Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 1

Where is my review of Timescape? Well, I ordered a copy of the book roughly three weeks ago but thanks to some screw ups involving Amazon retaining my old mailing address after I removed it I still haven't received it. Presumably it's stuck in mail limbo to be delivered along with my copy of The Book of the New Sun series until the mailman shows up at my door asking for a few bucks for forwarding it but it does put me behind in my Nebula reviews. Don't expect them to resume for at least another week since I'll need to read a bit to get ahead of things again.

Fortunately I had a back up plan that had been brewing for a while:

I consider the story of Jack Kirby's work in the 1970's to be one of the great tragedies of the comic book industry. While I obviously like Kirby's work I do not have rose-colored glasses about it; there is plenty of blame to go around for the problems of that period. In the seventies Kirby was at his artistic peak but his work was rejected by audiences. His imagination was exploding as he finally had total control over his projects but he was crippled by his lack of a collaborator.

When I was young and had reached that point where I knew comic book creators Jack Kirby was the guy who I couldn't figure out why he was so popular. His art was blocky with some thick, sparse lines. The stories and characters were goofy. And somehow this man received quite a bit of promotion. Jack Kirby was supposed to be a big deal but I couldn't see why.

Advance a decade or so and I know exactly why. Those sparse lines were part of a dynamic layout; they carried more meaning than a hundred pencil scratches by some artists. He defined what comic books were supposed to look like for a generation.

In the early 1960's Jack Kirby was directly involved with the creation of most of the new Marvel comics. Starting at the beginning of the new wave of superheroes with Fantastic Four he was key to the "Marvel style" where an artist put together a full book from a rough outline before handing it back to the writer to add dialog. Because of this he was often an equal partner on the comic books.

By 1970 things were turning sour. Kirby justifiably felt he wasn't getting his share of the credit in his creations. Marvel comics were promoted on the "Stan Lee" name when he had equal input in them. In addition he wanted to keep his original artwork which Marvel at the time had a policy of retaining. So in 1970 he ended his decade at Marvel:

From Fantastic Four #100; July 1970 cover date. Not my favorite page but it features all of Kirby's usual visual tricks.

Marvel's competitors DC Comics offered Kirby a sweetheart deal. Kirby would get to do what he wanted, three books of anything he liked and one ongoing title of his choice. He'd work almost without supervision as editor of his own books. He could work from a new home in California rather than staying in New York. He'd get to keep all of his original art. And finally he'd be the first comic book creator promoted by DC comics; while Marvel had been promoting creators for years DC comics typically didn't even run credits on stories.

As he grew more unhappy at Marvel Kirby had been saving his ideas for when he would have a free hand. So for his books at DC he unleashed these ideas in a torrent. He envisioned an epic saga of gods warring for the Earth. Collectively referred to as "the Fourth World", Kirby dedicated all four of his books to telling this intertwined story. That heavy emphasis on cross continuity he brought to DC might have been his greatest contribution to the decade, helping to start DC comics down the road to more mature titles.

For the ongoing title Kirby offered to take something without a regular artist since he didn't want to take work from someone else. DC handed him Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen which had become a pariah that no one knew what to do with. Kirby's Fourth World saga was launched with:

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #133; cover date October 1970

It took Jimmy Olsen from a book which had fallen into formulaic set ups for 8-page stories to one where there was a new supporting cast, an ongoing storyline involving super science conspiracies, and techno-hippies.

Almost from the beginning, though, there were cracks in Kirby's relationship with DC. DC comics had someone redraw Superman's face to their house style and Kirby was unhappy with their selection of inker Vince Colletta. While Kirby would be able to soon change out the inker the changes to Superman stayed.

As 1971 dawned Kirby launched his three new bimonthly books: The Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. Each of these tied directly into the epic Kirby wanted to tell.

But that must wait until tomorrow as I go into the rise and fall of the Fourth World. Be here as I run through sixty issues of history.