Saturday, May 24, 2008

Jack Kirby in the 1970's - Part 3 - What Went Wrong

At the end of 1972 the Fourth World was canceled. Kirby was off of Jimmy Olsen who went back to his usual wacky escapades, New Gods and The Forever People were just gone, and Mister Miracle limped along for another year as a more straight superhero book complete with kid sidekick. It wasn't the end of Kirby at DC, he created a few more series there including The Demon, OMAC, a revised Sandman, and his biggest success for DC Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. With the exception of Kamandi which continued running even after Kirby's contract with DC ran out and he returned to Marvel no book that Kirby worked on at DC lasted very long. So what happened?

DC's official position was that the sales were simply too low and while some of Kirby's fans have argued against that I see no reason to doubt it. While they weren't DC's lowest selling books they would be vulnerable titles when it came time to cull the publishing line back a bit since Kirby was his own editor and distant from the business end of things in New York. It is necessary to remember that DC comics is a publishing house; they can only publish so many books a month and if someone has pitched a new series that sounds like it could be a new hit then something has to come off the schedule. If no one speaks up for you then only the sales figures can speak.

So then why wasn't Kirby's work selling enough to be a success on its own? An obvious reason is that the times were changing. In the years that Kirby had been at Marvel comics thing went from this:

That's Steve Ditko on Amazing Spider-Man #4; cover date September 1963.

To this:The most famous page of Amazing Spider-Man #121 by Gil Kane; cover dated June 1973.

Jack Kirby was a big part of the shift in comic book art (not to minimize Ditko; I wanted two non-Kirby examples) but by 1970 things were shifting to a post-Kirby period. The expansion of the panel layout and use of more textural pencils were things that Kirby just didn't do. He reminds me a lot of an early Renaissance illustrator in the face of new movements; while Kirby developed techniques he reincorporated the older style into his works while other arts were abandoning it. The youth buying superhero comics tend to equate "realism" and "more lines" with "better" which lead to an outright rejection of his art style.

Kirby's Mister Miracle #14; cover date June/July 1973.

Also as noted Kirby has an ear for dialog that went beyond tin. While comics were shifting to a more mature style he remained locked in the standards. This wasn't inexcusable, DC comics were still catering to a younger crowd at that point, but the fans who followed Kirby from Marvel were disappointed and walked away quickly. There was a sales spike on Kirby's first few issues before dropping off sharply after a few months.

Eventually Kirby's contract with DC ran out and he found himself returning to Marvel comics. That's where we'll pick things up on Monday...