Kirby at 99: Chasing the Mystery

UPDATE!

Please continue to support Jillian Kirby and the Hero Initiative’s wonderful Kirby4Heroes campaign: a splendid way to honor Jack’s legacy and that of other veteran comic book creators. For more information about Kirby4Heroes, check out its Facebook page and website. And don’t forget #WakeUpAndDraw, the drawing challenge to benefit the Hero Initiative, which you can follow on Twitter.


Today would have been the 99th birthday of Jack Kirby, an artist and a man we know a lot about and yet who remains, to me, a mystery and a challenge. I expect he always will.

I wrote an academic book about Kirby. I curated an exhibition of his art, and co-edited the catalog which came out of that. I’ve written a handful of articles for The Jack Kirby Collector. In one way or another, I’ve been following Kirby and his work for most of my life, starting I don’t know when–sometime before I turned ten, which is about when he became my favorite comic book artist–and intensifying in my twenties, when I discovered comic shops and began to chase down Kirby books I had not seen as a kid. I’ve thought about and grappled with Kirby in waves, and can mark off certain phases of my life on the basis of how my view of Kirby changed. Sometimes he has been the very center of my interest in comics, and at other times a persistent background; the terms of my attention keep changing. Over the past ten years, though, as thinking about Kirby has turned into a program of academic work, my interest has been constant and especially intense.

You could say that I have Kirbymania. After all, a big part of my thinking and reading life orbits around the idea of Jack Kirby, and I don’t see that changing. Despite the rigors of working on the exhibition and catalog these past few years–a dream, a blur, a happy madness–I can’t help but feel that I’m not done with Kirby, and never will be. The truth is, he is still a mystery to me. There is so much to take in: the crushing hardships of his life, which he refused to be crushed by; his rare and intense gift for comics storytelling; the push and pull of contrary feelings and the gear-grinding clash of ideas in his work; his galloping imagination and yen for Big Things; above all, the great, unstinting generosity of his talent and temperament, which transformed deadline-crazy freelancing into an amazing outpouring of art that was, always, surplus to requirements. How can someone do that? How can that be possible, to wring, from a life steeped in the memory of poverty and violence, work so generous and vivid, so free of cynicism even when it ventured into the darkest places?

Kirby still has me baffled. I don’t think I’ll ever get him all figured out. Lord knows I’ve tried. It was Kirby who lured me into trying to figure out, in Hand of Fire, the whole strange business of cartooning: a mix of figuration, pictographic symbolism, and ecstatic handiwork, all driven toward to simplification and typification by narrative intent–but never merely reducible to a paraphrasable intent. It was Kirby who got me past analytical formalism, back to the wild sweep of the whole comics page. It was he who got me over my adolescent embarrassment at, hell disavowal of, things I really enjoyed and still enjoy: outrageous cartooning, grandstanding images, superhero yarns, space opera, Pop sublimity, plain reckless joy. It was Kirby who kicked me in the slats at age ten, and then again at age forty-plus, when I needed to take a post-tenure plunge into rediscovered pleasures, and needed to own them on a bigger stage. It was always Kirby. And I kept, keep, trying to figure him out. Talk about a glorious fool’s errand.

I keep coming back to the generosity of the work. Anyone who has studied Kirby has read stories about the generosity of the man, and knows that Jack Kirby was loved by many because he himself had love (not just fury) inside him. He was a good man from hard origins who worked in a pitiless, exploitive business, who endured and did hard things, but he was nonetheless a good man. What I’m thinking of, though, is the graphic generosity of the work. Kirby almost always looked at his art from a storyteller’s point of view–which is fair, because he was, as he said, a writer with pictures–but his refusal to stint on the drawing made his pages livelier and more beguiling than almost anyone else’s in the business, and made his head-spinning stories habitable, believable, and authentic somehow, in spite of the wild premises. That he gave so much of himself to drawing those stories helps explain the feeling of aliveness that they give off: a feeling of commitment.

Over the decades, Jack Kirby set an impossible standard for comic books, showing how far a creator could go even without what should be the minimal assurances of creative ownership, editorial control, and financial security. And Jack wasn’t a martyr; often he was a great success,though he learned repeatedly what could happen to a success when the rug was pulled out from under him. He was a survivor, but more than a survivor, he was the very model of what it took to succeed against long odds. That he did succeed in shaping the lives and imaginations of so many–again, there’s the mystery.

