Kirb Your Enthusiasm (9)
By: Annie Nocenti | Categories: Popular, Read-outs

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

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I didn’t read superhero comics until I answered an ad in The Village Voice and got a job making them. The comic art I was most familiar with was Roy Lichtenstein’s blow-ups of cool microscopic dot matrices that abstracted a lipstick kiss into a macroscopic hum. I saw Spider-Man on a plastic cup through the pop-art lens of Warhol’s Campell’s Soup can.

Strolling into Marvel in 1983 I fell in love with the suddenness of a slip on a banana peel. I began to live and breathe comics, brainstorming storylines, writing and editing a dozen comics a month, sending out cheery letters to fans on Incredible Hulk stationery, dashing off “No Prizes” on Captain America postcards. Yet I could never shake the feeling that I was an imposter. True Believers started reading comics young, shared the helix of twin saplings entwining early, a genetic bonding I missed by arriving so late to the party. When I wrote comics, I cycled my private obsessions though the sieve of the form. The conventions and compulsions of superhero comics, especially the need to escalate and resolve conflict with a fight, were tumors in my stories: misshapen lumps, things I did but never believed in.

So I have no nostalgia for old comics, no deep childhood resonance. When I became the editor of The X-Men in ’84, like a good girl doing her homework, I read their 1960s origin issues and discovered Jack Kirby. It was like finding the bones of the beast that had determined the path of an entire civilization.

Kirby’s zany explosive power is so barely contained by the panel grids that they function more as prison bars, a girdle on a fat lady. His line has muscle; his characters look as if they have fuses up their butts, or were just shot out of a cannon. His art is at once scrappy and cosmic, each panel a firecracker, as if he was searching for a new frontier to bust out of, while exciting the eyes. There is a madness, a madness of needing more space; Kirby really should have been a mural painter filling the vast interior domes of cathedrals with manic figurations.

Comic panels are designed to control the musicality of the eyes. Pause, then move on. Pause, move on. Go deep, trip on by. Which is why, when flipping through X-Men #8 (November 1964) my eye stopped on a certain panel. Here the design broke, compelled me to gaze longer.

It seems like an incidental panel, just a necessary transitional moment in a bigger fisticuffs storyline. Angel is pure speedline, swooping in and hovering, the pause before confronting a villain. But what could have been a boring exposition panel is made strange and sensitive by the forefront prominence of a jacket draped casually on a fire hydrant. The direction of Unus’s gaze, the placement of Angel’s hover, even the cityscape background… there are visual indicators in the sweep of the lines that suggest that Kirby wanted the reader’s eye to be drawn to rest on that peculiar, anthropomorphized hydrant. I can’t help but wonder why… was this panel an accident, the focus on the hydrant a mistake made during the blur of a 12-hour drawing marathon? Or self-bemusement on the part of Kirby? It’s a tableau that contains a dance of tenderness, power and curiosity. One of the many gentle, ineffable things that a lover does by happenstance on the way to becoming beloved.

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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 |

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Annie Nocenti is a journalist and screenwriter. She shot two films in Baluchistan, taught film in Haiti, and currently does bootcamp filmmaking workshops.