April 2016 Archives

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Hatfield, Charles & Ben Saunders. Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby (San Diego, CA: IDW, 2016)

From my reviews of The Comics Journal Library, Vol. 1, Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics, Charles Hatfield's Hand of Fire, and Maximum FF, my love for Jack Kirby should be obvious. The Charles Hatfield & Ben Saunders book Comic Book Apocalypse is essentially a second edition of the catalog from last year's exhibit at Cal State Northridge. Demand for the catalog was high, and apparently wasn't dampened (at least not on my behalf) by the delay from last August to the present.

I was initially disappointed to see the page count was only 168, but the book's 8"x12" size helps to add a bit more visual grandeur to Kirby's art--much of which is presented as full pages or double-page spreads. As is appropriate, the art is mostly shot from the original art instead of the printed pages--the better to appreciate Kirby's artistry. The essays (twenty of them) are on the short side, and touch on various facets of Kirby's creativity. They are both interesting and informative--and well-illustrated, of course. These two passages from the Introduction help to set the tone:

Then, in the '60s, deep into his career, and in the wake of a period of contraction and hardship within his industry, Kirby found himself at the company that would become known as Marvel Comics--where, in an extended burst of creative energy that must count as one of the towering achievements in American popular art, he returned to the idea of the superhero, forging a new visual template for the genre while simultaneously laying the foundations of Marvel's teeming story-world. Central to his method now was a yen for mythopoesis: the building of personal mythologies, replete with secret histories and menacing futures, global, all-encompassing conflicts, and the apocalyptic revelation and potential destruction of whole worlds. (p. 11, Introduction, Charles Hatfield & Ben Saunders)

No comic-book artist has come close to matching Kirby's imaginative reach during this peak period, which he would sustain well into the '70s, month after month, displaying an astonishing ability to invent and populate new visual worlds on the fly. (p. 14, Introduction, Charles Hatfield & Ben Saunders)

Kirby's collaborators are acknowledged as well. Mercifully, his frequent inker Vince Colletta doesn't get slagged here as he often does elsewhere. There is praise for others, such as longtime Kirby inker Mike Royer, mixed in with the adulation for Kirby. This passage is a gem:

Look at the energy, the black-and-white oomph packed into these two pages [Forever People #8, pp. 24-25], comprised of a mere eleven small panels. Kirby had one tool, a pencil, and one mode, flat out. Here, with chopping, slashing, confident lines (beautifully inked by Mike Royer) and a clearly worked-out visual rhetoric, Kirby conjures young faces, muscles, tendons, hair, clothing, rocks (and rocky faces), metals, energy, fission-blasts, "rays," invisibility, and a final big bang--not to mention anger, menace, surprise, fear, introspection, low comedy, and evil majesty. (p. 87, Tony Puryear, "Kirby's Megaton Touch")

Here's a nice discussion of Kamandi #8, pp. 2-3 (below):

Kirby and his inker, Mike Royer, were perfectly suited, since it was the team's natural tendency to lend everything, even rugged, crumbling concrete, a polished sheen. Royer captured Kirby's tendency to emphasize stark shapes and distinct areas of light. There are no gradients here--no crosshatching--just forms locked together in perfect order. In fact, without color, it's impossible to tell the difference between a loincloth, a floor, and marble statuary. This is actually an advantage, for Kirby and Royer's approach unifies the page and moves it away from illustration and into world-building. (p. 129, Dan Nadel, "Kirby's Monuments")

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The pair of two-page spreads that feature Kirby's "Dream Machine" painting (pp. 48-49 and pp. 50-51) were a nice surprise (see here), although one wishes that it had been done as a fold-out instead. (Even better, this image would make a great poster--hint, hint!) While I'm dreaming, along with a Jack Kirby: Conversations book as part of the UMiss series, I'd love to see traveling exhibitions of Kirby's work, perhaps focusing on different eras of his career. There is certainly enough artistic variety to support several options. Long live The King!

Here are some tidbits about the book, from an interview with Comics Reporter about last year's exhibit:

HATFIELD: The catalog is a monster: 20 essays on Kirby, most of them short and punchy, interleaved with more than a hundred images, most shot from original art. It's a joint publishing venture between the CSUN Art Galleries and IDW, under Scott Dunbier's eye and with design by Randall Dahlk, who designed IDW's incredible Kirby Artist's Editions. It's in production even now. [...]

I put the book together with my colleague and friend Ben Saunders. Of course one of our goals was to commemorate and deepen the exhibition experience, for those who get to see the show firsthand, but we also wanted to create something more: what we call a "catalog-plus" or companion book of lasting value. The idea is to do deep analysis of Kirby that allows lively voices and personal quirks to come through -- to model a kind of scholarship that preserves individuality and acknowledges how deeply Kirby hits us, as fans, readers, thinkers, makers. We wanted this book to be personal and at the same time solid, documented, smart stuff.

The following sentiment is one which I can agree completely:

SPURGEON: What do you think the average pop-culture consumer should take away in terms of knowing about Kirby and his legacy?

HATFIELD: That Kirby was one of 20th century America's gutsiest, strangest, and yet most influential graphic artists and visual storytellers. That the familiar things of pop culture today -- the Marvel movies, and all that -- came from a drawing board, and from a man working his damnedest to earn a living for himself and his family. That Marvel was just part of Kirby's amazing career story. That Kirby not only designed Marvel but took comic books a step further, toward a quirky and wonderful way of representing mythology through superhero conventions and SF. That he was a nonstop idea generator. That he dreamed of past and future, of new worlds and new gods, and did so in an ecstatic graphic style that distilled everything wild, unrepentant, and delightfully crazy about American comic books.


links:

Print did a piece on the show, with excerpts from the book

Charles Hatfield blogs at Hand of Fire

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