Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
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 “Street Code” in Argosy (volume 3) #2, which was published by Richard Kyle and is cover dated November 1990. Kirby drew the story in 1983, which is why I’m showing it before tomorrow’s entry. These scans are from Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier, which came out in 2008 and is well worth your ducats. Enjoy!
Richard Kyle commissioned Kirby to create any story he wanted for Argosy (which, as I noted, didn’t come out for another seven years), and Kirby responded with “Street Code,” which reflected his childhood on the Lower East Side. Kyle also suggested that Kirby not ink the story, leaving the raw pencils untouched when it was published. It was a good idea, to say the least.
One of the reasons I’m reticent to write much about those people inking Kirby is because, as you can see, his pencils were so tight to begin with. This isn’t unusual and it’s not happening here just because he knew the story would be published without inks – his pencils were usually this detailed, although these pages are, to be fair, a bit more detailed than others I’ve seen. Look at this amazing scene, though. Kirby crams the panel with details, giving us a great idea of what a New York tenement in the 1920s/1930s looked like. He etches decay on the walls where the paint has flaked off, he shows the pot boiling on the stove in the upper right and the unnamed narrator’s mother washing clothes in the tub (which probably doubles as a sink when she’s cooking), but we also get the record player (phonograph, I suppose would be more accurate) in the niche toward the back, while the table is set with candles (which implies the electricity doesn’t work but also adds a touch of class). The furniture is utilitarian but not shabby, so Kirby is implying that the family takes good care of their tiny corner of the world. Kirby’s bombast is turned way down here, but it’s nice to see that he still draws solid, powerful women, even in a setting like this. Too bad he didn’t hand letter it, as the word balloons look far too intrusive, but such is life, I suppose.
This might be as brutal a fight as Kirby ever drew, especially that third panel, which would make Tarantino proud. In this setting, the kid’s “Kirby hand” in Panels 1 and 2 becomes a blunt force weapon, smashing our narrator’s face into the column and then pounding on the side of his face. The narrator responds by going for the “soft targets” (my wife and I always yell at fighters on the television to go for the eyes by saying “SOFT TARGETS!”), and Kirby draws a beautiful reaction by the punk – he closes the other eye and opens his mouth in a painful howl. But he still clings to the narrator, stretching his skin away from his eye and mouth, making the reader wince in sympathetic pain. Kirby’s rough left hand of the punk looks odd as you stare at it, but the fact that he’s grabbing the narrator’s chest powerfully helps overcome that. The narrator recovers by kicking the punk in the “belly” (yeah, right, King), and Kirby does a marvelous job with the transition from Panel 3 to Panel 4 and with the energy transferred from the narrator’s leg into the punk’s body. His rough motion lines radiating outward from the contact point show how severe the pain is, while the fact that the narrator’s head is even with the punk’s even though the punk is bending over shows us how much smaller the narrator is, making his feat more impressive. In Panel 5, the felled punk howls as his buddy grabs the narrator, and Kirby makes sure that the energy of the panel moves us to the right and the page turn, where the kids tumble into the street and we get this:
This is an amazing double-page spread, to the point where I don’t even know what to say about it. The kids roll into the street on the lower left, and we get this astonishing street scene. Just drink it in. I stole this off the Internet – from here, in fact, where you can find other cool Kirby images – and in Evanier’s book, it’s a bit lighter – it looks a bit more like it does here. Anyway, click on the image to giganticize this. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, moving on!
The narrator’s minor fight is interrupted by an “invasion” by a gang from the next street over, and we get this page of the beginnings of the battle. I wonder if, in Panel 1, Kirby blacked in the entire tombstones and then judiciously used a thin eraser to create the “cracked” look we see in the most prominent one. It’s a very cool effect. Panel 2 is marvelous – he tilts the panel a bit so that the apartment looms above the kids climbing the fence, as the one gang occupies the high ground and therefore has the advantage. The tilt also leads our eyes along the roof and the fire escape and down to the kid on top of the fence, which follows the missiles flying down toward him. Panel 3 is a bit awkward, as the kid on top seems a bit stiffly posed, but the chaos of the fight is nicely shown. Kirby also makes sure to show the garbage littering the rooftops, making this battlefield seem a bit more grungy than we might have expected. We’re still in Kirby’s tenement world, so it’s not surprising that we get some less than savory places.
Kirby gives our narrator a bit of nobility, as he hates the ritual of rubbing Georgie’s “misshapen spine” but can’t articulate it (he eventually does rub it). Kirby does some nice things on the page – the second panel is a nice long view of everyone lining up, with more of the trash strewn on the streets and passers-by looking on disapprovingly. Kirby dresses his street toughs well, with battered caps, threadbare sweaters, and even neckties (street toughs knew how to dress back in the day, damn it!). Then our narrator steps up, and notice that Kirby still can’t escape a rather simplistic world view in which good-looking people are good, as the narrator is by far the most attractive character in the story – there’s no trace of the injuries he suffered a few pages earlier – and he’s the only one who has doubts about the way they treat Georgie (it’s significant that not even Georgie has doubts about it). When he’s talking – see Panel 5 – he looks more like a kid, but when he remains silent, Kirby draws him as a noble hero, as we see clearly in Panel 4. His hair, ugly when he was fighting, has calmed to a charming tousle, and Kirby gives him hints of the cheekbones that his most attractive characters possess. Still, Panel 6, where we get a close-up of the narrator and Kirby narrows his eyes slightly and scrunches his eyebrows as he contemplates the “terrible thing that nature had done to Georgie’s back,” is a powerful panel, broken by Georgie’s screech in Panel 7. It’s a very good moment, and Kirby’s art sells it well.
The beautiful, detailed pencil work in this story is amazing, and the fact that it’s so out of the ordinary when it comes to Kirby makes it even more special. This is a prime example why I would love to see more raw pencils so when I write about art, I can write more confidently about what the inker brought to the table. Here, we can look at only what Kirby drew, and it’s magnificent. It’s one of the many reasons you should go get Evanier’s book!
Tomorrow I’ll finish Kirby with his final great work, on which he was given permission to wrap up his New Gods saga but far too little room in which to do so. You know what it is! Spend some time catching up on Kirby and the other artists so far this year in the archives!
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