A legend among comics fans, Jack Kirby was the gifted, overworked illustrator who made Marvel Comics possible. Two recent exhibitions reveal his artwork as an inventive “side-channel” within pictorial modernism.
The world of traditional comics is a zone of unfettered rhetoric—of superpowers, alliterative epithets and triple exclamation points. So non-comics people might look skeptically at the grandiose claims made for Jack Kirby (1917-1994), the prolific draftsman behind the rise of Marvel Comics. Fans often call Kirby the “Picasso of comic books.” Was he also, as Charles Hatfield, the curator of a recent Kirby retrospective, puts it, “one of the chief architects of the contemporary American imagination”?1 Hatfield may have been thinking partly about Kirby’s posthumous film legacy—including recent blockbusters like The Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Thor. Their breathtaking effects and billion-dollar box office receipts have turned Kirby’s inventions of the 1960s into the global face of American culture. But Hatfield’s exhibition, “Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby,” focused squarely on Kirby’s actual pencil and ink drawings. And last winter, a highly praised show at the Rhode Island School of Design included Kirby images alongside paintings by established figures like Elizabeth Murray and Jim Nutt.2 The curator, Dan Nadel, describes Kirby as a “visionary” who has “never received his proper due as an American artist.”3 Together, Hatfield’s and Nadel’s exhibitions may mark the beginning of a wider appreciation of Kirby’s achievement.
Born Jacob Kurtzberg on the (then) squalid streets of New York’s Lower East Side, Kirby was a James Cagney-ish figure—a short, tough, talented kid who never finished high school. In his early 20s, Kirby turned bitter memories of ethnic street fights into the idealistic anti-Nazi pugilism of Captain America, his first comic book success.4 Only a few years later, he was drafted and sent to battle actual Nazis in France. After the war, Kirby weathered the ups and downs of the comics industry, finally triumphing in the glory years of the early 1960s, when he and writer/editor Stan Lee created a string of wildly imaginative characters and plots—the Marvel superhero universe. Kirby was the main force in the collaboration, but he worked as a freelancer, without royalties. Upstaged and underpaid, Kirby finally left Marvel for DC Comics, where he was given free rein to write and draw his magnum opus, four interwoven comics that outlined a dazzling quasi-biblical science-fiction epic. Beloved by aficionados, Kirby’s “Fourth World” tetralogy did something unexpected at the newsstands: it flopped. Undaunted, Kirby continued to invent new titles, but the caliber of his work gradually changed. His drawings grew coarser, his stories and dialogue more oddly preadolescent. In his later years, Kirby became, as Jonathan Lethem has described him, a kind of “primitivist genius,”5 sadly out of step with the field he had once dominated. The Kirby story is something of a melodrama, and it’s easy to see why it has inspired essays, biographies, at least two plays and a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Meanwhile, there is a vast online universe of Kirbyana, including a digital archive, the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center, which is methodically collecting thousands of pages of his original drawings.
But importing Kirby into the actual museum world is a tricky proposition. Like all comics artists, Kirby worked for reproduction. His penciled drawings were overdrawn by inkers, letterers and colorists. What survives today are either sketches or commercial teamwork. Worse, Kirby’s terrain was kids’ stuff: superhero and science fiction stories—some of them lovably preposterous, some just preposterous. Possibly worst of all, Kirby was, as Hatfield delicately puts it, “a consummate jobber,” in other words, a hack. Kirby’s estimated 35,000 lifetime pages make him possibly the most prolific draftsman in the history of our species. Many of those pages are visibly rushed, and it’s fair to wonder whether his lean, impatient style reflects the looming deadlines that governed his week. Some of the most basic things we expect from artists—freedom, touch, fevered concentration on single images—do not apply to Kirby.
And yet, Kirby’s weaknesses were also his strengths. His over-productivity, for instance, almost certainly explains the gradual development of an eccentric shorthand style that has no obvious precedents, and seems to have emerged from the demands of the medium itself. From early on, friends and colleagues described Kirby starting at the top of a page and drawing continuously, without hesitation or erasure. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the breakneck pace of his plots and the increasing demands of Marvel’s production schedule conspired to accelerate Kirby’s hand. The result was a “breathless, bounding” choreography, in Hatfield’s apt phrase, and with it an increasingly odd vision of how human bodies look.
