Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part 3)

In November 1961 The Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands across America. The story of four uniquely powered individuals related to each other as relatives, in friendship and purpose, revolutionised the industry. Although clearly reminiscent of hundreds of Sci-fi books before this had a comparative naturalism to it that hadn’t been seen before blended with a cosmic purview informed by boundless imagination. It was powered by Marvel Editor-in-chief Stan Lee and seasoned comics artist Jack Kirby.

For almost a decade, Kirby provided Marvel’s house style, co-creating with Stan Lee many of the Marvel characters and designing their visual motifs. At Lee’s request he often provided ‘new-to-marvel artists ‘breakdown’ layouts, over which they would pencil in order to become acquainted with the Marvel look. As artist Gil Kane described:

‘Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company … It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but … Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field … [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists … and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. … Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me … It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.’

Highlights from the House of Ideas other than the Fantastic Four include: Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Uatu the Watcher, Magneto, Ego the Living Planet, the Inhumans and their hidden city Attilan and the Black Panther – comic’s first black superhero – and his African nation Wakanda. Last year and 2010 Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men grossed worldwide ($1,425,062,845) One Billion, four hundred and twenty five million, sixty two thousand, eight hundred and forty five dollars (A combination of $623,933,331 for Iron Man 2, $448,512,824 for Thor and $352,616,690 for X-Men: First Class). This was begun by two men, one of which was Jack Kirby. They cemented the concepts so clearly that while developed, the core values remain. All of them have the best writers, directors and actors vying to be a small part in the development of these ideas formed 51 years ago. Decades of the most talented artists have looked to Kirby for inspiration. His ideas as only presented more clearly, barely changed from the original concept design – perhaps drawn, in one case, on a table in Brooklyn many years before – with thoughts of war he hadn’t yet been called on to fight in his mind.

In March 1964, Simon and Kirby’s Captain America was also incorporated into Marvel, Kirby approving Lee’s idea of partially remaking the characters as a man out of his time and regretting the death of his partner. The suit returned almost exactly as it had been 23 years before. Last year, Captain America made $368,608,363 at the box office as Kirby’s suit stepped, again almost unchanged close to 70 years after the day it was designed on the back of Chris Evans.

In 1968 and 1969, Joe Simon was involved in litigation with Marvel Comics over the ownership of Captain America, initiated by Marvel after Simon registered the copyright renewal for Captain America in his own name. According to Simon, Kirby agreed to support the company in the litigation and, as part of a deal Kirby made with publisher Martin Goodman, signed over to Marvel any rights he might have had to the character.

Kirby continued to push the industries boundaries, devising photo collage covers and interiors reminiscent of ’80s artists in England playing with sellotape and photocopiers. Developing new drawing techniques such as the method of depicting energy fields known as ‘Kirbydots’ and other experiments. Able to handle high detail, explosive composition, emotion, perspective, conceptualisation and design – it was Kirby’s sense of scale that blows many artists away. Alien engines dwarf figures in certain panels, coils, springs and rivets collected together in such ways that they seem to be an optical illusion. Perspective twists in some of his environments such as Mr Fantastic’s lab in a way that somehow bends the eye. Many generations of artists have dismissed Kirby as dated or unsophisticated until presented with his depictions of machinery and the Silver Surfer.

A character of incredible simplicity, divinity and … just … cool. The concept of a humanoid riding the waves of space at incredible speeds highlights the natural beauty and associations with divine advancement incorporating the universe around it and the increased simplicity it brings. But none of that is said. But all of it is inherent. A perfectly formed, universally accessible character made even more interesting by Stan Lee by being a good man acting as herald to a being of unimaginable power. Again, the genius of the character is that it is a perfect template that can be adapted into anyone’s style. Much like any Kirby character you can mention. The simplicity and intuitive details he applies are often so universal that they are only more interesting with each new reinterpretation. While Iron Man had to inevitably change as technology developed, Thor still carries the same Hammer and wears the same white riveted top, Captain America still has his Red, White and Blue, the star on his chest and the skull cap design applied to him in the newest incarnation, the Ultimates, by Bryan Hitch is a throwback to Kirby’s original design, Hulk remains Green (as he was in his second appearance) and even had a Grey countenance as Peter David’s Joe Fixit in the ’90s – a nod to the original design. Black Panther, Magneto, The Inhumans and Attilan have also only ever been refined – never redesigned. This is the testament to the lasting influence of Kirby. Even the X-Men have retained the yellow and blue of their original uniforms for more than 45 years. Somehow Kirby just knew. Wiser than the rest of us what he put down on paper worked and generations of artists have never cracked how to improve on his original designs.

