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Year of the Artist, Day 109: Keith Giffen, Part 1 – The Defenders #46 and 49

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Keith Giffen, and the issues are The Defenders #46 and 49, which were published by Marvel and are cover dated April and June 1977. Enjoy!

Keith Giffen has had a long career in comics, and as an artist, he’s one of the most versatile people you can find. He can do straight superheroes (as we’ll see today and as we’ll return to, in my last post on him), but over the years, his style became so idiosyncratic that it made him very controversial. His work on The Defenders was early in his career – a little over a year since his first published work – and I wanted to look at two different issues with two different inkers, as one highlights the fact that early in his career, Giffen was consciously aping Jack Kirby (not that that’s a bad thing). It’s interesting to look at the way inkers shape the work, so let’s get to it!


If you don’t recognize Klaus Janson’s inks on this issue of The Defenders, you probably haven’t been reading comics long enough. Giffen was 24 (probably; he turned 24 at the end of November 1976) when he drew this, and Janson was either 24 or 25 (he turned 25 in January 1977), and it’s interesting to see how recognizable a style Janson already had, while Giffen was working on his by trying to draw like Kirby. I suppose if you were a comics fan and you were 9/10 when Kirby redefined comics, you might try to draw like him. We’ll see more of the Kirby influence below, because Janson’s heavy inks already tend to dominate whatever penciller he’s inking, especially a young penciller like Giffen. Giffen is basically “on-model” for each character, and Janson highlights the gorgeous cheekbones of Luke Cage and Stephen Strange. Janson’s inks make Hellcat’s boobs look bigger and define the Hulk’s and Luke’s muscles nicely. Notice in the upper right corner, the weird gargoyle/statue thing that Giffen puts in to frame the scene does look very Kirby-esque. Janson makes it look a bit more terrifying with his thick hatching, but it’s still a Kirby-esque creation.


Scorpio shows up, and Giffen gives us his best Kirby imitation … so far. You have to love the Kirby Krackle, especially the parallel line segments where Scorpio’s hand is clutching … whatever it is he’s clutching (it’s his “key to the Zodiac,” which looks like something that might inspire Prince to change his name). Giffen gives him a big Kirby hand, and Janson uses rough hatching to make him look buff but not sleek, which makes him look like his suit is a size or two too small. Giffen, you’ll notice, puts a lot of machinery in the background, which is a Kirby staple but is also standard for supervillains. Scorpio is in a nice pose – Giffen already shows that he can do fluid action fairly well, as Scorpio doesn’t look stiff at all.


That’s weird – I cut off a little of the bottom of this page. Oh well! As you can see, this page shows both Giffen’s ability at this point to draw like Kirby and Janson’s powerful inking, as the first three panels are very Kirby-esque. Scorpio, with Kirby Krackle energy flowing around him, blasts the Hulk, and Giffen leads our eye from the left to the right very nicely. In Panel 2, the machines attack the Hulk, and his proportions are very Kirby-esque, as his hands and feet are gigantic compared to his somewhat squat body. As we see in Panel 3, it’s not necessarily that Giffen is copying the King, because that’s really the model for the Hulk – a squat, wide nose and a large upper lip, but we still see touches of Kirby in the machinery that attacks the Hulk. Janson, meanwhile, uses heavy, rough blacks all over the page, and his inking in Panel 4 adds some nuance to Scorpio’s costume, making it look more like clothing and less like painted naked skin, which costumes can occasionally look like.

Story continues below


This is the next page, and once again we see how good Giffen is at such a young age, as the fight scene is choreographed pretty well. He manages to squeeze Nighthawk into Panel 1 so that we see him about to attack Scorpio. Again, there’s lot of Kirby Krackle in the panel, and Scorpio definitely has a “Kirby hand.” It moves us easily to Panel 2, where Giffen shows what happens when Nighthawk catches up to Scorpio. The momentum of the panel carries us back to the left, where Hellcat’s claw thing comes in a snags the Zodiac key, which is large in the foreground while Giffen fits the two characters into the background. The Zodiac key is duplicated in Panel 4, leading us down to Hellcat and Valkyrie, while in Panel 5, Nighthawk continues his momentum toward Scorpio and socks him. The way Giffen draws Scorpio in Panel 5 is very much like Kirby. Janson’s inks aren’t as heavy on this page, but he does once again accentuate Hellcat’s breasts which very heavy blacks around the curves of her chest. Patsy needs to show off the goods!


