And Then I Read: KIRBY, KING OF COMICS

Kirby cover
©Mark Evanier, all images © the respective publishers.

Another wonderful art book/biography, and one I’ve been looking forward to. It’s even better than I expected. Publisher Harry Abrams produces the very best quality art books, and this one is no exception. Mark’s text is some of his best work, obviously a labor of love and something he cares deeply about, but it certainly seems an honest report of the life of comics legend Jack Kirby, not a fawning fan-letter. Mark points out the many facets of Kirby’s talent that made him a legend, but is equally quick to point out the flaws in his character that often kept Kirby from the financial rewards his talent might have brought him. It’s a very American story, one that Michael Chabon echoed in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. A boy brought up in empoverished circumstances who overcomes them to find his way to a better life through drive, determination, hard work, and raw talent. Mark tells it very well. He’s said he would like to write a more detailed book about Jack Kirby someday, and perhaps he will. But, considering that the man spent most of his life sitting in front of a drawing board, I have to think this version, which hits all the ups and downs, touches on the personalities and partnerships, the family and business deals, is a good representation of the man’s life. And combining the account with tons of terrific Kirby art makes it even better.

Andy Clyde portrait

I saw some Kirby art in the late 1950s, early 1960s, though it was uncredited: a few of his monster stories for Atlas, and an issue or two of GREEN ARROW and CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, but I really first discovered him in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR #7, in 1962. By then Kirby’s style was well on the way to the stylized geometric approach he would be best known for. The art I’ve seen from early in his career never appealed to me, so it was interesting to follow his development in the pages of this book. Above, an early portrait of a film actor, showing much talent in the approach and details, and though I haven’t seen the actor in many years, I think a pretty good likeness. Obviously he spent a lot of time on this.

Early Captain America cover

In contrast, his early comics work seems cruder, though it has much more energy, as Kirby is already capturing movement and action, one of his trademarks. But some of the figure work here is so loose it’s jarring, as in the leg of the little yellow guy, for instance. Kirby didn’t ink this, and that might be a factor. Also, he was trying to emulate some of the more naturalistic comic strip artists, which I don’t think really suited his natural talent. The main thing to remember, though, is that he was striving for speed. The quicker he could turn pages out, the more money he would make, and in those days it wasn’t much even then.

Justice Traps the Guilty 8 cover

By the time of this cover in 1949, with ten years of prodigious output behind him, Kirby’s own style was emerging. The figures are confident, the faces almost sculpted, with strong areas of shadow. There is still a good deal of organic work in the clothing, but the feathering is much simpler, and the background and machinery are reduced to essentials. Even with no actual movement on this page, Kirby still manages to embue it with energy through his strong forms and composition.

Early Fantastic Four page

In this page from FANTASTIC FOUR 1, 1961, Kirby has taken his style further toward simplicity of forms. Now working for Marvel, he was again striving for speed, as he was soon to be drawing practically the entire Marvel output.

Silver Surfer 18 page

By the time of SILVER SURFER 18, in 1970, the Kirby style had evolved to its final form: simple geometric shapes given form with broad strokes of black and a few bits of feathering. Everything has been reduced to his own unique shorthand that somehow we all understand. Each part of this essentially static shot is full of crackling Kirby energy. Somehow he’d transcended his roots to create something truly unique and exciting. It didn’t matter if it was odd and unreal, it worked, at least for me, and apparently for a legion of readers and artists.

I was a little surprised to see my name in the acknowledgements at the end of this fine book, and then I remembered that last year Mark had asked me to do some lettering for the title page, as he wasn’t happy with what the art director had come up with. I didn’t see that at the time, but looking at it now, I can see that the cover and title page both have something important in any design job: a point of view. Here, it’s to recreate the look of the early Marvel comics that Kirby is best known for, with all their crude printing and washed out colors. Could they have found a better example of period lettering for the titles? Yes, I’m sure. But they didn’t want that. I have to say, though, that the title page “KIRBY” is pretty ugly. Here it is:

Title page

Enlarging that crude printing so much, and isolating it really does make it look awful. If they had gone with what I suggested, it might have looked something like this:

Klein title page

Looks a lot better, but doesn’t really follow the design plan. Ah well, no harm done, Kirby’s work and Mark’s text trump any design plan. If you’re a Kirby fan, this book is already on your want list. If not, it might convert you. Give it a try!

4 thoughts on “And Then I Read: KIRBY, KING OF COMICS

  1. Johnny Bacardi

    Of course, this doesn’t make me want this book one iota less but that’s something that has bugged me about the cover since the first time I saw it- I’m sure the intent is to replicate that old Art Simek/Sam Rosen lettering style that Marvel featured on its covers in its salad days, but they’re not successful at doing it at all. It’s too calm, too placid, too static. That old Marvel cover copy pointed and swooshed and shouted at the spinner rack browser, all an extension of Stan’s boundless enthusiasm and hypesmithing. Look at this and this, to cite but two examples.

    They went at it half-assed, something which I’m sure Kirby never did…

  2. Pops Gustav

    Todd, Afraid this time I have to disagree with you…. Like Chip Kidd, I like to celebrate the crappy production methods of old comics, and think the off-register huge “KIRBY” looks great… but I also like dirty newsprint, gutters and flat color! I’m OLD!

  3. Jorge Ortiz

    I recently bought the book as well and so far it’s fantastic. Worth every penny.

    Regarding the cover design, I’m not crazy about the “bleeding Kirby” but it does evoke the period and that’s cool. However, I agree that the way they isolated it is pretty crappy and it not only looks messy (which old Marvel covers did not) but it also gets lost on the cover and looks confusing at first glance. If I didn’t know already I would not have been sure what the title was. I can see their intent was to isolate it from the art so it would stand out but in making it so small and surrounding it with the “exploding” balloon gave it the opposite effect. They needed to go big and bold with the title design just like Kirby’s art.

    Nevertheless, the book is awesome and gives a lot of insight and history I was never aware of. I’m simultaneously reading Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow and am getting a great deal of comics history. They complement each other well. Next I’ll tackle the fictionalized versions in Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay and Max Allan Collins’ A Killing in Comics.

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