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Comic Books, Film
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New Gods (1984 reprint series) #6 page 30. Jack Kirby.
The comics-critical landscape that has sprung up around Jack Kirby — often the man himself as much as his work — in the past few decades can be worryingly polarized. Though there’s plenty of good, clear-headed writing on what Kirby did with and for comics, there’s reams more of both hagiographic praise (which is fair enough, because this is one of the great artists not just in comics but of the 20th century) and the-emperor-has-no-clothes teardowns (which is also fair, because no one short of world leaders can really be said to deserve the amount of hosannas that have been heaped on Kirby).
Of the brickbats most commonly thrown at Kirby’s golden legacy, one of the most compelling is that he very rarely “told a story” in the traditional manner with his sequencing. Especially in his action scenes, Kirby’s storytelling style was often simply too wild to support “correct” sequencing, with each panel giving a clue to the content of the next and every prop and figure grounded in recognizable three-dimensional space. In Kirby fight scenes characters transmogrify from one physical state to another between panels, hurl each other across vast chasms of space before clashing again within an instant, and reveal heretofore unknown powers as the conflicts crescendo. Usually there’s just too much going on in a Kirby fight scene for the traditional values of motion tracking and choreography to hold much sway. It’s also why Kirby comics are so verbose: take out the explanatory word balloons and you haven’t a hope of understanding the specifics of what’s going on half the time. What Kirby captured in his action scenes wasn’t the balletic wax and wane of physical confrontation so much as impact after impact after impact. It’s up to his readers to decide how valuable an approach that is, but its undeniable that he did it brilliantly.
What’s interesting about this particular Kirby page is the way it showcases the artist’s chopped-up, almost discontinuous approach to action while remaining legible without any expository dialogue or narration riding sidecar. It’s been mentioned all over that by the 1980s Kirby’s drawing ability was no longer what it had been in his mid-’60s prime, but what gets brought up much less frequently is just how much sharper Kirby’s sequencing got after his 1979-80 stint as an animation artist for Ruby-Spears. A few years roughing out stories for a medium in which the audience plays the role of passive receptor rather than active participant had subtly changed Kirby’s comics art once he returned. Here the blocking is surgically clean, panel after panel capturing the dominant visual element dead in its center with none of the off-kilter, perspective-less drifting that could bleed into Kirby’s rougher pages. The short action sequence in panels 1 through 3, while still stitched together from a series of impact shots, provides through-lines from one panel to the next nonetheless: from Orion to Orion and a rock to the rock alone.
It’s that grounding in more traditional storytelling values that allows this page to “read” without the words that are stuck onto it, and it’s the silence that makes this page so powerful. Kirby’s narration, while spectacular as pure prose, was most often there to push readers through panels whose connection to one another was stretched to the breaking point, providing a thread to follow through them. The unfortunate aspect of this is that it’s tough to linger in many of Kirby’s best action sequences because of it: the words pull you over the panels rather than leaving you stranded in pictures whose relationships to one another are less clear than usual. Here, however, everything the reader needs is in the pictures, and the thunderous visual noise of their impacts is the only narration needed.
The way the lack of word balloons allows Kirby to design his page is also notable. Kirby drew for the panel, using gridded layouts almost exclusively and rarely creating sequential pages that also read as “canvases” a la his contemporary Jim Steranko. Again, it worked beautifully — Kirby comics are some of the most immersive around — but without the busy, visually unappealing white space of word balloons crowding up the page, Kirby can use his whites in a more painterly fashion, knocking out the backgrounds of the first and last panels to create a nymmetrical axis for the rest of the page to orbit around, as well as a line indicating the basic directionality of the page’s flow, from top left to bottom right. Just as impressive is the rhythm each individual panel’s composition contributes to: the vertical force of panels one and two gives way to the centerpiece of the horizontally oriented panel three before being mirrored by the similarly vertical panels four and five. Kirby still isn’t drawing for the page as much as he is for the panel, but he’s obviously thinking about both, creating a lushly harmonic pattern for his individual boxes to fit into.
This single page holds so much of what made Kirby great — twinned power and grace, simplicity and complexity, and above all pictures that speak louder than words.