(several pages by Jack Kirby, appreciated by CH).
Since I was a kid I've loved Jack Kirby's fanciful architecture: not just the abstractly stylized cityscapes of the Fantastic Four or the Asgardian splendor of Thor, but his yen for rugged storybook habitats, clubhouses really, that have their own make-believe ergonomics and make imaginary concessions to functionality. More to the point, I love the way these dream-habitats lead to deep, splendid drawings. Today I'll talk about three examples, in, I think, the order I first experienced them (the reverse of the order in which they were published, it turns out):
SEAWAY, from Kamandi #22 (dated Oct. 1974), inks & letters by D. Bruce Berry.
[As always, click on the thumbnail for a better view.]
In hindsight, this is the least of my examples, but it's also the one that I came across first. For the record, Kamandi #22 was not the first Kirby comic I read but was among the first I owned, having been either gifted to me by a school chum or discovered in a used bookstore that kept a small pile of comics. I know it was the first Kamandi I read. Not long afterwards, inspired by this one I think, I bought the new Kamandi #32 (a giant-sized issue, Aug. 1975) off the racks at the base exchange where I lived, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. That's when I began following (and giving over a good chunk of my allowance money to) Kirby. So this particular example resonates with me like a temple bell.
In #22, Kamandi, the boy hero, becomes the "squire" of a super-intelligent, talking dolphin. Guided by his frankly colorless friends/mentors Ben, Steve, and Renzi, Kamandi discovers Seaway, the inside-out underwater city of the dolphins, and, after some resistance, takes up a squire's role. Kirby's talking dolphins and killer whales, like most of the critters in Kamandi, live in complex social organizations, use advanced technology, and fight endless territorial wars; they wage proxy battles via their human servants (squires, warriors). Seaway, the dolphin's refuge, is an inside-out city that offers necessities and comforts at a beak's touch of a button. (Squires live in separate underwater quarters, which resemble a cluster of balloons.)
Kamandi #22 seems to be a riff on The Day of the Dolphin (dir. Mike Nichols), the then well-regarded film adapted from Robert Merle's 1967 novel Un Animal doue de raison (lit., an animal endowed with reason, a title appropriate enough to Kamandi's world). Opening in late 1973, Day of the Dolphin is an SF story about training dolphins to use human language and then turning them into living weapons for the purpose of assassination (indeed, its title may have been meant to echo The Day of the Jackal, also from 1973, a movie thriller about an assassin based on a Frederick Forsyth novel). Theme-wise, Day of the Dolphin anticipates the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely comic We3, which likewise posits super-intelligent, speaking animals and questions the ethics of turning animals into weapons. Note that Kirby's script describes the dolphins as "beautiful people" who, in contrast to most of the animal societies thus far seen in Kamandi, are "highly civilized." Part of the drama here has to do with Kamandi's acculturation into the dolphin society, despite his instinctive resistance of all things non-human. As so often in Kamandi, our hero finds himself, via a kind of topsy-turvy role reversal, unwillingly playing the part of servant, pet, or curiosity to other animals.
I didn't know The Day of the Dolphin back then, and I'm pretty sure I didn't think of Kirby's dolphin story as an exploration of the ethics of human/animal interaction. I think what I appreciated in Kamandi #22 was simply the sheer novelty and upside-down, inside-out logic of the world Kirby was making -- that and the peculiar quality of the images. The image of Seaway I've shown here, perhaps because of the requirements of Kirby's plot, does not have the swirling, near-hypnotic quality of the best Kirbytech splashes; rather, Seaway is composed of smooth, angular blocks that are largely void of surface detail other than buttons. It's not the most beguiling machine-mass that Kirby ever drew, that's for sure. But there's something funny -- not satiric, but droll -- about Kirby's fanciful concessions to pragmatism, the evidently routinized and bureaucratized nature of the dolphins' lives: dig the structures devoted to "education," "civic administration," "social contacts," and so on.
Frankly, it's a ridiculous vision: an underwater push-button bureaucracy. But Kirby's effort to make dolphin society seem so "civilized" carries its own straight-faced comic charm. And I like the seemingly random massing of the blocks, which form a kind of floating architectural jigsaw puzzle.
APE TOWN, from Kamandi #3 (Feb. 1973), inks & letters by Mike Royer.
Wow. What a great spread. This is Tinkertoy/Habitrail architecture at its zaniest: a jungle gym city criss-crossed by "transit-ropes" and layered with action up close and far away. If the ruggedness of the setting recalls the Planet of the Apes film series, the sheer antic quality of Ape Town is pure Kirby. This is a two-page spread (you can see the seam down the middle of my scan) in an unusual spot for Kirby, in mid-issue, as opposed to the opening spreads (on pages 2-3) he favored during this period. The idea here is to have the reader share Kamandi's first view of the gorillas' city.