Yet, Kirby grew increasingly unhappy at Marvel. The reasons given for this included resentment over Stan Lee’s increasing media prominence, a lack of full creative control, anger over breaches of perceived promises by publisher Martin Goodman and at Marvel specifically for lack of credit for his story plotting, character creations and co-creations. He began to both script and draw some secondary features for Marvel, such as “The Inhumans” in Amazing Adventures, as well as horror stories for the anthology title Chamber of Darkness, and received full credit for doing so; but he eventually left the company in 1970 for rival DC Comics, under editorial director Carmine Infantino.

Spending nearly two years trying to negotiate a three year contract with the option of staying on a further two additional years. In 1970, at the age of 53, Kirby joined DC and immediately started creating a ‘Fourth World’. A trilogy of New Titles – New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People. He took on Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen because the series was without a stable creative team and he didn’t want to be responsible for losing anyone their job. The central villain of the Fourth World, Darkseid, and some other Fourth World concepts appeared in the pages of Jimmy Olsen before being launched as their own series, giving greater exposure to potential buyers. Jack Kirby remained an incredibly shrewd operator, still demonstrating the guile and forward thinking that is expected of great creative directors. Though here he was without a company, working as he had always wanted to. As a creative.

Kirby had a lasting effect on DC too, leaving characters that have recurred or consistently remained in the DC Universe, though not as centrally as the Marvel Universe. These included OMAC (seen in the Final Crisis crossover of 2009), Kamandi, The Demon, The Losers, Dingbats of Danger Street, Kobra and together with old partner Joe Simon for one last time, a new incarnation of the Sandman.

But it had to be said that rather than Kirby having Marvel blood in his veins, Marvel ran on Kirby Engine Oil and the company would always have taken him back. In 1975, Stan Lee used a Fantastic Four discussion panel to announce that Kirby was returning to Marvel. Ever the showman, Lee wrote in his monthly article ‘Stan Lee’s Soapbox’ that “I mentioned that I had a special announcement to make. As I started telling about Jack’s return, to a totally incredulous audience, everyone’s head started to snap around as Kirby himself came waltzin’ down the aisle to join us on the rostrum! You can imagine how it felt clownin’ around with the co-creator of most of Marvel’s greatest strips once more.”

Back at Marvel, Kirby both wrote and drew Captain America and created the series The Eternals, which featured a race of inscrutable alien giants, the Celestials, whose behind-the-scenes intervention in primordial humanity would eventually become a core element of Marvel Universe continuity. Kirby’s other Marvel creations in this period include Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and an adaptation and expansion of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as an abortive attempt to do the same for the classic television series, The Prisoner. He also wrote and drew Black Panther and did numerous covers across the line.

Still dissatisfied with Marvel’s treatment of him and with the companies refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, Kirby sadly left Marvel to work in animation. In that field, he did designs for Turbo Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and other animated television series. He also worked on The Fantastic Four cartoon show, reuniting him with scriptwriter Stan Lee. He illustrated an adaptation of the Walt Disney movie The Black Hole for Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales syndicated comic strip in 1979-80.

