, an American artist of Jewish descent, was brought kicking and screaming into the world – at least I assume he came in kicking and screaming. Jacob Kurtzburg may not be a name you immediately recognize, but I’m sure you’ve heard of Jack Kirby. There’s been so many great things written about Kirby over the years, so this isn’t going to be another piece focusing on retelling his life story – Wikipedia does a decent job of that already – instead, I wanted to explore what Jack Kirby means to somebody who I know is a big fan of the artist’s work.
So, I sat down with Graphic Policy’s own Elana Levin (aka Elanabrooklyn) and we had a bit of a chat about the man who’d be 99 today.
Have you always been a big fan of Jack Kirby?
Elana: When I was first getting into comics in junior high, I felt the art in a lot of the comics I was reading was a little bit hokey. I didn’t immediately connect with Kirby’s art, actually, it took me a little bit of time to appreciate it.
It’s funny you say that – it took me a long time to fully appreciate his art when I was first getting into comics. I honestly don’t know if I give it the full respect it deserves even now.
Elana: In high school I was mostly into the kitsch of Silver Age comics art, and only later I came to really realize Kirby’s artistry and visual innovations as a storyteller. I always knew intellectually that this was the guy who created the greatest number of lasting characters and concepts in comics, who had the greatest influence – I knew that. But just because somebody’s the biggest innovator it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the best. When I first got into comics, I knew he was one of the most important comics creators, but I didn’t have an aesthetic attachment to his art until later on. I saw the connections between modern art and pre-Colombian art and his Silver Age work and I made sense of it through those contexts. I realize that sounds a bit backwards. I came late to realizing that it was beautiful. I wish I could pinpoint when that came, to one particular book and say that’s what it was – honestly, I try and rack my brain and narrow it down, but I can’t.
Aye, sometimes you don’t know when you fall in love with something, but one day you wake up and it’s just there.
Elana: I have a strong connection to some of his classic Fantastic Four art and stories like “This Man, This Monster” (Fantastic Four #51), but I went from someone who really liked his stuff to becoming obsessed when a friend of mine told me I needed to check out The Fourth World – and that continues to be my favorite work by far. I don’t know what took me so long to see it, I think because I didn’t grow up reading DC, but I love psychedelic art. I love anything that visually or auditorily can be described as trippy, so Kirby’s early 70’s output was really made for me – it just took me awhile to find it, but when I did that really led to me becoming a huge Kirby fan.
It has been more than a decade since I last looked at any of Kirby’s early stuff, but when I did I don’t think it would have stuck with me the same way it probably would if I’d read it now.
Elana: I was so impressed that somebody who had been making comics since the dawn of the medium, who was an older man at that point in the 60’s and 70’s had made something that looked so contemporary and hip. You would’ve thought he was a hippy.
It’s tough, honestly, to do justice to the man’s legacy. Not only is he responsible for at least co-creating so many great comic book characters, he’s for also partly responsible an entire genre of comics – Romance (Graphic Policy’s chief, Brett, is partial to those comics). But there’s something else the man came up with that you may not immediately think of, but if you’ve been reading comics for any length of time you’ve probably seen.
Elana: He invented a way of displaying cosmic energy. Now you have to invent a visual symbol for cosmic energy because cosmic energy doesn’t exist. It’s a concept that is in a lot of superhero and fantasy stories, and there are all kinds of unseeable rays that exist (ultra violet, gamma rays both exit) but there’s no such thing as “cosmic rays.” But it’s a necessary thing to have in comics, so the the question became how do you visually represent it?
So Kirby invented what’s known as Kirby Krackle, which are black spheres in a field of colors. It looks distinct from fire – you can tell that there’s a sort of unreal energy coming out of it. And how do you invent this visual symbol for something that doesn’t exist in the real world? That, to me, is impressive. And the Kirby Krackle has lasted. It’s still being used today to display characters powers; take Lucas Bishop and Havok, from the X-Men, for example. Those characters didn’t exist until the 80’s – Jack Kirby had nothing to do with them… but their power signatures get their cues from Jack Kirby. He invented this visual short hand, and where does it come from? I don’t know.
