Celebrating the King: A Jack Kirby Roundtable
August 28th is the centennial of Jack Kirby’s birth. He is arguably the most important comics creator of the 20th century. His creations and co-creations are household names, Captain America, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, S.H.I.E.L.D., The New Gods, et al, thanks in no small part to today’s Hollywood blockbusters based on his creations. And he did it all: wrote and illustrated what has become our modern mythology.
He was my earliest artistic influence, and for his centennial I reflect on that here.
To celebrate this milestone I decided to hold a roundtable discussion of others, like myself, whom Kirby influenced, across disciplines. This esteemed panel is comprised of cartoonist and illustrator June Brigman, illustrator David Cowles, designer and illustrator David Plunkert, designer Paul Sahre and cartoonist and illustrator Ward Sutton. Their bios are collected below.
WHERE AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST DISCOVER JACK KIRBY?
David Plunkert The first time I recall discovering Kirby’s work was in a coverless comic at the barbershop as an 8 year old. That issue was Tales to Astonish #82 and it blew my mind! It’s page after page of the Sub-mariner and Ironman beating each other up but it looks and reads like a movie.
David Cowles I had comics as a kid, certainly some must have been drawn by Kirby. But I didn’t really become aware of his stature until my neighbors and I started collecting old comics when one of the first comic book stores opened up in Rochester, run by a friend of my sister’s. Both artists, we focused mostly on the art and artists inside. So we soon became very well versed in the work of Steve Ditko, John Romita, John Buscema and the big bang of Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby.
June Brigman I didn’t get into comics until I was a freshman in college. My boyfriend (now husband), collected comics and was a big Kirby fan. I was majoring in art, but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I remember looking at an issue of the New Gods. There was a panel with Lightray on a balcony with a woman. Orion is ranting, but all you see is his shadow and the deck furniture lifted off the ground by his cosmic rage. It was a scene more epic than anything Michael Bay has ever done. I think that’s when I realized the genius of Kirby.
Paul Sahre Hard for me to say. Early on I just read them without caring or knowing who was doing what. I did a lot of early drawing of Jack Kirby art not knowing who it was that I was copying.
Ward Sutton The work of Jack Kirby has become such a part of my internalized visual lexicon that it’s almost hard to remember a time when I didn’t know of him. But I was reminded of my introduction to Kirby when I read Sean Howe’s wonderful book, “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.” I was a pre-teen comics fan in the mid/late-1970s when Kirby returned to working for Marvel after a stint with DC. My reaction to Kirby at that time was similar to the way Howe describes a broader reaction from Marvel readers in that era: I didn’t like his drawing. Back then, I was into artists like John Byrne and George Perez who had a stylized but more realistic drawing style with fine line work. Kirby’s late 70s work – on Captain America, Black Panther, the “2001: A Space Odyssey” adaptation, etc. – all looked blocky with thick line work. I had no sense of the scope of his full career at that point, I just saw those later comics and didn’t like them.
I would find it somewhat more appealing if certain inkers would refine his style, but for the most part I would try to avoid comics he worked on and would even make fun of his artwork with my friends.
Of course, back then I was just a kid and I believed that to be a “good” artist you had to be able to make things look “real” in your drawings. Over time I learned about Kirby’s history, saw the evolution of his style, and became a huge fan. My initial feelings were to dislike that 1970s work because it was so different from the work of other popular artists of the era. Now I love it so much for that very same reason!
Jack Kirby portrait by David Cowles
Cover to Thor 126, Marvel Comics, 1966, pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Vincent Colletta
David Plunkert illustration, influenced by Kirby’s cover
Ward Sutton’s mash-up Comics Issue cover for The Village Voice, where he drew familiar characters in the style of different artists: Charlie Brown in the Kirby style (and conversely Kirby’s Thing drawn in the style of Spongebob Squarepants)
Kirby’s 1950s character Captain 3D by June Brigman
Paul Sahre’s Twitter profile picture, Kirby’s character OMAC (One Man Army Corp)
WHAT IMPACT DID HIS WORK MAKE ON YOU?
Paul Again hard to say but I do know that I wanted to be him at one point. Sitting at a drawing table all day dreaming up these characters and making them do the incredible things that they did seemed like the best life possible. If there is one thing I could point to (other than the fact that I feel like I basically do what I just described for a living, but as a graphic designer) is his output. His example, drawing and coming up with ideas non-stop, has been a model for me as a graphic designer.
David P. Not only do I enjoy Kirby’s work on a personal level but I’ve been influenced by the economy and clarify of his layouts and how he deals with shape on a page. He’s especially good at making the viewer’s eye go where he wants it to go. The individual elements might all be fantastic but every picture still adds up to something clearly understood by the reader.
David C. I loved and studied Kirby’s work, mostly his stuff from the 1960’s, but I didn’t realize his work had that much of an influence on my own work until I noticed that every time I was hired to do anything with a superhero vibe to it, Kirby was always my go to style guide. Everything from his poses, to they way he drew those lightning bolt “shine” lines. I also realized that I tend to draw squared off fingers in my caricatures, ala the King!