By issue #49, Giffen was being inked by Mike Royer, who often inked Kirby in the 1970s. Royer has a notably thinner line than Janson, even though, as we see in Panel 1, he’s not adverse to using heavy blacks. From the earlier scans, we can see how influenced by Kirby Giffen was, but Royer’s inking presence makes it a bit more obvious. The close-up of Scorpio gives us that Caesar haircut that so many of Kirby’s heroes sport, and Royer’s thin inks make his nose and mouth more exaggerated. Still, we have the thick eyebrows and shadows around the eye. Meanwhile, the robot thing next to Scorpio is heavily inked, but the spot blacks aren’t as rough as Janson’s, and we even get some blobs of black that mimic Kirby Krackle. Panel 3, in which Scorpio poses with the key, shows us a fairly standard Kirby-esque figure, with the simple geometric shapes, and Royer inks it a bit heavily, but more “cleanly” than Janson. Giffen’s drawing of Nick Fury’s face shattering is another Kirby pastiche, as we get the wide face, the high cheekbones, and the square head. I do like the wavy lines and David Kraft’s psychedelic colors in Panel 3. It’s so Seventies, man!


Royer inks the Hulk as darkly as Janson did, but notice that the blacks aren’t quite as rough. Mostly, I wanted to show this because it’s in the running for Greatest Panel In Marvel History, as the Hulk just wants to eat some turkey, and the Defenders won’t let him. Damn, that’s cold, Defenders!


Here’s a really good example of the difference in inkers. Royer uses chunks of black, but because his usual line isn’t as thick and because the chunks tend to have clearly defined borders, it makes the figures more sharply defined. The spot blacks on Moon Knight and Valkyrie in Panel 1 make both their costumes look metallic, even though only Valkyrie’s armor is. The Hulk in Panel 2 is so Kirby-esque that it’s almost bizarre. Royer’s thin lines on, for instance, Hulk’s feet differentiate it from Janson’s heavier line, while the well-defined balcks on his pants and shoulders are very reminiscent of Kirby’s work. Giffen puts Hulk in a very Kirby-esque pose, while his face is even more Kirby-ish than we’ve seen in other examples – his face is very wide, his eyes are very far apart, and his head is almost perfectly square. In Panel 4, we get another Kirby-esque post, as Hellcat lands on top of the Hulk and drives him into the ground. The symmetry of Hellcat’s design and the way Giffen angles her body so her head is much larger than her feet (she has already landed on the Hulk and is flying forward toward the reader) are both Kirby staples, while Royer’s sharp blacks along her center line also remind us of the King.


The final page of the issue gives us another Kirby homage. Jack Norriss has a prototypical Kirby face, with the wide mouth, high cheekbones, and large upper lip, while once again we see the exaggeration of the Hulk’s face, with his large mouth and teeth. The creature behind Scorpio could have stepped out of a Fourth World comic, as Giffen gives it a square face and long flowing mane, which just screams Kirby. Unlike Janson, Royer doesn’t ink Scorpio’s costume as heavily, so it seems to fit him a bit better. The last image in the comic that we readers see is the Hulk, and Giffen/Royer shadows his eyes to show the dark confrontation he’s getting into. It’s a good place to end!

I apologize for bringing up Kirby so much in this post, but it’s really interesting how much Giffen is imitating him here. It’s also very cool how much influence Janson and Royer have on the pencils. Giffen began to draw in a bit more stolid style over the next few years before beginning to create his most famous (probably) style, and tomorrow we’ll check out some of his art as it changed. It gets weirder and weirder! Meanwhile, there’s some weird art in the archives, if you’re so inclined to check it out!


I never understood the zodiac key. It was in an old iron man comic and somehow transported him to some weird dimension that fuels on good vs evil. I also saw it controlling people. In this, though, it gives the guy powers. Weird. Good artwork, though.

I see a bit of Steranko in that page where Scorpio’s origin is explained. Probably because he’s referencing comics that Steranko drew, I guess. I’m glad you’re featuring Giffen. The first work of his that I remember buying was Trencher, a short lived 90s Image series that features a very different style. I’m interested to see if that was a shift in style that developed slowly over time or if it was a sudden and controversial shift.

Yayyyy! I am so excited about this week. Giffen’s a great choice for this because he went through so many phases. I remember these issues of Defenders fondly, too.

Bullseye11: It’s an all-purpose evil device!!!! :)

Andrei: Yeah, there’s definitely some Steranko, and you’re right – it’s probably because he’s referencing Steranko comics.

I’ll actually get to Trencher. It’s not as dramatic as getting there if he went straight to it from here, but it was a fairly severe shift.