The earliest known use of the Krackle is from 1940’s Blue Bolt #5 by Kirby and Joe Simon, but I didn’t even realize that he had created that until a few years ago – I’d just known it was a comics thing for cosmic energy because that’s what it looked like… that’s what I got from the pages as I read them, which I guess is exactly the point.
Elana: One thing I think people miss when looking at his art is that the Kirby Krackle isn’t the black objects hovering in space. The black spheres are actually voids – they’re negative space. What you’re seeing are colors and energy signs and the black circles ARE where the energy isn’t. That’s the void into nothingness, basically. I’ve seen a lot of artists misinterpret that visual cue – although I suppose I’d be willing to have somebody tell me I’m wrong but I’m 90% sure I’m right.
I’m sure that as an early comics’ artist he invented visual short hand for lots of other things we don’t really think about. I don’t know who invented motion lines and movement blurs, for example, but there’s really basic visual grammar that he developed that we take for granted today.
Despite Kirby being hailed as one of the greatest comics creators, I feel that he’s still very underappreciated. I don’t think he gets half the credit he deserves.
Elana: Yeah, you name a character, Kirby at a minimum, MINIMUM co-created it. Of the things that were actually created by Stan Lee… I think that the line “with great power there must also come great responsibility” is one of the greatest things ever written in popular culture – and that’s all Stan Lee. But Stan Lee writes dialogue, and Kirby writes the story stories, and the big images and the concepts, y’know?
Like with the introduction of Galactus, and the phrase that essentially created him…
Elana: I love this story, and I really think it shows the kind of thinking he brought to comics, but the whole thing with “have them fight god,” which readers of Graphic Policy will also know is also the name of Richard Jones’ ongoing series of columns about the Fantastic Four. He’s doing this incredibly ambitious series where he writes four things about every comic appearance of the Fantastic Four. Anyway, “have them fight god,” that story was after the success of Dr. Doom, Kirby and Lee were talking about what they could have the Fantastic Four face next as Doom was such an awesome villain – what could possibly top that? I believe it was Lee who said “well, have them fight God,” and that’s where Galactus comes in – and that totally raises the stakes of what characters can face in comics.
According to John Byrne’s introduction in The Fantastic Four: The Trial Of Galactus, that supposedly Stan Lee sent Kirby a plot which consisted of those four words, which implies – to me at least – that Kirby came up with the rest of the issue minus the dialogue. Take that however you will, readers.
Elana: Right, because Kirby is the one who decided that the god they fight should look like a combination of Samoan and Mesoamerican sculptures of gods except in screaming purple and blue.
Jack Kirby remains one of the best story tellers in comics, but there’s something about Kirby’s early stories you may not be away of. You actually showed me a couple of blogs that have some fantastic insights into the differences between the work of Kirby before and after Stan Lee added on his dialogue. Do you want to talk about those?
Elana: If there’s one thing people take from this, it’s that if they go should go to a blog called Kirby Without Words. It’s run by a really talented graphic designer, and she has gone through some classic Kirby pages and removed the writing so you can just look at the image the story is telling; you’ll be amazed at how often the story Jack is telling is superior to what Stan Lee wrote on the page.
Such as the pages from 1964’s X-Men #3, which readers can see the before and after dialogue as well, as an analysis from the Kirby Without Words blog, here.
Elana: Now I’m not someone who is a Stan Lee basher on principal (“with great power there must also come–great responsibility” is one of the best lines in anything), but looking at just Kirby’s art made it so clear to me that the way Kirby drew the story it’s clearly Jean rescuing the X-Men from this death trap. When you add the writing over the art, you can see that the words attribute Professor X as telling Jean what to do – but there’s nothing in the art at all to imply that Professor X is directing her actions.
