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Year of the Artist, Day 3: Jack Kirby, Part 3 – Fighting American #2

10-12-2013 01;25;12PM (2)

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jack Kirby, and the story is “The League of the Handsome Devils!” from Fighting American #2, which was published by Prize Comics, an imprint of Crestwood Publications, and has a cover date of June/July 1954. These scans are from Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier (which is why they’re in black and white), which was published in 2008. Enjoy!

I wanted to show some more pre-1960s Kirby, especially action Kirby from the 1950s, and this story from Fighting American is all I have access to, and that’s in an adulterated form, as I’ll show below. Evanier’s book is pretty darned cool, though – I recommend it highly.

First up, Evanier shows the pernicious influence of the Comics Code. This comic was published a few months before it went into effect, and Evanier points out the very first panel (after the splash page) shows a dude about to get killed by another person holding an ice pick. In 1966, Harvey published a reprint, and the Code meant that the first panel had to be censored. As this story is the altered version, Evanier shows us that not only was the ice pick obliterated, the man’s scream and the fact that he was dying was also wiped out. Man, censorship is weird.

10-12-2013 01;22;38PM

We do get some quality Kirby action in this story, however. Here’s the Fighting American and Speedboy (really?) intervening in a mugging:

10-12-2013 01;25;12PM

Kirby is always great at perspective, and the “3-D” effect of the thug flying toward the reader is done really well here. The action flows nicely from left to right, and Kirby gives us the punk smashing right into some kind of post (which appears out of nowhere, but the visual is still cool). He has “Kirby hands” – don’t tell me that you don’t recognize them! – that are bigger than the other parts of him, because he’s coming right at us. In Panel 3, Kirby smartly shows the beating Speedboy receives from that angle, probably for a couple of reasons: One, so it wouldn’t seem as brutal as it is, because we can’t see Speedboy’s face; and Two, because the way the punk hits Speedboy, our eye flows down to the fallen shape of the Fighting American. It’s a nicely composed panel.

10-12-2013 01;26;39PM

The attractive thieves are, it turns out, really ugly dudes who wear masks (it’s unclear why; their leader eventually claims that he hates good-looking people, and I guess the gang wears masks so that no one thinks they’re evil, because we all know that attractive people are never evil?), and this is where they reveal themselves. Panel 2 is a good Kirby panel: the hands (Kirby hands!) are thick and masculine, and they form a frame for the diabolical leader. Notice also that the ugly men are fairly typical Kirby ugly people – they wouldn’t be out of place as villains in a Fantastic Four comic from a decade later. Kirby was good at drawing ugly!

10-12-2013 01;28;33PM

Here’s some more classic Kirby action – the Fighting American leaps from Panel 1 directly into Panel 2, smashing into the bad guys so hard that the upper half of his body disappears. As we saw a few days ago with Blue Bolt, Kirby liked drawing masses of bodies getting beaten up, and we get that in Panel 3. Evanier notes a mistake in this panel – Kirby was working so fast that he accidentally attached an extra arm to the thug in the middle. That’s what happens when you draw a mass of bodies – things get weird!

This story is recognizably Kirby, in that we can see the bold action coming together and the way he draws bodies beginning to become solidified. It’s interesting to compare this to his early 1940s work, which has some similarities but is also much rougher. In this comic, we can see the 1960s Kirby coming to the fore. Tomorrow, we’ll enter the 1960s and check out a certain book that changed comics history. What could it be????

In case you missed the past two days, feel free to check out the archives!


I guess this is Simon inking still? The distinctive vertical lines in the clothing folds, etc, seem to suggest so.

I agree that the Kirby as we understand it at classic 60s Marvel is taking shape here: the foreshortened hands and oversized Kirby fists; and the villains’ ugly mugs. It’s a far cry from the early 40s Blue Bolt you reproduced.

Good idea, Greg, looking forward to future instalments!

It’s weird but to me this looks a lot more stylized and frankly better than early Fantastic Four (not Kirby/Sinnott Fantastic Four, but better than any of the first dozen or so issues). Has Kirby gone on record anywhere about his varying styles and what motivated him to make changes when he did?

Another thing this piece brought to mind was an article on Hooded Utilitarian where the writer makes the case that Kirby comics promote an essentially Manichean outlook. The writer points to Kirby’s use of ugly villains as a sign that Kirby viewed evil and villainy as innate qualities, not ones arising from circumstance. He made this argument in the context of Kirby’s Fourth World (in which there are plenty of examples to support his case), but man, if he had seen this Fighting American comic, he could have really hammered the point home. Kind of sad to think of our comic-book idols as backwards in any way, but I gotta say it does seem that Kirby on some level had some backwards ideas about physiognomy.

Pete: I would guess it’s Simon, but I don’t know. Evanier doesn’t note the inker in the book, but the Grand Comics Database has him listed as the inker. If you trust them, there you go!

Thanks for the nice words.

Cass: I’m moving on to the Fantastic Four, so we can compare and contrast!