Ward Thank you, Dave … “Square fingers”—that sums it up perfectly! I can only imagine how painful it must have been for Kirby with all his accomplishments (not to mention all the controversies of rights, original art, etc) to suddenly feel out of favor, at least by a certain audience. I guess the level of interest and enthusiasm for his work all these years later is a form of justice.
David C. Nicely put, Ward. Let me just say that I concur. I, too, had a negative reaction to Kirby’s more stylized work when he returned to Marvel in the 70’s. And me and my comic book loving friends would also mock him a bit, calling him “square fingers.” At the time, I also didn’t really get Picasso either, so that comparison rings very true with me. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it at that age. David P. I also recall kids in my comic reading circle of friends calling Kirby “square fingers.” There was definitely a line between those that preferred the artists with a more naturalistic approach to the more idiosyncratic Kirby style.
I bought a lot of Kirby comics when he returned to Marvel in the 70’s and I love the art even if it is more mannered than his earlier Marvel output. There’s a definite shift in the look of the work due in part to specific inkers following his pencils more faithfully than before and Kirby changing his style by simplifying his approach to surfaces and shading. The size of the original art being reduced industry-wide might have contributed to this shift.
His work does stand in stark contrast to the artists who would become the industry’s standard bearers in the late 60’s and onward. Kirby Marvel books from the 70’s seem like he’s operating on his own island apart from the rest of the universe.
Ward Well-stated, Dave – “his own island” really captures his place in the late 70s!
June Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, and Joe Kubert were the artists who first inspired me to draw comics. I don’t really draw like any of these guys. But I try to think like them. Kirby influences my storytelling, makes me try to be more dynamic. I go for action that comes toward the camera, not parallel. If I can have even a drop of the movement and force that Kirby had in his work, I’m happy.
Ward Some Kirby trademarks that really stand out to me are his shiny metallics, his cosmic space glow, and his finely feathered bursts. I feel like these aspects are so imitated and adopted by other artists that it’s like he created his own visual comics language. I’ve borrowed, paid homage to, and parodied his style many times over decades. From his earlier Monster comic book covers, to his iconic Marvel character creations, to his detailed, futuristic machinery, to his dramatic title and sound effect lettering, to his page pacing and layouts, there is so much to be constantly inspired by. All of this has had an impact on my work, as well as Kirby’s use of blacks and heavy line work.
WHERE YOU WOULD YOU PLACE HIM WITHIN THE PANTHEON OF 20TH CENTURY CREATORS AND ARTISTS?
June I’ve always thought Kirby’s work should be in the MOMA. When I took a class in contemporary art, I was surprised to find that the textbook had a few paragraphs on Kirby. He is to American comics what Moebius is to European comics and Otomo is to Manga. He really changed the landscape of sequential art. If not for his work, I don’t think we’d have the industry that exists today. And I don’t think I’d be teaching comics at the college level.
David C. I think comic books in general had a big influence on artists in the later half of he 20th Century, and Kirby was a cosmic shift in the way that comics were drawn and stories were told, so I’d place him pretty high on the list.
David P. Within the world that Kirby toiled and helped create I think he was at the very top. His influence on art and artists outside comics I think is tougher to pin down.
I think the public at large are aware of his work but haven’t necessarily attached his name to it. Which is a pity. I’m not so sure I could walk into a crowd of illustrators and drop his name and have the entire crowd know who I was talking about. When I was in art school Kirby’s work would have been viewed by my instructors through the prism of what Lichtenstein or Hamilton did to alter the context. Since then there’s been a lot more scholarly work on comics as art in their own right and on Kirby in particular so I might be wrong.
Ward I’m sure this would sound ridiculous to some, but I think of Kirby as Comic Art’s Picasso. I feel Kirby’s style began as more straightforward comic art, then slowly over time it began to show more and more of his own stylized flair. Some people can like the earlier, classic Kirby from the beginning of the Marvel era, others might prefer the later, less-refined and less-restrained Kirby. I love it all but am somewhat partial to the latter period for how unique it is. Another parallel might be the evolution of John Coltrane’s music.
In terms of where he fits in among other creators and artists in the 20th Century, that question is tied to how Comic Art in general fits into the greater art world and culture as a whole. Because comic books deal primarily with superheroes, monsters and science fiction, there are surely many who will never fully take Kirby’s work seriously, and I can understand that. People can have biases against all forms of visual art – whether graphic design, children’s book art, illustration … for some these disciplines will never measure up to “fine art.”
I believe Kirby’s work stands out in the world of comic art – there’s a reason he’s called “The King” – and that it deserves a greater recognition beyond that realm. I think the “Comic Book Apocalypse” exhibition in L.A. in 2015 was a great start – I’d love to see an even bigger retrospective of Kirby’s work at a prominent museum. As time passes and the lines between “high brow” and “low brow” art shift and blur, perhaps there will be a greater acceptance and appreciation of Jack Kirby’s art. I hope so.