Yeah, after reading the full page I noticed there’s a bit of a difference in how the story works with and without the words, there’s a different story there, eh?
Elana: Now, I’m not saying that Kirby is Mr. Perfect feminist… but for his time he kind of was. When you look at the art, the art is clearly telling the story of Jean Grey rescuing the X-Men, and Stan Lee wrote over it – and awkwardly so – to have it be the Professor telling Jean how to save the X-Men; Stan Lee had to stretch believability in the sequence in order for it to be Professor X who’s the hero in this situation, and it made me think about all the panels over the years where the narrative just didn’t quite feel right to me, where it seemed overly convoluted, and I’m wondering how much of those were cases of Kirby telling one story with pictures and Lee writing over it and telling another story. And the thing that Lee is writing over Kirby’s story is turning Kirby’s story sexist. Kirby drew a story of a woman rescuing men. Lee wrote over it to make it a sexist story of a man rescuing a woman because she’s too dumb or weak to do it herself. Lee is bringing the narrative backwards. There’s another great example of Sue Storm breaking out of a bad guy’s hold with judo – and that’s clearly what’s happening – but when you look at the text over the art she says “I only know how to do judo because Reed Richards told me how and he’s an international judo master.” Now if she was talking about a character that actually was judo master, I can imagine the writer saying that in order to keep things in character we need to explain how she knows how to do throw a guy.
But Reed Richards is never mentioned as a judo master in any other text during the Fantastic Four, so what we can clearly see here is that Sue Storm is shown to be competent, which Lord knows she’d have to be, and meanwhile in the actual writing it’s explained that she’s actually not. That’s insane.
I’d have believed it more if she said that Ben Grimm had taught her judo, because even if Ben didn’t know Judo he’d probably know how to through a guy around But Reed?
Elana: Yeah, exactly, but by using Reed’s name there clearly Stan was stretching. And that’s unfortunate – so we’ll never really know. We can look to the art and see the story the art tells us, but all of our impressions are pretty much contaminated by what the writing says on the page, and that contradicts the art. I’ve got to thank Richard Jones for helping me put words to this dynamic. Like I said, his comics analysis is completely illuminating.
As an artist, Jack Kirby was far more progressive than he gets credit for.
Elana: Kirby definitely embodied his comics with progressive ideas for his time; black publishers had created black superheroes but Kirby was the first to introduce one in a story for a white publisher. There’s a lot of moments where he’s racially tone deaf, where he needed to do a better job of talking to people of color, but his intent is so clear.
Jack Kirby, for all that he has given to the world of comics with his amazing characters and artwork, is often over looked when it comes to his attempt to buck the stereotypes of his time – remember this was the 60’s and 70’s – and his willingness to give characters voices that they hadn’t had before. Something we probably don’t notice as much today because it’s far more commonplace (though arguably not as frequent as it should be).
Elana: Big Barda is a great character, I love her because she’s such a good example of Kirby saying here’s a female character and her personality isn’t just “she’s the girl” – which is still often the case in team stories written by men. Big Barda is allowed to be angry – she has an anger problem but she’s not uncontrollable. She’s super strong and is unapologetic and she loves who she is. There’s a great panel of her carrying a tank over her shoulder talking to her more agile partner which is a great subversion of what the stereotypes were at the time.
His political leanings certainly seem to be far more progressive for his time than you’d probably expect if you haven’t read much of his stuff.
Elana: I love Kirby’s politics! They’re so important to making comics where no matter how badly current creators fuck things up there’s something just and beautiful in the core of the art that speaks to us no matter how ham-fisted the dialogue can be. It’s telling stories about people who are unique and strange coming together, fighting against bullies and standing up for the little guy. Kirby’s political values are a real thing that are important to his art that I love.
That Jack Kirby was, and remains, a great artist in undeniable; his hand can be seen in almost every Marvel character that originated in the 60’s. Do you have a favourite Kirby story, readers? Share your stories, or memories, in the comments below.