Kirb Your Enthusiasm (13)
By: Jim Shepard | Categories: Read-outs

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

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An interviewer recently noted about my fiction that when it comes to endings, I often seem to set the stage for a massive, inevitable reckoning, but then pull away just as all hell’s about to break loose. In other words, I seem to be interested in endings that leave the reader with a sense of the inevitability of what’s about to unfold but don’t necessarily take the reader all the way there. Another fiction writer, Charlie Baxter, having noticed the same thing in my work, once teased me for being the king of the in media res ending. There’s a lot I like about that strategy: for example, it’s a useful way out of the circumscribing box that some of the narratives I choose would seem to generate. When I write a story about crew members on the Hindenburg, the reader mutters to herself, How on earth is this going to end in a way that’s at all surprising? But stopping where I do allows me to mobilize Chekhov’s assertion that the job of the short story isn’t to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.

Thinking about Jack Kirby has reminded me how much of that tendency I may owe to him. Way back and lost in the mists of time, when I was six or seven, probably, I came across one of his stories in one of the fantasy/sci-fi comics in which he worked — almost certainly either Strange Tales or Journey into Mystery. I no longer remember that much of the story or its title. But I’ll never forget its ending, and the effect it had on me. The story involved two different aliens — both with the kind of squashed-down, monsters-of-the-weight-room physiognomies that Kirby so loved — having arrived on earth to take it over, and discovering each other before having revealed their presence to the humans they intend to sweep aside. And the story ends with the two aliens locked in mortal combat, swinging away at one another. In the next-to-last panel they begin their battle, and in the final panel we’ve moved farther away from them, and they’re continuing their battle, in a long shot. While the world unsuspectingly goes about its business. I was floored. I thought about that comic for the rest of the day, the week, the month. And I still can picture that final image today.

The panel I chose, from “The Thing Called… IT!”, (Strange Tales, March 1961) illustrates the other aspect of Kirby that meant so much to me: his visceral and nightmarish and utterly dramatic sense of space. How many disorienting angles can we be given at once? The mad scientist is falling, upside down, and we’re vertiginously above him, and his left hand is reaching out for us? And how inspired is that black and spidery hair? Did anyone in comics do more to make space within the frame dynamic in ways that were unsettling? I’m no expert, but on the basis of what I’ve seen, I’d say no.

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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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Jim Shepard's most recent story collection is You Think That's Bad, coming out this month.