Thor #162 (1969), page 18 panel 1. Drawn by Jack Kirby.
I know I mentioned a while ago that I was trying to avoid what seem like the three most obvious talking points for a comics blog, namely Chris Ware, Alan Moore, and Jack Kirby. Nothing against those guys; in fact I enjoy all of them quite a bit. It's just that there are far brighter lights shone on them than what I can provide, while there aren't a whole lot of people burning through their hours writing about obscure Jim Steranko shorts or Italian sex comics. But you know what? I was reading some Kirby the other day, and damn if it didn't make me want to say things about it. That right there might be the most important, lasting aspect of Kirby's art -- it overpowers you. It makes faux-intellectual hipster skum like me write articles on it, it turns on the dormant obsessive-collecting gene in people who have one, it attracts and repels non-comics readers in equal measure, but always with magnetic force, and hell, it inspired some hacks in the '60s and '70s to make a whole multimedia empire about it.
In the tunnel of serious comics fandom (and if you're reading this blog, you're in it, playboy) it can get kind of hard to sort out what "really matters", like there are intense conversations going on about whether the Dark Horse Tarzan reprints kept enough of the original benday dots et cetera. But here's a clue: just think of how many of those apocryphal, exhaustive conversations, god bless 'em, revolve around Kirby, like flaming asteroids orbiting a massive planet. Warren Ellis spent a year riffing on other people's drawings of Superman heads over Kirby figures. The conversation about whether or not Vince Coletta's inks served Kirby's pencils, and to what degree, is older than most of the people taking part in it. There's a medium's worth of thought about this one creator and his work, which ought to tell us something. Writ large: Kirby's art matters. Like it or not, the shapes and trails that bled out of his graphite are foundation stones of the comics medium, mortared in by the massive amount of work that's taken up direct from where he left off.
So why have so many followed Kirby? There's no one easy answer, there are more like ten of them. But given that it's Monday and I'm in art-analyzer mode, I'll talk about the shorthand. It's pretty easy to look over a few pages and see Kirby's impact on the language of superhero comics. The foreshortening codes for deep focus, the dot crackles are pure raw energy, the zigzags are high-gloss reflective metallics, the light trails are blinding speed... we know these things. (There's a point to be made about how Kirby's art depicted events and phenomena that weren't really big parts of hero comics before he drew them, about how he not only perfected a language, but invented large swaths of it, but I digress.) Kirby not only refined the kinetic essence of action comics down to a few motifs, he picked motifs that got right to the point, perfectly communicating abstract concepts that most other media don't even begin to traffic in without having to explain a thing. If you ever read a long run of Kirby/Stan Lee comics, you can see Lee's expository narrative captions fade into the background and eventually disappear almost entirely as the shorthand reaches its zenith. At a certain point around '64, '65, we don't need to be told that the pulsing waves of sheer force are gathering around the hapless figure of the -- we can just see it happening, drawn in a manner that leaves no room for question and no time for explanation.
That's why I find this panel so interesting: past 1968 or so, Lee/Kirby comics stop being as good, with Lee increasingly distracted, overworked, uninterested, whatever, and Kirby sort of looking past the material he was drawing to the richer pastures of his Fourth World epic. At this point the stories start to stretch an issue's worth of plot into two or three, the splash pages get more frequent, the grids use less panels, and everything generally spreads a lot thinner. As a reading experience, the books rarely reach their mid-decade heights again, but this is, after all, comics, and if you only want a reading experience they have this shit called "books". No, the reason to read late-'60s Kirby is the pictures, which left subtlety behind and reached a height of bombast, pomp and circumstance, pure alien grandeur as the plots slowly leeched out of them. By '69 Kirby was in his last stretch of months at Marvel, and there were no more Galactus Sagas to be drawn. He was basically filling up the pages with his shorthand, getting by on increased stylization and upping the visual punch to compensate for a lack of substance. And you started getting panels like this one.
If you've read the comic it comes from, you probably know what this panel depicts, but if you forget or if you haven't see it before, take a look and feel the uncertainty. What's in this picture, exactly? It's a completely pure example of Kirby's stylistic riffing, a frame devoted only to the chaotic dot clusters that bear his name. ("Kirby krackle", ya heard?) What's so interesting to me about it is that unlike the mass of other Kirby panels that show this same scene, a figure swallowed up in pulsating energy, this one isn't immediately apprehensible. The colors do their bit to help, but in the end you have to know what character is at the center of that devastation to really pick it out. That's Galactus, with his big crest-hat thing and his fists clenched, in kind of a two-shot profile view. But it takes you a second to see it, and as such the immediate reality of this picture is one of style over content, Kirby's increasingly masterful shorthand finally breaking out and taking precedence over the increasingly uninteresting story material he was drawing. A seething swarm of furiously spotted blacks coalesces into a near-random assortment of shapes. Screaming benday tones cover everything in a blanket of acidic heat. An urgent, noncommittal word balloon testifies to nothing but this single moment's power. A world cracks. An artist moves past his art, into unadorned expression. Kirby's art, which always strove toward purity, fullness, a whole universe between the panel borders, peaks. It's as much of comics as you can fit in one panel, the frame almost bowing outward with its fury.