Welcome to Comics College, a (sort of) monthly feature here at Robot 6 where we provide an introductory guide to some of the most significant artists, writers and creators in comics and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
Little did I know when I chose Jack Kirby as my second entry more than a month ago that his name would be splayed across the headlines of comics blogs and message boards as his family announced their intention to attempt to win back the copyrights to various Marvel characters. Despite the questionable rancor from some parties, the news provides a perfect opportunity to revisit Kirby’s work, as he remains one of the great colossi of American Comics, perhaps its most significant creator, depending upon who you talk to. He’s certainly one of the most prolific.
But Kirby can be tough for some folks. Modern readers used to the Image school of exaggeration or a more photorealistic (or PhotoShopped at any rate) style of superhero comics tend to balk at Kirby’s blocky, dynamic style, especially in his later period when it verged on outright expressionism. What’s more, he was always a better artist and idea man than a writer, and his dialogue when working solo can come off as turgid and forced, especially when he’s trying to sound “hip” and “with it.” I know as a teenager and young adult I found Kirby’s work initially too odd and different from what I was used to as a comic reader to enjoy. It wasn’t until I forced myself to sit down and immerse myself into his world that I learned to appreciate his oeuvre and became a devotee.
Keep in mind: Kirby’s output was so vast that to try to encapsulate it here in a simple blog post is a mug’s game. In other words, there are going to be omissions — volumes left out and series ignored, either due to the fact that I simply haven’t read them yet or because I just didn’t have the time and space to include them here. I feel confident enough in my recommendations, but feel free to pick on my negligence in the comments section.
Why he’s important
Do I really have to explain this one? The man’s biography and bibliography follows the entire history of American comic books to the present day. You name it — romance comics, war sagas, the early Golden Age, the later Silver and Bronze periods — he had a hand in it, especially in the development of the superhero genre. Only Robert Crumb and Charles Schulz have had as wide, diverse and lasting an influence, and neither of them has produced as varied a resume as Kirby did.
But even beyond his considerable influence, or the fact that he helped create some of the most beloved comic characters around, Kirby’s work remains as vital and alive as it was when it first appeared decades ago. To read Kirby is to visit a universe that crackles (sometimes literally) with energy and motion, where violence is the most intricate of ballets and one’s sense of scale and grandeur is only limited by your imagination. And Kirby’s imagination was boundless.
Where to start
The best place to be introduced to Kirby is with his arguably most famous series, The Fantastic Four. I wouldn’t recommend picking up at the beginning with FF #1, however. The early issues are certainly entertaining, but the series doesn’t come into full flower until about midway through, say, after issue #30. The most obvious introductory point for newcomers then would be the “Galactus trilogy” (issues #48-50) in which we are introduced to the planet-eating galoot himself and the Silver Surfer. It was here that Kirby truly showed the sort of epic storytelling he was capable of. You can find those tales collected in either the massive Fantastic Four Omnibus Vol. 2, Vol. 5 in the Marvel Masterworks series or Vol. 3 of the Essential Fantastic Four line.
After the FF, Kirby’s most acclaimed work is easily the “Fourth World” saga he did for DC in the early 1970s, after an ugly falling out with Marvel. The saga spread across four comics — The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and, yes, Jimmy Olsen — until DC got skittish and pulled the plug. The company has recently reprinted these comics in four $50 volumes. You’ll definitely want these instead of the earlier paperback versions, as they are in full color, print the comics in the order they appeared on the newsstand and includes The Hunger Dogs, Kirby’s attempt at a conclusion many years later. Feel free to start with Vol. 1, but you may be better off using Vol.2, or Vol. 3 as a taste test, since they has some of the very best stories from that saga, including “Happyland,” “The Glory Boat,” “The Pact” and yes, an appearance by comedian Don Rickles. Starting in the middle is also a good way to get a feel for the mythos Kirby was attempting to create and get used to the, admittedly stilted, dialogue. Don’t worry, you won’t get that confused, jumping in midstream.
From there you should read
Once you’ve had a taste, feel free to go back and explore the rest of Kirby’s Fourth World and FF. When you’re finished though, you’ll want to move on to Kamandi. This Planet-of-the-Apes-style, “boy in a apocalyptic world ruled by animals” is, in my opinion, the best of Kirby’s post-Darkseid material. DC has put two Archive editions of Kamandi so far and they remain one of the best ways to get ahold of the series, barring digging through longboxes for musty back issues. Hopefully they’ll re-release the series in updated hardcover editions similar to the Fourth World books, in the near future.
Kirby created a lot of great characters for Marvel with Stan Lee, including the Hulk and the X-Men, but easily his best work for the House of Ideas after FF is The Mighty Thor. Again, it’s the sense of scale and mythology that Kirby brings to the material that makes it sing. You can best available in the Marvel Masterworks or Essential collections. As with Fantastic Four, though, you’ll want to start with the later volumes. It doesn’t really get cooking until after the whole Jane Foster/Don Blake romance is tossed aside and Kirby and Lee start really exploring the whole Norse mythology angle. At the very least begin with Vol. 2 of either collection.
For a long time, Kirby’s early collaborations with Joe Simon have been ignored by fans and historians in favor of focusing on his more recent and celebrated work with Marvel and DC. That’s thankfully starting to change now as a number of publishers are re-releasing material from those early days.
Captain America fans will no doubt want to start with the Golden Age Marvel Masterworks collections that have been coming out at a steady clip (three volumes so far). The more casual fan, however, may be happy with The Best of Simon & Kirby from Titan Books or the even recent Sandman collection from DC. Titan plans to release a number of Simon and Kirby collections showcasing their work in romance, crime and other genres apart from superheroes.
As seminal as those early Captain America stories were, Kirby’s much later run on Captain America has justly earned plaudits as well. I’d recommend picking up Bicentennial Battles as a starting point, which finds Steve Rogers traversing across American history thanks to a puckish Buddhist.
Kirby’s run on Black Panther, collected in two volumes, is fun little ride, with the Wakandan prince getting into one nail-biting scrape after another. Devil Dinosaur, which dares to tell the tender story of a vicious red dinosaur and his tender friendship with a cro-magnon tween, is amusing and full of high melodrama, but remains perhaps a bit too silly, even by Kirby’s standards, to be regarded as essential. OMAC: One Man Army Corps offers an interesting flip-side perspective to Kamandi, but lacks the latter’s spark and feels a trifle rote at times. Unfortunately, as with a lot of Kirby’s DC work, it ends just as things start to get interesting.
Stan and Jack’s initial run on the X-Men is rather uninspired and devoid of the spark and joie de vivre that graced their other work from the same period. It would take Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum to breathe life into the material.
Honestly, there’s very little of Kirby’s work that’s not worth at least a sideways glance. Having said that, a lot of the material he did towards the end of his life is rather weak and feels at times recycled or ill thought-out. Thus, comics like the Super-Powers mini-series or Captain Victory are really only for the dedicated Kirby fan.
Next month: Osamu Tezuka