Kirb Your Enthusiasm (25)
By: Douglas Wolk | Categories: Popular, Read-outs

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

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Click on image for larger version. Click on that image to zoom in.

Imagine for a moment that somebody — not Jack Kirby — wrote a script for 2001: A Space Odyssey #9 (August 1977), and that somebody else — also not Jack Kirby — was going to have to draw it. The description of this panel would probably have said something like “Interior: a small prison cell. X-51, our robotic protagonist, is seething at being locked up. His face has been stolen, and we can see the machinery beneath it — maybe a couple of red lights for eyes — along with an identifying plate on his forehead that says ‘X-51.’ He’s prepping the weapons systems in his gloves, figuring out how he’s going to break out.” The artist might have staged it any number of ways: a long shot of X-51 meditating in the corner of his cell, or inspecting it for an escape route, or maybe some kind of surveillance image, overlaid with a set of shadows to emphasize the bars of the cage. The idea is to establish the setting, the situation and the character, right? Storytelling 101.

Except Kirby was, of course, doing the whole damn thing himself. (“Edited, written and drawn by Jack Kirby,” reads the credit at the top of the page: in that order, apparently.) He also knew that Storytelling 101 won’t do you a crumb of good if you don’t grab the reader by the shoulders from the get-go. So the story opens with the most dramatic image the situation permits: we’re looking at X-51 from the perspective of something (the door, as it happens) that he’s a microsecond away from smashing clear into next week, and his fist is zooming in on us, occupying a full quarter of our visual field. Kirby and inker Mike Royer’s line here is so thick that it’s not just mapping the contours of the character’s shape, it’s indicating that those contours are about to make contact with your own. Each of the robot’s fingers appears to be a different kind of weapon, bristling with Kirbytech circuitry (and there’s a Kirbytech lockpick extending from his left fuck-you finger to his right j’accuse fingernail); his eyes and mouth are glowing with three different strains of electronic heat.

Guess what, though? This panel still does all that 101 stuff without even breathing hard. The cramped, stuffed layout makes it obvious that X-51 is trapped in a very small space; the three tiny “air vents” at the right of the panel, in conjunction with the blobby shadows of Royer’s inks, are all the visual cues we need to know that he’s imprisoned. And the robot’s face here, with its snap-to-lock striations and uncovered lighting sources, is the metallic equivalent of a skinned skull — missing its surface and desperate to get it back. Every element of the story’s physical facts and psychological perceptions is present in this drawing, and they’re all about to explode.

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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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Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics and Live at the Apollo. He writes for Techland.com, Time, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Wired, Print and elsewhere.