– Giffen is definitely a creator who works better for me when his idiosyncrasies are slightly reined in, both as an artist and writer. There’s a sort of middle period on the Legion where he’s just right, no longer doing a Kirby pastiche but also not giving his style over completely to the Ambush Bug aesthetic. That said, he’s never pencilled anything as hard to follow as some of his early 2000s scripts. I think he’s something of a forerunner to Chris Bachalo in terms of how he uses space and quasi-abstracted figures to generate work that’s fascinating to look at. But Bachalo manages to do it without sacrificing storytelling clarity.

— The Zodiac Key was a pretty simple concept right up until Gerry Conway, in his early-1970s phase where everything was convoluted New Age-y stuff, brought in the idea it was from another dimension and had something to do with the balance of chaos and order. Steve Engelhart did his level best to straighten things out later in West Coast Avengers, but later writers have confused the issue again thanks to the introduction of imitation and duplicate keys.

buttler: Yeah, he was fun to write about.

Omar: Well, as I point out tomorrow … I don’t own any of his Legion work anymore. I used to own “The Great Darkness Saga” trade, but I got rid of it because I just wasn’t that jazzed with the story. So I’m going to skip his early 1980s work, unfortunately. I suck. I also don’t own his artwork from the early 2000s, but we’ll get to that. And if you like comparing him to Bachalo, you’re going to love the next artist! :)

To bad you do not have any of Giffen’s Legion work. I came to appreciate his work when he did his cinematic take on the Five Years Later Legion book.

The Royer inked pages above look so much like Kirby that I think Royer must have been trying to make them as Kirby like as possible.

@Omar Thanks for explaining it! Gerry Conway may be famous for great comics now but before his spiderman run…ouch. There was one daredevil comic I read that had Tagak the Leapord Lord in it and didn’t even show the villain. He was just a shadow. Part of that might be gene colan’s fault, though, because he’s famous for running out of room in the middle of a story and finishing it quickly.

Sorry kdu2814! It somehow had me post in your name. Weird.

kdu2814: Yeah, I went looking for my trade, even though I knew, deep in my gut, that I had gotten rid of it years ago. I should have known Future Me would need it for this column!!!! :)

Jenos Idanian #13

April 19, 2014 at 5:27 pm

I’ve never really thought about it, but Giffen is a stylistic chameleon — he can emulate (not really “imitate”) so many other great artists. He started out as very Kirbyesque, he switched to Steranko-style when it was called for, then became very Neal Adams/Jim Starlin-like in his early Legion run, got a little too jazzed by the works of that Argentinian guy…

But (with the exception of the Argentinian guy) it was still not quite copying, but emulating — and, quite frankly, his early Legion stuff with Larry Mahlstedt inking was some of the best art I’ve ever seen. He also got in on the early days of computer coloring, playing with seamless color bands, the infamous blue face shading, the CGI zipatones, and a bunch of other really cool effects.

He started to lose me when he started apparently copying Munoz, and I still find his style (and that relentlessly boring 9-grid page) offputting, but his run on Legion up through 307 or so. That’s when he really started to lose me.

And if you’re skipping Giffen’s Legion work, you’re really doing a disservice to him, the readers, and yourself. That’s where he really came into his own AND became one of the most popular artists of the time — remember, it was then that Legion became one of DC’s best-selling titles, and the work was some of the best of its time.

It is certainly odd to skip the Great Darkness Saga. Both Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen were at their finest there. Comics don’t often get any better than those stories.

It is a shame that Giffen surrendered to his worst artistic instincts since. #307 was indeed the start of a very difficult period for following his work. Everything was so caricatural, flattened and off-putting. “Five Years Later”, particularly, had very difficult and unpleasant aesthetics.

Yes, it really is a shame that you will be skipping his Legion run, especially since issues 306-308 show the most marked issue to issue changes in style by an artist I’ve ever seen. The framing sequences of 306 (around a Curt Swan drawn Star Boy origin tale) look like his work on Legion up to that point in time, while 308 is clearly his style that he progressed with over the next several years, while 307 is an odd mishmash of the two. All of this inked by Larry Mahlstedt. Greg, they’re contained in the LSH: The Curse trade (and hardcover, which is what I own) in case you’re curious. Surely you know someone nearby with a Legion collection. We’re everywhere!

My earliest Giffen was an Iron Man story he drew (#114, 1978) that featured that wonderful Iron Man villain, The Unicorn. His Legion-era style can be seen here, but there’s also a little bit of George Tuska mixed in.

Maybe you could have included a panel from #50, where Dave Cockrum threw in some inks.

I loved this run of issues – they were the first Defenders comics I bought, purely because of Giffen’s art. And yes, over time, I picked up on the Kirby-Steranko vibe. His designs for the members of the Zodiac were particularly cool, as well as some great scenes with Moon Knight.

