Kirb Your Enthusiasm (9)

By: Annie Nocenti
February 25, 2011

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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2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): 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 | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker

ALSO ON HILOBROW: Joe Alterio’s Cablegate Comix | HiLobrow posts about comics and cartoonists | HiLobrow posts about science fiction | The New Gods generation

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2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.

2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

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What do you think?

  1. I’m so glad you shared this particular — easy-to-overlook — panel with us, Annie. It’s fascinating to hear about your time at Marvel, and to read a Kirby comic the way a Marvel editor-writer (or at least one Marvel editor-writer) reads it. I particularly love the insight and style of the final line — you rock.

  2. 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.

    I didn’t start reading comics when I was sixteen, and I’ve always felt that I didn’t ‘get’ comics the way those that started reading as children did. Thanks for phrasing it so beautifully.

  3. What a beautiful piece — thanks Annie.

    I’m going to offer a theory about the hydrant, well, actually two.

    Unus is a fairly reluctant ally of the Evil Mutants. I like Lee’s dialogue that suggests his ambivalence about adopting the traditional visual code of the new identity he’s going to assume. He’s looking at his street-wear, hanging on that most everyday of objects, and realizing, with some sense of regret that he’s forever leaving the world of the prosaic behind him.

    There’s somehting else (spoiler alert: 45 years on from original publication). The jacket really wraps itself around the hydrant. It shows the contours of when fabric and metal meet, touch and interact. The conclusion of this story deals with the opposite effect — Unus the Untouchable becomes both Unus the Untouchable and Unus the Untouching — everything becomes driven away by his forcefield. He can’t eat, iie down, sleep — Nothing. His agency in the world has been entirely removed, and if we were Freudians we might say that he has become Eunuch the Untouchable, because he can no longer engage with any sense of volition in the material world of physical or social relationships (never mind sex.) too high flow? Did Kirby ‘intend’ this? Who can say what went on in that astonishing mind, consciously or unconsciously?

  4. Nice to read your own super origin story! Kirby’s compositional thrust has so much in common with the Mexican muralists, even Aztec wall and codex designers. When I met him, I asked him about this and he said that he looked at National Geographic and all kinds of things, but just drew what he imagined.

  5. Yes, Gary — the first issue of The Eternals, the amazing Aztec/Maya-meets-alien carvings and murals, I think it must be because of Kirby that I’ve always believed that sort of Fortean theorizing must simply be true. Kirby and that one late “Tintin” story where they discover the alien cave.

  6. I’m so glad you mentioned the hydrant–before I read your piece, it was the first thing that caught my eye, and I wondered about its significance. Who is Hydrant-Man?

  7. Mark Frauenfelder notes on his entry that Kirby was a little ruffled by the resemblance of Darth Vader to his Darkseid. I wonder if he was also irritated by the resemblance of R2D2 to his forgotten Fire Hydrant character from X-Men #8?

  8. Oh, another observation: I’ve always thought that I was one of the very few Kirby fans who came late to my Kirby appreciation. As it turns out, almost every entry so far has noted the same phenomenon!

  9. Yes one thing I’ve learned is that whether or not you read comics as a child, for almost everyone Kirby was an acquired taste. And like most acquired tastes, once you’ve acquired it nothing else seems nearly as good.

  10. Yeah, this one–like its predecessors–is superb. “Comic panels are designed to control the musicality of the eyes.” Wow.

  11. I fell in love with Kirby/Sinnott the moment I first saw it, when I was seven in 1974: in a B&W reprint of FF 94. Living in England we saw most stuff in B&W, and this suits the dream team extremely well. By this time there’s more Sinnott than a couple of years before, but that makes the page, if slightly less raw and dynamic, prettier and smoother on the eye, thanks to Joe’s wonderful brushwork. As a 10/11 year old I did find some of Kirby’s final phase Marvel works bemusing, but now appreciate so much of it (Black Panther and 2001 stands out for me in particular) Though I wonder if I’ll ever truly dig Devil Dinosaur?

  12. Some comments posted to Annie’s Facebook item about this essay:

    Eduardo Ignacio Flores Ramirez: ‎”Ineffable things that a lover does by happenstance on the way to becoming beloved.” That’s love, you know? Thanks, Ann, for a beautiful love letter, and a great phrase, summarizing that which make us go on…

    Caroline Roland-Levy: Great writing Annie!

    Victor Manuel Fernandez Patiño: Thank you Annie! I’ve always been a big fan of your work. What you have written in your blog is a delight and a profound love letter.

    Ian Murphy: Great article, thanks Annie. I think that in drawing the reader’s eye to the hydrant we’re drawn to the jacket on the hydrant and the action that’s taking place in the panel – the costume change. Unus is standing pretty still in that shot but the text tells us he’s in the middle of changing outfits. The jacket on the hydrant emphasizes that action in a way Kirby didn’t otherwise do because he squeezed so much else into the panel. And I’m glad he did – the detail of the cityscape adds so much to it.

    Roberto Bartual: Great article. “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” That’s exactly the reason why you wrote some of the best comics Marvel has ever published.

    Chad Talbot: It’s a great love letter Annie! Even though I grew up reading comics, I really didn’t come to appreciate Kirby as a storyteller until later. He still blows me away. All the little details I took for granted on first read came to life, like the “crackles” of power coming out of fists. Thank you so much for sharing this Annie!

    John Payne: You were far from an imposter, my dear; you were fresh air, and you are missed.

    Brent Eric Anderson: Beautiful, Annie. Kirby was one of my creative fathers, and in a million of my own words I could never express my feelings for the man’s work as eloquently as you did in nineteen. Thank you.

    Th Mza: v. heartbreaking panel, brilliant exegesis. I wouldn’t put my clothes on a fire hydrant, but supervillains have more important things to worry about

  13. “One of the many gentle, ineffable things that a lover does by happenstance on the way to becoming beloved.”

    Indeed. Thanks for a lovely piece.

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