This post is both an act of penance and a product of inspiration. I felt rotten writing a negative review of Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure last week, since Jack Kirby is probably my favorite comics artist, and I'm happy to make amends and post about the reasons to love--rather than criticize--Kirby's art. And I was inspired by Charles' superb "Architecture of Dreams" to take my own look at Kirby's mise-en-scene. I'm a couple of years older than Charles, so my example is from the Fantastic Four rather than Jimmy Olsen and Kamandi.
Let's begin theoretically, by considering the terms foreground and background. Critics sometimes talk about a comics panel having a foreground that captures the reader's awareness, and a background that is somehow less important and demands less concentration from said reader. We assume that the objects and figures in the foreground--drawn larger and "closer" to us--automatically deserve our maximum attention; we also assume that the background (smaller and "further away") is packed with the stuff we can ignore, the chicken fat thrown in to create a sense of pictorial realism or add a few extra jokes to a Mad Magazine strip.
Kirby's art, however, doesn't fit those assumptions. Here's a wild splash from FF #57 (December 1966), page 11 (as reprinted in Essential Fantastic Four Volume 3 -- click the thumbnail for a better view):
Some of our attention is directed towards the small figures of Dr. Doom and the Silver Surfer by the word balloons, which begin at the middle of the page. The balloons are either linked to each other by bridges or they follow the left-to-right reading direction, creating a map that directs us through the Doom-Surfer conversation. In addition to representing speech in a silent medium, word balloons commonly include a tail that resembles--and functions like--an arrow, literally pointing at characters, compelling us to look at them.
And we read the word balloons to find out what's happening in the story. At this point in FF #57, we know that Doom is hatching a nefarious plan. Even first-time comics readers would be put on alert by Doom's unsettling appearance and by a typically bombastic Stan Lee caption on page seven that describes Doom as "the most DEADLY--the most DANGEROUS--the most utterly DEMONIAC VILLAIN on the face of the Earth!" On a basic level, we know that the desires, goals and motivations of characters form the cause-and-effect chain at the heart of all stories: a narrative is about someone (usually though not necessarily humanoid) doing something for a reason. Doom's face dominates FF #57's cover, and Doom and/or the Surfer appear in 16 panels of the story before page 11. This frequency implicitly tells us to consider carefully what these characters do, because the trajectory of the story will emerge, at least in part, from how they interact.
Interestingly, though, Kirby draws Doom and the Surfer as tiny figures, preferring instead to focus on Doom's "greatest scientific projects" with such detail that the machines and odd shapes threaten to steal our attention away from the word balloons and central characters. This splash page, like so many other single- and double-splashes in Kirby's oeuvre, de-emphasizes narrative and favors sheer visual spectacle.
Kirby creates this spectacle, and captures our attention, by using repetition with variation to build up his compositions. The column of futuristic machinery in the upper left looks like a series of stacked symmetrical discs, and each disc has a prong sticking out from its right side and some sort of cylindrical plug on its front. ("Front" is defined here as elements that directly face the reader.) Yet each prong is different, with the most elaborate being the C-clamp formation shared by the two discs at the top of the column. The plugs are different too, with two hooked to cables and one unattached. The column works as a representation of machinery because its shape is modular, but we find it fascinating to look at because of its irregularities, its bizarre mix of variant details.
Kirby also uses curves and zigzags to destabilize static compositions. Note how he connects the column of discs to a tube full of energy that dominates the bottom of the page. If the entire left side of the splash were stacked discs, the composition would be a bit dull and oppressive, but a flowing, organic form like the tube adds dynamism. My eye reads the caption at the top, follows the length of the disc column to read Doom's word balloon, and then gets caught up in the shape of the tube, following its loop to the helmeted technician and his strange Kirbytech welding gun at lower left. The juxtaposition of monumental Kirbytech and curving forms happens elsewhere in Kirby's comics. One example is a splash page from another FF, #77 (August 1968), where a curve in the foreground breaks up our view of Psycho-Man's cityscape. Here's the page from the original, yellowing comic (click!):
Back to FF #57, Kirby (and inker Joe Sinnott) also decorate that splash with zigzags. There are at least two adorning the ominous forge in the upper right of the picture; also, extending from the C-clamp to the prong sticking out from the third disc is a metallic bar spiked with triangles that create a zigzag pattern. In a text page in Phantom Force #2 (April 1994), Larry Marder connects Kirby's zigzags, and other manifestations of his style, to the art of the Hopis, a Native American tribe known for their ornate masks and Kachina dolls, artifacts which celebrate the spirits that govern nature. As Marder writes:
There are hundreds of recorded Kachina spirits. Some of the sacred masks are hundreds of years old but (to me) every single one of 'em looks like it was designed by Jack "King" Kirby in his super-hero prime. The zigzag motifs, odd armbands, peculiar aprons, loincloths, winged, horned and feathered masks shout "Kirby! Kirby! Kirby!"
