Even though he died in 1994 at age 76, Jack Kirby’s work is more popular than ever. Much like this Hall of Fame honor, the impact of his work is still being felt. Kirby’s work in comic books, his chosen field, continues to inspire and is now the basis for dozens of blockbuster movies and TV shows. The comic book conventions he supported in their early development have become exactly what he expected: huge gatherings of fans of the fantastic, some wearing costumes, others scouting the scene for properties that can be adapted into movies, video games and more.
Kirby could sit down at a drawing board with a pencil and some 2-ply bristol board and, within hours or days, finish a multi-page dramatic tale of cosmic war, heartfelt romance or criminal justice. Comics afforded that—one person could create the bulk of the visual story work, with inking, lettering, and coloring, production being supplied by others. But most important, Jack Kirby was a story man. A font of inspiration, conflicts, science fiction and mythic storytelling.
Kirby’s art—his visual prowess—is why we’re here. At the most basic level his signature motifs include extreme foreshortening, the squiggle, and the “Kirby Krackle.” Most of Kirby’s art was drawn to serve a story he was telling. His goal was to pull his readers in, make them feel that they were in the story, the outside world peeling away, as if they were in a theater watching a movie.
His first blockbuster was Captain America Comics #1, produced with his partner Joe Simon, in December 1940 at the dawn of the modern comic book era. Kirby, Simon and publisher Martin Goodman offered America a star-spangled hero punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw, a full year before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which necessitated the U.S’s entry in World War II. It was a daring, effective cover and the book flew off the newsstands.
Within the comic, however, was something else: Kirby had taken many of the same lessons as his fellow comic book pioneers from the hugely popular newspaper comic strip artists of the day, especially Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon, Hal Foster of Tarzan and Prince Valiant, and Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates. Kirby added his personal experiences from his days as a tough street kid on New York City’s Lower East Side and drew some choreographed fight scenes. Looking awkward to the modern eye, these action sequences, and the Simon and Kirby team’s exploitation of the multi-page format, not only made the book a top seller and put them at the top of their field, but brought the reader into the comic like no other.
Over the course of his career, Kirby mastered the portrayal of action sequences on the comic book page. His depiction of the human form evolved away from any kind of illustrative anatomical accuracy and into a more cartoonish abstraction. At times, characters leap across a panel or swing an arm or leg, and Kirby would draw the viewer’s eye into and across the panel using extreme foreshortening. A leg or fist could become larger than the torso or head, with comic book “speed lines” indicating motion.
Additionally, his figurative abstraction brought about “the squiggle.” At first an indicator of the sheen of metal, or a character’s piece of armor or weapon, Kirby began using squiggles to delineate the separating line of shadows on a figure. At times, there was an anatomical analogue, but more often these squiggles would help indicate an abstracted form in action.
One rainy day when he was twelve years old, Kirby’s imagination was energized by a Frank Paul painting on the cover of a drenched Wonder Stories science fiction pulp magazine that he found in the street, and he strove to similarly energize his readers’ minds throughout his career. Kirby had a bold hand when inking his own work in the early days. He spotted blacks to move the reader’s eye through the panel and the page, something he learned from studying Caniff. But depicting energy, whether a roiling sea or a blasting laser gun, was a different challenge. Kirby developed the technique of drawing dots of different sizes—some overlapping, some individually. But it wasn’t the dots themselves that Kirby was after, it was the negative space that, colored dynamically, could indicate pulsing energy. As with his “squiggles,” Kirby had help developing this technique from his later inkers: Wallace Wood, Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer. To this day, anyone who creates a work in the Kirby style will invariably include extreme foreshortening, squiggles and “Krackle.”
As a pioneer of the comic book form—along with his partner Joe Simon, former boss Will Eisner, and contemporary Jack Cole—Kirby knew that innovation could bring great rewards. He and Simon took advantage of splash pages and center spreads for increased visual dazzle. In the chaotic post-World War II economy, they hit pay dirt by developing the romance comic genre. In the mid-1950s, after he and Simon split, Kirby kept working in comics—anonymously, as most artists did. But comic readers knew “that artist” who drew Green Arrow and the Challengers of the Unknown, and The Fly—that artist was exciting, one who pulled them into the stories like no other. It was only when “J. Kirby” began appearing in books from Martin Goodman’s Atlas Comics (nee Timely) that the young readers knew the name. Kirby convinced editor Stan Lee and publisher Martin Goodman to bring back super heroes, just in time for young baby-boomers with some pocket change. Goodman’s pay rate was so low, Kirby took on a back-breaking workload, writing and drawing an incredible amount of stories to start and keep the line, soon renamed Marvel Comics, going.
At Marvel, in the post-Sputnik era of the space race, Kirby’s depiction of technology and the cosmos seriously captured imaginations. His machines, weapons, spaceships and the like, became elaborate and formidable. Outer space became vast and cosmic, with the amoral threat, Galactus, and his scout, the fallen angel/fish-out-of water, Silver Surfer. Parallel dimensions, micro-universes, pocket zones of reality all became part of Kirby’s story-and-visual palette, and through it all “the squiggle” and “Krackle” became ever more important storytelling tools.
Once the Marvel line stabilized, Kirby was able to slow down a little, and, picking up on some of the visual trends happening in other fields, he began including collage in his work. Pioneer Pop artist Richard Hamilton had previously included Kirby art in his landmark 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? Kirby’s collages were incredible, mind-blowing images, but sadly, the production model of the comic book, arguably the item on the newsstand with the lowest-price point, couldn’t step up to serve Kirby’s kaleidoscopic intent.
At Marvel, after the 1960s, when his skills at their peak, Kirby produced the more personal work of the Fourth World (New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle), the success of which was foiled by the instability and corruption of the newsstand business model. His use of splashes and spreads during this time was unparalleled, and his art style expanded to fit the epic scope of the stories being told. On the later The Demon, OMAC and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, he developed an “initial splash, spread, story page, chapter splash” visual structure that encouraged the casual newsstand browser to take the eye-popping wonder home.
For the most part, from this point on Kirby’s art had evolved as much as it would until he passed away. The reduced page count of newsstand comic books caused him to reduce the spreads and interior splashes in his stories. His interest grew even more towards the stories he was telling and lessened on the visuals. Nevertheless, his work on Marvel’s The Eternals and the later unproduced Lord Of Light or Science Fiction Land stand out as exemplary late Kirby designs.
Jack Kirby designed countless characters and locales, and being a comic book artist, drew thousands and thousands of drawings to tell his stories. As a pre-eminent visual storyteller of the last century, he would certainly have appreciated being included in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.
Acting Executive Director
Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center