In the early 1980s, Pacific Comics, a new, non-newsstand comic book publisher, made a then-groundbreaking deal with Kirby to publish a creator-owned series Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers, and a six-issue mini-series called Silver Star which was collected in hardcover format in 2007. This, together with similar actions by other independent comics publishers as Eclipse Comics (where Kirby co-created Destroyer Duck in a benefit comic-book series published to help Steve Gerber fight a legal case versus Marvel), helped establish a precedent to end the monopoly of the work for hire system, wherein comics creators, even freelancers, had owned no rights to characters they created.
Though estranged from Marvel, Kirby continued to do periodic work for DC Comics during the 1980s, including a brief revival of his “Fourth World” saga in the 1984 and 1985 Super Powers mini-series and the 1985 graphic novel The Hunger Dogs. And in 1987, under much industry pressure, Marvel finally returned much of Kirby’s original art to him.
Kirby also retained ownership of characters used by Topps Comics beginning in 1993, for a set of series in what the company dubbed “The Kirbyverse”. These titles were derived mainly from designs and concepts that Kirby had kept in his files, some intended initially for the by-then-defunct Pacific Comics, and then licensed to Topps for what would become the “Jack Kirby’s Secret City Saga” mythos. Marvel posthumously published a “lost” Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four story, Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure (April 2008), with unused pages Kirby had originally drawn for Fantastic Four 108 (March 1971).
On February 6, 1994, Kirby died at age 76 of heart failure in his Thousand Oaks, California home. He was buried at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, Westlake Village, California.

Kirby’s legacy is enormous. Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis crossover hinged on Kirby’s Fourth World – specifically Darkseid himself – inflicting themselves on Earth, Captain America still leads the Avengers / Ultimates in colours picked out for him by a man he could have fought in the war with. The Hulk continues to smash, the Surfer continues to glide through the Marvel Universe. Artists around the world look to Kirby’s example of steadfast, unfussy iconography, simple, effective design and dizzying compositions. A generation of Marvel artists were trained by him. But more important than that, Jacob Kurtzberg of Suffolk Street, New York City built dreams others could build upon while simply building his own. He has influenced and inspired thousands of creatives (including this one) and built a House of Ideas that millions of people continue to enjoy. Kirby is a true legend to those who know, possibly the greatest comic book artist who ever lived. Responsible for the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and The Human Torch. If they existed, all of them would have visited the grave of Jack Kirby. The Hulk would have stood in the rain over Kirby’s resting place, a giant over a small guy’s crypt and simply said ‘Goodbye Dad’. With that, the broad shouldered goliath would turn and launch himself up into the sky, disappearing into the distance. If Kirby, lying where he was could see it he’d have thought ‘Good angle, but perhaps it could be just a little tighter…’

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Bunker backs Miles Morales as Ultimate Spider-man!!

With the riots taking the streets apart all over England (in particular in London) there is a distinct lack of respect on the streets right now. At times like these, any sign of anyone moving things forwards is welcome and Brian Michael Bendis has tried to do this with Miles Morales, the new incarnation of Spider-man in the Ultimate line.

With Peter Parker killed in the pages of the Ultimate Spider-man series a short while ago a replacement needed to be found and Marvel have taken a brilliant opportunity and run with it. The Ultimate line is an opportunity for Marvel to present modern ideas over the out-dated or original ones. It is not a replacement for the Marvel Universe, Spider-man still swings around New York with a little less rhythmn in the main continuity as Peter Parker. But the Ultimate line is being used effectively here and Marvel and Bendis need to be applauded for their efforts.

The Death of Peter Parker (Ultimate Spider-man 160, Marvel)

Miles Morales is half-black, half-Hispanic and as a result representative of two groups that have been unintentionally marginalised in mainstream comic books. It’s a positive, challenging and brave step by a company that could, given its success, easily rest on its laurels. As such Marvel is still attempting to push the envelope and we here at the Bunker are resolutely behind the idea.

