Aug 26, 2011

How to Read: Jack Kirby.

All the images used for this page are from
Captain Victory #1 or Silver Star #1, both
from Kirby's time with Pacific Comics.
 So lately I've been chatting with my friends about Jack Kirby comics and I thought I'd write you up a five step guide to getting started reading Jack Kirby comics.

Kirby is one of the greatest artists ever to pick up a pencil. I don't just mean in comics, I mean ever. The guy was so creative it seemed to be bursting from his every pore. It's hard to think of another single creator who did more for American comics than Jack Kirby did. Everything he ever did was influential, or at least really powerful.

But some modern readers find his work hard to get into.

I can understand it. Kirby's work, while wide-ranging is also very much of a style. If you don't get into Jack's art style, it can be hard to get into reading his works. Which is really unfortunate because you're missing out on so much. So the goal of this guide is to give you the tools to be able to immerse yourself in Kirby's world. To just let yourself go.

Now before we get started I should point out that what I mean by "Kirby" is relatively specific. I don't mean his entire career -- which started in the 1930s, and continued pretty much until his death in 1994 -- I'm just talking about his solo work. His work long after the Simon/Kirby team was disbanded, and after the Lee/Kirby team was disbanded. So, his stuff starting with the 4th World and ranging from then until the end of his career. This stuff that was pure, undiluted, Jacob Kurtzberg.

Look! The main character is dead! In... the first few pages
of issue #1. What the hell? Kirby's about to introduce some
weird new concept, isn't he?
STEP 1: Give yourself time.
Kirby comics are not throw-away reads. You might be able to grab an Archie digest and read a few pages on the toilet, then come back to it six days later and read some more (in fact, Archie digests are basically MADE for toilet reading), you might be able to do that with The Beano, or the Dandy, too. Kirby ain't like that. If you don't think you have time to read an entire issue through, it's probably not worth starting.

With some modern comics you might be able to read them in a five minute gap at work, because they're 'written for the trade', so they barely have five minutes worth of story in them. Kirby ain't like that, either. You need time to get immersed in the world.

Jack Kirby comics are perfect for Sunday reading. Those times when you just want to relax and lose yourself in another world. If you're going to read them on the train, then you'll probably want some headphones or something to block out the distractions of the outside world.

I have no idea what those things Captain
Victory is holding are, guns maybe?
Oh well, who cares? They're awesome!

STEP 2: Start with issue #1.
I know this sounds painfully obvious, but sometimes comics fans don't bother with this step. Starting with issue #1 is great for two reasons.

First of all -- Jack Kirby first issues are brutally honest. There's no pussyfooting around, there's no 'slow build'. He throws the concept at your face, and explains the whole damn thing right there and then. You wanna know if you're interested in this book? You'll know after issue #1 or not at all.

Second reason is one of momentum. Kirby comics move a mile a minute. They just don't stop moving. He's not going to pause and catch you up, man. You wanna know the score, you better start from the beginning!

Look! Some of that legendary Kirby Crackle!
STEP 3: Remember, Kirby's Art is About Composition.
It's easy to get caught up in the cosmetics of Kirby's art. The big fists, the extreme facial expressions, the out-there designs. Those things are great. That's how you know it's Kirby you're dealing with.

It's also easy to get caught up in the colouring, which was often garish and ugly and which has dated badly, as colouring in all old comics has -- but that's not Kirby's fault.

Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the bad inking too. I'm lookin' at you, Vince Colletta.

Who else would frame a 'growing too big for the room' image like this?
The emphasis here is on the physical action of the soldiers,
and on the gag of the body that needed one bed now needing two.
But the most important thing in a Jack Kirby comic is his composition. It's the poses of the characters, the framing of the shot. If Kirby had been a cameraman he would have been the most in-demand photographer in all of Hollywood. Kirby chooses each and every panel's composition impeccably. They're the right size, the right angle, the right framing. He knows exactly how to capture the moment.

This way with composition is actually one of the reasons that people who try to imitate Kirby's style fail so badly. It's easy to replicate the cosmetic aspects -- the Kirby dots, the swirly chins -- but it's much more difficult to capture Kirby's dynamic framing.

If you've ever struggled with his visual style (some people consider Kirby's work ugly, if you can believe it), remember that composition is king, and you should probably do okay.

Can you tell these old PC comics weren't
under the comics code?
STEP 4: Not All Old Comics Talk That Way.
A really big mistake people make in reading old Kirby comics is thinking, "Oh, well of course the dialogue is hokey, all old comics are like that." Not even remotely true. Kirby's writing style is just that, a style. Specifically it's his style.

I think it's important to remember this when you're reading an issue of Devil Dinosaur or The Demon. If you compare these comics to other 70s or 80s comics you'll find the dialogue has little or no resemblance to them whatsoever. There's a definite resemblance to the dialogue work of Stan Lee -- but again it's important to remember that Stan Lee's dialogue wasn't just the norm of the time either. It was a style.

If you remember that Jack Kirby's writing is a stylistic form, you won't find yourself falling into that trap of just dismissing it as old-fashioned. It's not old-fashioned. It's Kirby-fashioned.

I love ya Kirby, but I'm not sure we needed a caption box to tell us
this guy is evil... Really, we guessed by ourselves...
STEP 5: Skip the Caption Boxes.
Really this is a general tip for all old comics. Remember that the caption boxes are optional. Sure, there's some great stuff in there, and sometimes they do explain actions that you otherwise wouldn't understand, but most of the time they're actually not that important. Caption boxes, believe it or not, are mostly there to add texture to a story. The art and the dialogue does most of the actual storytelling.

The caption boxes were where Kirby's writing got its most pretentious. He was often using flowery metaphors and references that weren't nearly as sophisticated as his own flawless visual metaphors. Trust me you'll know if you've skipped an important text box, and honestly you won't regret reading them if you decide to. But if you find yourself getting bogged down, and unable to feel the story's momentum the answer is simple -- just skip the damned caption boxes.

Sometimes you can skip the dialogue too, in all honesty.

So there you have it! The five steps to successfully reading Kirby. Which of course means that now you have to go out and buy some Kirby. My suggestion? Omac. Go read Omac. That shit is weird.

Weird, and awesome.
--Andrew S.

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