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.
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
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