Kirby Centennial

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the man known as Jack Kirby. Or, to put it another way, the King of Comics would have been celebrating his 100th birthday if he were alive today. Kirby is certainly one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, names in all of comics history, so today is a fairly huge deal.

Given my age, I was too young to experience Kirby firsthand when he was at his height during the glory days of early Marvel. Heck, I even missed out on his Fourth World stuff at DC! My own first brush with the King was during his second go-round with the House of Ideas circa 1976. Off the top of my head, my initial guess is that my first Kirby comic had to be either Captain America or The Eternals, though it’s also possible I could have caught my first glimpse of his work in reprint form in the pages of Marvel’s Greatest Comics.

Checking the pub dates, my first issue of The Eternals was #8 or #9, with pub dates in early ’77 (meaning they were on the stands in very late ’76), so they’re out. My first issue of Marvel’s Greatest Comics was #64 (Jul. 1976), and my first issue of Kirby Cap was #198 (June 1976), so it was likely Cap. (Honestly, I’m not sure if I purchased that issue of MGC new anyway; I may have gotten it later either through a trade or in a back issue bin somewhere.)

“Cap’s Love Story!”

As I recall, I didn’t like this issue of Cap (#198) very much at the time. Firstly, I didn’t enjoy the story. I probably bought it because the cover—featuring Cap in someone’s gun sights and the Falcon too late, apparently, to save them—looked fairly dramatic. But had I been paying closer attention to the text and saw “Cap’s Love Story!” I would have likely passed it by. At not yet seven years of age, I absolutely hated that mushy stuff; plus there was no real action/violence at all. I think the Falcon punched out just one or two guys while Cap did practically nothing in the way of comic-book action.

I didn’t care much for the art, either. At that age, the appeal of the Kirby style was simply lost on me. I found it too stiff and “blocky”—by that I mean everything was squared off, even the faces, the ends of fingers, were squared off like blocks. This made the entirety of the art too surreal to enjoy. Neither the people nor the inanimate objects were “real” enough for my immature tastes at the time.

This would change within a year or so, when I bought the tabloid-sized Marvel Treasury Edition #11, featuring “the fabulous Fantastic Four in battle with their most fearsome foes!”

Fabulous Four

The treasury reprinted FF #23 (“The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!”), #4 (“The Coming of the Sub-Mariner!”), #94 (“The Return of the Frightful Four!”), and #51 “This Man… This Monster!”). That’s one hell of a line-up; all of it classic Lee-Kirby. It was all great, naturally, but I liked the older artwork the best, particularly the Doctor Doom tale that kicked things off (FF #23). The story is great here, with a ton of stuff going on.

First, there’s the return of Doctor Doom. Then there are the other three members of the team chaffing under Reed’s leadership, to the point where they decide to elect a new leader. Then there are all the individual side plots where Doom is picking them off one by one. Not only does Jack do great action here, but he also does great comedy—check out the expression on Johnny’s face as the Thing shoves him into that chair.

As always, even though this post is about Kirby, we have to make note of Stan’s dialogue. Torch calling the Thing a “laughing boy” that “couldn’t lead a lollipop brigade,” and the Thing responding by asking, “What’s your favorite hospital? I want you to feel right at home!”

Then there’s this interlude that sets up Doom’s trap for our ever-lovin’ blue-eyed hero:

Ah, Yancy Street… this was my first exposure to the long-running, timeless, priceless gag. “THANK YOU??? I wish I was big enough to whap you one!! If anyone on this street sees that I let you help me, my name’s mud around here!”

“Just my luck!! You’re too big to spank and too small to clobber!!”

What Jameson was to Spider-Man in his book, the Yancy Streeters were to the Thing in the pages of FF. Both were a pain in the ass to a strip protagonist; both provided tremendous comic relief. The Yancy Streeters also offered a touch of mystery, as we never actually saw their faces or heard any of their individual names.

Then we get to the fighting.

It’s non-stop, pulse-pounding, breathtaking action from panel to panel that just does not quit; supported by the most quip-tastic dialogue you’ll ever read. My God, this was just pure fun from beginning to end. When they called this strip “the world’s greatest comic magazine,” it was not hyperbole. Hot damn.

As seen here, Kirby’s earlier work was much less stiff and not nearly as “blocky.” Since I was no longer distracted by such idiosyncrasies of the latter-day Kirby here, the dynamism of his technique burst through. It had become so clear and so VERY exciting to my eyes.

Then there are a couple of superb character moments in that Frightful Four story. First, there’s Ben/the Thing dropping his macho facade once he learns that baby Franklin took his middle name from him:

I love the way Ben reverses gears on a dime here; and his words about belonging to a family are truly touching.