However, sadly, and unsurprisingly, it hasn’t taken long for the backlash to begin. The internet chatrooms and comment boards piling up with the usual bile and overly aggressive response to the introduction of Miles Morales as the web spinner. According to an article written by Cynthia Wright in the Atlanta Post entitled ‘Backlash To Black-Latino Spiderman Indicates We’re Not A Post-Racial Society,’ Cynthia highlights the backlash to the introduction of Morales. Below is the article in question….

by Cynthia Wright
Yesterday, USA Today released a story that Marvel Comics Ultimate Spider-Man would take its web-slinging hero in a new direction. Although, Peter Parker has played the Spider-Man character since its creation decades ago – the revamping of the Marvel comic is to attract a new generation of comic book readers, in response to its static past. So, it wasn’t really that surprising that Marvel decided to kill the character off around two months ago.
Unlike the comics’ overwhelmingly Caucasian days of yore – when it came to passing on the infamous red and blue suit – Marvel decided to push the envelope. Instead of embodying the usual stereotype for superheroes, the decision was made to pass the torch to a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales.
Brian Michael Bendis, the writer behind Parker’s death and Miles arrival told the newspaper that it was long overdue, even in the more ‘diverse’ Marvel universe.
“Even though there’s some amazing African-American and minority characters bouncing around in all the superhero universes, it’s still crazy lopsided,” Bendis admitted.

Face of the Future: Miguel O'Hara - the half hispanic, half Irish Spidey of 2099

However, not everyone agrees with Bendis’ assessment, a quick glance through the comments of the USA Today article reveals that even if Marvel wants to be more contemporary that doesn’t give them the right to rewrite comic book history. Of course, it should be of no surprise that some white comic fans feel that iconic comic characters should be left unchallenged by today’s more political correct society – especially when it comes to a biracial teenager becoming the newest incarnation of one of their most beloved superheroes.
Over on the website Bleeding Cool, they decided to publish some of the more “enlightening” comments from the USA Today story in one of their Tuesday posts. The comments ranged from bashing the need to always be politically correct, to complaints over the comic books direction and the rage over the killing of the white Peter Parker so that Morales could replace him.
With several comic-based movies taking liberty when it comes to the race of their supportive characters (i.e. Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson, Perry White being played by Laurence Fishburne), it is apparent that supporting roles are the only roles not susceptible to such a huge backlash. However, making the “minority” a main character is still seen as unacceptable.
As one commenter responded:
“Peter Parker could not be whiter. A black boy under the mask just don’t look right. This opens up a whole new story line with a whole new set of problems. Who is going to believe a black man in a mask is out for the good of man kind?”
So, a black man in a mask isn’t capable of helping out mankind? In a historical context, it wasn’t the black population using masks to strike fear and terrorize others in American society. How quickly that one caveat is forgotten.
Blatant ignorance aside, it is hard not to be offended by some of the reactions regarding Morales’ ethnicity. With the current demographics of New York being so diverse – it would make sense to have someone akin to Morales. It is about time that minority characters are given more precedence instead of being relinquished to the only role that seems deserving—the sidekick.

Practitioners 24: John Romita Jr

John Salvatore Romita Jr or JRJR (born August 17, 1956) is an American comic book artist best known for his extensive work with solely with Marvel comics from the 1970s to present day.

Born and still living in New York city, Romita Jr is influenced heavily by the city around him and that he grew up in. Fittingly he has remained at the company that calls New York home, 367 Park Avenue South or Marvel Comics throughout his professional career and his work has become synonomous with its most famous characters. He was born to John Romita Sr, co-creator of several notable Spider-man stories in the 1960s and 1970s. In true New York style it could be said that drawing Marvel comics is the family business.

Oddly Romita Jr began his career at Marvel UK, doing sketches for covers of reprints. His American debut was with a six part story entitled ‘Chaos at the Coffee Bean!’ in Amazing Spider-man Annual 11 in 1977. At this point Romita Jr’s artwork represented the time it was being produced with clean linework and animation standard (simplified) detailing. But his characterisation and simple adjustments to the panel by panel and simple visual storytelling that was taking place then won him a lot of fans. His characters weightier and more rounded than others, his line work curvaceous and bold when necessary Romita Jr’s style was bold and easily digestible. Romita Jr is a commercial artist, offering bold and brash imagery that feeds the eye more for the same price as other artists.

