Kirb Your Enthusiasm (2)

By: John Hilgart
February 21, 2011

Second in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book.

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Before the advent of Kirby’s cosmic crackle visual effect, there was the Simon & Kirby smolder. The smolder’s approach to detail was somewhere between brushy and calligraphic — imbuing shadows and organic shapes with waves of complex, immanent energy. The crackle radiated outward as particles, while the smolder was the sinister energy within. Though this style was deployed across the Simon & Kirby comics of the Fifties — including the gorgeous romance stories — its signature application was the macabre.

As this panel from the story “Dead Man’s Lode!” in Black Magic #4 (March 1952) demonstrates, what smoldered best was death. Kirby retained this style after parting ways with Simon, using it specifically to represent the evil and unnatural. It appears startlingly in his giant monster and science fiction comics for Marvel (1958-1961), where its unnatural curves and brimstone-y surface contrast with the simpler, draftsman-like perpendiculars of the rest of the art on the page. It’s the perfect visual approach to the stories’ Cold War metaphor: annihilating death erupting into the prosperous and well-ordered society. This Black Magic panel tells the same story more concisely. In Plato’s allegory, we mistake shadows cast within a cave for reality, which is actually outside of the cave altogether, and perfect. In Kirby’s version, the cave is the reality, a panorama of grotesque death, lurking just below the surface of the tidy myths of progress and prosperity that organized life outside the cave in 1952’s America.

As Kirby knew firsthand, the prosperity of post-war America grew out of vast fields of human corpses. In 1944, he went from drawing Captain America comics in New York to the battlefields of France, arriving a couple of months after D-Day. His assignment was apparently quite dangerous, advancing to the front lines to make reconnaissance sketches for the Allies. We can only imagine the scenes of decaying horror that he saw there, and Kirby’s subsequent career seems almost to be organized around finding reasons to depict the mind confronting something it cannot assimilate. The aghast face is everywhere in his work, from the supernatural and science fiction comics to the precise moment a heart breaks in a romance story. After the return to superhero comics, it begins to appear everywhere, this “Oh my fucking god!” face. In 1966, Galactus would arrive, a hungry, amoral, life-erasing personification of an indifferent universe — the existential horror of death in its purest form.

While the smolder effect continued to signify the macabre in Kirby’s later work, it was also applied to a situation that more and more seemed to concern him: human transformation. In the Sixties or Seventies, when he drew someone zapped across the universe or shifted from one state of being to another, we could expect to see their screaming, smoldering face. It’s still a form of death, or near death — the atomization of the corporeal self — but now it is also apotheosis, the self migrating to a higher plane or transforming into something new. This is perhaps Kirby finding his way past death as a horrifying absolute. If Galactus suggested there was no god (or that god was a Watcher, not an actor), Kirby’s later career has nearly everyone turning into gods. Troubled gods to be sure — just like your average teenager — but for the most part safely on the other side of death, imbued with the crackle of cosmic life. This shift reaches its conceptual and visual apotheosis in 2001, in which the black, smoldering blank of the monolith explicitly fronts the crackling beyond, in a series of obsessively repetitive narratives of death as transformation into a cosmic baby.

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on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker

ALSO ON HILOBROW: Joe Alterio’s Cablegate Comix | HiLobrow posts about comics and cartoonists | HiLobrow posts about science fiction | The New Gods generation

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2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.

2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

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What do you think?

  1. My favorite instance of this may not be “pure” smolder, as it occurs in a panel that also features external emanations (albeit of a dot-less, non-crackling sort): It’s the close-up of Bruce Banner at the instant the gamma bomb goes off in The Incredible Hulk #1. Stan Lee’s caption refers to Banner’s “ear-splitting scream,” but the panel always conveyed to me that Banner’s cry of terror and pain was effectively silenced, drowned out by the blast behind him.

    The panel has become so iconic that I’ve seen it used as an accent in magazine articles to represent generalized shock and horror. It works on this level in part because Banner, with his weak chin and professorial eyeglasses, looks like a corporate everyman in the close-up. But the real power of the image lies in its original context. The panel that precedes it is a searing full-body view of Banner absorbing the force of the blast. And the panel that follows is another close-up, nearly identical to the first, but minus the smolder, that shows Banner still wailing hours after the detonation. The cold-war bomb terror has been absorbed and internalized, but its full effects on mind and body are yet to manifest. Great stuff.

  2. Jim A — you should have written one of the posts in this series! Love your commentary on the Hulk panel.

  3. Jim, that’s amazing. The look of horror that required two frames to be sufficiently horrified. By the ’70s, Kirby would have just blasted his character’s face into a Rorschach blot. Maybe that’s the divide between the exposure scenario and the transformation scenario. They were separate steps in the early ’60s Marvels, based on the model of radiation exposure and subsequent genetic mutation. The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spiderman are Cold War heroes by this measure; they were irradiated, and later they changed. Late Sixties and Seventies Kirby seems to be much more on the SHAZAM model. Exposure and transformation are simultaneous.

  4. Joshua – Thanks!

    John – That’s a terrific insight about transformation and atomic exposure.

    I am enjoying the Kirb Your Enthusiasm posts immensely.

  5. Great panel. It’s amazing how putting a name to something helps you to see it. Kirby’s “smolder” is something I was aware of, but never was able to articulate.

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