Kirby’s anatomical liberties were famously divisive. “I just never liked the way he drew knees,” Lethem recalls a friend complaining, decades after their collecting days.6 And it wasn’t just knees: perhaps not since William Blake had there been such a forcefully wrong presentation of human anatomy. Virtually every Marvel artist was trained to imitate Kirby, but as his peculiarities grew more pronounced, frictions multiplied. In 1969, Kirby was commissioned to draw a set of posters. As his friend and biographer Mark Evanier tells it, “someone at Marvel” evidently decided that Kirby’s Hulk poster was too eccentric. Another artist, Herb Trimpe, was assigned to lightly deKirbify the poster, giving the Hulk ordinary knuckles and fingernails, normal feet and recognizable pectorals.
To compare the two Hulks is to be struck by just how far inside his own head Kirby was. It would have been easy, with a quick glance at his own right hand or left foot, to remind himself of the actual structure of either. It’s clear that Kirby worked exclusively from some interior conception, a mental manikin with calligraphic, striated musculature. Trimpe dutifully smoothed and normalized that musculature, rounding the blocky shoulders and flat toes, but he knew better than to interfere with something that only Kirby could have conceived: a surging, assaultive figure who leaps foot-first into the viewer’s space.
In the 1950s, there was a brief vogue for anaglyph, aka 3-D, comics. In an issue Kirby drew back then, a smiling “Captain 3-D” extends his red/green fist forward as he sprints “through space, through time, and into the third dimension!” Kirby seems to have stored that pose in his memory for almost 20 years and then supercharged it, turning a corny novelty effect into the Hulk’s seemingly stereoscopic leap. In the poster, the result is both ecstatic and disastrous—the viewpoint of a quarterback being sacked, a combatant before a bone-shattering collision. The excitement we’re asked to feel may be especially male, or juvenile. (If the Hulk is a personified tantrum, the brainiac villain in the poster’s background must represent punitive adulthood.) But that doesn’t necessarily detract from the image’s resonance. Launching himself toward us, Kirby’s Hulk embodies a wild, impact-hungry physical drive.
What would it mean to take images like this seriously? It means first of all acknowledging their singularity and force. If art is (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) intensified individualism, then Kirby’s Hulk can’t help but qualify: there’s nothing like it except other Kirbys. And while he had lackluster days, everything Kirby drew, down to the smallest, skimpiest panel, is immediately recognizable. In being so relentlessly himself, Kirby generated the classic innovator’s reception: angry protests (“Kirby can’t draw”) and widespread imitation. Kirby partisans have noted all this before, while also remarking on something even more obvious: the general modernist look of Kirby’s bold, simplifying style.
That’s an inescapable observation, but a tricky one too, since it might fuel suspicions that Kirby’s style was covertly derivative, that he was simply a wannabe modernist in a lesser genre. After all, Kirby lived in the nation’s art capital, and was an eager reader of magazines. He must have had some awareness of artists like Picasso, Léger and, certainly, Lichtenstein. In a few private, uncommissioned artworks, that suspicion becomes especially hard to ignore. In the 1970s, for example, Kirby painted a scroll-like watercolor panorama of psychedelic machinery called Dream Machine, which he kept in his office for the rest of his life. It’s a magnificent example of one of Kirby’s signature graphic modes, what fans call “Kirbytech”: a continuous array of invented dials, manifolds, circuits and conduits. It’s also, more or less clearly, an abstract painting.
You can see at a glance why both Hatfield and Nadel included the watercolor prominently in their recent exhibitions. With its easel size, bright colors and lack of text, Dream Machine holds the wall in a way that smaller comic-book boards just cannot do. You might expect Dream Machine to be either triumph or indictment, the proof that Kirby was an abstract painter manqué or that his inventions can’t quite measure up to museum expectations. The strange thing is, neither is true. Compare Dream Machine to paintings it vaguely resembles, such as Steve Wheeler’s Indian Space works or even the clotted, exclamatory Frank Stella murals of the 1990s: Kirby’s teeming intricacy holds up surprisingly well. And yet, some of the Kirby magic is missing. The headlong momentum of his ordinary comics pages isn’t there, and, without it, the watercolor’s pageantry seems less purposeful. Dream Machine, in other words, confirms how deeply Kirby belonged to his own medium.
