Year of the Artist, Day 1: Jack Kirby, Part 1 – Blue Bolt Comics #10
Yes, I took last year off after my post-a-day madness of 2012, but during that long year, I had another idea for a post-a-day for an entire year: a series on artists and their development. While I was posting the first pages of comics, I think I got better at writing about art, so I wanted to write about it more. I’ve always been interested at how artists evolve through their careers, and picking up some random older collected editions in 2013 made me curious to see this progression and write a bit about it. So for this year, I’m picking artists and seeing how they draw a particular comic. Each day will feature only one comic, but it might be a whole series of sequences or just one sequence or even one panel. I’m also not going to limit myself to a progression – some artists I might only feature once, but I hope to show several examples over the course of some days. Obviously, I can only show art of comics I actually own, so I might miss some of your favorites. Sorry! I hope, in this way, to show how an artist gets better at the job of drawing a comic (of course, I might even show how an artist gets worse, but that’s far more depressing). Plus, I’d like to see how changes in technology affect some of the art in comics. I did this a little when I featured the first pages of comics, focusing on a single artist a few different times, so I might skip those artists I featured in 2012. We’ll see. And, of course, I’m starting with the King. I mean, I kind of have to, don’t I?
Our first artist is Kirby, and while I don’t own his Captain America issues (yes, I suck), I’m going to start in the 1940s. This comic is from March 1941, and it’s reprinted in Fantagraphics’ phenomenal Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, from which I took several examples in 2012 and which I urge you to check out. It’s brilliant. Joe Simon is also credited, with Kirby, as artist, so I’m not sure who did what. But it’s definitely Kirby-esque, so let’s see what’s what with this story!
I don’t want to focus too much on what’s going on in these stories, but occasionally I’ll give you some plot points. In this story, a gangster, Rocky Roberts, has stowed away on the ship of the Green Sorceress, who rules the Green Empire, a vast land underneath the Earth’s surface. The Sorceress is miffed at our hero, Blue Bolt, for some reason, and she plots her revenge. Just then Rocky makes his presence known:
Kirby was 23 when he drew this page, and already we see some of the reasons why he’s a legend. It’s certainly not as good as he’d later be, but there’s still a lot to like about this sequence. Notice how he moves our eye from Rocky in the foreground in Panel 1 to the Sorceress in the background and then, in Panel 2, keeps Rocky looking at the Sorceress in Panel 1 so that the flow isn’t too interrupted by the rotation of the point of view. Both guns in Panels 1 and 2 form a triangle with the Sorceress, and our eyes move easily across the gutter. Rocky’s outfit is odd in context of a science fiction story, but remember that he’s just a normal gangster who happens to be in a vast underground empire (one with clouds in the sky, but don’t worry about that!). We’ll see him more clearly in a later panel, so I won’t talk about how he looks right now.
Kirby/Simon lights his cigar in Panel 3, so the smoke drifts to the right, pushing everything that way. The cigar, the smoke, and the gun tell us which way to go even before we see the arrow making it explicit. Notice too that in Panel 5, Kirby draws Rocky a bit more casually, as he believes he’s hooked the Sorceress and can lighten up a little. He pushes his hat back to tap his temple, and there’s a ghost of a grin on his face. I’m not sure why Kirby drew the Sorceress holding her left arm like that, but I like to believe it’s because she’s just a bit creeped out by Rocky. Another feature of Kirby’s art is, of course, the fabulous machinery, and we see an early example of that in Panel 4. The dude didn’t like to waste space! This also makes Rocky’s presence even weirder, because the Sorceress lives in a fantastic world and Rocky is just a mundane thug.
Rocky somehow (it happens off-panel) imprisons the Sorceress and takes over the kingdom, and Blue Bolt goes to track him down. He gets to Rocky’s throne room, but the villain manages to stun him. As he’s being taken someplace to be killed, however, he wakes up and defeats the three men who are guarding him. These next two sequences are when he bursts into the throne room and when he wakes up, and show some early Kirby action scenes:
In the first example, we see what would become a Kirby staple: One man battling against tough odds and getting tangled in a mass of bodies. Blue Bolt bursts through the door and overwhelms three bad guys, and look how Kirby lays out the scene. Blue Bolt’s right knee is slamming into the back of the villain on the floor, his right hand mashes the face of another, and the sheer force of his entry snaps the third backward, causing his gun to fire into the ceiling. Kirby forgets where Blue Bolt’s left arm is, but it’s probably there somewhere!
In the second sequence, we get some typical Kirby flourishes, although it’s not as dramatic as the first action scene. Blue Bolt again defeats three bad guys, and it’s more the way Kirby lays out the panels rather than any stupendous drawings. The flow works perfectly, and in Panel 3, when last bad guy fires at Blue Bolt, Kirby leads us nicely to the knockout punch in Panel 4. The punch seems to be coming from higher up than we might expect, but it adds to the drama. Check out how the first bad guy appears to be holding a standard-issue 1930s ray gun, while the drive holds what appears to be a revolver. Kirby couldn’t make up his mind!
So Blue Bolt escapes, but in the meantime, Rocky has tied the Green Sorceress to a big cannon. Because that’s just the easiest way to kill your rival, I guess. Here’s the sequence:
I used this because it illustrates two proto-Kirby visages: the warrior queen and the misshapen villain. Look at the magnificent Green Sorceress in Panel 2, defiant to the end. Kirby loved high cheekbones (who doesn’t?), and they give the Sorceress a nice, haughty look that also shows off her beauty. She’s definitely a 1930s/1940s ideal of beauty, but she’s also the template on which Kirby would base many of his women. In Panel 4, we see Rocky in all his glory, and his lined face, giant eyebrows, almost crossed eyes, and thick lips make him a horrific villain, the kind of bad guy Kirby would return to often. Comics creators of this time were more subtle than today because they had to be, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Rocky, who’s probably a bit sexually frustrated because his looks cause women to cringe, has the Sorceress strapped to the open end of a giant penis substitute, nor is it a coincidence that he sucks on a cigar throughout this story (yes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but in this case, I doubt it). Kirby, you’ll note, makes sure the glowing end of the cigar is prominently placed when Rocky yells “Fire!”
Blue Bolt saves the day, of course, and receives a boon from the Sorceress for saving her life. All’s well that ends well!
This is obviously a fairly primitive Kirby page, but it’s pretty cool to see some of the things he would later hone to perfection showing up on these pages. Before we get to his return to superhero comics, we’ll have to check out another example of “proto-Kirby” tomorrow. Join me, won’t you!
And hey, there’s already some archives to check out! Whoo-hoo!