That’s an interesting point about Kirby’s beliefs. I’m not sure if we can think of him as “backward” when that’s been a trope for millennia and is even somewhat pervasive today in pop culture. Yes, we’d like people to be more enlightened, but I’m not sure if Kirby is that unique in his equation of ugliness to villainy, unfortunately.

It’s been great seeing these samples of Mr. Kirby’s work. The storytelling skills were definitely there from the start, as were elements like the high-cheekboned and proud beauty and the hideously deformed bad guy.

I’d definitely like to see more of his 40s and 50s work and see when the dramatic use of foreshortening and perspective and the dynamic multiple-antagonist brawls started.

If someone told me this was contemporaneous with his early “Fantastic Four”, I’d have believed it.

Derek: Unfortunately, I really don’t have much pre-1970s Kirby stuff – it’s a big hole in my comics library. As we saw, he was having fun with multiple antagonists in 1941, but I don’t know about when the other markers of his work became prominent. If I get some more early Kirby this year, I might have to back up and check that stuff out, but right now, I don’t own it.

Cass, it’s an interesting point and there’s some evidence for it, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily a sign that Mr. Kirby had backwards ideas about physiognomy. He struck me as having been very tapped into mythology and legends, where ugliness often represents evil or sadness and beauty generally represents all that’s good and pure. That could have informed some of his work.

It’s also fair to say that in his work alone and with others, he also explored the idea of the noble monster and the handsome villain.

Mr. Kirby’s Orion is ugly and born to evil, but he strives to be good. The Deviant Yrdisis was also better than her background. Big Bear of the Forever People is quite ugly as originally portrayed, as is the Beast of the X-Men, but neither were conflicted about being good. The Thing was hideous in his original appearance, and despite his bitterness and temper, he was a good man.

On the other hand, Mr. Kirby’s Loki was depicted as a relatively handsome (although he did have that out of proportion “villainous mouth” in a lot of images). Victor von Doom was clearly already well on the path to villainy before his face was scarred, and he was noble and handsome.

It is certainly fair to say that he used the same shorthand as myths and legends, but I don’t think it’s possible to directly equate that with his opinions about the real world.

Greg, I’m in the same boat. I have two books on his art, but not many reprints of his early work.

So many comics, so little time, money and space!

Does anyone know the division of labor between Simon and Kirby? I know Simon contributed on the art, but was it just inking or did he do some pencilling too. I’ve seen some of Simon’s pencilling and it was quite good and it made me wonder if they shared pencilling duties as well.

T.: That’s one of the problems of these early days, because usually it’s just Simon/Kirby, without really delineating who did what. So I don’t know. Sorry!

Your recommendation of Kirby: King of Comics is seconded. I love that book. It’s too bad you don’t have more Kirby, Greg. You could do months on this guy. Fix it!

@ Greg, T re: Simon/Kirby credits. I know of no other reference that suggests any more than: “Well they worked on the story together; and basically Kirby did the lion’s share of the pencilling and Simon did the lion’s share of the inking.”
Details lost to the mists of time, and all that.

Does anyone know if Evanier’s long-delayed magnum opus biog of Jack (Kirby: King of Comics is the abdridged, coffee-table version, I believe) is ever going to be finished?

Sorry, that should be abridged, not “abdridged”!

Two things:

I’m pretty sure it is fairly well established that on most Simon/Kirby material, Kirby pencilled, and both Simon and at times Kirby inked. The “extra arm” in that final panel seems to me down to an inker’s misinterpretation of loose pencils, so, I would say, is Simon over Kirby. The arm is a left arm flexing back, so actually belongs to the guy over what has mistakenly become the right shoulder of the middle man, who (jokily, perhaps, from Jolly Jack?) appears to be praying.

Re: appearances apropos intent. There’s a further instance among the Deviants (from Eternals) of a hero-faced brute paired with a brutish-in-appearance gentler soul. I forget the name of the former but the latter, his buddy, is Karkas. Aha – they debuted in Eternals Annual 1 (and only). And the brutish good-looker is called The Reject. The reader is meant to first assume that their characters are the other way around, of course.

weird, but on my screen right now, an inch or two to the right is a pop-up for “Comics Should Be Good” (5,695 people like…) and right there, courtesy of Mr Martin Hand, is big, red blobby Karkas hisself.

In the ugly guys under the masks reveal page, panel 2 looks like a Kirby self-portrait. Not sure if he used himself as a model or it was unintentional, but it’s still cool to see.

Ian: Ha, good point. I hadn’t noticed that.

I suspect Kirby felt more that evil twisted a person into an ugly being, metaphorically and would depict that physically. If you look at Hunger Dogs, the New God Esak went from beautiful boy on New Genesis (in early New Gods stories) to a twisted, evil creature in the service of Darkseid.

p.s. Fighting American is a great series and it really illustrates what a great satirist Kirby (and Simon) was. No wonder he worked so well with Steve Gerber on Destroyer Duck.

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