Romita’s early popularity began however with his run on Iron Man with David Michelinie and artist Bob Layton which began in 1978. He was eventually offered his first regular run on Spider-man in the early 80s and was the artist that launched the Dazzler series. In this period Romita Jr co created the character of the Hobgoblin with writer Roger Stern – a kind of Green Goblin light with his own good / evil morality in play, Hobgoblin represented a genuinely unrestricted and unfamiliar goblin for Spider-man to play with.

Uncanny X-Men 304

From 1983 to 1986 he had a popular run on Uncanny X-Men, introducing the future X-man Bishop in his tenure in a brutal and distinct storyline that battered the edges of what was being done in comics at the time. Romita Jr returned to Uncanny X-Men in 1993 in which he pencilled the Fathers and Son’s crossover Uncanny issue in which Prof X and Magneto collide and Magneto has his mind removed. He depicted the turning of Colossus and his joining of the Acolytes and the showdown between Xavier and his X-Men and Magneto and his Acolytes on Asteroid M in the Fathers and Sons X-over that made history with the release of X-Men 25. Romita Jr’s work was bold, reminiscent of 50s and 60s pop art and exploded from the page in a way nobody else’s did at the time.

But prior to his second stint on Uncanny X-Men Romita was granted an extended stint on Daredevil with writer Ann Nocenti and Eisner award winning inker Al Williamson. In this period he began to develop the Romita Jr style we see now. Shoulders and shape became more developed and something significant happened… Romita Jr broke the rules…

Most artists use a series of bubbles in place of parts of the body in order to decide placement, perspective and shape. The leg would be perhaps five parts (the longer larger upper leg, the smaller oval knee joint, the slightly bannister like lower leg / shin, perhaps a round joint at the ankle joint to indicate a change of angle and an uneven tear drop shape to form the foot). You can achieve this easily with every body part and build an entire Human frame using these bags. You then pencil over it, define the shape clearly and subsume it in ink – hiding your working underneath all that.

Romita Jr doesn’t. His characters are effectively the same set of shapes inflated and deflated according to the size and shape of the character. The sawn off frame of Wolverine is the same as the tall powerful frame as Colossus. The Punisher from Romita Jr’s very cool run in Punisher: War Journal is the same shape as Wolverine. Art law says this is bad practice. That by showing your working and working from such a clear template is not art. Romita Jr has made one thing clear in the nicest possible way. He simply doesn’t give a shit. And neither should he.

Romita Jr’s success is built on these parameters. The characters represent mannequins on which Romita Jr applies the feelings and the events that are taking place around them. He applies garish, squared and diametrically even surroundings that draw in the eye and hold it there. He isn’t a naturalist or a life artist, Romita Jr is a comic artist and a purist and never an apologist.

He has built an incredible career with the same company (even his other company credits are Kick Ass – printed through Marvel’s Icon Imprint, Punisher/Batman in association with Marvel as well as DC and admittedly 1 credit with the Gray Area 1-3 in 2004 with Glen Brunswick for Image Comics). He is a class act and no freelancer – he has a job with a reputable company which he is doing well and there is no reason he should stop doing it.

Rolling out Spider-man, Avengers (most recently the new Avengers series), Black Panther, Daredevil, Iron Man, Cable, Punisher, The Eternals, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, Thor, X-Men, Ultimate Vision, Wolverine, Sentry and pretty much the only thing worth picking up World War Hulk for by ingraining it with such force and mind-bending power on each that it was a joy to behold.

The fact is with Romita Jr, you can see the workings but you can also see the most basic rules of comic book art. Clean lines reminiscent of the 60s era in comic books, graphic and bold line work that still belongs on an Andy Warhol Pop art wall hanging. Romita Jr is keeping historic conventions alive and kicking in his work. If you look at his work you can still see the influence of Ditko and his dad, Romita Jr and the reason that everything we see in comic books today comes from it. I hope Romita Jr remains at Marvel for a great many years.

He’ll be attending the Kapow Comicon in London on April 9-10th and I hope to catch him there. My work isn’t much like his but frankly I think that’s because I’m not sure I’ve fully learned how to draw comics.