Jeff Nettleton

April 19, 2014 at 8:55 pm

Loved the “Who Remembers Scorpio?” storyline, one of my favorite pieces from the Defenders. Giffen also seemed to borrow a bit from Phillippe Druiet on Legion, as well as Jose Munoz (more in his later stages). Of course, he wasn’t the only one. Frank Miller became quite the devote, right down to the concept of Munoz’s “Alack Sinner” work. Put that right next to Sin City and you might be hard pressed to tell them apart. Giffen’s Druillet seemed to be in some of his design detail, especially when depicting the armor of the Khunds and when the gang fought Princess Projectra’s cousin Pharoxx, on Orando. There were touches that were very reminiscent of Druillet’s designs on Loane Sloane, with the Hindu influences.

tom fitzpatrick

April 19, 2014 at 9:08 pm

It’s funny, my first Giffen exposure was Legion of Super-Heroes just prior to “The Great Darkness Saga”. Didn’t realize that he started much earlier than that.

His penciling here is virtually unrecognizable compared to his style in the ’80’s and ’90’s, but, yeah here it looks good waaaay back when he was starting out.

If you don’t recognize Klaus Janson’s inks on this issue of The Defenders, you probably haven’t been reading comics long enough.

LOL… the second I started scrolling down and saw the first panel of that page, I immediately said to myself “That has to be Klaus Janson’s inking.”


April 19, 2014 at 10:50 pm

This should be a fun one!

Hopefully we’ll see some Ambush Bug!

I just picked up a couple of his legion comics from the early 80’s in the 50 cent bin, after seemingly everyone here raving about them. So far the little I’ve looked at isn’t bad but I still prefer the rougher Munoz and Five Years Later period

I first saw his artwork in the Who’s Who and loved how distinctive it was. He and Kirby really stood out from the pack.


April 19, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Oh yeah, this and some of the pre-Miller Daredevil work is pretty much the only Janson inking I’ve ever seen that I really liked. It’s weird that two disparate styles work so well together.

I wonder, did Royer ink his work as faithfully as he did Kirby’s? I would assume so, if that’s the case, we get a better idea of what early Giffen pencils were like, as opposed to the more heavy handed inks of Janson.

greg.. Giffen is a Fav of Mine, and i did 10 years ago, something ressembling your column..

I do own the “All Star Comics” he did (beginning of his career, inked by Wally Wood, that shows how well he imagined the spaces, the movement around the page)

I do have part of the defenders shown here.. (i miss the iron Man he did just before the First run of JrJr on the title)

After that, remember that Keith, rising from beginner to star in a few month had a great problem with other, and the way he acted.

He quit comicdom for 2 years…

and return more humble, but had to earn his way to a series.

Beginning with some horror/war stories for DC, then the ‘Doctor Fate’ Backup in Flash (With Pasko’s writing – great thing, DC collected it as a Special Doc Fate in the late 80’s) wich earned him the back up in LoSH, then the main Feature.

and the rest is hitory.
(Dont forget some jewels like = Spectacular Spider-man 118, Justice (the Marvel NewUniverse one)

i love Giffen’s Legion stuff, both periods. But i really loved his 5YL stuff, as it was so different from the earlier Legion. i also loved the fill ins on JLI that he did, in the style of Munoz. His Trencher stuff was too much for me, but when he reigns himself back in, i find his stuff totally enjoyable.

Oh yeah, i own his All-Star Comics stuff from the 70s, when he was inked by Wally Wood. It’s good, but it isn’t my favorite period by Giffen.

Twenty years post-swiping, and Giffen is regarded as one of the elder statesmen of American comics while Munoz & Sampayo’s brilliant ‘Sinner’ still hasn’t been fully translated and published, just sayin’…

Henry R. Kujawa

January 4, 2016 at 11:37 am

“The Royer inked pages above look so much like Kirby that I think Royer must have been trying to make them as Kirby like as possible.”

Like some DC editors in the 70s, you guys do NOT “get it”.

Mike Royer’s specialty was the ability to be ABSOLUTELY FAITHFUL to the pencils of whoever he was inking.

That’s why, when he inked Jack Kirby, you saw EXACTLY what Jack Kirby drew.

Mike Royer was in NO WAY making Giffen look like Kirby. GIFFEN was making Giffen look like Kirby.

By the way, I really HATE Klaus Janson’s inks, and really came to appreciate Giffen on THE DEFENDERS when they finally had decent inkers working over his.

A pity Giffen started blowing deadlines and got himself FIRED…

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