Kirby’s Women
By: Matt Seneca | Categories: Read-outs

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Comics art is undoubtedly a medium for stylists. From the form’s beginnings to the present day, its most accomplished artists have distilled their drawing into exaggeration and caricature, paring away naturalistic realism and allowing for more and more individual expression to color the way we see their worlds. This process usually involves repetition of certain stock elements that are best suited to the particularities of the artist’s work. Subject dictates style: Frank Miller drew better as his cityscapes got bigger and blacker, Frank King found innovation and beauty when he left cars behind for tender family scenes, George Herriman became a poet only once he moved into the lyric landscape of the American desert. For his part, Jack Kirby had bone-powdering action sequences and taut, rigid musclemen in spasmodic motion, and he had them in such abundance that he was able to construct a bold, iconographic way of picture-making around the stylistic gestures that best suited explosive depictions of men in action.

[HiLobrow recently published a series of 25 posts, by 25 authors, each analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book. This essay by Matt Seneca is the fourth of five Kirby exegetical commentaries that we'll publish in weeks to come.]

But comics is such that even the purest and most focused stylists are forced by story to draw things that lie outside their comfort zones. The world of Kirby is stone and pulsing energy and men at war or at uneasy rest between battles, nothing much that is feminine or even sensuous. Kirby women are rare examples of the artist drawing things that seem out of sync with the towering, expressionistic environment that all his work takes place in. Facial features that seem unfixed from the heads they reside on, curves that seem more hard plastic than soft flesh; an artist up against the ideal form of something rather than deep into it. Kirby drew best when he was creating something formidable, whether it was an apocalyptic landscape or an alien spacecraft or a hideous monster. His lithely muscled heroes were surely beautiful, but they too were formidable creatures. In Kirby’s section of the comics medium, however — genre — women are rarely formidable, rarely anything but vulnerable and frightened or uncomprehending. None of those things fit in much with Kirby’s aesthetic, and neither did the Stan Lee-written damsel-in-distress girlfriends he drew for Thor and the Human Torch over most of the 1960s; they were so washed out and ill-defined that they looked like shadows in comparison to everything else sprung from the hand that made them.

The more design and thought Kirby put into a character, the more power the character accrued. He was never meant to draw the average action comic’s shrinking violet of a “gal.” When Kirby put his soul into drawing a woman, it came out like this panel from Weird Mystery Tales #1 (August 1972). His typical awkwardness in drawing women makes this panel all the more impressive, because here he really, really gets it right. The amphibious maiden seen here is literally too big for her frame, part of her cut off by the borders on every side, bursting out at the readers. She floats against an undefined color field, her light-as-air pose destroying the viewer’s sense of gravity and perspective. Are we looking down at her from above? Next to her? We aren’t given that information, and this is vertigo. Like so much else Kirby drew, this panel is an expression of the powerful, but it isn’t a masculine, dynamic power — it’s deeper, more atmospheric. The green-skinned being Kirby draws may not be inherently sexy, but her gently clasped fingers and her utterly languid pose are pure sensuality. So are the fluid black marks ribboning down her skin, the shadows they trace less an expression of realistic lighting and more an evocation of thick, decadent physicality. When a Kirby woman is sexy, it’s because she could blink and have the world at her feet.

There’s as much formidability, as much grandeur in this Sumerian witch queen as any of Kirby’s better-known creations. The face is a face for the ages, smooth and stony and impassive, surely a silent witness to more than any of its readers could possibly have seen. The costuming draws its rich elegance from its alien quality, the compellingly byzantine structure of all Kirby’s best design pieces. The woman’s silhouette is as idealized as any of Kirby’s male figures, humming with a slow and sinuous grace instead of exploding with power. It’s a design that has as much of the monstrous as the pretty to it, a stunning expression of an aesthetic that constantly navigated the space between those two extremes.

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CHECK OUT “Cosmic Debris: Kirby in the ’70s,” a series that ran 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

KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: 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 | BTOOM! Kirby vs. Lee, by Rob Steibel

SIMILAR HILOBROW SERIES: SECRET PANEL —Silver Age comics’ double entendres | SKRULLICISM

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Matt Seneca is a cartoonist and writer living in Los Angeles. He blogs at Death to the Universe and writes for The Comics Journal.