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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The Merry Band Revealed: 13 Dwarves Stride Forth for Adventure!!


Nori (Jed Brophy), Fili (Dean O' Gorman), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Bofur (James Nesbitt), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott), Oin (John Callen), Bombur (Stephen Hunter), Bifur (William Kircher), Ori (Adam Brown) and Kili (Aiden Turner)

Thorin Oakenshield stands at the centre of his Merry Band, a set of Dwarves set on a quest many would never face. In response to the reaction to public reveals of theHobbit Warner Bros have revealed the complete Dwarf set. In response to a great many public reedits of the assembled dwarves as they were revealed in sets of of two’s and three, Peter Jackson has released his own collective image of the assembled band. Equipped with weaponry, food packs and instruments they are set on their journey to face Smaug and the Battle of the Five Armies. Not all will return but very few can remember who.

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)

Bombur (Stephen Hunter), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Bifur (William Kircher)


Oin (John Callen) and Gloin (Peter Hambleton)


Balin (Ken Stott) and Dwalin (Graham McTavish)


Fili (Dean O' Gorman) and Kili (Aiden Turner)

Check the rest of our Hobbit coverage of our full breakdown of events in Hobbiton and Middle Earth (Wellington, New Zealand) as things have taken place.

The Merry Band: The Band of Dwarves Pt 1

‘The Dwarves of yore made mighty spells / while hammers fell like ringing bells / in places deep, where dark things sleep / in hollow halls beneath the fells.’

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit begins with 13 Dwarves arriving in small groups and one by one at Bag End to meet with a surprised Hobbit of the Shire, Bilbo Baggins and convince to aid and abet in their plot. Doughy, rough faced, beardy cave miners – sturdy and brutal warriors and cheeky imp like mini-vikings, the Dwarves represent a family of MiddleEarth’s population only a mother could love. Even Tolkien doesn’t rate them much; admitting that trouble is never far behind them.

His first depiction of Dwarves in the Silmarillion (the first of the Middle Earth novels) depicts them as evil employers of Orcs and Tolkien’s urge to fill his roll call for the Hobbit with them demanded a more sympathetic perspective. He draws most heavily from the Norse storytelling of the ferocious warrior midgets and endowed them with armour and weaponry befitting this background.

At the time Tolkien was reportedly heavily influenced by his selective reading of Jewish history and the Jewish community oddly found representation in the band of short men that visit Bilbo. Dispossessed from the Homeland (the Lonely Mountain; their ancestral home is the goal the exiled Dwarves seek to reclaim) and living among other groups while retaining their own culture, while true of many cultures in modern history, was derived by Tolkien by the medieval image of Jews, whilst their warlike nature stems from accounts and tales from the Hebrew Bible. The one cultural similarity with Tolkien’s (and Dwarves themselves) initial approach to Dwarves was that both Medieval views of Jews and the fictional Norse Dwarves were seen and referred to as having a propensity towards making well-crafted things. This, to a writer so absorbed by the representation of cultures in his own work rings very true.

Tolkien was faced with a number of choices in how to present his 13 characters – while a small number of the Dwarves are prominent in the book; fundamentally they’re a mass of opinions and reactions to the events of the book. But the reader behaves among the group as a guest would – noting those most familiar with and recognising the others as individuals that make the whole more interesting. Even with Peter Jackson’s love of characterisation ( shown in LOTR, King Kong and The Frighteners) he’ll have a tough time making sure each and every one of this band of Dwarves will be introduced to us fully over the course of the adventures. Though how they might appear on screen is of great interest….

So who are these dwarves? And perhaps more importantly in the advancement of our expectations of what we’ll see in 2012 – who has been chosen to play them? If you are expecting a repeat of John Rhys Davies’ sturdy and gravity hugging Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy you may be in for a surprise as the foremost in the cast look very little like the little men they’ve been called to play.

The band of Dwarves and the Hobbit - after arriving for Dwarf bootcamp in New Zealand

Though on the whole broad and powerful looking as a bunch they’ll no doubt fulfill every expectation put upon them. Assembled are new, younger, upcoming stars, more established actors, long standing performers who have enjoyed many roles but little recognition (most likely until now), older, less well known gentlemen and a familiar face from the previous films you just won’t recognise. They are now assembled in New Zealand for Dwarf Bootcamp, in which they will gain training, linguistic and accentual and physical, performance and technical to prepare for the role. Aidan Turner (of BBC3 horror comedy Being Human) is doing all he can to grow his own beard in time for preliminary shooting.

They are;

Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakensheild). The most prominent of the Dwarves in the book, Armitage appears on first glance an odd choice. Predominantly a theatre and television actor his only movie credit so far is as an uncredited Naboo Fighter Pilot in Star Wars: Phantom Menace, however following some very prominent roles in mainstream British TV in recent years; Cold Feet, North and South, ShakespeaRe-told, a strong performance BBCs Robin Hood series as misunderstood villain of the piece Guy of Gisbourne and an Armed Police Officer in Spooks he will appearing in Captain America: The Last Avenger this year as Nazi Heinz Kruger. (Whether he’s a misunderstood Nazi is yet to be seen). Regardless, his climb up the ladder has been steady and long and his strong voice and glower will add a lot to the head Dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield. I’ll be very interested to see how he’s presented.

Tolkien borrowed Thorin’s name from the Old Norse poem ‘Voluspa’, part of the poetic Edda. Thorin appears in stanza 12 and used for a Dwarf and the name Oakenshield (Elkinskjaldi) appear in stanza 13. Thorin is proud and brash and while he and Gandalf stand their ground in the Goblin tunnels and he is the least surprised by an encounter with Trolls but his leadership is far from distinguished and generates most of the difficulties the party face on their journey. Driven into exile by the Dragon Smaug in 2770, he wants to retake his homeland. He carries a charmed blade named Orcrist, a similar weapon to Frodo’s ‘Sting’ in LOTR.

