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When I Learned to Love Jack Kirby

Illustration for article titled When I Learned to Love Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby would have turned 95 today. So I guess now's as good a time as any to say that I didn't get him at first. The splayed, squared hands and gaping mouths that served as a signature of his style seemed frantic and feverish. They weren't the smooth, Greco-Roman sculptures that first inspired wonder in me as a comics reader.

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"This? This stuff makes Jack Kirby the King of Comics?"

Nah, these were craggy beat-up dudes who didn't look picture-perfect heroic the way I'd been used to. Even a supposed hunk like Captain America felt betrayed by the odd geometry of Kirby's rendering. Helping dream up the Fantastic Four, Captain America and the Hulk was one thing. I could understand why you'd want to honor the guy whose pencil brought them into being. But I couldn't figure out why his drawing style won such hosannas from the artists I admired, like Frank Miller or John Byrne.

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I didn't get the big deal about Kirby—as an artist, anyway—until I saw his art up close. Back in 1994, I took a road trip with a good friend of mine to the Words & Pictures Museum in Northampton, Mass. The institution—founded by Kevin Eastman, one of the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—had mounted an exhibit called Kirby: King of Comics.

So, in we went. And, man.

Illustration for article titled When I Learned to Love Jack Kirby

Not to get all biblical, but it was like scales were falling from my eyes. One honkin' huge double-page spread—probably from one of the Kamandi comics listed here—was as huge as a table. And on all that square footage was more detail and physically manifested speed than I'd ever seen before. Witnessing that made Kirby click in my head. His oeuvre was, in fact, feverish.

There was fever in the action and in the detail. In my mind's eye, I could see Kirby furiously whipping his pencil across the page, in a rush to draft scenes dynamically. But evidence that the fire burned in another way was there. All the carefully rendered facets of faces, figures and environments showed that he was hot to craft a living, breathing page, too. There was crackle and smolder, quickness and care.

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Illustration for article titled When I Learned to Love Jack Kirby

I started to see the same high temperatures in all of Kirby's output, both written and drawn. The cosmic melodrama of Orion, Darkseid and his Fourth World saga, the desperation in the apocalyptic world of Kamandi and the familial friction of the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Avengers comics he drew. Those comics no longer felt like just musty, corny work by a bunch of old guys. I was able to believe that Kirby poured his heart and spirit into the ideas inside of those stories. I mean, how else could he draw like that?

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I know I was lucky. Few people ever get to see work of this magnitude the way I had gotten to. Maybe I would've come around anyway and recognized Kirby's work for what it is: one of the foundational building blocks for comics' unique language. But I'm still glad I got to see why the King deserves his crown.

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Do any one of those things and you'll be honoring one of the comics medium's grandest souls and yourself, too.

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DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

I distinctly remember my first exposure to Kirby's completely innovative art style at the age 7, in 1971.

My mother's current boyfriend at that time, was a comics collector (Among many other things.), and he had several issues of the Fantastic Four. I opened one and near the beginning of the book, there was a full page panel where Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards, is opening a huge portal to the Negative Zone.

Now, full page single panels were rare at this time in 60s and 70s in comic books, so this in itself was remarkable. But it didn't stop there.

Kirby rendered the view into the portal, the raw substance of the Negative Zone, as a collage of totally abstract clip art. This was framed his wonderful machinery (I call them "Kirby machines.") and Richards staring towards the portal, looking worried.

This was never done, so far as I know, in superhero comic art before. I didn't know that at the time, at seven. But at that time the panel was bizarre and remarkable enough to immediately lock in my brain at that age.

That's how badass Kirby was. Decades later, I grew to appreciate his art more and more. Since that time, I've seens examples of his very early comic art, from the mid to late 50s. It was entirely conventional and indistinct from the styles of many other artists at the time. But at some point in the very early 60s, his style emerged and then became iconic. I think when he teamed up with Lee, he was free to go in the directions he wanted to go. And history was made.

There many comic artists I like, all with their wonderful individuality, but Kirby was unique among the uniques.