Sunday, November 19, 2006

Another Kirby meme

Longtime contributor to The Jack Kirby Collector Sean Kleefeld has launched a Kirby character design meme, and that meddling Canadian plok has not only joined in with his choice but roped me into participating as well.

I couldn't pick just one single character as being Jack Kirby's single best visual design: there are so many of them that have become iconic and stood the test of time, as demonstrated by the fact that every subsequent artist to draw the character has followed Kirby's original design faithfully. Galactus is one of those characters who will always look like the Kirby original no matter who draws him. So is the cult favorite villain Modok. In design terms these guys are like the original Volkswagen Beetle or the first iMac, with its white-and-Bondi-blue case -- they came seemingly out of nowhere and instantly defined an idea space so completely that other designers couldn't improve on them or even evolve them much.

I could very easily pick Galactus as my choice here, but I have another "dark horse" candidate in mind: another character who has never been improved or altered, but worked perfectly on his first appearance and looks as striking today as he did back then:

Even in repose Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans, is dynamic. The ribbed glider wings and flaring gloves (the latter a bit underplayed on this cover) mean there are always lines radiating from his figure, and as a result he dominates any panel in which he appears, the way his character dominates his subjects. By contrast it seems as if two of his Inhuman subjects, Karnak and Gorgon, are almost always drawn in a slight crouch, lower than their monarch.

The electron-gathering antenna on his forehead is primarily there to look cool -- though Lee and Kirby gave it some rationale so that we could see it crackle with Kirby dots -- and the ziggurat trim on his uniform is solely decorative. Basically, he's the best-known Art Deco character ever in comics.

It's interesting that although Black Bolt is not a superhero per se, Kirby designed him with superhero tights and mask. A number of the Inhumans -- among the leads, Medusa and Karnak as well as Black Bolt -- always wear tights and masks. The Inhumans were Kirby's first use of an idea he'd return to with the New Gods and the Eternals: characters who were not crime fighters with secret identities, but who borrowed the trappings and design elements of superhero comics simply for their visual appeal as sheer ornamentation. I don't think the continuing primacy of superheroes in comics can solely be laid at stunted development and innate conservatism on the part of creators and readers. Superheroes (or at least characters with a lot of the features of superheroes) are one of the ideas that just work really well in comics and use the distinctive traits of the medium. But with the Inhumans -- with Black Bolt especially -- Kirby started exploring how the visual conventions of the superhero could be applied to other sorts of characters who could be used to tell other sorts of stories.

When other creators have taken Kirby characters like these and just used them as slightly more outre and unusual superheroes, they've totally missed the point. We didn't need Orion and Big Barda and Mister Miracle in the JLA or Sersi in the Avengers, putting the smack down on super-villains. These characters represent a new genre. Yes, I know Medusa got her start as a member of the Frightful Four...but even in the original Lee-Kirby issues of FF she shucked that off quickly for a more interesting role.

And a side note on Black Bolt: it's well known among Kirby fans that Jack had a lot of trouble drawing Spider-Man. He managed it for the cover of Spidey's first appearance...but once Steve Ditko defined how the costume and the character's body language worked, Kirby could never do it that well again. This always struck me as odd considering the way Joe Simon and Kirby owned the "slim athletic superhero in tights" all the way back in the Forties with characters like Manhunter. Look at how well Kirby handled the yellow-and-purple-tights version of Sandman, swinging across the city skyline with his wirepoon gun, and explain why he could never do Spidey well. I suspect that when another artist had defined a character in Kirby's mind, he became inhibited...and Kirby was the antithesis of inhibition.

By the same token, Kirby never drew a persuasive Batman...but his Black Bolt looks more like Batman than any drawing of Batman Kirby ever did. If he'd drawn Black Bolt instead and merely altered the costume afterward, we might have seen a very different result.


