Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why I Don't Like Jack Kirby

It'd be all too easy to title this little article, "Why I Like Jack Kirby", but that's not the point. It's a given that if you're of a certain age then you automatically must like Kirby and his art or you're an idiot. Generations of people grew up with Kirby's artwork in their comic books, be it the Marvel Silver Age or when he crossed over to DC in the early 1970s and attempted to revolutionise the comic book world there. Virtually every artist I've spoken to has sang the praises of Kirby and rightly so. The man was a true visionary. That a company, Marvel, could form an empire on the back of characters that he either created or co-created with Stan Lee (and let's face it, we may never know the extent of each man's involvement) and thrive for over five decades since speaks volumes. The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, The Avengers, Thor, Iron Man...the list is almost endless. However all of that bypassed me.

I first found Jack Kirby in the early 1980s. In Australia we had a variety of different comic books to read. We had the American originals, lovely colour comics that used to cost anywhere from forty to seventy five cents. We had the reprint material, large DC reprints, which, for the most part, I found dull and stagnant (the exceptions were when I'd buy a Batman volume with the likes of Neal Adams, Michael Netzer, Don Newton, Gene Colan, Michael Golden, Marshall Rogers and others, but they were the exception and not the rule). We also had little, digest sized Marvel reprints, along with magazine sized Marvel reprints and the Newtons. These were the comic books I grew up with. The Marvel reprints were full of the stuff of legends. Artists like Alan Weiss, Gene Colan, John Buscema, Jim Starlin, John Byrne, Frank Brunner, Ross Andru, John Romita, Gil Kane all captured my attention and imagination via these black and white reprints. I loved them and still do. Indeed in recent times I've amassed a collection of both the digest and magazine sized Yaffa reprints and at last count I had over a few hundred of each sized and I'm still adding.

Not that I was unaware of Kirby. Every so often I'd see a story with the oddest artwork I'd seen. It was, well, different, but it didn't excite as much as the time when the second hand store I used to frequent sold me the entire run of Iron Fist by Byrne for five cents a book, along with a healthy pile of X-Men comics, as drawn by Dave Cockrum and Byrne. Loved those books. However one my friends at school was doing his best to turn me onto Kirby to the point of giving me his (then) latest work, Devil Dinosaur. I couldn't get into it at all. It was near impossible for me to read, the dialogue wasn't any good (in my opinion) and the artwork was, well, not as good as Byrne or Starlin. I gave the comics back and moved on, slightly confused as to what all the fuss was about.

Then one fine day I found myself skipping school (can't remember why) and decided to engage in my favourite pass time, buying and reading comic books. I visited my local newsagent (now long gone) and was captivated by these Fantastic Four covers. I fished out my money and bought them all and sat down to read them. The first book I read contained the entire FF/Daredevil vs Dr Doom cross over and it stunned me no end. It knocked me out.

What captivated me was the sheer power of the story and the incredible artwork. The entire three issue saga seemed to be one long issue for me, indeed in Australia three part stories were often presented that way in the local reprints. Splash pages would be edited out and the whole thing would run as one long, 64 page story. In a way we were reading self contained graphic novels before they became the norm in the industry. Even so, after this initial exposure, I wanted more Kirby.

By this stage I was frequenting comic shops in Adelaide where I lived. I'd visit them about once a month as it used to cost me too much in both time and money to visit the city of Adelaide itself - I lived a good hour and change away from where I wanted to be. As such I missed out on the Pacific Comics material, such as Captain Victory or Silver Star, but I did get a good vibe when I walked into a shop and saw Kirby's artwork on a new DC book, titled 'Super Powers'. I got very excited indeed at this discovery and bought a copy, along with my usual grab bag of Australian reprints. With the insults of the comic book dealer in my ears (you see even today such reprints are looked down upon from most Aussie comic book dealers as being an inferior product not worthy of selling or collecting. The majority of the stores here won't carry the '70s/'80s reprint material - they couldn't carry them then and they rarely carry them now. It's only recently when they've discovered that there's people out there who'll pay good money for these books that some dealers sell them. Before that they'd merely throw such comics in bins - and I'm not joking with this, at least three dealers have told me that they'd rather throw Australian reprint comics in the garbage rather than be seen selling them, such is the snobbery that exists in the world of comic book collecting) I went home and cracked the cover.