It's a terrific view, though Kirby's idea of "ape" seems to have more to do with orangutans or chimps, or even monkeys (not apes technically, I know), than gorillas, since Ape Town's favored means of getting around are climbing and rope-swinging. Actually, I'm guilty of over-simplifying here, because, I gather, some lowland gorillas are in fact occasional tree-dwellers, fond of climbing and brachiating. Primatology aside, I suspect Kirby was smitten with the idea of a city of climbers and swingers simply for its graphic possibilities.
And this is a playful page, graphically. The chapter/series logo appears on an overpass that spans the spread from left to right, and the swinging figure of an ape, the largest single thing on view, leaps, BAM, right into the center of the spread, traversing the fold, the gutter. The ape's body is a skewed "X," a cross, with limbs pointing vector-like to almost every quadrant of the spread; his upraised right arm divides our hero's name, Kamandi, from his title, the Last Boy on Earth, while Kamandi himself appears, a prisoner on horseback, in the lower right quadrant.
That central, swinging figure acts not only as a locus of graphic tension and thus an irresistible eye-magnet, but also as a reinforcer of the series' topsy-turvy premise. In the upper left quadrant, hemmed in by the swinging figure's two transit-ropes, is a reminder of humankind's servile status: several humans serving as draft animals, pulling a cart. On the lower right, beneath the central figure's outstretched leg, is Kamandi, reflecting once again on his status as mere animal for the other animals' amusement. From his POV, Ape Town is "a gigantic zoo," but, ironically, he is the one who will be caged. The caption at top right underlines the idea: humankind has lost its presumed preeminence in the order of things. Graphically, the tilted "X" of the swinging figure brings all these elements together, dividing and yet uniting at the same time. That bright yellow overpass, meanwhile, effectively highlights the top of the spread, urging us to look both up and down.
And there's action at every level! Foreground, middle distance, deep background, all are busy, but, remarkably, in a way that enhances the readability of the spread. I've always liked Kirby's way of placing foreground elements right smack in our faces, in extreme close-up, so as to evoke our complete immersion in a scene; it's foreground framing with a vengeance. In this connection, dig not only the gorilla with upraised hammer in the lower left, but also (a wonderful peripheral bit) the climbing boot on the extreme top right, something I didn't consciously notice until I set out to write this post! There's an on-the-spot quality about these artistic decisions that makes Kirby's best spreads wholly convincing. The same attention to detail can be found at every level of the image: figures climb, clamber, and swing in the deep distance as well as up close. Man, Ape Town looks like a busy place.
HABITAT, from Jimmy Olsen #133 (Oct. 1970), inks by Vince Colletta, letters by John Costanza.
Wow again. This is clubhouse architecture, perfect kids' stuff: a treehouse city. It's like some lovely if naive vision of a "green" city, where living is a fantastic fusion of civitas and wildness (like Lothlórien? the forests of Endor?).
Here, in the first issue of Kirby's Olsen run, Jimmy introduces Superman to Habitat, one of many outrageous settings within the mysterious (and frankly never very well-defined) zone known only as "the Wild Area," site of so much of what Kirby will dish out over succeeding issues. The Wild Area is a utopic/dystopic wonderland that comes off like a fever dream of the "Sixties"; it's full of untamed youth, bikers, high-tech hippies, technological marvels, unexplained mysteries (just who built Habitat, anyway?), little subcultural enclaves, and incipient anarchy. Jimmy thrives here, becoming, by trial of combat, the leader of a gang of bikers called the Outsiders, who are somehow armed with serious tech (enough to knock Superman out!) and who call Habitat home. The Outsiders didn't build Habitat, Jimmy explains; they just took it over. Looks like a perfect fit, though: strangely enough, this treehouse city is full of wooden ramps that accommodate motorcyclists.
What's on view here is not only a rustic version of Kirby's technological sublime, but also, implicitly, an affirmative vision of rebellious youth. The Outsiders may be violent thugs, but they've made the harmonious natural setting of Habitat their own, and they do live by a code of honor, one that makes Jimmy their chief. The combination of tech and "woods" that Kirby dreams up here seems a perfect setting for his self-contradictory but eager and curious treatment of this strange subculture. If Superman here represents the disapproving or cautionary voice of an older generation, perhaps Kirby's, Jimmy's role stresses youth's drive for agency, self-determination, and fresh perspectives. Kirby pits one against the other in the Wild Area, and, for a precious few issues, Jimmy Olsen suddenly has something to say.
I love the spatial and thematic incongruities of this page: the lack of a clear vanishing point, the seeming clash of perspectives, the way Habitat seems to jut this way and that, and the juxtaposing of high-speed, high-tech elements (the bikes) with humbler, domestic elements (the couples walking, or, heh, that curtained window near the top of the page). I also like, my general distaste for Vince Colletta's work notwithstanding, the way the "wood" looks in the finished drawing; that soft, organic texturing, I think, contributes to the impression Kirby is trying to give. Above all, I like Kirby's make-believe concessions to functionality, the way a railing or a streetlamp or a ladder tries to appeal to our sense of practical use. My god, I'd love to take a walk through this town.