So it’s a bit of a thing to people who particularly dig the history of comic books to credit either Jack Kirby or Stan Lee for some of the huge, transformative things that happened to Marvel in the sixties after the first Fantastic Four issue came out…but not both. A silly debate, because it was both of them with incredible chemistry and the beautiful, messy mix of amazing timing and talent that only happens a precious few times in any art form.
But I was watching this documentary about Jack Kirby that got me thinking about him in a different way than I ever had. If you don’t know who the guy is, you should google that right now or go to a place like here to see his style – you’ve seen it, maybe you just don’t know it. The guy’s American history and has influenced a majority of the guys illustrating comics today – it’s worth your time to know more about him.
The documentary I’m talking about is here:Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
What got me thinking was this: several of the artists they spoke to about Kirby said something I’d thought a lot when I was a kid – why does this Kirby guy keep getting work when he doesn’t know how to draw? Yet they kept going back to him because there was something there they found magnetic. The anatomy is wrong. The rules of perspective are twisted. Things don’t contort that way. It’s just all wrong. Yet the more they went back to him, the more influential he got to them. It soaked into their heads, like it did mine, because it was so different, because it broke the rules so irreverently, because it laid a new vocabulary of action and power and movement for an art form that was still trying to figure itself out. People needed to know how to say things graphically; and they needed to break out of some of the tried and tested methods because they were boring and tedious and based on a weird and forced application of old school comic strip doodling methods to prose stories. Instead, Jack Kirby was blasting fists out of the page and drawing gargantuan freaking alien ships or drawing guys who were just supposed to be sitting, but looked like they were about to rip the paper they were printed on apart. He put energy on the page and ignored what was going on everywhere else.
He worked from noon till early morning mostly, in a cramped basement with little space and crappy air conditioning, surrounded by science fiction pulps. When he was helping shatter and shape an entire industry for decades, that’s the kind of place where he was doing it. He’d reach behind him and grab a pulp, steal an idea and rejigger it till it was his, then charge it like a spring and draw it. Guys that watched him draw said he’d start at one corner and incredibly just make his way across to make it all work somehow, like it was all in his head to begin with.
- Kirby’s work ethic was inspiring. If I get bad news of some kind or if it’s a sunny day, or if I’m still stressed from work, I let a novel go for days without touching it. Like a little baby, whining. This guy jetted for half a day or more, never once missing a deadline, no matter how ridiculous it was.
- He paid attention to what other people were doing, sure, but set fire to it and crafted his own way of doing things that was entirely original, instantly recognizable as his and his alone, and didn’t let the things he knew technically get in the way of that. This advice is screaming at me.
- Just as an add-on, I always love to hear stories of guys who made the big time and weren’t too in love with themselves to bring folks into their world. Kirby and his wife, Roz made lunch for fans who made the trek to their little house – he’d show them around and even give them artwork. Actors now get a lot of credit for this kind of thing, when publicists really set them up.
Go look up some Kirby and remember what he managed to accomplish. If you think it’s wrong at first, pay closer attention and see if your opinion changes. He gets in your head, man. He gets in your head.