  1. What a great choice! See, I would never have been able to articulate that "lines radiating from his body no matter the pose" thing, but I was just thinking about the strange energy of the Black Bolt character, and how for some reason we accept a lot of things about him that we'd probably question in another character. For one thing, his name should sound dumb, not sonorous: every other Inhuman has a modern-day one-syllable X-Men name, but BB's name...has nothing to do with anything! In fact I think it probably has less to do with him than any other character's name, anywhere in the MU. Also. it's impossible to imagine him without his mask - I don't want to imagine him without the mask! And I don't want to know where the mask even came from, I don't want to question the mask! Because I sense that only bad things can happen, if I start doing things like that.

    Your point about the incorporation of superhero elements into a different genre explains why, I think: Medusa and Karnak and Gorgon might be explained away pretty easily as uncoventional dressers out of a different culture, but Black Bolt is wearing a full-on superhero suit, and daring me not to notice. And, weirdly, I don't: somehow, in amongst all the wildly individual characteristic design styles of the different Inhumans, this one hits the if all the other Inhumans were only set-up (as of course they were!) for a massive design punchline that says "don't even think that he has to be a superhero just because he looks like one and has a name like one!"

    Well, it worked on me!

    Suddenly my choice looks rather poor in comparison with yours and Sean's. Nice one!

  2. Nonsense. My immediate response to seeing your excellent musings on the Thing was "Crap, he's tagged me but once again he's already done the best choice!" Which thought was followed by "And he's done such a good job of explaining it that once again I have nothing to add!" Followed shortly thereafter by "Maybe I should get drunk before blogging, that seems to work for some folks."

    And you're exactly right: it really is odd for the longtime reader to step back and realize that you never think about Black Bolt having that superheroic look. In New Gods, Orion's face-concealing mask was actually somewhat functional in character terms, i.e., he had a reason to go for something that would hide his changeable face. Kirby seemed to go back and forth about whether Lightray also sported an eye-mask, eventually deciding that he didn't...and I definitely noticed that decision at the time. Not so with Black Bolt. His look is just there, and you just accept it.

  3. Yeah, that's why I've always just been slightly uncomfortable with the justification for his name being Black Bolt - I hear "Blackagar Boltagon" or whatever it is, and it feels like somebody's backing off. Mind you, I have no real problem with "Blackagar Boltagon" (in that I don't think it's stupid or anything), it's just that it feels like a bit of reaching. A bit of embarrassment?

    For all I know, that's a Kirby bit anyway. But I still feel it calls my attention to something that would be better off if left unremarked-on.

  4. "Blackagar Boltagon" was probably coined for the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe -- that's certainly where I first saw it -- and based on my intimate familiarity with the production of that series, the blame would fall squarely on the shoulders of the late Mark Gruenwald. Mark's love for the characters and the medium was utterly sincere...but he often had a tendency to overthink and overrationalize things that were better left undisturbed.

    And I must disagree with you on one point: it is a totally stupid name. Though "Black Agar" is a thickener used in cooking and biochemistry.

    (How could I not know that Black Bolt has his own Wikipedia entry? Worse still, how could I know so well but still forget to mention that Black Bolt is #149 in John Hodgman's list of Hobo Names?)

  5. I agree that Black Bolt's up there in my top Kirby design choices as well. A very solid arguement there, RAB.

    One of the things that repeatedly strikes me when working on the Kirby Collector is how the best Kirby designs are still being used decades later. Black Bolt, Thing, Silver Surfer... all great examples, I think. I wonder, then, if that should be a qualification for great Kirby design: that other creators have kept Kirby's designs (largely) unchanged. Or is that perpetualness just a by-product of what is unilaterally considered good design?

    Oh, and for as much respect for Gruenwald that I have, I also wholeheartedly agree with you about him.

    Hey, this is turning into a great meme, IMHO. Who's next?

  6. Oops! Forgot to tag more than just RAB!

    Just a sec...

  7. Done!

    And now I need an HTD Treasury write-up! Need it hugely, RAB! Spit-spot! No shilly-shallying!

    If you prefer to decline, I'll do it, and no problems. But to make things up to me, you'll have to write a big essay on how Morrison got Kirby right!

    But without any reference to SSoV #1, because I haven't read it yet!'s too complicated...I ask too much...

    Yes I was drinking when I wrote this.

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