Sometimes I think about how very different Kirby is from me: in upbringing, ethos, personality. After all, I’m an academic; I like theory, and live by analysis. Kirby, on the other hand, lived by storytelling. I’m aware that my life has been very different from his, that the intersection of his work and mine is a miraculous fluke. I wonder, how can something be so familiar to me and yet retain its power to surprise? His work does that: it manages to be lovable and uncanny at the same time. As I said, I can’t figure it out. But I am certain that the academic and the writer in me owe their opportunities to the electrifying example of Kirby and what he showed me.

Chasing the mystery of Kirby, of his genius for comics, is a lifelong pursuit. I’m so grateful to be doing it.

So: Happy 99th and profoundest thanks to Jack Kirby! And Happy KIRBY DAY to us all. How odd to think that I’m celebrating his birthday by celebrating the gift he gave to me–but what else is new, eh? May this coming year, between Jack’s 99th and his 100th, be a time of more and better and more widely-read work in Kirby studies. There is a depth and strangeness to Kirby’s work that will never give out–and will continue to be a goad and inspiration to our own work, in his orbit.

PS. I think my first exposure to Kirby’s Kamandi, certainly the first arc of Kamandi that I read, came with issues 22 to 24, inked and lettered by D. Bruce Berry, and published by DC in late-mid 1974. I didn’t buy these; they came in a box of comics gifted to me by a schoolmate whose family was getting ready to move (a short time later, I started buying Kamandi off the newsstand, with issue 32, published in mid-75). Those three issues made quite an impression on me:

Courtesy of Derek Langille’s Flickr photostream

 

Courtesy of Derek Langille’s Flickr photostream

 

10 thoughts on “Kirby at 99: Chasing the Mystery

  1. Peter Laird says:

    “Proundest”?

  2. Now I am scrolling sifting thru for Proundest and Profoudest🙂

    • charleshatfield says:

      ProfouNdest. Man, posting the day before classes start is like begging for typos!

      Whatever. Hail Kirby, and a happy Kirby Day 2016 to all!

  3. […] And if that’s not enough Kirby for ya, you could also go here, and read a far better tribute to the man than I’ve ever written: https://handoffire.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/kirby-at-99-chasing-the-mystery/ […]

  4. […] * Happy 101st, Alice Sheldon. Kirby’s 99th. […]

  5. It’s amazing to think of the difference in the experience of encountering Kirby’s work for the first time, based on the period involved. You discovered him in Kamandi, where what you described as outrageous cartooning held sway. When I was ten in 1962, I came upon Rawhide Kid #30, the first comic that first stood out for me as a “Kirby” book. As a budding artist, what struck me most powerfully was a fairly naturalistic style that relied heavily on the dynamic sequencing of images, particularly in the fight scenes. Years later, collecting back issues of the Fantastic Four, I saw the same thing in the bottom tier of page 9 of FF#4, published in the same year as the issue of Rawhide Kid.
    Being ten, this had a really formative effect on my artistic development. Strangely, around 1965, I first saw Kirby’s golden age stuff, and I was captivated by his depiction of lithe almost rubbery action heroes. I really started to see the progression.
    What then blew my mind as I carried on reading the FF, Kirby’s style went cosmic in a very sixties way. He got bigger and bolder, exploding with life force. Of course, I had to follow suit.
    I think the final stage for me was the Fourth World as inked by Royer. Some of those images were so much more expressionistic in comparison that it was so obvious where Kirby was headed. I loved it, but the ten-year old in me still hangs on to the 1962 version.

    • charleshatfield says:

      Thanks for this great, terrifically descriptive comment, Norris! It sends me back to Ben Saunders’s essay in our CBA catalog, which also looks at the more naturalistic Kirby of the early 60s Western work, in contrast to what came later.

  6. UncannyDerek says:

    That was an awesome and honest post.

    As someone who was born in the mid 80’s, I got into comics when I was seven (with X-Men). It was only much later did I learn about Kirby and his legacy on the medium. It still boggles my mind how one man could produce so much content with such finesse and quality time-and-time again.

    After reading Jim Shooter’s Storytelling Lecture from his blog a few years back, my appreciation of Kirby (and indeed Kirby-era comic books) changed dramatically.

    While I’m still a youngin’ (29) when it comes to learning about the history and medium of comic books, I can say with confidence that Kirby gets the credit for making me the comic book fan I am today.

    • charleshatfield says:

      Thanks for the encouraging words, Derek! Glad that you liked the post. I can say the same: Kirby gets the credit for making me the fan I am today! (Well, Kirby and my brother, but I got bit by the Kirby Bug around age ten and started seeking out his work myself…)

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