Eleventh in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book.
From his first work in the ’30s through the early ’60s, Jack Kirby and his collaborators gave us sf comics that mirrored what was going on in literary science fiction during those same years. Like the sf that John W. Campbell began running in Astounding Science Fiction from late ’37 on, the sf comics that Kirby drew were as fantastical as Flash Gordon-esque schlock, yet intelligent and socially conscious. Midcentury critics praised sf for having “grown up,” and named the post-’37 era sf’s “Golden Age.” If you ask me, it was during this period that sf went middlebrow; Radium Age science fiction is far more compelling. However, even when his collaborators wrote middlebrow fare, Kirby’s gnostic style mutated their stories into… something else.
In this panel from Tales to Astonish #31 (May 1962), we find a prototypical Kirby protagonist — a square-jawed suburbanite in a short-brimmed fedora — confronted with the out-of-this-world. The story, “It Fell from a Flying Saucer,” concerns an artist who finds an alien artifact, technology so advanced that “we on Earth would say it has magic powers.” (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as Arthur C. Clarke put it in ’62.) Whatever the man draws with the pencil gets actualized; alas, instead of drawing a planet without war or poverty, he draws himself as king of the world. Outraged that his flunkies don’t believe his story about the flying saucer from which his pencil dropped, he draws it for them… at which point [SPOILER] the UFO materializes, an alien tentacle snatches the pencil, and everything returns to normal.
Or does it? Kirby makes the normal look fraught, suspect. The uncredited author of “It Fell from a Flying Saucer” penned a middlebrow Cold War sf parable about the danger of getting what you wished for (read: utopianism). But as drawn by Kirby, its theme is the uncanny Platonic notion of an empirical world that is not as truly real as the archetypal realm. Kirby was no naive utopian, but he did believe that another world is possible. Long before his post-’63 new-wave visual experimentation (I’m thinking of the photomontages, in particular) and writing (“And that is the insidious charm of ‘Happyland’! For Moonrider, it’s now an unbreakable, transparent cage!”), Kirby’s artwork suggested the gnostic’s intuition that all might change, change utterly. Why, the very flesh of the man pictured here ripples with barely contained potential: he might be Steve Rogers, half-evolved into a super-soldier — or Ben Grimm, Bruce Banner, Buddy Blank!
No matter what other comic-book scholars tell you, the so-called Golden Age of comics lasted from their first appearance in 1934 until Kirby went New Wave after ’63. During that era, Kirby-drawn sf comics — e.g., in the ’30s, “The Diary of Dr. Hayward”; in the ’40s, The Solar Legion, Captain America, “Thought-World Monsters”; in the ’50s, Challengers of the Unknown, Green Arrow, “Saucer Men”; in the early ’60s, stories in Strange Worlds, et al., plus The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The X-Men — were the uncanniest. It’s as though they fell from a flying saucer.
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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 | 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 |