Third in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book.
By sixth grade I was into comics — Turok and Tarzan and Superboy and Bugs Bunny — but not Kirby, whose work looked blobby like candlewax. Then one night I stayed over my friend David’s house and he converted me. As we ate baloney sandwiches and drank Pepsi after midnight, David rabidly pored over stacks of Marvel comics until he’d forced me to appreciate Kirby’s power and inventiveness. Kirby’s drawings for Thor and Fantastic Four were bombastic and majestic; his sci-fi machinery and character invention were amazing; Kirby was indeed king. I found his imagination and energy frightening (I later found out about Kirby’s violent New York childhood and WWII combat duty), but I started reading more Marvel comics and even joined Marvel’s FOOM fanclub. By the time I got out of art school in the ’70s, Kirby was making crazy comics for DC that were like a beefed-up abstraction of his work at Marvel. I was a budding cartoonist, and I bought every DC title that Kirby did as often as possible; I spent a lot of time looking at the particulars.
This Kirby panel from Demon (July 1973) is an ode to the horrific moment of the unmasking of the Phantom in Lon Chaney’s version of Phantom of the Opera. In Kirby’s hands, the power and psychic dread of the film has been transmuted into drawn form and the impact extended into psychosis. This is a really powerful scary graphic, and its effectiveness may be judged by the fact that every constituent mark and passage is so bold it may be easily read from across the room.
Kirby here uses the compositional strategy, often found in pop art and of super-realist painting, of centrality and frontality — that is, putting an object right in front of your face. This panel is not strictly a straight-on view, as we seem to be standing shoulder to shoulder with a monster who has, for the first time, viewed its molten countenance in a mirror and directs his emotional pitch too near to us. He is in our space, and Kirby puts us so close to the monster’s point of view that we may put ourselves in his place. The face is constructed of a tangle of highly orchestrated thick and thin calligraphic brush marks. As one often sees in the work of Kirby’s early career, the substance described seems to have the character of molten wax, whether it is used describe rock, flesh, leather or fireballs. This panel was drawn late in Kirby’s career and the waxy stuff has begun to flake and splinter like irradiated granite or lava drying, a material appropriate to describing the psychic event of a monstrously destroyed ego.
The lighting in Kirby’s panels is almost always dramatic and emphasized, as in German expressionist film and film noir by multiple sources of light, often two wide and low — sources that put the center of the face in shadow. (This is not an extreme version of that effect.) Kirby also does an interesting thing with his thick and thin outlining. Usually the thinnest point of a thick-and-thin brush-outline appears at the top of the circuit as if light was chasing the shadow off the top of the form. But Kirby very often has the thickest point of the line be on top of the form, reversing the typical usage — and indicating that the light is beaming from below. The flashlight under the chin effect emphasizes the strangeness of the situation; others have used it, too, but never so strikingly as when Kirby springs it upon a turned page.
HILO HERO ITEMS by GARY PANTER: Jack Kirby | Tadanori Yokoo | Peter Saul | Yasuji Tanioka | H.C. Westermann | Öyvind Fahlström | Cal Schenkel | Eduardo Paolozzi | Tod Dockstader | Yayoi Kusama | Walter Lantz | Todd Rundgren | Yoshikazu Ebisu | Jim Nutt | Judy Henske | Tod Dockstader | Dick Briefer
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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 |