Twenty years ago today, the king of comic books died of a heart attack at the age of 76. He revolutionised the visual iconography of comics across a career that spanned half the twentieth century, and co-created a whole slew of characters who are currently busy making billions of dollars in the movies, starting with Captain America way back in 1940. He's been called 'The King" for his massive output, unending creativity, and an influence on modern comics that continues to this day and beyond.
And when I first saw his work , I honestly couldn't see what the fuss was about.
Of course, I wasn't seeing how he stood out from his contemporaries. His methods had been absorbed by the comics world for so long that they weren't as remarkable any more. Instead, I could only see the aspects that later creators improved upon - mainly the writing, story and characterisation. How could a straightforward tale of derring-do compete with the death of Siadwell Rhys in Zenith, or Halo Jones' shopping trip? Or even the early 90's sitcom superheroes in the Justice League titles?
Here's a quick example of what I never knew back then. Just a quick one, or else I'll be here all night!
In this pencilled cover image of the Fighting American, you can see straight away that Kirby wants this image to jump off the page. He isn't doing this by having anything punched or shot or exploded - instead, the main character seems to be reaching out of the panel towards the reader. How? It's the foreshortening, especially on the left hand. Kirby isn't drawing in a purely naturalistic style; he's jumping off into hyper-realism and depicting that hand as though he were looking through a wide-angle lens, distorting it so that you feel like you need to be slapping it away before it reaches you.
This was new, once upon a time: the idea that you could distort the human figure according to the story or the emotional content or just the need to grab the reader's attention when the comic was sitting on a newsstand with a dozen others - telling the story not just with pictures, but through the way you presented those pictures. In Kirby's case, very loud pictures!
Kirby's comics were stories made for children, and they read like stories made for children - but grown-ups can still take pleasure in the artistic technique that tells those stories.
Meanwhile, and for no reason, here's a short film in which Jack Kirby and Ed Wood meet during World War 2 so they can fight evil. In Spanish. No, really.