This is my favorite picture right now.
Gary Panter's 1978 portrait of Jack Kirby. Unless I'm very much mistaken it's not taken from any one specific photo reference. It's a beautiful portrait. Panter's famous "ratty line" walks the tightrope of restraint around its black spaces, never quite ripping into the messy, childlike scrawl that boils off the pages of comics like Dal Tokyo and Jimbo -- but raging and expressive nonetheless, subdividing shadows into tiny flakes of white space planed apart by dancing black-ink razors. And the pure blacks, stomped down in rounded bruise shapes that blot the face into being. Flashes of shocking white snapping over it all, the lighting so hot it burns the paper blank in places. Like the drawings its subject did, like others by its artist, it pushes off the page with its forcefulness.
This is what Jack Kirby looked like in real life.
It takes a deep understanding to deviate as intensely from the look of the real as Panter did and still create an image that looks like the person it's depicting -- again, as Panter did. Not just an artist's understanding of facial construction, though there is certainly plenty of that in Panter's image, the subtle crease in the forehead, the play of light across the jaw, the integration of every surface and feature into one solid whole. But it's more than that. It's an intimacy, an understanding of the face at hand. Maybe even the person beneath it. A familiarity with who is being drawn. The Panter monograph that the portrait is scanned from refers to Kirby as Panter's "great adolescent influence". While there's no one photo of Kirby I've seen that looks like the portrait could have been copied from it, I think Panter must have looked at a great many photos of Kirby to capture the truths of his face so distinctly. To put the tired eyes together with the cocky mouth and the jowly cheeks so seamlessly. But more than just looked at them -- absorbed them. Taken them into himself.
This is a self-portrait by Jack Kirby.
What's notable about it when measured against the rest of Kirby's work is its softness, the round, relaxed shapes, the relatively small amount of cartoon in the facial features. The depth of focus leading far back into the room. The smooth curves of Kirby's hands at rest on his drawing board. It comes in striking contrast to the distillation of style that can be seen on the page he's working over. The drawings in its panels are pared down even further than Kirby took them in his stories. The radiance of a technological demigod's face. The harsh angles of a 3-D sound effect. The sleek surface of a flying saucer. It's on the page that's on the page, a secondary realism. The portrait is one of the least stylistically affected images Kirby drew post-1962 or so, and it looks a little clumsy in places. Understatement was a departure for the 20th century's greatest overstater, the action-comics proportions of the boxy arms and the slightly idealized facial features jarring with the relaxed sense so atypical in Kirby's work. It's incredibly charming. Kirby, who turned men into gods and gods into pure sheer energy, goes outside his comfort zone to present himself not as another endlessly dynamic Kirbyism, but as a real, normal man.
Kirby has very often been sentimentalized in the years since his decline and death, turned into a kind of readymade father figure for the "comics culture" that becomes more a part of the mainstream with every passing San Diego Comic-Con. There is such joy and life and depth of feeling in his work that it is all too easy to imagine him as an illuminated beacon of pure human warmth and loveliness, the comics medium's archetypal innovator, happily drawing multiple brilliant pages a day, never asking for more than the chance to keep doing it for a living wage. It's an image with plenty of basis in fact; by all accounts Kirby was a truly lovely human being, and he absolutely did sit and bat out comics at a pace I'm not sure anyone has touched before or since. But there is more to Kirby than just that. Monumental rage, deep fear, paranoia, confusion, crippling frustration surging through the blank spaces of his panels along with the openhearted beams of light. Kirby was not pure. He was a conduit for positive and negative in equal measure. In his panels, these forces build and intermingle and ignite, braiding together into something so unique and powerful that often one can no longer tell which is which; only that it's force.
Panter's picture captures that artist, not the simple hardworking man. It feels to me a truer Kirby. Black and white, calm and storm, good and evil blasted across a face nearly blank of expression, prepared to take every atom of it in. It is a heroic Kirby, but not a Kirby hero. It does not engage with the Kirbyist drawing style. It is the Kirby a young Panter must have imagined right along with the millions of other kids who read his comics: the stony, impassive, flickering countenance of a man who could turn his pages into lightning rods with a few black blots. It is Kirby as he exists to those who never met him, never heard him speak or knew his warmth firsthand. It is the Kirby that went on the page, a solid generator from which sprang energy, a man who gave us gods, and nothing more. It is a character, just as much as Black Bolt or Galactus is, something pulled from the comics and channeled through Panter's own vision of it.
This may or may not be another self-portrait by Jack Kirby.
A detail from the cover of Fantastic Four #7, it is the one image of the Mr. Fantastic character that the artist inked in addition to penciling. Kirby's biographer Mark Evanier has commented on the remarkable similarity it bears to the man who drew it. If we accept that this similarity is a conscious choice rather than an unconscious reflex (artists do tend to draw like they look, after all) or evidence for a convenient mirror by Kirby's drawing table, then this image shares quite a bit with Panter's portrait. It is Kirby as hero, the artist transformed into his creation. Even here, however, the restraint of Kirby's other self-portrait is visible. There's a sensuousness to the lines, a fluidity to the spotted blacks that isn't usually there. The hyperbolic facial expressions so common in his comics are absent. Instead the face is solemn, contemplative, laser beam eyes looking at the drawn world from the inside out instead of the outside in as they more often did. Again, Kirby the man pulls back from depicting himself as a mere Kirbyism. There was more to him than what he put on the page. There simply had to be. But those parts of him were the parts that Panter never knew. All he had were the pages. What he drew was what could be pulled from there.
This is a self-portrait by Gary Panter.
Of course, it's doing the exact same thing Kirby's self-portraits do. Panter holds back the stylist whose work we've seen in so many fractured, rivetingly expressionistic comics, instead going for a real likeness, a subject rather than a caricature or even a character. The ratty line moves with more grace and subtlety than anywhere else in Panter's oeuvre I can think of, orderly rows of little flecks constructing a realist image bit by painstaking bit. The eye-popping color contrasts of Panter's paintings are cooled as well, a few sharper wisps of pink and yellow fading into the general skin tone, the bold orange background serving to push the face further out rather than catch the eye in its own right. Like Kirby, Panter depicts as much of his open, matter-of-fact humanity as possible. The stylisms that influenced entire generations are left out in both cases. The message is clear: those things may come out of the men in the portraits, but it isn't them. That's comics. This is life.
This is a panel from one of Jack Kirby's comics.
This is a copy Gary Panter made of it.
Panter was obviously a very capable Kirby copyist, with an understanding not just of the look but of the underlying shapes and light patterns that held the work up. What fascinates me is how Panter, in his portrait of Kirby, gets to the idiosyncrasy of his own massive style by evoking another stylist. It would have been easy enough, perhaps even clever enough, to do a Kirbyist portrait of Kirby himself. But Panter drew a Kirby born of his imagination, a picture that came out of his head as much as it came out of his hands. A mythological Kirby. The Panter portrait, in the end, is a portrait of inspiration: the drive that Kirby's comics gave their readers, the quest inherent in a young artist re-creating the face of his hero.
"The Kirby tradition is to create a new comic."
-- Jack Kirby's response to another artist who said he intended to draw a new version of Captain America in the "Kirby tradition".
I think he would have been proud.