Marder's piece ends as he asks Kirby directly about Native American art, and discovers that "the hard truth was Jack wasn't really aware of the Hopis at all [...] The Hopis were not a direct influence on his DC or any other creations."
Despite Jack's demurral, there's more to say about Kirby and Native American visuals. First, there's evidence in his comics--the mosaic on the splash page of Bullseye #5 (April 1955), the design of Tomazooma in FF #80 (November 1968), the Incan costumes of Ajax and his freeze-dried band of air traffic controllers in Eternals #2 (August 1976)--that Kirby knew enough to at least fake convincing versions of Native American designs. But perhaps the combination of irregular shapes (zigzags, curves) with Kirbytech is an example of Kirby's broader tendency to mix the organic and inorganic in his stories and art. Doctor Doom, MODOK, the New Genesis Mother Boxes, Machine Man, the Celestials--all these characters are cyborgs, uneasy combinations of man and machine, while the Thing (man + rock) and the Silver Surfer (man + cosmic matter that looks a lot like chrome) extend Kirby's interest in hybridity beyond a mere human/machine synthesis.
This penchant for hybridity has, I think, a long-term effect on Kirby's drawing style. The signature Kirby squiggle, which begins to appear in his art in the 1960s (and is all over the machinery in the FF #57 splash), was originally used to denote metallic sheen. By the mid-'70s, however, the squiggle is everywhere, turning clothes, musculature and even hair into surfaces that look hard and unyielding than soft and fleshy. I date Kirby's decline as an artist to the moment where the squiggle became either an unconscious tic or a Wolfli-like compulsion, a symptom of his move away from the outside (the expectations of his readers, and the forms of nature and the human body) and towards a solipsistic interiority, a Kirby-world too far away from the world that we all share.
In his excellent essay "The Monument Carver's Stone," in The Comics Journal Library: Jack Kirby book, Christopher Brayshaw argues that it's a false dichotomy to pit Kirby the storyteller and Kirby the designer at odds. Brayshaw writes the following about Kirby's rendition of the human figure:
Whereas Kirby's depictions of inanimate objects--buildings, starships, or the tombstones in the monument carver's yard [in Kirby's autobiographical tale "Street Code"]--possess an almost sculptural solidity, his figures often seem more fragmentary, flayed by flat, slashing ink lines that scar their features like razors. Thematically, Kirby's mature, post-1960 work represents life as an endless battle for survival, and his characters' ragged appearances help underscore their all-too-brief departures from the primal matrix from which all living things rise and eventually return.
Brayshaw's point, in other words, is that Kirby's figures and backgrounds work together to express the message that the human species is helpless and insignificant. In Kirbyville, humans are always in danger of being supplanted by homo superior, Johnny Storm flies through the universe to fetch the Ultimate Nullifier and concludes that humans are "like ants," Kamandi watches his fellow humans reduced to animals as other species take over, and the monolith in 2001 represents (as it does in Kubrick's pessimistic movie) a deus ex machina solution to the human race's inability to improve itself. In the terrific interview with Chris Knowles in The Jack Kirby Collector #47, Jonathan Lethem argues that the core of Kirby's art is a brutally frank acknowledgment of the unimportance of human affairs. From the interview:
Knowles: Captain Victory, [Kirby] said, was his rebuke to Stephen Spielberg thinking that aliens would come and be our friends, and Silver Star was his rebuke to Marvel's vision of The X-Men. He has Silver Star say to this old Black guy in this corner store, "Listen, we're going to wipe you off the face of the Earth. You're done."
Lethem: Yes, I think that's absolutely right.
Knowles: Where do you think that came from? Do you think that was intrinsic to his upbringing?
Lethem: It's a paranoid view of consciousness, and the human consciousness, that is obsessed with the idea that nobody understands that death is everywhere. But in strict scientific terms, it's deeply accurate. [Laughs.] The problem is that all storytelling has to begin from a point of view where human affairs, however inconsequential, do matter to the people involved in them. And it's as though Kirby was grumpily losing his patience for that pretense.
So what is the Kirby landscape? Is it architecture that in its epic scale reduces human inhabitants to inconsequential ants? Is it an arena where tropes of representation--particularly the Kirby squiggle--flatten out the differences between humans and machines, between living beings and inanimate objects? I don't know, though I'm finding it hard to reconcile the pessimism of these interpretations with the sheer joy I (and Charles, and thousands of other readers) feel when looking at Kirbytech or a Kirby splash page. Maybe the Fantastic Four is my favorite Kirby series because the inherent pessimism of his pictures is mitigated by Stan Lee's traditional (and often corny) humanism. Or maybe Kirby's plots really are an uneasy (but dramatic) combination of characters we can identify with and an existential sense of "man is a nothing too"--but that the true reality is that death is everywhere and one gesture from Galactus or a Celestial would prove it.
Do mixed messages and contradictions like these make Kirby's art richer?