Sunday, April 13, 2014

Kirby by Mark Evanier

Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917, picked up the nickname King when he was young. That is not the only reason Mark Evanier applies the title to him in Kirby: King of Comics. Kirby was one of the most influential creators in comics over the course of his long career, beginning in 1938 at the Eisner-Iger shop, which began in the early days of the medium.

Kirby is a coffee table book, full of images from Kirby’s work. Though Evanier’s biography of Kirby is interesting, I suspect these images, some of them large, full-page reproduction were always conceived as a major selling point of the book. Kirby was a professional artist, mostly in comics, his entire career, which was long, so it only makes sense that you need to see a selection of his drawings to understand why he had such an impact on comics.

You can see Kirby’s influence everywhere in comics, especially superhero comics. He worked for both Marvel and DC at different times, and had a hand in creating or co-creating many popular characters and settings.

More than that, he had an influence on the style and visual language of comics that writers and artist still used today. He was one of the first comic book artists to break away from strip layouts (carried over from newspaper comics) to designing for a full page. His characters busted through the panels. His drawings were dynamic and suggested powerful motion; this is a striking characteristic of his work that is discussed by nearly everyone who writes about Kirby. I find his drawings can seem strangely flattened out and dimensional at the same time.

Because Kirby worked for so long, on so many comics, for so many publishers, and had such an influence on the artists who grew up reading his work, you’ll still see many Kirby touches in current comics. I see them in the depiction of technology, the design of characters and costumes, the framing of action scenes, and even the continued use of Kirby dots (especially at DC, no doubt because they just look so cool).

He was an innovator who introduced new types of images into comics, such as collage, and new genres, such as romance. He even foresaw the future of the comic books, pushing his publishers for better quality material and printing, new formats, longer stories, and new ways to market and sell comics. Publishers balked at the cost of such innovations at the time, but many of the changes Kirby predicted and sought for the industry eventually came to pass.

Kirby is known mainly as an artist, but he was also a writer. It may be fair to say that Kirby couldn’t leave a script alone and regularly modified scripts he was adapting to drawings. His solo writing was packed with big ideas and wild concepts and sometimes had trouble finding large audience in his day, though these comics have often done well when collected and reprinted. I do not think it unfair to say that some of his best work was collaborations with other writers. For much of the first half of his career, he partnered with writer Joe Simon, with whom he created Captain America and romance comics. In the 1960s, he collaborated with Stan Lee at to co-create much of what is now the Marvel Universe.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Evanier, Mark. Kirby: King of Comics. New York: Abrams, 2008.