Aidan Turner (Kili) – standing at 6′ and slim in build Aidan Turner is one of the main cast members that is undergoing a transformation in order to play his part. A British Television actor, Turner found prominence in BBC1’s Desperate Romantics as Romantic period painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and more notably BBC’s Being Human as Vampire Mitchell. His performances are strong and he’s physically a very capable actor. He tends to play romantic, self-destructive leads because of his appearance so his casting as a short stop will be another interesting one. A capable character actor however and great things should be expected for him. His character in Being Human has been told he’ll be killed by a Werewolf (cool) and much of Series 3 has the appearance of a rushed rewrite – as well as reduced budget – which is unsurprising as his character will be disappearing for at least a year shooting The Hobbit (original estimate under Del Toro was 377 days before final production on the second film).

Kili is one of two brothers, both young in Dwarf terms, younger than most of the group by as much as fifty years. Both brothers are described as having the best eyesight and are often sent for searching and scouting. They are also described as cheerful, as the only Dwarves to emerge from the barrels at Lake Town ‘more or less smiling’.

James Nesbitt (Bofur) – a bit of a statesman of British television, Nesbitt (like Turner) is an Irish actor witha strong, clear accent. A powerful and capable character actor Nesbitt has forged a distinctive career since appearing in A Play for Today in 1984. His status has grown progressively with Tv projects Ballykissangel, Playing the field and most notably Adam Williams in Cold Feet ( a precursor to Friends made in the UK about 3 couples of which Nesbitt was arguably the most prominent) as well as film roles – playing Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday – a dramatisation of the Irish Civil Rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops on January 30, 1972. Most recently he’s appeared in mainstream series such as the tepid The Deep and as the central character of Murphy’s Law (for ITV). Nesbitt is an actor of considerable character and is hilarious to watch in most things he’s in. A capable performer able to handle broad styles and physical performance (Jekyll, 2007) and sympathetic roles (also Jekyll, 2007 perhaps unsurprisingly).

‘Poor, fat,’ Bombur us frequently shown as having been the last in everything. A comedic character through and through, introducing himself by tumbling into Bifur and Bombur as they arrive at Bag End at the very start of the story and falls into the enchanted river. Bombur sleeps at several key moments of the book. Having fallen into the Enchanted River he sleeps for days, forcing his already frustrated companions to carry him. Understandably edited out in Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo asks after Bombur and is told that he had grown so fat it took six young dwarves to lift him, as he could no longer move from his bed to the couch.

Bombur is simply written and easy to delightfully realise. He’s right up Peter Jackson’s comedic street and we can expect great moments from the fattest Dwarf in the band. He also plays a drum.

Graham McTavish (Dwalin) is a perrenial and long standing character actor on British TV and film as well as a prominent voice artist. His distinctive and boxy appearance have given him many military and hardman roles throughout the years though he injects intelligence and character well in each case. A theatre actor he has appeared as Banquo in Macbeth, as well as Thangbrand in Erik the Viking, one of the best things in a flawed series as Warden Ackerman in Red Dwarf VIII as well as with James Nesbitt twice in Jekyll as Gavin Hardcastle and Murphy’s Law. He has made the jump to US projects in recent years, appearing in Quantum of Solace, 24, Prison Break, Lost, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the new Rambo. He also voiced Loki in Hulk Vs (Video Game), Sebastian Shaw in Wolverine and the X-Men animated TV series and Thundercracker in Transformers: War for Cybertron video game. A man of some considerable stature, he is a capable and intelligent performer which accounts for his steady success on multiple platforms. He represents a warrior in almost all he does but more often than not a sympathetic one. I look forward to him representing Dwalin.

Dwalin is the first Dwarf to arrive at Bag End. He is a kindly soul, offering Bilbo a hood and cloak as they leave Bag End. After the events of the Hobbit, Dwalin rules Thorin’s halls in the Blue Mountains. His name is taken from Dvalin, a dwarf in the poetic Edda. The arc that Dwalin’s character follows suggests that he will be an interesting one to watch. An honourable character that survives the quest and gains what he deserves in the end. A precursor to Aragorn in the LOTR trilogy perhaps.

And finally for this batch of the band of Dwarves we have Kili’s brother, Fili.

Robert Kazinsky (Fili) is the definition of how you climb the ladder as a young actor. Starting on the Basil Brush Show as neatly monickered Sven Garley and as Casper Rose in Footballing soap Dream Team he completed the populist rope walk to find a place as unhinged Sean in Eastenders. Shortly afterwards he made the leap across the pond to appear in bit parts in Law and Order: Los Angeles and Brothers & Sisters. Apart from one short (Love, in 2009) and a film called Red Tails (still in Post Production he has no cinema credits. However, his performance was strong in Eastenders (the only place I’ve seen him) and I look forward to seeing him play cheery as opposed to mentally ill (TV style). An opportunity to play a character such as Fili should cement Kazinsky’s rise nicely and I suspect we can expect to see him more things afterwards.

Brother to Kili, Fili has the longest cloak on the quest (?!!). A temperament like his brother Kili, Fili is a cheerful character. Following the battle with spiders he’s forced to cut off most of his beard due to it being covered in webbing.

It grows late and the torch grows dim and I think I must retire so I must bid you all a good night / good day and leave you until next time. In which I will introduce you to the remaining members of this merry band of Dwarves. Keep warm dear reader and if you hear your trinkets moving in the night it’ll most likely be Dwarves come back to claim that which they bothered to dig up….

The Dwarves and Bilbo by Sam Bosma