Today, August 28, 2018, would have been the 101st birthday of the incandescent Jack Kirby, a comics creator and man we know a lot about but who yet who remains, to me, a mystery and a challenge. I expect he always will.
In honor of this, Kirby Day, I’m rerunning below, in slightly updated and differently illustrated form, a tribute I first posted to this blog two years back, on Kirby’s 99th birthday. (This tribute became the seed of the essay “The Familiar and the Uncanny,” which ran in the Kirby section of the Comic-Con International 2017 Souvenir Book.)
You could say that I have Kirbymania. After all, a big part of my thinking and reading life orbits around the idea of Jack Kirby. I wrote an academic book about Kirby; I’ve curated exhibitions of his work, and co-edited a catalog full of his art. I’ve written a handful of articles for The Jack Kirby Collector. In one way or another, I’ve been following Kirby and his work for most of my life, starting I don’t know when (sometime before I turned ten, which is about when he became my favorite comic book artist) and intensifying in my twenties, when I discovered comic shops and began to chase down Kirby books I had not seen as a kid. I’ve thought about and grappled with Kirby in waves, and can mark off certain phases of my life on the basis of how my view of Kirby changed. Sometimes he has been the very center of my interest in comics, and at other times a persistent background. The terms of my attention keep changing. Over the past dozen years, though, as thinking about Kirby has turned into a program of academic work, my interest has been constant and especially intense.
So, yeah. I have Kirbymania, and I don’t see that changing. Despite the rigors of working on a major Kirby exhibition and catalog (2015)–a dream, a blur, a happy madness–I can’t help but feel that I’m not done with Kirby, and never will be. The truth is, he’s still a mystery to me. There is so much to take in: the crushing hardships of his life, which he refused to be crushed by; his rare and intense gift for comics storytelling; the push and pull of contrary feelings and the gear-grinding clash of ideas in his work; his galloping imagination and yen for Big Things; above all, the great, unstinting generosity of his talent and temperament, which transformed deadline-crazy freelancing into an amazing outpouring of art that was, always, surplus to requirements. How can someone do that? How can that be possible, to wring, from a life steeped in the memory of poverty and violence, work so generous and vivid, so free of cynicism even when it ventured into the darkest places?
Kirby still has me baffled. I don’t think I’ll ever get him all figured out. Lord knows I’ve tried. It was Kirby who lured me into trying to figure out, in Hand of Fire, the whole strange business of cartooning: a mix of figuration, pictographic symbolism, and ecstatic handiwork, all driven toward to simplification and typification by narrative intent–but never merely reducible to an intention that could be simply paraphrased in words. It was Kirby who got me past analytical formalism, back to the wild sweep of the whole comics page. It was he who got me over my adolescent embarrassment at, hell disavowal of, things I really enjoyed and still enjoy: outrageous cartooning, grandstanding images, superhero yarns, space opera, Pop sublimity, plain reckless joy. It was Kirby who kicked me in the slats at age ten, and then again at age forty-plus, when I needed to take a post-tenure plunge into rediscovered pleasures, and needed to own them on a bigger stage. It was always Kirby. And I kept, keep, trying to figure him out. Talk about a glorious fool’s errand.
I keep coming back to the generosity of the work. Anyone who has studied Kirby has read stories about the generosity of the man, and knows that Jack Kirby was loved by many because he himself had love (not just fury) inside him. He was a good man from hard origins who worked in a pitiless, exploitive business, who endured and did hard things, but he was nonetheless a good man. What I’m thinking of, though, is the graphic generosity of the work. Kirby almost always looked at his art from a storyteller’s point of view–which is fair, because he was, as he said, a writer with pictures–but his refusal to stint on the drawing made his pages livelier and more beguiling than almost anyone else’s in the business, and made his head-spinning stories habitable, believable, and authentic somehow, in spite of the wild premises. That he gave so much of himself to drawing those stories helps explain the feeling of aliveness that they give off: a feeling of commitment.
Over the decades, Jack Kirby set an impossible standard for comic books, showing how far a creator could go even without what should be the minimal assurances of creative ownership, editorial control, and financial security. And Jack wasn’t a martyr; often he was a great success, though he learned repeatedly what could happen to a success when the rug was pulled out from under him. He was a survivor, but more than a survivor, he was the very model of what it took to succeed against long odds. That he did succeed in shaping the lives and imaginations of so many–again, there’s the mystery.
Sometimes I think about how very different Kirby is from me: in upbringing, ethos, personality. After all, I’m an academic; I like theory, and live by analysis. Kirby, on the other hand, lived by storytelling. I’m aware that my life has been very different from his, that the intersection of his work and mine is a miraculous fluke. I wonder, how can something be so familiar to me and yet retain its power to surprise? His work does that: it manages to be lovable and uncanny at the same time. As I said, I can’t figure it out. But I am certain that the academic and the writer in me owe their opportunities to the electrifying example of Kirby and what he showed me.
Chasing the mystery of Kirby, of his genius for comics, is a lifelong pursuit. To say that I’m grateful to be doing it is a hell of an understatement.
So: Happy 101st, and profoundest thanks, to Jack Kirby. And a Happy Kirby Day to us all. How odd to think that I’m celebrating his birthday by celebrating the gift he gave to me–but what else is new? May the years to come bring even more and better, and more widely-read, work in Kirby studies. There is a depth and strangeness to Kirby’s work that will never give out, and will continue to prod and inspire our own work, in his wake. In his orbit.