Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Jack Kirby

During a q&A session with Niel Adams, someone started to compare him to Jack Kirby. Adams stopped him, saying that no one is like Jack Kirby. He made some other points about Kirby being a "learning artist" which got me to thinking.

Adams entered the field with a polished style which has has kept his entire career. In contrast, Jack Kirby's style developed over many years. If you look at his work during the 1940s you would never guess that he would go on to be a major influence.

Part of this was the phenomena of the house style. Each comic company had its own style. They encouraged their artists to match this style. This requirement was stronger for some companies than others. When Adams got his first job it was drawing Archie comics so he had to match their house style. While it has been modernized a bit, Archie comics are still drawn with the same house style.

Marvel had a house style into the 1960s. Some people claimed that it had one in the 1970s and 1980s but, if so it was not enforced.

During Marvel's monster comics days (when it was still called Timely Comics), an artist would come to Stan's office for a monthly story conference. He would he given a plot and talk it over with Stan for a few minutes. An artist never knew what he would be working on from one month to the next and the house style made them interchangeable. This continued into the early days of Marvel. If you look over early issues of Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man, and the Avengers, they all look like they were done by the same artist. Jack Kirby did several of these but sometimes he only did breakdowns and another artist finished the art. Other times a different artist would do an entire issue.

Around three or four years into the Marvel age, this changed. Artists were given long-term assignments and allowed to show some individual style. Look at the Avengers. When the original team (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Ant Man and the Wasp) was switched for a new team (Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch), Don Heck took over as the regular artist and changed his style. Suddenly pages were no longer broken down into six panels.

Looking at the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby made his big leap in style during the issues between #40 and #50. He finally established a distinctive style. This is when he went cosmic with the introduction of the Inhumans, Galactus, and the Silver Surfer. He had already experimented with combining characters and photographs but he expanded on this. When people talk about Jack Kirby's style, this is what they mean. This is also when Kirby was at his creative peak.

Neil Adams made a point of saying that no one has matched Kirby's creative output. He casually created major characters. For FF #50, Stan suggested that they have a really powerful villain, someone who eats planets. When he got the first pages back he called Kirby and asked, "Who's the guy on the surfboard?" Kirby replied, "I figured someone that powerful needed a herald."

Over in Thor, Asgard got grander every time Kirby drew it.

Kirby had a falling out with Stan and jumped over to DC where he wrote and drew. His big creation was his "Fourth World", the New Gods. This was an ambitious set of three titles with overlapping plots (plus some overlap with Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Pal which Kirby also took over). He followed this with the Demon and Kamandi, a post-apocalypses world with intelligent animals.

Returning to Marvel, he created the Celestials and the Eternals.

Unfortunately, none of his creations sold very well. Kamandi was the longest-running, lasting four years and outlasting Kirby's run at DC. At least one of his attempts (The Sandman) died after a single issue. It didn't help that this was a bad time for comic books in general. Inflation and paper shortages made them more expensive and the traditional outlets, supermarkets and newsstands, stopped carrying comics. Specialty comic book stores were just beginning. This meant that any title that was not a runaway hit was cancelled.

Kirby seemed to be running out of ideas. It didn't help that his style seemed tired and dated. This was partly because he was so associated with the late 1960s and early 1970s and partly because so many other artists were imitating Neil Adams. He did two Super Powers mini-series for DC staring multiple heroes. These were overshadowed by Marvel's Secret Wars. After that he mainly did work for independent labels.

Kirby's legacy is immense. He had a hand in creating most of the early Marvel characters. He created all four of the primary heroes in the Avengers plus Nick Fury and Loki. Of course, at the time no one ever thought that the characters would be worth any real money so his estate did not profit from the multi-billion-dollar franchise he created.

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