Friday, October 12, 2012

Irreconcilable Differences


After a six-year absence from Marvel Comics, artist Jack Kirby returned in 1976. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during negotiations for this new period of employment with the company, because it obviously wasn't business as usual. Instead of Kirby merely getting back to work pencilling his old titles, he instead seemed to be calling the tune as far as working on his own projects. In addition to doing covers for various Marvel books, he took over creative control for one of Marvel's mainstay titles and created a new series starring another of his Marvel creations from the 1960s. Respectively:



In addition, he created four more titles:



Bear in mind that this man was both writing and pencilling up to five titles per month, in addition to doing the art for covers of other titles. (Machine Man, a character introduced in 2001: A Space Odyssey, would get his own series after 2001 was discontinued.) To say nothing of doing the pencilling on the Silver Surfer graphic novel. Needless to say, he was more than putting in his time here.

Yet there was always a caveat with a book written by Jack Kirby. As much as you admired his creations, and certainly his artwork, his writing left something to be desired. Kirby could take his characters through terrific adventures, in a seeming effort to return comics reading to a medium that he felt kids could better pick up on--yet you were never fully vested in those characters because their dialogue was often so unrealistic. It felt like he was trying too hard to bring the reader along for the ride, rather than focusing on conveying a compelling story. And in a character's word balloons, emphasis was usually placed on the wrong words, thereby making the character's statements come across awkwardly.

To illustrate the point, have a look at a typical Kirby-written scene:



Now read the same panels, which only needed minor adjustments in emphasis:


Which of the two reads more smoothly? Less awkwardly?


Also, is this Captain America speaking here--or USAgent?



It was here that Marvel's traditional publishing of readers' letters worked against the Kirby books, because readers responded to this odd shift with frank critiques of his writing style. Which prompted an almost unheard-of header box from the editors on the letters page of an issue of Captain America, acknowledging what was coming to be known as the "Kirby Kontroversy":
"Opinions are so diverse on this title that this month we decided to try to squeeze in as many letters as possible."

Followed by another a few issues later:
"The Controversy Continues...
"In fact, it escalates. Of late, we've been deluged with adroit arguments for and against Jack Kirby's treatment of Captain America, and since we're understandably somewhat prejudiced when it comes to the King's work, we're gonna let you letter writers speak for yourselves once again--with an occasional interjection from us here and there."

Followed by, incredibly, another:
"The raging deluge of letters regarding Jack's treatment of the Living Legend of World War II--namely, Cap--still surges unabated into the Bullpen offices. And, as usual, Marveldom Assembled is as diversified of opinion as the motley assortment of creative types who produce these monthly servings of comic art. Thus, once again, we present an accurate sampling of the stacks of somewhat outspoken critiques."

The problem readers were having with Kirby wasn't just restricted to writing style. Marvel comics, at that point in time, were still heavily dependent on continuity--not only of plot points, but of characterization and other elements which made up the book. Kirby, being in the driver's seat, was clearly keeping only the elements he wanted to keep--either intact, or modifying them to better fit his image of what he thought they ought to be--while completely jettisoning others without explanation. In a book with the history of Captain America, the shockwaves from that kind of refit were bound to be seismic among the book's readership.

But while some letters were brutally direct in their criticism, on rare occasion there was an element of humor to them, as in this one-sentence letter in response to the conspicuous absence of the Falcon's bird, Redwing, ever since Kirby took over the reins of scripting:
"Whattsamattah? Can't you draw birds?"

With Kirby's final departure from Marvel in 1978, so, too, ended this deviation in character direction. Next time, we'll take a look at some of the artwork with which Kirby left his mark on these books--often bigger than life, much like the many concepts coming forth from the mind of this prolific writer/artist.


3 comments:

Kid said...

I like Kirby's stuff, but it has to be admitted that he was long past his best at this point. Everything you say about his dialogue is correct - it was awkward and stilted - but even his drawing lacked the grace and fluidity which it had possessed in his heyday. Shame, really.

Comicsfan said...

Well, there's some truth to the phrase "You can't go home again," I agree. That said, I think that under the right direction, Kirby still had a lot to offer in his later work at Marvel. I repeat: under the right direction. Giving him free rein with his own projects produced, for the most part, ludicrous results. The Black Panther reduced to being drawn into a collectors' squabble over a quest for a frog artifact. Captain America in a skateboard roller derby. A boy and his dinosaur. Yet, who knows what heights The Eternals could have reached with one of Marvel's seasoned writers plotting and scripting? And Kirby, already well-versed in the Panther's world of ceremony, technology and tradition in Wakanda, might have drawn fascinating displays alongside someone who didn't treat the character as someone you could plug into just any plot.

Kirby's return to Marvel held a great deal of potential, IMO. Yet whatever deal was cut did no favors to either Marvel or Kirby.

Kid said...

I think, as you suggest, that it all boils down to the fact that Jack's work was always the better for having a collaborator than not. I'd have loved to see his 15 issue Jimmy Olsen run scripted by Stan Lee.

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