Then we get to the end bit with Agatha Harkness:

Ben is tough, he’s brave, he’s heroic… but he’s also very superstitious, making him not-quite-so-simplistic as most comic book characters. And it was funny as hell. Kirby’s pencils capture it all perfectly.

Finally, the treasury closes with “This Man… this Monster,” one of the all-time classics. And its greatness is apparent right from the beginning, with that amazing, opening splash.

The Thing is a character whose face is literally set in stone, yet somehow… somehow Kirby makes him appear so damn sad here. It’s one hell of an illustrative achievement. (Note that the text on top—“Sometimes our worst enemies are not gaudily-garbed super-villains… but are ourselves!”—was not in the original comic but added to the treasury reprint here. A nice line; kudos to whoever came up with it.)

Now juxtapose the sadness of the opening with the Thing’s humorous expression when greeted by Reed and Sue upon his return.

The King is rightly known for capturing amazing action and drama, but he’s showing tremendous range here. To get the audience to laugh again at the end of this story, after everything that preceded it, is quite an accomplishment.

Holiday Grab Bag

Okay, so this is where I came to worship Kirby. Although originally released in ’74, I got my copy of Marvel Treasury Special (“Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag”) in late ’76 at (I believe) the Livingston Mall, where a guy in a Captain America costume was making an appearance. (In fact, my original, beat-to-death copy of the treasury has Cap’s autograph on the cover: “To Dave from Cap.”) The treasury featured a reprint of Fantastic Four #25-26, which covered a wild brawl with the Hulk that had drama and guest stars galore.

As the plot shakes out, the other members of the FF get sidelined by injuries, leaving the Thing to tackle the Hulk alone. For those unfamiliar, the Hulk vs. the Thing and the Hulk vs. Thor are two of the cornerstone superhero rivalries of Marvel. This wasn’t the first time the Thing fought the Hulk (that would be FF #12), nor would it be the last, but it’s almost certainly the best.

Here, in the middle of the first part of the fight (FF #25), the Hulk shakes a building with his bare hands to dislodge the Thing—awesome.

Then the Thing finally takes the upper hand:

Oh, the drama on this page! The Thing may have the Hulk under control… BUT FOR HOW LONG??? Then Reed valiantly trying to rise from his sick bed to join the fight… and failing!

Ultimately, the issue ends with the Thing defeated, but refusing to give up. The next issue/part two opens with the Hulk incredulous (as opposed to his customary incredible) that the Thing refuses to stay down. Ben is able to keep old jade jaws occupied long enough for the Torch to re-enter the fray, at which point the Hulk starts to run out of patience.

I love this sequence because it underlines just how powerful the Hulk truly is. It’s like there’s literally nothing that can stop him.

Eventually the full FF recovers just in time for the Avengers join the fight, and we’ve got an all-time free-for-all on our hands. Words can’t begin to capture how glorious this all is.

On top of figurative mountains of action, we’ve got great lines from the Thing coming at us rapid fire, one after the other, seemingly without end. Some highlights:

“Never thought I’d ever come against anyone I couldn’t polish off with one hand tied behind me! This business of bein’ the idol of millions gets tougher all the time!”

Asked by a reporter about his “battle plan,” the Thing responds: “I dunno—maybe I’ll melt his tender heart by weepin’ and wailin’!! But first I gotta find that big ape!”

“Hey, Hulk! I was only foolin’ around with ya before! This time I’m takin’ off the kid gloves!” Then Ben thinks to himself, “Hope the TV cameras are catchin’ all this! My pantin’ public deserves a chance to see their fearless hero in action!”

“Come an’ get it, Hulk! When I’m thru with you, even a Yancy Streeter will be able to push ya around!”

And after falling into a trough of wet cement: “This is extremely humiliatin’! My frantic fans won’t recognize me if I don’t get outta this stuff!”

…The writing & dialogue here is Stan at his joyous best. I don’t think I’ll ever find a comic story that is as much pure fun as this one.

Second Look

Funny thing is that after my brush with classic Kirby in these treasuries, I came to recognize the greatness in his contemporary works. By the time of those later issues of Eternals, and certainly by the time of Machine Man, I was all aboard the Kirby train. It was like I needed those earlier stories to follow Jack’s evolution as an artist in order to truly “get” him. Or maybe it was just a question of having to be older and more mature to really see and appreciate his genius.

All the early artists that built Marvel—Kirby, Ditko, Heck, Romita, Colan—were all brilliant in their idiosyncratic styles; styles that defined Marvel at both its financial and artistic apex. The sad thing is that they likely wouldn’t get a second look from any editors today, as I doubt those styles would ever be seen as “commercial” enough for a modern audience. Makes me thankful they lived and worked when they did.

Happy 100th birthday to the KING, Jack Kirby. You may be gone, but your legacy will live forever.

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