June Ward, I think your comparison of Kirby to Coltrane is fitting. They both took a very American art form and made it their own. Kirby definitely created his own visual language. People make fun of the square fingers. But think of how odd a realistically drawn hand would look on a Kirby figure. When he drew Superman and they’d paste in a Curt Swan head it was so bizarre. I tell my students, “Your drawings don’t have to be realistic. But they do have to be believable.” I didn’t read comics as a kid, so I don’t have a sentimental attachment to Kirby’s work. I first saw his work with an artist’s eyes, and I was completely sucked into his world. Though I have to admit, I got fan girl chills when I saw the first trailer for the new Thor movie, and there’s Hela with that crazy ass Kirby headgear.
David C. Wasn’t that head piece great to see? Kind of hoping that they did that with CG, so Cate didn’t get neck strain.
David P. Good points June. No one drew “crazy ass headgear” better than Kirby.
Kirby definitely was not realistic but his work his drawing was always convincing relative to what he was trying to convey. Kirby’s extreme foreshortening effects are an effort to depict the movement of time and speed in a still drawing. The same effect looks goofy if it’s just a guy reaching for the saltshaker.
Also…. the way Kirby drew for comics was developed with utility in mind. His personal drawings show that Kirby understood the foundation of drawing very well.. he just didn’t let it limit his imagination. The square fingers without nails and the squiggles used on all the characters were definitely visual shorthand choices that are more apt to be found in his later work.
The great headgear that Kirby designed for Hela is featured on one of my favorite Kirby covers (Thor #150). It’s nice that besides the Celestials in the Guardian of the Galaxy movie that some cool aspect of Kirby design gets depicted more or less faithfully on the screen. I’m bugged that of all the Marvel characters to make it the screen that a Johnny-come-lately like Deadpool is the one to get a faithful movie costume. Galactus getting reworked as a fog monster is probably the worst instance.
Ward Thanks, June. And I agree how weird that they would add different heads to Kirby’s Superman bodies ?!?
June There’s a more recent trailer, but I like this one with Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. Okay, yes, I’ve watched it about ten times. I am a geek girl!
Hela with headgear
June Brigman is best known as the artist and co-creator of Marvel’s Power Pack. Her other Marvel work includes X-Men, Spider-Man, and Barbie; she has also drawn Supergirl and Steel for DC Comics, and Star Wars: River of Chaos for Dark Horse. June is also an illustrator, known for her work on various Star Wars novels and Choose Your Own Adventure books for Bantam Doubleday Dell, as well as Horse and Rider magazine. She has done advertising for storyboards, and served as a designer and artist for Teshkeel Media’s THE 99. Assisted by her husband inker/colorist Roy Richardson, she illustrated the Brenda Starr comic strip for 15 years. The pair have recently taken over the artistic reins of the long-running Mary Worth comic strip.
June is also a portraitist specializing in children and animals. She taught figure drawing for two years at the Joe Kubert School and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Sequential Art at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art & Design. Her awards include the Chicago Journalists Association Dale Messick Award and the prestigious Inkpot Award from Comic-Con International.
David Cowles was born in Rochester, New York in 1961. His illustrations have appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Fortune, Time, Newsweek, New York Magazine, New York Times, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair among others. He has also worked as a designer and animation director for such clients as Playhouse Disney, Sesame Workshop, They Might Be Giants, and Frederator Studios.
David Plunkert is a graphic designer, illustrator, and a co-founder of Spur Design in Baltimore MD. His illustrations have appeared in many newspapers and many magazines, and some of them have received gold medals from the Society of Illustrators. His theater posters have been exhibited around the world and have recently been collected by the Library of Congress. He has illustrated and designed Edgar Allan Poe: Stories & Poems for Rockport and they will publish his bicentennial edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein later this year. He is the creator of the oversized superhero anthology Heroical.
Paul Sahre‘s designs for book covers are well-known and includes series by the authors Rick Moody, Ernest Hemingway and Chuck Klosterman. He is probably most notable as a frequent contributor of illustrations to The New York Times, and designed the typeface Fur in 1994. Sahre has also provided illustrations for The Atlantic and Newsweek. Sahre teaches graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. next month Abrams will publish his memoir, Two-Dimensional Man.
Ward Sutton is a Freelance Cartoonist and Illustrator whose work appears in GQ, The New Yorker, MAD Magazine and many more. His Editorial cartoons appear regularly in The Boston Globe. He has created posters for musicians (Beck, Radiohead, Phish, Pearl Jam), Broadway (John Leguizamo’s “Freak”), and The Sundance Film Festival. He has created animation for HBO and Comedy Central.
He is also semi-secretly the creator of Kelly, the (fake) editorial cartoonist for The Onion. The book, Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To™ was published in 2016.
Ward Sutton’s “Resist Trump” image, which he created to be distributed free online for anyone to use