Saturday, January 26, 2013

Blogathon 03: Jack Kirby's Comics Work in the '70s (Tim Callahan Guest Post)

A guest post by Tim Callahan

Before we get started on this -- your farewell to writing-about-comics for a while and the massive charity blogathon you’ve coordinated -- I’d just like to say that it’s been fun doing all those Splash Page discussions for the original Sequart website (now lost to the perils of poorly-hosted platforms) and beyond, and every time we sat down to do one of our many ephemeral Splash Page podcasts together, I always thought the conversation would run out of energy after an hour, but as soon as I checked the time, we’d be closing in on hour number three.

So you go off with your new wife and your new non-writing-about-comics-every-week hobbies and remember us from your vantage point on the horizon. But don’t you ever look back. Head toward the future, where happiness lives.

There’s nothing here for you.

Nothing but…Jack Kirby!

That’s right, we’re talking about Jack “The King” Kirby, Chad Nevett. How can you walk away from this stuff? This is the best of all the stuff in the entire history of stuff. Particularly because we aren’t just discussing Jack Kirby in theory. Or the Jack Kirby who co-created Captain America (let’s not get into that conversation again, you Sentinel of Libery loather). Or the Jack Kirby who helped invent romance comics. Or redefine monster comics. Or draw those strapping young men who lived on borrowed time. Or created most of the Marvel Universe.

No, today we’re talking about what really matters: Jack Kirby’s comics from the 1970s. The Bronze Age, according to some. I hereby decree it to be a Golden Age. A Golden Age of Jack Kirby amazingness.

By 1970, Jack Kirby had already been working in comics professionally for 32 years. Have you done anything, professionally or otherwise, for 32 years, Chad Nevett? No you have not. But Jack Kirby had been drawing comics that long by the time the disco decade began and here are just a few of his notable accomplishments as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s:

      (1)   He wrapped up his Thor run. That’s right. Thor! He basically created him and his entire world, too.
      (2)   He wrapped up his Fantastic Four run. After over 100 issues of building the Marvel Universe from the Mole Man to Galactus. Yeah. I know.

So, what does he do to top these never-before-or-since-rivaled feats?

Sticks his fingers and hands and brain inside the pages of a ridiculous and largely-ignored comic about Superman’s dorky sidekick and creates a brand new mythology called the Fourth World.

And that was just the beginning of the 1970s. This was Jack Kirby at his finest. Unrestrained by the six-panel grid of so much of his Marvel work. Unrestrained by Stan Lee’s insistence on making the stories connect to the human element. Unrestrained, even, by editing of any kind.

(Except his Superman faces. Those had to be redrawn because DC panicked and didn’t want Kirby-Superman sent out into the same world where kids had birthday parties with Superman paper plates. Kirby’s chiseled and grizzled Kal-El would have frightened the youngsters. Though it would have been for their own good.)

So, yes, in a 30-minute guest blog post I cannot delve too deeply into Jack Kirby’s awe-inspiring accomplishments in the 1970s. But I can highlight a few. And the New Gods and Forever People and Mister Miracle and Jimmy Olsen are just the beginning.

Those comics were taken from Jack Kirby. Or killed too soon. He had more to give each of those series, and in a world in which Neal Adams and pinko Green Arrow were gaining traction, Kirby was a relic of the past who was way ahead of his time. And DC didn’t know what they had until it was gone.

But even as the Fourth World comics were pulled out from under him, he didn’t stop. His follow-ups included The Demon and Kamandi. Had Jack Kirby not even created the Fourth World, and instead drifted away from Marvel to work on obscure side projects for other companies and if he had only released either the first few issues of The Demon or Kamandi, those comics would still be looked at today as particularly thrilling slices of artistry from a master at the top of his game. Jack Kirby couldn’t help but give birth to enormous mythologies, even when all he was asked to do was to fill pages with fight scenes and colorful villains. He created new characters instead of recycling his old ones. Every time.

But he still wasn’t done.

There was his take on the rag-tag soldiers known as The Losers, his reimagined dream-warrior Sandman, the unforgettable OMAC.

This is turning into a list, because I don’t know how else to address the sheer magnitude of his creations in such a limited amount of time. Jack Kirby in the 1970s deserves a multi-volume study, not a 30-minute post-and-response. But we make do with what we have, and remember Jack Kirby’s 1970s comics as the monuments that they are. Each one of them worthy of deeper exploration.

And, what’s that? There’s still more? His return to Marvel with 2001 and Machine Man and The Eternals and Black Panther and Captain America and Devil Dinosaur? Yes. Those. Perhaps not as cosmically thrilling as his work earlier in the decade, but close. His drawings continued to become more abstract. The chiseled superhero physiques gave way to increasingly Kirbyesque body architecture. I can’t look at his work from the period and not be enthralled by his choices and his unleashed energy.

Here’s my prescription to you, Chad Nevett, and to you readers at home: put some 1970s Kirby – any sort – by your nightstand and read a story or two every time you think you’re bored or annoyed or frustrated with comic books. These will either make you excited for more or remind you why you shouldn’t bother to search for anything else. They may not have all the answers, but 1970s Jack Kirby comics will make you rethink the questions.

[Don't forget to donate what you can to the Hero Initiative (Details in this post)! After you do, let me know via comment or e-mail (found at the righthand side) so I can keep track of donations -- and who to thank.]