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February 28, 2008

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Johnny Bacardi

...Kirby's figures and backgrounds work together to express the message that the human species is helpless and insignificant.

I think this is true up to a point, however, I think he would often set up his plots this way only to emphasize the scale of the menaces his protagonists were facing, and make the eventual triumph that much more meaningful. Remember, the FF took down Galactus because of Johnny's trip to get the Ultimate Nullifier, but his self-doubting inner monologue (which Stan wrote) helped raise the stakes in the reader's mind. I'm also reminded of "The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin" in New Gods #8, in which ordinary mortal policeman Turpin held his own in battle with Kalibak of Apocalypse.

If anything, I believe Kirby was all about the triumph of the common man in the face of enormous odds, which reflected his childhood growing up in the poorer parts of NYC.

Charles

Johnny, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I've be re-reading "Turpin" myself lately, and trying to figure out what to make of the story's ambiguities. Oddly, the title character really doesn't get very much time on-panel, but, OTOH, he IS the title character, so I can't help but think that Kirby's opening narration, which says the Orion and Lightray are really the stars (because, after all, they are gods, and Turpin but a man) is meant to be taken as ironic.

It's clear that Kirby was preoccupied with the question of humankind's (in)significance in the cosmic scheme of things. That issue of 2001 (#6) where Norton of New York becomes a true hero seems to me to be a summation of this tension: Norton is heroic, yes, if perhaps deluded (he's a comic book enthusiast and hero-worshipper, really the very type of the dedicated superhero fan) and his fate is ultimately dependent on the inscrutable monolith (a deus ex machina, as Craig points out). And yet, his heroic actions seem to matter in the story; he has weight and presence as a character, more so, I'd say, than the human cipher's in Kubrick's 2001.

What is Norton's weird trip in 2001 #6, if not a riff on the same theme of human (in)significance that comes up in when Johnny makes his cosmic journey in FF?

Here's a link to the GCD data for that issue of 2001:

http://www.comics.org/details.lasso?id=31027

Craig Fischer

Hi, Johnny, and thanks for your comment. In my post, I was afraid of overstating Kirby’s pessimism, which is why I mentioned Lee’s humanism and "characters we can identify with" in my last paragraph. (I should’ve made my point clearer, though.) I agree with much of what you said, particularly your point about how Kirby creates suspense by pitting heroes against seemingly undefeatable foes, but I do have a couple of comments:

1.) NEW GODS #8 is very ambiguous on the issue of the "common man." Turpin does "hold his own" against Kalibak, but look at that title: Kirby also defines his struggle as a "Death Wish," as a suicidal pathology. Maybe the problem is that Turpin battles Kalibak with brute force, and in several NEW GODS stories (especially "The Glory Boat") physical conflict is shown to be less effective than intellectual solutions to the challenges that Darkseid and his minions pose.

2.) I’d agree with what you said about Kirby’s "common man" theme as an outgrowth of his NYC tenement upbringing, and I wonder: was that where Jack got his sense of scale too? Imagine being a little child, looking up and seeing buildings stuffed with thousands of people jutting into the sky...

Johnny Bacardi

I meant to get back to this yesterday, but you know about the road that's paved with good intentions!

Anyway, I don't mean to sound like I'm disputing your ideas, but I think I see certain things differently in places.

I think a lot of what Kirby was about, as well, was a reflection of his formative years -- he grew up when the American public still looked up to and wanted larger-than-life "heroes". Partly because the media wasn't as pervasive as it is now in all walks of life, it was possible for, say, a Babe Ruth to be a heroic figure, especially to little kids, while indulging himself in various hedonistic pursuits that would have him drawn and quartered in today's ESPN-infested climate. As someone who was raised to believe in the heroic nature of sports stars like Ruth, film stars like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, and presidents like FDR, as were many people, celebrities (it was assumed) were normal folks and worked their way to fame and fortune and notoriety. I think there was a lot of that in the concepts and stories he came up with. He was always coming up with larger than life, omnipotent menaces and then giving us more down-to-earth heroes who, against all odds, succeeded in winning the day, or at least wrestling it to a standstill. When Kirby titles the Turpin story as the "Death Wish" of Terrible Turpin, I believe that was intended in an ironic fashion, to mimic those who doubted that an ordinary human (albeit one with the constitution of an ox) could go toe-to-toe with a New God -- even one who was clearly a second-rater.

I can't really comment on his 2001 stories; while I saw them on many a spinner rack as a teen, I never picked them up. Even back then, I never really liked film adaptations (which I thought it was), even though I know by now that he went WAY off that course eventually.

Charles, I do love that last line of your last reply, about Kirby as a child. Boy, that would be a nice illustration if someone could do it justice...!

Isaac Cates

Just a note to say, Craig, that I'm really glad you called up that Larry Marder piece about the similarity between Kirby's costume designs and Hopi kachinas. I spent some time in the Southwest a couple of summers ago, and caught myself doodling a bunch of kachinas in my notebook, most of which were more Kirby than Hopi, I think -- but the design sensibilities really are alarmingly similar. (Big Bear and Mark Moonrider really have some of that Southwest look, for example.)

It's frustrating to find out that it's just a coincidence, though I suppose it was too unlikely a connection to be true.

CharlesWHatfield

I seem to recall having a letter printed in one of those early Beanworlds, comparing Marder's world-building to Kirby's! I remember Marder's story about the Hopi (non?)connection vividly.

(I'll have to look for that letter. Or is it just my imagination, running away with me? I'm sure that the Marder/Kirby comparison was in my head way back then...)

Jones, one of the Jones boys

I think you nailed it with the rhetorical question in the last sentence--humanism and nihilism fight it out in Kirby, and the failure to resolve that fight enriches Kirby's later work.

That said, there is a strong case to be made that the human spirit and optimism get the upper hand, thanks to Kirby's work on Mister Miracle. Even Darkseid couldn't keep that suckah down.

(BTW, I really liked your observation on the growing dominance of the Kirby squiggle. Contrariwise, that's why I sort of prefer Kirby's increasingly abstract work in the 1970s. The whole world becomes a battleground, with the very surfaces of things--hair, clothing, furniture--ready to explode into combat at any moment)

Craig Fischer

Wow, am I behind on responding to all the great comments to my post. I blame my children, my job, and my fundamentally lazy nature. Here's a few quick comments, though…

JOHNNY: Hey, that line about Kirby and scale was mine, not Charles'! And as for artists who might do it justice, how about Phillipe Druillet? :)

ISAAC: I've never been to the Southwest--as a fan of both Herriman and John Ford, I have to visit Coconino County before I die--but I can certainly see design similarities between Kirby's costumes and the pictures of Kachinas that I've seen. The first place I saw Marder advance his Kirby-Kachina theory was in AMAZING HEROES #100, a special tribute issue to Jack. I remember a little one-panel BEANWORLD cartoon in there where Marder wrote something like "When I think of Kirby, I think of Hopi Kachina dolls and surrealism." I lost that issue of AM over the years, or I'd post a scan of the panel.

JONES: All that stuff about Kirby’s pessimism comes from writers and thinkers better than I. In particular, that interview with Jonathan Lethem in TJKC #47 is indispensible. I like your theory that the squiggle is Jack’s visual representation of dormant but kinetic energy ("ready to explode into combat at any moment"), although from a design standpoint it still bothers me. It's too ubiquitous, too distracting; it renders everything too much the same. Maybe the problem is that I don’t agree with Jack that the world is a battleground..?

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