Recently I’ve been re-reading and re-falling in love with the wonderful art of Jack Kirby. Usually i have a really hard time really getting into golden-silver-bronze age comic books because so much of what i take for granted was not especially commonplace, but i think Jack Kirby, much like Dennis O’Neil and Stan Lee (in his best days) turns that 60s/70s stiffness into one of his greatest strengths. His writing is theatrical, bold and carries all the passion someone who left as big an impact in comic books as he did would need to have. I’d like to discuss his art for a moment, because i keep coming back to two specific things about his drawings : the “Kirby Krackle” effect and his depiction of machinery.
The Kirby Crackle in my mind showcases a very interesting sort of meta-style in Kirby. His art was famous for how blocky and angular it tended to be. Not stiff by any means, but you certainly tend to see a lot of very square jaws and sharp, dramatic poses. Compared to someone like Steve Ditko, Ditko’s art was a lot more flowing and loose (compare, for example, The Thing’s rocky scale-like skin with Doctor Strange’s flowing cape). It’s not for nothing that the kind of cubes himself, John Romita Jr says he has his career because of his early obsession with Kirby’s work on Fantastic Four (which were also highly influential on his father John Romita and John Buscema, though id argue JRJR is truly the torchbearer for Kirby’s jarring boldness into a new generation). So, when you have Kirby Krackle, I think it’s a very interesting break to what he is known for.
The Kirby Crackle consists of black dots placed on a colored background to denote energy of all shapes and sizes. Kirby used it a lot when drawing explosions, bursts of power or, in my favorite examples, his depictions of Space. Space with Kirby was no longer a black void, it was “an ocean of violets and blues”, it was gaseous, his stars not cold spots in the distance, but powerful forces of heat and energy. I love going back to his bizarre version of 2001 A Space Odyssey and just marveling at the spacescapes in the comic, which at every moment seem like they will melt the heavens themselves. And I think this representation of cosmic energies that are beyond human comprehension being based on loose circular forms, a shape literally alien to Kirby’s art, is very interesting.
Back to the example of 2001 A Space Odyssey, his depictions of the monolith also employ the Kirby Krackle. His adaptation of the Kubrick/Philip K Dick classics is very controversial because of how radically different his entire sensibility was as compared to the movie/books. Kubrick is an artistic control freak who loved exploring a symmetric, clean and slow future, aided by Philip K Dick’s meditative musings. Now initially, a future made up of straight lines would seem like something Kirby would be all over, but Kirby was also a passionate brutalist at heart. His art always carried weight and drama that had nothing to do with the image of Kubrick’s spaceship floating in space to triumphant classical music (“as futuristic as the titanic” as Kodwo Eshun puts it). So I think the monolith, for Kirby, does not contain the proportions of 1 : 4 : 9 that are deemed unnatural and bizarre for the original story (the monolith proportions in the comic actually float around a lot), but they do contain these intense, hazy circular abstractions in its midst. Much like the proportions, the depictions of the monolith change a lot, going from rocky ocean waves to straight lines expelling light, but the one that sticks to my mind is this “Krackled” form.
Going to the other side, I want to talk for a moment about Kirby’s jaw-dropping technoscapes. They are probably my favorite element of his art, hands down. From Reed Richards to S.H.I.E.L.D to Machine Man to OMAC, it seems like Kirby always found a way to be on the cusp of fictional technology and marveled at every opportunity to depict it. Even when he was writing something like New Gods or The Eternals or Thor, which have mystical and mythological backgrounds, he still infused their magic with a lot of metal, pipes and wires. Deus in Machina. In an interview from 1990 (one which includes a page from one of Kirby’s hidden works for the pulp magazine Marvel Stories, which has kirby drawing a woman looking in a telescope over futuristic city nightlife), he recalls knocking out a man when he was 12 to better see an airplane flying overhead his school. “That was such an innovation to hear the sound of the motor of an airplane flying overhead. I just had to get there in front. I was attracted by everything that seemed to be new and advanced. I saw the Time Machine.”, he says.
My favorite thing about the way he draws these huge, sprawling, complex machines, is that they all seem very natural. Though he is a bit of a metal fetishist, he in no way reminds us of the character of the same name in Tetsuo The Iron Man, which keeps growing out increasingly more extraneous metal parts to the point where the only solution he sees to his horror is to dominate the entire world with his machine growth. Compare that to New Genesis, the home of the New Gods in the dc universe. It’s a heavenly place that is also a metal disc floating in orbit of a green planet. Machines coexisting with what is seen as natural. Even the scarier parts of the New Gods techno-mythos like The Source (a territory that exists beyond the universe that separates the DC Multiverse, and which can be used to trap powerful entities) and Apokolips (the hellish counterpart to New Genesis) are shown more as mysterious than straight up horrifying. They remind me a bit of the Black Lodge : scary but eye opening places woven to the very fabric of reality.
His machines are all like big organisms, living breathing entities, like the machines found in the beginning of The Eternals, Doctor Doom’s metallic body, the machines that OMAC employs, Galactus and his spaceship (and, to an extent, the Silver Surfer, who plays with the way Kirby draws metal by making him a completely smooth surface, as opposed to the hyper-segmented robots he loved drawing), all of these machine forms are, if not humanized, extremely natural in Kirby’s head. I think a lot of it has to do with Kirby’s big fondness for Aztec architecture and art. Aztec ability with silver and gold was infamous, and so was the surviving mozaic-like sculpture and so was their monumental, angular architecture. All of these i think come alive in Kirby’s embrace of ancient creation myths infused with technology (and though it’s fun to entertain the theories that people like the Aztec had contact with aliens and how that relates to The Eternals, The New Gods and the Thor mythos on marvel are basically very powerful aliens, i’d like to think that with something like Reed Richards, they also pose an optimistic view of men becoming one with machine).
The Inhumans I think are some of the most fun to showcase his love for Aztec-infused sprawling technologies. Issue 1 of the 1970 series Amazing Adventures has a very cool shot of the inhuman city of Attilan, and its rich colors, busy streets and lively segmented arts (even having an outdoor/television showcasing nothing but some good old fashioned Kirby Krackle). Another one I like a lot is this one shot from the opening pages of the first issue of The Demon, which shows the castle of Lancelot, but with an unmistakable metallic white appearance, seeming more like a battle in a sci fi spacescape more than a medieval legend. Still in The Demon, a shot in issue 8 shows Jason Blood’s collection of demonology artifacts, and it looks more like something out of a spaceship or a Star Trek set than a dusty cabinet of curiosities.