Seventh in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book.
As a kid, I found Kirby’s ’70s comics garish, frightening, overindulgent — belonging more to forbidden “adult” comics like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or The Savage Sword of Conan than to the familiar worlds of DC and Marvel. That all changed when, as a pre-teen, I found entire runs of Kamandi and Machine Man to be had for a few dollars at the flea markets and used bookstores of suburban New Jersey. (As an aside: in one issue of Kamandi the titular hero does battle in a post-apocalyptic department store that is identical in every way to the Englishtown Flea Market). Collectors had snapped up Kirby’s more valuable Fourth World, and Golden and Silver Age Marvel creations, but although I’d once dismissed ’70s Kirby as something akin to primitivism (because my eye had been trained by the Marvel house style and/or by cartoon-ier DC artists like Curt Swan or Ramona Fradon), I now found myself entranced.
Machine Man has a strange pedigree — although the character has been showcased in some truly brilliant sf comics, he’s a fairly boilerplate character (the self-aware, emotional robot) who spun out of Kirby’s adaptation of Kubrick’s/Clarke’s 2001, one of the weirder licensed comics ever to have existed. Unlike, say, the extended Star Wars universe, 2001 didn’t leave much room for spinoffs, so Marvel gave us the further adventures of that trippy superevolved space baby and those Australopithecines who were visited by the monolith, until finally we arrived seven issues later at a superhero who was a little bit like HAL 9000. The above panel, from the second page of Machine Man #1 (April 1978), shows a fairly typical superhero rescue… but the plot details aren’t important.
Kirby here shows himself to be a subtler and more confident artist than even the most skilled of his peers, who presented iconic superheroes flexing in battle-ready poses on page after page; instead, he represents his (brand new!) hero via a single body part, an extendable arm that turns into a ladder. (This brainstorm would be aped, years later, by the creators of the animated children’s cartoon Inspector Gadget). With the picture’s unusual vertical length and dizzying perspective, Kirby puts himself in conversation with great artists and engineers: like Filippo Brunelleschi, who invented forced perspective in1425; or the Austrian Joseph Puchberger, who invented the first panoramic camera in 1843, cranking Daguerreotype plates 19 to 24 inches long. Finally, the panel also evokes mid-period Hitchcock films like Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), giving the reader the sickening sense of falling from a great height. Even in this supposedly lesser work, Kirby is a supreme storyteller, a master of composition, and a sui generis genius of the dynamics of cartooning.
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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 |