Eighth in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book.
While in matters of music, say, or literature, or even film, I know enough about people’s bodies of work to develop overarching theories, when it comes to Kirby, I know him mostly through the superheroes he created or co-created: the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men. I know less about the other comics — the mysteries, the dreamscapes, the tales of suspense. But I have a friend who is a Kirbyite, in the same way that other people are David Lynch devotees or Catholics. I should say I had a friend who was a Kirbyite. We had a falling-out. Back when we were close, he told me about Kirby’s upbringing, and the way the world was then for a talented young artist who wasn’t formally trained. He warned against oversimplifying Kirby’s concerns, given the fact that he did both more commercial and more personal work, and lots of it, over the span of decades. Still, he said, he believed that it was fair to say that Kirby’s work was largely about the surfacing of the unthinkable and incomprehensible. Sometimes, he said, it came from within, as in the dream comics. Sometimes, he said, it came from without, as in The Eternals or the Silver Surfer. He yoked several names to Kirby’s, including Otto Rank and Tzvetan Todorov, and said that Kirby was an important figure when it came to exploring the inability of the modern mind to conceive of the inconceivable. It was a heady theory, and I probably wasn’t listening as closely as I should have. I filed it away. About a year after that, we had an argument over his sister, and that was the end of that. It wasn’t the end of seeing each other. We had friends in common. But when we were in the same group, we wouldn’t speak to each other. It was awkward, at least, and you’d think that one or both of us would have just capitulated, but we were young and proud and we remained silent. Slowly, the absence of any conversation became a malign, self-perpetuating presence: it was something I didn’t and couldn’t understand. Eventually he moved out of town and I stopped thinking so much about it.
When I saw this panel, though, which is from Sandman #1 (Winter 1974), it all came back to me. First, my friend’s theory came back to me, because it seems apropos. The dog at the left appears unusually intelligent, at least for a dog, and he’s watching as a creature of some kind — a not-so-distant relative of The Thing, from the looks of it — emerges from the swamp. Is there a more literal way to illustrate the surfacing of the unthinkable? But how does the dog know immediately that the creature is a threat? Fear and hope are two sides of the same coin, both emotions of the unknown. In a way, this panel appeals to me so much because it both summarizes and contradicts what happened in my friendship. Something unthinkable surfaced, but there was neither hope nor fear, only an increasingly resigned acceptance. There’s much more Kirby, more than I’ll ever be able to explore, but to honor my former friend, I’m going to keep this panel in my mind — in part, because it is, like our friendship came to be, wordless.
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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 |