Second in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book.
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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CHECK OUT “Cosmic Debris: Kirby in the ’70s,” a series running in tandem with “Kirb Your Enthusiasm” at the 4CP gallery of comic book details | Kirby cutaways and diagrams collected at the Comic Book Cartography gallery | Joe Alterio’s Cablegate Comix and HiLobrow posts about comics and cartoonists, and science fiction | The Jack Kirby Chronology | scans of rare 1940-50s Kirby comics at the Digital Comic Museum | Joshua Glenn on the New Gods generation
POSTS IN THIS SERIES: Douglas Rushkoff 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 | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing |