Btoom! Kirby vs. Lee (1)

By: Rob Steibel
June 28, 2011

Fantastic Four Page 3, panel 1 (published)

The published image is actually quite messy, which is fairly common for a lot of pre-digital-era comic book art. Note especially the blue color obscuring part of Mr. Fantastic’s face. You can see the red coloring is a little off in the sound effect. The purple background bleeds into the word balloons. Such was the nature of comic book publishing during the Sixties, but I suppose some fans feel a nostalgic love for the old comic book images — I know I loved them as a kid, and barely even noticed the sloppy color printing when I was 13 years old.

[HiLobrow recently published a series of 25 posts, by 25 authors, each analyzing a single panel from a Jack Kirby-drawn comic book. That series was followed by additional Kirby exegetical commentaries, of which this series of five posts by Rob Steibel is the final example. Series intro here.]

As most of you know, when Marvel reprinted much of this material starting in the Seventies, they used stats — inferior copies of the original B/W images — meaning a certain amount of detail was lost in the reprint process. So although sometimes the coloring creates a little bit of a mess, the original Sixties publications are the best way to look at a fairly clear and accurate published representation of the original art (although I do believe Marvel has used some of the actual source documents scanned by owners of original artwork for a few of their recent Kirby reprint publications).

Obviously looking at the original artwork itself is the best way to see it in its purest form.

Click on image for larger version

Fantastic Four Page 3, panel 1 (original artwork)

A classic example of 1960s Jack Kirby/Joe Sinnott artwork. Jack was a master of perspective; the character Triton looks like he’s blasting right off of the page. Notice how Jack’s inker Joe Sinnott carefully delineates the machinery along the right-hand wall, giving the whole panel a realistic three-dimensional feel. Also see how Sinnott carefully inks every single geometric scale on Triton’s body; Joe’s incredible attention to detail and perfectionism makes Kirby’s composition even more powerful and technically perfect.

I asked Joe Sinnott’s son Mark how long it took Joe to ink a typical page of Kirby art. Mark told me his father consistently worked eight hours a day, and he could usually ink about three pages of Kirby art per day unless there was an overabundance of detail, in which case Joe might only be able to ink two pages of Kirby art in a day. I think Joe Sinnott’s willingness to put in that extra time on complex compositions is one of the reasons the Kirby/Sinnott artwork is so special and so influential. Sinnott gave Kirby’s raw pencils a beautiful sheen reminiscent of the wonderful work produced by other stellar comics inkers who are considered India Ink masters — men like Alex Raymond and Wallace Wood. Some critics have argued that Joe “prettied-up” Jack’s work too much, but I think the combination is wonderful: Joe’s gorgeous, slick line-work made Jack’s sometimes ugly, wild, weird, impressionistic, abstract visuals more accessible to many readers. I know when I was reading reprints of the stories in the Marvel’s Greatest Comics series during the late Seventies, I was one of those fans who instinctively felt the Kirby/Sinnott combination was the best one-two punch in comics.

Here is what Jack’s margin notes say in the top-left of the page over panel 1: “Triton using air jet gun, he used to propel himself in Negative Zone to rescue Reed — now propels himself to roof.”

To me, this is a great example of Kirby being an extraordinarily considerate collaborator. Jack’s text makes it very clear to Stan Lee what type of technology he’s having Triton use to shoot himself into the sky. This would save Stan a great deal of time when he would add dialogue to Jack’s visuals; Stan didn’t have to waste a moment trying to figure out what was taking place in Jack’s story — Kirby made it crystal clear in the margin notes. Also notice Lee incorporates Kirby’s directions into the dialogue — the Thing’s dialogue reinforces the concept that Triton is using an air gun to fly: “But yer only weapon is that nutty air gun!” Interestingly, Lee’s dialogue for the Thing frequently resembles the vernacular of Jack’s written margin notes.

Here’s a comment Lee made when discussing the Kirby/Lee collaboration during his recent testimony in the Kirby vs. Disney/Marvel court case. The complete transcript is here.

Lee was asked, “Did Mr. Kirby ever suggest dialogue?”

STAN LEE: “Not orally, but what he would do, when I would give Jack a rough idea for what the story should be, and he went home and he drew it in his own way, laying it out the way he thought it would be best, he would put in the borders, the margins of the pages, he would put little notes letting — so I would understand what he was getting at with each drawing, and he would sometimes put dialogue suggestions also.”

It also appears Lee had someone add some speed lines to the sound effect because they lack Joe Sinnott’s trademark confident thin-to-thick brushstroke.

Looking at a few hundred examples of Kirby margin notes over the last few years (scans sent in by collectors, mainly scans I collected online), I think this panel is a fairly representative example of the symbiotic working relationship that existed between Kirby/Lee/Sinnott. This seems to be the chronology: (1) Kirby begins the process with the illustrated story and margin notes, frequently Jack doesn’t even work from a plot. He mails the art to Lee in NYC; (2) Lee adds captions and dialogue (either type-written, or sometimes in blue-line pencil on the artwork itself); (3) the letterer (in this case Sam Rosen) adds illustrated text; (4) the artwork is mailed to Joe Sinnott who inks Jack’s pencils; (5) then Joe mails the finished art back to the Marvel offices where Stan Lee goes over it again and makes additional changes, which are carried out by members of the office production staff like Sold Brodsky or John Romita.

For example, look closely at the word balloon in the top left corner — you can see all the dialogue has been covered in white-out, and replaced with the text written in the small circle right above the change. Those notes are in Stan Lee’s handwriting. This is obviously a change made at the very end of the process.

Here’s another quote from Lee from his testimony, discussing giving Kirby a plot or a story:

STAN LEE: “… I might give him a very skimpy outline like let Dr. Doom kidnap Sue. Now, when he drew the strip, he might introduce a lot of characters that he came up with in the story. He might decide to have Dr. Doom send some giant robot to get Sue Storm, and he would make up the robot. Or there might be some other people. Sure, Jack would often introduce a lot of new characters in the stories.”

Here’s another quote where Lee discussed the division of labor from Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman’s brief biography of Jack available at the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center website:

STAN LEE: “‘Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others. Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, ‘Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom’… or I may not even say that. He may tell me… he just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing.”

Jack Kirby (left) and Joe Sinnott, at a convention in the early or mid-1970s.

MORE TOMORROW!

***

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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What do you think?

  1. Very very interesting. I’d not seen such explicit evidence of Kirby’s contribution to dialogue.

    But the one thing we should render unto Stan is an energetic ear for dialogue and mastery of hyperbolic pulp polyphony. I think even Evanier describes Jack as having a ‘tin-ear’ for dialogue. Kirby’s prose has its own appeal, but you have to put in a lot of secondary reading to retrieve it.

    Your praise for Joe Sinnott is perfectly articulated. You do get a lot of Joe in this run — often around faces. For example he corrects Kirby’s tendency to draw those assymetrical eyes that glared from the page in one of the rare cases whereby Kirby dynamism was just a little misplaced. It’s a terrible pun and extended metaphor but I always felt that Joe, as the Catholic member of the trio, was an agent of redemption for Jack’s occasional sins in terms of facial expression, and other small details, and brought immense ‘grace’ to the raw energy. Joe Sinnott’s unwavering commitment to quality over speed was a truly moral stance, a genuine material sacrifice, given the fact that artists were paid by the page — and all the more impressive because I’m pretty sure that he didn’t expect to be critically dissected in such detail forty years later or even four weeks after publication.

    So here’s one analogy that hasn’t been done before, as far as I know: Its the Holy Trinity. Stan God, the keeper of The Word, but leaves the explanation to Jack Christ who gives the spirit bodily and physical form, and Joe Ghost, smoothing through the process in subtle ways that mesh the trio together. And if that’s not the nuttiest KIrby-Lee-Sinnott analogy ever, then kindly dispatch me to the Negative Zone without a tether.

    Excited about tomorrow!!

  2. Don’t you mean Stan the Father (not God)? They’re all God, according to the Scutum Fidei.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Greg.

    Not sure if I’d use something as lofty as the holy trinity as a metaphor for the Kirby/Lee/Sinnott triumvirate, but I agree Joe Sinnott’s “unwavering commitment to quality” is remarkable. My guess is that Joe has tremendous artistic integrity — he’s one of those rare people who gives 100% to every single brushstroke.

    It’s still not fashionable to compare comic book art to classics of “fine art,” but in my opinion the 1960s Kirby/Sinnott illustrations certainly feature tremendous artistic skill and craftsmanship comparable to other masterpieces of pen and ink, such as the extraordinary spiritual art produced by the Zen masters, and specifically the wonderful Ukiyo-e “floating world” Japanese woodblock prints.

    If I was going to compare Kirby/Lee/Sinnott to another power trio (and pardon me if this one is lame — no analogy’s perfect), one that pops to mind is the band Rush: Kirby as Neil Peart writing the songs and structuring them with rhythm; Stan as Geddy Lee singing the lyrics and adding bass/synthesizers; Sinnott as Alex Lifeson contributing guitar tracks that take the composition to the next level.

    Interestingly Kirby and Sinnott only met face -to-face once or twice in their whole career — they both worked at home. I’ll email a photograph to HiLobrow that Joe’s son, Mark Sinnott, sent me a few years ago of Kirby and Joe Sinnott together at a convention in 1972, and maybe it can be pasted into this post.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  4. Sorry Josh. Big theological slip there. Although I think certain versions of Byzantine Orthodoxy and late Medieval English heretics do play around with the idea.

    Anyway it’s a bit off topic.

    Sinnott is most definitely a fine craftsman, perhaps comparable to those guys (can’t remember names) who drew those incredibly detailed and aesthetically pleasing renditions of flora and fauna in the 17th Century.

    Kirby, on the other hand, destroys any pre-existing aesthetic categories with a Motherbox and an ounce of Krackle.

  5. FYI: The quote, starting with “Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others…” was taken from an interview of Lee by Ted White, “Castle of Frankenstein” magazine, 1968 – I referenced the same interview in “The Art of Jack Kirby” (1993).

  6. One thing I like is that Stan Lee seems very honest when asked questions like this. He gives credit where credit is due. I remember a video of him talking about Steve Ditko and the fight for Ditko to have some creation rights regarding Spider-man.

    I can’t remember Lee’s exact response, but remember thinking what he said and offered was fair.

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