Jack Kirby In The Valley

By Dan Nadel

JACK KIRBY IN THE VALLEY


BY DAN NADEL
All scans courtesy of the Jack Kirby Museum’s Original Art Digital Archive (www.kirbymuseum.org), with help from Tom Kraft of What If Kirby (www.whatifkirby.com). All images are pencil and ink on board and all characters and likenesses are TM and © DC Entertainment.

A pillar of Kirby’s “Fourth World” construction: Mister Miracle 16, 1973.

When he first settled in Southern California in 1969, Jack Kirby was kept up at night by hippie bikers circling the hillside on which his ranch-style home was perched. The noise drove him to distraction, and Kirby, a man already infinitely distractible—a man who was forbidden to drive by his wife, Roz, because his daydreams were too vivid—was in agony. Kirby, at 52 years old, was moving deeper into the 20th century and was disturbed and inspired by it. Even in his new paradise, as with the fantastic vistas in his own work, chaos was always cracking the surface.

Kirby moved west from Long Island primarily for his daughter Lisa’s asthma, but the American dream and Hollywood didn’t hurt either. Except for his years in World War II, he’d spent his entire life in the New York City area. He had drawn comics since 1936. He was, and remains, justly venerated for his dynamism and visual inventiveness. Kirby’s drawings have the buzzing energy we associate with the best of comic books, with characters bursting across pages. His ability to design costumes, cities, and worlds was unparalleled. He was a one-man invention machine, and in the 1960s he had co-created a universe of characters (ahem, “properties”) for Marvel Comics (the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor were all Kirby’s) and seen them merchandised to the max with nothing given to him but empty promises and his regular page rate. Jack Kirby was a dignified man, and a man who honored a deal. It just so happened that the deals to be had from a comic-book company were more like demands, the most important of which was that the company owns what the artist creates. Kirby didn’t raise a fuss until much later, when he couldn’t bear it any longer. And Kirby was not naive about his own abilities. Speaking to Mark Herbert in 1969, he said, “I feel I’m God because these things are living or moving to my concepts. Good or bad, that’s how they come out. I can even punish them by erasing them but I’m not that mad yet. I like to make them as perfect as I can, and I feel now that’s what God is doing with us” (Nostalgia Journal 30-31, 1976).

A man with this attitude, combined with a strong sense of loyalty and a need to provide for his wife and three kids, was going to have a hard time. A tortured time. Kirby, who grew up poor and Jewish on the Lower East Side, was godlike in his abilities. He was a one-man mythos machine, and he knew it. But he was powerless in all other practical matters. So when the movie deals were announced and the animated cartoons aired and other artists began steering his characters, Kirby was angry. All he could do was leave.


One of Kirby’s talents was injecting familiar genres into unlikely scenarios: Here’s a lone horseman, à la John Huston, in a cosmic world. Forever People 7, 1972.

He split from Marvel in 1970 and accepted a three-year contract (plus a two-year extension option) with DC Comics that allowed him complete(-ish) creative control, if not ownership. In California, he took over his own production, and for five years he wrote, drew, and edited various titles, including his grandiose “Fourth World” saga, in which he imagined a new pantheon of gods in conflict across four titles: Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen; The Forever People; Mister Miracle; and New Gods. This was Kirby’s moment of operatic, cosmic comics. These titles defined his life’s work and cast a long shadow backward and forward. Then DC canceled them after just three years, leaving Kirby at full steam and loose ends. He’d already begun work on ancillary titles, like Kamandi (1972), but he picked up other jobs in a variety of genres, the restrictions of which often pushed him hard. War, especially, was a natural for Kirby, so Our Fighting Forces came along in 1974. Both titles, while not the free-form blowing of the “Fourth World,” show Kirby at his best as a wily and inventive freelancer, a man whose sense of the world was sometimes best expressed in the most seemingly generic venues.

Kamandi began as a Planet of the Apes rip-off. DC wasn’t able to obtain the licensing to adapt the movies, so they tasked Kirby with coming up with something that would take a slice of the Apes audience. He revived a comic strip idea he’d had in 1956 and set to work. Kamandi is a boy adrift in a postapocalyptic world ruled by a race of humanoid lions. Like nearly everything Kirby did, it is infused with humanity and urgency.

Issue 6 is not only the best of the series but also a highlight of Kirby’s entire career. Out for a buggy ride, Kamandi and his topless hippie girl, Flower, are harassed by lion bikers (all through the 70s, bikers zoom through Kirby comics as good or bad guys, but always really fucking loud guys). The two must take cover. Flower is a zaftig girl who is strong and beautiful and free, like all the best Kirby women. Our heroic couple take shelter in a bombed-out suburban house, where Kamandi solemnly stands guard through the night even as Flower beckons him. As he watches, the feral boy thinks, “It seems we have all the comforts in here. A man could stay here indefinitely with food and shelter supplied to him.” Kirby was an infantryman in the army, and this scene reads much like his descriptions of his war experiences in numerous interviews: sitting in the rubble of some chateau waiting for help to arrive or the other side to lose. A man could abide, Kirby/Kamandi supposed, huddled under a blanket, weapon in hand. But morning brings a new attack, and Flower, at first captured, frees herself only in time to hurl her beautiful body in front of a rifle shot, dying to save her lover. Silently, Kamandi carries her outside to grieve.


The bikers destroy the peace in this highly cinematic, noisy visual from Kamandi 6, 1973.

