Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It's Honorin' Time!

Jack Kirby would have turned 90 today and I don't want to let the day pass without some sort of acknowledgement. I'd hate to think that some of my readers might not know who he was, but if you check his IMDb page, you'll find that -- more than a decade after his death -- he has more blockbusters lined up for future release than just about anybody else on the planet. Stan "The Man" Lee may be getting all the press, but it's more than conceivable that The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, The Avengers, The Silver Surfer, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Ant-Man, Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and not least of all Captain America (who he introduced in 1941) would never have made the impression they did on generations of comics readers (and future filmmakers) without the daring draughtsmanship of the man who was rightfully known as "The King of Comics."

To be candid, I have a streak of the perverse in me that has always pushed Kirby somewhat aside in favor of the comics medium's more eccentric masters, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and Jim Steranko. Ditko, I feel, created a unique world of comics unto himself, as different to everything else in comics as film noir is different to drama; Colan introduced a more fluid cinematic verve into his visual storytelling; and Steranko elevated comics to the realms of fine art and post-modernism. But, as I revisit Kirby's work now in the Marvel Masterworks reprints, I find it almost ridiculously evident that he was the bedrock upon which the whole Silver Age of Comics was built. Ditko remains my personal favorite, but even I have to admit that Kirby was the best.

Kirby was the artist of the covers of the first Marvel comics I saw and bought. Even though some of those covers, like TALES OF SUSPENSE #61, TALES TO ASTONISH #63, and JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #112, aren't in a league with his best work, when I see them, I feel a remarkably deep-running emotion that literally thrills my imagination. This cover of THE AVENGERS #4, which dates from a bit earlier, is a classic case in point. The image may be still yet it is full of motion. The characters are leaping right off the page, right off the comics racks into the eager young buyer's hands. I find it somewhat indifferently inked (by Dick Ayers, I believe), but the piece is undeniably a classic. (Admiring it anew, I find myself wondering "If this scene was onscreen, how would it sound?" The mind boggles.) Energy was the essence of Kirby's art, and it's fitting that the technique he innovated of using ink blots to denote powerful fields of cosmic energy has since become known among his fellow artists as "The Kirby Crackle" or "Kirby Dots."

Kirby's energetic style was such a point of sale at Marvel that he was hired to draw the covers for even those books whose interiors he didn't draw. Both the Iron Man and Giant-Man stories in those aforementioned comics were drawn by Don Heck, much to my disappointment, though Kirby could always be depended upon to deliver the Captain America stories in TALES OF SUSPENSE. The two full-length books to which Kirby dedicated himself most whole-heartedly were epic in design: FANTASTIC FOUR and JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, the latter being the stomping grounds of the mighty Thor and the innovative "Tales of Asgard." These were comics that not occasionally, but habitually, transcended time, space, and dimension in their quest for twelve cents' worth of entertainment. If you happened to miss the Galactus storyline in FANTASTIC FOUR #48-50, you missed something I feel was as essential to the 1960s as anything else that took place in that amazing decade. The version delivered in the multi-million-dollar feature film FANTASTIC FOUR: THE RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER is a mere pittance compared to the Krell-boost my young brain once enjoyed for a combined investment of thirty-six cents.

It's perhaps an impossible task to pick a favorite Jack Kirby cover. I can do it with Ditko, Colan, and Steranko, but not with Kirby. Many of Kirby's most ardent admirers consider Joe Sinnott to have been the ideal inker for his work, but personally I've always been more partial to the inking of Chic Stone on Kirby's pencils. This JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY cover (#110), inked by Stone, is one of many that particularly gets my heart pumping; I can remember a splash page from a Thor story during this period that depicted Dr. Donald Blake in surgery which still makes my jaw drop in its attention to detail. And this is perhaps the most mind-boggling of Kirby's talents -- not how he drew heroes, but how he drew the worlds in which these fantastic heroes dwell. Whether it was the interior of an operating theater, the countryside of Latveria where Doctor Doom reigned supreme, a prehistoric landscape, or the blistering voids at the farthest reaches of the cosmos, Kirby never showed himself less than perfectly at home -- a tour guide to mythic places, hyper-realities, and far-flung frontiers that comics and comics readers might never have reached without him. I love this particular cover more, but the cover of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY's subsequent issue astounded writer-editor Stan Lee to such an extent that he refused to placard it with the usual Merry Marvel self-congratulation, allowing Kirby's majestic art to speak purely for itself.

If you're of a mind to celebrate Jack "King" Kirby tonight, which movie would I recommend? Oddly enough, one in which he had no direct involvement: Paul Verhoeven's ROBOCOP. Unlike the official Marvel movie adaptations we've had to date, it's ROBOCOP alone that really nails the look and feel of an upper tier Kirby comic, right down to the hero's questing body language, his square fingertips, and the squiggly highlights on his metallic chest and arms. Plus, it's a great movie. But really, the best way to celebrate Jack Kirby's 40+ year reign in comics is by revisiting the pages he actually drew -- or, better yet, discovering it for the first time, if you haven't had the pleasure. There's a lot of it now available in book form and you can find it here, for starters.

All hail King Kirby! Excelsior!

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