Again I was disappointed. I could see how this stuff looked like the same style of art of the reprints that I had, but it looked more like bad Rich Buckler than Jack Kirby to me. Frankly I couldn't see what the fuss was all about. I'd also started to read books and fanzines about the industry as a whole and come to realise that Kirby was one of the most influential comic book artists of all time. Frankly, and being honest, I saw none of that with the Super Powers book. I mentioned this to my pal who suggested that I read the 4th World Saga. I borrowed some books, bought some others and sat down and started to...laugh! The art was great, stunning in fact. This was the Kirby that I'd discovered reading Fantastic Four, Avengers and Captain America, but the dialogue was incredible. Incredibly bad that is. I couldn't take it seriously and found that I could only read it by looking at it and not actually reading the words on the page. Then it was better than fine. Otherwise it wasn't readable, to me anyway. I'm now well aware that quite a few people prefer this material over anything else as it's 'pure' Kirby. For me it's just more proof that Kirby needed at least an editor, or someone to script his books. I gave up on it.

But I never gave up on Kirby. As the years passed I found more and more of his work and found that I liked it and liked it a lot. The artists and writers that I grew up all cited Kirby in various interviews that I devoured. John Byrne loved the guy, as did others, and even if I couldn't see any Kirby in their artwork I could see the influences. Mind you anyone that does 'draw like Kirby' eventually resorts to swipes, such was Kirby's style and influence. Steve Rude is the closest artist I've seen to drawing like Kirby without actually stealing his work, others, well the less said the better.

Years would pass and every so often I'd try my hardest to read the DC material, but I just couldn't do it - it wasn't something I could get into. People I'd know would insult me and say that it was just me, that this stuff was Kirby's best work - artistically you could argue that point, but as for the words? Nah...still can't read them without either laughing or giving up. Visually it's great - the Demon material leaves me breathless, but that's about it.

I love the old Kirby, well the middle aged Kirby I guess. His work at Marvel moves me each time I read it and I can read it endlessly, over and over. I still crack out the reprints and get stuck into them. I love doing it and hope I always will. I may have discovered Kirby in the reverse, that is I went from the people he influenced to the man himself (other people, like my pal Alan Weiss, have told me that's logical, he went from Kirby onwards, but being a bit younger, I went from people like Alan Weiss to Kirby backwards) but at least I made that trip.

Eventually I'd make it my goal to own some original Kirby artwork. It's not happened yet, but I have come damn close. Last year I bought four pages of stat artwork that was prepared for the UK comic book titled Mighty World Of Marvel. It's not original art, per-se, but seeing that Kirby Fantastic Four pages can fetch five figure sums, easily, paying a few hundred for the stats was a bargain for me. In 2006 we found a Kirby sketch in a magazine, scanned it and had my other great mate, Norm Breyfogle, ink it. He took one look at it and decided to ink two copies, one being faithful to the original pencils, the other being a 'fixed' version (or, as someone said, it was Breyfoglized). Oddly enough both images look right. Even though Kirby had made some basic errors (the shield of Captain America was askew and frankly Kirby could never draw Batman) when the art was inked to the letter, so to speak, it still looked right. There was something about Kirbys artwork, even with it's distortions and problems it still looks odd when it's altered. I've always wondered if this is why some artists were damn good for inking Kirby, and others weren't. Then there were artists like Barry Windsor-Smith or Joe Sinnott, who, when they inked Kirby, made the art look like their own, as opposed to merely tracing the lines that Kirby laid down. Thus, the second, 'Breyfoglized' version of the art looks more like Norm than it does Kirby. Go figure. Still I do own something that looks great on the wall.

All in all I can see why people adore Jack Kirby. I might have came in late compared to some, I might like the art of others more than Kirby. I might find the lives of others more interesting than Kirby's own life (hence I've written books on Ross Andru, Mike Esposito and Jim Mooney), but that's taking nothing away from the man. Virtually every artist I've spoken to over the years have lauded Kirby as a pioneer, and I agree with them - in an industry that seems to place the 'visionary' label on artists who go as quickly as they come, Kirby was the true visionary. he laid down the template for many to follow by helping to create a universe and leaving characters that not only outlived him, but will outlive almost anyone that reads this. He did to comic books what Walt Disney did to animation, what Charles M Schulz did to syndicated strips, he not only defined a genre, he made a genre. How many people can make that claim?

And that's why I don't like Jack Kirby, I adore him!

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