Kirby was a man of pulps, and this is silly material on its surface. But he burrowed deep into it, discovered the most primal aspects, and highlighted them. For Kirby, a man must protect and fight if necessary, but he prefers peace. A man stands solemn, but is unafraid to hunt and to love. It’s an abstraction of the most basic mythological values, somehow transmuted into entertainment. It’s not didactic, but Kirby gets his point across. He wishes for sensible manliness and responsibility and yet is unafraid to love and mourn. He’s not a hippie, not a cold-war Spartan, but some kind of pulp humanist. Or think of it this way: Kirby was a visionary who had vivid memories of his Austrian-Jewish immigrant mother; who supported his family with his drawing in the depths of the Depression; who cocreated Captain America and then fought and killed in the European theater during World War II. Then, from a house on Long Island, he began to watch the century pass. He understood how different things once were and that he’d bridged an unimaginable divide. It’s reflected in his work, particularly in the 1970s. He’d passed through a pop-cultural bonanza, and now it was time to woodshed and return to his 1940s and 50s roots, projecting through the most basic pulp forms in order to realize a vision of the world that was godlike in his history-making and value-enforcing.

It’s often remarked by Kirby associates that when he drew (moving from left to right across a page, rarely planning an entire composition in advance), it was as though he were rendering from some inner projection. Kirby once said, “I always felt that when I pencil a drawing, that’s it for me. It may sound very eccentric but I feel that’s it for me, and if I were inking it I would be drawing that picture all over again for no reason at all. I won’t ink it if I don’t have to. I feel inking in itself is a separate kind of art.” (Nostalgia Journal 30-31, 1976). For Kirby, the initial act of creation was the beginning and end of his process. Other artists considered the inked images (only inked images could be properly photographed for reproduction) to be the end, but not Kirby. For a man racing from one idea to the next, a man capable of 20 pages a week or more, spending any time “redrawing” a page would be a waste of valuable creative energy. And Kirby was the rare artist who could move back and forth in time with ease, seeming to grasp past and present in a single shot. The two-page spread from Kamandi 8 is a perfect encapsulation of this sensibility and of Kirby himself: An imagined postapocalyptic museum in which the Lincoln Memorial is hoisted aloft among artifacts of an esoteric new civilization.


 
The beginning and middle of Kamandi 6, 1973, as Kamandi and Kirby move from carefree to solemn.

And none of those artifacts were more telling than those left behind by war. At the end of his DC comics run, he was doing a story named “The Losers” for a third-tier comic book called Our Fighting Forces. The intrigue of “The Losers,” which, like all of the comics he wrote, drew, and edited, is that it feels like Kirby’s war. Instead of lead heroes or patriotism, Kirby is drawing a gang that, while interesting enough, functions mostly to serve the action and to support stories. Kirby himself was drafted in 1943 and arrived in Normandy in August 1944, just ten days after the invasion, the evidence of which was still there for him to see, as he later remembered: “All the guys on the landings were still laying there.” Kirby saw and lived through horrific events, including the liberation of a concentration camp. Thirty years later, he was drawing the war, spinning yarns 30 years gone. He’s not mythologizing. Neither is he moralizing, as becomes clear by reading an entire story. The drawing is clear and diagrammatic—oddly clean for such frequently grotesque subject matter, but look at the pages one after the other and you see that the clarity is necessary because the Losers are in constant motion: The next action is always about to occur, and Kirby never brings the forward motion to a halt until the end of the story. “The Losers” is a ghost version of war, played out in Kirby’s mind as if to invent some way to truly reckon with World War II.

“There is nothing that you would call ‘romantic’ about war,” he told Ray Wyman (Jack Kirby Collector 27, 1999). “Sure, in the movies and on television they paint a great picture of the fellowship that it creates. I’ve seen war bring lots of people together, but I can tell you that the cost is extremely high: not just in terms of lives, but in the human spirit. I think that we are diminished by war; our character as a race is somehow reduced by each war that we allow to happen. Hitler had to be destroyed, there was no choice and I was glad to do my duty—but if there were another way to bring him down I would have preferred it. Perhaps the Germans would have been defeated by their own ambition; they could not possibly hold all of Europe forever—the more you force people down, the more they will push back. It is human nature to be free and I feel that eventually there would have been a revolt. Perhaps it was the right thing to do, but I do not think that this applies to other wars that this country has fought. This country has always been at war—it was started by war. Perhaps that is how it will end.”


 
The three climactic pages from Our Fighting Forces 156, 1975.

In issue 156 of Our Fighting Forces, Kirby remembers a glamorous wartime NYC, complete with an elaborate marquee and a bustling crowd resplendently turned out. But in Kirby, normalcy is always in peril: As the heroes recognize a Nazi spy in the crowd, the explosion of action and parting of bulky masses of people is vintage Kirby in the drama and velocity of the lines and forms. Once again, the themes are heroism and nobility even in chaos. And once again, Kirby seems to be asking for some humanity in it all.

The 1970s were good to Jack Kirby. Set loose in California and briefly given a new start, he invented and reinvented at a startling pace—jumping between worlds and eras with a success he would not again achieve. In 1975, he reluctantly returned to Marvel for a few years before finally going to work in animation, semi-retiring from comics. He lived until 1994. His final years were spent receiving the accolades of fans. But the roar of the bikers was never far behind, and to the end Kirby would maintain his dignity and his implicit search: “I’m a guy that lives with a lot of questions,” he said in the 1987 documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art. “I say, ‘What’s out there?’ and I try to resolve that, and I never can. Who’s got the answers? I sure would love to hear the ultimate one. But I haven’t yet, so I live with a lot of questions, and I find that entertaining. And if my life woulda went tomorrow, it would be fulfilled in that manner. I would say, ‘The questions have been terrific.’”


A half-inked page from the still-unpublished True Life Divorce 1, 1970. This page is a notable example of just how much detail Kirby would put into his penciled pages before handing them over to the inker.

 

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