The basic task of that medium is to transform neat rows of rectangular boxes into heterogeneous vistas. In his peak years, roughly from 1965 to 1975, Kirby did that with a brilliance that remains hard to explain. He was, like all comics professionals, a deeply conventional artist. But his conventions were remarkably unempirical, independent of observation or photography. They were his own. He dispensed with standard anatomy, with hatching, with most indications of light. (Early inkers sometimes added the missing hatching and shading. Later, more faithful inkers, like Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry, did not. You can imagine which group fans prefer.) Kirby’s tool kit was, essentially, linear perspective. In his hands, though, Alberti’s staid discipline was given new freedom and exuberance. In a word, it was Kirbyfied. The result was a world of flat, planar depth, paradoxically graphic and vertiginous, that represents a peculiar side-channel within pictorial modernism.
If we want to understand that achievement better, it makes sense to juxtapose Kirby not just with comics-inflected painters like Nutt or Murray, but with a range of Kirby’s fine-art American peers. Peak Kirby has odd, unmistakable affinities with Stella’s work, as suggested earlier; with Al Held’s perspectival fantasies; and even with the painterly improvisations of Willem de Kooning. No doubt, these kinds of comparisons beg many disclaimers. In terms of subject matter alone, most de Koonings have the dignity of openness, as opposed to the dopey specificity of a cartoon shoot-out. Perhaps the rhyme between Mr. Fantastic’s long rubbery arms and the sinuous blue brushstrokes of de Kooning’s Untitled XII (1983) is just adventitious. But especially if we look at the painting sideways (as de Kooning often did with his canvases), don’t his brushstrokes rise up and then tangle in a way that feels like a comparable graphic altercation? Don’t the two images share an off-balance mobility, their undulant vectors swerving, bumping, joining or reaching across each other? Don’t they suggest a similar feeling of clean, bright, aerated excitement?
Comparisons like this are not entirely fair to Kirby. Not just because he had such imperfect control over his time and resources, but also because his pictures were conceived as sequences. Continuity was their aim. And that continuity was built around the panel architecture of each page. When a furious Thor swings back his hammer, preparing to destroy a wall, he seems to be aiming his blow at the narrow white border that contains him—the very same border that, in the adjacent panel, frames the satisfying impact of his blow. When the Human Torch flies across the skies of Europe, zooming left, then right, then looping playfully around a quartet of missiles, his progress models the reader’s own zigzagging progress through the page’s quadrants. These are exhilarating sequences, not overpowering single images. That’s their point. For better or worse, much of the beauty of Kirby’s art is bodiless, suspended in the eager forward motion of the reader’s experience: a flight path, not an icon.
Couldn’t we say almost the same thing about de Kooning? That his paintings avoid fixed compositions (icons), in favor of a multiplicity of hinted alternatives (flight paths)? Of course, oil paint’s dense luminosity helps to make even the barest de Kooning gesture satisfying. A weak Kirby panel is just uninterestingly clumsy. But both artists created a rhetoric that we redeploy intuitively, as a ghostly flock of possible de Koonings, possible Kirbys. And in the end, we judge that rhetoric not by single pictures, but by what it captures and intensifies—in Kirby’s case, a vision of speed and purposeful mobility, of violence and of awe.
In a panel from Fantastic Four #76 (1968), three superhero protagonists are shown seated in their Fantasticar. They are voyagers but also spectators, dazzled by a narrowing corridor of molecules ahead of them. As a drawing, it’s a textbook demonstration of one-point perspective, with a single head at the very center, surrounded by a radiating barbell-forest of orthogonals. It’s also a demonstration of something Kirby probably didn’t know by name, the technique art historians call Rückenfigur—in which figures seen from behind dramatize the act of looking. By folding both pictorial strategies together, Kirby got what he habitually aimed for: maximum drama. That drama beautifully distills the optimism of Kirby’s own American generation. It might suggest something else: the experience of future generations of Kirby spectators, still dazzled in their seats.
Did Kirby anticipate his own immortality? Probably not. But another artist may have. In a famous collage made more than 60 years ago, the British proto-Pop legend Richard Hamilton imagined a living room of the future. Beyond Hamilton’s smug bodybuilder, with his oversize Tootsie Pop, a framed comic book hangs on the wall. It’s the once-brashly colorful cover of Young Romance, number 26, drawn by the not-yet 40-year-old Kirby. In retrospect, that framed image has always seemed like a prophetic anticipation of Roy Lichtenstein, and of the “romance” between art and comics, a romance that brought us both Pop and Marvel. But perhaps Hamilton anticipated something even more unlikely: the day when Kirby’s drawings could be hung up on walls and “framed,” not just as sardonic raw material, but as resonant evidence of an exceptional imagination.